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The Great Affair

Novel (332 pages, 114,370 words)

First UK edition
First edition
First American edition
First US edition
First UK paperback
Pan paperback
First UK paperback
Book club edition

The Book

The hero, Charles Nelo Sangster known as "Nelo", is a priest who has been de-frocked and sent to prison for forgery and fraud. On release from prison he goes to visit his brother, a Member of Parliament. The brother tries to persude him to emigrate to Australia, but Nelo declines and demands the diamond necklace which he should have inherited from his mother. He plans to sell it and donate the proceeds to La Guicha, a nun who runs a French orphanage. His brother refuses, so Nelo recruits a safe-blower, goes to the house while his brother is away, blows open the safe causing a lot of damage, and sets off for Europe in the company of Sarah Minihane, a girl he has just met after a cycling accident.

To escape arrest he travels to Lisbon on a plane transporting horses. Also on the plane is François Xavier Mabluto, a secret agent now threatened by all the governments he has worked for. In Lisbon they escape an assassination attempt. Then Nelo has to fight a duel with pistols against an aristocrat who thinks that Nelo has seduced his wife. Nelo, Sarah and Xavier flee to France, where Nelo has a house which he wants to sell. His diamonds are stolen by Sarah who promises to return them only if he marries someone else. To the house comes the Bakata of Bakata (chief of a former British colony in Africa) along with his Archbishop, and the next evening a baby elephant is delivered by helicopter. After that the plot goes on getting wilder and wilder.

Publishing history

It was published by Heinemann in 1970 at £1.60, and by William Morrow and Co in the USA in 1971. There was a Heron Books "collector's edition" (faux-leather but in fact rather cheaply produced for book club subscribers) in 1970. In 1971 there was a Foyles Book Club edition. A paperback appeared in Pan Books in 1972. It says a lot about Canning's reputation and success at this time that the book should have been taken up so strongly, since it was quite unlike anything he had written before and does not seem to be aimed at his usual readership. It is the longest of his post-war books, and almost dream-like in its disconnectedness. There are echoes of picaresque writing, harking back to Gil Blas, Tom Jones and Hajii Baba. It has not, as far as I know, been translated, though most of the thrillers that immediately preceded and followed it were translated into the main European languages.

The title comes from Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey, "For my part I travel not to go anywhere. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." However, it was just before this time that Canning began his affair with Diana Bird that led to the break-up of his marriage to Phyllis. I cannot help suspecting that the title was a private pun. According to the Heinemann archive the first provisional title was Paradise is Just Around the Corner.

The story, too, seems full of symbolism: the hero has just been let out of prison. He is a de-frocked priest who falls for a wayward girl. They travel partly to escape family ties. They do lots of things which are unconventional and illegal, though morally justified by their thinking. The whole book can be read as a covert love letter to Diana and gesture of defiance towards Phyllis.