To give it its full title: The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel (1953). There is no-one quite like Edward Gorey whose illustrations conjure up a rather sinister, vaguely Edwardian world. I can’t really give the full flavour of the book without breaching copyright as the pictures are half of it. The cover will have to do.
Every year Mr Earbrass writes a novel and this is an account of the progress of The Unstrung Harp. So often Gorey is spot on (though I personally have never been so absorbed in a novel that I have met one of my characters on the landing) After writing the first draft: ‘Some weeks later, with pen, ink, scissors, paste, a decanter of sherry, and a vast reluctance Mr Earbrass begins to revise TUH. This means, first, transposing passages, or reversing the order of their paragraphs, or crumpling them up furiously and throwing them in the waste-basket. After that there is rewriting. This is worse that writing, because not only does he have to think up new things just the same, but at the same time try not to remember the old ones.’ Indeed. There is a picture of him sitting on the floor with paper all around him, and I think of it whenever I am doing the same thing (so far without the sherry; perhaps I should try it).
At a literary dinner ‘the talk deals with disappointing sales, inadequate publicity, worse than inadequate royalties, idiotic or criminal reviews, others’ declining talent, and the unspeakable horror of the literary life.’ Not much has changed since 1953. And I love Mr Earbrass’s reaction to the dust jacket of TUH: ‘Even after staring at it continuously for twenty minutes he really cannot believe it. Whatever were they thinking of? That drawing. Those colours. Ugh. On any book it would be ugly, vulgar, and illegible. On his book it would be these, and also disastrously wrong. Mr Earbrass looks forward to an exhilarating hour of conveying these sentiments to Scuffle and Dustcough.’ What a wonderful name for a publisher.
This is a little work of genius. Every writer should have a copy.