It’s funny the way books fall into our hands. I was lazily reading an issue of the Times Literary Supplement one afternoon last summer when I ran into a longish article about a mid-20th century British novelist I’d never heard of named William Cooper. The thing that slowed me enough to read the opening paragraphs of D.J. Taylor’s biographical “reappraisal” of Cooper (“Behind the Scenes,” TLS, June 9, 2006) was an arresting photograph of the long-neglected, nearly-forgotten writer. (“Cooper,” by the way, was the nom de plume of one Harry S. Hoff, who had published earlier books under his given name.) The fifteen-year-old photo, taken in 1990, showed a well-preserved 80-year-old, with white hair, mustache, and melancholy eyes, lying in bed or on a divan, one elbow bent against a bolster, his closed hand pressed against his temple for support, as he grimly gazed into the near distance.
Though not really intending to read Taylor’s piece, I got hooked. What piqued my initial curiosity was a glum remark of Cooper’s, made a quarter-century ago when his reputation was already in decline, about the state of the novel. “All I can foresee is more of the same,” he pronounced, “the same rather shallow anarchy; any writer being allowed to say anything; nobody listening.” It was the “nobody listening” part that got my attention. But what hooked me was Taylor’s following paragraph:
“William Cooper died in September 2002 at the age of 92. Sixteen people, of whom I was one, attended his funeral at Putney Vale Crematorium. Had Cooper’s shade been able to survey the proceedings-though as a militant atheist he disdained the possibility-it would have confirmed the low opinion he had of his reputation in the decade or so before his death. Hailed in the 1950s as a trailblazer of the post-war English novel, he spent the 1990s suffering the professional indignity of having to tout his final work around a succession of minor-league independent publishers. With most senior novelists, a seven-year wait between completed first draft and publication can be put down to authorial fussiness. Scenes from Death and Life (1999) fell victim to a much more prosaic drawback-the difficulty of finding anyone prepared to publish it.” That pitiful detail about 16 mourners did it.
I don’t know why I’m invariably alarmed by my ignorance, but I am. Or why I’m aggrieved by the thought, “How come I’ve never heard of this guy?” After all, there are lots of writers I’ve never heard of. I was even irrationally peeved that I hadn’t been previously informed of Cooper’s death.
What I learned from Taylor’s thoughtful account is that Cooper was the author of Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) and a life-long series of further Scenes-novels-Scenes from Metropolitan Life, and scenes from married life, later life, early life, and the hard-to-get-published final Scenes from Death and Life.
Cooper’s 1950 Provincial Life “had been greeted by the reviewers as a new kind of English novel: anti-metropolitan, ‘ordinary,’ self-consciously distancing itself” from the fiction of the day. It was later seen as a precursor to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1953) and the movement known as the Angry Young Men. John Braine declared it “a seminal influence.” Amis had been tipped off about it by Philip Larkin. Malcolm Bradbury proposed that “if there was a modest literary revolution which guided the spirit of the 1950s, a decade when all revolutions were modest, then it seemed to voice it.”
The belated “news” of Cooper’s novel roused an abiding anxiety of mine: Can a good book not find a publisher? Can a good book get published and be forgotten? And that masks an even deeper anxiety: Will all books soon be forgotten?
There was one more intriguing bit in Taylor’s summary of Scenes from Provincial Life. He conceded that this autobiographical tale of a provincial science teacher-and-aspiring- novelist and his girlfriend, set in 1939, on the cusp of World War II, when, as its narrator says, “We spent most of the time talking about the state of the world,” hardly seemed revolutionary read a half century and more since its publication. Further, its easygoing “realism” was really rather anti-modernist. Still, Taylor claimed that its “novelty lay in the candour of its tone and the frankness with which it treated both hetero- and homosexual sex.”
I did a mental double-take. Wait a minute, English-language novels of 1950 didn’t “treat” homosexuality, frankly or otherwise. I mean, there was murky homoeroticism in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), and the young American novelist Gore Vidal had published a one-off scandalous “gay problem” novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), but in 1950 there weren’t novels with ordinary, even occasionally happy homosexuals, were there?
At which point, I repaired my ignorance. One of the vast network of used bookstores associated with Amazon.co.uk promptly supplied me with a discarded library copy of the Penguin paperback in its original, nostalgia-provoking orange-and-white cover format for the astonishing price of one pence (plus shipping and handling).
Here’s the report: Scenes from Provincial Life is a thoroughly engaging, irreverent, totally-competent novel that delivers on all the promises made for it by reviewers and writers who were influenced by it. It tells us, with considerable wit, something about small-town English life on the cusp of wartime disruption. Its narrator even has a postmodernist thing or two to say about novel-writing and politics, namely, “Unfortunately it is very difficult to write about politics in a novel. For some reason or other political sentiment does not seem to be a suitable subject for literary art. If you doubt it you have only to read a few pages of any novel by a high-minded Marxist. However, I am writing a novel about events in the year 1939 and the political state of the world cannot very well be left out. The only thing I can think of is to put it in now and get it over.”
Cooper’s own long-time mentor was a prominent mid-twentieth-century scientist-intellectual, C.P. Snow, a physicist and novelist himself who explored the dilemma of the relationship in modern life between what he called the “Two Cultures,” science and the humanities, in a series of fictions. Snow appears as a character named Robert in Provincial Life, and with irony aforethought no doubt, he also provides a back cover blurb for Cooper’s book, taken from his Sunday Times review where he praised it for being “told with immense high spirits, with poetry, subtely and humour.”
But the “novelty” of Provincial Life, as D.J. Taylor puts it, is its sexual candour. That frankness includes a perfectly credible sub-plot about a gay accountant in his late-20s and his 17-year-old boyfriend, who time-share a cottage with Cooper’s alter-ego schoolteacher and his steamy girlfriend, and who bicker about love as believably as their hetero counterparts. When the narrator complains to Tom, the accountant, in the opening chapter, about his girlfriend, “You don’t live in the shadow of a girl wanting to marry her,” Tom amiably replies, “My dear man, I live in the shadow of something else.” Cooper’s narrator adds, “I saw the truth of this remark. The reason Tom did not live in the shadow of a girl wanting to marry her was that when it was his weekend to occupy the cottage he took out a boy.” Cooper almost off-handedly introduces a then unspeakable topic and sustains it unfussily through his tale. If nothing else, the heterosexual William Cooper merits at least a large footnote in any future gay literary history.
More than that, Cooper’s Scenes tells us something about provincial life, and even better, “life.” It may not be Balzac’s scenes from provincial and Parisian life a century before, but it belongs to that infinite literary project Balzac called “The Human Comedy.” Finally, Cooper’s Scenes from Provincial Life is as interesting as any of a half-dozen contemporary novels on last year’s lists, as readable as, say, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty or Ian MacEwen’s Saturday or John Banville’s The Sea. And yes, to confirm an earlier anxiety, good books can and do get lost and almost forgotten.
Vancouver, Feb. 5, 2007. An earlier version of this review appeared in Books in Canada.