Thursday 9 May 2013

Peter Rabe's From Here to Maternity (Muller, 1955) Heralds an Existential Ennui Hiatus

NB: Featured in this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

If there's been a fin-de-siecle feel to my posting of late – tying up long-running series, completing a particular book collection, drawing a (pencil) line under Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s – there's a very definite reason for that, to do with this book:

From Here to Maternity, by Peter Rabe, published in hardback by Frederick Muller in 1955. Rabe is an author I've written about repeatedly, most recently in this series of posts on what Donald E. Westlake reckoned to Rabe's remarkable cult crime fiction. But before Rabe started penning crime thriller originals for (chiefly) Gold Medal, he wrote – and drew, a skill he reportedly picked up working in advertising – From Here to Maternity, a cute if occasionally opaque (in that curious Rabe manner) account of his first wife's pregnancy which began life as an article in McCall's Magazine (the book, not the pregnancy... although I guess the two may well have gone hand in hand).

As the brighter sparks among you will have guessed, the reason the book is pertinent both to me and to Existential Ennui is that my long-suffering girlfriend, Rachel, is currently very heavily pregnant with our first child – so heavily pregnant, in fact, that the due date is tomorrow. Which, if the kid's anything like me – and it is to be fervently hoped (or possibly feared) that that should be the case, else I'll be having words with the milkman (and we don't even have a milkman) – means that she – for she is a she (we think) – will probably turn up in a fortnight's time. But that's immaterial. In practical terms, it's unlikely – although not completely out of the question – that I'll be able to devote any time to blogging even if Baby Louis(e) XIV, "The Sun Princess" elects to spend another few weeks in her mother's womb.

And even if I do manage to squeeze in a post before her royal arrival, looking further ahead, what all this will mean for Existential Ennui post-birth is anyone's guess. Certainly there'll be a hiatus, of an indeterminate length; probably there'll be a gushing missive comprising photos of Firstborn suitably arranged in some kind of ridiculous books-related fashion; hopefully, at some point, there'll be a resumption of books blogging proper, albeit no doubt necessarily scaled back. Who the hell knows though. It's an unpredictable business, this having kids thing. So wish me luck, chums. I shall, I trust, return.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Flush as May by P. M. Hubbard (Michael Joseph, 1963) Joins Beautiful British Book Jackets

This will be my last addition to Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s, at least for a little while; I do have some other wrappers I'm still planning to add, but probably not till later in the year. Let's draw a (pencil) line under the page, then, with rather a suitable book given that it's now the month of May:

Flush as May, by P. M. Hubbard. The splendid dust jacket design is by Kenneth Farnhill, an artist already represented in the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design gallery by another Hubbard wrapper – for the author's second novel, Picture of Millie (1964) – and by three Agatha Christie wrappers (follow that second link to read a comment by Farnhill's granddaughter, Kate). This is the British first edition, second impression, published by Michael Joseph in April 1963, three months after the first impression. Like many of Hubbard's early novels it's quite uncommon in any kind of first; I won this copy on eBay, beating, I later learned, fellow Hubbard enthusiast John from Pretty Sinister Books by a few pence (sorry John!). It's an ex-library copy, but complete and in very good condition, still sporting the Cambridge Union Society library sign-out sheet:

Hubbard's debut novel, published when he was in his early fifties, Flush as May is set in and around the (fictional) rural community of Lodstone, where the heroine, Margaret Canting, comes across a body whilst out walking one May morning. Reporting her discovery to the village constable, Margaret is alarmed to find when she revisits the scene that the body has vanished, and thereafter recruits the aid of her soon-to-be lover, Jacob Garrod, in getting to the bottom of this case of the disappearing corpse.

It's a conventional murder mystery opening that leads in large part to a conventional murder mystery plot, but there are inklings of the darker Hubbard to come. Early in the book Hubbard writes of the "menace that hung in the fields and streets of Lodstone", and there's a woozy, possibly drug-induced feel to a scene where Garrod gatecrashes a pub get-together on market day, embodied by a magnetic woman who "was like Life-in-Death". The secret that lies at the heart of this curious community is explicitly spelled out late in the novel, and it's here, in the closing stages, as Margaret embarks on an eerie cross-country trek from the churchyard at Lodstone to the Beacon on the downs over neighbouring Ebury, that Hubbard's writing is at its strongest, recalling – or, more accurately, hinting at, given that it precedes those later novels – some of the heightened intensity of A Hive of Glass or A Thirsty Evil.

There's a perceptive review of Flush as May over on the Записки реликтовой рыбы blog, detailing in an admirably clear-eyed fashion why the novel is really only for Hubbard completists. I'm not sure I have much more to add to that, beyond saying that in my limited experience of Hubbard – I've only read six of his eighteen novels thus far – it's perhaps worth noting that the books that seem to work the best, that exert the greatest power, are those that, like the aforementioned A Hive of Glass or A Thirsty Evil, are narrated in the first person; whereas those written in the third person – Flush as May, Picture of Millie – are weaker, suffering from an overabundance of expository dialogue. I'm sure that's a horrible generalisation, however; Hubbard aficionados should feel free to correct me in the comments.