Sunday, August 06, 2006


Not Outside to Garden, Presumably

It always delights me when newspaper book sections break from the sales-cycle format and cover books that have been out for years. This week at The Stranger Charles Mudede pondered Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, in the Guardian Umberto Eco reviewed, er, Banvard's Folly (the same review's turned up again!), while the Telegraph carried a fascinating piece on Colin Wilson's once-fashionable book The Outsider:

In its day The Outsider was that rare thing - a superselling work of philosophy. In its first few months of publication it raced through 16 editions, selling 40,000 hardback copies. Eat your heart out, de Botton. It's just 50 years, to the month, that Outsider fever swept literary London.... The London literary world of 1956 was, as Wilson put it, 'mothbally' and due for a shaking up. Wilson, with his polo-neck sweater, duffle coat, wild hair and geeky horn-rims - 'the sleeping bag philosopher of Hampstead Heath' (Osborne's snide description) - was heaven-sent for the part of shaker-up in chief.

The opening sentence of The Outsider was, that summer, as famous as that of the Communist Manifesto: 'At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem. He is the hole-in-corner man.' On publication the book received rave reviews. The Observer proclaimed it 'better than Sartre'. The Sunday Times thought it 'remarkable'. The Listener declared it the 'most remarkable' book the reviewer had ever come across.

I'd barely heard of Wilson before, but googling him did turn up this amusing exchange:

P.N. Surveying your work, it becomes apparent that you have written a great number of introductions - thrown seals of approval around with generous abandon. Do you think a serious writer should commit himself to so many projects. I once read a book on gardening with an introduction by you describing your detestation of the subject.

C.W: You may well be right about that, I'm afraid. In the case of the gardening book, someone wrote to ask me, "Will you write an introduction?" I wrote back, "Why me? I hate gardening." And he said, "That's allright - tell us about how you hate it." So I did. I should have refused of course.

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