Archive for March, 2011

Consider this:
“As was once said of Prussia, Egypt is not a country that has an army, but an army that has a country. More depressing still, even if there existed a competent alternative government, it is near impossible to imagine what its program might be… I shall never forget, on my first visit to Cairo, seeing “the City of the Dead”: that large population of the homeless and indigent which lives among the graves in one of the city’s sprawling cemeteries. For centuries, Egypt’s rulers have been able to depend on the sheer crushing weight of torpor and inertia to maintain “stability”…”
And now this:
“We few who were getting off at Cairo weren’t important, it seemed… We were being dropped in the desert, in that powdered sand and air like a hot cupboard that kept things the same for ever: hate and love, boredom and exhilaration, beauty and horror; Egypt dealt only in extremes, her weather extended the same charity to them all: to the flies and the maimed beggars on their trolleys in the cities; to the temple at Karnak and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was a place where nothing ever died – where death was always visible…”
The former is Christopher Hitchens, writing for Vanity Fair in February 2011 on what he sees as the gloomy prospects for a revived post-Mubarak Egypt. The latter is Joseph Hone, an English novelist of espionage whose work is passionately admired but ought still to be better known – and this particular passage is from the early stages of The Private Sector (1967), the first of a quartet of novels centred around an unassuming but strangely trouble-making spy named Peter Marlow. And Finds is honoured to have all four Marlow novels on its list.
Hone has a superb advocate in the contemporary practitioner Jeremy Duns, who rates Hone as “one of the great spy novelists of the last century” and writes brilliantly here about the important distinction between ‘Field’ and ‘Desk’ in the genre. Duns describes Peter Marlow as:

“an MI6 desk man turned field agent… a wonderful character, and I think deserves to be as well known as [Le Carre’s] Smiley. He’s the constant outsider, peering in at others’ lives, meddling where he shouldn’t, and usually being set up by everyone around him… He is repeatedly being taken out of his grubby office in the Mid-East Section in Holborn and dragged into the line of fire. The plots come thick and fast, and feature ingenious twists, action, mayhem, chases, Esperanto smiles and high-octane affairs – all the great spy stuff you’d want. But it’s all wrapped up in prose so elegant, and characterization so subtle and pervasive, that you put the books down feeling you’ve just read a great work of literature.”

If you’re intrigued then I’d urge you to read Duns at length here, because his appreciation of Hone is deeply felt and most discerning. Duns rates The Private Sector as one of his favourite five novels of all time, and having just read it myself I can undoubtedly see the appeal. Hone beautifully captures the immediate aftermath of what historian Elizabeth Monroe famously called Britain’s Moment in the Middle East – a ‘moment’ of 40 years’ duration, wherein Britain endeavoured to lord over the local oil supplies and pull the strings of the region’s politics – only not by brute colonial rule, rather by a not-so-subtle form of coercion and king-making. (This all ended, of course, in the debacle of Suez, Anthony Eden’s sorry effort to brand Nasser a Hitlerian menace and unseat him by force, an effort thwarted when President Eisenhower effectively told Eden not to be silly – after which Britain would retain a measure of influence in Egypt, but a shamed and demoralized one – and this is precisely the sort of ugly/sinister spy-world evoked by Hone.)
Jeremy Duns quotes a Washington Post review that calls it just right: “[Hone’s] tone is nearly perfect – quiet, morbidly ironic, beautifully controlled and sustained, moodily introspective, occasionally humorous and more often bitter, with a persistent undertone of unspeakable sadness and irrecoverable loss.” A third of the way through The Private Sector I thought I was reading a beautiful marriage of Orwell’s Burmese Days (in its evocation of profound British colonial torpor) and John Fante’s Ask The Dust (in its rendering of a hopeless, near-rebarbative love affair). But that is before the spy game truly gets underway, and Hone shifts gears to show his expertise in that department too.
The Private Sector is available to order here, and you will find links to the subsequent Marlow novels on the same page.


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‘I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech — and something of Dickens’ love for bravura — have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for)…’
(James Baldwin, 1952)
As a Harlem teenager– the oldest of nine children – just prior to WWII, James Baldwin for a while emulated his father by becoming a preacher in a small Pentecostal church. Today we have no difficulty in finding the influence of Biblical cadence in Baldwin’s famously fluid and eloquent writing style. He wrote a great deal and wrote nearly all of it superbly, devouring subject matter, for he was (famously) by his own estimation “a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent and hungry black cat.” But his elegance never hid or was intended to hide the force of his feeling about racism in America, the subject he would address most powerfully in The Fire Next Time (1963). ‘No black man,’ he once wrote, ‘can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of the white man.’
In 2008 Finds had the honour of returning to print James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, which was based on Campbell’s ten-year-acquaintance with Baldwin prior to the great man’s death in 1987, alongside interviews with his friends and his extensive correspondences. It’s a fantastic study by one of the best literary critics at work today, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly. You can sneak-preview extracts here and here. And James Campbell wrote interestingly here for the Guardian on the biographer’s use of sources, Baldwin’s letters in his case.
This Saturday March 19 at 2pm the National Film Theatre in London (as part of its ‘African Odysseys’ strand) is screening I Heard It Through A Grapevine, a 1980 documentary by director Dick Fontaine and producer Pat Hartley made in collaboration with James Baldwin and his brother David. The piece is about the survivors of the civil rights movement, and the state of the movement’s ideals twenty years after its inception. It finds Baldwin – who quit the US for Paris in 1948 but returned to be a participant in the civil rights struggle – returning once again to those American cities where that struggle began, starting in Washington and ending in Mississippi, putting the questions ‘What has happened to these people? What happened to this country? And what does this mean for the world?’ As such it’s an essential watch for anyone versed in or seeking access to the field of Baldwin Studies.
Below are some fascinating samples of Baldwin from YouTube.
The first is a remarkable CBS TV roundtable from 1963, discussing Dr King’s March on Washington and involving Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Sidney Poitier.
The second is a piece of the debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge University Union on October 26, 1965, the motion being “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
The third is the opening of the excellent 1989 documentary study James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.

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Crail Harbour, in the East Neuk of Fife

God bless Fife Today, which has kindly taken note of the Local Interest angle in Finds’ reissue of Secret Classrooms: namely, that the Crail airfield on the East Neuk of Fife was home to a joint services school for linguists (JSSL) in that post-WWII moment. Better yet, Geoffrey Elliott is quoted on his memories of the place from the late 1950s.

“My first views of the East Neuk were from a slow train that ran from Edinburgh through, I seem to recall, Pittenweem and Anstruther… Learning how the latter was pronounced was an early linguistic achievement. Distance probably lends enchantment to the view but I remember bright blue skies, seals on the rocks and squadrons of seabirds.”
“I have been back twice – once when the former school was being run as a pungent pig farm, then to help make a BBC4 documentary. More than half a century later, those abandoned classrooms and dormitories were rather forlorn and much smaller than I remembered…”

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Cover for a Brazilian edition of William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' depicting the Molly Millions character.

The excellent AbeBooks website here offers a splendid tribute to the life and publishing of the late Victor Gollancz; also presents a gallery of the heart-stirring yellow/typographical covers of some of Gollancz’s finest titles; and even directs you as to how you might purchase rare copies of same, albeit at some of the finest prices going… But then such is the value of fine writing and wise publishing.
You can select your own favourite from the clickable links at AbeBooks: I admit I found myself slightly startled on seeing – amid the array of Le Carre and Ballard and Du Maurier and Dorothy Sayers – also William Gibson’s Neuromancer , a work that in my youth was thought the epitome of hypermodernity i.e. a long way from a museum exhibit. But then Gollancz was always a great name in science-fiction on top of everything else. I was further intrigued, on clicking through, to find that while the yellow-jacketed Gollancz first edition of Neuromancer is certainly offered at a collector’s price, the real prize Abe puts forth to the aficianado is a copy of the corrected typescript from which the first edition was made.
Guilty Men, the anti-appeasement polemic penned by Michael Foot under the characteristic nom de plume ‘Cato’, is also for sale in a collector’s edition, though I’m happy to say we also offer it here at Faber Finds in a very reasonably-priced softcover.
Abe also notes that the leading biography of Gollancz is by Ruth Dudley Edwards. And I’m pleased to announce that Faber Finds will be reissuing said tome later this year.

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‘Welcome strangers! Come into my parlour, as a well-known spider said…’
(William Sansom, The Body, 1949)
I suspect you will know what I mean when I try to speak of a little literary subgenre we might usefully call ‘the nasty story.’ The type will surely seem clear to you if you have read, just for instance, ‘A Nasty Story’ by Dostoyevsky. Stories of this sort tend to centre upon a character – ideally but not necessarily painted for the reader in the first-person – who labours most painfully under a misunderstanding about life’s workings and the people around him, who doesn’t quite see the true extent of his own folly or pretentiousness or snobbery, or whatever. Someone who, in short, is cruising for a comeuppance, or worse, an outright calamity.
Very often nasty stories are portraits of a marriage, wherein the partners are simply incompatible, but sometimes it’s a case where a fellow ought really to appreciate more of what he has and love his wife a little better. Quite regularly nasty stories are comedies of acute social embarrassment – cf. Dostoyevsky. There may also be a hard twist in the tail: my generation grew up watching a great many nasty stories on television every Saturday night, courtesy of Roald Dahl’s ITV series Tales of the Unexpected. Vladimir Nabokov, self-appointed scourge of Dostoyevsky yet covertly kindred in certain ways, excelled at nastiness and in Laughter in the Dark gave us a nasty story the very title of which indicated the type of reaction liable to be drawn from sophisticated readers…
But I digress, and must get to the point, which is William Sansom. Sansom was a gloriously gifted writer who could turn his hand to many forms and subjects, the nasty story merely one such. Finds has been delighted to reissue his novels A Bed of Roses and The Face of Innocence alongside his eyewitness/non-fictional The Blitz, but here I just draw your attention to our reissue of Sansom’s novel The Body. This tale concerns one Henry Bishop, a lightly-employed hairdresser by trade who considers himself ‘probably rather a dull man’, ‘left over from the home-hobby age.’ His wife Madge he tends to regard ‘most dispassionately’, with a sort of freezing irony (‘Together’, Henry remarks, ‘we passed what I think is one of the greatest tests of love — we felt a real sensation of toleration and pleasure when one of us did something against the other’s principles.’) But all this changes for Henry when a new neighbour, a car salesman, Charles Diver by name, appears to become most impertinently interested in Madge.
Sansom was a master of the short story, and his short-form work has generally garnered more praise than his novels. He is utterly brilliant on detail, has a miniaturist’s eye and the ability to prolong a moment on the page, twisting and turning it across the sentences. (The Body, for instance, begins with Henry’s insane account of bringing down death upon a garden greenfly: ‘To hold the syringe gently, firmly but delicately – not to squirt, but to prod the sleeper into wakefulness with the nozzle, taking care to start no abrupt flight of fear…’) But I would take Sansom any which way – he’s that good. On that note let me say 1) that Anthony Burgess included The Body in his selection of the 99 best post-WWII novels in English, and that 2) we have the pleasure of publishing Sansom’s stories this coming June too! And I recommend him to you with great enthusiasm and confidence…

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