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Serena Mackesy

Finds’ reissues of Lucy Carmichael and The Feast by Margaret Kennedy allow them to sit snugly alongside our existing editions of Kennedy’s The Midas Touch and The Fool of the Family. I am pleased to announce that her 1955 novel The Oracles will follow in Finds this August.
In preparing these publications I was delighted to discover that the novelist Serena Mackesy – author of Sunday Times bestseller The Temp (1999), Virtue (2000), Simply Heaven (2002) and Hold My Hand (2008) – is Kennedy’s maternal granddaughter. Serena has now very kindly written an appreciation of her grandmother’s work exclusively for Finds, which I’m delighted to reproduce below. I would also draw readers’ attentions to the serendipitous fact that a Kindle edition of Serena’s acclaimed Hold My Hand is newly available at Amazon, at a price that would tempt any sane person in search of guaranteed ‘goose bumps in the summer months’ (cf. Kirkus Review.)
But for the moment we proudly present ‘Mackesy On Kennedy’…:

An early bestseller can be both a blessing and curse on a writer’s career. Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, The Constant Nymph, became a phenomenon in the 1920s – a global bestseller which spawned stage plays starring the likes of Coward and Gielgud, as well as three big-business films – and, while this opened doors that might well have remained closed for years otherwise, she found herself under pressure, throughout her career, to repeat the formula.

Kennedy, however, was not a genre novelist by nature. Although The Fool of the Family is, indeed, a sequel to the Nymph, and also features moments of the same underplayed emotional devastation that made that novel such a success, it barely touches on the fortunes of the book’s central characters – the most important of whom, of course, died at its end. It follows, instead, the fortunes of the younger Sanger children, ill-equipped by their celebrated Bohemian upbringing for life in the ‘real’ world. Her portrait of the fear and drudgery of poverty is acute and moving – and was a great disappointment to the Bloomsbury group, who had adopted the Nymph as a working bible, rather missing the point of the satire within.

It was light-touch satire, and wry and incisive social observation, that formed the common threads that bind Kennedy’s novels together. And like many writers who make these techniques their stock-in-trade, she was a very serious individual. Nymph enthusiasts, buoyed up by fantasies of a gauze-clad free spirit romping on the seashore, were often surprised to find that the book had come from the typewriter of a bookish bluestocking. But this, of course, is the reason that her work was so strong, and so entertaining: she didn’t write memoir, but, rather, combined imagination, observation and a powerful flair for human psychology to create real, walking, talking individuals whose choices had profound, often disastrous, repercussions that often spread far beyond their social spheres.

She was a writer of wide human interests. As fascinated by the domestic as the powerful – mixing, herself, with the worlds of film (where she made much of her living, both as screenwriter and script doctor) and theatre and, via her law-lord husband, with those of government, academia and high society – she was the one standing in the corner taking notes, and identifying the pettiness, the assumptions and the irrationality that pervade most human decisions, from those of the billionaire to those of the overlooked housewife.

In The Midas Touch (the book she regarded as her best, and which was translated to film in the early Forties), a wealthy industrialist falls under the influence of a fraudulent psychic. The eponymous heroine of Lucy Carmichael has her beliefs about the world turned on her head as she recovers from a humiliating at-the-altar jilting. The Feast – my own favourite of her works – turns allegory into social comedy as a disparate group of holidaymakers while away their time in a Cornish hotel, unaware that several of them will meet a horrific death before the summer’s end. She remains a joy to read; fresh, clear, unexpected and, at the end, always profoundly moving.

I hope to say a little more of some of these exceptional titles in due course; but let me first say quickly that as of now all are available to order in Finds:
FICTION
Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Power of the Dead and The Phoenix Generation by Henry Williamson
Lucy Carmichael and The Feast by Margaret Kennedy
Mockery Gap and Innocent Birds by T.F. Powys
NON-FICTION
The Decline and Fall of the Ottoman Empire by Alan Palmer
Marshal Pétain by Richard Griffiths
We Come Unseen: The Untold Story of Britain’s Cold War Submariners by Jim Ring
The Memsahibs: The Women of Victorian India by Pat Barr
The Great Violinists and The Great Cellists by Margaret Campbell
The Art of Happiness by John Cowper Powys

Here’s yet another tribute to the master of the uncanny and unnatural from… well, me, I confess. Over at the site devoted to my recently published novel The Possessions of Doctor Forrest – a site partly consecrated to the itemising of the many and various supernatural artworks by which I was influenced in the making of said novel – I thought it important to add Aickman’s name to the roll-call. The influence was unknown to me at the time of writing, in this instance, as I explain; but then Aickman himself would surely have had an easy explanation for the manner in which my cold hand was steered by some ordinary ghost…

The Guardian ran a fine and distinctive ‘Summer Reading’ feature on the weekend, for which authors were asked to cite a book that was especially dear to them and which they first encountered in a particular summer at a particular location. The whole piece is obviously worth a thorough read; I will only draw your attention to this nomination by Margaret Drabble, the title being Late Call by Angus Wilson, of which Finds has been the proud publisher since 2009:

My most memorable holiday book is Angus Wilson’s LATE CALL, which I read on holiday in Morocco, or rather on my way to Morocco, for I think I read it on the boat from Marseille to Tangier. I had discovered Wilson’s work while still at university and eagerly read each book as it was published; this novel, which came out in 1964, was as gripping as all the others had been, and very unexpected. It’s the story of a newly retired hotel manageress trying to adapt to life with her widowed headmaster son in a new town. It’s full of social comedy and human tragedy, and I remember being utterly gripped by the wholly real world Wilson created. It was a perfect companion on a trip that was at times rather unsettling. I don’t know how a sophisticated and highly educated man such as Wilson can have entered so fully into this woman’s hopes and fears, but he did. It’s also more experimental than it looks in terms of narrative technique. It was made into a TV series in which Dandy Nichols played the main role brilliantly. Many of Wilson’s books are now available through Faber Finds, including this one. I continue to associate it, quite inappropriately, with memories of Marseille, the Mediterranean and Casablanca.

Over at the excellent Bookdagger the crime novelist, editor and commentator Martin Edwards has kindly written a piece drawing attention to Finds’ reissuing of Colin Watson’s crime novels and the ‘metaphysical thrillers’ of Charles Williams. Martin signs off with a flourish that gladdens our hearts in particular:

“The extraordinarily wide variety of uncommon books that are now available from Faber Finds underlines the increasing significance of print on demand publishing. And it is a phenomenon that is great news for avid readers…”

With Alan Hackney’s I’m All Right Jack newly reissued in Finds it’s obviously much, much too good a chance to miss that we sneak in a couple of choice moments from the Boulting brothers’ classic 1959 Ealing screen adaptation of the novel, starring Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. Sellers’ performance as Fred Kite is probably still rated as one of his finest, and thought to be a reasonably faithful portrait (however comic/sardonic) of an enduringly recognisible British workplace ‘type’. I don’t know, though – after all it’s 50 years since this film was in cinemas – does Fred Kite really remind you of anyone these days…?

Your correspondent, being also a novelist, tends to fight shy of statements about what The Novel ought to be and what novelists ought properly to concern themselves with. My general hope (without meaning to imply a Maoist line on the matter) is that a hundred different flowers blossom in the field. But in that spirit I’m happy to own up to a particular admiration (among many) for a certain sort of novelist whose historical-cultural range and taste in subject matter is notably restless, ambitious and diverse. William Palmer is certainly one such novelist.
As David Lodge has put it, ‘Palmer’s fictions are notable for the variety of their subjects and settings, and for the consistency of their craftsmanship.’ You will find no obvious internal linkage between Palmer’s The Good Republic, Leporello, The Contract, The Pardon of Saint Anne, The India House or the story collection Four Last Things except for that craftsmanship and ‘precision’ to which Lodge pays tribute. I am pleased to say that The Good Republic, The Pardon of Saint Anne and Four Last Things are all available in Finds. And The Good Republic has a special pertinence for readers in this year that sees the twentieth anniversary of the independence of the Baltic republics Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A review of our Finds edition published in the Economist, which hails the novel unreservedly as a ‘classic’, is worth quoting at length:

Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider. It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40… Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.
All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.
The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.
Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.