The long road to oblivion

D J Taylor on the life and death of William Cooper, a once celebrated writer whose recent funeral wa

Harry Hoff (this was the baptismal name of the novelist William Cooper) died three months ago at the advanced age of 92. His passing was not widely noticed and the handful of obituaries gave the impression of having lain long on the files. This was an injustice, as few writers have a better claim to have pushed the English novel along the particular path it took in the immediate postwar era: it was Cooper's wife Joyce, listening to a radio broadcast of Lucky Jim in the mid-1950s, who first told him that "here's a man who's been reading your books".

Though he published nearly 20 novels, in a career stretching back to the mid-1930s, Scenes From Provincial Life (1950) will always be the book by which Cooper is remembered. Half a century since its first appearance, the shock value of this tale of a Midlands schoolmaster, calmly balancing the demands of his literary ambitions with his love life in the shadow of approaching war, is not instantly apparent. In retrospect, it has less to do with the fairly frank treatment of sex, both hetero- and homosexual, than with the tone, in which a superficial playfulness often gives way to something a great deal more fierce.

There is a telling moment in which the hero, Joe Lunn, decides that his deepest feelings are summoned up by two activities - writing and making love to game but marriage-hungry Myrtle. Unhappily, Myrtle's distaste for Joe's books is only too plain. The piqued author reflects that he "would gladly have thrashed her for it". Scenes From Provincial Life is sprinkled with uncomfortable passages of this kind, and it is the occasional irruptions of Joe's egotism rather than the sexual encounters, written with one eye on the censor (Myrtle refers to a particular part of Joe's anatomy as "Albert"), that give the novel its lasting bite.

Like much of Cooper's best work, Provincial and its successors Married (1961), Metropolitan (1982) and Later (1983) are transparently autobiographical. Socially and intellectually, Cooper was one of his friend C P Snow's "new men" (a tag he borrowed for the title of one of his later novels, Memoirs of a New Man (published in 1966), part of the throng of early 20th-century scholarship boys from relatively modest backgrounds who went on to staff the postwar university common rooms and research labs. Cooper's training as a physicist was an important part of his fictional armoury, distinguishing him from practically every other literary man who wrote in the 1950s and providing the background to one of the few modern novels with an understanding of professional scientific life, The Struggles of Albert Woods (1952). He was an industrious man, combining high-powered jobs in the civil service with a writing output that would have disgraced many a full-time study-haunter.

None of this formal record, however, quite conveys the sheer force of Cooper's personality, kindly and irascible by turns. Short, well-turned-out (recalling the pictures of Max Beerbohm in his dandy days) and with mad blue eyes, he always reminded me of the Evelyn Waugh character thought to resemble some small creature of the field, cornered in its lair but liable to turn nasty. Notably keen on younger writers, a great party-thrower at his mansion flat on the Putney side of the Thames, he could also be colossally rude. There was a tense moment during a Sunday Times 80th-birthday interview when, invited to comment on the contemporary novel, Cooper offered a series of gleeful demolitions, which were largely obliterated by a worried literary editor.

In some ways the trademark crossness was merely a party trick, ever more stylised as his life wore on. "Who on earth are those frightful people?" he would loudly inquire of the drinkers at the next table as one sat talking in the beer garden of a Putney pub. Serious offence was rarely taken. But another part of it derived from an extravagant rationalism that found its starkest expression in his contempt for religion. Guests at our wedding, listening to an address by my wife Rachel's clerical uncle, were startled by a subsidiary noise, eventually tracked to the Cooper pew. "What on earth is that frightful man . . . ?" Eventually somebody shushed him into silence.

Widowed in his late seventies (the account of Joyce's death that he produced for Granta magazine is an extraordinary piece of compassionate realism), Cooper was well aware of the disadvantages of being a literary survivor. His writing reached the point where it could function only, rather than obliquely, as a vehicle for recording his own life. At the same time, he felt that honours, recognition, more or less the entire literary current of the time - he was especially down on academe - had passed him by. The TV adaptation of Scenes From Provincial Life, scripted by Malcolm Bradbury, which could have put everything right, was never made. The novels began to go out of print.

No mainstream publisher would touch his swansong, Scenes From Death and Life, until it was issued by a small press in 1999. Who cares, after all, about the parting shots of old gentlemen of 89? That, whether one likes it or not - and Cooper, I think, was too sane to let it worry him overmuch - is how modern publishing works. Having long been cared for by his younger daughter, he died in a residential home in Putney. I never went to see him during those last weeks; I wish I had.

There were 16 people at his funeral. Coming out into the bright sunshine of Putney Vale crematorium, past the file of drawn-up hearses, reflecting on the rheumy eye he would have brought to the ceremony had he been alive, I realised that there was a moral here somewhere.

D J Taylor has just completed a centenary biography of George Orwell

This article first appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, How Blair put 30,000 more in jail