pulpit frances wilson

In Praise of Mad Books

There is a category of literature, not yet officially recognised, consisting of mad books. I have been interested in this genre for some time and am in the process of compiling a canon of such things. Mad books are by no means bad books; some, such as William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris – a feverish account of his sexual obsession with Sarah Walker, the landlord’s daughter, narrated through recollected conversations between a romantic hero identified as ‘H’ and a rejecting woman referred to as ‘S’ – are better than many sane books. Nor are mad books necessarily about madness or written in that state: many a writer of sound mind has produced a mad book. In fact, the existence of the rogue mad book in an author’s otherwise stable oeuvre can seal his or her greatness.

Take Thomas Hardy’s The Well-Beloved, the hero of which unwittingly pursues, over the course of a lifetime, a grandmother, mother and daughter belonging to the same family, or The Bostonians, Henry James’s homage to New England lesbians and music-hall mesmerism, or Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, in which the heroine, blind from birth, temporarily regains her sight while having an affair with twin brothers, one of whom has turned blue as the result of a disease. All three books are bonkers from start to finish, and thus catch their authors unbuttoned, off-piste and pouring forth without censor.

A mad book is not deliberately kooky, like Virginia Woolf ’s Orlando, or wilfully wayward, like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Mad books are distinguished by being unaware of their own effects. They are abandoned in the way that you or I might be when holding forth in a state of inebriation. A mad book is in many ways a drunk book, and like a drunk man trying to walk in a straight line, the madness of the mad book lies in its attempt to appear compos mentis.

Conspiracy theorists routinely produce mad books: James Morcan’s The Catcher in the Rye Enigma: J D Salinger’s Mind Control Triggering Device or a Coincidental Literary Obsession of Criminals, which examines the idea that assassination codes are embedded in Salinger’s novel, is as nutty as a fruitcake, and the latest Jack the Ripper theory, They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson, has been described by Craig Brown as a ‘mind-boggling mixture of pedantry and craziness’. But the prize for the battiest conspiracy theory of recent years must go to Piers Dudgeon’s Captivated, in which he argues that J M Barrie was a demonic mind-controlling hypnotist who controlled the lives and deaths of the Llewelyn Davis brothers (the original lost boys of Neverland), Daphne du Maurier and Scott of the Antarctic.

Books motivated by revenge are invariably mad. Simon Gray’s Fat Chance, in which he recounts with venom and undigested rage Stephen Fry’s sudden departure, after two days, from the set of his play Cell Mates is a hate letter to the actor and novelist. Ditto Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s memoir of the breakdown of his friendship with V S Naipaul. Neither writer succeeds in demonising his prey: Fry emerges with his unimpeachable reputation undamaged, while Theroux proves precisely what he sets out to deny – that Naipaul is the stronger writer.

Children’s books also score high on the mad-o-meter, and none more than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. In the attempt to return to a prelapsarian paradise of school ‘hols’ and ‘ponging’ Gypsies, Blyton mired herself in perversion. The more obsessed she grew with innocence – trapping her heroes in prepubescent bodies and poor George in a state of gender dysmorphia – the steamier the stories became. So while Timmy, George’s dog, ‘was licking [her] as if he would never stop, his tail wav[ing] to and fro, to and fro’, Dick reports that a ‘ragamuffin girl gave me a good bang … Little demon, isn’t she!’ and Julian is told that ‘Queer people come here, and they come secretly without anyone knowing.’ ‘Well, sir,’ Julian replies, ‘I think this is a queer house, with lots of queer things happening in it.’

Many a poet has produced a mad piece of prose: Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, Yeats’s A Vision (written by spirits, through the medium of his wife, using automatic writing), Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and Ted Hughes’s Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being are all off the wall. It is to Wordsworth’s detriment that he wrote nothing that was not reasoned, rational and rigidly controlled, and his reputation suffers because of it. His friend Thomas De Quincey, on the other hand, wrote very little that was sane. De Quincey’s style was fuelled by opium, but his eccentricity lay as much in his subject matter as his vertiginous prose. His writing ranged from the effect of Danish on the dialect of the Westmorland farmers to his ‘The Last Days of Immanuel Kant’. The craziest of his crazy essays is his magnificent ‘Revolt of the Tartars; Or, Flight of the Kalmuck Khan and His People from the Russian Territories to the Frontiers of China’.

De Quincey never travelled further than Ireland, but his friend John ‘Walking’ Stewart had apparently circumnavigated by foot the whole of the known planet and recorded his wisdom in pamphlets with names like Roll of a Tennis Ball, through the Moral World. Stewart, who wrote in a strange diction and lived by his own calendar, counselled his readers to bury his books when they had finished reading them and only reveal the location on their deathbeds. Thus the secret of the burial site would be passed down the millennia, and his writing saved for posterity. ‘But oh,’ Stewart then fretted, ‘what if some day my works prove unreadable because the English language itself has mouldered away?’ Before they started digging, Stewart instructed, his readers should translate his books into Latin.

How better to celebrate mad books than to preserve them all in this way? Then one day they will be unearthed, like the treasure-troves in Tutankhamen’s tomb, and gazed at with the wonder they deserve. r december 2015 / january 2016 | Literary Review 1