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.
Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley in the Potteries. He grew up in a modest house in that town but following his father’s qualification as a solicitor they moved in 1881 to Cobridge. His father had bought a building site there and built a house on it, costing £1,001 (calculated using the measure of historic standard of living as £90,180 in 2015). His adolescence then passed, if not in absolute luxury, then at least in relative luxury, compared to many people in nearby Stafford who earned, on average, 13/- 6d per week (£73.35 measured using the same historic standard of living). He, as we know, moved to London, driven, if not by a desire to escape poverty, then to escape the heavy hand of his father, especially when it came to money (Bennett would always be generous when it came to entertaining and travelling). He would return to the Potteries in some of his best novels, Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale, for example. But he never regretted the personal, professional and cultural freedom he discovered first in London and then Paris. Throughout his life this theme of discovery of the new, achieved through self-improvement, would appear in his work. It was his self-help book, Literary Taste: How to Form It that inspired me to write this blog.
I do wonder sometimes which of his Books and Persons columns grew out of this set of beliefs. His column of the 10th of February 1927 would appear to be one of these. He may not have chosen the strapline, The Twelve Finest Novels All Russian, but that is the message he wanted to give. As a bestselling English author with a column in The Evening Standard he would have received books from every major UK publisher but, in this column, he chose instead to set the cat amongst the pigeons and praise the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy. Bennett did not discover Leskov for English readers, or indeed any Russian writer. Pushkin had been translated since the 1820s; Tolstoy from the early 1900s and Dostoevsky from the 1910s, largely through the pioneering work of Constance Garnett. But here he was, friend of H.G.Wells, Frank Harris and Lord Beaverbrook (owner of The Evening Standard), introducing Leskov’s short novel The Enchanted Wanderer:
I have been asserting for 20 years that the twelve finest novels are all Russian, and as time passes I find an increasing number of people to agree with me; I have little doubt that the number of people will continue to increase. So that I hope to be excused if I say, as I do say, that the appearance of an English translation of a novel by Lyeskov (or Leskov) is an important event in the literary year.
Of the novel itself he wrote:
The Enchanted Wanderer is a masterpiece – of humour, pathos, romance, and adventure. No novelist ever had a finer narrative gift than Lyeskov. Even if he was not obviously a genius, his mere technical skill would make him remarkable in the evolution of the art of fiction.
Having read the novel, I cannot help but wonder what I missed. Enjoyable, insightful, at times charming, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a “one-thing-after-another” novel. The central character, Ivan Flyagin, suffers much pain and heartache until he enters a monastery, as promised to God by his mother when a baby. And that’s about it. This is, however, by-the-by. Arnold Bennett, the local boy made good in the world, thought it worth praising to the readership 0f The Evening Standard. What did they make of it? In a post-war Britain, where Sir Malcolm Campbell had just set a new world land speed record of 174 m.p.h. and Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup, did the readers of The Evening Standard buy the novel? Impossible to say, of course. But something did happen to sales of the novel, as can be seen in this Ngram measuring the number of times the title appeared in English:
This reflects all mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer, such as in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review of 1927 or The Book-of-the-Month Club news from 1950. But somewhere in that peak of 1927ish is Bennett’s review and I am sure it was good enough for readers of his column to go out and buy the novel. Like Bennett, they too may have looked for the new, and in a novel like this have seen an opportunity for self-improvement.
On the 9th of February, Bennett read of the death of his friend and novelist George Sturt, a now largely forgotten writer on English rural life; and on the 10th, Bennett finished reading Histoire de la Bienheureuse Fille Raton, a rather rude French novel.