A post by my friend, Frank Wilson, at booksinq, earlier this month, provided me with my December 'Coincidence of the Month.' It also led to a great discussion of an author with whom we're probably all familiar, at least a little bit ... though we may not know it.
Frank was recalling James Hilton, a popular novelist of the 1930s and '40s who had several books ("Lost Horizon," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Random Harvest") adapted into successful films. "I don't know whether anyone reads his books today," Frank wrote, "though they are certainly worth reading."
I had just finished reading "Lost Horizon" that same week, and had thought of writing Frank about it, and asking his opinion (as Book Review Editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer) of 'Where is James Hilton in today's reading consciousness?' or something to that effect.
I think many people out there may be like me ... saw and enjoyed the movie adapted from the book ... but never read the book itself.
I think Hilton is a wonderful writer, especially when it comes to presenting characters ... their way of speaking and relating to one another, their strengths and their shortcomings, and the strange, sometimes unpredictable course those characters may choose to follow.
I have read that his setting and characters in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" were inspired by his own experiences as a schoolboy in Cambridge. I don't doubt that he became all-too-familiar, as well, with the men and shells-of-men who returned to England from World War I, many of who may have nodded, knowingly, at what happened to Conway in "Lost Horizon," and may have yearned, themselves, for the peace he found in the Valley of the Blue Moon.
Yet, he leaves that peace behind, yielding to a sense of duty to the world he left behind, and to a young co-worker who remains determined to return to that world (in the film, the co-worker becomes Conway's kid brother, perhaps to better persuade film audiences wondering why Conway would leave).
I also enjoyed the setting, so exotic, so far-removed from the commonplace in England. But, then, I have always been a fan of adventures in faraway lands ... guess it comes from reading H. Rider Haggard when I was young.
I am left wondering, as the narrator does in the book's closing line, whether or not Conway makes it back to Shangri-La, and I believe the narrator shares my hope that he DOES. Still, though, we don't know. In the film, audiences are not left wondering, and are given a final, visual assurance that Conway eventually makes his way - albeit with great difficulty - back to the Valley of the Blue Moon.
All in all, a very good read. In fact. I'm going back to that 'Friends of the Midland Library' bookstore - where I found "Lost Horizon" - to see if they have some of his other works. If not, well, there's always Amazon.