I have a degree of scepticism about the term ‘forgotten classic’. People often talk about a classic having been forgotten, when it has only ever been forgotten by major publishers. So it’s marketing. Stoner (1965) by John Williams is a good example. It was re-issued in 2013 as ‘one of the great forgotten novels of the past century’, but – though it was neglected – it wasn’t forgotten and people had been talking about it, and re-issues had been coming out, on and off down the decades. So there’s a difference between neglected and forgotten, and there’s also the question of by whom?
What I’ve tried to do is pick five books that, unless you were a massive fan when they first came out, you probably wouldn’t know about them at all. These are wonderful books that deserve a new audience, but for whatever reason, are no longer around. With each, there’s something interesting about either the author or the book, or in fact both. I’m hoping when people read the list, they’ll go, ‘Oh, I never knew she wrote a book,’ or, ‘That guy had an amazing life, why have I not read about him?’
“These books aren’t advertised to you and everyone else, and that’s why they feel special”
I know what you mean though. Stoner had been reissued several times and the most recent publishers knew that. Fair play to them. They republished it with a terrible cover that cost them nothing because it was probably a free stock image. They just used the old type setting, and they managed to get Ian McEwan to rave about it on the radio, and then all of a sudden, everyone was reading it. It’s a fantastic piece of publishing that I’m sure has made them a small fortune.
Suffice to say, the books that you’ve chosen today have genuinely been forgotten – the proof of that being that many have been out of print for decades. You’ve got a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. Shall we start with fiction and Irene Handl’s The Sioux? Funnily enough, it was published in 1965, the same year as Stoner. Which is where the similarities end…
Now, you wouldn’t know this from how it was written down, but she pronounced it Irene-y. Very old-school.Irene Handl [1901–1987] was still around when I was growing up. She played the grandmother on Metal Mickey, a kids’ TV show about a family that had a robot as just another member of the family. She also played Peter Sellers’s wife in some of the Ealing comedies, and she was Tony Hancock’s landlady in The Rebel (1961). She was an absolutely fantastic actor.
To give you a sense of the kind of person we’re dealing with: she was filming something towards the end of her career, and the director took her to one side to talk about a scene, and she said, ‘I’m not sure quite what I’m doing?’ and he explained that she was doing her lines in front of a green screen. He said to her, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to do this, and then after we’ve finished, I’m going to put all this stuff in with computer technology.’ And she went, ‘You’re confusing me, dear.’ He went, ‘Oh, um, maybe I could put it a bit more simply?’ ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘you’re confusing me with someone who gives a shit. Just tell me the lines, I’ll do the lines, and then I’ll go.’
I had no idea that she’d written novels. I don’t even know how I found out about this one, it’s just one of those things I plucked from the ether. But they’re relatively easy to get hold of, most of these books – that’s the thing about forgotten books these days, for all the negative things about Amazon, Marketplace has made it so much easier to get hold of books that you couldn’t otherwise.
So what is her novel like?
There are two: The Sioux and then a sequel called The Gold Tip Pfitzer (1973). The Sioux is about this eccentric family of French origin who live in New Orleans. The mother is awfully protective of the son, and it could be mildly incestuous, you’re never quite sure, and everyone is dysfunctional, and they’re all extremely rich, and it’s very dark and very funny.
Daphne du Maurier raved about it when it was published, as did Noël Coward. I think the second book has a quote from Peter Sellers on it. It was a remarkable reception. Somewhere online, there is a review of it, in the New York Times or another New York newspaper, and it raves about it.
And yet it’s out of print.
There was a publisher about six or seven years ago, when I first started talking about The Sioux online, who said, ‘Oh, we were looking at republishing it,’ but that publisher doesn’t exist anymore.
It sounds like the sort of thing that a major publishing house these days would pass on – it’s seedy and weird.
Yes, often the reason a book like this is not resurrected is because it would only sell a couple of hundred copies, or a thousand copies, and that’s not enough for a publisher to invest all the money in what they would need to do. That’s one of the reasons why I co-founded the Abandoned Bookshop: we were trying to find ways of making forgotten books available without having to spend thousands of pounds and persuade lots of retailers they needed to stock it.
But for a book to have those sorts of people publicly praising it is amazing. It’s not to everyone’s taste, true – it’s very odd, but hugely enjoyable.
What’s the prose like? The extracts I found put me in mind of something like A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).
Eccentric is the word. It’s that sort of multi-generational novel, set in a rich family. If you went completely down the commercial side, you could rewrite it as a soap opera, but it’s not intended that way, it’s written in quite a literary style. Handl has an interesting, odd voice. It’s disconcerting, actually. It feels like a 1960s take on a classic – almost as if someone has taken the morals and loose sensibilities of the ’60s and applied them to something that was written in 1910. It’s mannered, and every character is despicable and horrible; it’s like the Forsyte Saga but everyone is vile and able to talk about sex and relationships in a way that people couldn’t when the Forsyte Saga was written. It’s really peculiar, an acquired taste.
It sounds creepy. There’s the element of abuse, too, with the son who’s disabled, and then this Englishman comes along and marries into the family.
Part of you thinks, ‘Is the mum sleeping with her son? She might be, I’m not sure,’ and it makes you feel mildly uncomfortable. It’s presented as odd. Actually, thinking about it again now – and this is going to sound awful, but I don’t mean the incestuous bit, just the overall dysfunctional, weird, rich family – you could probably replace everyone’s surname with Trump. It would make sense. Rich, dysfunctional families are always great value.
“ This is going to sound awful, but you could probably replace every character’s surname with Trump – rich, dysfunctional families are always great value”
I’ve got old paperback copies now and I’ve lent them to people. Half the people have come back to say, ‘I don’t know what to say to you, this is just bonkers.’ The other half have said: ‘I loved it, it’s amazing.’ I think if you were familiar with Irene Handl, you’d probably ‘get it’ better. There’s just something about her, she’s one of those classic British eccentrics, and The Sioux is a classic, eccentric novel.
It was certainly a bold choice to kick off your list.
I think the reaction we’ll probably get is – because there are loads of people who will recognise her name – ‘I had no idea she’d written a novel!’
Interestingly, all of the books you’ve chosen are by people who are not known foremost as writers. They were social workers, or actors, or TV personalities. Warwick Collins, your next author, started his career in the science lab. Tell us about his novel The Rationalist (1993) – what’s the story?
You’ve got this young doctor working in 18th-century Lymington. He is interested in philosophy and the way of the world at a time when most things were still unknown. Doctors didn’t know all the things they needed to know to cure people. He befriends an older doctor, and they meet regularly to have philosophical chats, and these philosophical chats are in the book. He is also introduced to a woman, who is probably in her 30s, who has bought a big house in Lymington. She suggests that they have a ‘conversation.’
What happens is: she – and what’s interesting about it is it’s all written in the style of the time, so you have to deduce a lot of this because they never say anything explicitly – says to him: ‘You’re an attractive young man, there are lots of middle-aged women who don’t get to have sex, why don’t you pay them a visit?’ And that’s basically the premise. So he starts an affair with her, and then she arranges for him to meet and visit certain married women in and around the area whose husbands are away. It’s not erotic in the sense that you don’t get much description, and it’s quite ambiguous. You think: ‘I think he may have just slept with this woman, I’m not sure.’
A spanner is thrown into the works when the woman’s daughter turns up and he completely falls for her and wants to run away and marry her. That causes the whole arrangement to blow up.
It’s an interesting premise. What’s great about the book is its subtlety – there’s a great economy of language. The paperback edition I have has five pages of rave reviews at the front, from every publication. One of them said: ‘Almost certain to be on the Booker list.’ It was talked about in those terms.
“The edition I have has five pages of rave reviews, from every publication, and one of them said: ‘Almost certain to be on the Booker list’ – it was talked about in those terms”
I worked with the author, actually – nothing to do with this book, but about 10-12 years ago, I republished one of his books, Gents (1997), about cottaging in public toilets. It had been out of print for a while, another lost gem. When we brought it out, even the Times did a piece on it, saying it was great to have this lost classic back in print.
The author died a few years ago. He was the same age as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis and Julian Barnes, and all that group. And for a while, for a very short while, he was spoken of in that circle. But then, when his subsequent work was not as successful, he sort of – not vanished – but moved to the sidelines. I think he resented it. He felt he was every bit as good as the others. He’s a classic example of how great writers need luck and timing, and the right reviews at the right times. He never quite caught.
There’s an incredible breadth of interest in his oeuvre: there’s science fiction, political satire, a weird superhero spoof called Fuckwoman. He sounds positively acrobatic – one effect of which was presumably to make him difficult to place in the way that one could place Amis, Rushdie, Barnes, et al.
Yes, he would jump about genre a lot so that does make it difficult. His poetry was published by Stephen Spender in Encounter. He was acclaimed, and people knew he was a great writer, but he just didn’t catch somehow. He wrote sailing thrillers as well, and he designed a special keel that was used in the America’s Cup.
His first book, Challenge (1990), was about the America’s Cup, wasn’t it?
That’s right, and then he wrote a book that was an alternative theory of evolution. In fact, it was one of the ones he presented to me. He said, ‘Will you publish it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s presented like a scientific paper. If you want to rewrite it as a popular science book, I’ll do it,’ and he said, ‘No, it’s got to be published like this.’ He then published it with an academic press and a few years later he came back to me and said, ‘I should really have done it as a popular science book.’
Especially now that pop science books are all the rage.
Exactly, and actually his theory – I’m not a biologist – made logical sense to me. It wasn’t necessarily correct, but it made sense. He was his own worst enemy at times – he didn’t take editing very well. He wasn’t the easiest person to work with.
But The Rationalist is wonderful. There was a follow-up called The Marriage of Souls (1990), and then there was a third book that never got published. It was intended as a trilogy. There’s a certain romance to the idea that here was this, at the time, very popular and well-received book, and for whatever reason, the third and final instalment never came out. There may well be people who read the first and second books and loved them.
Where is the third one now? Do we know?
The third one does exist in manuscript form, but of course the problem is if it’s ever going to appear, you’d have to republish the first two, otherwise it doesn’t really make sense. Two and three are quite long, so you couldn’t really do an omnibus – it would be about 1,500 pages long.
Some books do fall by the wayside. I think that’s sad, but it is inevitable. Although I try to champion these sorts of ‘forgotten’ books, I also think there’s an inevitability to it. Not everything stays in print. In fact these days, if you’re still in print three or four years after your book came out, you’re doing pretty well.
Let’s talk about Caroline Slade’s book, Sterile Sun, published in 1936. I’d never heard of this and it sounds utterly fascinating.
It’s effectively three linked stories. The first story’s about a very young girl – an underage girl – who falls on hard times and ends up being looked after by someone who then asks her to do a favour for them… and it ends up in prostitution. One of the older prostitutes she meets is then the subject of the second story, and then there’s a third one. They’re all first-person narratives. I found it via The Neglected Books Page, and there was a glowing review of it, so I looked into it a bit more.
The first page says, ‘Because of the nature of this book, it is only on sale to medical professionals, counsellors, social workers,’ so it was not on sale to the general public, because it was about underage prostitutes and it was written in 1936. But it’s a wonderful piece of fiction.
Caroline Slade was one of the founders of Yaddo.
The writer’s retreat?
Precisely. So I started looking into her and got a second-hand copy of the book, and as I read it I was thinking ‘This is remarkable.’ It’s very stark. When you consider when it was written, it’s unusually frank. It’s not erotic in any way, and it’s not rude, it doesn’t have any bad language as such, but it tells it like it is, and doesn’t pull any punches. So I’m reading it thinking, ‘Well, this feels like Steinbeck’ – there’s also a slight James Joyce feel to some of the narrative – and I said to myself, ‘If Steinbeck had written this, it would still be in print. It would be hailed as a cutting-edge classic.’
“If Steinbeck had written this, it would still be in print. It would be hailed as a cutting-edge classic”
Part of my job as a publisher is to hope that one day I might track one or two of these books down and be able to do something with them. But this is the one I’ve made the most effort to find. I’ve written to people linked to Yaddo and all sorts of other people, and the secretary of Yaddo has come back with stuff, but I’ve yet to be able to track down anyone who knew Slade, or knows her descendants – no one has been able to put me in touch with them. And, of course, it’s still in copyright. I think she died in the 1960s or 70s. It’s much easier when you find something like this and it’s out of copyright, because you can just go for it. Sterile Sun is a masterpiece. Out of all of these books, it’s the one that I think most readers would take to. I would love to bring this back out, or if someone else did it, I’d be over the moon. It’s a book that deserves another run. It wouldn’t do a Stoner, but it could do half a Stoner.
It’s certainly the one out of your five that I’m most drawn to. When I read the short excerpt available on the Neglected Books Page, it had me thinking of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – the style, the stream of consciousness. Plus there’s the fact that the author was a social worker, so you know that her first-hand research went into the fiction. I hope you find it.
Today, now that the media is gradually waking up to there being women’s stories that need to be shared that perhaps haven’t been shared before, it does feel like the right time. And these ones are gob-smacking, because, as you said, these things happened. I suppose it’s a bit like the film I, Daniel Blake (2016) – I’m a white, middle-class man in the south of England, so I don’t have the experience depicted in that film, and yet I can watch it and immediately understand and see that, yes, things really are that bad for people today. My reaction to this book was similar. I read it thinking, ‘My god, this stuff actually happened to people.’ It’s incredible.
Is there an episode in particular that you’re thinking of?
There is a moment in the second story where you realise what has happened to the girl in the first story and it is chilling. It stopped me in my tracks for a moment.
Keep us posted on that one, please. Now, though, let’s move onto the non-fiction portion of your list. Tell me about John Houseman’s Unfinished Business: A Memoir (1986).
I picked this up years ago, a one-volume edition of the diaries. I think they were originally published as three separate volumes and this was an omnibus or a digest – it might have been slightly abridged. It was a time in my life where if I liked the look of a book, I would buy it, and I think this one came about in a mark-down store. I was only in my 20s when I got it. Houseman was a rather posh, mildly eccentric English gent and there’s something quite appealing about that – the Peter Cushing, Frank Muir type.
He has a wonderful voice, and an incredible life. He was born in Romania, came to England, was published by the Woolfs, then went to the US and worked in the grain industry for a while but got bored and teamed up with Orson Welles (as you do). They co-founded the Mercury Theatre Company. It was them that put on the black Macbeth, and Julius Caesar, and they put on the War of the Worlds radio programme that blew everyone’s minds. I’ve just finished the first volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Orson Welles, and there’s a lot of Houseman in it.
“He has a wonderful voice, and an incredible life: he was born in Romania, came to England, was published by the Woolfs, went to the US, worked in the grain industry for a while but got bored and teamed up with Orson Welles – as you do…”
Then he and Welles have an acrimonious split and he goes off and becomes a theatre producer and a director and all sorts of other things. In his 70s, someone says to him, ‘There’s a role in this film, would you mind doing it?’ And he says, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll give it a go,’ and he wins an Oscar for it.
What was the film?
It’s called The Paper Chase (1973). It’s a drama about American law school, centred on a bunch of university students, and he is a complete bastard of a professor. It’s a great supporting role. It then got turned into a TV series in the late 70s /early 80s, and he reprised the role. It was his first proper screen performance. He’d done a couple of bit parts for friends and things. But then he does this, and wins the Oscar! You can see his speech on YouTube. He gets such a reception, because at the time, he’d done so much for the acting world.
So, with this book, it’s partly the story of an incredible life. But it’s also about his tone, which is friendly and self-deprecating. It’s really accessible, and he gives his take on how everything worked. I didn’t know much about who he was when I started reading, and by the end of it, I was in love with him, and and wanted to find out more about him – that’s what you get sometimes with these speculative purchases.
There was another book that I was thinking of choosing, by an Englishman called Patrick Skene Catling [b.1925], probably best known for his children’s books. He ended up having affairs with Peggy Lee, and a few other other notable people, and was, at different points, involved in various wars…. Those sorts of lives – of people you didn’t know much or anything about – so often turn out to be fascinating.
How did the Bloomsbury connection come about?
Houseman came from Romania to England and he was already writing, and I think he just sent something to them, and they said, ‘Very nice, we’ll publish it.’
Quite a coup.
Exactly – it’s things like that all the way through. One after the next. What a life. He thought to himself, ‘Oh, I could be a writer, but – you know what? – I’ll go to America and see what I can do there.’
Presumably we get detailed portraits of Woolf and all his high-profile collaborators? He worked with Raymond Chandler, too.
Absolutely, and he’s fascinating about Orson Welles, obviously, and you see his complete incredulity at the War of the Worlds drama. He says something along the lines of, ‘I didn’t expect people to go mad. Are these people stupid? What’s going on?’ It’s well worth watching an interview with him on YouTube. He’s got this wonderful voice, you could listen to him for hours. He went on to do quite a lot of acting. He was in a TV version of [Luigi Pirandello’s play] Six Characters in Search of an Author.
So this is just a classic example of where one speculative purchase can lead – and it made me want to read more about Orson Welles, too, and so on and on…
The joys of lucky-dip reading.
Yes, exactly. I don’t get to do it so much anymore, and I do miss it. There are quite a few others I discovered simply by going, ‘That looks all right. Neat cover.’
As everything becomes increasingly ‘curated’ along the lines of ‘If you like this, you’ll also like this,’ it does rather take the randomness out of it. It’s difficult to replicate that feeling of rifling through the £1-bin in a ramshackle bookshop, second-hand or otherwise.
I bought my first Haruki Murakami book in a second-hand bookshop because I liked the cover, and I went on to do some work with him – things like that can happen and you think, ‘I’d never have gone on that route if it hadn’t happened like that.’
What’s interesting about second-hand bookshops, though, is that there is a romance about them – almost everyone likes second-hand bookshops – and yet they deliver no royalties for any authors at all. There are lots of things that agents and authors and publishers get upset by – cheap ebooks, discount booksellers, or whatever it might be – but we all love second-hand bookshops. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, anything that gets people reading a book is wonderful, but most of these authors I’ve randomly picked up haven’t made a penny out of me….
At least you’re talking them up, though.
Exactly, even though they’re all dead and won’t have any idea.
Let’s have your last book, Jack Hargreaves’s Out of Town: A Life Relived on Television, from 1987.
Oh, Jack Hargreaves. He’s another one of these old English eccentrics. (Did you ever used to watch The Fast Show? There’s a character in it that’s based on Jack Hargreaves.) For probably 20 or 25 years, he presented a series of shows on ITV in southern England – because those days TV was regional. His programmes were all about country ways; he was trying to capture and preserve country life. It was all unscripted, all done in one take, and he was based in a shed – you’d see his fly fishing things behind him, and a blunderbuss or two. And the show was made up of outside broadcasts, where his commentary was outstanding.
There’s one about when the rams are let into the field with the ewes. The shepherds have got these three rams, and they let them loose on the women, and they strap massive coloured wax blocks to their undersides, and then they set them off. You’re watching this thinking ‘This is bonkers,’ but he talks you through it: all the sheep have different colours, and the reason they do it is so you’ll know which ram mated with which sheep – the wax acts like a crayon, it rubs off on the female. And Hargreaves’s commentary is along the lines of, ‘Oh, look at them go. It’s like teenagers being let loose in the Folies Bergère.’ It’s not scripted, he just made it up as he went along.
He talks about his wartime experiences, growing up in the countryside, what it was like working in television in the 1960s and 70s, and it’s full of amazing folklore. He says that when he was young, you could tell what job a man did in the countryside by how he walked. The ploughman walked with a wobble, because all day long he had one foot in the trough and one foot on the higher ground. The book is full of these little anecdotes. His mission – and I suppose this is true of the other books on my list – was to try to preserve things that were going to be forgotten.
It sounds like the sort of thing that would go down well with fans of the present strand of nature writing – there’s a Robert Macfarlane-ish twinge.
I would be amazed if Robert Macfarlane was not a fan of Out of Town. I don’t think it’s ever been properly acknowledged, but Jack was probably the last person to capture certain things on tape and on the page. Some of what he writes about just doesn’t happen anymore.
There’s a very famous episode, which you can see on YouTube, in which he goes to Ringwood Market. It must be the mid-1970s and there’s an old woman who, every week, brings three pats of butter to Ringwood Market, and she sells her pats of butter, and then goes home. That’s in the centre of Ringwood. Now it’s probably got a McDonald’s and an HMV and a Waterstones, right there in the spot she once was.
“I would be amazed if Robert Macfarlane was not a fan of Out of Town. I don’t think it’s ever been properly acknowledged, but Jack Hargreaves was probably the last person to capture certain things on tape and on the page – some of what he writes about just doesn’t happen anymore”
There’s another one where he goes to a grand old house that was being sold, along with all its contents, and he buys a cart. He talks about the fact that the house belonged to an old lord-of-the-manor type who had fallen in love with one of his maids. He was already married with children, and it caused a huge scandal at the time, but he upped sticks and ran off with his maid. They set up a new home and lived as husband and wife although they were never married. He tells the story so beautifully. This book is a mine for stories like that. Admittedly, it’s nowhere near as literary as the other books, but I like the fact that his main mission in life was to catch things before they were forgotten forever.
That’s the overriding theme of this discussion, really. Although these books can be found – in second-hand shops, on- and offline – and talking about them might even help to bring them back into print.
Exactly. Hargreaves is a bit of a hero of mine for precisely that. He was trying to preserve this stuff, to tell people about its value, its interest, before it was too late. There’s one episode where he’s got what looks like a shepherd’s crook but with a flat edge, and he says, ‘I’ll tell you what this is at the end of the show, stay tuned….’ It turns out, it was a ratting stick. As a kid, his job was to go to the stables and kill the rats. It had that flat edge because otherwise they’d escape.
Why do you think discovering a ‘lost classic’ tends to feel so much more significant, more moving, than simply discovering a great new book?
Partly because it’s usually a self-discovered thing. At the moment, as we know, there are so many books published, and they could be advertised on buses and tube stations, or in newspapers, or there’ll be social media buzz and a lot of noise… There are so many ways of discovering books, but our industry and our media are obsessed with new. 90 per cent of the books you hear about are new ones. So actually it’s quite hard to discover old books. The reason it feels so much more personal, more romantic somehow, is that most of the time, if you discover something that is forgotten and old, it’s because either you have come across it yourself, or someone has said, ‘You’ve got to read this.’ So it’s not something you’ve been force fed, it’s not something that’s been advertised to you and everyone else, it’s not new, it’s different. That’s why it feels special.
It’s also slightly depressing, because then you realise how many wonderful books are out there that you’ll never discover. You can do it digitally, and in fact, the Abandoned Bookshop is all about finding these sorts of books and issuing them digitally, partly because most of them won’t work in print. And although it’s a little bit dissatisfying to have to do them differently, at least they’re there. If we can make them available, there’s a chance people might discover them. If, in a year or two’s time, someone wants to do a print edition, brilliant, but at the moment, perhaps just by us making a bit of a noise about them, we can draw attention to these writers’ achievements.
There’s that sense of a communion down the ages, too. It makes you feel like you’re doing justice to a writer who has been wronged, overlooked, historically.
And because we’re talking about books that you’ll often come to second-hand, the same goes for the material itself: you know you’re reading something that someone else has read. You don’t know how many hands it’s passed through. It’s that connection to times gone by; I like the idea that something that someone produced 20, 30, 50, 100 years ago still resonates with someone today.
I’m really excited about all these books. There will be some people reading this who will go, ‘Ah, great, I’ll buy these; I’ll seek these out.’ (And I guarantee there will be people saying, ‘Irene Handl wrote a book? That’s incredible!’) That for me is hugely exciting. I’m a cynical old bastard and there isn’t that much I get excited about these days, but I do get excited about people finding a book, or a film, or a piece of music, through the recommendation of someone else. It’s the idea of, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, I would not have found this, and I’m so grateful’ – it’s just wonderful. There are so many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for introducing me to things I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and I’m hoping that there will be a few readers who will pick up the books on this list and feel exactly the same way.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.