A long-neglected 1937 novel by American writer Herbert Clyde Lewis has been republished and is reviewed in this week’s TLS. The book is entitled Gentleman Overboard and is reviewed by Ian Thomson. The review (entitled “A Yalie All at Sea”) explains its history:
…Why Gentleman Overboard, Herbert Clyde Lewis’s darkly comic tale, has remained out of print for eight decades is something of a mystery. When it was first published in 1937, Evelyn Waugh (writing in Night and Day) praised the slim novel as “thoroughly readable”. Lewis subsequently wrote three other books, including the anti-war Spring Offensive (1940), but none was so well received. Curiously, the novel has had more success abroad, with translations in Spanish, Dutch and Hebrew. Thanks to Boiler House Press, Lewis’s long-forgotten masterwork is now afloat once more in its original language.
Since Waugh’s short review has never been reprinted, this seemed like a good time to do so:
Mr. L.A.G. Strong has a generous praise for Gentleman Overboard. […] He calls it: “A brilliant example of the conte. A real find.” It is a very short novel, less than 150 pages, by Mr. Herbert Clyde Lewis. It describes the emotions of a man who at dawn falls from a liner in the Pacific, keeps afloat all day and drowns at evening. It is thoroughly readable and has one admirable ironic chapter in which the other passengers discuss the mishap; Mr. Standish, the hero, is an exemplary character, prosperous, happily married, stirred only by the mildest feeling of restlessness; he knows who his grandfather was and exhibits all the signs of mediocrity which in America are accepted as the evidence of high-breeding; his fellow-travellers assume that he has committed suicide and after some discussion are able to satisfy themselves of his motive. In spite of its brevity it is too long; a Frenchman could have told the story in 59 pages, but it is a commonplace, of which anyone who has business dealings with them is continually, bitterly reminded, that Americans are incapable of being concise. It can be read inattentively and will last a three-hour railway journey, with interludes for looking out the window, very comfortably.
L A G Strong was the pen name of an English novelist (Leonard Strong) who was popular in the 1930s and must have written a review of Gentleman Overboard in another paper. He has also recently been mentioned as an unjustifiably neglected writer.
As was typical for Waugh’s reviews in Night and Day, this one included two other books. The review, entitled “Uplift in Arabia”, was mostly concerned with the first of these, Triumphant Pilgrimage. This was the story, apparently a biography, of an Englishman who became a convert to Islam. Waugh was not impressed. Waugh’s assignment with Night and Day, edited by his friend Graham Greene, who also wrote the film reviews, extended over the entire short life of the magazine A contribution by Waugh appeared every week from July to December 1937. That may be the longest stint of regular journalistic output in Waugh’s career; his regular reports for the Daily Mail from Abyssinia extended from late August until early December 1935.
As explained in the TLS review of the reprint, the author of Gentleman Overboard came to an unhappy end:
…the author died alone in New York in 1950, at the age of forty-one. The heart attack that killed Lewis was a complication of his alcoholism and, it is suggested, the threat of making the Hollywood Blacklist. (An FBI informant had identified him as a member of the American Communist Party.) Conceivably, Lewis used alcohol to numb a sense of failure: having toiled for years as a reporter, he had high hopes of becoming a successful novelist, but he struggled constantly with debts, and ended his days in a squalid Greenwich Village hotel. As with Standish, his friends wondered if he had taken his own life.
The book is available at this link. Thanks are due to the staff at the University of Texas HRC Library for providing expedited access to the archived copies of Night and Day, facilitating the timely posting of this notice.