The African Witch
To Be a Pilgrim
The Horse's Mouth
Prisoner of Grace
Except the Lord
Not Honour More
The writer, dead or alive, whose work is out of print has one foot in the grave. His books may continue to show a resistant vitality in the dusty marketplace of the secondhand shop, but the fall from mass circulation is an ominous reminder that, in the long run, the long run’s very long indeed. The literary world surely offers few sights more heartening than the reappearance of a worthy book that had somehow dropped out of all the publishers’ catalogues, and New Directions is to be triply commended, then, for reissuing, in a set of three handsome paperbacks, Joyce Cary’s “Second Trilogy.”
The publication of these three novels—Prisoner of Grace (first published in 1952), Except the Lord (1953), and Not Honour More (1955)—would be a welcome event in any case, given the trilogy’s considerable merits. But their return is gratifying for sentimental as well as literary reasons, since they might fairly be regarded as Cary’s final achievement. A posthumous novel, The Captive and the Free, was published in 1959, two years after his death, but this was a book sadly constricted by the degenerative neurological disease, disseminated neuritis, that was diagnosed in 1956 and that left Cary in the last months of his life unable even to use a fountain pen. For some years before his death Cary suffered from “mysterious ailments,” and it may be that he already had contracted disseminated neuritis—already had one foot in the grave himself—during the completion of the “Second Trilogy.” But the reader will find no trace of an encroaching enfeeblement in its lively pages.
If the last, bedridden years of Cary’s career are dismal to contemplate, the early years are not much more cheering. As Malcolm Foster’s useful biography of Cary makes clear,* few successful writers have undergone a more frustrating, painfully protracted apprenticeship. By the end of his life, Cary’s confident and fluent books received a critical and popular success, yet the path to this success was wearisomely tortuous. Cary was approaching forty-five when his first novel, Aissa Saved, appeared in 1932. More than two decades of literary floundering, of false starts and punctured enthusiasms, were required before Cary saw one of his many attempted novels published—to poor reviews and poorer sales.
To appreciate the full extent of Cary’s long artistic pilgrimage, one must add the years during which he struggled as a painter to his two decades of literary struggling. At the age of seventeen, Cary abandoned his schooling in England to study art in Paris, where for a year, having fallen under the spell of the Impressionists, he lived a life of contented bohemianism. He then went to Edinburgh, where he studied painting for two more years. When he decided, at about the age of twenty, that he lacked the talent to pursue painting professionally and would become a writer instead, he was faced with the unpleasant task of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.