A word in the ear for the aspirant literary journalist: don’t panic, 2022 still has a few good literary anniversaries left in it. Such anniversaries are a perennial source of material for the would-be hack, serving as opportunities for outbursts of iconoclasm, pious reassessments, thinkpieces, long reads – whatever you or your editor wants to call them – that may put the literary hack’s mental back catalog to work. Extra points are awarded for being able to demonstrate that so-and-so is now more relevant than ever, or puffy words to that effect; try not to let on that so-and-so’s writings may be just as relevant (or not) to readers in another ten, fifty or 100 years.
Be led by the publishers, for example, to celebrate the work of Ludwig Bemelmans, whose memoir Hotel Splendide is reissued at the end of this month – a few days before the sixtieth anniversary of Bemelmans’ death – by Pushkin Press. It’s OK to strike a jaunty note with such material. We’re offering this as a provisional opening sentence: “If you think exposés that go behind the scenes of luxury hotels are a new phenomenon – think again!”
But if you can’t take a sixtieth anniversary seriously, how about doubling the figure? Next month, Hutchinson Heinemann is gamely publishing a “gift edition” of PG Wodehouse’s debut novel, The Pothunters, first published in 1902. Another likeable venture. Go up another few decades, and you reach the sesquicentenary of that befuddled mage of English fiction, John Cowper Powys (yes, we still prefer his younger brother, TF Powys; see September 2). And further back, you may come across a publication that will be obscure to many, but could hardly to be more relevant to the cost of living crisis: Cottage Economy by William Cobbett, first published in book form in 1822.
To John Stevenson, President of the William Cobbett Society, we owe belated thanks for information regarding this sometime bestseller. Cottage Economy Cobbett’s way of helping poor folks was to save a penny or two, or even turn a profit. It covers “the brewing of beer, making of bread, keeping of cows, pigs, bees, ewes, goats, poultry and rabbits”, as well as “other matters deemed useful in the affairs of a laborer’s family.” A later edition adds notes on hat-making. Before the 1820s were out, Dr Stevenson notes, Cottage Economy had sold at least 45,000 copies.
There, we’ve all but written your anniversary essay for you. (All right, Dr Stevenson has.) But perhaps we’re missing the obvious here. On October 26, a century will have passed since the first publication of Jacob’s Room.
Reasonable though it is to associate James Joyce’s Ulysses with 1922, the year of its first publication in book form, there are some awkward, joy-attenuating footnotes to the novel’s publication history. The first authorized American edition, for example, wasn’t published until 1934; the first edition to be both printed and published in England appeared two years later.
Both were predated by Yurishizuthe first of two Japanese translations of Ulysses to appear before the Second World War. The work of three men – Ito Sei, Sadamu Masamatsu and Tsujino Hisanori – Yurishizu appeared in two volumes, published in 1931 and 1934. The second volume was banned a few days after publication, officially “under charges relating to descriptions of the imaginary middle-aged woman’s sexual desire”.
The copy of Yurishizu Pictured here is for sale, via Peter Harrington, for £12,500. The illustration on the dust jacket might be a stylized portrait of James Joyce; nobody can say for sure. It may be said with greater certainty that this copy was presented by Sei to a fellow modernist writer, Tsutomu Narazaki; that Sei tipped in a copy of Molly Bloom’s unprintable final soliloquy for his friend; and that Sei is also notable as the translator of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into Japanese, in 1950. As with Joyce, so with D. H. Lawrence: the law intervened once more. That notorious judgment wasn’t overturned until 1996.
The Harrington copy of Yurishizu will be on display this week during the Sixty-fifth edition of the London rare book fair, Firsts (which runs at the Saatchi Gallery, September 15–18). The fair has a theme – banned books – that, at the present moment, seems all too worthy of the odd thinkpiece or two. If we are not banned from attending Firsts ourselves, perhaps next week we will be able to report here on how many of the fair’s 120 exhibitors we found to be dealing in literary contraband.
Disappointingly, the six novels shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize are yet to be banned anywhere. But the Booker has banned a little of itself. Last Tuesday, shortly before the shortlist itself was announced at a party in London, the prize’s director, Gaby Wood, announced which book clubs had been deciding to take part in this year’s Booker Prize Book Club Challenge. (The winning six clubs get to “help rate and review” the shortlist, providing they “shout the loudest” about it on social media.) As Ms Wood announced the last lucky book club, “Scunthorpe page-turners”, she had the misfortune to strike a somewhat bemused tone as she noted that the group’s members include “a steelworker and a dinner lady”. No money intended. Nonetheless, there were some understandably irate responses on social media: “Seeing a Booker prize judge [sic] giggle & pour scorn on the fact that a dinner lady & steelworker had attended a book club is patronising & sickening”. A video clip of the moment was hastily removed from Twitter. The whole curious spectacle – it’s always curious – may still be viewed on YouTube.
Earlier that day, a crowd had gathered outside St Michael and All Angels Church, in west London’s Bedford Park, to witness another momentous literary event. It was some time ago (May 28, 2021) that we first mentioned the plans to erect a sculpture, Conrad Shawcross’s “Enwrought Light”, in this spot, in honor of WB Yeats; Last week, the sculpture was unveiled. (Yeats spent much of his childhood in Bedford Park, an area Roy Foster describes as then being “a kind of ghetto for aesthetes and artists”.)
How do you bless a literary sculpture? In this case, with Irish music, poetic recitations by schoolchildren and a few fine speeches. Shawcross’s multi-faceted gyre of triangular mirrors glinted in the damp afternoon light (and will fail, we suspect, to attract the degree of opprobrium that many still feel towards Maggi Hambling’s sculpture in honor of Mary Wollstonecraft on Newington Green). Cahal Dallat, the principal driving force behind the Yeats project, acted as compère; Rowan Williams perorated persuasively.
There was no literal unveiling. “I can at least wave my hand expansively”, Dr Williams said, “and declare this sculpture to be definitively – there.”
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