Fair copies

The Hay Festival does not start until May 26. When a sneaky early pilgrimage to the National Book Town of Wales has been accomplished, however, it doesn’t do to stay quiet about it. Pilgrims have a duty to boast about the visiting of many bookshops (almost all of them, in our case) and the purchasing of many books. With the time-honoured aim of showing that it is still possible to obtain some item of literary interest for £5, we have only one such purchase to declare at this time, however; it is made of vinyl rather than paper.

In 1979, the Irish writer Edna O’Brien edited an anthology called Some Irish Loving, the contents of which range from early balladry to Elizabeth Bowen and Samuel Beckett (“I would like my love to die…”). As a complement to that anthology, the British record label Argo (not to be confused with the American jazz label of the same name) released an LP, a selection in sound culled from the selection in print. Don’t be fooled, though, by the sleeve’s portrait of O’Brien (by Lorna Cattell), as reproduced here. This image corresponds to the beloved publishing tradition of regularly putting this author on the covers of her books; But, in fact, most of the noise on the LP is made by male voices, belonging to the actors TP McKenna (who was Irish) and Denys Hawthorne (Northern Irish), as well as the singer (and guitarist) Philip Monaghan. It is these gentlemen who provide sterling renditions of “Her Praise” by WB Yeats, “The Noble Lay of Aillinn” and so on. O’Brien’s most interesting contributions are the excerpts she reads from her own work (from the novel Johnny I Hardly Knew You, for example, and the story “Over”). These we enjoyed, while mulling over the characteristic “introduction” to Some Irish Loving that adorns the LP’s back cover. “I take the view that love is not an entirely sane condition”, O’Brien writes here; “love in literature is a bottomless ocean.”

This deep stuff came to us not from a bookshop, but Haystacks Music, a small record shop tucked away down an alley near Hay’s car park. In another alley, we found a bookseller in the middle of moving his stock from that location to another open-air spot down by the river. He commented appreciatively on the books we had in hand – a fair copy of Freya Stark’s Perseus in the Wind (in the Beacon Press edition of 1956) and an “as new” copy of William Cowper’s Centenary Letters (Carcanet, 2000) – and threw in a rumpled copy of Norma Russell’s bibliography of Cowper (1963) for good measure. The price? “Call it five pounds.” So we admit that we spent £10 in Hay-on-Wye (all right, we spent at least £10 in Hay-on-Wye). But then how could we not? We take the view that book-collecting is not an entirely sane condition.

Maddened by the chase, some book collectors may take their warped manner of pleasure in Another Book by the late Les Coleman (Uniformbooks, £10). This evocative volume simply lists the kind of publishing information to be found while rummaging around Hay or the Charing Cross Road or even your nearest charity shop. Information supplied by a book’s colophon, that is: “First published 1951”; “Reprinted with corrections, 1947, 1949, 1952”; “Eleventh Edition (completely revised, enlarged, brought up to date, and reset) 1956”. The varying typefaces and settings of these details tell their own story. A title first published on March 26, 1918 may somehow end up being reprinted in September 1936, in its twenty-second edition. Another is “First published in mcmlv” – but there the story ends. Another Book has itself attained a second edition; its own colophon states that Coleman first published it ten years ago, under his imprint, In House Publishing.

If such matters don’t strike you as sufficiently “granular”, as some managerial types would now put it, consider the case of Peter K. Steinberg, who, we belatedly learn from the spring issue of the Book Collectorhas set himself the challenge of compiling a “sort of inventory” of a single poem by Sylvia Plath.

Published in both Atlantic Monthly and Encounter, Plath’s “A Winter Ship” (“At this wharf there are no grand landings to speak of”) appeared in the form of a pamphlet from Alan Anderson’s Tragara Press in 1960. It is generally said, on Anderson’s authority, that about sixty copies were printed; Steinberg’s aim is to account for the fifty or so that Anderson gave Plath (and which she liked very much, calling them “absolutely beautiful”), and which she in turn is supposed to have given away.

It turns out that this is not exactly what happened. Twenty-four copies of A Winter Ship, most of them in a single lot, were sold at Bonhams last June (see NB, July 30), in an auction of items belonging to Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Another turned up in December. Then matters get murkier, as they often do when it comes to tracing not just rare books but individual copies of rare books. Seventeen copies of the pamphlet apparently languish behind bars in academic institutions – at Morgan Library, Princeton University et al. Steinberg finds that several of them are just proof copies.

The upshot is that twenty-three of Plath’s copies of A Winter Ship remain unaccounted for. (Valuable copies, yes, but never mind all that money business now – can’t you see that we’re book-hunting?) So if you happen to catch a glimpse of a very slim volume of verse – a very slim volume with Marbled covers and maybe a cheery dedication to a known Plath associate – please do consider raising the alarm. You could be making a significant contribution to the ongoing pursuit of biblio-minutiae.

In contrast to the high reputation Sylvia Plath has long enjoyed, Edna O’Brien’s has been on more of a journey, as they say. O’Brien endured what she has called a “rum time”, after her controversial first novel, The Country Girls (1960), was banned in Ireland – and publicly burnt – but now the prodigal daughter is embraced back home as “one of the great creative writers of her generation” (in the words of the republic’s former president, Mary Robinson). As if to confirm O’Brien’s elevation to the literary peerage, the National Library of Ireland acquired another tranche of her papers last year – papers from the past dozen years, that is, including correspondence with Philip Roth and the manuscripts for various books.

We can all easily think of writers, meanwhile, who may be considered of the victims of the literary scene’s ruthless forgetfulness. How about that versatile writer of short stories, novels and reviews for the TLS (among other things), Clive Sinclair (1948–2018)? For his story collection Hearts of Gold (1979), Sinclair won a Somerset Maugham award. He made it into Granta’s first Best of Young British Novelists list in 1983, having published just one novel, Bibliosexuality, ten years earlier. (It was also in 1983 that he became literary editor of the Jewish Chronicle.) We used to enjoy hearing from him as he set about covering, in particular, the latest western for the TLS – and are we wrong in thinking that his work has now fallen out of print (without even a new selection of the best of his short stories on the horizon)? We would very much like to be.

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