by Stan Persky
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 now 15-year-old photo showed a well-preserved eighty-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. Why am I 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 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 of 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 this 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 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 were no 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. It also contains a credible gay accountant who is twenty-something and his seventeen-year-old boyfriend. These two time-share a cottage with Cooper's alter-ego schoolteacher and his steamy girlfriend, and bicker about love as believably as their hetero counterparts.
So, yes, the heterosexual William Cooper merits at least a large footnote in any future gay literary history. More than that, Cooper's Scenes is as interesting as any of a half-dozen contemporary novels currently on the lists, as readable as, say, Zadie Smith's On Beauty. And yes, good books can and do get lost and almost forgotten.
Stan Persky teaches philosophy at Capilano College in North Vancouver, B.C. His most recent book, The Short Version, won the 2006 Hubert Evans Prize for Non-Fiction.