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September 2017

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Herein I attempt some deduction.

My edition of Howards End is a decaying Penguin Modern Classics paperback once owned by a Warren Cocking. I don't think he would mind my publicizing this, since he wrote his name the inside front cover, followed by both his address and his phone number.

Mr. Cocking wrote with a felt-tipped pen, softer than a Sharpie; his lines show that spreading and division into light and dark striations that you see from elderly felt pens. The ink is green with a strong bluish tinge, not quite as tealwards as J Herbin's Emerald of Chivor. The ink is much faded, which at first I ascribed to age -- the lines grow paler as they descend, and the page weathers in roughly the same pattern. It occurs to me now that this effect might be more consistent with a dry pen than with great antiquity.

What does date the signature is the fact that the phone number has no area code, and that it, with his address, is written in the book at all -- avoiding identity fraud being of less concern to Warren C. than the recovery of his book, if lost.

I don't know why it mattered to him so much to recover this particular paperback. He doesn't write like an anxious person. His letters are wide and round and friendly and even a little bit grandiose. Also, he uses a circle to dot his i.

At first I assumed by the address (E49) that Warren lived in Vancouver, but later I thought, well, really he could have lived (could still be living!) in any city with an East and a West and a numbered grid of streets. He could have lived in New York1, which is much more glamorous.

Warren (or one who came after him) marked a few passages with a marginal line, and once or twice underlined words that seemed important to him (though not so much to me).

What I really came here to do, though, was to talk about the blurb on the back of the book. This edition was printed in 1970. Mine is a British / Commonwealth edition, Not for Sale in the U.S.A.2 I don't know whether other editions bear this blurb or not. Here it is, in full:

Mr E M Forster is not a prolific novelist. He has, indeed, written only five novels, yet at least two of them -- A Passage to India and Howards End -- are widely regarded as masterpieces. An attempt to outline the story of Howards End would do paltry justice to the subtle art with which the narrative is developed or to the delicate pattern of its composition. For this is not one of those novels which can be put together, or taken to pieces, as though it were made of neat prefabricated units of experience. Live is seldom lived, so to speak, ready made, and in the tangle of unpredictable and contradictory circumstances which beset the characters of Howards End
(And also, I really must interject, beset the readers of this blurb)
we find a convincing portrayal of the complexity of human affairs. The two sisters, so different in character, around whom a strange fabric of events is woven, are women of intense individuality, and the analysis of the values and impulses which animate them makes this book an absorbing scrutiny of motive and behavior.

I mean, I'd read that novel, but I'd almost rather keep on reading the blurb. It's so guarded, so defensive, so unhappy. Its author is openly hostile to telling you about the contents of the book. When the blurb finally does get down to giving the bewildered reader an inkling about what's inside, it offers up a near-tautology:
the analysis of the values and impulses which animate them makes this book an absorbing scrutiny of motive and behavior.

Now, this is not nonsense. The blurbist has clearly read the novel. We're not in the fog of exam-day faffing here. The subtlety of Forster's descriptions of Helen and Margaret is indeed one of the great pleasures of the book. I do not think I agree that the construction is subtle, exactly. Well-draped, maybe.

Everything is framed in negative terms, so that even praise sounds like criticism: "not a prolific novelist" (it had never occurred to me before to think so, but now I find Forster sadly unproductive); "only five novels"; "paltry justice"; "not one of those novels".

I can see what the blurbist is going for: you are meant to really value and appreciate this book, not just consume it. It's just that they seem to be telling you this while backing away, slowly and mournfully, into the void.

Here is someone else's entertaining mention of the self-same blurb (on a slightly earlier edition). In this blog post, Robin Stevens mentions "the 60s, era of charmingly hilarious back-cover blurbs", and a similarly misguided blurb for The Waves.3

Was that a thing? Was it just a Penguin thing? A British thing?4 I don't remember my other paperbacks of the era having anhedonic and passive-aggressive blurbs.

What I'm asking is -- where can I find more?


1. However, Google maps discourages this fantasy (the street number seems to be too high) and offers an unromantic address near Killarney Park, not far from Boundary Road.
2. So that speaks against New York as well, though not fatally.
3.So far searching for strange old book blurbs just finds me many, many sites about how to write a catchy blurb for your self-published book, and searching "The Waves back cover" gets me illustrated phone cases.
4. It seems very British indeed, in reflecting that distinctive double-negative-for-positive phrasing, e.g. "not unpleasant".

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