Although I'd like to claim that every title included in the Valancourt catalogue has been chosen according to some long-thought-out, grand cosmic design, the fact is that some of the best titles are ones we've stumbled upon by mere chance. That's the case with the two absolutely terrific books we'll be bringing out soon by Andrew Sinclair (b. 1935). Sinclair is perhaps best known today for Under Milk Wood (1972), the film he wrote and directed from a Dylan Thomas play, starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O'Toole, or for his many works of history and biography (Sinclair holds a PhD in history from Harvard). But he got his start as a novelist, winning critical acclaim for his first two novels, The Breaking of Bumbo (1959) and My Friend Judas (1959), both republished recently by Faber Finds.
I happened upon Sinclair wholly by accident, when, while browsing the shelves at a university library, I came across a book entitled The Raker, which I picked up to examine, intrigued by its unusual title. The Raker, one of the two forthcoming Sinclair books from Valancourt, was first published in 1964 by Jonathan Cape. Rather helpfully for my purposes, British publishers in the 1960s would often print a plot synopsis inside the book on the half-title page, which was extremely useful in this case, since the library had discarded the dust jacket, which would have looked like this:
The blurb printed inside the book read as follows:
Death is the business of Adam Quince. Down in his Fleet Street basement he writes obituaries, ignoring the inadequacies of his own life -- he has disowned his slum birthplace and deserted his wife and son.
An actress, Nada, is critically injured and Quince is sent to the clinic to make notes. He is attracted by Nada's persistent vitality and devotes himself to her recovery, finding a new life in their relationship. But at every turn he encounters John Purefoy, her sinister protector, whose obsession with death has earned him the nickname 'The Raker' (after the corpse-rakers during the Plague). The duel between Purefoy and the emergent Quince culminates in a memorable scene in Purefoy's Belgravia house; there the two men are driven to acknowledge a macabre affinity.
Andrew Sinclair has woven around the ominous figure of the Raker in Old London a modern story, rich in invention, direct and powerful in language. He has struck upon a haunting compromise between the banal world of obsequies and yellowed clippings, and another in which Death has a more immediate and terrifying face.
Of course, it was obvious even from this short blurb that the novel was right up our alley, and on reading the book, I found that it did not disappoint. It's very funny in parts, and the death-obsessed Raker is a memorable character (and the publisher's use of the word 'memorable' to describe the climax scene is a major understatement). The book was reprinted in paperback in the UK shortly thereafter but has never been republished since. The new edition will feature an introduction by Dr Rob Spence of Edge Hill University. This is the old UK paperback cover:
It took some doing, but I was finally able to find an address for Mr Sinclair. Just before I was set to write to him, though, I came across a reference to a 1979 book of his entitled The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe. Having just moved to Richmond, home of the Poe Museum, and being (at least in my youth) a Poe fan myself, I thought this, too, might be a good title for Valancourt, and am now very happy to be able to offer it on the Valancourt list.
The book, a truly unique fusion of fiction and biography, first appeared to universal critical acclaim in 1978. The UK and US editions had ok, but rather uninspired covers:
The premise of the book is that Ernest Albert Pons, a modern-day Holocaust survivor, has conceived a delusion in which he is, in fact, Edgar Allan Poe. In furtherance of his delusion, he seeks out the only psychiatrist in the Manhattan telephone directory with the surname Dupin (the same as Poe's famous detective). Dupin attempts to cure Pons by having him retrace Poe's steps, from Richmond to Charlottesville to England, and back to New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, in an attempt to make him see that he is in fact quite separate from Poe. In the course of his travels, he gives us both Poe's biography and his own, but gradually he comes to suspect that Dupin may actually be conspiring to murder him. Just another delusion, or a twist worthy of Poe?
The new edition will feature an introduction by Sinclair, which we just received today from the author, along with clippings of the original reviews of the book. It would be difficult to imagine higher praise than some of these:
"The book is a bravura performance, exhibiting the virtuosity that has lit up all Sinclair's work." -- C. P. Snow, Financial Times
"This is a rich and satisfying hybrid work -- part fiction and part biography. Its hold on the reader stems, at least in part, from its use of one of the most successful of literary formulae: the quest. It was this structure which gave A. J. A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo such hypnotic appeal. [. . .] Mr Sinclair's insights, credited to Pons, are those of a distinguished novelist. He intuitively perceives the relationship between Poe's life and work, anatomising it in witty and sometimes brilliant prose." -- Paul Ableman, Spectator
"Clever, macabre, spellbinding, The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe is Andrew Sinclair's brilliant combination of biography and fiction, taken to the limits of the united genre. [...] [T]he result is a strangely disturbing and powerfully revealing piece of literature, one Poe himself -- if sober -- might have genuinely approved." -- Houston Post
"[O]ne might ask what is so unusual about Andrew Sinclair's The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe . . . the answer is -- its unexpectedness; and the fact that, as far as I know, this has not been attempted before. [...] Andrew Sinclair is one of our most intelligent novelists; and The Facts in the Case of E. A. Poe is a book full of wit, thought and perception -- an ingeniousness of composition which the author of The Raven might have himself approved." -- The Scotsman
"The book (bionovel? autofictography? madnessscript?) turns out to be a thoroughly absorbing read. The use of an eccentric fictional biographer like Pons gives the 'real' biographer, Sinclair, the freedom to indulge in amusingly wild flights of speculative fancy which he would no doubt have suppressed in a more conventional work." -- The Listener
"If, as Sinclair suggests, re-writing Poe is the only way to approach him, this is a sensitive and quite a gripping attempt to do so." -- The Observer
"[E]xtremely clever and enjoyable, and one that Poe might himself have appreciated. Mr. Sinclair's dovetailing of Poe's life and Pons's reflections is so smoothly done, and his narrative touch so delicate, that those who know nothing of Poe's sad story are likely to be held as firmly as those familiar with it. [...] The ghost of Poe can have inspired few more entertaining or ingenious books." -- Julian Symonds, New York Times
And here's Mr. Sinclair at Poe's tomb, taken while he himself was retracing Poe's steps in writing the book, in the 1970s:
We're extremely excited about these two titles and feel sure our readers will enjoy them as much as we have. Stay tuned for updates on other forthcoming Valancourt titles.