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.

Frontispiece

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…

Frank Swinnerton: Gentleman

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 writer Frank Swinnerton’s book of essays The Tokefield Papers

NPG x137246; Frank Arthur Swinnerton; Mary Dorothy Swinnerton (nÈe Bennett); Olivia Mary Swinnerton by Bassano

Frank Swinnerton, his wife Mary and their daughter Olivia. 1937. © National Portrait Gallery.

Is anything more pleasurable than reading a book of essays by a writer long dead, on topics that have little bearing on contemporary life and which you cannot discuss because no one you know has read them? Of course there is. Pleasures abound in every corner of our lives. Like heretics, infidels and schismatics, the world is full of them. And yet, for that very reason a book such as Frank Swinnerton’s Tokefield Papers delights and charms me even more. It makes no demands, speaks in a quiet and cultured voice and expects nothing from us. Arnold Bennett, in his book column of December the 8th 1927, wrote of the book of collected essays:

Swinnerton has an extraordinary natural gift of elegance. None can handle a sentence with more skill. Devilishly adroit, he can get himself out of any compositional scrape without re-casting his phrase. Sometimes I wish he were less dextrous. But his attitude is maintained throughout. He is a realist concerning human nature, harsh. slightly cruel, yet kindly and always urbane. He amounts to a tonic, and should be taken at least twice a year. His urbanity and his moderation of statement are formidable.

The contents betray Swinnerton’s self-confessed fascination with his fellow humans: Why Gardeners are Gloomy, The Duty of Being Agreeable, On Thinking Well of Oneself, On Feeling Inferior, Respectability. For a man who eschewed all things Freudian, he shows himself to have had a a profound insight into human behaviour and a sense of empathy that does not blind him to the dangers posed by the emotionally-demanding, the rude, the arrogant who seek to dominate instead of sharing time and space in delightful gossip. There is something  of the Roman stoic philosopher in Swinnerton and I would place him unhesitatingly in that line of Republican and Imperial writer-philosophers such as Seneca and Cato. Somewhere in the Shades, I like to think of them sharing a cup of wine.

I wondered about the title of the book, The Tokefield Papers. A little internet research led me to the Surrey village of Cranleigh. It was there that Swinnerton bought a sixteenth-century cottage in 1924 and continued to write and entertain visitors with a cup of tea and a blether until his death at 92 in 1982.

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Old Tokefield, 1955 -1966. © The Estate of Marguerite Howarth.

On December 4th, Bennett visited the Garrick Club, listened to Bach’s B minor Mass at St. Margaret’s and ate oysters at the Reform Club. He felt uplifted by the music but criticised the women’s dress for its dowdiness.

 

It’s the little things that count

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.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.

FullSizeRender

Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.

bennett.jpg

Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.

 

 

 

Bennett’s Twelve Best Novels: all Russian

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.

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The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source http://www.thepotteries.org

 

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.

Nikolay_leskov_1872

Nikolai Leskov – inscribed photograph- source Wikipedia.

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:

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Ngram showing mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer.

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.

 

The County of Roxburgh: tastemaker

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 County of Roxburgh.

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Roxburgh, showing rail routes – source: happyhaggis.co.uk

Reading Bennett’s reviews from the Evening Standard (I’m using the collected edition, edited by Andrew Mylett – Arnold Bennett, The Evening Standard Years, ‘Books and Persons,’ 1926-1931) I am struck by the breadth of subjects on which he wrote. These are not book reviews per se. Rather they are the evidence of an inquiring mind with a pronounced literary bent. Lord Beaverbrook, owner of The Evening Standard and friend of Bennett, I am certain, was of the same opinion. I am equally sure he was hoping that by signing up Bennett, one of Britain’s most popular novelists, would only add to the newspaper’s prestige. Bennett characteristically referred to the articles as “book gossip.”

But what gossip! I’ve already referred to Bennett’s comments on the dearth of young novelists. But he also wrote on publishers who published unoriginal novels, the New School of writing (in which he included Virginia Woolf) and what he considered Thackeray’s cowardice. On the 7th of April 1927 his article on public libraries was published under the title How Libraries Can Form Public Taste: A Popular “County” Novelist. In it he writes of the post of county librarian being advertised by the County of Roxburgh in the Scottish Borders. He does question paying someone in such a post only £3 a week (worth £155 in 2014). He then goes on to add:

…public libraries and their librarians constitute a more important factor in the national life than we are apt in our unimaginativeness to suppose. If Blücher (with Wellington’s aid) won the battle of Waterloo on the playing fields of Eton, we are entitled to say that the battle for sound literary taste must be won in the public libraries.

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Carnegie Public Library in Ayr – source: southayrshirehistory.wordpress.com

In an age that has seen many councils decide that public libraries are no longer either affordable or necessary, his words hark back to the beginning of what was to be a period of expansion in the provision of public access to literature. I also wonder how many other critics spoke so forcefully at the time of the importance of libraries in the cultural life of Great Britain? Bennett was a wealthy man, but he was by nature a democrat who used his position as a bestselling author to encourage the creation of a public that read widely and critically.

He was also a social animal. On the 6th of April, he had lunch with Jane and H.G. Wells, dined with Lord Beaverbrook and then went to a house-warming party given by the leading British interior decorator Syrie Maugham!

 

Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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, Jew Süss by Lion Feuchtwanger. 

On the 13th of January 1927, under the heading A Fine Historical Novel by a German Author, Bennett concluded that week’s review with:

Jew Suss is a splendid story, but it is also a complete picture of a complex social organism from top to bottom. It entertains, it enthrals, and simultaneously it teaches, it enlarges the field of knowledge.

To which I can only add. “Aye, that.”

Feuchtwanger, Lion

Lion Feuchtwanger britannica.com

The novel, written by Lion Feuchtwanger, was based on the events that took place in the German state of Württemberg in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Joseph Süß Oppenheimer was a Jewish banker who bankrolled Duke Karl Alexander, the state’s ruler; rose to dizzying heights of power and, as befits a morality tale, crashed to earth when his luck ran out.

The cover of the German edition wikipedia.org

 

It’s not always an easy read. The word “Jew” is used, in the mouths of the majority of the people in the novel, as a term of abuse. The range of characters is wide; to recognise them as they appear at different points in the novel is not easy. Feuchtwanger pulls no punches when discussing Imperial politics of the period or bringing into the weft of the novel some of the principal tenets of the Kabbalah.  But it is worth it, for it is a roller coaster of a read. Rarely have I read a book that has gripped me so strongly. I am deeply sentimental but this is one of the few books that has made me cry.

The Nazis, of course, burnt his books.

On the 11th of January, Bennet walked to the Carlton Hotel  to meet Colonel Fitzhugh Minnegerode, representative of New York Times, who told him an amusing anecdote about Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Earlier that week  he signed over the rights to all his performed plays to his partner Dorothy Cheston. The weather, I’m sure to the surprise of no one , was unsettled.

My apologies to the gap in entries. It resulted as a combination of the poor use of postcodes and worry over shelf space.

Arnold Bennett’s plain words

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. The answer was a resounding yes. However, I became tired of reading old books and felt the need to bring myself up-to-date. 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 Ruin by Edward Sackville-West. 

Edward Sackville-West Source: The National Portrait Gallery.

Arnold Bennett’s review of The Ruin by Edward Sackville-West appeared in the 25th of November edition of the Evening Standard (you can read a detailed review at the excellent Reading 1900-1950 site).  Under the heading Plain Words to Our Younger Novelists, he wrote:

He can sometimes produce emotional effects of beauty (also what is loosely termed ugliness) which she [the novelist Mary Borden, reviewed by Bennett in the same column] could not even begin to produce. I should say that he may one day count – though The Ruin is perhaps excessively jejune, and has many pages about nothing.

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Book cover forThe Ruin. Source: amazon.com

Bennett then commented:

I am very interested in young writers [Sackville-West was 25 and Bennett was 59] – and rather gloomy about them. Nor am I alone in my gloominess. I find, when conversation on the subject has grown frank and intimate, that the young themselves are gloomy about their writers. I know that the war killed about 50 per cent. of potential talents. But the other 50 per cent. promise too little, and have performed almost nothing so far.

This was still a post-war society (the war had ended 8 years before)  for whom the one million dead were not great-grandfathers but rather fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, husbands and wives. When it came to literature, for every Siegfried Sassoon returned to his family how many Isaac Rosenbergs  had been left on the battlefield? Bennett, who had worked for Lord Beaverbrook in the War Propaganda Bureau,  was clearly concerned that the next literary renewal, which thirty years before had been embodied in the works of H.G.Wells or more recently in those of E.M.Forster, simply would not happen.

But to-day?…The elders and their immediate successors (such as E.M.Forster and D.H.Lawrence) can and do, when up to their form, knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls.

Plain words indeed for the younger novelists. As for me, I rather enjoyed the high drama of rural life where just about everyone would have benefited from getting out a little bit more.

Turning to his journals, we can see that Bennett was involved with the rehearsals for production of his novel Riceyman Steps (now there’s a novel that could “knock the stuffing out of the boys and girls”). On the 20th of November he wrote of his visit to the Ambassadors Theatre:

We rehearsed until 3.5 p.m. and then ate a good snack of chicken, tongue, and salad and admirable claret, in [leading actor] Leon M. Lion’s dressing room.

On the 25th of November Dorothy Bennett, his partner, returned from the first performance and he wrote:

She arrived home shortly before 6, with a very gloomy account of it…the audience was chilled and not at all responsive; in short, that the thing was a failure.

The play ran for six matinee performances before closing.

 

 

“Great prose or not”

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, the statement, backed by facts, “famous writers have more readers.”

It has been a while since I crunched some numbers. The idea came this time from an article written by Mikhail Simkin in the Journal of Quantitative Linguistics. Using the results of a blind test where readers were presented with anonymous excerpts from the novels of Charles Dickens and Edwin Bulwer-Lytton, Simkin showed that:

  • the results were on the level of random guessing – that is up against a giant panda using a specially adapted panda-friendly keyboard, you would in all likelihood lose.

He then argued that:

  • famous writers are different from their obscure colleagues because they have more readers – the corollary being that the quality of writing does not differentiate between them.

As you can imagine this kicked up a bit of a stooshie, which Simkin summarised in another article in the journal of the American Statistical Society, Significance.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

They sit around all day, eating bamboo and could probably tell the difference between Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton better than you. Source: Wikipedia.

Simkin then went on to develop his argument using data from the Goodreads website. Looking at the top ratings given by readers to the works of Dickens and Bulwer-Lytton, he argued that given the proximity of average top ratings for both writers, once again, what differentiated them was solely the number of readers. All of which got to me  to thinking, what would a similar study show when looking at arch-cultural-rivals Arnold Bennett and Virginia Woolf. Funnily enough, it would look like this:

Watch those numbers stack up.

Which, when turned into a handy bar chart, looks like this:

The mighty bar chart

 

The results are very much in line with those that arose from the study carried out by Simkin, namely that:

  • the difference between the number of ratings for the two writers is noticeable: 2,725 – 91,010 for Virginia Woolf and 41 – 1,788 for Arnold Bennett;
  • the average listed rating is very close for both writers: 3.76 for Virginia Woolf and 3.77 for Arnold Bennett;
  •  Virginia Woolf’s advantage as regards 5 star ratings is small: Virginia Woolf’s average being 26.9% and Arnold Bennett’s being 23.8%,

and of course:

  • “…famous writers just have more readers.”

Objections to all of the above are, like the demons of the man from Gadara, legion. Not the least being, I did not carry out a blind test to distinguish extracts from the works of the two writers. But if nothing else, it has made me consider with a little more depth the validity of any notion of an accepted literary canon. I now have it in mind to repeat the same experiment with Joseph Conrad and H.G.Wells.

Coming up next, The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

If you were wondering, I scored 8 out of 12 on the test. 

Note: I made corrections 23rd May 2014 to the title of the chart, Virginia Woolf’s average and range of ratings for Arnold Bennett following suggestions made by Mikhail Simkin.

 

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