Saturday, September 08, 2007

I've raved before about the pleasures of finding books in secondhand shops. I was wandering along Lewes Road at the start of the summer, without a shopping list, and there was a jumble sale in the church hall. Jumble sales are rare nowadays, in the era of Ebay and carboots. They were one of my regular pastimes when I lived in Portsmouth as a student, in Guildford as a trainee journo. East Horsley and Shamley Green jumble sales were legendary, as my good friend Fred Pipes will know.

Portsmouth ones were a bit more hit and miss, but the Conservatives usually did a good job of chucking out quality. In those days I was on the look out for clothes. Coats were a must, especially in the summer. Retro was untapped and charity shops were still sweaty, grubby and haphazard.

I caught onto books later....I don't remember exactly, but I think I found a couple of lovely old children's books. Anyway, Lewes was a Scout's fundraising jumble and the bookstall was the usual mountain of Archer, King, Miles and Boon and Marion Keyes, along with outdated car manuals, how to save your life in three easy lessons, the molecular structure of the universe and cookery books.

Then there was a couple of yards of old Penguins. I was tempted to buy them all - it was at the end and they were shifting at 5p each. But I wanted to walk into town, too. So I opted for Vile Bodies because it's the original Penguin cover and in reasonable nick, and The Chinese Room by Vivian Connell because I'd never heard of it before. It's well thumbed (more of that later) and falling apart and disturbed me as I read it.

All the way through I was convinced Vivian was a woman. The Chinese Room is a remarkably book about sex and relationships which was made into a film in the 1960s. A wartime bestseller (published 1943).....and Vivian was a man, born in Cork in 1905, he died in 1981. He also wrote the plays Throng o' Scarlet (1941) and The Nineteenth Hole of Europe (1943). His other novels are The Golden Sleep (1948), The Hounds of Cloneen (1951) and September in Quinze published in 1952 in the US.

He got under the skin of both the US and UK legal systems. The Chinese Room was banned in the States and September in Quinze was apparently judged an obscene libel in the UK.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Literature, Connell travelled throughout Europe from the age of 30, living in Sussex and Sicily and settled in the south of France. Connell claimed his father taught him to read and write and the rest of his education was in pubs, hurling fields and riding to hounds.

There's an element of snooty dismissal in the scrappy biogs I've found on him but I can't fathom why. The Chinese Room is a surprise at almost every page and a very modern exploration of sexual repression. No wonder it was a best seller in wartime as barriers were crumbling (only to be rebuilt, temporarily, in the 50s).

I wonder if it could be the existence of some very old fashioned and now disturbingly racist images - the dark as "a nigger's scowl" - for example - or some odd residues of the class system. But those can be put down to the time it was written and don't dominate the fiction.

I'd say there are echoes of D H Lawrence and Gustave Flaubert. Post 1943, I'd say Connell resonates in the writing of J P Donleavey and to an extent, Jean Rhys. I wonder if Connell was read by Donleavey. It wouldn't surprise me at all.

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