26 July 2013

Lost Classics

The last four books I’ve read are: Stoner by John L Williams; Brighton Rock by Graham Greene; I, Claudius by Robert Graves; and War Game by Anthony Price. Two of which were written in the 1930s, one in the 1960s and one in the 1970s. Two of which are well known and two almost forgotten.

Mrs RB passed over a review of Stoner that was in The Observer a few weeks ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/john-williams-stoner-review), as she thought that I was the type of book I’d be interested in. As it happened Amazon had given me a £10 voucher for some reason, therefore, within a few days I was reading “the best book you’ve never read” (http://bryanappleyard.com/stoner-the-greatest-novel-you-have-never-read/). It is certainly a classic and it’s hard to believe that it was out of print within a year or two of its original publication, which got me thinking…

We look back to the Victorian era and Dickens dominates the literary landscape and most people would be hard pushed to name any other authors. That is true for other ages as well. Get those same people (not Literature students) to name any authors of espionage from the 1960s and 1970s and you will get Ian Fleming and John le Carré, even though many of the Bond books were written in the 50s. So how do some writers slip through the net?

Anthony Price’s books are enjoyable, easy reads, I’m reading them in chronological order and now am up to the seventh book, they are contemporary novels, the first book was published in 1971 and the latest that I’ve read: War Game, is set in 1976. Recurring characters get older, get married, have children and the world outside the rarefied atmosphere of academia and Government secret departments sneaks in and is part of the narrative. Why is Price relatively unknown? The books are old-fashioned, possibly were old-fashioned at the time, attitudes to woman, ethnic minorities and modern life in general is a bit suspect but no more than James Bond and a lot more enlightened than TV sit-coms from the same period. I’ve wondered this about Price before (http://www.havenofsanity.co.uk/2012/09/spy-vs-spy.html).

With Stoner it’s a bit more complicated. It would be easy to make comparisons with other authors and books to try and place it on literature’s bookshelves, but that would do it an injustice. It’s a novel that’s out-of-step with its time. I think it would be out-of-step in any time, but why is it not a famous piece of text? Why isn’t it studied in schools? And how many more authors are out there with potential classics that are lost in our celebrity-obsessed times? Part of the problem might be with its title: Stoner is a name not a description; William Stoner. I can imagine that in the mid-sixties that there might have been a bit of confusion.

According to popular opinion I should be reading Lee Child not Anthony Price, Dan Brown not John L. Williams, except there are so many books out there I might not get to read everything and the past as a habit of throwing up something to confuse our modern world, and that’s more fun.

I don’t normally recommend books; it’s fraught with danger, I get looked out askew when I suggest that all the films and TV series and musicals should be ignored and that the original Oliver Twist should be high on anyone’s ‘to-be-read’ pile. You have to judge someone else’s taste before offering up a prospect of literary enjoyment and if you get it wrong your judgement is damned forever. However, Stoner by John L. Williams is the exception, and to quote Ian McEwan:

“As soon as you start reading it you feel you're in very, very good hands. It’s a very authoritative prose. The story, just to list its elements make it sound rather dull, and a little too sad, but in fact a small life out of which John Williams makes a very, very beautiful novel.

“It is the most extraordinary discovery for us readers.”

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