Literary posterity is a fragile, arbitrary affair. Fashions and tastes change; the Zeitgeist moves on. For most writers little more than obscurity beckons; even for those acclaimed within their own lifetimes, temporarily sticking their heads above the parapet, oblivion is still the most natural of destinies. Only the truly, profoundly, universal survive.
Many tens of thousands of books are published in Britain alone each year. Among the half-acres of celebrity memoirs and miles of populist ephemera that clog our bookshops, the literary journeymen and women struggle to be heard. Simply getting published at all is becoming increasingly difficult. Few writers stand out, fewer still make a genuinely lasting mark. Who remembers Elizabeth Jennings now? Who reads Arnold Bennett? Whatever happened to Timothy Mo? The afterlife is an unforgiving place.
Maintaining an audience after their death is probably incidental to most writers; immortality is too daunting and distracting a prospect. For the reader, though, the pleasure of discovering a seemingly forgotten or neglected writer is immeasurable, like chancing upon a new view within a familiar landscape. To encounter that writer at the very point of their ultimate departure seems to me to have an added piquancy and poignancy.
I first came across Nicholas Wollaston in May 2007, on the Guardian obituary pages, a section of the newspaper that seems to exert an increasing fascination as one’s own remaining decades dwindle. Wollaston, who was 80 when he died, had been an admired novelist, well-received if not prize-winning, a respected travel writer and reliable jobbing journalist and book reviewer; he was also an intrepid adventurer, a naturally rebellious spirit and, the obituary seemed to imply, a resourceful, principled, singular man.
Something about Wollaston touched a nerve and gave me pause for thought. I was drawn to this man, yet his entire oeuvre had passed me by during a time when, as a vor
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