Monday, 18 April 2011

The Greeks have a word for it

Here's a literary quiz. What do the following have in common? Achebe's Things Fall Apart (Nigeria), Falluda's Alone in Berlin, Norman Lewis' classic Naples '44, a random Rebus and a Wallander, David Szalay's The Innocent (Russia), Phil Cohen's Children of the Revolution (about children of Communist parents), Andrew Greig's wartime novel That Summer and yet another book on DH Lawrence? Answer, they have nothing to do with Greece. Every time I go to foreign parts I promise I'll practice by reading only books by authors from the country I'm going to and when there only read local writers. So there's my reading during two weeks in Greece. Pathetic. I've never yet kept that promise. I also read some back copies of the London Magazine, which reminded me what a good editor Alan Ross was, and picked up a back copy of Transatlantic Review which had the cover price of 5 shillings/$1.00, an interesting exchange rate. The journal, forty years old, mentioned six writers on the cover: BS Johnson, Jean Rhys, Ted Hughes, Ruth Fainlight, Patrick Garland and Barry England. Forty years on BS Johnson is still a cult figure, Jean Rhys is still read, Ted Hughes is still read, Ruth Fainlight has just published a massive collected poetry anthology with Bloodaxe (though in TA she had written a short story) while Garland is still known in the theatre world and only Barry England now forgotten. If there is a point it is that some people's reputations do sustain and it is the mark of a good editor to find the writers who will give pleasure forty years on, from a dog-eared copy of a magazine priced in an obsolete currency. I was also struck by one point, reading that a contributor was "a subaltern in the Far East", indicating how even in the 1970s WW2 terminology was commonplace to readers, many of whom would of course have done National Service.

I should add that I only took one manuscript to read, and checked emails only every second day. This really was a holiday, some of which was spent in the same street Byron wrote Childe Harold. The rest was spent in a Greek island town of 15,000, which had four Greek language bookshops plus several other book outlets.

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