For most of 1988 I moved about London, from house-sit to house-sit, transporting all the essentials of my life and trade in a 2CV: typewriter, reference books, minimal wardrobe. At some point during that nomadic interlude, a friend of someone I hardly knew asked me pointedly whether I had read the works of Nathanael West, hinting that if I hadn’t I ought to. Perhaps he judged West’s acerbic satire of disillusion and forlorn hope peculiarly apt to the mild chaos of my existence.
So I bought a copy of Nathanael West’s complete works and read them, straight through. (My record of response to such recommendations had not always been so pliant. A close friend whose judgement and taste I absolutely trusted once pressed on me a copy of Lolita. I kept it unopened for months, even through a stay in hospital. When, finally, I did open it, the seduction was total, intoxicating, from the first page.)
I’d heard of West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and the title of The Day of the Locust ruffled memory – perhaps of the 1974 film adaptation, directed by John Schlesinger – but that was all I knew of the writer born Nathan Weinstein, of German Lithuanian immigrants, in 1903. He studied, lackadaisically, at Brown University, Rhode Island, passed off his cousin’s coursework as his own, scraped a degree, and meantime drew bizarre cartoons and wrote weird scraps of fantastical narrative. In 1926 he changed his name to Nathanael West, claiming inspiration from the nineteenth-century American reformer Horace Greeley’s injunction to ‘Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.’
His immediate destination was eastwards, however, to Paris, cultural hotbed of post-war Europe – jazz cafés, experimental art and literature, surrealism, Dadaism. Here he wrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a strange, subversive, scatological confection set inside the Trojan Horse, wherein Balso Snell encounters a series of B
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