Category: Lewis Herbert Clyde

A selection of 2023 favourites

I don’t know why it happened, but there were times this year when I just fell out of the habit of reading. This is not what I want, and my aim for 2024 is to find my way back in – with this space to help. For now, though, I’m looking back on 2023. It didn’t feel right to do my usual countdown of twelve books, so instead I’ve picked out six favourites, in no particular order:

Appius and Virginia (1932) by Gertrude Trevelyan 

It sounds as though it will be whimsical: the tale of a woman who buys an orang-utan with the aim of raising it as a human. What it becomes, though, is a chilling exploration of the unbridgeable gap between one mind and another. 

Whale (2004) by Cheon Myeong-kwan
Translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim (2022)

I won’t pretend I always knew what I was reading with this book, but I do know I enjoyed it. Whale is a dance through recent Korean history, with trauma, violence, humour and magic all present in the stories of its larger-than-life characters. 

Is Mother Dead (2020) by Vigdis Hjorth
Translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund (2022)

Johanna returns to Oslo after almost thirty years, speculating intensely over what may have happened to her mother. What I found most striking about this novel is how it transforms our perception of Johanna without changing the essential tone of her narration. 

Gentleman Overboard (1937) by Herbert Clyde Lewis

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this portrait of a man whose layers of gentility are literally stripped from him when he falls into the sea. I found it quite powerful, especially in how it highlights that the smallest things can be both significant and insignificant, depending on the viewpoint.

War with the Newts (1936) by Karel Čapek
Translated from Czech by M. and R. Weatherall (1937)

A shape-shifting satire in which intelligent salamanders are first exploited by humans, and then rebel against them. I was pleased to find that the novel still has considerable bite, and appreciated that it couldn’t be reduced easily to a single metaphor or interpretation. 

Time Shelter (2020) by Georgi Gospodinov
Translated from Bulgarian by Angela Rodel (2022)

I love how the canvas of this novel widens, from a clinic that helps dementia patients by recreating the past, to a whole continent retreating into nostalgia. Time Shelter examines the dangers of becoming fixated on the past, and the narrator’s memory fails him, suggesting there is no shelter from time after all. 


There are my reading highlights of 2023. You can find my round-ups from previous years here:

2022, 2021202020192018, 20172016201520142013201220112010, and 2009.

You can also fined me on social media at Instagram, Facebook, Bluesky, and X/Twitter. See you next year!

Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Earlier this year, I read Appius and Virginia by Gertrude Trevelyan, which had found its way back into print thanks to Brad Bigelow from the Neglected Books Page. Brad also has an ongoing series with Boiler House Press, Recovered Books, which aims to bring back more ‘forgotten’ titles. 

The first entry in the Recovered Books series was Gentleman Overboard, a short novel originally published in 1937 and written by an American journalist, Herbert Clyde Lewis (1909-50). Lewis introduces us to Henry Preston Standish: a 35-year-old New York businessman, materially comfortable but with a nagging feeling that something is missing in his life. 

Standish leaves behind his wife and young daughter to take a trip on a steamship. He’s on deck early one morning when, unseen, he slips on a spot of grease and falls into the Pacific. In this situation, Lewis puts Standish and his sense of self under the microscope. Standish’s immediate emotion on falling overboard is shame, because this is not the sort of thing that should happen to someone like him:

Men of Henry Preston Standish’s class did not go around falling off ships in the middle of the ocean; it just was not done, that was all. it was a stupid, childish, unmannerly thing to do, and if there had been anybody’s pardon to beg, Standish would have begged it.

At first, Standish’s sense of decorum remains, but the reality of his predicament eventually hits home. He starts removing his outer clothes to stay afloat, and abandoning the contents of his wallet. The layers of his genteel life are literally stripped away. 

Lewis combines contradictory tones in a way I found quite powerful: Gentleman Overboard is both comic and tragic, banal and affecting. For example here’s a passage where Standish reflects on what might be lost if he were to drown:

There would be voids everywhere through no fault of his. A void in the elevator boy’s pocket next Christmas, a void in the telephone book, a void on the office stationery…New York City would be dotted with spaces that could never be filled by anyone but the real Henry Preston Standish; his locker at the Athletic Club, the hollow in his bed, the interior of his dinner jacket, to mention just a few.

There is something absurd in the small scope of what Standish describes here. But when I think about it, it seems to me that this captures something of what life is like. Yes, in the broader picture, one human life may be insignificant; but on an individual scale, even the smallest things can carry meaning. Lewis holds these contradictions in a finely balanced tension. 

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