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December 2000
 
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The London Adventure by Arthur Machen (1924)

Ostensibly the third volume of his autobiography, Arthur Machen's The London Adventure is actually a book about the failure to write a book called The London Adventure.

Machen, the great visionary author of such classics of the fantastic as The Great God Pan, The Three Impostors, and The Hill Of Dreams, had told the story of his life in two earlier volumes---Far Off Things and Things Near and Far---and now intended to give his readers a history of his impressions of London when he first moved there at the end of the Nineteenth Century.

He does nothing of the kind.

Instead, referring throughout to the book he has in mind as The Great Work On London, he proceeds, with consummate good humor, to demonstrate his absolute inability to get down to it. It's a book in which form matches content perfectly; constantly sounding warning notes to fellow writers and interested readers about the perils of digression and the pitfalls of prevarication, Machen meanders entertainingly through nearly 200 pages of interesting digressions and entertaining prevarications.

And what digressions! In addition to being one of the best books ever written about not writing, The London Adventure is also a proto-Fortean catalogue of curiosities and co-incidence, an inventory of the inexplicable that forms a fine non-fiction companion to his fiction's obsessive love of metaphysical mystery. By the time Machen takes his leave of us, full of apologies for his failure to deliver the book he had promised and full of shame for the book he has actually written ("I had thought of calling the book The Curate's Egg but I have a distaste for boastful titles"), we feel far from cheated---feel instead that we've read a fine book on writing, on London, and on the world and its secret life.

—Peter Atkins

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