Prose anthologies

There is a shelf in my study reserved for prose anthologies; I have had a soft spot for them ever since “A Book of Modern Prose”, compiled by Margaret Flower, was one of my school set books way back in the 1950s.
(It was only later that the appropriateness of Ms Flower’s surname occurred to me: the word “anthology” literally means a “flower-gathering”. In Afrikaans the word is “bloemlesing”.)
“A Book of Modern Prose” introduced me, at the age of 16, to such writers as John Dos Passos, William Saroyan, G K Chesterton, Ernest Hemingway, D H Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Sherwood Anderson, E M Forster, Logan Pearsall Smith, W B Yeats, Winston S. Churchill and several others. It opened a door for me into the world of books and undoubtedly changed my life. I still have the book after 57 years — well thumbed and well loved. It has delayed the writing of this post by an hour while I have dipped into it with undiminished pleasure.
Over the years it has been joined on my bookshelf by many other prose anthologies. The first was “A Book of English Essays”, selected by Sir William Emrys Williams and published by Penguin Books. It carried me back to writers of short prose in the 17th century such as Francis Bacon and Jeremy Taylor, but especially to Joseph Addison, whose short, entertaining essays in the “Spectator” made him famous. His “The Tombs in Westminster Abbey” is just one of many that deserve re-reading. Another writer from that anthology that I love to read is Charles Lamb, who was born more than 50 years after Addison died and carried forward the great tradition of the English essayist.
In the 1970s I discovered “The Oxford Book of English Prose”, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and published in 1925. Although it has almost 1,100 pages it is a wonderfully compact book printed on India paper which fitted in my pocket on business trips during the next decade and provided me with many hours of entertainment on long-haul flights and in airport lounges. If it were not for the Kindle it would still be with me on my more leisurely travels today.
Also in the ’70s I found a copy of “The Knapsack”, edited by Herbert Read and published by Routledge in 1939. Its purpose was to provide soldiers in World War 2 with a compact anthology to carry in their kit while on active service. I had a spell in the army in the ’70s so I tried to put this book to its intended purpose; although it contained much of interest I found its contents rather too serious for relaxing reading while on manoeuvres!
Sometime in the ’80s I bought “The London Book of English Prose”, edited by Herbert Read and Bonamy Dobree and published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1932. I have never been able to decide whether or not I prefer it to the Oxford book mentioned above, as it is arranged by theme rather than chronologically. Its three broad categories are Narrative, Scientific and Emotive and the sub-headings are too numerous to mention but include such diverse subjects as story-telling, autobiography, letters, pure science, politics, law, strategy and tactics, sport, pathos, drama, comedy, controversy, satire and many others. Its contributors range in time from the 14th to the 20th centuries.
Then I came upon a wonderful book called “The Oxford Book of English Talk”, edited by James Sutherland and published in 1953. This anthology consists of examples of authentic English speech dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, as recorded in the proceedings of law courts and in the verbatim court reports of 18th and 19th century newspapers. The practice of using some form of shorthand for taking down court proceedings goes back at least to Tudor times, and we have therefore a fairly reliable record as far back as the 16th century of words and expressions people actually used. The dialogue written in plays over the past 400 or so years also provides a fairly authentic reflection of the words spoken by real people. It is a book to read aloud!
Finally there is “A Treasury of English Prose”, edited by Logan Pearsall Smith, published by Constable and undated but probably more than 60 years old. It ranges from Geoffrey Chaucer to George Santayana and contains many gems missed by other compilers. I have put it by my bedside to read again.
In all my years of reading anthologies I had hardly thought that something I had written would ever appear in one. But in 2012, the year I turned 70, I was invited by Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, to write a short story about the Boer War for their new book “Boereoorlogstories 2″. I wrote it in English and it appeared translated and abridged as “Die Tweeling”. The original English-language version appears elsewhere on this website.

The Centenary of World War I

When I was doing research for my 2007 novel Journeys to the End of the World one of my reference books was The South African Forces in France by John Buchan (Thomas Nelson and Sons 1920). Buchan was a man of many parts – army officer, Governor-General of Canada, and the author of numerous novels, including the bestselling The Thirty-Nine Steps which was later made into a Hitchcock movie.

For many years I had wanted to write a novel set in World War I, largely because my late father had served with distinction in the South African Heavy Artillery on the Western Front. As a child I often asked him about the war; although he had experienced and seen a great deal, these were things that he could not bear to talk about. So apart from a few humorous anecdotes, I learnt nothing about the Great War from him, and had to rely on books. One of these was The South African Forces in France – a solid history with detailed descriptions, lists and maps, but hardly a riveting read. To research more personal views of the conflict I consulted I Was There, an extraordinary four-volume illustrated history of the Great War published in the 1930s by the Waverley Book Company, with each chapter written in the first person by someone who had been there.

An aspect of World War I that interested me particularly was ‘shell shock’, and while I was still mulling this over in my mind I happened to be reading some South African history in which I came across a remark by the missionary Dr John Philip about the behaviour of certain Khoi people (then known as Hottentots) during the Hottentot Rebellion of 1799. The symptoms he described sounded similar to those of World War I ‘shell shock’. Then I noticed a newspaper article about post-traumatic stress disorder among present-day victims of crime, and suddenly I saw a link between South Africans of 1799, 1914 and the present time.

Isaiah Berlin said: ‘Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes people human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them.’ I saw post-traumatic stress as a common factor, and from that grew the plot and characters of Journeys to the End of the World.

Journeys was published as a paperback in 2007 and by now most copies have been sold. To make it available again in this centenary year of the beginning of World War I, instead of reprinting it was published for the first time as an eBook.

You are invited to find it via any of the following links:

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

Many people who see this post will have read The Leopard – I read it for the first time in 1982 and have gone back to it several times in the past 30+ years.  For me it is one of the few novels that is truly unforgettable.

Set in Sicily in 1860 during the Risorgimento, it was rejected twice and was only published a year after the author’s death in 1957.  The protagonist is Prince Fabrizio Salina, an old-school Sicilian aristocrat.

Garibaldi and his volunteer army have landed in Sicily to start a revolution in the south, to widen the movement for Italian unification, and to march on Rome. The Leopard relates the struggle of the Sicilian aristocracy to survive in the face of societal change.  As Fabrizio says:  “Change everything just a little so as to keep everything exactly the same.”

Although this is not a plot-driven novel I don’t intend to give away the plot, as a courtesy to those who have not yet read it.  I would like to be able read it (Il Gattopardo) in its original Italian;  there have been minor criticisms of Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation but I am not in a position to find fault with it, and I find his choice of  language superb.

I want to repeat a particularly well chosen paragraph originally selected by Richard Horton in his 1997 review of The Leopard.  It deals with the courtship of Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi and his lovely Angelica.  Observe its elegance and depth.

“Those were the best days in the life of Tancredi and Angelica, lives later to be so variegated, so erring, against the inevitable background of sorrows. But that they did not know then; and they were pursuing a future which they deemed more concrete than it turned out to be, made of nothing but smoke and wind. When they were old and uselessly wise their thoughts would go back to those days with insistent regret, they had been days when desire was always present because it was always overcome, when many beds had been offered and refused, when the sensual urge, because restrained, had for one second been sublimated in renunciation, that is into real love. Those days were the preparation for a marriage which, even erotically, was no success; a preparation which, however, was in a way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief, like those melodies which outlive the forgotten works they belong to and hint in their delicate and veiled gaiety at themes which later in the finished work were to be developed without skill, and fail.”

David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas) noted in 2006:  “What makes The Leopard an immortal book is that it kisses perfection full on the mouth.  Its major theme – the workings of mortality – is explored with an intelligence and poignancy rarely equalled and never, to my knowledge, surpassed.”

Here is the Amazon link: