Monday, June 22, 2009
The Genius of J.C. Snaith
One thing I think we share with many Wormwood readers is an interest in neglected writers, those who have unaccountably, and often undeservedly, fallen from view. Last year, Doug wrote to me about one of these, John Collis Snaith (1876-1936): “In looking up some things in the [London] Times, I found...a column by Oliver Edwards, who was praising the nine titles published in the 1963-4 Gollancz [Rare Works of imaginative Fiction] series. And Edwards puts forth as a candidate for the series J. C. Snaith's William Jordan Junior, one of Snaith's very early novels. Edwards also comments that ‘those who have read some of his books ... may wonder that any claim of quality could be made for him at all', adding, however, that 'when it first came out in 1908 it did not go altogether unrecognized. George Russell (AE) was moved by it. Massingham knew it was something rare. In The English Review the young James Elroy Flecker roundly declared that the work 'is unique, and it is a masterpiece, and it is all but unknown.’”
I promptly ordered a copy. The New York Times Review is equally enticing, quoting its “peculiar charm and rare quality…psychological loveliness, half mystic, half human…”. It says it is a story of “strange visionaries…father and son”, “high priests of the most wonderful dream in the world”, the elder a scholar and bookseller, the younger delicate, high-strung, a poet and dreamer, neither of them equipped for the world. There is “a thread of asceticism and exaltation”.
It is certainly peculiar. The father and son are extremely unworldly persons, absorbed in the work of “the ancient authors” to the extent that they do not understand contemporary life at all: money, commerce, society, the ways of the “street people” as they call all others: all are a bewilderment to them. The effects of their encounters with everyday hurly-burly are humorous but also poignant. They are just a shade too good to be true as characters, and may at times rather irk the reader. But the central conceit is sustained with the utmost purity, and the subsidiary characters – a pompous old publisher, a conniving but warm-hearted young worldling – are done with Dickensian gusto and glee. It is a book that prompts astonishment it should ever have been essayed.
Several critics agreed, I later found, that J.C. Snaith was the author of a masterpiece. Unfortunately for him, none of them could agree which book of his that was, while all of them did agree that the others were not worth much attention. That must be a uniquely frustrating position. Essayist S.P.B. Mais acclaimed his novel The Sailor (1916): others lauded his humorous and Pickwickian cricketing novel Willow, the King (1899). There are champions for others of his books too.
Snaith’s reputation has suffered, I think, from his work being too various. Comedy, sport, historical romance, criminous thrillers, psychological meditations, visionary works, it was all too much for the reader and reviewer to get a grasp upon. Nevertheless, with the advantage of retrospect, we can winnow out those that stand distinctive. Whichever work one chooses, though, it is sure that Snaith was an original, as eccentric in his outlook and his style as, say, M.P. Shiel or Baron Corvo.