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The books they wrote

A stack of old books. All books are grouped separately to easily remove or arrange.

A stack of old books. All books are grouped separately to easily remove or arrange.  

A curious history of writers who were once popular but are now hardly recalled

It happens but rarely that the favourite takes a literary prize, as George Saunders did this month by taking the Booker Prize for Lincoln in the Bardo, though controversy still rages about bringing American writers into contention. As we consequently walk around with the novel in hand, reading or rereading, a new book offers a timely reminder about the lost history of the prize. In The Book of Forgotten Writers, Christopher Fowler, a British writer of thrillers, informs us about winners and contenders we may not remember, or even never knew.

Publishing then and now

Journalist Stanley Middleton, for instance, who won in 1974 for Holiday. If you do not recall the book, don’t despair. In 2006, Fowler tells us, pranksters sent the opening chapter of the novel to publishers, and only one agent thought it was “publishable”. They also sent out the first chapter of V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State, winner of the 1971 prize, and no one wanted it. It’s not clear if this reflected changing trends in what commissioning editors seek or the power of a big name, but it does nudge us to consider books in the context of the times they first made their way in the world.

And many of the writers Fowler rediscovers (the book is a compilation of his newspaper column) were wildly popular in their time. Take Edgar Wallace — he’s better known today for having a landmark London pub named after him, but Internet folklore has it that in the 1920s his publishers felt confident enough to claim that one in four books read in England was by him. That may be unverifiable, but as Fowler tells us, Wallace was clearly keeping the presses humming: “He was banging out eighteen novels a year, fortified by between thirty and forty cups of tea and eighty to a hundred [cigarettes] a day.” He died working on King Kong, a contribution for which he’s not remembered enough.

Should we rush to find a book by Wallace? I’m not sure, because while Fowler writes with great enthusiasm about the works of the “forgotten writers”, he seems to have set himself terms of reference that emphasise the strange life stories of most of these writers — so much so that while introducing Arnold Ridley, who wrote over thirty plays between the wars, he begins with the qualification, “This is a very sweet story.”

Absorbing ideas

Many of these writers, curiously, were associated in some way with Alfred Hitchcock. In fact, Fowler refutes the popular notion that the film The Birds was based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story. Thirty years before that story, Frank Baker wrote his story, also called The Birds, with which Fowler says du Maurier’s narrative bears much similarity and which to him “feels closer to Hitchcock’s style.” There’s an unsolved mystery here: “… like du Maurier, Baker was also living in Cornwall [in England]. Du Maurier was also Baker’s publisher’s cousin, so it seems reasonable that she got to hear of the book. This does not mean she stole it, of course. All authors unwittingly absorb ideas from one another.” Fowler’s affection for Baker is clearly based on a sense of injustice, because unlike the hyper-selling books by other writers he recaps, The Birds sold less than 300 copies.

Throughout, while riveted to introductions to these “forgotten writers”, chuckling that Richard Bach (a favourite on Indian college campuses in the 1980s) has been included in their ranks and making a note to read Margery Allingham’s books, T.C.A. Raghavan’s book on India-Pakistan relations, The People Next Door, kept coming to mind. A man called K.L. Gauba keeps appearing in that long narrative of bilateral ties, and if the definition of “forgotten writer” is one who was hugely popular in his or her day and is now forgotten by a similar demographic, he fits it perfectly. As Raghavan writes, “Gauba is largely forgotten today, but from the late 1920s up to the 1960s he was a celebrated lawyer, author, public figure and a genuine sensationalist.” Son of a well-known Lahore-ite, Gauba was a practising lawyer in the 1920s when he wrote, as a retort to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, a book called Uncle Sham, sending a copy to Mayo with the inscription, “To one Drain Inspector from Another.” Uncle Sham was so popular that it was reportedly printed 19 times in a year, with the author claiming that 20,000 copies were sold at the historic Lahore session of the Congress in 1929.

Gauba would go on to convert to Islam, write a biography of the Prophet, and win a Muslim seat by defeating the Muslim League candidate. And he’d keep turning out “sensational books”, taking on the chief justice of the Punjab High Court for ordering an inquiry into the family business (name of book: Sir Douglas Young’s Magna Carta), his reservations on the idea of Pakistan (in 1946: The Consequences of Pakistan), and after settling down in Bombay a study of Muslims in India (in 1973, in what Raghavan says anticipated the Sachar Committee Report: Passive Voices). Alas, this bestselling writer was forgotten within his lifetime, and Raghavan quotes Khushwant Singh about his death: “Fifty years ago, K.L. Gauba’s cortege would have been followed by half the city of Lahore; last week he did not have a dozen to mourn his departure.”

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 4:36:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/the-books-they-wrote/article19897703.ece

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