A few years ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about how the popularity, fame and acclaim won by many writers during their lifetimes seem to evaporate with, or soon after, their deaths. Once they’re gone, they’re usually forgotten too. I was inspired to write this after taking a wander in Dalry Cemetery in Edinburgh and discovering a tombstone for the novelist George Cupples, who died in 1891. When I did some online research into Cupples, I found out that he’d written ‘dozens of nautical novels’ and his 1856 novel The Green Hand: A Sea Story (1856) was reckoned to be ‘one of the best sea stories ever written.’ But does anyone apart from a tiny handful of specialists know of Cupples and his work today? I doubt it.
In the same entry I discussed the posthumous reputations of writers from the 1920s, 30s and 40s like Edgar Wallace, Hervey Allen, James Hilton and Dennis Wheatley – all massively popular in their day, but again, practically forgotten in the 21st century. Indeed, names that were ubiquitous on the bestseller racks in bookshops and newsagents when I was a kid, like Harold Robbins, Morris West, Leon Uris and Alistair MacLean, seem to have disappeared into the mists too. Everyone was reading their books in the 1970s but I can’t imagine many people reading them now.
To this list of forgotten writers we must add the British (later American) author Gerald Kersh, who was once prolific and popular – his Wikipedia entry credits him with 20 novels and 20 collections of short stories, plus ‘thousands of articles in different publications’, published between 1934 and his death in 1968 – but who seemed to drop off the radar the moment he died. A few years ago I began to hear his name because a number of writers I admire, like Anthony Burgess, Angela Carter, Michael Moorcock, Ian Fleming and Harlan Ellison, thought highly of him. But his work had apparently vanished without trace. When I asked about him in bookshops, my inquiries would draw a blank. Even in bookshops run by clearly knowledgeable people, like Whitie’s in my hometown of Peebles and Transreal Fiction in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh, nobody had heard of him.
However, several of his works have now been republished by Valancourt Books, who’ve won praise from the Times Literary Supplement for their efforts to “resurrect some neglected works of literature… and make them available to a new readership”, and I was able to order copies of his 1958 novel Fowlers End and his 1968 collection Nightshade and Damnations while I was in the UK a few months ago. I couldn’t find, though, a reasonably priced copy of his 1938 crime thriller Night and the City, the book that’s probably come closest to ensuring a legacy for Kersh – it was filmed in 1950 with Richard Widmark and again in 1992 with Robert De Niro.
It doesn’t surprise me that Anthony Burgess rated Fowlers End one of the great comic novels of the 20th century because it’s the sort of sprawling, baggy, rumbustious and verbose book that Burgess himself liked to write. Set during the Great Depression and in the fictional and un-salubrious London district of the title – “Fowler’s End is a special kind of tundra that supports nothing gracious in the way of flora and fauna. Plant a cabbage here in this soured, embitter, dyspeptic, ulcerated soil, and up comes a kind of bleached shillelagh with spikes on its knob. Plant a family, a respectable working-class family, and in two generations it will turn out wolves” – it’s prefaced by a five-page glossary of Cockney slang to help readers decipher the dialogue. Some of the terms I was familiar with, but others, like ‘flob your gob’ (vomit) and ‘north-and-south’ (mouth), were new to me. The prominence given to the London vernacular was probably another reason why the language-loving Burgess enjoyed the book so much.
© Valancourt Books
It begins with a down-on-his-luck young man called Daniel Laverock being hired as the new manager of the Pantheon Cinema in Fowlers End. Its owner is the alleged businessman and obvious fraudster Sam Yudenow. Laverock then gets a tour of the premises from Yudenow, which hardly bodes well for his new career. The Pantheon’s staff include a mutinous orchestra and an alcoholic pianist called Miss Noel (employed because the cinema persists in showing silent movies and has to treat its patrons to live music); a pair of Greek anarchists who run the adjoining café; a local juvenile delinquent called Tommy whom Yudenow employs to throw decaying animal carcasses into the properties of rival businesses; and the cinema’s handyman Copper Baldwin, who makes no effort to conceal his hatred for Yudenow.
What follows doesn’t involve much of a storyline. Yudenow does something that proves he’s not a larger-than-life, loveable rogue but an out-and-out shit, and such is Laverock’s disgust that he joins forces with Baldwin to give Yudenow his comeuppance. But that comeuppance doesn’t really materialise and by the book’s end Yudenow remains unbowed. Instead, the plot takes an unexpected swerve and climaxes with Laverock having to defend Yudenow’s fleapit against a gang of thugs led by a villain who was only briefly mentioned in the book’s opening pages. I have to say, though, that the climactic confrontation is hilariously written.
Clearly, Kersh isn’t that interested in constructing a balanced, joined-up plot. He’s far more interested in, firstly, conveying the glorious grottiness and squalor of Fowler’s End and, secondly, conveying the riotous grotesqueness of Sam Yudenow, who’s presented as a Cockney-Jewish cross between Sir John Falstaff and one of those expansive, exuberant eccentrics Charles Dickens was so fond of. Yudenow’s initial advice to Laverock ranges from how to follow the Pantheon’s fire regulations, which keep the number of customers allowed in at a very precise 629 – “Six hundred twenty-nine audience is okay. Six hundred thirty is suicide. Six hundred twenty-eight I die o’ starvation an’ you’re out of a job” – to how to handle the miscreant local schoolkids who frequent the place – “…they get a great big potato and stick it all over miv old razor blades; a bit of string they tie it onto, and right in the face they let you ’ave it. Discourage ‘em. Threaten to tell their teacher. Lay one finger on ’em and the N.S.P.C.C. is after us for cruelty to children…”
I suppose Kersh’s depiction of Yudenow lays him open to accusations of anti-Semitism, for peddling a negative stereotype of a grasping and dishonest Jewish businessman. But Kersh was Jewish himself, his very first book published was an autobiographical one called Jews without Jehovah (1934), and he lost a number of French relatives in the concentration camps during World War II. Incidentally, readers from the UK of my age and older may find it hard to read Kersh’s descriptions of Yudenow without imagining the features, voice and mannerisms of the late, great Cockney-Jewish character actor Alfie Bass. If Fowlers End had been filmed a few decades ago, Bass would surely have been first pick for the role.
For my part, while I found Yudenow an amusing character, I would have preferred smaller doses of him than the hefty doses that Kersh serves up. Happily, the book features a host of other entertaining characters. As the book’s hero, Daniel Laverock might have been a little dull, but Kersh gives him a funny if unfortunate backstory – in his childhood he tried and catastrophically failed to fly off his family’s roof in a homemade airplane (fashioned from planks, perambulator wheels and a biscuit-tin lid), with the result that he ended up with a face “not unlike that ancient pugilist Buckhorse who, in his old age, having no face left to spoil, let anyone knock him down for a shilling.” His facial disfigurements giving him a villainous look, he has recently been adopted by a young woman called June Whistler, from a well-to-do and sheltered background and with aspirations to be a novelist, who believes he will show her the shady underbelly of society and give her writing some much-needed authenticity. “The depths! I want to explore the depths…!” she exclaims. “Would you like to crush me in your arms and bite me?” To which the fearsome-looking but gentlemanly Laverock replies: “Madam, you are good enough to eat but you look so much better in one piece.”
Incidentally, Kersh spent time working as a cinema manager – as a young man he had a colourful, Jack London-esque CV that also included stints as a debt collector, fish-and-chip-shop cook, bodyguard and professional wrestler – so Fowlers End obviously draws on his personal experiences. And the book is a hell of a lot funnier than a more celebrated English comic novel from the 1950s that I read not so long ago, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954).
© Valancourt Books
Nightshades and Damnations, which appeared in 1968 shortly before Kersh’s death, contains eleven of his short stories chosen and introduced by the American science fiction and fantasy writer Harlan Ellison. Some of the items in this volume are brilliant – they show Kersh at his best as a storyteller, pushing his imagination to the limit and writing with both precision and style. Among them are horror stories like Voices in the Dust of Annan and The Brighton Monster, which end with science-fictional twists – a tragic and chillingly contemporary (despite most of the story being set in the 18th century) twist in the case of The Brighton Monster. Another horror story is Men Without Bones, wherein Kersh depicts the nightmarish creatures of the title with impressively icky gusto.
Bone for Debunkers is a tale of forgery that’s worthy of Roald Dahl, while The Ape and the Mystery and The King Who Collected Clocks are elegant historical fantasies incorporating Leonardo Da Vinci and clockwork automata respectively. And The Queen of Pig Island is a surreal and ultimately tragic tale of what happens to the human exhibits of a carnival sideshow when they survive a shipwreck and try to establish their own society on a desert island.
Perhaps best of all is Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo, which is about immortality and its potential pitfalls. It explores the unhappy and grisly consequences when the person who’s immortal doesn’t have the intelligence or imagination to make the most of his situation; and also has a body that doesn’t fully regenerate from all the physical damage it inevitably suffers during the centuries. The same bleak approach to the subject was later used in Robert Zemeckis’s 1992 movie Death Becomes Her.
While many other writers have vanished from popular consciousness because their writing, frankly, wasn’t very good and wasn’t designed to stand the test of time, Kersh’s prose remains admirably sharp and his stories, though obviously of their time, don’t feel that dated. He seems to have been forgotten for the sad and simple reason that his books fell out of print for a long period. Let’s hope that the good work done by Valancourt Books helps bring Gerald Kersh’s artistry back into the limelight.