REISSUES are experiencing a revival in a publishing world where a new book's shelf life is four months and more than 186,000 new titles are released annually in Britain. This resurgence involves, among others, works from the widely accepted canon that publishers have unearthed from their backlists since the days of the pandemic, reprinted with substantial profit margins, and which then sold better than before.
In line with our cultural moment of representation, and in resistance to narrowness and insularity, there is an appetite for more idiosyncratic voices and stories that were previously ignored, overlooked, dismissed or silenced. The authors of these works are often not straight, white, upper-class, English-speaking or male, and at the time they wrote, they had little cultural capital.
Titles that previously quickly fell into obscurity in their original forms now sometimes reach a new generation of readers in a more welcoming environment. Unlike the “classic works" that already bear the stamp of canonisation, the previously forgotten books ignite readers' curiosity and adventurous spirit.
Every second-hand bookstore, recognisable NYRB Classic or Virago spine and catalogue from Faber and Faber, New Directions and Jacana (the treasure trove on our own turf) holds the promise of a discovery and a reading experience similar to when Lucia Berlin, Dorothy Baker and Juby Mayet landed on my radar. Treasure-hunting is addictive.
Guides to this world, such as the enthusiasts of the Backlisted podcast and Lucy Scholes, whose social media feeds and The Re-covered column in The Paris Review unearth many interesting finds, have shaped my reading habits and wish list over the past few years.
In the foreword of Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Woman, Lydia Davis writes: “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top like cream, sooner or later, and become exactly as well known as they should be — their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologised." This collection made the magnificent and previously relatively unknown Berlin a mainstream sensation 10 years after her death.
Like their legendary predecessors (for example, Carmen Callil, who founded Virago 50 years ago to promote women's writing), a new generation of publishers tirelessly work to help realise Davis's doctrine of faith. Besides their efforts, it is mostly a matter of “luck be a lady".
Two years ago, Ella Griffiths began to publish titles from the 90-year-old Faber and Faber backlist under the Faber Editions imprint. In her profile on X, she calls herself an “archive mole". While other publishers court writers and treat them to long afternoon teas, she rummages around in archives and second-hand bookstores in search of works that reflect and transcend their zeitgeist and can be published without editorial intervention.
“We wanted to create a thrilling inclusive space to celebrate radical literary voices which speak not only to our present but our future," says Griffiths. The strong typographic covers, in a limited colour palette, are also a nod to Faber and Faber's iconic designs from the fifties and join a proud tradition in a forward-looking manner.
Mrs. Caliban, Rachel Ingalls's charming and moving novella from 1982, which was revived in America under the New Directions imprint in 2017, gracefully takes centre stage in the Faber Editions lineup. Information about Ingalls is scant: she was born in the US and lived in Britain from the sixties, writing 11 books, mostly collections of novellas, which were positively received by a small readership.
Mrs. Caliban is set in a dreamlike and stylised but recognisable mid-20th-century California, touching on themes of surveillance culture, big pharma, xenophobia, disenchanted teenagers, processed cheese and alienating technology. (In the book's original publication year, Laurie Anderson's song O Superman was released. It is also timeless and specific, sharing a wry humour and thematic concerns with Mrs. Caliban.) Beneath Ingalls's unadorned prose lies an undercurrent of uncanniness, eroticism, fairy tales, pulp, melodrama, B-grade movies, social comedy and satire. Even a car chase finds its way into the book's 110 pages.
We meet Dorothy, a prototypical fifties housewife, in a home where she feels out of place and where her estranged husband, Fred, also resides. He carries the “extra hint of fraudulent righteousness" typical of men having affairs, and only the intensity of their unhappiness prevents a divorce. She goes about her domestic routines, wondering if lab rats also take pride in their ability to solve puzzles and, like her, derive a degree of pleasure from obsession.
Dorothy is grieving after a miscarriage and the death of her son, Scotty, and Bingo, her dog: “Everything near her died, Everything, it was a wonder the grass on the front lawn didn’t turn around and sink into the earth."
Strange announcements, reassurances and news reports drift through the large old radio that looks like a Gothic cathedral, entering her consciousness: a violin-playing chicken (“the Heifetz of the hen coops") and a report — a plot device straight out of a horror movie —that a violent, toad-like monster has escaped from a research institute. It is the hairless, muscular, six-foot-seven monster, which goes by the name Larry, with which she later shares a frisson over a celery stalk or two of an evening. As befits romantic literature, she hides him away, and they happily immerse themselves in a reality of intimacy, courteous companionship, shared household tasks, beach walks and bags of avocados. Can this relationship endure, given Larry's longing for his seaside retreat, the persecution of those who are different, and the fate of Caliban in The Tempest?
Mrs. Caliban is social commentary in pulp fiction form, and Larry's naive questions about contemporary manners, art, history and fate lead to a humorous reckoning with numerous constructs. On progress and industry:
She had started out with the introduction of agriculture, the coming of industry, the exploitation of women, the fact that it all started in the home, the idea that eventually robots and machines would release people to live a life of leisure and explore their own personalities; but, just before she reached that point, she forgot how to wind it up […] Even what she could recall didn’t seem to make so much sense any more. In fact, it was sort of a mess and impossible to explain. She had stopped, confused, and added ‘But what people really want is to be happy.’
She and Larry also struggle to make sense of a series of inexplicable actions he saw on TV and promptly imitates: “punching, stalking, listening, fighting, twitching, acting all at once". It turns out to be a dance routine by Merce Cunningham and is an embodiment of interaction and the human condition as it manifests in the world of Mrs. Caliban.
Faber Editions has recently released No Love Lost, a collection of Ingalls's novellas with an enthusiastic foreword by Patricia Lockwood of Priestdaddy fame. The included works vary in quality, and the principles of selection and arrangement are unclear. Nevertheless, one hopes this collection will give broader exposure to a unique and unforgettable voice that has much to say about the times we live in.
♦ VWB ♦
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