June 8, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 28: The Haunted Bookshop


the haunted bookshopTitle: The Haunted Bookshop

Author: Christopher Morley

First published: 1919

Page count: 233

First line: If you are ever in Brooklyn, that borough of superb sunsets and magnificent vistas of husband-propelled baby-carriages, it is to be hoped you may chance upon a quiet by-street where there is a very remarkable bookshop.

I picked this book to read next so as to fit in with Melville House’s walk and readathon of the book to which this is the sequel, Christopher Morley’s charming bookseller picaresque Parnassus on Wheels (click here to read my post on that book). They’re celebrating that book this weekend with their own peregrination among the bookshops of Brooklyn and if I were there I would join them.

(You might have thought, in passing, that this book might have been a better bet, what with it being set in Brooklyn where the other one is out on the road, but at twice the length it might have been a bit too gruelling to read the whole thing. Which obviously begs the question as to whether The Haunted Bookshop truly belongs in the Novella series, but more on that later.)

So Melville’s Morley love-in was the reason for picking this book just now, but it falls in particularly well with the novella I read before it, Fitzgerald’s May Day (read my post here). Both books were written and are set in New York in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Morley’s coming even harder on the heels than Fitzgerald’s, but despite this they couldn’t be more different, and not just because Fitzgerald is all Fifth Avenue, to Morley’s dingy-cosy make-believe corner of Brooklyn – alas there’s no Gissing or Hazlitt Street, nor Wordsworth Avenue for the Melville-ites to parade down on Saturday.

Fitzgerald’s book looks shrewdly at the effect of the war on the victorious American nation, dividing it into those – with money – more or less able to carry on as before, and those – without; most often the returning soldiers – looking for someone to blame for their lack of prospects, and deciding on the “Bolshevikis” and “Boche-lovers” who would have preferred peace to mass slaughter. Morley’s book, by contrast, is set among characters personally untouched by combat (his “juvenile lead”, young advertising man Aubrey Gilbert, escaped by virtue of flat feet), but the elder hero of his story, as of Parnassus, Roger Mifflin, gets a couple of long passages in which to deplores war in any form, and suggest his fellow Americans have more in common with the Germans than they’d like to think. Fitzgerald’s crudely drawn ex-soldiers, Carrol Key and Gus Rose, wouldn’t have thought much of him, you’d think.

Which makes it all the more surprising that the plot, when it arrives, turns on some rather stark anti-German sentiment. I’ll say no more, so as to avoid spoilers, but you can’t help feeling that Mifflin and his creator don’t see quite eye to eye on the subject, and that, no matter that he’s small, not young, and as bookish as they come, Mifflin would happily have squared up to Morley over it. He gets into a scrap in this book, as in Parnassus, and comes off well in both of them.

Parnassus ends, rather prematurely I thought, with Helen, the farmer’s and author’s sister who made a break for freedom by buying Mifflin’s travelling bookshop off him and lighting out for the territory, riding to the poor fellow’s rescue, springing him from jail and marrying him. She’s a great character, but she doesn’t get much in the way of adventure in The Haunted Bookshop. This book has them safely back in Brooklyn, where Roger owns and runs the bookshop of the title, which is as romantic a vision of the trade as you could imagine, and for all I know is the model for every bookish and cinematic version thereof seen since 1919.

The shop had a warm and comfortable obscurity, a kind of drowsy dusk, stabbed here and there by bright cones of yellow light from green-shaded electrics. There was an all-pervasive drift of tobacco smoke, which eddied and fumed under the glass lamp shades. […] In one corner, under a sign lettered ESSAYS, an elderly gentleman was reading, with a face of fanatical ecstasy illuminated by the sharp glare of electricity.

It’s named The Haunted Bookshop because according to Mifflin it’s “haunted by the ghosts of all great literature” (there’s plenty more of that harmless whimsy on little card notices about the place, and all through Mifflin’s dialogue – “Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives” and the like), but soon real poltergeisty things start to happen. A book – Thomas Carlyle’s edition of Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Lectures – goes missing, then turns up, then goes missing again.

The protagonist of the story, and the one who eventually solves this mystery, is Aubrey, the young ad man, who is rube enough to try to sell Mifflin advertising, and getting the response you might expect:

“The people who do my advertising are Stevenson, Browning, Conrad and Company.”

“Dear me,” said the Grey-Matter solicitor [Aubrey]. “I don’t know that agency at all. Still, I doubt if their copy has more pep than ours.”

“I don’t think you get me. I mean that my advertising is done by the books I sell. If I sell a man a book of Stevenson nor Conrad, a book that delights or terrifies him, that man and that book become my living advertisements.”

NB: If someone you love tends to talk, late on Saturday night, or on lazy Bank Holiday Monday mornings, of their secret dream of someday opening a bookshop, then this is the book to give them. Or to keep firmly out of their sight forever, depending.

It’s a romance in more than bookselling though. Young Aubrey soon discovers that Roger and Helen Mifflin have taken on as apprentice a well-brought up girl, Titania Chapman, who happens to be not only the daughter of a rather rich businessman (with an account with Aubrey’s company, no less) but, as is the way in these things, rather… yes, let’s use the word, “comely”. She is so lovely that Aubrey can’t stop thinking about her, so lovely in fact that

“Damn it,” he cried, “what right has any girl to be as pretty as that? Why- why, I’d like to beat her!” he muttered, amazed at himself.

Well, quite.

Roger Mifflin, too, in her presence felt

very talkative, as most older men do when a young girl looks as delightfully listenable as Titania.

Which, in case you were worried, on either account, does not mean that the book turns into either Fifty Shades of You Know What, or a Craig Raine poem.

What it does turn into, to my surprise at least, is something of a mystery story, with midnight bags-over-head-on-the-Brooklyn-Bridge assassination attempts, and revolvers, and jumping off elevated train tracks onto tin roofs, and international skullduggery, all of which chicanery moves things nicely and crisply along, rather in the way that the picaresque form does with Parnassus, allowing Morley a structure on which to hang his observations and comic riffs. (Plenty underlined in my copy, including a peachy rant against popular cinema:

“To laugh at Fatty Arbuckle is to degrade the human spirit.”)

It’s a lovely book, and ends most romantically indeed, offering hardbitten readers the kind of wet-eyed final page turns they don’t usually allow themselves.

Is it a novella? Well, it’s definitely on the long side, but more than that I’m not entirely sure the classification applies. If Parnassus were longer, it would be a novel, for sure – and were it shorter it would be nothing at all – but this is a mystery (a mystery-romance, you’d have to say), and mysteries have no real beef with length or form. They take as long as they need. Granted, The Haunted Bookshop is only really a mystery in its second half, though it’s neatly done, and you spot plenty of clues that were laid back in the early pages, but it’s impossible to think it could be better with anything else added. (There’s certainly some stuff that could be lost, and indeed Morley adds a note to Chapter II that “The latter half of this chapter may be omitted by all readers who are not booksellers.”)

Hm, I seem to be suggesting that the mystery genre sits outside the entire classification of story/novella/novel. Is this the usual literary snobbery? I’m not sure. I’ve only just thought it, and I want to file this and move on. I’ll try to think about it more.

Grateful acknowledgement to my local, the Kirkdale Bookshop in southeast London, for the use of their basement in my book photo!


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.