12 February 2009

On Collecting Books by Tramps

Et tu Healey? I was talking to the writer R.M.Healey. He had read our recent piece about Colin Wilson and told me that Wilson was not the only writer to have slept by night on Hampstead Heath and written a book by day. This lead to Robin writing the piece below on homeless writers, tramps, hobos etc., I first met Robin when he interviewed me for Rare Book Review. This long piece was posted here in several parts as 'Tales of the Uncollected.' We had talked of the supertramp W.H. Davies and the legendary tramp/hobo Jim Phelan....

Some other homeless writers may be worth collecting. Knut Hamsun, as a notorious WW2 collaborator and supporter of Quisling, has gone out of fashion a little, and perhaps he was never homeless for very long, but in his teens he did trek across America as a tramp and a pedlar, which must have furnished much autobiographical detail for his debut novel Hunger (1890).Actually, to my shame, I had never heard of Hamsun when I came across the first English translation, published by Leonard Smithers in 1899. I found it in a a jumble sale over 20 years ago . It was the board illustration that first attracted me –a sort of Beggarstaff Brothers line drawing of an emaciated face with a hopeless, downtrodden expression. On the flyleaf was a tipped-in signature of its translator, ‘ George Egerton ‘, which I later discovered was the pen name of a young Irish writer called Chavelina Dunne, author of Keynotes , whose correspondence with a number of fin de siecle writers was collected by Terence de vere White in 1958.

Copies of the Egerton translation, which remains current today, are very thin on the ground. I seem to recall there were a couple in ABE a few years ago, but I couldn't locate any the other day. Nor does ABE feature any of the Norwegian first, which the 2000 edition of Book Collecting prices at a measly $350 (shurely shome mishtake). However, paperback copies of the English transalation are legion and cheap enough, though some Aussie blagger has the cheek to ask £60 68p for a paperback published in 2007.!! My Egerton first , with its tipped in signature, must command quite a bit more than even the true first , but I think I’ll keep it. Hamsun won the Nobel prize, after all, and has been called the father of modern literature by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who compared him to Kafka. I can't think of anyone else who was writing quite like him in the late 1880s.

I doubt whether John Gawsworth ever troubled the Nobel judges, but if the notoriously unreliable Derek Stanford is to be trusted, he seems to have been as rebarbative as the gifted Norwegian in many ways. Often drunk and with a reputation for physical violence and boorsishness he alienated many fellow poets by his behaviour. Nor does a glance at his verse, or at his many anthologies, inspire one to defend him. All that King of Redonda tosh bores me senseless , but I know many who love it.

Is ( or was ) Gawsworth collected ? His unsigned volumes of poetry rarely fetch much more than £10 on the Net and a lot less in shops. Signed copies are a different matter. A copy of Poems of Today, an otherwise dull little collection, rockets to £70 in ABE because Gawsworth has written a poem in it. Likewise another bookseller ask £80 for his ' Very Rare ' copy of Flesh of Cypris, with its ' loosely inserted note ' from the poet. But for real vicarious bohemianism you must go to the two volumes of Gawsworth's personal diaries in manuscript, the only items that truly deserve the label ' very rare '. You'll have to pay Richrad Ford of London £1,500 for these . Incidentally, does anyone remember a TV feature on Gawsworth following his death in 1970 ?. I seem to recall him wearing a filthy and tattered overcoat as he picked his way through bargain boxes in Charing Cross Road ( or perhaps it was Farringdon Road ) while a voice-over narrated his fall from grace—from respected editor of Poetry Review to vagrant. The film ended with Gawsworth reciting one of his own poems which ended with the exclamatory ‘ Damn you, poetry ! ' Those last words have stuck with me through the years---a cri de couer from the mouth of a mediocre literary flaneur. .

A tip of the battered bowler hat to you Robin! To be continued with Paul Potts and Francois Greefe.
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