The German fire-bombs hit at night on December 29, 1940, raining down heavily on Paternoster Row in London. You could scarcely pick a more flammable part of the city. Paternoster Row had been a bustling hub for the British book trade since the 19th century, and, at Paternoster House, E.C.4, it housed the storerooms of publishers Selwyn & Blount. Tucked inside was almost the entire first edition stock of John Mulgan’s classic New Zealand novel, Man Alone.
Six million books — Mulgan’s included — were incinerated. The fires caused by the Luftwaffe attack would engulf more of London than the Great Fire of 1666.
Though released in October 1939, much of Man Alone’s initial print run had remained in Mulgan’s publisher Selwyn & Blount’s premises, including the plates. It was, as Mulgan himself would describe it, published at “the worst of times.” With the war, Britain had other priorities. “Mulgan was unlucky with the timing of publishing Man Alone,” said Vincent O’Sullivan, Mulgan’s biographer. “It came out in 1939, when there was a lot more to occupy the press than book reviews. At another time it would almost certainly have been more widely reviewed.”
Mulgan’s response to the loss of the books isn’t known – but he wrote plenty about his distaste for Man Alone. “Honest but dull,” he called it, in letters home. “Lacks conviction…sordid Hemingwayesque…beer without alcohol.”
O’Sullivan recalls conversations with Mulgan’s widow, who told him that Mulgan would chip away at the book at night, poring over maps of the North Island. “He never talked closely with many people about what his intentions were. She just remembers him working on this book but not really saying much about it.”
“I think he would have moved away from fiction,” said Peter Whiteford, a professor of New Zealand and Medieval literature and the editor of Victoria University Press’ re-release of Man Alone. “Political journalism is more likely to have been his thing.”
“He said once that he had this sort of fantasy about being the editor of a small newspaper in a small New Zealand town”
By the time the books were wiped out by the Luftwaffe, putting an end to any further distribution in his lifetime, Mulgan was preoccupied with army training. “He was a good soldier, and very serious about soldiering,” O’Sullivan said. What would Mulgan have thought had he found out the novel he disregarded would come to be regarded as a New Zealand classic? “I think he’d be surprised at the attention the book got later,” O’Sullivan laughed. “As he once said, his interest was really more in journalism. He even said once that he had this sort of fantasy about being the editor of a small newspaper in a small New Zealand town.”
Rowan Gibbs first started working at a bookshop in 1972. Between then and now, Gibbs, now a semi-retired secondhand bookseller in Wellington, saw only three first-edition copies of Man Alone, and only one with its iconic dust jacket of the book’s hero trekking towards the Kaimanawa mountain range. Few copies of the first edition of Man Alone made it to New Zealand before the war. In the decades after, they became one of New Zealand’s rarest books.
Gibbs’ three copies all found their way to him from Mulgan’s contemporaries. “People who were roughly the same age as Mulgan would’ve been and who bought the books at the time,” Gibbs said. “I only ever saw one with a dust jacket on. I don’t know what it would sell for now. Perhaps four, five thousand dollars? Possibly even more.”
Although Gibbs hasn’t seen a copy for years, the last Man Alone first edition to cross his desk was around the late 80s, or early 90s. It sold for about $1000, even without a dust jacket.
In the decade after his first novel was published, Mulgan’s army life took him to the Middle East, and on to Greece. In 1945, in Cairo on the eve of Anzac Day, he took an overdose of morphine. By that time, the book had become a distant concern for Mulgan, and Selwyn & Blount no longer existed.
“There was interest in the book [when it was republished in 1949] because John himself had recently committed suicide”
The book’s story would’ve ended there, had it not been for a small publisher in Hamilton. Apart from a few of Mulgan’s friends like James Bertram, who reviewed Man Alone in the Christchurch-based left-wing journal Tomorrow in 1940, few people in New Zealand had read it – until it was republished in 1949 by Paul’s Book Arcade in Hamilton, supported by the State Literary Fund.
This time round, there was considerable interest in the book. “A factor in this which must obviously be taken into account is there was interest in the book because John himself had recently committed suicide,” O’Sullivan said. “Here was an obviously gifted young New Zealander — this was the only book he had ever written, and he was still in living memory.” The book has been in print ever since.
But those first edition copies Gibbs rarely sighted were special for another reason. Until this year, they held the only available copy of Mulgan’s original text that went up in the bombing. “The text of the editions produced in New Zealand [since the first Hamilton version] is not the text that John Mulgan presented to his publishers or that Selwyn and Blount released in 1939,” Peter Whiteford writes in his introduction to the re-release of Man Alone. When the book was reset in 1948 in preparation for publishing a year later, a number of changes to the text were made, which, Whiteford writes, “one imagines were seen as improvements to the text.”
Whiteford’s book restores Mulgan’s original text. The restoration process involved Whiteford and a research assistant reading the original text aloud while the other noted any differences in the later edition. All subsequent New Zealand editions were also scrutinised. Whiteford’s first edition copy came from O’Sullivan. It’s that copy’s battered dust jacket that adorns the cover of the new edition.
“Here, at any rate, is one novel that tells the truth about New Zealand”
While Whiteford’s new edition doesn’t drastically alter the meaning of Man Alone, it does offer a greater sense of “remoteness and isolation”, he believes.
“Here, at any rate, is one novel that tells the truth about New Zealand,” James Bertram wrote in his Tomorrow review. Unlike the more hopeful novels by Mulgan’s father and his contemporaries, Mulgan’s take on New Zealand was “new and direct and unsentimental and realistic of what New Zealand society was like in the 1930s,” O’Sullivan said. “Looking back, Mulgan thought New Zealand society was very narrow and mean spirited at that time,” O’Sullivan said. “There was, you know, land owners who weren’t doing too badly [in the Depression], while the average New Zealander was not doing well at all. He was never a communist like some of his contemporaries, but he was clearly a person of strong socialist views.
“You can read those into his sympathy for the working man. The word he uses nearly the most — the adjective — in Man Alone about things he’s describing is ‘mean’. A mean society with limited resources, limited ambitions…It was partly a book that was defining the New Zealand he had left, but I think it’s partly also a book about disappointment in New Zealand as well.”
“I think I will write one good book some day,” Mulgan wrote once in a letter after Man Alone was first published. It’s fair to say he already had.
Man Alone by John Mulgan, edited by Peter Whiteford (Victoria University Press, $30) is available in bookstores nationwide