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Obscure U.S. Author Begins Storybook Life : Her Third Book, 'Mrs. Caliban,' Hailed as One of the Top 20 Post-WWII American Novels

April 02, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Mrs. Caliban is a bored California housewife. She is lonely, desperately lonely, until she meets Larry and falls in love. Larry is a six-foot-long, lizard-like mammal who has recently escaped from the local marine biological institute.

"Mrs. Caliban" is Rachel Ingalls' third work of fiction. Virtually unknown in America, the book was hailed by the British Book Marketing Council not long ago as one of the top 20 American novels of the post-World War II period. In attaining that honor, "Caliban," and Ingalls, join the company of such renowned writers as Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Gore Vidal, Thomas Pynchon, Saul Bellow and John Updike.

The selection seemed odd in many quarters. Even though the honor was open only to living writers, Mary McCarthy, an author not on the list, was clearly miffed. "For heaven's sake, where's (Vladimir) Nabokov?" she told Publishers Weekly. "I mean really. It does seem very strange."

(The Russian-born Nabokov, author of "Lolita," came to the United States in 1940. He died in 1977. Malamud died on March 18.)

Praise for Author

But writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Jack Beatty raised Ingalls to the level of Barbara Pym, one of the most well-regarded but late-discovered female novelists to come out of Great Britain this century. And Updike spared little in praising this book by a hitherto obscure high school dropout from Cambridge, Mass.

"I loved 'Mrs. Caliban,' " Updike said. "So deft and austere in its prose, so drolly casual in its fantasy. . . . An impeccable parable, beautifully written from first paragraph to last."

Said the New Yorker, writing about "Mrs. Caliban": "Something of a miracle."

"Suddenly," said Bruce Shaw, president of Ingalls' American publisher, Harvard Common Press, "all hell has broken loose."

All of which has set Rachel Ingalls' head spinning at a fairly furious rate.

"Oh, I'm knocked out, of course," Ingalls said from her home in London.

Ingalls, 45, grew up a rabid reader and avid story-listener, and dropped out of high school at age 17. She moved to Germany, lived with a family and audited classes at several German universities. Returning to the United States, she entered Radcliffe College and majored in English. A "complete maniac" on the subject of Shakespeare, Ingalls moved to England in 1964, drawn by the lure of "the whole Shakespeare jamboree that was going on here back in the '60s."

Published by the London-based Faber & Faber, Ingalls' first novel, "The Man Who Was Left Behind," won her Great Britain's 1971 Authors' Club First Novel Award.

But in the world of book publishing, a correlation between critical recognition and big sales is definitely not axiomatic.

"When you look at books that for instance are never reviewed and have, according to the critics, not much literary merit--but sell millions, what do you say?" Ingalls said.

A Bit Mysterious

"There are other industries, like let's say the fashion industry, that are planned five years ahead and they seem to know what they are doing because they can sell everything." With books, Ingalls said, "I do think it's a bit mysterious."

In any case, "I have never sold well, even over here."

As for attention of any kind for "Mrs. Caliban," it was, Ingalls said, "practically zilch."

First published in this country 2 1/2 years ago by Gambit, "Mrs. Caliban" sold, Bruce Shaw said, "maybe 200 copies." Shaw's Harvard Common Press acquired the book about a year and a half ago when it acquired Gambit.

"They had six or seven great backlist titles," Shaw said from his office in Boston, "and believe me, Rachel Ingalls was not one of them."

But when the British Book Marketing Council, a prestigious literary trade association, decided to tap Ingalls as one of the top 20 American writers since World War II, Shaw's phone became hyperactive.

"Harper & Row is on the phone," Shaw said, not in the least distressed over the minor frenzy. "Bantam is on the phone. . . . "

And the Book of the Month Club was on the phone. An auction in mid-March gave BOMC the hardcover and paperback book club rights to "Mrs. Caliban." Meanwhile, BOMC's own subsidiary, the Quality Paperback Book Club, was already selecting Ingalls as one of its seven "New Voices" for this year.

"That was what was so exciting," said Susan Weinberg, associate director of QPB. "It was the book itself that got our attention. Marty Asher, our director, read the first sentence and got really excited. He took it home, and the next day, came running in saying 'Susan, Susan, you've got to read this book.' "

Weinberg read it and immediately decided "Mrs. Caliban" easily passed an important test, "which is, 'Would you tell your friends about it?' and with this one, definitely."

The enthusiasm was not limited to "Mrs. Caliban." At Simon & Schuster, a package of three novellas "from a writer we'd never heard of" arrived recently in the office of veteran editor Jane Isay.

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