Scenes from the Untold Story of William Cooper [Archives:2006/942/Education]

May 1 2006

Anil K Prasad, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Faculty of Arts,
Ibb University

“Scenes from the Untold Story of William Cooper: A Book for the Common Reader.”

“If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”

)Toni Morrison

The book, Scenes from the Untold Story of William Cooper, is about Harry Summerfield Hoff', the British novelist who wrote under the pen-name of William Cooper. It is “a whirlwind tour” (p 8), as the author says in the 'Preface', brief and rapid, of his personal and literary engagements – from Scene II, ” Who is William Cooper?” to Scene XVIII, “The Making of William Cooper, the Novelist”, during which the author seems to have used the cinematic techniques of long shot, medium shot and close-up, and sometimes crane shots. He served in the Royal Air Force in World War II, and later became a civil servant, associating closely ( Scene IV, “William Cooper Meeting C.P. Snow”) with C. P. Snow, who appears in “light disguise” as Robert in the Scenes novels. After retiring from the civil service, he held an academic position.

The book contains eighteen 'Scenes' in addition to, 'Foreword', 'Acknowledgements', 'Preface', and 'Appendices' . In the 'Foreword', the Author says that “this little book is a new experiment in story-telling” ( p 5) and through his effortlessly succinct yet multi-layered tale he provides the reader with a three-fold aim of the book : a) “the book presents the struggles of the artist and the critic in mutually complimentary relationships and unfolds the trials and tribulations of the novelist and the critic trying to carve out their destinies in spite of the numerous challenges confronting them”, b) “to give the reader an insight into the inner labyrinths of artistic creation” to enable the reader ” to see what are the things that go on in the mental laboratory of an artist.” and c) “the book also makes a small contribution to the understanding of the Modern English Novel” (p 5).

The very first paragraph of the “Foreword' attracts the reader towards two points and invites comments, firstly, on the author's observation about the way the story has been told and secondly, on the book's attempt to foreground ” the flowering of a friendship spread through a considerably large span of time, covering two countries-India and England.” (p 5). Looking at the extension and expansion of the Novel as a literary form in recent years it can be inferred that Professor Sinha is not unaware of the latest experimental trends in storytelling (Cooper in his lecture that he gave at the University of Rajsthan, India, also talks about the inclusiveness of the novel form , ” The novel is wonderfully inclusive: there is room in it for all sorts” (pp 68-69). His sense of detachment and understatements remind one of Jane Austen. In his write-up prefixed to the manuscript, Prof Krishnamurthy has noted this characteristics of Professor Sinha's art of critical narration, ” Not only Cooper, but his critic, Dr Sinha is capable of understatement” (emphasis added).

Secondly, the author-protagonist relationship in this book divided into 'Scenes' also points to the fact that he is not only the author but also one of the characters in the ” Scenes from the Untold Story of William Cooper” who played his part, first of doing his Ph.D. on William Cooper and while writing his dissertation corresponding with him and interviewing him and slowly and steadily in the process becoming from ” Dr Sinha to “Ashok” and “My very dear Ashok” (p75) being transformed in the process as a teacher of “English at a remote provincial college in a distant place in India” into a person who could “slowly but surely establish a lasting relationship with a famous modern English novelist” ( p 9). In other words, the author is also a persona, by whom the various scenes unfold themselves through the shifting narrative perspectives of an “I”. Another significant aspect of this book is the author's address to the common readers, the “young people of today” for whom the author likes to emphasize that “[H]uman relationships are possible, cutting across the boundaries of nations” (p 9) . But to my mind this book is an interesting and profitable reading for any reader who is interested in the development of the art and craft of William Cooper, the novelist and an everlasting friendship between a researcher and a writer. . The author, it seems from his brief comment at the end of each scene, is inviting reader's response as if to urge him/her fill the “gaps” in his story. For example, at the end of Scene XI, he says, ” So the common reader must have noticed through the foregoing analysis that ” ( p 53). And again, like other concluding authorial intrusions which connect one scene with the other, in Scene XIV, ” Cooper's brief passage to India proved to be only a wonderful lull before a storm that was soon to break into his life. Cooper was soon to loose his wife Joyce, forever” (p 74).

The various scenes the book is composed of are important for a variety of “common readers”. For example, to the reviewer of the book Scenes, XII, XIII, XIV, and XV are of special attraction for they are expressions of and are appealing to the intellectual and emotional sides of the same personality. In the case of a student of English Language and Literature, a research scholar doing work on the modern English novel, or a “common reader” in the sense Virginia Woolf used it, or as Dr Johnson referred to the reader who differed from a scholar or a critic, the book is interesting and invaluable. Besides, it is useful for the teachers of English for it provides many ” real” examples of letters and interviews in well-written modern English prose which are indispensable to a course on English Discourse Skills. Evidently, the book ends with the oft-quoted lines of Christina Georgina Rossetti: “Will there be beds for me and all who seek?/Yea, beds for all who come” (p 104).

The subtitle of an article published in the Guardian on Saturday, September 7, 2002 appropriately calls him the “Novelist who depicted the mysteriousness of ordinary people through a naturalistic eye”. ” He was one of those novelist-individualists” stretching from Arnold Bennett to John Braine who have tended to forfeit the critics' interest because they lack experimental urges”. William Cooper is quoted by Norman Shrapnel, the author of the article mentioned above, “I've always said I can't write an autobiography,” The author of Scenes From The Untold Story of William Cooper has written a biography of William Cooper to commemorate his friendship with the novelist. But this book is not only a biography. It is a reassessment of William Cooper and a tribute to the genius of ” an increasingly honest man and not too proud of it, conscious that the virtue can embody a multitude of sins. Undoubtedly a man of our time.”. It is also an aide memoire that William Cooper's Scenes from Provincial Life (1950) was acknowledged as having inspired the new writers such as Kingsley Amis, John Braine, John Wain, Stan Barstow, Colin Mac Innes, Stanley Middleton and Allan Sillitoe” (p 92).

I think it might be a good idea to include an index in the book to make the book more convenient and useful for the students and researchers and to add some photographs to the book to bring the scenes alive for the common reader who, like an Alice in wonderland, harbours a love of a mental sketching out of whatever he runs into. And as Zhuangzi ( also known as Chuang-tzu), the Chinese philosopher and teacher says, “Both small and great things must equally possess form. The mind cannot picture to itself a thing without form, nor conceive a form of unlimited dimensions”. This “little book” (pp 5, 6) is Professor Sinha's little masterpiece which thoroughly proves that he has an aesthetic feel for the form and “an eye for a nuance, an ear for irony” and makes him a storyteller with a distinctive voice. The common reader “will perhaps not mind spending sometime to see how things are not bad as they really seem to be” (p 10).

Prepublication Review of Scenes from the Untold Story of William Cooper, (2006) A. K. Sinha, Faculty of Education, Hodeidah University, Republic of Yemen. Foolscap typed pp. 112.