The Long Road to Oblivion. (Books)

By Taylor, D. J. | New Statesman (1996), December 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

The Long Road to Oblivion. (Books)


Taylor, D. J., New Statesman (1996)


D J TAYLOR on the life and death of William Cooper, a once celebrated writer whose recent funeral was attended by just 16 people

Harry Hoff (this was the baptismal name of the novelist William Cooper) died three months ago at the advanced age of 92. His passing was not widely noticed and the handful of obituaries gave the impression of having lain long on the files. This was an injustice, as few writers have a better claim to have pushed the English novel along the particular path it took in the immediate postwar era: it was Cooper's wife Joyce, listening to a radio broadcast of Lucky Jim in the mid-1950s, who first told him that "here's a man who's been reading your books".

Though he published nearly 20 novels, in a career stretching back to the mid-1930s, Scenes From Provincial Life (1950) will always be the book by which Cooper is remembered. Half a century since its first appearance, the shock value of this tale of a Midlands schoolmaster, calmly balancing the demands of his literary ambitions with his love life in the shadow of approaching war, is not instantly apparent. In retrospect, it has less to do with the fairly frank treatment of sex, both hetero- and homosexual, than with the tone, in which a superficial playfulness often gives way to something a great deal more fierce.

There is a telling moment in which the hero, Joe Lunn, decides that his deepest feelings are summoned up by two activities -- writing and making love to game but marriage-hungry Myrtle. Unhappily, Myrtle's distaste for Joe's books is only too plain. The piqued author reflects that he "would gladly have thrashed her for it". Scenes From Provincial Life is sprinkled with uncomfortable passages of this kind, and it is the occasional irruptions of Joe's egotism rather than the sexual encounters, written with one eye on the censor (Myrtle refers to a particular part of Joe's anatomy as "Albert"), that give the novel its lasting bite.

Like much of Cooper's best work, Provincial and its successors Married (1961), Metropolitan (1982) and Later (1983) are transparently autobiographical. Socially and intellectually, Cooper was one of his friend C P Snow's "new men" (a tag he borrowed for the title of one of his later novels, Memoirs of a New Man (published in 1966), part of the throng of early 20th-century scholarship boys from relatively modest backgrounds who went on to staff the postwar university common rooms and research labs. Cooper's training as a physicist was an important part of his fictional armoury, distinguishing him from practically every other literary man who wrote in the 1950s and providing the background to one of the few modern novels with an understanding of professional scientific life, The Struggles of Albert Woods (1952). He was an industrious man, combining high-powered lobs in the civil service with a writing output that would have disgraced many a full-time study-haunter.

None of this formal record, however, quite conveys the sheer force of Cooper's personality, kindly and irascible by turns. …

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