Time Out of War

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Every now and then a book is so badly published that it never quite recovers, however eloquent its admirers. Robert Kee’s account of the three years he spent in a German prisoner-of-war camp is one of the great books of the Second World War; it is also sadly neglected, thanks to the part played in its publication by the novelist Graham Greene.

Greene left MI6 in 1944, and took up a job as the editorial director of Eyre & Spottiswoode, a rather grand, old-fashioned firm of publishers with a strong line in Catholic books. Robert Kee was demobbed from the RAF in 1945, and the following year he sent Greene the typescript of A Crowd Is Not Company. No doubt Greene both liked and admired his new acquisition, but he made two fatal publishing errors: he allowed Kee to retain the book’s eminently forgettable title, a quotation from Francis Bacon; and, less forgivably, he insisted on publishing what was self-evidently a memoir as a novel, on the grounds that after the First World War it had taken a good ten years before autobiographical accounts of the war – Graves’s Goodbye to All That, Blunden’s Undertones of War, Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer ‒ began to enjoy commercial and literary success.

As it turned out, prisoner-of-war memoirs like The Wooden Horse, The Great Escape and The Colditz Story became bestsellers not long after the publication of A Crowd Is Not Company in 1947. Kee had ambitions to become a novelist, and happily went along with Greene’s suggestion, but when shortly after publication Peter Quennell told him he couldn’t understand why he had agreed to its being published as a novel, ‘I immediately wished I hadn’t.’ The combination of unmemorable title and miscategorization proved fatal to the book’s durability and fame; Jonathan Cape reissued it as a memoir in 1982, but the damage had been done.

A product of Stowe and Magdalen Colle

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About the contributor

Jeremy Lewis was the deputy editor of The Oldie.

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