I didn’t know much about New York Review Books’ “NYRB Classics” line when I was invited last year to contribute an introduction to Elaine Dundy’s “The Dud Avocado.” Since then, though, I’ve looked through the NYRB Classics catalogue with close attention and increasing wonder. Whoever picks the titles for this spectacularly eclectic series of stylish-looking reprints of insufficiently remembered books of the past (many but by no means all of which are novels) deserves some sort of prize for good taste. Among the worthy books resurrected in recent years by NYRB Classics are Colette’s “The Pure and the Impure,” Ivy Compton-Burnett’s “Manservant and Maidservant,” Kenneth Fearing’s “The Big Clock,” Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate,” L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” Murray Kempton’s “Part of Our Time,” J.F. Powers’ “Morte d’Urban,” Jean Renoir’s “Renoir, My Father,” A.J.A. Symons’ “The Quest for Corvo,” Italo Svevo’s “As a Man Grows Older,” Lionel Trilling’s “The Middle of the Journey,” Aleksander Wat’s “My Century,” Glenway Wescott’s “The Pilgrim Hawk,” and a whole batch of alarmingly dark romans durs by Georges Simenon, all of which are eminently worthy of revival. Has there ever been so quirkily adventurous a paperback reissue line? Not in my memory.
I recently started chewing through a boxful of books from NYRB Classics, and the volume on top, Angus Wilson’s “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” (360 pp., $14.95), happened to be an old favorite that I hadn’t reread since my ancient, much-thumbed paperback edition disintegrated a few years ago. Originally published in 1956, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” was a deliberate attempt to write a novel in the style of Dickens and Trollope whose subject matter was unambiguously contemporary. It tells the tale of Gerald Middleton, a wealthy, washed-up historian who at the age of sixty upends his comfortable but unsatisfying life by investigating a Piltdown Man-like archaeological fraud for which the great friend of his schooldays turns out to have been responsible. “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” is at once deeply felt, brilliantly witty and morally serious to the highest degree, a combination of traits rarely to be found in a single novel.
Of special interest is the cold eye that Angus Wilson casts on humanism in all its mid-century varieties. Neither conservative nor (so far as I know) religious, Wilson was nonetheless acutely aware of the inadequacies of the secular creed to which most of his fellow liberals adhered, and skewered them with the sharpest of sticks. A case in point is his acid portrayal of Frank Rammage, an amateur social worker whose desire to help his fellow men turns out to be rooted in exceedingly strange motivations:
The mention of rent put Frank on his mettle. “That’s all right, dear,” he said; “you pay when you can.”
Each time that he spoke this familiar phrase, and sometimes it was as often as twenty times in a week, he felt overcome by the sadness of the situation. It was seldom, he knew, that any good would come of his sympathy, but it was the hopelessness, the endless hopelessness of the lives with which he had surrounded himself, that awoke his compassion. Frank Rammage’s attitude could hardly be called sentimental, for it went farther than mere feeling-he regarded the dishonest and depraved as almost sacred. As usual, however, the little scene had satisfied the mixture of bullying and masochism that lay on the surface of his strange, Dostoyevskian philanthropy. He felt quite jolly.
Having revisited “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” with the utmost pleasure, it occurs to me that Wilson’s first novel, “Hemlock and After,” which was greatly admired by both Evelyn Waugh and Edmund Wilson, is very much the sort of book that would suit the folks at NYRB Classics. I’d suggest it myself, but somehow I suspect that they’ve already thought of it.