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Two men fought (1936)

Novel (320 pages, 97,395 words)

Two men fought
New edition
available from Lulu.com

The Book

The story is a domestic tragedy set in a group of Cornish villages on the south coast near Fowey and Truro. Jim Lavinet, son of a rabbit trapper, and Stephen Cornelly, son of a fisherman, start a feud as ten-year-olds that lasts through school, marriage, fatherhood and a failed business partnership, until they both die in an accident at sea. A notebook of Canning's contains a two-page outline, showing that the original title was "The Headland". There the main characters are identified simply as F and T, standing for Fisherman and Trapper, and the distrust of sea-going people for landsmen forms part of the tension. Nevertheless, Canning creates two memorable individuals in his protagonists.

The descriptions of nature display love for and deep knowledge of this landscape. Although the place names are fictional, Canning was writing from real familiarity. The book shows Canning trying to do for Cornwall what Thomas Hardy does for Dorset or Emily Brontė for Yorkshire. In later "Alan Gould" books Canning also enters the literary worlds of Dostoyevsky and Conrad.

Background

This was the first of Canning's "Alan Gould" novels, published in 1936 by Collins instead of by Canning's regular publisher, Hodder and Stoughton. It is not clear why Canning adopted a pen-name and went to Collins at this stage of his career. It might have been that Hodder did not want more than one book a year from him. Canning took the pen-name from his mother's maiden name, but regularised the spelling from Goold to the commoner form of Gould. The book was published in March 1936 and was successful enough to have a second print run within the the first month. It attracted a glowing review from A.G.McDonnell in The Observer, and other positive reviews in The Scotsman and The Evening Standard. The first edition is extremely difficult to find on the second-hand market. The new edition from the p-o-d publishers lulu.com was released in 2009.

Review

Comparisons and contrasts—Reviews of new novels by A.G.McDonnell, The Observer, 22 March 1936.

One of the greatest descriptions of masculine hatred, stupid, irrational, unthinking, unnecessary, is Conrad’s seldom-quoted story about the Napoleonic wars. The Duel is a masterpiece in exactly the same that Flaubert’s last book (newly translated, I see) is a masterpiece. It shows the supreme silliness of mankind. And it also shows that men, though eternally children, are also eternally a menace to the world. Can any woman, looking at the pictures in the contemporary press of German soldiers goose-stepping into Cologne, really believe any longer in the doctrine of masculine image-of-Godness? Can any woman, contemplating the dirt and grime of our modern industrial cities and the poor stunted children, really think this globe is a perfect place where men are proposing to spend all the money in the world and a lot more on refurbishing guns and shells and the huge paraphernalia of death? All this is leading up to the consideration of a most remarkable first novel.
Two Men Fought is the description of a duel. Conrad’s duellists were French cavalry soldiers; Mr. Alan Gould’s are a Cornish fisherman and a Cornish game-trapper. Hussar-trappings and clinking spurs on the one side, and corduroys and nets on the other. The conditions are different and the men are different but the fundamentals are the same. Stephen Cornelly and Jim Lavinet rode in none of Murat’s immortal charges, but they could hate as vehemently as Murat hated Ney. Their fathers disliked each other and they accepted their inheritance with compound interest. And once the inheritance had been accepted, the deadly tale unfolded itself. There were years in which they were almost civil to each other. There were years in which they went into partnership in a fish-and-game shop. But underneath this civility and the partnership smouldered the ancient hatred. And in the end the two men died literally in each other’s arms. For Jim, the landsman, went out fishing and got lost in a fog, and Stephen the fisherman went out to save him and they were run down by a groping steamer, and Stephen tried to save the life of his old enemy and both were drowned.
Mr. Gould has done a very interesting thing, just as Pallas Athene may be said to have done an interesting thing in the first step in her life. C’est le premier pas qui coute as Mme. de Sevigne said about the martyr who walked a mile or so with his head in his hands, and Mr. Gould’s first step will count a great deal or I am grievously mistaken. For he has emerged full-fledged. His writing is strong and unpadded. His characters are leaping with vitality. His sense of plot is flawless. And yet it is a first novel. I think he ought to be described by the gossip-writers in their quaint style as “Mr. Alan (Pallas Athene) Gould”.