Who dreamt of sex with Raymond Chandler?

30th October 1998 at 00:00
THE NEW OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH PROSE
Edited by John Gross
. Oxford University Press #163; 25

"Good prose,'' writes John Gross in his introduction to The New Oxford Book of English Prose, "is something you can come across every day: in a letter, in a newspaper, almost anywhere." And, for his anthology, he has sought not just to create a collection of pieces which illustrate the "resources and achievements of English prose", but to provide, in Dr Johnson's definition, "a collection of flowers".

John Keats is thus represented by a colourful comment in a letter to his brother, written in 1818 from his walking tour of Scotland: "The difference between our Country Dances and these Scottish figures is about the same as leisurely stirring a cup o' Tea and beating up a batter pudding." Ben Jonson makes a fleeting appearance because of his extraordinary (to modern readers) attempt to justify his critical comments on Shakespeare: "He flowed with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped".

With the exception of Shakespeare, however, playwrights have not been included: a difficult decision, John Gross explains, but a necessary one, if he is to achieve his intention of updating Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's hugely popular Oxford Book of English Prose (it sold more than 1 million copies) published in 1925. And, indeed, it has left him with room for a richly diverse group of 20th-century writers - from Woolf, Joyce, Wodehouse and H L Mencken (who wrote prophet-ically in 1933, "The Americano has a stupendous capacity for believing, and especially for believing in what is palpably not true") to Margaret Atwood (who dreams of sex with Raymond Chandler), Wole Soyinka (on his childhood in Ake, Nigeria), Matthew Parris (memorably comparing the fall of Margaret Thatcher to Chinese opera or Greek tragedy), Clive James (on the Jaffa Cake) and, his final choice, Kazuo Ishiguro.

This is very much a personal scrapbook; a collection not just of obvious pleasures, but of private passions. John Gross's authors appear in strictly chronological order, which, in itself, provides more than a few surprises as we discover Jane Austen sandwiched between Robert Southey on Nelson and Charles Lamb on "Witches and other Night Fears". More pleasing still is to discover that Dorothy Wordsworth has been given almost as much space as her brother.

An anthology, then, not just of fine writing (John Gross is concerned to ensure our modern fear of purple prose does not prevent us from appreciating "true eloquence"), but of fleeting, profound and quirky observations, of both wild and hothouse flowers.

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