Of novellas and classics

In Sligo town the library was. On the floor of a dusty old attic, the books hadn’t been moved for decades and, with the exception of some older local history journals, seemed to be of little interest. However, based on the promise of these journals, a deal was struck.

So it was that, in the middle of the hot June spell we had this year, and with the help of the man of the house, I found myself twisting, turning, and sweating profusely, getting the books down the fairly rickety ladder to the landing and on down the stairs into the car at the end of which operation I looked more lie a coalminer than a bookseller.

All this was highly reminiscent of the old days when we would find ourselves pulling books down off the strangest locations. Just like the old days, as I was loading the books into the car, two books, totally out of character with the rest of the library but which I absolutely had to read, caught my eye.

One was a pristine copy of the Oxford Library of Short Novels in three volumes selected by John Wain and presented in an attractive red slipcase. The other was a battered old paperback of a good old Western written by that doyen of Western writers, Louis L’Amour, with the unlikely title of The Man From Skibbereen, and its hero bearing the equally unlikely name of Crisp Mayo.

With a gentle introduction by John Wain, the Oxford Library of Short Novels features 16 works of fiction that are either short and economical novels or short stories which have grown until they have lost the immediacy of the genre but gain in compensation some of the generosity of the novel.

What attracted me to the set had little to do with the definition of genre. It allowed me the opportunity to read the work of some of the world’s literary giants for the first time in an easy and accessible manner. Now I could broach the work of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy without having to tackle the mammoth masterpieces of Faust or War and Peace. While we may be familiar with the names of such great novelists as Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, we may not have actually read any of their work.

Another attractive element of this publication is the wonderful variety of the writers it features. Along with the four just mentioned it includes Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Gaskell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Conan Doyle, Stephen Crane, Chekov, Chéri, DH Lawrence, and Albert Camus, a veritable feast of good literature.

The curious thing about Louis L’Amour is that, according to the biographical note in The Man From Skibbereen, he too has a strong literary pedigree. He “was born Louis Dearborn L’Amour of French-Irish stock and is a descendant of Francois René Vicompte de Chateaubriand noted French writer, statesman, and epicure”. Since 1816, 33 members of his family have been writers.

Amongst other things he was an elephant handler, a flume builder, a fruit picker, an officer on tank destroyers, and a professional boxer, winning 51 of his 59 fights.

The author of countless short stories and novels featuring the Wild West, his reputation as a writer of that much maligned genre is equalled only by the legendary Zane Grey. An Irish influence is evident in several of his titles including Callaghan, Fallon, O’Reilly’s Luck, and The Man From Skibbereen.

L’Amour’s writing is direct and exciting. Within two pages our hero has moved from his home in Cork to finding himself marooned in a lonely telegraph shack somewhere in the Wild West, his only company being a man with two bullet holes in him…and we haven’t even drawn breath yet. Although apparently simple, the prose is extraordinarily economic and skilful, allowing the reader to settle down to a right good old yarn.

They rarely write them like this anymore.


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