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The Great Affair

Novel (332 pages, 114,370 words)

First UK edition
First edition
First American edition
First US edition
First UK paperback
Pan paperback
First UK paperback
Book club edition

Published by Heinemann in 1970 at 1.60, and by William Morrow and Co in the USA in 1971. There was a Heron Books edition and a Foyles Book Club edition in 1971. A paperback appeared in Pan Books in 1972. It says a lot about Canning's reputation and success at this time that the book should have been taken up so strongly, since it was quite unlike anything he had written before and does not seem to be aimed at his usual readership. It is the longest of his post-war books, and almost dream-like in its disconnectedness. It has not, as far as I know, been translated, though most of the thrillers that immediately preceded and followed it were translated into the main European languages.

The title comes from Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey, "For my part I travel not to go anywhere. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." However, it was just before this time that Canning conducted his affair with Diana Bird that led to the break-up of his marriage to Phyllis. I cannot help suspecting that the title was a private pun. The story, too, seems full of symbolism: the hero has just been let out of prison. He is a de-frocked priest who falls for a wayward girl. They travel partly to escape family ties. They do lots of things which are unconventional and illegal, though morally justified by their thinking. The whole book can be read as a covert love letter to Diana and gesture of defiance towards Phyllis.

The hero, Charles Nelo Sangster known as "Nelo", on release from prison goes to visit his brother, a Member of Parliament. The brother tries to persude him to emigrate to Australia, but Nelo declines and demands the diamond necklace which he should have inherited from his mother. He plans to sell it and donate the proceeds to La Guicha, a nun who runs a French orphanage. His brother refuses, so Nelo breaks in to his house at night, blows open the safe and sets off for Europe in the company of Sara Minihane, a girl he has just met after a cycling accident. In Portugal he has to fight a duel with pistols against an aristocrat who thinks Nelo has seduced his wife. Nelo's diamonds are stolen and he sets off in pursuit of the thief. After that the plot goes on getting wilder and wilder.