A warning from history

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, The Triumph of Youth by Jacob Wassermann.

Jakob Wassermann

Jakob Wassermann photographed by Grete Kolliner. In the public domain

On the 6th of September 1928, Arnold Bennet wrote in his Books and Persons column in  The Evening Standard that Jacob Wassermann’s historical novel The Triumph of Youth was “…a remarkable book” and that as he read it his admiration continued to grow. Bennett went on to say a lot things about it. In fact, he dedicated the whole column to a review of the novel, noting at the start that he had received it the week after he had written about the “relative inferiority of historical novels.” Despite his enjoyment at reading the novel, he added in his column of the 6th:

The book has none of the characteristic defects of the historical novel, and so I am rather confounded.

Why was he confounded? In his comments of the week before (which as he pointed out “…caused a certain amount of protest” adding “They were intended to do so”) he had written:

In my view the first rate-rate historical novel conceived on an extensive scale has yet to be written.

Arnold knew why:

Truth to human nature is the chief lack in historical fiction. The majority of historical novels are no nearer to human nature than, say, Wagner’s Ring. There is more truth in one pretty good novel of modern life than in a whole year’s output of historical swashbuckling, hair-tearing, fustian eloquence, hissing crime and deathless passion.

(Naomi Mitcheson, however, was a notable exception.)

He ended with a series of questions:

Why should even the better historical novelists be content to imitate imitations of imitations of imitations, whereas the better novelists of modern life go straight to life. Was human nature in the periods which we call historical utterly different from modern human nature. It was not. It was only slightly different. I suggest that some young author not yet sure of his path should look into this affair.

Arnold was almost wholly prescient in his call to arms. Jacob Wassermann was in his fifties when he wrote The Triumph of Youth, a tale of heresy, the power of storytelling and dysfunctional families in the Holy Roman Empire of the seventeenth century. However, it was clear from his review that Arnold felt, if a little surprised at its promptness, that his question had been answered.

What particularly and astonishingly satisfies me in this book is its atmosphere of naturalness. Everything is terrible, but nothing is forced, and beauty disengages itself from the asphyxiating horror. The people are not aware that they are living in the dark age. They hate their age: they are unhappy and unfortunate in it: but their age is as ordinary to them as ours to us. They have no idea that any other age could be different from theirs. Herein is the supreme excellence of a historical fiction. Jacob Wasserman is indeed an uncommon fellow. He has at once imagination, insight, a fine sense of form and marked dramatic power.

Once in power, the Nazis burned his books and Wassermann died of a heart attack in 1934.

The Triumph of Youth

I’ve let Arnold do the talking this week and rightly so, I feel. I will only add that I too enjoyed the book and would, if only to that distant shore, thank Arnold for introducing me to another German author of note (the other being Lion Feuchtwanger ) Both men were of Jewish descent and both centred their writing on the dilemmas we create or have thrust upon us and, in those years after the Great War, Arnold Bennett too should be recognised as “an uncommon fellow,” open to literature that came from outside of Britain.

On the 6th of September, Bennett was in Annecy in south eastern France with his partner Dorothy. On Noel Coward’s recommendation they visited the village of Duingt and, noting its lack of sunlight, concluded that “Noel must have been there in love, some hot August.”

From one writer to another

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, A Writer’s Notes on his Trade by C. E. Montague. 

On the 13th of March 1930, Arnold Bennett wrote of A Writer’s Notes on his Trade:

It is a very good book. Some chapter-titles will give a fair notion of its contents: “Three ways of saying things,” “Easy reading hard writing.” “Too true to be good,” “Doing without workmanship,” “A living language.” all professional writers, and the innumerable legion of amateur writers, will immediately be attracted by these subjects, which Montague treats with love, ingenuity, knowledge, and wisdom. And my conviction is that a large proportion of the non-writing public would be attracted by them. I have no sympathy with the too prevalent writer’s tendency to despise the non-writing public.

It is a very good book, written by someone on the same wavelength as Bennett and capable, like Bennett of composing sentences as elegant as they are witty. Writing of the “tickled” – those that may never have been great students but enjoyed what they read – and the “untickled” – the studious but also unmoved by what they read – he commented:

The untickled may have won any number of scholarships and first classes but before they are thirty they are as dead to what they read in their youth as they are to the trousers in which they read it.

Only the writer confident in himself and free from the fashions of the moment can write like this. What may seem a throw-away line actually contains an important truth which we, if we stop and think, can recognise too.

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

C. E. Montague from the IWM Lives of the First World War

Is the book relevant today? Would anyone wanting to be a writer gain anything from it? Would an established writer up their game? Or is it now only of interest to the literary historian (if indeed such a thing exists.) I wish so much to say yes and thus increase my sense of ownership over the book (again, if such a thing exists.) But it does have something to say to us all: that writing well on a subject you love and of which you know possibly more than the person next to you will always result in something both personal and, at the same time, approaching the timeless.

As far as I know there is no Bennett’s journal for 1930. Instead I have these reports from the Glasgow Herald  from the 13th of March: Shelley’s Lost Letters to Harriet by Leslie Hotson, reviewed in the paper’s Literature of Today, had much that astonished; the Mid-Scotland Ship Canal, to join the Forth with the Clyde, was recommended by the Parliamentary Bills Committee of the Glasgow Corporation as worthy of investigation by the government and from the Paris Letter column in Women’s Topics a return to femininity was noted and the comment made that “…as always happens in these matters, hats are following the lead of the dresses.”

On the need of reading reviews carefully

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, The Honeywood File by H.B. Creswell. 

In his column of the 5th of December 1929, Bennett wrote of The Honeywood File (the purported correspondence between an architect and his client, builders, suppliers and town planners written during the construction of a country-house) “I repeat that as literature it is not great.” How I wish I had paid attention to that sentence before reading the book. Instead I had read this quote selected by Bennett,

Also I am afraid it will be impossible to enter the house by the front-door except, of course, by going up the front-stairs and down the back, which cannot be the intention….Moreover, the front-stairs could be used to reach the bedrooms only by going out by the back-door or by one of the windows, and in at the front door. I mention these matters in order to make clear why it is impossible for me to adopt your plan….)

These are the funniest sentences in what I had assumed was going to be an amusing account of the misunderstandings arising from the building of a house. In fact, the book is everything you need to know when building a house in late 1920s England rather than the knockabout slapstick I had thought it was going to be. I’m sure the author meant the reader to smile and even chuckle. I’m sure Bennett smiled as he read it and may even have chuckled as did its many readers. I say “many” as a second volume was published, The Honeywood Settlement. It was even made into a series on BBC radio in 1961 and 1982. I did not smile and chuckle and I will share the blame in equal parts between myself and Arnold Bennett.  Although he included this disclaimer, writing that the book was “…full of useful information, lightly conveyed, for everybody concerned with domestic architecture” he did write near the start of his review “…it is often very funny.” Memo to self: read the whole review before deciding to buy a book.

In the weeks up to the 5th of December, Bennett attended a performance of Journey’s End for holders of the V.C., examined the case of young woman charged with prostitution, discussed the reading habits of Yorkshire woollen-manufacturers and turned down the request for a loan of £150 to a complete stranger who, as he found out later, made a habit of such requests.

Enthralling – not interminable

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, André Maurois’ Ariel and Disraeli. 

Reading my copy of Andrew Mylett’s Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years to remind myself why I had chosen these two books to read, I find I did so on the strength of the following sentence: “In my opinion his biographies of Shelley and Disraeli are models of what short biographies should be.” As it formed (a very small) part of a long review of MauroisAspects of Biography, Bennett wrote nothing more about these two books. So, why did I choose them? In part, I think, because Ariel was a book that was always there in my parents’ house and I was curious to read it and if I was to read it then why not Disraeli too? And I am glad I did as they are both wonderful reads.

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André Maurois – Wikimedia Commons

As always Bennett sums up the brilliance of books better than I ever could. In a column from the 13th of February 1930 (which I have not officially yet read as I am still in December 1929 but what use are rules unless they can be bent a little or indeed simply broken?) he wrote:

…I have heard men of letters dismiss the Disraeli, and the Shelley too, with one word: “Superficial!” Maurois is never superficial. On the contrary he is a most laborious toiler, with astonishing gifts of assimilation, order, proportion, clarity, impartiality, characterisation, graphic descriptions and interestingness. There is a sad, comic notion abroad among experts that what is enthralling to read cannot really be sound. Had Maurois been dull, he would have been better received by some of our high-brows of interminable biography. But the unfortunate man is incapable of being dull.

The copy of Ariel came with a pre-war London Buses bookmark – which is just the audience Bennett wanted: the man or woman on a London omnibus-

Enthralling: that’s the word. Ariel, with its litany of suicides and infant mortality, is not a light read. Shelley’s behaviour seems to be quickly excused by being too honest to prosper in a dishonest world. Every woman he loved, by God, he loved fully – at the time. Mary, on the other hand, is, towards the end of his short life, bordering on becoming a drudge when perhaps she just wanted a home and children who didn’t die. However it’s hard not to envy those who, when bored, cross the Channel in a storm, head for Paris, buy a mule and cross war-torn France to a castle in Switzerland and when they find out the stove isn’t working, turn around and head back. Shelley couldn’t have been more than 22 which means that Mary was 17 and her step-sister Clare Clairmont was a year younger when they passed the summer of 1814 walking behind a mule who was too lame to carry even one of them. This, more than any examination of Shelley’s poetry or even a mention of Frankenstein, is the detail with which Maurois fills Ariel . I do hope it was the detail which Bennett used to beat the high-brows of interminable biography.

To look at what Bennett was up to outside of writing, I’ve taken his mention of Ariel and Disraeli in his column of the 11th of April, 1929 as my key date. I see from his journal that on the 10th of April he was in the resort of Antibes where his car smashed into the back of another, destroying its petrol tank and upsetting its German occupants. Fearing the arrival of the police, Bennett made extravagant promises to the French chauffeur of the damaged car and then left it in the hands of his insurance company.

 

Frank Swinnerton: four novels

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, four novels by Frank Swinnerton. 

During my absence from this blog I continued to to read as often, if not as widely, as possible. I feel most comfortable in the company of those writers who have already made that Stygian crossing and hopefully are resting in the Elysian Fields. One of these writers I wanted to get to know better was Frank Swinnerton (1884-1982), a successful author and close friend of Arnold Bennett.

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I chose four of his novels: Nocturne (1917), A Woman in Sunshine (1944), Death of a Highbrow (1961) and Rosalind Passes (1973.) The first I chose because it is regarded as his most famous and caught the interest of other established writers such as H. G. Wells and Bennett himself; Death of a Highbrow because I had seen it mentioned elsewhere on the Internet and the remaining two because they came in the mid-point and at end of his long career as a writer. Why did I choose him? From simple curiosity given his links to Bennett; having enjoyed a volume of his biography Figures in the Foreground, it seemed natural to want to read something of his fiction and, I have to admit, from hoping I might “rediscover” a writer worthy of republication by, for example, Persephone Books or the Handheld Press.

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Was any of the above worth it? It depends on which reason I chose to read them. If from curiosity then I have filled in a gap in my knowledge of popular British literature. Like Bennett, his scale is human and the fragile nature of our egos that marks so much of our lives. Mistakes are made; young lives are ended too soon; affairs are undertaken; values are held onto; other roads less-less travelled are chosen and in the end little of it makes any great impact. There is no attempt to explore new literary forms or marshal literature to any ideology.

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If I look honestly at my half-formed but no less real desire to “rediscover” a popular writer from the twentieth-century then I’m afraid the results are not so clear. There has been a great deal written about Nocturne. All that I can add is that it is a novel with equal parts of charm and insight and has two strong female voices. I’m sure it will continue to be reprinted at intervals in the future.

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Death of a Highbrow deserves more attention as an example of post-war fiction which looks at the personal impact of a choice to work in  highbrow literature based on the respectability which it will afford. It is the most “modern” of the novels I chose, reminding me at times of Herman Broch’s The Death of  Virgil, in its theme, shifting perspectives and passages that at times resemble streams of consciousness. Is it worthy of a reprint with a concise introduction to place it in its literary, social and cultural context? I simply do not know.

Frank Arthur Swinnerton - source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43576934

Frank Arthur Swinnerton – Source Wikipedia.

As for the other two, the characters speak their lines convincingly, reminding us that they are our reflections and leave a trace of memory after they have gone. Swinnerton lived by his writing, publishing a new book every year or so and can be forgiven for nodding at times. There may be others which I did not read and which deserve our praise.

Am I disappointed? Slightly, but more in myself than in anything I read. Like any writer, Frank Swinnerton deserved, as his friend Arnold Bennet wrote in one of his Books and Persons columns in The Evening Standard, to be read while I examined not only the book but also my reactions to it. I did not read them with an open mind and therefore possibly missed that chance to be simply entertained which is no mean end for any novel.

Three cheers for great books

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa. 

It has been a while since I last wrote anything here and I’d be surprised if anyone is out there still. However, it is nice to be surprised and if you are indeed there, I hope you feel that what I write comes with equal measures of gentle enjoyment and useful information.

I have not been idle (apart from writing nothing here) and continue working my way through Bennett’s columns from The Evening Standard as collected in ARNOLD BENNETT: The Evening Standard Years ‘BOOKS AND PERSONS’ 1926-1931, edited by Andrew Mylett and published in 1974. From them I had chosen Le Cahier Gris by Roger Martin Du Gard which Bennett reviewed on the 2nd of August, 1928. He wrote, amongst other things, that the Thibualt series, from which it comes, “…should emphatically be read.” I read Le Cahier Gris in French (English editions are very hard to come by) using Google Translate. This consisted in scanning the page using the app on my phone and then deciphering the English gobbledegook that it provided as a translation. Not something I would recommend and doubtless played its part in my less than enthusiastic reaction to the novel. However, had I been able to read it without the intrusion of Google Translate, I doubt if I would have warmed to a tale of, what I saw, as two silly teenage boys with a crush on each other running away from home.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

Arnold Zweig (left) with Otto Nagel – By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-28224-0009 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5350429

However, that is not the reason for returning to this blog. Having read Bennett’s comments from the 6th of December 1928 of Arnold Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, I decided to read it and I am glad I did. There are not many novels which I have read and felt that I wanted to stand and cheer at the end and this was decidedly one of them. Not only cheer, but applaud, weep and groan in despair at times too. I am not one for sentiment in novels or having my heartstrings pulled by a novel but there was something in the quiet nobility of the story of a Russian sergeant who escapes from a German prisoner of war camp somewhere in the snowy wilderness of the Eastern Front of 1917 and takes on the identity of another soldier, which buried deep under my skin. The soldier, Grischa, simply wants to get home but in the bureaucratic world of the Eastern High Command he is now, under his new identity, regarded as a deserter and must be shot. No one, not even the General who signs the order, believes he actually should be shot and part of the mastery displayed by Zweig is to keep the reader’s hope alive in a way that seems neither naive nor unreasonable. Bennett wrote, “…it [the novel] has had the closest shave of being a masterpiece.” I would agree and add that, rather than Le Cahier Gris, this is a novel that still needs to “emphatically be read.”

Arnold_Zweig_der_Streit_um_den_Serganten_Grischa_1927

I had learned my lesson and read the English translation – By © Foto H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack)Das Foto darf für wissenschaftliche oder populärwissenschaftliche Publikationen gebührenfrei verwendet werden, sofern der Urheber mit Foto H.-P.Haack vermerkt wird. – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig → Privatbesitz., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4053310

Looking at Bennett’s diary, I see that on the 4th of December he was stopped four times in the street by people checking that he was indeed Arnold Bennett. He then gulped down oysters at the Reform Club with Geoffrey Russell, his solicitor, before dashing to a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass at St. Margaret’s church, sometimes known as the parish church of the House of Commons.

Bennett’s columns of late have touched more on book issues rather than books per se but I have come across a mention of Andre Maurois’ biographies of Disraeli and Shelley. As books that always seemed be somewhere in my parents’ house, I think I shall read and write about them.

 

Crime and upsetting the middle classes

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, Edgar Wallace’s The Gunner. 

At last, after months of reading works of literary highbrow as recommended by Arnold Bennet, a bona fide piece of middlebrow, perhaps even lowbrow, fiction! On the 19th July 1928, Bennett wrote that he had startled his friends by admitting to having read, and enjoyed, the popular thriller The Gunner, written by Edgar Wallace. Such was the novelty of reading a popular work of fiction, he asked his friends their opinions:

The general attitude was: “Have I read Edgar Wallace? Good heavens! What do you take me for?

Bennett’s explanation for this reaction is that:

Nearly all bookish people are snobs, and especially the most enlightened of them.

Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace smoking downwards. From edgarwallace.org

Bennett was taken with the book, to such an extent that he devoted the whole review to it when normally it would be shared between two or three books. He wrote:

In The Gunner something sinister and exciting is continually afoot. The amount of incident to the page is prodigious, and to the chapter is incalculable. Often, when you think that the author’s inventive powers must be exhausted, he will suddenly change the scene – and in the middle of a chapter too! – and start anew as fresh as if he had risen up from twelve hours of dreamless sleep.

What did I make of it? For a study of London’s underworld I found it very genteel. Every example of slang – carrying a gat, the busies, squeal – is explained to the middle-class characters whose lives have been turned upside-down through the suicide of a young man fallen in with a bad ‘un. Violence and death are threatened frequently but rarely realised. Deaths do happen but if memory serves me well, only twice and one of those seems to have left the writer feeling it best to leave it unexplained as he himself would be hard put to even give the victim a name. In fact, while one member of the working classes is killed, the middle class characters are merely frightened or upset. By the end of the novel, order is restored and even the Gunner, – named because of his habit of carrying one but, it would seem, loath to use -succumbs to middle-class pressures and conforms. Reader, he married her.

I wonder what Bennett would have made of Dashiell Hammett’s blood-soaked Red Harvest? It was published only a year later and I cannot help but feel its influence on crime writing has been immeasurably more than The Gunner. 

TheGunner

Cover of the American edition. Given that women in 1920s Britain did not dress like this and that guns are rare creatures in the novel, it would be fair guess to say that the artist never read the book.

In fashion news, The Glasgow Herald of the same day noted that brown, although associated with daytime wear, was becoming important for the evening too. Brown evening frocks were being displayed in the latest collections in shades of taffeta, lace and tulle. The aim was studied simplicity in the use of large bows and long ends of caramel moira.

Arnold Bennett wrote in his journal that he had finished his novel Accident and, as was frequently the case, was not happy with it. Nor was he happy with George Arliss’ scenario for the stage production of Lord Raingo. However, he seemed much happier that evening when he dined at the Garrick Club – “Very merry, this affair,” he wrote. “Some great stories.”

Who loads the literary canons?

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, William Gerhardie’s Doom

William Gerhardie.

William Gerhardie showing how to wear a hat. from http://impedimenta.es/

It is easy to see the literary canon, however you want to define those two words (and I certainly do not want to), as something fixed, like the constellations in the night sky. Yet, like the constellations, it moves. D.H. Lawrence is one of those stars, arcing across our evening skies. This, I’m sure, appears most just. But it did not seem so certain a century ago. This is what Arnold Bennett wrote in his column of the 19th of April 1928:

It has been written by somebody young, I am told, that there is only a single English novelist living who counts: D.H. Lawrence. But there may be others. Indeed there are. William Gerhardi counts. In my opinion Gerhardi has genius. Like the accouchement of a political duchess, the appearance of his new novel, Jazz and Jasper…is an interesting event.”

Bennett would not, I am sure, be surprised to find Lawrence being taught in our schools and universities or serialised on the radio. But would he, I wonder, have been expecting to find Gerhardi there too? Having read the novel, retitled Doom and an extra ‘e’ added to Gerhardie by Gerhardi, I like to think that in a parallel universe he is indeed being taught to students and listened to on the radio. This parallel world would, by necessity, be a bit bonkers but it might also be a world that paid a little bit more attention to some of things we seem to let slip, such as doing our best not to blow it up.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the novel. Is it social satire, science fiction or plain good old-fashioned English whimsy such as Beachcomber produced during the same period in the Daily Express? In the novel we meet Frank Dickin, a writer; Lord Ottercove, an immensely powerful press baron who wants turn Frank into a bestselling writer; Eva, with whom, if memory serves me right, Frank is in love and Lord de Jones, who claims he can solve the world hunger by blocking up every volcano in the world (also in love with Eva.) There is a car that flies and the safest place to be in the world turns out to be a hotel in the Austrian Tyrol. The novel may even be an allegory for the Christian Creation Story.

Whatever it is (and I shall certainly be rereading it, to try and find out) my estimation of Bennett, already high, has, if anything, risen further. Here is a man who made his money writing bestsellers and being friends with his very own press baron Lord Beaverbrook and whose book columns consistently champion the young, the new and odd. He had free rein from Beaverbrook but he never exploited it. His columns were fresh, lively and written in a clear, almost chatty, style. I like to think of people opening the paper and wondering “What has he written about this week?”

On the 13th of April, Bennett thought about his film Piccadilly, bought a watch for Dorothy and straight home to celebrate the second birthday of his daughter Virginia.

From Ancient Greece to the man on the Clapham omnibus

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. 

Can you imagine a contemporary newspaper, whose daily readership is measured in millions, publishing as its weekly book review a piece on the importance of classical traditions in the writing of poetry? Neither can I. That is what The Evening Standard did on the 19th of January 1928 when it published Arnold Bennett’s review of Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry. In the review, Bennett bemoans his own lack of Greek and his tendency to doze off while watching stage productions of Greek plays. However, this does not stop him declaring emphatically:

Here is a book I can recommend.

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What book was it that he was recommending? Gilbert Murray, Professor of Greek at Oxford University, had given the first lectures on poetry as the incumbent of the newly established Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry at Harvard University in the autumn of 1926. These were then republished by the Oxford University Press. Murray’s thesis was that all poetry could be firmly put into the Greek tradition of mimesis, a combination of mimicry and immersion that, like the Greek dancers of the molpe, allowed the poem to become that which it is describing. “The world is born. Homer sings” as Victor Hugo wrote and Murray quotes more than once, each time pointing out Hugo’s error: Homer too had models that he drew from, and these models too had their own models.

What did the  readers (as much as 2 million daily) of The Evening Standard make of it all? Any answer to that question will, I suppose, depend on your opinion of Arnold Bennett, literary taste in 1920s Britain and who could afford a book costing five shillings (as much as £40 if you link it to relative wages in 1928)? My own feeling is that readers of The Evening Standard did not simply turn the page or skim through the review. Gilbert Murray is not well known today, as this Google Book Ngram make only too clear:

The numbers don't lie.

It was a different story back in the 1920s and 30s. Gilbert Murray was not simply a Greek scholar he was also a bit of personality. His work on behalf of the League of Nations, his speeches in favour of disarmament and free trade were reported at length in the Burnley News, the Hull Daily Mail and the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. He was not solely of interest to the metropolitan press. Bennett wrote:

…the Professor has been and is a great civilising influence on the present age. I immensely admire his taste, his moral bases and his achievement. And he emphatically is not narrow-minded. His sympathetic vision can and does embrace many varied manifestations of life, including the modern; he constantly shows this by his allusions and his comparisons.

It is this emphasis on the personal qualities of Gilbert Murray that would, I think, catch the eye of the reader on the London omnibus or underground.

Gilbert Murray National Library of Australia

What did I make of it? I found the chapters on Milton and Shakespeare a challenge; almost overwhelmed by the talk of dochmiacs and dactyl-spondees in the chapter on Metre and sceptical of his links between Hamlet and Orestes. All, I should point out, based on the same knowledge of Greek as had Bennett. Am I glad I read it? Yes I am. His style is clear and limpid. His passion for his subject shines through. He is academic without being exclusive.

On the 24th of January, Bennett saw Noel Coward in comedy The Second Man and declared him “admirable.”

 

Ward is not the opposite of Wayward.

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man. 

The Wayward Man

In the Evening Standard of the 22nd of December 1927, Bennett wrote of St. John Ervine’s novel The Wayward Man

I have heard that The Wayward Man is having a good sale. It ought to have a very good sale for a very long time. This book is a book….His spell is deliberate but powerful and sure.

Halfway through my Penguin edition of 1936, I found myself thinking “Bennett has sold me a dud.” Even Bennett, like honest Homer, nods. I thought of leaving it unread but I am glad I did not. True, there are moments in the life of its central character, the Ulster-born and prodigal son Robert Dunwoody, when trenchant social comment from the 1920s, a visit to a San Francisco brothel and a stint in a Mid-Western jail, seem either mawkish or racially insensitive. Ervine’s attempts to capture the intonations of all those from outwith his own Ulster folk (he was born in Belfast in 1883) grated. But I am glad I did not. I would have missed moments of lyricism and pointed but poignant judgements on life and its viscitudes. For example, Robert, having run off to sea instead of becoming the Presbyterian minister his mother wanted, looks up at the stars from the forecastle-head of his ship:

The whole constellation of heaven seemed to be laid bare before him…and Robert, for the first time in his life, felt that earth and sea and sky and stars and men were bound together. The Great Bear and the Little Bear and the Pleiades and the Heavenly Twins, the Hyades with Aldebarran, the Bull’s Eye, fiercely shining in the middle of them, and Orion and Mars and Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest in heaven, and the Great Nebula, star dust carelessly spilt, as if God the sower had suddenly emptied his sackful of stars and emptied them across the sky.

Or, as in this simple exchange between Robert and his mother at the end of the novel:

He pressed her hand in his. “I wish I could be the son you want me to be, but I can’t!”

“I know,” she said, “so I’ll content myself with the son you are…”

NPG x94121; St John Greer Ervine by Walter Benington, for  Elliott & Fry

Saint John Ervine (Belfast Telegraph)

However, it was not for Robert’s sake that I finished the novel. As a character he does not change from childhood: wayward as a boy, he is equally wayward as a man. No, it is Brenda, who loved Robert as a wee girl and marries him as a woman, who captured my attention.  She is obsessed with success and determined to live, as she puts it, as “nice people” do. She takes on Mrs. Dunwoody’s hardware stores and turns them into a successful chain throughout Ulster. She fights her corner like a demon and, scared of no one, destroys more than one male competitor. Robert shares in her success and shares her bed. But sex disgusts her and a child is out of the question. It is this, more than the dull bourgeois existence Robert struggles to embrace after his seafaring years, that leads to his betrayal of Brenda. Ervine was, and is, remembered as a successful playwright, and these scenes crackle with the charged emotions that can only come from the naked immediacy of theatre.

On the 4th of December, Bennett dined well at the Savoy with, among others, Noel Coward, Humbert Wolf, Ethel Mannin, Osbert Sitwell and Rebecca West. To have listened in to that lot…

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