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.

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Matthew Arnold: Secret Agent

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. I am currently reading Matthew Arnold’s Essays. It’s taking longer than expected so rather than post nothing I have come up with this. 

In 1858, after seven years of marriage, Matthew Arnold moved into what was then called a small house in Chester Square, London. It would now be called “worth a million pounds.” Still a relatively new housing development when Matthew Arnold moved in, it had up to the 1820s been an area of lagoons and the haunt of footpads and robbers. Lagoons, I always feel, are the British equivalent of Indian graveyards (on which American middle class families insist on building their homes – always with dire results). It would be pleasing to think of the heavily side-whiskered Arnold doing combat with a resurrected Grendel or indeed aliens emerging from his cellars. His ability to quote widely and wittily in Latin and Greek would doubtless come in useful. “Sic semper tyrannis” he would mutter as he empties his Beaumont Adams revolver into the quivering tentacles of the alien leader. Half way to Chelsea there was even a pub appropriately called The Monster, which was reached via a cabbage patch.

If not a fighter of monsters and aliens, why not a private detective? As an  inspector of schools for thirty five years, he was noted as knowing more about the timetables, stations and trains of England than most men. What better opportunity for the solving of crimes the length and breadth of the country (especially those involving trains)? He could once more empty his trusty Beaumont Adams revolver into the chest of Randolph Churchill as he attempts to bundle Queen Victoria onto the Dover train, the first step in his mad plan to make her Empress of his African Empire; or arrest John Ruskin as he smuggles Turner’s smutty pictures to Paris on the ferry train to Folkestone. In his book Portraits of the Seventies, George Russell speaks warmly of the dinners at Arnold’s house in Chester Square. Where better to share his adventures with his friends and companions George Buckle, Herbert Paul and George Augustus as they drink their port?

Not quite Flashman nor the current on-line comic adventures of Babbington and Lovelace, but it would be nice to think there would be a market for a nineteenth century crime-solving/monster-slaughtering Oxford Professor of Poetry with impressive side-whiskers. Some of the above is true. Much of it is not. There is certainly enough to horrify the ghost of one great and possibly neglected literary figure.

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