the Great War

Where Did All the Great War Books Go?

Book Review:  ‘Merchants Of Hope; British Middlebrow Writers and the First World War, 1919 – 1939’, by Rosa Maria Bracco.

Rosa Maria Bracco’s book was published by Berg in 1993 when she was working for a publisher based in Cambridge, England, after being awarded a doctorate from the university there. ‘Merchants of Hope’ reads like a Ph.D. thesis reworked for a middlebrow readership and it works. Almost every page holds something of interest about the Great War’s writers and their books. The author provides frequent summaries of plots, themes and characters and is helpfully restrained in not presuming too much upon the reader’s wider knowledge of the period.

In so far as Bracco pursues a critical argument it seems to be this: the invigorating analysis proposed by Paul Fussell in ‘The Great War & Modern Memory’ (1975) has had the unfortunate effect of obscuring the evidence offered by literature written closer to the event , much of which challenges Fussell’s assertion that the truest writing about the Great War was ironic. There were certainly bangry, ironical and disillusioned writers at work, 1919 – 1939, but most of those who made the Great War their subject after it had been won, civilian or military, Home Front or overseas, portrayed characters who thought the Great War was beastly but necessary. Heroism, fortitude, self-sacrifice and comradeship were taken as real by a majority of mainstream, best-selling English writers; these values signified an important truth about the War that readers expected to find endorsed in their novels.

Altogether Bracco refers to nearly 200 books, quite a few of them from names that will be familiar to Great War collectors. She also mentions a surprising number who will be new, including some from writers who never wrote again after their debut. Equally surprising, especially to book hunters familiar with ABE as a source of Great War titles, is the number of Bracco’s books which appear to have become extinct. About a quarter (37) of the books in her index are unavailable as hardback first editions on ABE. Many are now only available as print-on-demand facsimiles or e-books.

I checked two of Bracco’s titles – ‘Spears Against Us’ (1932?) by Cecil Roberts and ‘Simon Called Peter’ (1921) by Robert Keable. According to info gleaned from booksellers’ catalogue entries on ABE, sales for ‘Spears Against Us’ reached at least 170,000 copies; sales of ‘Simon Called Peter’ reached at least 250,000. Of the two titles, there were 16 copies of ‘Spears Against Us’ for sale on ABE and 31 copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’. This gives a survival ratio, in ABE terms, of approximately I: 8,000 for copies of ‘Simon Called Peter’ and 1: 10,500 for ‘Spears Against Us’. What happened to the rest of them, those tens of thousands of copies of both titles that have not survived the intervening eighty or ninety years? Lost? Discarded? Pulped? Are they still out there, somewhere, but not on ABE?

If Rosa Maria Bracco is right In thinking that English middlebrows of the Twenties and Thirties wrote of the Great War with a surer grasp of authenticity than their modern successors we should perhaps be taking them more seriously. Hurry now while stocks last.

The Cruelties Of Bibliomania

In the same sense that a lunatic is a nut case, colloquially speaking, a bibliophile is a book case, a person who delights in the literary, aesthetic and physical qualities of books to degree that can become obsessive. At The Great War Bookshop if a book is about the Great War, we must have it even if we know we’re not going to like it. Which in biblio-terms probably makes us maniacs rather than philiacs. Once upon a time, we used to be interested in all kinds of books but that’s a different story. If you were to show us one now we could hardly bear to pick it up, never mind open it. And where second-hand books are concerned we are hardcore. No Foyles or Blackwell’s for us. At any slack hour of the day you’ll find one of us nosing through the bargain basements of London’s Charing Cross Road. Overhead, drumming on the thick glass pavement blocks, we see the feet of Londoners hurrying about their lunch-hour business. Down in our dim dungeons for books, invisible fungi feed off the accumulated sediments of the book cases who’ve spent most lunch-hours of their working lives following the scent of — Ugh!There are some titles you want to vanish instantly.

From A College Window, by A.C. Benson.

Return To Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche.

Jungle Lovers, by Paul Theroux.

Pain goes with the territory when you spend hours per week with be-numbed optics and an acute pain in the neck from reading upside-down spine titles sideways. Bad books make bad backs. What drives us is an instinct that every book must find it’s reader.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe de Lampedusa.

Jupiter’s Travels, by Ted Simon.

The Glands Of Destiny, by Ivo Geikie-Cobb.

Dedicated book cases don’t have time for exploring distant literary or historic regions, however alluring. We know what we like and we don’t like anything else. When we’re not hunting or reading  we have wives and families to think about, trains to catch. We don’t have time for dawdling in the Charing Cross Road over books about glands or novels written by colleagues at what used to be the day job, not down here, in the dungeon of earthly delights, down on the bottom shelf …

Cleft

In a strictly literal sense, the bottom shelf of a basement in the Charing Cross Road is as low as any book can sink especially if, like Cleft, it is brand new, freshly published and coutured in a fashionably expensive jacket. For a Great War book case Cleft is the opposite of serendipity. As soon as I connect with it as a title I’m thinking: split down the middle; relationships sundered; a crying shame for some or all of the characters involved; it’s another one of those modern novels for women who don’t give a fig for the Great War or its legacy in print. But it is worse than that. Because I know this novelist of modern relationships. She used to be a former close colleague. We shared the same work station in the same office. Teamwork was her day job, and mine too. She once confided to me, in the canteen, of her ambition to be a novelist one day in a crisply-tailored jacket. And there she is, smiling out at me from the rear flap of it, looking way better in black and white than she ever did in real life.

 With my thumbs, for old times’ sake, I prise Cleft apart at the midway point to sample the telling of the story of two Australians called Calley and Snit. They live in the present tense. They speak of their feelings, needs and desires in chopped up, cinema-style dialogue and half a page of it is quite plenty enough. Cleft leaps from my hand whence it came, back to the bottom-most shelf, leaving me with the sense that I have just wasted two and a half minutes of my precious lunch hour that could have been better spent with my neck at a more awkward angle. I am not the book case Cleft is looking for and that’s the end of the story.

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 On the day I met Cleft in the Charing Cross Road  I could have taken it back to the office where I once worked and made its writer glow with pleasure.

 

“Hey! Look, everyone! It’s Cleft ! Sign it for me, Nikki, and when you’re famous it’ll be worth something. Well done! You must be really chuffed.”

But here’s the thing. Rules are rules. One: every book must find its reader fair and square; no ulterior motive can be allowed to impinge. Two: tmoney spent on a book that isn’t about the Great War cannot be spent on a book that is about the Great War; so that’s cash lost forever from the cause. Rule number three: you have to be famous and dead before your signature adds value to any book you might have written,  excepting J.K.Rowling. So Cleft stayed where it was. Which is why Nikki left work two years later probably thinking that none of her colleagues ever gave a shit for the novels she wrote with so much sustained dedication and all the talent she could muster but without any reference whatsoever to the Great War. Which must have been a bit of a shame for Nikki. But that’s Great War book cases for you, tight-fisted bastards all over and cheerfully wrapped up in their own narrow obsessions.

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