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Book reviews concluded

05 Feb

First a “neglected classic”  — James Hanley, Boy (1930 – Oneworld Classics edition with extra material by Chris Gostick 2007). I do recommend Oneworld Classics; there are some excellent titles there, and if they are all as well presented as Boy the series is well worth looking for.

Hanley’s novella was banned for years. There is a detailed account of that on Penniless Press.

But in spite of this outcry from respected figures in the literary world, Boy remained banned from 1935 to 1991, with the exception of two reprints by Jack Kahane’s Paris-based Obelisk Press (in 1936 and 1946) from which Hanley did not receive a penny in royalties.[35] The effect of such a legal case so early in the career of an up-and-coming author was devastating, and it haunted him for the rest of his life. Hanley’s strongly Catholic family were horrified by the incident,'[36] and as John Fordham notes, Hanley himself was outraged by "the publishers’ ‘sheer greed’ in issuing his novel in such a provocative format in the first place, and at their betrayal of professional integrity in their admission of guilt."[37] But the indignity would seem to have severely affected Hanley’s professional confidence too. He refused to speak of Boy for years afterwards and turned down all publishers’ requests for a reprint: although Horizon came close to securing the rights to a fiftieth anniversary edition around 1981, Hanley backed out at the last minute and there was to be no new release of Boy in his lifetime.[38] In the essay ‘Oddfish‘ quoted earlier he is quite scathing about the novel, calling it "shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings,"[39] and claiming it was a rushed job produced in just ten days. (This is, as Fordham points out, not the case; Boy was in the planning stages at least as early as 1930, one year before its publication.)[40] But the trial of Boy also put a stop to the truly innovative experiments with gender and sexuality that make Hanley’s early works such as The German Prisoner and A Passion Before Death so exciting. After 1935 Hanley turned his attention to more archetypal proletarian writing without the daring homoerotic elements that had featured in his output before then. Dull, formulaic love stories like Stoker Bush (1935), reportage books such as Grey Children (1937) and the overlong and over-rated family drama that is The Furys Chronicle are the products of Hanley’s insecurity about writing books that might have been received in the same way that the 1934 edition of Boy was.

Here perhaps we see just how much wrong can come of the sort of paranoid literary censoriousness that characterised the 1930s. Boy is, as Ken Worpole puts it, "a truly disturbing novel;"[41] it is, in the words of Edward Stokes, "horrifying and dreadful… sordid and horrible,"[42] and it is, to quote Frank G. Harrington, "a gruesome story of the fate of an inarticulate victim."[43] But because the law could see no purpose to the horrors it portrayed other than to lead the country into moral ruin, the creative development of a writer who may have had much more to say on this subject was abruptly curtailed and altered. It’s only with hindsight now that we can see that Hanley’s works of the early thirties were the best he ever produced. This is not to downplay the quality of his writing produced after the trial some of which is excellent. It’s merely to illustrate that, had it not been for the intolerant spirit of the time in which he worked, the writing of James Hanley might have taken a very different course, and Boy would be recognised not for the reasons it is today, but for its inherent quality as a bold and powerful work of 1930s English literature.

Even the Oneworld edition has a clear gap in the chapter describing an “initiation ceremony” on the Liverpool docks; according to Chris Gostick’s afterword, the one good manuscript copy has about four pages of detail which have clearly not found their way into print yet.

I found it bleak indeed, but a great corrective to romantic ideas about the past, and indeed about the working class, even if it is very much on the side of the working class. But there isn’t much hope in Boy. It isn’t nearly as good as Conrad, despite some of the more overheated rhetoric of Anthony Burgess in his preface, but it is more realistic and more honest than D H Lawrence. There are some passages of memorably bad writing, but others that are quite wonderful. I do think enough of it to add it to my Best Reads of 2009. Ken Worpole, a chronicler of working class writing, notes:

Yet these faults are minor compared with the enduring literary impact of the novel’s description of adolescent humiliation. It can be easy to forget just how brutalising physical labour can be. As a former soldier and merchant seaman, Hanley never did. His novels often centred around individuals and small groups trapped by circumstances, and driven to extremes. I interviewed him shortly before his death: a polite, modest and pugnacious man who declared himself obsessively fascinated by those deemed inarticulate, yet whose inner worlds were, in his words, "like great forests or endless seas". Overwrought at times, Boy remains unforgettable; and the meek have yet to inherit the earth.

The second novel is really very good: David Hewson, Dante’s Numbers (2008). It appears that we have a Da Vinci Code takeoff from the title, but this is not really the case. It is much less pretentious, much more ironic, and very much better written that the Great Brown. I give it an 8/10, I think, just short of a “best read”. Perhaps it falls short because I have also been reading Jesse Kellerman’s quite outstanding novel, which I reviewed here yesterday.

You may see what another reader thought here.

In my mind Dante’s Numbers is action-packed suspense at its most intelligent. By transplanting Nic Costa and his fellow Italian detectives into the dizzying world of Hitchock’s ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco the author is able to juxtapose the US and Italy. This makes for some fascinating plot and character developments.

The absence of clichéd police officers is to be highly commended. Although pathologist Teresa Lupo is a light-hearted character, she doesn’t hang around making horrible jokes. All four of the main characters are thoroughly plausible human beings.

There is a great author blog too: davidhewson.com.

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Posted by on February 5, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, reading, writers

 

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