Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Robert Irwin - not the painter or the real-estate expert

Having got somewhere with searching for more information on Pamela Hansford Johnson a few days ago (having failed to turn up anything previously), I've been inspired by my participation in the work Book Group to seek out some more information on Robert Irwin, the other (mostly) out-of-print novelist whose writing fascinates me. Without much luck.

Here at work there's a group of about fifteen of us who meet up every month to discuss a book; yes, I know, rather a second-hand concept, and rather restricting reading books you wouldn't ordinarily read (but also quite surprising). But it's as good an excuse for a drink at lunchtime as I need. Anyway, I have to suggest a 'horror' novel tomorrow so I was casting about for something suitable ('...Confessions of a Justified Sinner?', erm... 'Jane Eyre'!?) and thought about suggesting Irwin's remarkable 'Satan Wants Me' - not really horror of course, but dark and satanic, as well as being hilarious and unconventional. Anyway, that got me thinking about what a wonderful writer he was, and that in turn reminded me of the occasion when I first heard of him.

I'm a complete hoarder - always keeping newspaper cuttings, leaflets, flyers, old cassettes, magazines etc - so it comes as no surprise that I once had in my possession a dog eared article about Robert Irwin which I lost long ago. I'd found it in a copy of something like The Times or The Telegraph on a tube train about six years ago, and it was basically a story about the journalist who, sometime in the mid 80s, had encountered a short novel by Irwin (at that point, even more than now, very much an un-celebrated writer) called 'The Mysteries of Algiers', which had amazed him. He, despite this, and like the rest of world, remained in a state of pretty much ignorance about the rest of Irwin's work, until he published the incredibly successful and absolutely wonderful 'Satan Wants Me'. So the book charted his re-discovery of the author. At the time, it inspired me to read Irwin so much that I sought out the new book (kind of Adrian Mole goes Satanic in the 1960s) and an earlier one, 'Exquisite Corpse', (which was set in the surrealist movement of the 30s) both of which I loved.

Since then, sightings of Robert Irwin have been few and far between, although, as one of the most celebrated scholars of Arabian art and Muslim thought he has come back into fashion post 9/11, in an academic sense, at least (he recently wrote a well received non-fiction study of the Allhambra). What I just tried to do was find that old article, or anything else I could - interviews, reviews, articles. Well, I found almost nothing. Still, Dedalus Books, his publisher, does at least have a bibliography of his fiction work on their website, and looking at Amazon, they've some of his books second hand. So far I've resisted putting my hand in my pocket, but it may be just a matter of time.

Most bookshops stock Satan Wants Me, however. There aren't many books I recommend more.

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