‘Conjuring the Literary Dead’ is the sub-title of this outlandish, sometimes beguiling book. Its editor, Dale Salwak, coaxed 19 writers — of the status of Margaret Drabble, Francis King, Jay Parini and Alan Sillitoe — to write essays in which they imagine speaking to dead authors who intrigue them. The resulting chapters are often inquisitive, macabre and teasing, but occasionally flat or laborious. ‘Perhaps all writing is motivated, deep down,’ Margaret Attwood suggests in an introductory survey, ‘by a fear of and fascination with mortality — by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.’ Francis King more modestly proposes that it is a common daydream ‘to hold converse with the mighty dead’.
This is a hodge-podge of a book with diverse contributors, subjects and locations. Jeffrey Meyers calls on Samuel Johnson in his lodgings. Cynthia Ozick visits Henry James at Lamb House, where her questions are so tart that she is ejected. Alan Sillitoe drinks whisky with a pugnacious Joseph Conrad on a Thames barge. The Department of Homeland Security initially blocks William Chace’s application to time-travel to 1927 to interview Ezra Pound at Rapallo. Brian Aldiss strolling in the Wessex countryside finds Thomas Hardy sitting on a stool sketching a village church, and recovering from dinner with the Duchess of Devonshire. Margaret Drabble’s contribution is her own critical rumination rather than an act of ventriloquism in which Arnold Bennett’s voice is imitated. Catherine Aird quotes powerfully from Kipling’s writings, but never pretends to have met him. A man who staged Beckett’s plays muses on his hero’s habits and powers.
The best of the contributions are both wise and absurd. A few are pompous or too arch. Eugene Goodheart, described as the Edytha Macy Gross Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Brandeis University and expert on D.H. Lawrence’s utopianism, is not, as might be expected, pretentious. His conversation with Jane Austen, in which she reveals that she finds James Joyce a kindred spirit in literary paradise and likens Emma Woodhouse to Stephen Dedalus, amuses and instructs.
Many essays are by literary biographers revisiting old subjects with the leash off. Ann Thwaite imagines the subjects of her four biographies, Lady Tennyson, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edmund Gosse and 13-year-old A.A. Milne, sharing a railway carriage together. The notional meeting of the creators of little Lord Fauntleroy and Christopher Robin is delightful.
The oddest contribution, by the late Peter Firchow, is a play in which George Orwell receives death-bed hospital visits from Lionel Trilling, the polonium-210 poisoned Alexander Litvinenko and a slimy Tony Blair. It has the haziness of a mind under heavy pain management, but the disorientating intensity reads well. Knowing that he was in failing health, Francis King contributed an auto-obituary dressed up as a meeting with the dying Oscar Wilde. This deliciously playful and shrewd piece includes Bernard Berenson, whom King knew when young, likening Wilde to an effeminate Irish stevedore. The flying trickster liveliness of Jay Parini’s meeting with Robert Frost in a Vermont cabin is another highpoint of AfterWord. H.G. Wells telephones Paul Delany on a time-telephone, and arranges for George Gissing to doss down in Delany’s 27th floor Vancouver apartment. In an excellent episode Gissing corrects and amplifies Delany’s biography of him, Delany takes him to have his syphilis treated, and Gissing picks up a singer called Tiffany who fascinates him by having ‘Angry Samoans’ tattooed on her breasts.
It is surprising that none of the literary greats make sexual pounces on their interviewers. After all, literary biographers often fancy themselves rotten, and many great writers had a touch of Strauss-Kahn.
Perhaps rutting like baboons seemed indecorous in a book with such old-fashioned classiness in some of its parts. Several essays read like privileged eavesdropping on higher-class literati talking without restraint. AfterWord will make an excellent book for a guest bedroom or Christmas present for a nettlesome in-law who has everything.