Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 6
BY J. C.
Perambulatory Christmas Books, 5th series, part VI. The “Back to Basics” tour. That rough crucifix we fashioned out of old Penguins bought from the Archive Bookstore must be working. The vampiric virus of Christmas “humour” books with titles of the Do Ants Have Arseholes variety appears to be shrinking in its coffin. There are fewer than ever this year.
Still, the hebdomadal legwork must go on. The number of secondhand bookshops on Charing Cross Road has dwindled in recent years, but three good ones remain, almost side by side on a stretch near Leicester Square: Any Amount of Books (to which we will return), Henry Pordes and Quinto. The last is, in fact, two shops: a posh antiquarian affair upstairs (trading as Francis Edwards), with Quinto in the basement. Here, the stock is changed regularly, and most items are under £5. It was to the lower depths that we gravitated on a wet November afternoon.
No modern literary journal has attracted as much opprobrium as Encounter. The title need only be uttered or written, for the inevitable pendant phrase to follow: “funded by the CIA”. The sponsoring body was, in fact, the Congress for Cultural Freedom and early issues state the connection explicitly on the contents page, with the happy assurance that “The views expressed in Encounter are to be attributed to the writers, not the sponsors”. France had the CCF-funded Preuves, under the leadership of Raymond Aron. If the editorial view took an anti-communist squint, it was hardly surprising in post-war Europe, with Stalin’s corpse barely cold. We bought six issues at Quinto, ranging from 1953–61.
The inclination to impute wicked motives to Encounter has always struck us as an inverted form of radical chic. It was a beautifully produced magazine, especially in its earliest incarnation. It employed the world’s best writers. Was Albert Camus a CIA stooge, for giving British readers in the first issue (October, 1953) a glimpse into Roman ruins in northern Algeria? His essay was published in English here for the first time, as were his notebooks, posthumously, in 1961:
"At the cinema the little woman from Oran weeps at the hero’s misfortunes. Her husband begs her to stop. Look, she says, in the middle of the tears, let me make the most of it."
Encounter was not even right-wing. In 1954, Leslie Fiedler wrote a lengthy denunciation of Joseph McCarthy. Christopher Isherwood spoke admiringly of the “German writer and revolutionary”, Ernst Toller. Richard Wright welcomed the emerging African independent nations. Dwight Macdonald, once a leading light at Partisan Review, became an associate in the mid-1950s. If it was part of a CIA plot to set the world to rights, it sounds like a good one. The interest of these old issues – £1.50 each, in fine condition – is exceptional. The brainwashing has so far been rather pleasant.