Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Narrative of John Smith, by Arthur Conan Doyle

I remember once reading a review of a release of studio outtakes by Jimi Hendrix, and the reviewer dismissing it by saying that there would be a market for recordings of Jimi “whistling in the bog”. The sceptic might argue something similar about this juvenilia, that it is unlikely that it would have seen the light of day had it not been for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s reputation. That is probably true, yet while The Narrative of John Smith is never going to be as popular as Sherlock Holmes, it is still worth reading as an insight into the development of a major writer.

The first version was begun in 1883 when Conan Doyle was 23 but lost (“what, no copy, Mr Doyle?”) in the post. He said that he had reconstructed it from memory but there is no guarantee that the reconstruction matches the original particularly closely. The first attempt predates the appearance of Sherlock Holmes by four years, and features an entirely different character – the young Conan Doyle in fact, masquerading as a fifty-year old man, a “grizzly-haired old fellow”, laid up for a week in his boarding-house with a bad attack of gout, and a touch of rheumatism thrown in. Having the hero literally put his feet up allows the tyro novelist to muse on a wide range of scientific, philosophical, theological, political, literary, social, and military issues of the day.

So how, you may be wondering, does the author move the narrative along in this single setting? Is it structured like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where the philosophising gives way at regular intervals to some action, for a bit of light relief? Well no, there’s nothing that exciting. The only ‘action’ occurs when the narrator’s internal monologue is broken by the occasional visitor and the monologue becomes a dialogue, that is about as much as you get. There is a strand in which Mr Smith watches a young woman in the house opposite as she paints, but it’s hardly Rear Window. Given Conan Doyle’s facility with action in his later novels, the whole affair is astonishingly static.

Yet, once the sluggish pace is accepted Arthur, sorry John, becomes an amiable companion with whom one would be happy to spend a companionable evening enjoying a pipe and a peg or two of whisky. He is certainly not short of opinions, but manages to convey them without becoming a bore or merely a platform to show off Conan Doyle’s erudition, even though there is plenty on display. The name suggests an everyman, but this John Smith is a singular creation, given his range of views and enquiring mind.

It is tempting to look for evidence of the older Conan Doyle in all this, and there are glimpses of a continuity of interest. There are discussions of reincarnation, telepathy, Theosophy and mesmerism which prefigure his concern with psychical research and Spiritualism. His interest in these subjects is linked to the book’s optimistic and life-affirming tone, and in general he finds goodness and upward progress in existence (while inveighing against the dogmatism to be found in the scientific establishment). He gets quite utopian at times, predicting a universal religion and the abolition of war.

There is a fair bit of futurology, and Conan Doyle was perceptive in forecasting the rise of China, which he assessed likely to be the dominant power of the 24th century, with the US second, the British Empire third and Russia fourth. Yet looking further, to the year 7000, he visualises Antipodean or African archaeologists digging in the mounds which mark all that remains of London. As he wryly notes, the trick is to predict so far ahead that there is no fear of being exposed in error, but even if wrong in particulars, he thought that in the long run all our works, however mighty they once were, will come to seem insignificant. This may not quite square with the general sense of ineluctable progress, but nobody expects a 20-something to be entirely consistent.

Naturally, bearing in mind his professional background, medical matters loom large. At one point Smith assesses the number patient sessions a doctor might have in a lifetime, coming to the astonishing figure of over half a million. This, he thinks, is a huge force for good in the world, more perhaps than the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Pope can claim. One wonders if the elderly Conan Doyle, looking back over his life, attempted to calculate the relative contributions to the greater good of the medico compared to the literary man. Doubtless he would have concluded that crusading for Spiritualism trumped the lot, given the magnitude of the issues with which it dealt.

The manuscript has been ably edited by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower (co-editors with Charles Foley of Arthur Conan Doyle; A Life in Letters) and Rachel Foss, Lead Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library. In addition to an informative introduction and note on the structure of the MS, they have supplied copious endnotes which elucidate references that have become obscure with the passage of time. The puzzle that remains is why Conan Doyle spent so much time on the project. By this stage he had writing experience, with articles and short stories under his belt, so he must have realised, even as he put the first manuscript into the post, that it was unpublishable as it stood. In an extract from an April 1884 letter to his mother included in the introduction he wonders if he can extend a plot from the sorts of stories he had been writing without weakening it, but there is no plot to extend, as the editors themselves note. Still, waste not, want not: even though the manuscript would not have found a publisher as it stood, the editors show that Conan Doyle recycled much of this material in later works.

In a sense it could be argued (tentatively) that he was ahead of his time in attempting to write a different kind of novel which privileges internal mental processes over external action, a precursor to Virginia Woolf, if you will. It would be an exaggeration to say that Conan Doyle had modernist tendencies as an author, but there are traces of self-reflexivity in the book. He contemplates the difficulty in beginning a literary career, as he begins his literary career. An amusing section contrasts the sort of smooth unnatural dialogue found in high-flown literary novels with how the same scene would play out in real life; yet The Narrative of John Smith itself is certainly more in line with the former than the latter, effectively providing a critique of itself. To claim that “It is as impertinent as it is inartistic of a novelist to wander away from his story in order to give us his own opinions on this or that subject”, in a book stuffed with opinions, is barefaced cheek as well as tongue-in-cheek criticism of more established novelists.

The British Library’s publication of the manuscript, which was among the collection purchased in 2004, is to be welcomed. It is sad that the auction was bound up with the untimely death of Richard Lancelyn Green, and this can be considered a memorial to him. Conan Doyle himself might have been embarrassed to see unfinished work between hard covers (and to learn that there is a 270-minute audio book adaptation read by Robert Lindsay), but for the rest of us it is good to see his early effort plucked from obscurity.

To add to Conan Doyle’s posthumous discomfort, the British Library have put on a small display in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, Arthur Conan Doyle: The Unknown Novel, featuring one of the four notebooks making up the manuscript, plus a few other odds and ends relating to the great man’s activities, such as letters to his mother – including one about the novel being lost in the post (it’s actually rather a paltry exhibition given the volume of the BL’s Conan Doyle holdings). Never mind what he might have thought of it all, John Smith definitely won’t give an hour of joy to the boy who’s half a man, but it is well worth adding to your Conan Doyle shelf as an interesting sidelight on the evolution of an author with abundant talents who did not always use them wisely.

The British Library, 2011. ISBN-13: 978-0712358415