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.”

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