Everybody thinks they’ll be different

Readers whose tastes extend beyond the latest new releases are well served these days by a growing array of publishing ventures dedicated to recovering books that have fallen into undeserved obscurity: Persephone Books, Handheld Classics, the British Library’s Crime Classics and Women Writers collections, Dean Street Press, New York Review of Books Classics and, of course, the pioneering Virago Modern Classics series, to name a few. But how can we be sure which neglected books really warrant this renewed attention? After all, we can be confident that most of today’s titles will be no great loss to future generations when they fall victim to posterity: what, asides nostalgia, makes a good but not great novel from a century ago more appealing than an equally middling one from this year? More generally, what qualities make the difference between a lost classic – a work that resists or subverts standard assumptions about literary value – and a period piece whose interest is primarily as an artefact of literary history?

These questions – impossible to answer definitively, of course – were much on my mind as I read the three novels by Rosalind Brackenbury recently reprinted by Michael Walmer’s “boutique print on demand” service: A Day to Remember to Forget and A Virtual Image (both 1971) and Into Egypt (1973). In an interview with the website Neglected Books, Walmer credits digitization with making “the further reaches of literature … open to examination, rather than an effectively closed territory”. What does that examination reveal, in this case? Did these three novels really need to be resurrected?

Brackenbury, who this month celebrated her eightieth birthday, doesn’t seem entirely sure herself. “It’s a strange feeling, to revisit these early works”, she says on her blog, Notes on a Writing Life. “I had to reread them”, she continues”, “to make sure that they weren’t too embarrassing, and found that I was reading them as if they were written by somebody else. Well, I was 27. I was, in many ways, somebody else.” The introductions that fellow novelists have provided for Walmer’s editions emphasize the books’ historical accuracy and their place in Brackenbury’s creative development – ​​over her long subsequent career she has published many more novels, as well as volumes of poetry, short fiction and essays – more than their intrinsic merits. “It has caught and transfixed a period, a moment in time”, Margaret Drabble says of A Day to Remember to Forget. “I can vouch for the authenticity of this account.” Janet Burroway describes A Virtual Image as an “early but assured” portrayal of a particular “historical period”. “One reads this book … with rueful nostalgia”, comments Ruth Fainlight about Into Egypt.

Certainly, these novels are of archival interest, and that is a perfectly good thing in itself. A Day to Remember to Forget is the strongest of the three. Intense and claustrophobic, it takes place mostly over the course of a single fraught day, using an uncomfortable family gathering to dramatize the intergenerational conflicts of the era. As Philip Ridgley and his fiancée, Lucy, head to his parents’ house to observe his mother Felicity’s birthday, he anticipates “that today would be a battle in which Lucy’s world would confront the old order”. “God, it’s so bourgeois, it’s just unbelievable”, the unconventional Lucy exclaims as they approach the house. Philip himself chafes against everything the elder Ridgleys represent. “You’re just a cripple, like most of the people we know”, he tells his older brother Andrew, “like our parents’ generation, all loused up with sacrifice and patriotism and honor and glory and dying for the flag.” Philip and Lucy are in the process of buying their own house, a symbol of the different life they want. “A house can mean more than just walls”, Lucy explains to the Ridgleys’ elderly neighbor, Mrs Fletcher. “One makes something, expresses something.”

Lucy wants her house to express the difference between her life and Felicity’s, which (in the spirit of second-wave feminism) is a cautionary tale about women’s traditional roles. Constantly tending to other people’s needs has left Felicity unable to identify, much less satisfy, her own: she and her husband, George “lived together, inside their house, inside their marriage, and the days became weeks, weeks months, months years, And with this passing time, that nobody could stop and nobody account for, grew her fear.” Felicity’s eventual breakdown epitomizes the “woman’s fate” Lucy is determined to escape, but by the end of the novel Brackenbury is equivocal about her chances. “Everybody thinks they’ll be different, I suppose”, Philip says. Lucy’s reply – “Yes, but we know” – sounds both hopeful and naive.

A Virtual Image also focuses on a young woman’s quest for her identity. “I suppose traveling’s a cliché”, its protagonist, Ruby, observes; “travelling to broaden one’s horizons, to find oneself, all these things one says.” Ruby is traveling across France in search of her longtime best friend and rival, Anna. Everywhere Ruby arrives, Anna has just left; the more elusive Anna becomes, the more metaphorical Ruby’s journey begins to seem. As Ruby’s image of the real Anna fades – “it was hard, in these days of shifting impressions, to remember even what her voice was like, it grew fainter, became a caricature as I tried” – what remains is a projection of Ruby’s own confusions and desires. “In the pools into which we look”, as she herself reflects, “there is no clear image to stare back at us, for the ripples we have made chase across, distorting it.” The end of Ruby’s search brings neither resolution nor happiness, as if to suggest that one cost of women’s new freedom is uncertainty.

In Into Egypt, another young woman explores her through travel, but this time her personal quest is played out across a more explicitly political identity landscape. Jo, who is not Jewish, has come to Israel to work on a kibbutz, as many idealistic young people, including Brackenbury, did at the time. It is a journey she has made out of “a need to identify with something”. “I think Israel is a dream for more than just persecuted minorities”, she explains to Zvi, an intellectual she meets up with in Jerusalem. Zvi, however, sees Israel as both more complicated and more compromised, resisting Jo’s desire for “right and wrong, black and white” in the face of the injustices created by the nation’s founding. “I came here for my own reasons”, he tells her. “I’m not accepting the right to take another man’s house and lock him in a camp. Why should my freedom curl his? Jo’s own experiences in the novel seem designed to teach her and perhaps also readers to resist absolutes in the same way. An Arab man found “creeping” around the kibbutz is seen as a threat by the kibbutzniks, but when Jo looks at him through the window of the hut where he has been imprisoned, she sees just “an old man drawing away from me in fear “. “The earth remains the same”, Jo thinks as she prepares to return home to England; “only the lines that are drawn upon it change.” As someone who is only a visitor, though, Jo has the luxury of rising above the conflict on the ground to this kind of idealistic abstraction. Her privileged pursuit of individual meaning – of her own self-definition and development – ​​seems even more than Ruby’s to be at someone else’s expense. It is a model Brackenbury herself describes in her prefatory note to the new edition as “outmoded”, “an extension of the colonial past”.

Considered as a group, these novels do feel anchored at a specific moment in time. This isn’t just a question of their themes, but also of Brackenbury’s style, which is self-consciously dense and writerly. At their best her winding sentences are evocative and atmospheric, as in this description from A Day to Remember to Forget:

Outside in the darkening windy street their anger licked between them, a rising flame, threatening as it flowered to char all that they had already built. Behind them, the house in which tranquillity would live was fading, the quiet rooms a mockery, the wide view a shared torment, the very calm and country peace that they were promised far too much to bear.

Too often, though, Brackenbury’s prose seems unduly tortuous: the effort of reading these novels is disproportionate to the rewards. It does not help that Walmer has reprinted them from earlier editions, warts and all, including errors. The cumulative effect is of revisiting, rather than rediscovering, these books. But revisiting can bring its own rewards.

Rohan Maitzen is an English professor and literary critic. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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