Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Poet's Pub

Eric Linklater's comic novel Poet's Pub (1929) was one of the ten books selected by Alan Lane to comprise the first list published under the Penguin Books imprint. At first blush, you'd think that would make it odd that the novel is so little-known now--but, as Nancy Pearl points out in her introduction to last year's Penguin reissue, Lane's was a strange list, setting such lasting titles as A Farewell to Arms, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and Dorothy L. Sayers's The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club alongside such long-forgotten books as Andre Maurois's biography of Shelley, a memoir by playwright Beverley Nichols, and novels by Compton Mackenzie, Mary Webb, E. H. Young, and Susan Ertz, none of whom is likely to be familiar to contemporary readers.

I don't know about the works of the other forgotten writers on that initial list, but Pearl is right that Poet's Pub deserves to be remembered. It's endlessly quotable, as I attempted to prove on Twitter all last week:
From boyhood he had met trouble with taciturnity.

. . .

She inclined to low life and regretted that she knew so little about it.

. . .

She talked as a hound runs, by scent; though the fox that she followed changed into a bird and a water-beast and a dining-room table at will.

. . .

First novels are generally undigestible, like a soul and kidney pie that has been baking ever since adolescence.

. . .

He remembered that he had not long ago boasted of being democratic, and decided that he could be cosmopolitan as well.

. . .

Poets are really the most practical people on earth so long as they're allowed to do what they like. It's only when they're driven along uncongenial paths that they become woolly and distrait.

. . .

It's time that acrimony and bad taste came back to our criticism. Robust vilification is the proper meat for poets.

. . .

To keep a crime story from the newspapers would seem to a good American worse than keeping vitamins from a child.

. . .

When a bourgeois code comes between life and death, it's going to get squeezed out of shape.

. . .

"My first husband was a Cossack," she replied in a tone of definite rebuke.
If those aren't enough to convince you to give this book a try, well, I'm not sure we can be friends. But I'll keep trying! Take this, from a small-time con man's rambling, self-justifying account of his history of illicit impersonations of literary figures:
Mr. Wesson stopped the car, and contorting his features in a peculiar way, said to Joan: "Imagine that my head is bald and my eyebrows very bushy. Now, who do you think I am?"

"Bernard Shaw," Joan hazarded foolishly.

"Nonsense," said Mr. Wesson. "I was Rudyard Kipling. Now I am Bernard Shaw." And he assumed the expression of a milk-fed satyr.

"Of course," said Joan, "I would recognize you anywhere."

"Naturally I require a beard to complete the resemblance, just as I needed thicker eyebrows and a shaved head to become Mr. Kipling's double. Now who is this, do you think?"

Mr. Wesson blew and puffed out his cheeks till his face was all red and swollen, and in a rarefied, high-piping voice recited:
"They bred like birds in English woods,
They rooted like the rose,
When Alfred came to Athelney
To hide him from their bows."
"G. K. Chesterton!" said Joan.

Mr. Wesson smiled in a superior manner and restarted the car. "You see," he said, "that I have some qualifications for my self-invented profession."
Now you're convinced, and we can resume our friendship, surely?


  1. I've often seen this in second hand shops - next time I'm buying it! Hopefully in a nice early Penguin edition.

  2. I doubt you'll regret it. It does drag a tad by the end--a bit too much concern with a plot that, while clever, isn't exactly of Wodehousian mousetrappiness--but it's a small irritation in the midst of a really fun and funny book.