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Apollo Books and the Revival of Lost Literature: A Spotlight on Four Books

Daragh  Reddin By Daragh Reddin Published on February 27, 2018
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Named Independent Publisher of the Year at the 2017 British Book Awards, Head of Zeus has become one of the UK’s most exciting indie labels, thanks not only to its championing of top contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but to its dedicated efforts to spotlight forgotten literature through the Apollo imprint which it launched in 2016.

For readers who object to flimsy, easily dog-eared paperbacks, Apollo books are something worth clearing shelf space for. Each Apollo title is furnished with a crisp cover, a spine that’s agreeably crack resistant and endpapers that reproduce in full the attractive artwork – anything from a Norman Rockwell portrait to an obscure landscape painting – that appears in cropped form on the novel’s front cover.

Alongside neglected titles by North American authors such as Josephine Johnson, Margaret Laurence and Charles Neider, Apollo has also zeroed in on vital European novels that give voice to the experiences of characters whose identities have been forged in the crucible of war and political upheaval (Salvatore Satta’s The Day of Judgment; Ivo Andrić’s Bosnian Chronicle).

Later this year Apollo will add three new titles to its list which attest to the grand sweep of its operation: The Fire-Dwellers by Canada’s Margaret Laurence (May), Futility by Anglo-Russian William Gerhardie (July), and Voices in the Evening by Italy’s Natalia Ginzburg (November). 

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In the meantime, here are four hitherto overlooked or out of print titles, revived by Apollo, that are well worth investigating:

The Man who Loved Children by Christina Stead

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Buy The Man Who Loved Children here.

Were there a prize awarded for the most ironically-titled novel of the twentieth century then Christina Stead’s sprawling portrait of family dysfunction would surely merit a spot on the shortlist. Sam Pollit, the titular patriarch of Stead’s 1940 masterpiece, is a Washington bureaucrat whose arrant narcissism has devastating consequences for his fragile heiress wife Henny and seven shamefully neglected children.

Told from the viewpoint of eleven-year-old Louisa – Sam’s daughter from his first marriage – The Man who Loved Children explores the decline of the Pollit’s fortunes, both financial and psychological, as they limp from one crisis to the next in their crumbling Georgetown home. In Sam Pollit, Stead has created one of literature’s great bullies; when he’s not waging war on his increasingly neurotic spouse, this grinning – strangely magnetic – despot is hell-bent on polluting his children’s emotional lives with an endless stream of toxic, self-aggrandising babble.

Inspired by her own irredeemably miserable childhood in New South Wales, Australian-born Stead’s caustic 600-page saga is not for the faint-hearted. For those who stick the pace, however, The Man who Loved Children offers a singular and uncompromising vision of a family in freefall and is a work of serious moral intent.

The Hungry Grass by Richard Power

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Buy The Hungry Grass here.

The expression ‘forgotten classic’ has become so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless but in the case of Dubliner Richard Power’s sadly neglected 1969 novel, the term feels entirely apt. First published in 1969, only a year before the death of its author aged only forty-one, The Hungry Grass sees unpromising subject matter – the musings of a dissatisfied, acid-tongued Irish priest – transfigured into a heart-breaking aria for the unlived life.

Father Tom Conroy is nearing the end of his time on earth and, when he isn’t dealing with the demands of ministering to his flock in the one-horse west of Ireland village of Rosnagree, finds himself addled by disquieting dreams and ruminating on assorted regrets from his past, including a decades-old family riff for which he feels he must make restitution while he still can.

With a tremendous sense of pathos, Power’s graceful gem of a novel presents a fully-rounded protagonist who is by turns sardonic, bemused and irritable, but whose fierce intellect and grudging decency remain undimmed despite years of personal disappointment and stultifying routine. In prose that is never less than iridescent, The Hungry Grass offers a remarkable elegy for squandered opportunity and has lost none of its potency in the forty years since publication.

The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinov

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Buy The Lost Europeans here.

Set in 1950s Berlin, Emanuel Litvinov’s thrilling study of displacement, guilt and reconciliation takes its name from the dispossessed Jewish souls who have lost their footing in the world in the aftermath of World War II. Martin Stone (born Silberstein) leaves England for Germany, the country of his birth, on a mission to find justice for his father whose bank was annexed by Nazis years earlier. Here he rubs shoulders with writer Hugo Krantz, a celebrated name in musical theatre during the heyday of the Weimar Republic, who is on a quest of his own: to uncover the fate of the lover who betrayed him to the authorities during the darkest days of totalitarianism.

Litvinov, the son of Jewish immigrants from Odessa who settled in London after fleeing tsarist oppression, travelled from his native East End to Berlin in 1957 to research this novel, and his diligence paid off. The Lost Europeans is a heady evocation of a city in moral stasis, with the poisonous fug of depravity an ever-present reminder of the city’s wartime past. Litvinov is excellent on describing the dichotomy between Berlin’s sullen monochrome East and devil-may-care West, but it is with his intriguing melee of heroes, vagabonds and miscreants that he brings post-War Berlin dizzyingly to life.

Ernesto by Umberto Saba

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Buy Ernesto here.

Set in 1898 in Trieste, poet Umberto Saba’s unfinished semi-autobiographical novella follows the exploits of eponymous sixteen-year-old Ernesto who, after his mother wangles him a job in a local warehouse, embarks on a relationship, with a lovelorn twenty-something labourer known merely as ‘the man’. Following an assignation with a female prostitute, Ernesto engineers the demise of his gay relationship. Later, in the last of the book’s three compressed sections, our antihero pursues a career in music and falls for fellow violinist, Emilio; after which point the novel comes abruptly to an end.

In his 1946 collection Short Cuts and Little Stories, Saba proved himself a fearless critic of Italy’s recent history with poems and vignettes that were a fierce indictment of a country reeling from the grim legacy of Fascism. In Ernesto – his only major prose work – he was equally undaunted when it came to writing candidly on the subject of nascent male desire. However, given the novel was still incomplete, after years of revision, at the time of Saba’s death in 1957, it’s fair to assume its author was well aware that Italian society was not yet ready for his frank, unflinching account of adolescent sexuality.

In terms of structure, Saba’s novel could be described as skeletal but his use of direct, unadorned language lends the work a sharp sense of immediacy, while his keen understanding of protean sexuality makes this a significant – even pioneering – work of gay literature.  


Daragh is an editor and freelance writer based in Dublin