The book I'm going to talk about today is one I'd never heard of (nor had I heard of its author) until I read a post on that excellent blog, Pretty Sinister Books, where John Norris praised it highly. John managed to get me really intrigued, and since a newish reprint is readily available, I sought it out. The Forgotten Book is I Am Jonathan Scrivener, and its Forgotten Author is Claude Houghton.
Back in the Thirties, both the novel and its creator gathered an impressive list of admirers. These included such diverse figures as Henry Miller, Hugh Walpole, Clemence Dane and P.G Wodehouse. Walpole and Dane even published a short appreciation of Houghton's work. In the present day, Houghton's fans include Michael Dirda, who contributes an enthusiastic intro to the new edition of the book (there is also a short piece by Walpole.)
It's a distinctive story, not quite like anything else I've ever read. There certainly seems to me to be an influence from Franz Kafka, but then again, the style is not really like Kafka. It's a genuine one-off. The story is narrated by James Wrexham, and he applies for a job as a secretary to a man of independent means who is about to leave the country. He gets the job, and is told by a solicitor that his new employer is called Jonathan Scrivener, and that he can live in Scrivener's house and, in effect, do as he pleases.
Various acquaintances of Scrivener turn up at the house, and they all seem keen to see Scrivener again, but equally, there is an air of mystery about the man. In particular, he seems to have made different impressions on each of them. What is Scrivener up to? I found this a fascinating, and often witty book, which held my interest despite a distinct lack of action. It's a book full of ideas, but none the worse for that. I enjoyed reading it, and although I don't claim it as a major masterpiece, it's astonishing that it's slipped so far from view until recently. And also, from a writer's point of view, sobering.