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Book Review :: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton book cover image

Guest Post by Colm McKenna

Orphaned from the age of 19, James Wrexham finds himself employed in a dreary office. Without friends or family, he is merely “a spectator in life”. James’ humdrum existence comes to an end after being hired as secretary to Mr. Jonathan Scrivener, an independent gentleman soon leaving England. He is set to receive a lavish salary and live in Scrivener’s flat while he is away. Scrivener remains a shadowy figure throughout; details about him come from a cast of his friends who in turn come to know James. Initially, they are all unaware of each other, and all describe Scrivener as a completely different person.

I am Jonathan Scrivener revolves around two central themes, the first being the existence of an untapped potential in the men and women of inter-war Britain. Instead of painting his characters as gloomy hollow men (seemingly well adjusted and successful people, yet spiritually bankrupt), Houghton is more optimistic. Wrexham writes countless formulaic job applications, but what he submits to Scrivener is a long epistle about himself, which he doesn’t reread. There is something in Wrexham that Scrivener appreciates, even if he is blind to it himself.

Houghton protects his characters from material constraints, because “leisure reveals us”. Work and physical necessity don’t allow us to understand ourselves: “of course people behave themselves on a treadmill; what the hell else can they do?” Wrexham was a shell of a man before being hired by Scrivener. The job he is hired into plays a minor part in the story. It simply functions as a springboard to leisure, the realm in which introspection begins, as well as life’s “real” problems. Though no doubt controversial, it is a profound thesis.

Although Valancourt Books have republished six of Houghton’s novels, there remains a dearth of content out of print. He wrote essays, theatre, poetry and plays; reprinting these would be a good way to show a newfound audience the other strings to Houghton’s bow. Many of his works are nearing their centenary; as the copyright is coming up for some of his underrated pieces, hopefully someone will resurrect them.

There is no biography on Houghton, and little else remains to pad out his life beyond a brief interview given to a writer’s directory in 1950. I Am Jonathan Scrivener was eventually dramatized in 1953, but this was 22 years after the book’s release, and by then Houghton’s fame had already begun to dwindle. He shared an agent with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie and William Faulkner (to name a few), and had a host of celebrity admirers. Whatever the reason for his lost fame, it will be obvious to his readers that it has nothing to do with literary merit.

I am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton. Valancourt Books, April 2013.

Reviewer bio: Colm McKenna is a second-hand bookseller based in Paris. He has published and self-published an array of short stories and articles, hoping to eventually release a collection of stories. He is mainly interested in the works of John Cowper Powys, Claude Houghton and a range of Latin American writers.