SCHEHERAZADE, narrator of The Thousdand and One Nights, was, says E.M. Forster, "a great novelist -- exquisite in her descriptions, tolerant in her judgments, ingenious in her incidents, advanced in her morality, vivid in her delineations of character."
None of these Nobel Prize gifts kept her alive, however: "She survived only because she managed to keep the king wondering what would happen next."
It is that simple quality which Forster calls "And then? and then?" that irradiates the group of novels which Geoffrey Bocca has assembled for examination in Best Seller, subtitled "a nostalgic celebration of the less-than-great books you have always been afraid to admit you loved."
When I examined the list Bocca had chosen, I discovered that I had read 10 of his 15 selections, which I suppose qualifies me as a sort of expert in this field, or perhaps jungle would be a better word, because admittedly when one enters the world of what our parents and teachers disparagingly called "cheap fiction" one must travel light and be prepared for cultural surprises.
Left behind must be all those standards by which we judge the serious works from which we are supposed to draw knowledge, wisdom and the wider visions of art. We must accept one-dimensional characters, concatenations of coincidence, and dialogue which runs from the wooden to the declamatory. It doesn't matter. We are following a story, and at the end of our journey if we are not rewarded with wisdom, we have got something livelier, romance.
Sigmund Freud is one of the great men of our century, and we're all the better for his illuminations of ourselves, but I'm afraid his principles when applied to creative writing have tended to slow things down. Too many novels of our day, even the lightweight ones intended like Bocca's bunch for nothing more than entertainment, are freighted beyond their weight with speculation about motivation, and self-analysis on the part of the sensitive narrator. It is the kind of thing which could have cost Scheherazade her head, and has caused many contemporary novelists to lose the small gift of my attention.
Unless I am exploring the higher reaches of human understanding with such Alpine guides as Tolstoi, Hardy or Melville, I prefer the pleasures of headlong narrative, the sort of thing promised by a Rider Haggard opening.
After a word or two of hello, we get right at it. "I am laid up here in Durban with the pain and trouble in my left leg. Ever since that confounded lion got hold of me I have been liable to it."
Before you can say, "What lion?," Allan Quatermain and his trusty but improbable companions are on their way to King Solomon's Mines.
"The pace of his narrative," observes Bocca approvingly, "would swamp the reader if he had, in addition, to deal with the tumult of human neurosis."
I am reminded of my old friend, the actor Barry Morse, who, working in a provincial repertory company which did six performances in three days, asked the director whether he shouldn't take a pause upon hearing of the death of his mother.
"No time for pauses, old boy," was the answer, "We're twice nightly you know."
Here are some characters still very much alive like Tarzan of the Apes, Lord Greystoke, who endlessly "tears off the thin veneer of civilization" and emits his yodelling roar. (How many of life's defeated dreamed over these books in hall bedrooms, wishing to tear off that veneer, and wishing that a powerful apeman were underneath it.)
Alive only because of TV is Owen Wister's The Virginian, famous, too, for its's great challenge, "When you call me that, smile!"
P.C. Wren's Beau Geste is hard to find in the library now, but late at nigt, in flickering black-and-white, Fort Zinderneuf is again and again, in assorted film versions, the scene of Beau's Viking funeral.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, like Tarzan, gave birth to a whole series of imitations. Baroness Orczy's Sir Percy Blakeney was the first of many who were fops by day and furious fencers by night -- "Is he in Heaven?/ Is he in Hell?/ That damned elusive Pimpernel."
One of Bocca's choices, The Green Hat, by Michael Arlen, is so forgotten that its forgottenness is constantly discussed, and two of his writers, Graustark's George Barr McCutcheon and the terrifyingly prolific E. Phillips Oppenheim are totally forgotten, except by people like me, proud owner of McCutcheon complete, and a nice assortment of early, middle and late Oppenheim.
The Bocca method is to give us tastes of plot garnished with a little light-hearted research, and it works well, recalling for some the late night page-turnings of long ago, and offering to others stories unslowed by sober thought.
Books like these are endlessly re-readable. Even the austere Forster admits to shipwrecking himself again and again with the wonderfully foolish Swiss Family Robinson, and the great London Times leader writer Bernard Darwin, once remarked he had to admit to reading Frank Fairleigh, a schoolboy novel, many more times than he had essayed Hamlet, just because Frank was more fun.
Still these "and then" artists show up in more surprising places than the deep-thought libraries of Forster and Darwin.
The off-the-cliff first line of Rafael Sabatini's Scaramouche, a book Bocca admires but didn't include, is engraved over a graduate school gate at Yale. The authorities have embarrassedly grown ivy over it but it speaks the promise of all the tale-tellers since the Arabian nights.
"He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad."