Neglected Classics and Rasselas

There’s a dramatisation of The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (Sunday May 22nd). Last year Radio 4’s Open Book programme had a feature in which various authors chose a favourite ‘neglected classic’. Listeners then voted for their favourite, and the one with most votes was dramatised for the Classic Serial slot. Michael Morpurgo chose the winner (it won by a very large majority).

I can’t help feeling that perhaps it would have been more appropriate for the book which received the least number of votes to have “won”, in which case it would have been The Quest for Corvo by A J A Symons.

Admittedly the Snow Goose has been neglected – in the days when there were secondhand bookshops around they usually had umpteen copies of the rather slim volume, sometimes even boxes full of various Gallico titles.

As a great admirer of the Doctor (that is, Johnson, not Who (although I enjoy Who)) my vote went to The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. Almost a philosophical treatise rather than a novel, it asks whether it is possible to attain happiness, and although it is quite light reading it’s also somewhat melancholic.

The plot is simple: Rasselas is the son of an emperor and wanting for nothing, but he isn’t happy. He escapes (literally) from his ‘Happy Valley’ life and travels with his sister and a philosopher friend to seek the true path to happiness. Johnson decides that humans only realise they are happy when making a comparison with the misery of others, and the travellers return to Abyssinia in a rather inconclusive ending. It’s well worth reading, if you can put up with several chapters in which characters discuss the merits of various lifestyles and their contribution to happiness (or not). It’s quite short, quite witty, and, as I said, quite a light read.

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