Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Desperate Art - John Rosenberg

“I entered the morning room, which I had had darkly furnished with heavy, carved chairs, a dark, immense table whose polished top stretched deep and vast (a night sea), and far, dim in a corner, an old harpsichord with a most sad voice. The stone floor, which had no rug, made footsteps ring hollow and mournful. My footsteps now tolled for my coming in….”

When I was browsing in Books, The Journal of the National Book League, no. 294, June-August 1955, I noticed a brief advertisement for a book called The Desperate Art by John Rosenberg. It was described as a first novel in “a distinguished style of writing, unusual yet not eccentric”. I thought to myself that if you have to deny a style is eccentric, then it very probably is, or at least will seem so to some: and so I sent for a copy.

The book is set in 1810 and at the outset we hear the voice of an impoverished baronet, hard-pressed by his creditors, including an old rival. He hopes his son, auburn Ion, delicate, melancholy, will save the house with an advantageous marriage. Thus far, this seems a most conventional plot, and the book’s dustjacket does not shirk that: “John Rosenberg has taken what may appear to be an old story for his novel.” But, it goes on, still I think rather struggling to convey the book’s particular quality, he “has created a novel of outstanding freshness and beauty, transforming the characters, the situations and the conclusion by the originality of his writing.”

I am not sure I shall do much better at trying to convey the book’s highly individual, mannered, obsidian prose. The nearest I can get is to suggest it is a form of modernist Gothick, or that it is has the oblique, glancing verve of Ronald Firbank melded with the neo-Romantic vision of Mervyn Peake. The passage quoted above is one of the more conventionally phrased in the book: much else is quicksilver. It is a book of pale hands, flickering fans, tall candles and cold mirrors, winter sunlight, bare trees, a sickle moon, carriage-rides by night.

There is another sense in which the book is unusual, in that it is told by ghosts. The baronet tells us in the first sentence that he is recollecting the events of one hundred and forty five years ago, ie from the date of the book to the year 1810: and later he remembers keenly a song his wife would sing: “For no grave ever/In quiet lies:/The human heart/Not so easily dies.” There are other narrators in the book, which is told in alternating chapters, and they also are haunted, by thwarted desires, doomed love.

The book’s note on the author tells us of a young American, born in New York, “who has made his home in England since 1953”, first for a year as a schoolmaster in Yorkshire, then as an editor for a publisher. It says he “has been writing continuously since the age of fourteen” and this, his first book, took him five years to write.

John Rosenberg went on to write a handful of other books: A Company of Strangers (Hogarth, 1959); Mirror and Knife (Hogarth, 1961); The Double Darkness (Hodder & Stoughton, 1967); The Savages (Michael Joseph, 1971); and Dorothy Richardson: The Genius They Forgot (Duckworth, 1973). I do not think any of his other fiction is quite like his first book.

The book is embellished by the fine Gothick drawings of Felix Kelly, an exquisite counterpart to the curious and delicate dark prose. I would certainly place The Desperate Art in the niche of the bookshelf kept for other strange fantasies of the Regency, alongside Robert Nichols’ Under the Yew and Hugh Edwards’ All Night At Mr Stanyhurst’s. It is a book that seems almost to have vanished from view, and yet I think it could become greatly admired, even if only by a few.

Mark Valentine


  1. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I just ordered a copy from abebooks.

  2. Damn your fine literary excavation, Mark. My reading pile will never be reduced from teetering. ;-)

  3. Later became Head of Drama for Anglia TV

  4. Mark
    Moved and excited that you have disvovered this brilliant but little known writer whose own life was as shrouded in mystery as his remarkable first novel