Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 24 Jun 2018

Joining the literary dots

Just weeks before the World Trade Center’s twin towers fell, the tiny imprint Short Books published what I think was its second clutch of small, non-fiction and long-form essay titles. These included Nurse Wolf & Dr Sacks, by Paul Theroux (profiles of a New York dominatrix and the eminent neurologist and writer, Oliver Sacks), Last Drink to LA, confessional reportage by John Sutherland, and The Strange World of Thomas Harris, an examination of the creator of Hannibal Lecter. Somewhat belle-lettrist in approach, these offbeat, finely written essays were intended to illuminate, provoke and give pleasure.

The imprint was founded by ex-journalists and in this particular batch of titles some very good writers from The Guardian and other broadsheets were strongly represented. I don’t think any of these titles are still in print, although there are plenty of cheap secondhand copies floating about. Timing was certainly against them and they disappeared almost without trace. As the unfolding of the 9/11 attacks dominated the world’s media, literary essays such as these would have been an irrelevance at best, and at worst an indulgence. World events crowded them out of even the margins of the cultural pages.

This is a shame because I have just reread one of them – a curious little book by Guardian writer William Leith called British Teeth. It was my favourite at the time and it remains so.

It is not quite a book about British teeth, of course, in the same way that Melville’s Moby-Dick is not quite a book about whales, but dentistry (or rather lack of it) does feature strongly. What it really is, is a reflection on national decline and uncertainty, middle class anguish, the Americanisation of culture, and the faltering superiority offered by English antiquity. All told through the medium of one man’s tortured relationship with dentistry. It is also – even as you squirm in anticipation of the probe and the drill and the odour of burning bone – extremely funny. I can think of nothing else quite like it.

But for such a tiny book it is rich in serendipity and it sent me chasing after a number of other writers. Martin Amis is called to mind because at around the time British Teeth was written, Amis was the centre of a notorious row in upper middle-class literary circles, having left his agent of many years (also the wife of his oldest friend, Julian Barnes), engaged an American agent known as the Jackal, left centuries-old gentleman publisher Jonathan Cape for the Murdoch-owned behemoth HarperCollins, secured a massive half-a-million quid advance, and spent £20,000 on what was widely claimed to be cosmetic dentistry. This was not the British way. Antonia Byatt said she didn’t feel she should have to subsidise Amis’s greed. The right-wing controversialist Paul Johnson condemned him for seeking to “beautify his teeth”. Leith says, “Who did he think he was – an American?”

For a period, Amis’s teeth were more newsworthy than his novels. He defended himself by explaining that after an initial examination his dentist had said, “Martin, this is about as far from cosmetic as it gets.”

Anyway, that is all slightly by the way – except to help illustrate that even after just seventeen years it is possible for some books to seem as if they come from an almost impossibly distant historical period. They speak of a vanished world.

But these reflections on Amis sent me back for a day or so to his journalism, and especially the collection called Visiting Mrs Nabokov. A marvellous quotation from an Updike story I had never read sent me scurrying to Google to try and track it down. In this story an American seeing London for the first time says: “The city overwhelmed our expectations. The Kiplingesque grandeur of Waterloo Station, the Eliotic despondency of the brick row in Chelsea…the Dickensian nightmare of fog and sweating pavement and besmirched cornices…all this seemed too authentic to be real, too corroborative of literature to be solid.” I found that it came from a 1960s story called A Madman, first published in the New Yorker and then later collected in the 1967 collection, The Music School. And moreover I had a 1970 Penguin copy of this title – in extraordinary, almost pristine condition – on my shelves, which I had bought for the princely sum of £1.99 in an Oxfam bookshop just a few months ago.

None of this offers any particular conclusion. Just that books disappear for all kinds of reasons. They fail their publishers or their publishers fail them. Many turn out, simply, to be not very good. Vast numbers are deservedly forgotten; even greater numbers should perhaps never have been published in the first place.

But equally, the rediscovery of books can offer unexpected pleasures. In the case of British Teeth, I would be surprised if William Leith has written anything funnier. It prompted me to revisit some of Amis’s best journalism (and it must be said, some of his most disposable – except he didn’t dispose of it: he republished it), and best of all, some of Updike’s most glorious stories (and some of his most unexpected – very short almost non-stories, marvellous, heartfelt vignettes such as ‘In Football Season’ and ‘The Indian’).

And Updike, by association, propelled me to John Cheever’s late novel, Oh, What a Paradise it Seems, and perhaps – in good time – back to Cheever’s Journals, which I am reminded I read only about half of some twenty years ago.

Joining the literary dots. I don’t know of a greater pleasure, and better still, one never knows quite what will prompt it.


Alun Severn

June 2018

( click on any image below to view them in a slide show format )