Friday 25 January 2013

The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis (Gollancz, 1966): New Fiction Society Signed Edition, 1972; Uncorrected Proof, 1966

NB: A Friday Forgotten Book.

The final signed edition I have to show you (for the moment; I do have other signed books waiting patiently in the bookcases) also begins a run of posts on its author:

The Anti-Death League, by Kingsley Amis, originally published in hardback by Victor Gollancz in 1966 under an evocative dust jacket designed by the great Raymond Hawkey, photography by Adrian Flowers. This isn't that edition, however – at least, not quite. It's the second impression from 1972, which I spotted in Lewes's Bow Windows Bookshop last year and couldn't resist – even though I already own a first edition – because each copy was signed by Amis for members of the New Fiction Society:

Although given that this edition came along six years after the first edition, it would have been a slight contradiction in terms to call it "new". Mind you, I've no idea how apposite the New Fiction Society's name was/is: after much fruitless googling I've been unable to determine who or what they were/are (I even resorted to posing the question on Twitter, to a deafening silence). If anyone can shed any light on this mysterious Society, do please leave a comment. 

UPDATE: Fellow fan of The Anti-Death League Philip Gooden emailed me shortly after I posted this with the following insight: 

"The NFS was a kind of upmarket book club that flourished briefly in the mid-70s. Since its aim was to encourage more serious fiction – or at least something between popular and highbrow – it may even have had some Arts Council support. My memory's a bit hazy but I don't think you had to commit to buying a set number of books and they were sold at only a small discount to the published price (in pre-discounting days). The jackets were just the same, with the addition of the NFS sticker on the spine. Perhaps you could get signed copies by paying more.

"The only two I have are Martin Amis's
Success (1978) and Robert Nye's Falstaff (1976). I don't think the society was going in the early 70s so suspect that your copy of The Anti-Death League was retrospectively branded by them. Delighted to find someone else who thinks that it's K. Amis's best book.

And I'm delighted to be able to post this information. Thank you, Philip!

The Anti-Death League was Kingsley Amis's seventh published novel – including 1965's The Egyptologists, co-written with Robert Conquest – and marked the beginning of his (solo) experiments with genre, in this case spy fiction with a dash of science fiction... kind of; there's actually a lot more to the novel than that would suggest, the military espionage trappings merely a backdrop to a highly eventful extended meditation on the nature of life, love, death, friendship, God (who also receives a good kicking in another Amis genre experiment, 1969's The Green Man) and sexuality. It's the one book I would recommend to anyone who reckons they have Amis père pegged: a surprisingly warm novel which stands in marked contrast to the cantankerous likes of, say, Ending Up (1974) – which, incidentally, after The Anti-Death League is my second favourite Amis (of those that I've read).

Speaking of Robert Conquest, as I briefly was above, he'll be popping up in the next post, in which I'll be examining two books he and Kingsley Amis produced in collaboration...

. . . . . . . . . .

ADDENDUM: In March 2019, six years after I originally posted this, I came across an uncorrected proof of the 1966 Gollancz edition of The Anti-Death League in a Lewes antique emporium. 

Extremely uncommon in its own right – it's the only proof of the novel I've ever seen – this copy is also remarkable in that it's an association copy, bearing the ownership signature of literary agent Hilary Rubinstein, who, when he was an editor at Gollancz, brought Amis's debut novel, Lucky Jim, to the publisher. Quite a nice find, then – especially for eight quid.

Thursday 24 January 2013

Celebrating 50 Years of Richard Stark's Parker, and the Parker Movie: Infographics and Character Guide from University of Chicago Press

Interrupting the signed editions briefly: Trent has already linked this one over at The Violent World of Parker after Levi at University of Chicago Press gave us (and fellow Parker fanatic Ethan Iverson) the heads up, but it's diverting enough that I'd like to post something here too. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake's taciturn career criminal Parker (The Hunter hit the streets early 1963) and the US release of the new Parker movie, UCP, current publishers of the Parker (and Grofield) series, have unveiled a terrific new dedicated page on their site.

There's a guide to Parker's rules, witty infographics detailing the body count in each book and Parker's take from each score, and most useful of all, I think, a sortable character guide, featuring practically every player – major and minor – from the twenty-four-book series, the novel(s) they appeared in, a bit of biographical background, and even little spoilers.

Clearly a hell of a lot of work went into all this, and I suspect the character guide in particular will prove a godsend in years to come (not least of all to me when I'm researching Parker posts), so a hearty congratulations to Levi and all at UCP. Go check it out.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Harriet Lane, Alys, Always (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012; Signed Edition), Patricia Highsmith, and Tom Ripley

As with C. J. Sansom's Dominion, I became interested in this next book as a result of reading a few reviews at the tail end of last year:

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, published in hardback – under a lovely dust jacket designed by Carrie May – by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February 2012 – which, if you're paying attention at the back of the class, might beg the question, how come I only read those aforementioned reviews at the end of 2012...? Although if you're sitting at the front of the class with the rest of the exceptionally bright children, you'll probably already have worked out that it wasn't the reviews of the hardback edition that I noticed but the reviews of the paperback edition, which was published by Phoenix in December (tick, VG, clever kids; dullards at the back see me after). Of course, awkward bugger that I am, the paperback wasn't good enough for me – and neither was the regular hardback first edition. No – I decided that nothing less than a signed first edition would do, and so went and bought the only one I could find for sale online:

Which has been signed and dated pre-publication. And I suspect in years to come it'll be one to treasure; Lane's debut novel, Alys, Always has been rapturously received by critics, more than a few of whom have pointed to Patricia Highsmith as an influence, especially Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels – which was why my curiosity was piqued by those reviews I saw. Turns out Lane is indeed a fan of Highsmith's work – all the best people are, I find – and there are certainly echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley in particular in Alys, Always. Not so much stylistically – the novel is written in the first person, present tense (where Highsmith stuck rigidly to third and past), and Lane is a lighter writer (hey!) than Highsmith – more in the way it centres on a manipulative type inveigling themselves into an unsuspecting circle of family and friends. In Talented it was Tom inserting himself into, and eventually co-opting, Dickie Greenleaf's life; here it's Frances Thorpe – thirty-something subeditor on the literary section of an ailing newspaper – worming her way into the lives of novelist Laurence Kyte and his children.

One major difference is that unlike Tom Ripley, Frances doesn't actually kill anyone. Instead, at the novel's outset she chances upon the crashed car of Laurence's wife, Alys, who, after a brief, strained conversation, promptly dies on her. Even so, it's the kind of opening one can imagine Highsmith herself entertaining: a coincidence (she was very fond of those) that sets in motion a chain of events largely driven by a scheming loner. For though Frances may not share Tom's murderous tendencies, she does share his outsider's viewpoint, observing the Kytes – not to mention her own family and friends – at a step removed, which in turn allows her to shape and mould their emotions and intuit and almost predict their reactions. She also shares Tom's ultimate aim – a better life for him/herself – and even, in a parallel of the scene in Talented where Tom tries on Dickie's things, drifts about the Kytes' holiday home draped in Alys's shawl and pores over her cookbooks and photo albums.

I don't mean to bang on about Patricia Highsmith – even though I, er, kind of have – but the more you look at Alys, Always, the more Highsmith comes to mind – or at least, to my mind. It's important to note, however, that this isn't imitation on Lane's part: it's inspiration. Lane has a style all her own; she's especially good at evoking an environment in a few lines, and I particularly admire her brevity (the novel clocks in at just over 200 pages, which, in an era of bloated doorstoppers, is refreshing). My learned friend Book Glutton put it best: he identified Alys, Always as being "Highsmithic" – and to my way of thinking, there's no higher praise than that.

Monday 21 January 2013

Dominion by C. J. Sansom (Mantle/Pan Macmillan, 2012): Signed Ltd Edition; Review

Our next signed book was actually a Christmas present from the lovely Rachel, who managed to arrange its delivery ahead of the day itself even though, in my usual indecisive manner, I'd only told her what I wanted a week beforehand:

It's a British first edition/first impression of C. J. Sansom's Dominion, published in hardback by Mantle/Pan Macmillan at the tail end of 2012. Or rather, to be more accurate, it's the limited, signed edition:

I started seeing reviews of the book at the beginning of December and was immediately intrigued; I've long been fascinated by alternate history stories, especially those which posit what would have happened if the Nazis had won the Second World War – see Len Deighton's SS-GB, Robert Harris's Fatherland (which Sansom acknowledges a debt to in a Bibliographical Note at the back of Dominion), and even Sarban's The Sound of His Horn. Dominion is set in Britain in 1952, twelve years after, in Sansom's timeline, this country signed a Peace Treaty – surrendered, to all intents and purposes – with Hitler's Germany. Unsurprisingly, it's a grim place: at the behest of the Nazis the indigenous Jewish population is finally being rounded up, and the prime minister, Lord Halifax, heads a coalition government that's little more than a puppet administration. Winston Churchill, now in his late-seventies, commands the Resistance, for whom civil servant David Fitzgerald is spying when he's tasked with a mission to assist an old friend, Frank Muncaster, who's been imprisoned in a mental hospital, and who holds a terrifying secret that the Germans would be only too pleased to obtain.

It's a deliberately paced affair; not having read any of Sansom's historical novels (he's perhaps best known for the sixteenth century-set Shardlake series) I don't know if the measured pace of Dominion is a symptom of the 1950s setting or simply the manner in which he writes, but either way, although it's a compelling read, and evidently heavily researched, I found it a tad starchy in places. That said, there's some ingenious use of London locations – Senate House as SS HQ, for example – and some decent character work; not so much David, who's a bit bland, but certainly poor, troubled Frank with his nervous "monkey grin", and, on the opposite team, the idealogically determined but war-weary Sturmbannführer Gunther Hoth (echoes there of Standartenführer Oskar Huth from SS-GB). And it's an admirable endeavour overall; there've been grumblings in the right-wing press over the treatment of some of the real historical figures, notably Enoch Powell, but Sansom's suppositions about which politicians would have kowtowed to Hitler struck me – with my admittedly meagre knowledge of history – as being plausible.

Sansom's aim in writing the novel, however, wasn't to stir up controversy over which public figures might, under different circumstances, have been collaborators. As he reveals in the Historical Note at the back of the book, he had a particular target in mind: nationalism – which he identifies as being on the rise again in Europe – and especially the Scottish National Party, to whom he delivers a well-aimed kick to the cobblers. He writes: 

If this book can persuade even one person of the dangers of nationalist politics in Scotland as in the rest of Europe, and to vote 'no' in the referendum on Scottish independence, it will have made the whole labour worthwhile. The recent record of other parties in Scotland has not been good; that is never a reason to vote for something worse, and to do so irrevocably; and a party which is often referred to by its members, as the SNP is, as the 'National Movement' should send a chill down the spine of anyone who remembers what those words have so often meant in Europe.

It's an impassioned polemic, penned with an urgency that's occasionally lacking in the preceding novel, and almost worth the price of admission by itself.