I can still recall the almost visceral sensation of satisfaction I felt when I read the first page of Shining Scabbard by R. C. Hutchinson. Here’s a man who knows what he’s doing, I sighed, settling down to be seduced by a master writer. I was, still am, and I’ve read everything by him I can get my hands on.
Most of you will probably be thinking, “Hutchinson who? What’s the old fool chuntering on about now?” Which is, in part, the point of this blog – not an old fool chuntering on, though there is that, too, but the fact that few book lovers under the age of sixty will be familiar with Hutchinson.
Any keen reader will have their equivalent of R. C. Hutchinson, a writer from the recent or not so recent past about whom they are passionate and of whom hardly anybody else has heard. Some people even cultivate an obscure pet enthusiasm because it comes in handy when you’re talking about books. Somebody mentions a great classic that you really ought to have read, but unaccountably haven’t –or possibly all too accountably in the case of certain ‘classics’– you simply steer the conversation round to your man or woman, and start mouthing off in lyrical vein, all silvery tongued and insufferably complacent. Nobody else can say a damned thing because they haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about and thus the deficiency in your own reading is rapidly forgotten.
For the record, Ray Coryton Hutchinson –yes, I know, it’s a bit of whiffly name, but nobody’s perfect– was a bestselling, prize-winning English novelist writing from the 1930s until his death in 1975, whereupon he promptly slipped off the literary radar. Most of his books are still out of print (all my copies were culled from secondhand bookstores), though in Britain several have been reprinted by Faber & Faber. Otherwise, you’ve got to get down to the charity shops or start browsing the web.
His books suggest he was a bit of an old tory, which is perhaps one reason why he has fallen out of fashion nowadays, but if you like grand story telling coupled with psychological insight and immaculate prose, Hutchinson is your man, and I strongly recommend making the effort to find something by him.
Anybody who has a comparable obsession will know that there is a terrible temptation to go harrumphing about the room loudly expostulating at the general pig ignorance and intolerable injustice of a world that neglects such genius as you, chief harrumpher and prime appreciator of said genius, are able to detect. This is a temptation that should be resisted. Writers fall out of fashion and it really doesn’t matter because, as everybody knows, there are only so many stories that can be told. Consequently, it is as well to forget some of the books that were written in the past so that new writers can write them again for the present.
I’m not suggesting wholesale plagiarism, or even a conscious aping of books from the past, though that can work well as, for example, in Last Orders, Graham Swift’s witty reworking of As I Lay Dying. But the stories embodied by good books are eternal and they keep coming back to haunt us. When we forget how they were told in the past, we’re laying the ground for fresh tellings in which the themes are revived by successive generations, recast to fit the expectations and tastes of new audiences. Indeed, you could even make a case for having several versions of the same story by contemporary writers in print simultaneously, as happened in 2004 when David Lodge and Colm Tóibin both brought out novels about Henry James, and to a lesser extent in the fertility dystopias of Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Amin Maalouf’s The First Century After Beatrice (1992).
Retelling old tales may sound a little like re-inventing the wheel. That’s no bad thing. Personally, I find it hard to properly comprehend any idea at all until I’ve come up with it for myself. There was, for instance, a moment in my early twenties when I was thinking about something, I forget what, and decided that everything could be analyzed according to a model of the systems that underpin it, and that once you had defined the structure of those systems and the way they interrelate, you could apply the technique to all sorts of different disciplines. I was well chuffed with this brilliant ‘invention’, until it occurred to me that Ferdinand de Saussure had come up with a strikingly similar notion about a century earlier and that Claude Lévi-Strauss had been busy refining the theory when my parents were going through their adolescent longings. Didn’t matter. I was delighted.
I admit, though, I was less delighted recently while developing the plot for a Renaissance alchemical romance, in the course of which I came up with the brilliant idea of a missing Aristotelian manuscript treating of matter so incendiary that it had to be suppressed by the church. Then it dawned on me that there was a remarkably similar device at the heart of The Name of The Rose. Even more alarming, when I was working up the riddle that is to function as one of the story’s McGuffins, I got all excited about the fact that Venus traces out a pentacle every eight years, until I found out that that particular phenomenon already features rather heavily in The Da Vinci Code, which I haven’t read, but probably must if I’m to avoid unwitting plagiarism. I then started exploring the lapsis exillis stone in which the neutral angels were said to have taken refuge when Satan was turfed out of heaven, only to discover Mr. Brown has nabbed that, too, for Angels & Demons. The man gets everywhere. Either that or I’m following some depressingly well trod paths. To cap it all, I briefly considered using the story of the French alchemist Nicholas Flamel, but apparently there is someone called Rowling who has already had a stab at that.
Of course, this recapitulative picture of literature may seem a mite negative. It helps if you’re a bit of a pessimist. If you regard human history as an unceasing movement of steady progress in which mankind is continually improving on himself, each generation adding a building block on which the next generation can construct its own stories and ideas –and all that la-di-da-di-da– you won’t take kindly to the suggestion that stories and ideas have to be constantly revived. Personally, I think we’re just as stupid and cruel –and just as bright and kind– as ever we were, and that no matter how clever and humane an age maybe, the next generation has to reinvent the world all over again, discovering for itself humanity’s infinite capacity for imbecility and equally boundless ingenuity, expressing the eternal truths and the eternal stories for itself in the language and constructs that happen to suit that era.
We just keep on keeping on, chasing something that year by year recedes before us and forever eludes us. No matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Hang on, that sounds familiar.
If you’ve got a pet enthusiasm comparable to R. C. Hutchinson, don’t hesitate to use the comments box to promote it.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace