[“Three Novels of a Poet”]
I suppose few people in England read it now, unless for scholastic reasons they are obliged to, and I don't know why anyone should - except that it is lively and amusing, both romantic and realistic; except that the characters are curious and unusual, very much alive and presented with vigour; except that there are scenes of great variety, vividly and admirably described, and at least two of high comedy, a rarity in Goethe's works; except that interspersed in it are lyrics as beautiful and touching as any that he ever wrote; except that there is a disquisition on Hamlet which many eminent critics have agreed is a subtle analysis of the Dane's ambiguous character; and above all, except that its theme is of singular interest. If, with all these merits, the novel on the whole is a failure, it is because Goethe, for all his genius, for all his intellectual powers, for all his knowledge of life, lacked the specific gift which would have made him a great novelist as well as a great poet.
It is evident that the novelist must be something of an extrovert, since otherwise he will not have the urge to express himself; but he can make with no more intelligence than is needed for a man to be a good lawyer or a good doctor. He must be able to tell such story as he has to tell effectively so that he may hold his readers' attention. He need not love his fellow-creatures (that would be asking too much) but he must be profoundly interested in them; and he must have the gift of empathy which enables him to step into their shoes, think their thoughts and feel their feelings. Perhaps Goethe, terrific egoist as he was, failed as a novelist because he lacked just that.
Once upon a time, when they were all young and wild and gay, the Duke had built a hunting lodge on the summit of a mountain peak, and on the wall Goethe had written a verse in pencil.
Ueber allen GipfelnIst Ruh
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde;
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
During the last year of his life, he visited the spot again, and read the lines he had written hard on half a century before. He wept. What makes old age hard to bear is not the failing of one's faculties, mental and physical, but the burden of one's memories.
For a while I was attached to the Hindu conception of that mysterious neuter which is existence, knowledge and bliss, without beginning, without end, and I should be more inclined to believe in that than in any other God that human wishes, and fears, have devised. But now I think it no more than an impressive fantasy.
[Cf. the preface to The Partial View, 1954.]
Paul Leautaud was the oddest, the most disreputable, the most outrageous, but to my mind the most sympathetic of the three. Though he produced little, [...] I am inclined to think that he had a remarkable and individual talent. He had traits that shock one and traits that extort one's admiration. He was an egoist, but devoid of vanity, a lecher without passion, cynical and conscientious, desperately poor, but indifferent to money, harsh in his dealings, harsh in his dealings with his fellows, but to animals compassionate, savagely independent, indifferent to what others thought of him, a brilliant talker with a caustic wit, truthful, honest but cheerfully tolerant of the dishonesty of others - altogether a very strange man...
[“Prose and Dr Tillotson”]
He seems to have had to a considerable degree a quality which, so far as I know, the seventeenth century did not make the to-do about we do now - charm. It is a dubious quality, for it is often an attribute of worthless creatures, and then you have to be on your guard against it; but when it is combined with talent, uprightness and high moral character, it makes its happy possessor irresistible.
No one has written better English than these three distinguished authors, Dryden, Swift and Addison, and if it is true that they learnt and profited by the works of Tillotson, it gives him an importance that he would not otherwise have had. It may be that it is not too rash to suggest that if we write as we do now it is in part because the Archbishop wrote as he did.
[“The Short Story”]
A good many years ago the editor of a great new encyclopaedia which was in preparation wrote to ask me if I would contribute the article on the short story. I was flattered by the compliment, but declined. Having been myself a writer of short stories, I did not think I could write such a piece with the impartiality it required. For a writer of short stories writes them in the way he thinks best; otherwise he would write them differently. There are several ways of writing them, and each writer uses the way that accords with his own idiosyncrasies. It seemed to me that the article on the subject would be much more adequately written by a man of letters who had never written stories himself. There would be nothing to prevent him from being an unbiased judge. Take, for instance, the stories of Henry James. He wrote many, and they are greatly admired by cultivated readers whose opinion one is bound to respect. It is impossible, I imagine, for anyone who knew Henry James in the flesh to read his stories dispassionately. He got the sound of his voice into every line he wrote, and you accept the convoluted style of so much of his work, his long-windedness and his mannerisms, because they are part and parcel of the charm, benignity and amusing pomposity of the man you remember. But, for all that, I find his stories highly unsatisfactory. I do not believe them. I do not believe that anyone who could visualise a child’s agony when suffering from diphtheria could conceive that the child’s mother would let him die sooner than allow him to grow up and read his father’s books. This is what happens in a story called The Author of Beltraffio. I don’t think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, “So much the worse for them.” Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist. Though I do not know that it is a fact, I surmise that he regarded Madame Bovary with horror. On one occasion Matisse was showing a lady a picture of his in which he had painted a naked woman, and the lady exclaimed, “But a woman isn’t like that”: to which he answered, “It isn’t a woman, madam, it’s a picture.” I think, similarly, if someone had ventured to suggest that a story of James’s was not like life, he would have replied, “It isn’t life, it’s a story.”
Henry James stated his position on this matter in a preface he wrote to a collection of stories which he entitled The Lesson of the Master. It is a difficult piece and, though I have read it three times, I am not at all sure that I understand it. I think the gist is that, confronted with “the preponderant futilities and miseries of life” it is only natural than an author should seek “some fine example of the reaction, the opposition or the escape”; and since he cannot find models in real life to illustrate his intention, he must evolve them out of his inner consciousness. The difficulty, it seems to me, is that the author has to give these creatures of his invention some of the common traits of human beings, and they do not fit in with the traits he has arbitrarily ascribed to them, with the result that they fail to convince. But this is only an impression of my own, and I ask nobody to agree with me. Once, when Desmond MacCarthy was staying with me on the
, we talked much
of Henry James’s stories. Memories are short nowadays and I may remind the
reader that Desmond MacCarthy was not only a charming companion, but a very
good critic. He was widely read, and he had the advantage, that not all critics
have, of being a man of the world. His judgements within their limitations (he
was somewhat indifferent to the plastic arts and to music) were sound, for his
erudition was combined with a shrewd knowledge of life. On this particular
occasion we were sitting in the drawing-room after dinner and in the course of
conversation I hazarded the remark that for all their elaboration many of Henry
James’s stories were uncommonly trivial. To this Desmond, who had a passionate admiration
for him, violently protested; so, to tease him, I invented on the spur of the
moment what I claimed was a typical Henry James story. As far as I remember, it
ran somewhat as follows: Riviera
Colonel and Mrs. Blimp lived in a fine house in
Square. They had spent part of the winter on the
Riviera, where they had made friends with some rich Americans called – I
hesitated for the name – called Bremerton Fisher. The Fishers had entertained
them sumptuously, taken them to excursions to La Mortola, to Aix and , and had
invariably insisted on paying the bill. When the Blimps left to return to Avignon England, they had pressed their generous hosts
to let them know as soon as they came to ;
and that morning Mrs Blimp had read in the Morning
Post that Mr. and Mrs. Bremerton Fisher had arrived at Brown's hotel. It
was evident that it was only decent for the Blimps to do something in return
for the lavish hospitality they had received. While they were deciding what to
do, a friend came in for a cup of tea. This was an expatriated American, called
Howard, who had long cherished a platonic passion for Mrs. Blimp. Of course she
had never thought of yielding to his advances, which in fact were never
pressing; but it was a beautiful relationship. Howard was the sort of American
who, after living in London
for twenty years, was more English than the English. He knew everybody of
consequence and, as the phrase goes, went everywhere. Mrs. Blimp acquainted him
with the situation. The Colonel proposed that they should give a dinner party
for the strangers. Mrs. Blimp was doubtful. She knew that people with whom you
have been intimate when abroad, and found charming, may seem very different
when you see them again in England .
If they asked the Fishers to meet their nice friends, and all their friends
were nice, their friends would find them a crashing bore and the poor Fishers
would be dreadfully 'out of it'. Howard agreed with her. He knew from bitter
experience that such a party was almost always a disastrous flop. ''Why not ask
them to dinner by themselves?'' said the Colonel. Mrs. Blimp objected that this
would look as though they were ashamed of them or had no nice friends. Then he
suggested that they should take the Fishers to a play and to supper at the London afterwards. That
didn't seem adequate. ''We must do something,'' said the Colonel. ''Of course
we must do something,'' said Mrs. Blimp. She wished he wouldn't interfere. He
had all the sterling qualities you expected from a colonel of the Guards, he
hadn't got his D.S.O. for nothing, but when it came to social matters he was
hopeless. She felt that this was a matter that she and Howard must decide for
themselves; so next morning, nothing having been arranged, she telephoned to
him and asked to drop in for a drink at six o'clock when the Colonel would be
playing bridge at his Club. Savoy
He came, and from then on came every evening. Week after week, Mrs. Blimp and he considered the pros and cons. They discussed the matter from every standpoint and from every angle. Every point was taken and examined with unparalleled subtlety. Who could have believed that it would be the Colonel who provided the solution? He happened to be present at one of the meetings between Mrs. Blimp and Howard while, almost desperate by now, they surveyed the difficult situation. ''Why don't you leave cards?'' he said. ''Perfect,'' cried Howard. Mrs. Blimp gave a gasp of pleased surprise. She threw a proud glance at Howard. She knew that he thought the Colonel something of a pompous ass totally unworthy of her. Her glance said, ''There, that's the true Englishman. He may not be very clever, he may be rather dull, but when it comes to a crisis you can depend upon him to do the right thing.''
Mrs. Blimp was not the woman to hesitate when the course open to her was clear. She rang for the butler and told him to have the brougham brought round at once. To do the Fishers honour she put on her smartest dress and a new hat. With her card case in her hand, she drove to Brown's Hotel – only to be told that the Fishers had left that morning for Liverpool to take the Cunarder back to
. New York
Desmond listened rather sourly to my mocking story; then he chuckled. ''But what you forget, my poor Willie,'' he said, ''is that Henry James would have given the story the classic dignity of St. Paul's Cathedral, the brooding horror of St. Pancras and – and the dusty splendour of Woburn.''
At this we both burst out laughing. I gave him another whiskey and soda, and in due course, well pleased with ourselves, we parted to go to our respective bedrooms.