Mike O’Driscoll on R.B. Russell’s new book about books, lost and found
Reading R.B. Russell’s enchanting book – a unique hybrid of memoir, literary criticism and paean to the joys of bibliophilia – I was reminded of the countless hours I had spent browsing through the shelves of old, second hand bookshops, most of them, like the books Russell discusses, closed down and long since forgotten. Not all of them, though, for the author cites at least one that I used to frequent, the wonderful Fantasy Centre on Holloway Road, which operated I think for the best part of 40 years until its closure in 2009. The overwhelming pleasure to be found in Fifty Forgotten Books (And Other Books, 2023) lies not so much in anything Russell has to say about any of the titles he includes, as in the way his evocations of particular bookshops, their owners and clientele, as well as his descriptions of the habits and peculiar practices of book collectors in pursuit of long sought-after novels or collections, will resonate with a certain kind of reader.
Not that one has to be familiar with any of the works listed here to enjoy Russell’s book, although he does state the texts and their authors ‘are obviously the primary consideration.’ I haven’t read any of the titles he includes, though I am aware of some – Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, and Thomas Tryon’s The Other – and was familiar with or had read other works by just 18 of the fifty-one authors cited (Arthur Machen is listed twice, once as co-author; and one other title – coincidentally, a bibliography of Machen – is co-authored). More importantly, apart from three or four of the books – Roland Topor’s The Tenant, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Salutation and Machen’s Hill of Dreams – I’m not particularly keen on reading any of the others. What matters here is Russell’s ability to communicate a clear and unalloyed love of books and the pleasure to be had in the process of tracking down particular titles. When, as he makes clear in his introduction, the extent to which that process has become an intrinsic part of his life, ‘resulting in friendships and experiences’ he might never otherwise have had, the bibliophile’s obsession becomes more understandable. Anyone who has an interest in an obscure fantasist or a particular esoteric text, or who has more than three editions of the same title in their collection, will recognise the pleasure to be had in sharing news of a rare find with others of a similar disposition.
Russell’s comments on particular texts, range from the comically self-deprecating – in discussing André Gide’s Two Symphonies, he mentions a trip to Paris during which his self-consciousness prevented him from fulfilling a desire to sit outside a café drinking Pernod whilst reading Sartre’s Nauseau – to insightful, particularly on Machen and Townsend Warner – to self-questioning, as in the essay on Xélucha and Others, a collection of the best short fiction of M.P. Shiel. Not only does Russell resist defining his literary tastes (though it’s fair to say they lean toward the weird side of the fantastic, as evidenced by the works cited here, and also by the output of Tartarus Press, the independent publishing company run by Russell and partner Rosalie Parker), but he’s not afraid to cite those who are now, like Shiel, considered problematic, the latter because of the recent discovery of his paedophilia. Although Russell admits to feeling conflicted about Shiel, he acknowledges that readers may well choose to no longer read his work, while at the same time pointing out the strength of stories like Xélucha and ‘The Primate of the Rose,’ and warning of the pitfalls of literacy censorship, which can, he says, amount to an attempt to rewrite the past. The danger in erasing Shiel and his work, lies in the consequent forgetting of his crime, something that, as Russell rightly says, ‘feels wrong’. On other books, Russell has less to say about the actual texts, than about how the physical object came to exist – see for example, the chapter on Lunch on the Grass, a poetry collection by John Sewell – or the attractions of a specific edition, as in his discussion of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil, where the emphasis is on Beresford Egan’s illustrations, rather than Baudelaire’s poems. But the digressions – into discussions of the adventures he has in tracking down editions of favoured titles, of the relationships that are forged in the process – more than compensate for the absence of literal analysis.
While many of the books Russell cites might be recognised as belonging to the broad genre of the fantastic, some are complete outliers, such as Dave Simpson’s The Fallen, a distinctive attempt at portraying the life of The Fall’s founder member, Mark E. Smith, through a series of interviews with surviving band members. Like A.J.A. Symonds’ The Quest for Corvo – another of the books included here – it appears to press against the constraints of conventional biography, a trait that both perhaps share with most of the works of fiction included in Russell’s book. Copsford is another left field choice, an account by Walter J.C. Murray of his attempt to live for a year in a derelict cottage, surviving by gathering and selling herbs. Although the subject matter holds little appeal, one can’t help but be swayed by Russell’s enthusiasm for Murray’s writing, particularly on the natural world.
I’m not sure what factors were at play in deciding the running order of the books listed, but it feels like Russell has decided to follow some kind of chronology based on his first encounter with the titles, and that somehow makes it more compelling in that it reveals the author’s development as a reader. As we move further through the book, one gets a sense of Russell’s tastes evolving under the suggestions and influences of those he encounters in bookshops or through the friends he makes at conventions or gatherings of, for example, the Arthur Machen Society. This will resonate with readers, especially those who love to talk about what they’ve read, to sing the praises of a new writer they’ve discovered. That passion – that need – to champion a particular writer, or the works of a new, independent press (like Zagava, one of whose titles Russell includes) that is dedicated to producing beautiful editions, is clearly evident in many of the discussions here. There’s also a confidence and certainty in his own judgements about what he reads, and a lack of embarrassment about occasionally indulging in what a friend of Russell’s terms ‘comfort reading’ – the kind of pleasurable and captivating book that offers an escape but places no intellectual demands on readers (he cites Nick Hornby and Walter Mosley). There’s nothing snobbish about this – he says how much he enjoys their books but points out that he isn’t compelled to reread them the way he does the fifty books he discusses, the books we return to because they offer us something new at each fresh encounter.
Some readers might quibble with the decision to select five Tartarus titles, but he can be forgiven that, given the predilection of Tartarus Press for precisely the kind of books Russell so clearly cares about. What comes through most strongly is his passion for the world of books – a passion that informs and illuminates these discussions, and whether or not we are persuaded to read the particular texts for ourselves, there’s a real pleasure to be had from the memories evoked of time spent in second-hand bookshops – the Fantasy Centre in Holloway Road, Corrans in Laugharne, and for bibliophiles in my neck of the woods, Dylan’s in Salubrious Passage, and the unnamed shop that occupied three storeys of a terraced building on St Helen’s Road – a real treasure trove, long since disappeared, except for the many books I discovered there, and which still hold their place on my bookshelves. ∎
Mike O’Driscoll is the author of horror, crime and fantasy fiction whose work has appeared in Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Best New Horror, Interzone, Black Static & elsewhere. His story ‘Sounds Like’ was adapted and directed by Brad Anderson as part of the Masters of Horror TV series. You can find him on Twitter @MikeODriscoll6 and at his website: www.mike-odriscoll.com.
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