We shall not remember them

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The Independent Online

I spent quite a lot of the weekend reading rival papers - though whether that is an accurate description of editions that predated The Independent's existence I'm not sure. It was fascinating, anyway, to browse through facsimile editions of daily and Sunday papers printed at the time of the Normandy landings - part of last week's D-Day commemorations. Who would have thought that the Manchester Guardian would devote quite so much front-page space to the German News Agency's version of events? And didn't readers get a little weary of all those commercial promises of better tomorrows? "Whenever I see hands in a stocking, I think: 'Ah...' ", read the copyline on one small ad. "Sigh no more lady", it continued, "The fruits of victory will include a plentiful supply of lovely, clinging Aristoc." Comforting to know that the sacrifices were in a good cause, I suppose.

I spent quite a lot of the weekend reading rival papers - though whether that is an accurate description of editions that predated The Independent's existence I'm not sure. It was fascinating, anyway, to browse through facsimile editions of daily and Sunday papers printed at the time of the Normandy landings - part of last week's D-Day commemorations. Who would have thought that the Manchester Guardian would devote quite so much front-page space to the German News Agency's version of events? And didn't readers get a little weary of all those commercial promises of better tomorrows? "Whenever I see hands in a stocking, I think: 'Ah...' ", read the copyline on one small ad. "Sigh no more lady", it continued, "The fruits of victory will include a plentiful supply of lovely, clinging Aristoc." Comforting to know that the sacrifices were in a good cause, I suppose.

For obvious reasons, the sacrifices themselves didn't feature very notably in the reports from the new front. "Our Losses 'Far Less Than We Apprehended' " read one headline, quoting the prime minister, and there were no detailed figures anywhere. As a result, these editions were more jubilant than poignant - except in one narrow respect. Because the literary pages turned out to be a kind of cenotaph to fallen reputations - a Tomb of the Unknown Authors. Not all of the names were obscure, it's true: there was a single-column ad for the sixth volume of James Agate's diary, Ego 6, for instance, and the romantic novelist Ursula Bloom rang a bell too (not entirely surprising when you discover that she wrote nearly 500 novels). There were other authors who, while they may be unread (or under-read) these days, couldn't exactly be described as unknown: Eric Linklater, Neil M Gunn and Christopher Sykes among them.

But what about L Schwarzschild, whose book World in Trance was described as "one of the most exciting books of recent years"? Worth a small niche in history, you might think, but run a Google search on it and you score very few results. L Schwarzschild's once-bright flame still flickers as part of the Required Reading list for Political Studies 46 at Pitzer College, California. I hope it has copies in the library, because Amazon.com can turn up only bibliography references in other men's books.

Ira Wolfert's Tucker's People fares a little better - as you might hope for a novel described as "a great book" by HG Wells, and praised by Ernest Hemingway as "the best novel to come out of America in the last four years". But surely Wolfert hoped for something a little less recherché than the University of Illinois's Radical Novel Reconsidered series. It's no easy matter to follow up on Papa's recommendation, either. Amazon won't promise to get the book to you in less than four to six weeks, and my local library's only listing for Wolfert turned out to be a reference to a film based on his book.

Similarly vanished from the stacks are Hector Bolitho ("Excellent... a writer who really knows his craft"), Joan Morgan (even though John Betjeman thought Many Sided Mirror "among the best horror books") and Hugh Massingham (whose Ripe for Shaking was considered "exceedingly well written" by the Guardian). No sign of Conrad Richter's The Free Man, either, though there was a copy of the novel that would win him the Pulitzer six years later, The Town. It had to be fetched from Reserve Stock and turned out to have last been withdrawn 14 years ago, then its first outing for eight years. I suppose that might qualify it as "enduring" - to quote the boast on the cover of the Bantam Classic - but the word now smacks more of weathered adversity than literary indestructibility.

I had actually read one of the books advertised for sale in June, 1944 - Olaf Stapledon's Sirius, a science-fiction novel that I found disintegrating on the shelves of my boarding-school library in 1966. Of all the authors mentioned, in fact, Stapledon is probably the most actively read today - and attracts almost religious recommendations on Amazon from current enthusiasts. But even Stapledon's reputation is seen as being in need of active commemoration. Three years ago he won the Cordwainer Smith "Rediscovery" prize - the judges noting that "the young SF readers of 2001 should not let his memory slide away".

By and large, though, there is no Remembrance Day for such casualties - and no easing of the attrition rate, either. Admiration did not protect them, and it won't protect today's writers - no matter how big the prizes or sincere the praise. When you look at these old pages, the words that come to mind are "Lest we forget" - lest we forget, that is, just how forgettable even the best writers can be.

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