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Editor's Choice: ‘An Uncommon Reader’ A Biography of Edward Garnett

“An Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, Mentor and Editor and Literary Genius” by Helen Smith, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 440 pages, $35

The first member of the Garnett family to come to most readers’ attentions is almost always Constance Garnett, the famous Russian translator whose Dostoevsky is the first in the English language that many knew, for many decades and whose Chekhov and Tolstoy in English too were cornerstones. Not that we much enjoyed the post-Victorian clunk and bric-a-brac in her prose, you understand. It’s just that in our language, Constance Garnett literally spent decades as our first Dostoevsky. If you delved a bit deeper into the Garnetts, you would, for sure, encounter her son David, author of the utterly remarkable fantasy novel “Lady Into Fox.”

And now comes a major biography of the obscured (but hardly obscure) paterfamilias of the Garnett family, Edward Garnett, husband of Constance and father of David who was justifiably proud of being the “first man to be enthusiastic over ‘Lady Into Fox’ and take you in my arms with delight.” Here is a book that finally lifts a great man out of the letters and diaries of truly great contemporaries.

Edward Garnett (1868-1937) was a literary editor, mentor and critic of huge influence on some of the great writers and figures of his age. Without him, we’d likely never have known D. H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” Joseph Conrad wrote to him “I know you’ve made me.” Liam O’Flaherty wrote to him “if you had lived in Ireland instead of living in England, you would have become the father of Irish literature, instead of waiting for your death in England to get due recognition of your genius.” Henry Green wrote of him “for about 40 years, he had...a very powerful hand in most of what was written in England.” E.M. Forster, no less, said he’d done more “than any living writer to discover and encourage the genius of other writers and he has done it without any desire for personal prestige.”

Garnett will have some of it now 80 years after his death, courtesy of Helen Smith who has written a grand, attentive and thorough biography of a major figure who, it seems, has emerged from near-anonymity.

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