Last exits

Last Saturday’s Guardian had reason to mention, in passing, a phenomenon with which many readers will be familiar. An editorial observed that, in the modern world, publishers have trouble “building interest in new books” because of difficulties such as “internet-driven fragmentation” and “shrinking review space”. Perhaps it’s best not to remind the Guardian that it shrank its own review space last year. But that newspaper is hardly alone in placing a low value on book reviews. See also the New Statesman, for example, which has some fine critics but doesn’t let them out nearly as much as it is used to. It’s almost as if book pages in newspapers and magazines are now deemed to be expendable.

However well they write, meanwhile, reviewers rarely get to see their works brought together between hard covers. John Carey, who has reviewed two books per month for the Sunday Times since the 1970s, is one exception. The recently published Sunday Best: 80 great books from a lifetime of reviews (Yale University Press, £20) is a sequel to Original Copy: Selected reviews and journalism, 1969–1986, and something of a corrective to that earlier volume. “I found its constant point-scoring a bit overdone”, Professor Carey writes in his introduction to Sunday Best. His advice to fellow reviewers: “never review a book by someone you know personally”; and “never review a book you do not think worth reviewing”.

Also, crucially, “keep a copy of anything you consider really outstanding”. Back when he reviewed poetry for Karl Miller’s book pages in the ListenerCarey was sent a pamphlet published by Queen’s University of Belfast, Eleven Poems, by “an unknown poet called Seamus Heaney”. He thought it “astonishingly good”, but didn’t keep it – or lost it. It’s easy to add value with the help of a little hindsight.

Overused titles of our times: why try to be clever when you can rest on the solid ground of precedent? When it comes to naming a book, certain words and phrases clearly have an allure that the inspired writer may find difficult to resist.

Unfinished Business may be safely nominated as one of the trade’s most sturdy standbys. This is a title that has been in use at least since 1944, when the American war correspondent Stephen Bonsal adopted it for his diary of the peace process at the end of the previous world war. Its more recent redeployments tempt us to align the sinister Unfinished Business (1991) by Norman Tebbit with Unfinished Business (1999) by Ivor Richard and Damien Welfare, about reforming the House of Lords. It will do as well for Unfinished Business: India in the world economy (also 1999) by Deepak Lal as it will for Unfinished Business: What the dead can teach us about life (2009) by James van Praagh. Be careful, we should add, not to order up from the library Unfinished Business (2015), a romance by Nora Roberts, when you were after Unfinished Business: Women men work family (also 2015) by Anne-Marie Slaughter, or Unfinished Business: The fight for women’s rights (2020), edited by Polly Russell and Margaretta Jolly.

We have unfinished business with Unfinished Business. For now, though, let’s simply say that we are looking forward to Michael Bracewell’s first novel in twenty years – you know what it’s called – to be published in the new year. Just don’t confuse it with Unfinished Businessa thriller by Leye Adenle, published this month.

Whatever changes are afoot at Blackwell’s in Oxford, the rare books department continues to produce catalogs that are both enticing and, to clay-brains like us, educational. The latest provides a bibliographical tour through the esoteric realms of early printed books (A boke made by John Fryth prysoner in the Tower of London, 1548; it’s £8,750 for this edition of a martyr’s counterblast against Sir Thomas More), as well as the August precincts of more modern times: L’Assommoir, inscribed by Zola (“son dévoué confrère”) to a friendly reviewer (£2,750); Sylvia Plath’s first collection of poems, The Colossus, as an uncorrected proof copy (£3,500). We were taken with an album of colourful, humorous drawings by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s brother, Octavius ​​Moulton-Barrett (£2,500). “Does Occy get on with his drawings?”, the poet enquired from Pisa. The cocker spaniel portrayed in the album, we are warning, is not her beloved Flush.

The least expensive item in the Blackwell’s catalog is pictured at the back. A pack of Tome Trumps (£20) will give you the chance to pit the world’s banned books against one another “in a battle royale of obscenity” – though merely flicking through them may also suffice as cause for reflection on “the offendability of society in different places and times”. Blackwell’s itself complained about Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), for example; but the 1960s had other ideas, and the ruling against it was rapidly overturned, with John Mortimer leading the appeal. The novel Desired & Rejected, written by Rose Allatini under the pseudonym AT Fitzroy, was published in 1918; its combination of pacifism and homosexuality (“what had nature been about, in giving him the soul of a woman in the body of a man?”) led to large fines and the destruction of 200 copies. One has survived, all the same, to be offered by Blackwell’s for £2,250.

Amid the more celebrated cases, Sleeveless Errand, the novel represented by the trump card pictured here, stands out as the first publication of Jack Kahane’s roguish Obelisk Press in Paris. The debut of Norah C. James – a name more readily associated with romances – it had been convicted in London on its appearance in 1929, on the basis of its “filthy language and indecent situations”. Kahane, knowing a good thing when he saw one, republished it within months of its being banned in England. Copies with the jacket, illustrated by his wife, Marcelle, are scarce, though one was sold last year, by Jon S. Richardson Rare Books; this trump card’s reproduction of that paradoxical image of a mouthless woman, her glass still half-full, will be as near to the real thing as many of us will ever get.

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