Both a non-fiction essay about fiction and a bibliography fleshing out a life, Fifty Forgotten Books is as much a memoir as a reading list – Desert Island Discs printed, stitched, and bound.

The stipulation that the books to hand be ‘forgotten’ frees R.B. Russell to plot a course using constellations of his own devising as his guide, enabling him to steer his ship into unexplored waters.

The publisher of Tartarus Press since 1990, Russell imprinted on the literary from an impressionable age. Accordingly, the early selections are empathetically forgiving when it comes to the affectations and follies of youth. His first choice, Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, could hardly be said to have been lost to obscurity, but rather acts as a displaced miniature of his own project, Wilson having collated a reading list of literary alienation in the British Museum by day while bedding down on park benches by night. Like an Ordnance Survey of existentialism, it provides Russell with his first map references.

If it’s Wilson who sets him upon his way, it’s Arthur Machen, the Welsh author and mystic, he sets upon as his North Star, the one which goes before him, illuminating each potential fork in the road.  It’s a pilgrimage on which there are no cul-de-sacs, as the fuse from each passion lights that of several more. At times, the map is more literal, the topography of the towns to which he is drawn defined less by the boundaries of rivers, roads, and seas and more by the backstreets which bind its bookshops together, and the knots of affection he begins to tie with their owners, and others, with passions just like his.

R.B. Russell by Rosalie Parker

For a while, these passions include a band, The Bollweevils, but their touch paper never quite combusts with the same brilliance, in spite of an interlude with Pulp violinis, Russell Senior, and it is Machen again who sets off the fireworks of his lifelong romances with Rosalie, his partner, and Tartarus, their publishing house based in North Yorkshire. Any further digressions stray less further from literature’s beaten track. A spell working for vanity publishers The Book Guild, which could have ended with Russell painting himself into a corner of cynicism, equips him instead with the tools to escape it.

Somehow, in spite of the promise in Fifty Forgotten Books’ title, the specific tomes that Russell presses metaphorically into the reader’s hand seem less important than the biographical details which forge his sensibilities, leading him on from bookshop to bookshop, from one novel to another. Each is a door he leaves tantalisingly ajar, although the thresholds which seem most alluring will vary according to one’s own particular tastes. No two readers will venture into the same series of chambers, although all will find rooms to pique their personal predilections.

The suites I found myself lingering in included that containing an edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers Of Evil, captivated not so much by the poetry itself but by the elegant decadence of the illustrations by Beresford Egan, succinctly summed up by Russell as “the 1920s Aubrey Beardsley”; a tribute act, to some extent, but very much in the topmost drawer of such. Likewise, I might not find myself wholly convinced by the merits of Frederick Rolfe as a writer, but it would take a dry and shrunken heart not to be curious about a character of whom it can be written, “vituperation can be reasonably considered to have been his greatest talent and crowning glory”.

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Ultimately, then, Russell’s book is less an atlas and more an extended lesson in cartography, an invitation to plot one’s own course through the algorithm of kindred spirits. Much like love, to lose yourself in it is to find your way again.

By Desmond Bullen

 

Fifty Forgotten Books by R. B. Russell, published by And Other Stories, is available to purchase here.

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