Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rediscovering the works of Kenneth Martin

Recently, and quite by accident, I discovered a couple of novels published during the 1950s by a writer named Kenneth Martin.  I happened upon him when I noticed that one of his books, Aubade (1957), was included in the Gay Men's Press series of Gay Modern Classics from the 1980s; I then saw that he had published another book, whose title for some reason grabbed my attention, Waiting for the Sky to Fall (1959).  Waiting had never been republished, and I didn't know anything about it, so I grabbed it from the library on a whim.  All I knew about the author was the statement on the back cover of the Aubade reprint that he had been 16 when he wrote that novel; my rudimentary math skills told me he'd have been 18 then when he wrote Waiting.

I started reading Waiting and was immediately struck by it.  For a novel written by an 18 year old, it was extremely striking, and some parts of it were really excellent.  The main character, an aspiring writer, was obviously in some respects autobiographical, and the two interesting gay characters, Jonathan and George were presumably based on people the young author must have known.  

Again making use of my limited math skills, I did some calculations and decided that if the author was in his late teens in 1959, he'd be in his 70s today and might well still be alive.  Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing to be found about him online: he had no website, no Wikipedia page.  The Gay Men's Press had gone belly up years ago, so writing to them would be no use.  And unfortunately, Kenneth Martin is not a terribly uncommon name.  

Nonetheless, with a couple hours of literary detective work online, I thought I had found him: there was a Kenneth Martin who'd be about the right age, living in San Francisco, working as a psychotherapist.  I had seen that Martin had published a novel in the 1980s with GMP that was set in San Francisco, so I figured this wasn't a bad bet.  I picked up the phone and called him.  I said, "Is this Kenneth Martin the novelist?"  After a noticeable pause, the man on the other end said yes.  I told him I was interested in reprinting Waiting for the Sky to Fall, and he said, "I'm surprised."  He told me he thought the book was dead and buried years ago and would never see the light of day again.

It wasn't till after I spoke with him the first time that I read the long introduction he wrote to the 1989 reissue of Aubade.  The story it tells is a very sad one.  Born in 1939, he was adopted into an impoverished family in Northern Ireland.  His family had no money, no education, and Martin ended up teaching himself most of what he knew by reading as many books as he could get his hands on.  He knew early on that he wanted to be a writer, and he dreamed of moving to London and being a wealthy and famous novelist there.  

Kenneth Martin (from the jacket of Aubade)

At age 16, he wrote Aubade, a short novel about a teenager who falls in love with a boy a few years older than himself.  The subject matter was daring, especially for a first novel by someone so young, but it would have been daring if written by almost anyone: homosexuality was illegal, and even writing about it could land an author and his publisher in court, as had happened to Walter Baxter and the Heinemann firm only a couple years earlier.  Martin tells the story in full in his introduction, but in short, Aubade was accepted for publication by Chapman and Hall, Dickens's publishers a century earlier, and with the advance he received, Martin moved to London.  Aubade was a surprise success, selling some 5000 copies and going into a second printing and an edition published in America.  Martin was immediately a minor celebrity, being interviewed for articles that couldn't mention what his book was actually about.

Waiting for the Sky to Fall was his second book, and was the novel he expected to cement his status as one of the most promising young writers of his generation.  Some of the reviews were good: one major newspaper said it was better than Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King.  Somewhat surprisingly, the critic for the Catholic Herald was a fan; meanwhile, the Yorkshire Post named it one of the ten best novels of the year.  But many of the reviews were downright ugly and extremely discouraging, probably especially so for Martin, who was very young and sensitive. A third novel followed, also not successful, and Martin gave up fiction for journalism.  Eventually he moved to the United States, became an American citizen, and now works as a psychotherapist.  The devastating effect on him of the lack of success of Waiting for the Sky to Fall can be sensed poignantly in his introductions to the two novels, which will be republished by Valancourt in May 2013.

Valancourt is actively rediscovering and republishing important early British gay fiction, including works by Forrest Reid, Francis King, C.H.B. Kitchin, Michael Nelson, Walter Baxter, and others, and we are very pleased to be reissuing Martin's first two novels as part of our 20th century series.  Kenneth Martin is blogging about his novels and their republication at his new website:  More on Martin and our two new editions can be found here.