Writing with the other hand

Chekhov's detective mystery, Wordsworth's travel guide, Henry James's Sci-Fi thriller - the recesses of literature are full of uncharacteristic productions by canonical writers. Paul Binding looks at some fascinating creative one-offs, unlikely collaborations and curious triumphs
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Literary history is full of intriguing projects that never came off. Lewis Carroll once wrote to Arthur Sullivan, suggesting himself as librettist. He'd been disgusted by the song in HMS Pinafore in which the Captain declares: "Though bother it I may / Occasionally say, / I never use a big, big D..." Carroll told Sullivan he was prostituting himself by setting words like these to music. He himself would have produced something more lyrical, more - one supposes - childlike.

Far more difficult to imagine is the collaboration Henry James proposed to HG Wells (whose work he admired passionately) on science fiction about Martians. Or the libretto offered by Dylan Thomas to Stravinsky about the recovery of humanity after its destruction in nuclear war. Stravinsky considered it "certainly a beautiful idea", but was, perhaps understandably, never convinced that Thomas had really thought it through.

Behind even the most unlikely of these plans a profound truth surely stands revealed: that creativity exists in the human mind before its channelling into specific forms, and that these are often dictated by the prevalent ideas and conditions of the times. Indeed this creativity pre-dates the subjects on which it will exercise itself, and which with hindsight seem most suited to its individual constitution.

Some writers obviously exhibit the free flowing nature of creativity more notably than others: DH Lawrence, for instance, whose fine strong plays and fascinating travel books tend to get pushed behind his fiction and poetry, themselves very various in form. Angus Wilson, on the other hand, was a prose fiction writer par excellence. His one full-length imaginative work away from the medium, a play entitled The Mulberry Bush, though dealing with the characteristic subject of the inadequacies of high-minded liberals, lacks any real feeling for the form. Consequently people and situations seem to be struggling to find their way back to a novel where they would have been treated far better.

The Parnassian library is full of unexpected works by canonical writers. Many of us go to the Lake District armed with Wordsworth's poems, but few of us take with us his once-popular Guides to the Lakes (1810, revised 1835) in which he advises us what walks to make and gives out detailed topographical, historical and even geological information. Those wanting a lively biography of Christ would not immediately think of Dickens, but his Life of Our Lord (first published in book form in 1936) bears witness to the New Testament Christianity he always professed. And who, thinking about detective fiction, would let the mind stray to Chekhov, famous (even remembering the shot at the end of The Seagull) for stories and plays where nothing happens? Yet The Shooting Party (1884) not only belongs to this category, but anticipates one of its most famous specimens, Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which created such a furore when it was published.

Some writers, of course, turn to a different genre from their usual work - and thus to a different imaginative or intellectual mood - but succeed completely, so much so that these productions cast new light on a creativity we thought we knew well.

Thomas Hardy was asked by an American magazine, Youth's Companion, to write an adventure story for its readers, and he spent the summer of 1883 complying with this request before going on with The Mayor of Casterbridge. Our Exploits at West Poley is told by Leonard, 13, who comes to stay early in the autumn in the Somerset village of West Poley with his aunt, a farmer's widow, and her son Steve. Steve is an adventurous, imaginative lad, and takes his cousin right into the bowels of one of the nearby Mendip Hills, to show him a remarkable subterranean stream. And then the idea comes to them: why shouldn't they change its course to facilitate their climbing inside the cave? They set to, and do this, only to find later that day they have affected the outside world. Their own village of West Poley finds its stream (which turns its all-important mill) diminishing to the merest trickle; the neighbouring and rival village of East Poley on the other hand finds itself blessed at last with running water. What is to be done? For a time the two boys, keeping their cave activities secret, enjoy what appear to others as life-and-death power over the two communities and the land itself (and very funny these scenes are). But they get their come-uppance when they find themselves trapped inside the hill, and the subterranean waters begin to rise alarmingly. Our Exploits of West Poley has a robustness and a daylight quality (for all the underground setting of so much of it) that reveal a usually hidden side of Hardy's imagination. Its excitement derives from its conveyance of the power of unbridled nature and the folly of human interference with it - an even apter theme for our times than for Hardy's.

The lyric poem and the short story have sufficient closeness of relation for a writer to be rarely tempted to both. Yet Stephen Spender's collection of stories The Burning Cactus (1936), if not the equal of his poems of the period, show him achieving certain insights - into tensions within disintegrating western society, into the psychology of persons acted on by the strain of contemporary events - that could not quite find their way into his poetry then. In the illness of the central figure of "the dead island", the European situation is manifest: "In him is incarnated the moment when a civilisation really begins to lose grip, when violence becomes an end in itself, history rushes, the boundaries of nations alter so rapidly that there is an inflation in the printing of maps." But the quieter stories are no less successful, and point to the limpid sober gentleness of some of Spender's last published poems.

JR Ackerley's graceful, colloquial but nonetheless mannered prose style, with its affinities to Graham Greene and Isherwood, is a long way from a poet's approach to language. Yet Ackerley did write poems, Micheldever and Other Poems (1952), and among them is one,"Missing", first written in 1942, of which Ackerley made at least five versions. It seems to have haunted him. Born of a compassionate anger at the way lives were swallowed in the war machine, to be ruined if not destroyed, it begins in all versions with a casual-sounding statement of bewilderment, "We never knew what became of him, that was so curious;" and ends with an impassioned yet movingly simple statement, "But he was my friend, and that was the way he died." The stanzas Ackerley found the most difficult to write compare the disappeared man with an insect, unmissed apparently by either its creator or its fellows, and reveals at an earlier stage his now famous feeling for the creature-world: "The life and the tiny delight, the sublime fabrication / Of colour, mechanics and form, I care nothing for that, / I am man with his mind, the master, the lord of creation, / This beetle has got in my way, I lower my foot." The verbal wrestling, the insistent pained rhythm invade the mind.

Richard Hughes's reputation rests on his minor classic of childhood, A High Wind in Jamaica, and his magnificent unfinished chronicle of Britain and Hitler's Germany, The Human Predicament. But he started off, a precocious young man, as a dramatist, and by request of the BBC initiated the whole genre of radio drama. Danger (1924) was written "for effect by sound only...to be the first `listening play', an experiment in a new medium, which has since been considerably developed".

Like Hardy's boys' story, it takes place underground, in a gallery in a Welsh coalmine. The lights have gone out; the English visitors are stumbling in a pitch-darkness like the descent of blindness. The waters are rising, and an explosion means that three of them are trapped, Jack and Mary, a young couple in love, and an older man of 60, Bax. In what they know could be their last minutes the trio test out and articulate their feelings about dying and death, running the gamut of disbelief, pluck, humour, despair, resignation, courage, and all in a shorter space of time as the events would take in reality. Rescue does come but not all three survive. The last moments have a power and a pathos that could not be so effective in any other medium but this then-new one.

Lastly a massive work of non-fiction, JB Priestley's Literature and Western Man. The recent West End revival of An Inspector Calls may have sent Priestley's stock up somewhat, but his reputation understandably lingers on of someone perhaps a little too content with his northern bluffness, his very English pragmatic form of socialism. Literature and Western Man (1960) relates, however, to the most serious and imaginative aspects of Priestley's best plays, but even so may come as a surprise.

Profoundly influenced by Jung, Priestley presents Western society as dislocated by its loss of religion, yet unable to satisfy itself with willed or retreatist creeds, as being more and more in need of healing by works of the imagination that can dig deep into the psyche and the collective unconscious, yet with its arts yearly more bastardised by the demands of commerce and by the rifts in the reading public. He argues for an eternal balance between the male and the female principles. The book is particularly good on German and American writers - indeed, its generous accounts of Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather and Thomas Wolfe led to their British re-issue.

And then one learns that Willa Cather wrote poems, and that Fitzgerald and Wolfe wrote plays. What can they be like?