Thursday, January 05, 2012

Book Review: "The Narrative of John Smith"

Arthur Conan Doyle's first novel, written in 1883 and lost in the mail on its way to the publisher (the uncompleted text we have was rewritten from memory), The Narrative of John Smith was first published in 2010 by the British Library, which acquired the manuscript in 2004. The edition was edited and introduced by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Rachel Foss, who provide a very good background essay and a series of explanatory annotations to show how ideas, concepts and even specific turns of phrase first deployed here find their way into Conan Doyle's later, better-known writings.

The narrative itself is less than exciting; a middle-aged man, confined to his room for a week by gout, engages in a series of ruminations and descriptions: he provides a minute tour of his room and its furnishings, muses on the neighbors across the street and those who share his building, and discourses (mostly with himself, but occasionally with his visiting doctor) on all manner of topics. Not a whole lot happens, and the fragmentary nature of the rewritten text prevents much narrative flow from getting underway. Not to mention, of course, the fact that the novel remains unfinished.

But, there are diamonds in this rough: the style that those of us who enjoy Conan Doyle's stories know and love shines through in more than a few places. Some of those I noted particularly:

- describing the lot of a young writer: "The articles which I sent forth came back to me at times with a rapidity and accuracy which spoke well for our postal arrangements. If they had been paper boomerangs they could not have returned more infallibly to their unhappy dispatcher" (p. 29)

- on books: "There should be a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Books. I hate to see the poor patient things knocked about and disfigured. A book is a mummifed soul embalmed in morocco leather and printer's ink instead of cerecloths and unguents. It is the concentrated essence of a man. Poor Horatius Flaccus has turned to an impalpable power by this time, but there is his very sprit stuck like a fly in amber, in that brown-backed volume in the corner. A line of books should make a man subdued and reverent. If he cannot learn to treat them with becoming decency he should be forced" (p. 19)

- a tour round his flat: "And then the knick-knacks! Those are the things which give the individuality to a room - the flotsam and jetsam which a man picks up carelessly at first, but which soon drift into his heart. If it conduces to comfort to have these little keepsakes of the past before one's eyes, then what matter how inelegant they may chance to be!" (p. 17)

Certainly worth reading for the insight it offers into the author's early style. But make sure to read the notes as you go along; they're a key part of the work, and the editors have done a fine job with them.

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