* * * * *
And he continues, after a deviation into forceful abuse: "I don't want to force novels in two volumes down the throats of other subscribers. I don't want to force anything down their throats. They aren't obliged to take what they don't want. There are lots of books circulated by Mudie's that I strongly object to—books that make me furious—as regards both moral and physical heaviness and tediousness and general tommy-rot. But do I write and complain, and ask Mudie's to withdraw such books altogether? If Mudie came along with a pistol and two volumes by Hall Caine, and said to me, 'Look here, I'll make you have these,' then perhaps I might begin to murmur gently. But he doesn't. I'll say this for Mudie; he doesn't force you to take particular books. You can always leave what you don't want. All these people who are (alleged to be) crying out for a censorship—they're merely idle! If they really want a censorship they ought to exercise it themselves. Robinson has a daughter, and he is shocked at the idea of her picking up a silly sham-erotic novel by a member of the aristocracy, or a first-rate beautiful thing by George Moore.... Am I then to be deprived of the chance of studying the inane psychology of the ruling classes or of enjoying the work of a great artist? Be d——d to Robinson's daughter! I don't care a bilberry for either her or her innocence. I'm not going to be responsible for Robinson's daughter. Let Robinson, if he is such a fool as to suppose that daughters can be spoiled by bad books or good books—let him look after her himself! Let him establish his confounded censorship at his front door, or at his drawing-room door. Let him do his own work. Nothing but idleness—that's what's the matter with him! The whole project that Robinson suggests is simply monstrous. He might just as well say that because his daughter has a weak digestion and an unruly appetite for rich cakes, therefore all the cake shops in London must be shut up. Let him keep her out of cake shops. All I want is freedom. I don't mean to defend my tastes or to apologize for them. If I wish to hire a certain book, that's enough. I must have it—until the police step in. There can only be one censorship, and that is by the police. A Library is a commercial concern, and I won't look at it from any other point of view. I have no interest at the present moment in your notions about the future of literature, and the livelihood of serious artists, and so on. All that's absolutely beside the point. The sole point is that I am ready to let other people have what they want, and I claim that I've the right to have what I want. The whole thing is simple rot, and there's no other word for it."
CENSORSHIP BY THE LIBRARIES
[13 Jan. '10]
A number of people have been good enough to explain to me that the project of the Circulating Libraries Censorship (now partially "in being") did not originally concern itself with novels, and that, in the first place, it was directed against books of more or less scandalous memoirs. Of this I was well aware. But in writing about the matter I expressly tried to centre its interest on the novel, because the novel is the only important part of the affair. For a year past I have been inveighing against the increasing taste for feeble naughtiness concerning king's mistresses and all that sort of tedious person. And I have remarked on the growing frequency of such words as "fair," "frail," "lover," "enchantress," etc., in the supposed-to-be-alluring titles of books of historical immorality. (I presume that these volumes are called for by the respectable, as the cocotte calls for a creme de menthe at a fashionable seaside hotel on a winter Sunday afternoon.) Apparently the circulating libraries also have noticed the growing frequency of such words in their lists. But what they have noticed with more genuine alarm is the growing prices which clever publishers have been putting on such books. It has not escaped the observation of clever publishers that the demand by library subscribers for such books is a very real demand, and clever publishers therefore thought that they might make a little bit extra in this connexion by charging high for volumes brief but scandalous. The libraries thought otherwise. Hence, in truth, the attempted censorship. The now famous moral crusade of the libraries would certainly not have occurred had not the libraries perceived, in the moral pressure which was exercised upon them from lofty regions, the chance of effecting economies. And there is not a circulating library that does not feel an authentic need of economies.
* * * * *
I should have objected to a censorship even of scandalized history, for no censorship ever cured a population of bad taste. But naturally the libraries could not stop at memoirs. They had, in order to be consistent and to talk big about morality, to include novels in their scheme of scavenging. At this point the libraries pass from futile foolishness to active viciousness, and so encounter the opposition of persons like myself, whose business it is to keep an eye on things.
* * * * *
I can tell a true tale about one of the three great circulating libraries. A certain man of taste was directing the education in literature of a certain woman. The time came when the woman had to study Balzac. The man gave her a list of titles of novels by Balzac which she was to read. She went to her library, but could not find, in the list of Balzac's complete "Comedie Humaine" furnished by the library, one of the works which she had been instructed to peruse. Hearing of this, the man, whose curiosity was aroused, called at the library to conduct an inquiry. He had an interview with one of the managers, and the manager at once admitted that their complete list was not complete. "We cannot supply a work with such a title," the manager explained. The book was one of the most famous and one of the finest of nineteenth-century novels, "Splendeurs et Miseres des Courtisanes," issued by Messrs. Dent and Co. (surely a respectable firm), with a preface by Professor George Saintsbury (surely a respectable mandarin), under the title, "The Harlot's Progress." The man of taste asked, "Have you read the book?" "No," said the manager. "Have you read any of Balzac's novels?" "No," said the manager. "Do you prohibit Galsworthy's 'Man of Property'?" "No," said the manager. "Have you read it?" "No," said the manager. "Do you prohibit Jacob Tonson's last novel?" "No," said the manager. "Have you read it?" "No," said the manager. "Well," said the man of taste, "you'd better read one or two of these later writers, and then think over the Balzac question." The manager discreetly replied that he would consult the principal proprietor. The next morning "The Harlot's Progress," in two volumes, was sent round from the library.
* * * * *
But imagine it! Imagine one of the largest circulating libraries in the world, in the year 1909, refusing to supply an established, world-admired, classical work of genius because its title contains the word "harlot"! In no other European capital, nor in any American capital, could such a monstrously idiotic and disgusting thing happen. It is so preposterous that one cannot realize it all at once. I am a tremendous admirer of England. I have lived too long in foreign parts not to see the fineness of England. But in matters of hypocrisy there is really something very wrong with this island, and the atmosphere of this island is thick enough to choke all artists dead. You can walk up and down the Strand and see photographs of celebrated living harlots all over the place. You can buy them on picture post cards for your daughter. You can see their names even on the posters of high-class weekly papers. You can entertain them at the most select fashionable restaurants. Indeed, the shareholders of fashionable restaurants would look very blue without the said harlots. (Only they aren't called harlots.) But if you desire to read a masterpiece of social fiction, some mirror of crass stupidity in a circulating library will try to save you from yourself.
* * * * *
[24 Feb. '10]
Up Yorkshire way the opponents of freedom have been dealing some effective blows at the Libraries Censorship. They doubtless imagine that they have been supporting the Libraries Censorship; but they are mistaken. Hull has distinguished itself. It is a strange, interesting place. I only set foot in it once; the day was Sunday, and I arrived by sea. I was informed that a man could not get a shave in Hull on Sunday. But I got one. At the last meeting of the Hull Libraries Committee, when "Ann Veronica" was under discussion, Canon Lambert procured for the name of Lambert a free advertisement throughout the length and breadth of the country by saying: "I would just as soon send a daughter of mine to a house infected with diphtheria or typhoid fever as put that book into her hands." I doubt it. I can conceive that, if it came to the point, Canon Lambert's fear of infection and regard for his own canonical skin might move him to offer his daughter "Ann Veronica" in preference to diphtheria and typhoid fever. Canons who give expression to this kind of babblement must expect what they get in the way of responses. Let the Canon now turn the other cheek, in a Christian spirit, and I will see what I can do for him.
* * * * *
Needless to say, "Ann Veronica" was banned from the Free Public Libraries of free Hull. But I cull the following from the Hull Daily Mail: "A local bookseller had thirteen orders for 'Ann Veronica' on Monday, thirty on Tuesday, and scores since. Previously he had no demand." A Canon Lambert in every town would demolish the censorship in less time than it took the Hebrew deity to create the world and the fig-tree.
* * * * *
Canon Lambert, doubtless unconsciously, went wide of the point. The point was not a code for the parental treatment of canons' daughters. England was not waiting for information as to what Canon Lambert would do to a Miss Lambert in a given dilemma. H.G. Wells did not turn up in Hull with a Gatling gun and, turning it on the Canon's abode, threaten to blow the ecclesiastical wigwam to pieces if the canon did not immediately buy a copy of "Ann Veronica" for his daughter to read. Nobody wants to interfere between the Canon and a Miss Lambert. All that quiet people want is to be left alone to treat their daughters according to their lights. Does Canon Lambert hold that the Hull libraries are to contain no volumes which he would not care for his daughter to read?
* * * * *
The Hull Daily Mail has, I regret to say, taken the side of the Canon. This is a pity. The Hull paper should be a little more careful about the letters it prints. In a recent issue it allowed a correspondent to call "Ann Veronica" "pornographic," which is most distinctly libellous. But possibly the correspondent and the newspaper felt themselves secure in Mr. Wells's disdain. "Ann Veronica" is not pornographic. It is not even indecent. It is utterly decent from end to end. It is also utterly honest. It is not one of Mr. Wells's major productions. But if a work of an honourable and honoured artist is to be damned because it happens to be inferior to other works of the same artist, Hull ought to consider the awful case of "Measure for Measure." By the way, would Canon Lambert as soon send a Miss Lambert to a house infected with mumps as put "Measure for Measure" into her hands? The Hull Daily Mail, taken to task, sheltered itself behind Mr. Clement Shorter and the Sphere. I will not discuss Mr. Shorter's singular pronouncement upon "Ann Veronica," because I am in a very good humour with him just now for his excellently acid remarks upon the "success" literature of Mr. Peter Keary. But I may remark that Mr. Shorter did not advocate the censoring of the book, nor did he come within seven Irish miles of describing it as pornographic.
Canonical people have tried to make capital out of the fact that "Ann Veronica" is not to be found in the public libraries of sundry large towns. But the reason may not be connected with the iconoclasm of "Ann Veronica." In an interview, Mr. T.W. Hand, the librarian at Leeds, said: "I haven't read the book through (Why not?), though I have seen it, and we haven't got it in any of our libraries in Leeds. The reason for this is not the character of the book, but the fact that we never purchase our novels until they have become cheaper." Charming confession! A subscription ought to be opened for poverty-stricken Leeds, which must wait to buy an English book that is or will be translated into every European language, until it has become cheaper! A few weeks ago the country was laughing at little Beverley because its Fathers publicly decided to purchase no fiction less than a year old. But are the great towns any better off?
* * * * *
[3 Mar. '10]
Literary censorship in the intellectual centre of the world: I need hardly say that I mean Boston, Mass. Boston is the city of Harvard University. It is also the city of the Atlantic Monthly. It is also the city of Emerson, Lowell, Longfellow, and Holmes. Boston has a Public Library. It is supposed to be one of the finest public libraries in this world or any other. Great artists, such as Puvis de Chavannes and John Sargent, have helped to decorate the Boston Library. In brief, Boston and its Library are not to be sneezed at. A certain woman asked for George Moore's "Esther Waters," recognized, I believe, as one of the most serious and superb of modern novels. The work was included in the catalogue of the Library. In reply to her request she was informed that she could not have "Esther Waters" unless she obtained from the Chief Mandarin or Librarian special permission to read it, on the ground that she was a "student of literature." I doubt whether the imagination of nincompoops and boards of management has ever devised anything more beautiful than this.
* * * * *
But the lady had a husband, and the husband, being a prominent journalist, had the editorial use of a newspaper in Boston. He began to make inquiries, and he discovered that many of the catalog cards were marked with red stars, and that a star signified that the work described on the card was not morally fit for general circulation. He further discovered that works rankly and frankly pornographic and works of distinguished art were starred with the same star. Lastly, he discovered that the Chief Mandarin or Librarian, all out of his own head and off his own bat, had appointed a reading committee for the dividing of modern fiction into sheep and goats, and that the said committee consisted exclusively of Boston dames mature in years. He exposed the entire affair in his newspapers and made a very pleasing sensation. The first result was that his wife was afterwards received at the Library with imperial honours and given to understand by kotowing sub-mandarins that she might have the whole red-star library sent home to her house if she so desired. There was no other result. The rest of reading Boston remained under the motherly but autocratic care of ces dames. Those skilled in the artistic records of Boston may remember that the management of the same Library once refused the offered gift of a statue of a woman holding a baby, on the sole ground that the woman was not attired.
[26 May '10]
More interesting information has accrued to me concerning literary censorship in the British provinces. Glasgow has about a dozen lending libraries, chiefly, I believe, of the Carnegie species. In none of these are the works of Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett allowed a place. Further, "Anna Karenina," "Resurrection," "Tess," "Jude the Obscure," and "Tono-Bungay" are banned. Further, and still more droll, in the words of a correspondent who has been good enough to send me all sorts of particulars: "A few days ago I applied at the Mitchell Library (a reference library in the centre of the town) for Whitman's poems. The attendant procured the volume, but, before handing it to me, consulted one of the senior librarians. This official scrutinized me from a distance of about eight yards and finally nodded his head in acquiescence. The book was then given to me. On the back of it a little red label was affixed. I made inquiry and discovered that books with these labels are only given out to persons of (what shall I say?) good moral appearance."
Nevertheless, we ought to be thankful that we live in Britain. The case of the United States is in some respects far worse than ours. The egregious Sir Robert Anderson has just explained in Blackwood how he established a sort of unofficial censorship of morals at the English Post Office. In the United States an official censorship of mailed matter exists, and the United States Post Office can and does regularly examine the literature entrusted to it, and can and does reject what it deems inimical to the morals of the native land of Jay Gould, James Gordon Bennett, J.D. Rockefeller, and the regretted Harriman. Among other matter which the United States Post Office censorship has recently excluded are the following items:
An extract from an article in the Fortnightly Review.
An extract from "Man and Superman."
An article in favour of freedom of the Press reprinted from the Boston's Woman's Journal.
An article by Lady Florence Dixie reprinted from a Scottish county paper.
* * * * *
On one occasion the editor of Lucifer had occasion to mention that adultery and fornication had not been criminal offences in England since 1660. The authorities were so aghast at the idea of this information being allowed to creep out that they insisted on the passage being deleted. It was.
* * * * *
Further. The Editor of an American paper, on it being suggested to him that he should reprint portions of a criticism of "Measure for Measure," by Mr. A.B. Walkley in the Times, refused to do so for fear of prosecution. Perhaps the most truly American instance of all is the misfortune that befell the Reverend Mabel McCoy Irwin. The excellent lady began to publish a paper advocating strict chastity for both sexes. It was excluded from the mails on the ground that no allusion to sex could be tolerated. I reckon this anecdote to be the most exquisitely perfect of all anecdotes that I have ever come across in the diverting history of moral censorships. There is a subtle flavour about that name, Mabel McCoy Irwin, which is indescribably apposite ... McCoy. It is a wonderful world! I am much indebted to an American correspondent for these delights.
[17 Feb. '10]
I foresee a craze in this country for Brieux. I first perceived its coming one day during an intellectual meal in a green-painted little restaurant in Soho. Whenever I go into Soho I pass through experiences which send me out again a wiser man. On this occasion I happened to speak lightly of Brieux to a friend of mine, a prominent and influential member of the Stage Society—one of those men in London who think to-day what London will think to-morrow, and what Paris thought yesterday. He was visibly shocked by my tone. His invincible politeness withstood the strain, but the strain was terrible. From this incident alone I was almost ready to prophesy a Brieux craze in London. And now a selection of Brieux's plays is to be published in English in one volume, with a preface by Bernard Shaw. Within a fortnight of the appearance of the book the Brieux craze will exist in full magnificence. Leading articles will contain learned off-hand allusions to Brieux, Brieux and Shaw will be compared and differentiated, and Brieux will be the most serious dramatist in France. I doubt not that Mr. Shaw's preface will be a witty and illuminating affair, and that it will show me agreeable aspects of Brieux's talent which have hitherto escaped me; but if it persuades me that Brieux is an artistically serious dramatist worth twopence, then I will retire from public life and seek a post as third sub-editor on the British Weekly.
* * * * *
Brieux is a man with moral ideas. I will admit even that he is dominated by moral ideas, which, if they are sometimes crude, are certainly righteous. He is a reformer and a passionate reformer. But a man can be a passionate reformer, with a marked turn for eloquence, and yet not be a serious dramatist. Dr. Clifford is a reformer; Mr. Henniker Heaton is a passionate reformer; and both are capable of literature when they are excited. But they are not dramatists. We still await Mr. Henniker Heaton's tragic fourth act about the failure of the negotiations for a penny post with France. Brieux is too violent a reformer ever to be a serious dramatist. Violent reformers are unprincipled, and the reformer in Brieux forces the dramatist in him to prostitution. The dramatist in him is not strong enough to resist the odious demands of the reformer: which fact alone shows how far he is from being a first-rate dramatist. As a dramatist Brieux is no stronger, no more sincere, no less unscrupulous, no less viciously sentimental, than the fashionable authors of the boulevard, such as Capus, Donnay, and the ineffable Bernstein, so adored in London. And it is as a dramatist that he must be judged. Of course, if you wish to judge him as a reformer, you must get some expert opinion about his subjects of reform. I fancy that you will end by discovering that as a reformer he must be considered just a little crude.
* * * * *
I have seen most of Brieux's plays, and I have seen them produced under his own direction, so that I can judge fairly well what he is after on the stage. And I am bound to say that, with the exception of "Les Trois Filles de Monsieur Dupont" (which pleased me pretty well so far as I comprehended its dramatic intention), I have not seen one which I could refrain from despising. Brieux's plays always begin so brilliantly, and they always end so feebly, in such a wishwash of sentimentalism. Take his last play—no, his last play was "La Foi," produced by Mr. Tree, and I have not yet met even an ardent disciple of the craze who has had sufficient effrontery to argue that it is a good play. Take his last play but one, "Suzette"—or "Suzanne," or whatever its girl's name was—produced at the Paris Vaudeville last autumn. The first act is very taking indeed. You can see the situation of the ostracized wife coming along beautifully. The preparation is charming, in the best boulevard manner. But when the situation arrives and has to be dealt with—what a mess, what falseness, what wrenching, what sickly smoothing, what ranting, and what terrific tediousness! It is so easy to begin. It is so easy to think of a fine idea. The next man you meet in an hotel bar will tell you a fine idea after two whiskys—I mean a really fine idea. Only in art an idea doesn't exist till it is worked out. Brieux never (with the possible exception above mentioned) works an idea out. Because he can't. He doesn't know enough of his business. He can only do the easy parts of his business. Last autumn also, the Comedie Francaise revived "La Robe Rouge." The casting, owing to an effort to make it too good, was very bad; and the production was very bad, though Brieux himself superintended it. But, all allowances made for the inevitable turpitudes of this ridiculous national theatre, the was senile; it was done for! Certainly it exposes the abuses of the French magistrature, but at what cost of fundamental truth! The melodramatic close might have been written in the Isle of Man.
* * * * *
Take the most notorious of all his plays, "Les Avaries." It contains an admirable sermon, a really effective sermon, animated by ideas which I suppose have been in the minds of exceptionally intelligent men for a hundred years or so, and which Brieux restated in terms of dramatic eloquence. But the sentimentality of the end is simply base. The sentimentality of another famous play, "Maternite," is even more deplorable.
* * * * *
It is said that Brieux's plays make you think. Well, it depends who you are. No, I will admit that they have several times made me think. I will admit that, since I saw "Les Avaries," I have never thought quite the same about syphilis as I did before. But what I say is that this has nothing to do with Brieux's position as a dramatist. Brieux could have written a pamphlet on the subject of "Les Avaries" which would have impressed me just as much as his play (I happened to read the play before I witnessed it). Indeed, if he had confined himself to a pamphlet I should have respected him more than I do. Brieux has never sharpened my sense of beauty; he has never made me see beauty where I had failed to see it. And this is what he ought to have done, as a serious dramatist. He is deficient in a feeling for beauty; he is deficient in emotion. But that is not the worst of him. Mr. Shaw is deficient in these supreme qualities. But Mr. Shaw is an honest playwright. And Brieux (speaking, of course, in a sense strictly artistic) is not. That he is dishonest in the cause of moral progress does not mitigate his crime. Zealots may deny this as loudly as they please. Nothing can keep Brieux's plays alive; they are bound to go precisely where the plays of Dumas fils have gone, because they are false to life. I do not expect to kill the oncoming craze, but I will give it no quarter.
[10 Mar. '10]
I have read Mr. C.E. Montague's "A Hind Let Loose" (Methuen, 6s.), and I am not going to advise any one to follow my example. I do not desire to prejudice his circulation, but I have my conscience to consider. This is not a book for the intelligent masses; it would be folly to recommend it to them. It is for the secretly arrogant few, those who really do "know that they are august" within, whatever garment of diffident and mild modesty they may offer to the world. Only those few can understand it. All admiration other than theirs will be either ignorant or dog-like—or both. Everybody on the Press will say that "A Hind Let Loose" is a novel about journalism. It is not. Journalism is merely the cloak hanging windily about it, as her cloak hung about Mrs. Colum Fay. It is a novel about the pride of the Ego. It is the fearful and yet haughty cry of originality against the vast tendency of the age, which tendency is that people should live in the age as in an intellectual barracks. Hedlum, the conversational clubman and successful barrister, is the real villain of the story, though he appears but for a moment, "Hedlum would take up all that was current, trim it and pare its nails, and give it his blessing and send it out into the world to get on, and it did famously. You felt that if it was not true then the fault was truth's; there must be some upper order of truth, not universally known, to which he had conformed and to which the facts, in the vulgar sense, could not have been loyal. All of him helped the effect. He was of the settled age—fifty or so—handsome, with the controlled benignity, the mellowed precision, the happy, distinguished melancholy sometimes united in a good-looking judge.... You watched the weighing of each word at its exit from the shaved, working lips, and the closure of their inexorable adamant behind its heels. As the last commonplace of club gossip, smoke-room heroics, and music-hall sentiment issued from these portals, transfigured by the moderate discount that made it twice itself, you not only saw it was final truth, or virility's quintessential emotion; you felt he had done something decisive, even gallant, and that you were in it—a fine fellow, too, in your way; and you quickened; you lived back and forward, back to the blithe days at school when they first taught you never to think your own thoughts or take what came in a way of your own, but to pool your brains with the rest and 'throw yourself into the life of the school,' and on to your early manhood's deeper training in resemblance to others, and so to the good day, always coming and always here, always to be had by him who wills it with his might, when the imitative shall inherit the earth."
* * * * *
I quote this, the very essence of the work, in order to choke off the feeble, the kind, and the altruistic. I would not hawk this book. If I had foreknown what it was I would never have mentioned it. I would have mentioned it to none, sure that, by the strange force of gravity which inevitably draws together a book and its fit reader, the novel would in the end reach the only audience worthy of it. I say no more about it.
PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS
[10 Mar. '10]
Authentic documents are always precious to the student, and here is one which strikes me as precious beyond the ordinary. It is a letter received from a well-known publisher by a correspondent of mine who is a journalist:
"I am awfully sorry that we cannot take your novel, which is immensely clever, and which interested my partner more than anything he has read in a good while. He agrees with me, however, that it has not got the qualities that make for a sale, and you know that this is the great desideratum with the publisher. Now don't get peevish, and send us nothing else. I know you have a lot of talent, and your difficulty is in applying this talent to really practical problems rather than to the more attractive products of the imagination. Get down to facts, my son, and study your market. Find out what the people like to read and then write a story along those lines. This will bring you success, for you have a talent for success. Above all things, don't follow the lead of our headstrong friend who insists upon doing exactly what you have done in this novel, namely, neglecting the practical market and working out the fanciful dictates of imagination. Remember that novel-writing is as much of a business as making calico. If you write the novels that people want, you are going to sell them in bales. When you have made your name and your market, then you can afford to let your imagination run riot, and then people will look at you admiringly, and say, 'I don't understand this genius at all, but isn't he great?' Do you see the point? You must do this AFTER you have won your market, not before, and you can only win your market in the first place by writing what folks want to buy.—Sincerely yours—"
* * * * *
The writer is American. But the attitude of the average pushing English publisher could not have been more accurately expressed than in this letter sent by one New Yorker to another. The only thing that puzzles me is why the man originally chose books instead of calico. He would have sold more bales and made more money in calico. He would have understood calico better. In my opinion many publishers would have understood calico better than books. There are two things which a publisher ought to know about novel-producers—things which do not, curiously enough, apply to calico-producers, and which few publishers have ever grasped. I have known publishers go into the bankruptcy court and come out again safely and yet never grasp the significance of those two things. The first is that it is intensely stupid to ask a novelist to study the market with a view to obtaining large circulations. If he does not write to please himself—if his own taste does not naturally coincide with the taste of the million—he will never reach the million by taking thought. The Hall Caines, the Miss Corellis, and the Mrs. Humphry Wards are born, not made. It may seem odd, even to a publisher, that they write as they do write—by sheer glad instinct. But it is so. The second thing is that when a novelist has made "his name and his market" by doing one kind of thing he can't successfully go off at a tangent and do another kind of thing. To make the largest possible amount of money out of an artist the only way is to leave him alone. When will publishers grasp this? To make the largest possible amount of money out of an imitative hack, the only way is to leave him alone. When will publishers grasp that an imitative hack knows by the grace of God forty times more about the public taste than a publisher knows?
TOURGENIEV AND DOSTOIEVSKY
[31 Mar. '10]
I have read with very great interest Mr. Maurice Baring's new volume about Russia, "Landmarks in Russian Literature" (Methuen, 6s. net). It deals with Gogol, Tourgeniev, Dostoievsky, Tolstoy, and Tchehkoff. It is unpretentious. It is not "literary." I wish it had been more literary. Mr. Baring seems to have a greater love for literature than an understanding knowledge of it. He writes like a whole-hearted amateur, guided by common sense and enthusiasm, but not by the delicate perceptions of an artist. He often says things, or says things in a manner, which will assuredly annoy the artist. Thus his curt, conventional remarks about Zola might have been composed for a leading article in the Morning Post, instead of for a volume of literary criticism. Nevertheless, I cannot be cross with him. In some ways his book is illuminating. I mean that it has illuminated my darkness. His chapters on Russian characteristics and on realism in Russian literature are genuinely valuable. In particular he makes me see that even French realism is an artificial and feeble growth compared with the spontaneous, unconscious realism of the Russians. If you talked to Russians about realism they probably would not know quite what you meant. And when you had at length made them understand they would certainly exclaim: "Well, of course! But why all this fuss about a simple matter?" Only a man who knows Russia very well, and who has a genuine affection for the Russian character, could have written these chapters. And I am ready to admit that they are more useful than many miles of appreciation in the delicate balancing manner of, say, an Arthur Symons.
* * * * *
Mr. Baring raises again the vexed question of Tourgeniev's position. It is notorious that Tourgeniev is much more highly appreciated outside Russia than in it. One is, of course, tempted to say that Russians cannot judge their own authors, for there is a powerful and morally overwhelming cult for Tourgeniev in France, Germany, and England. I have myself said, sworn, and believed that "On the Eve" is the most perfect example of the novel yet produced in any country. And I am not sure that I am yet prepared to go back on myself. However, it is absurd to argue that Russians cannot judge their own authors. The best judges of Russian authors must be Russians. Think of the ridiculous misconceptions about English literature by first-class foreign critics!... But I am convinced that Mr. Baring goes too far in his statement of the Russian estimate of Tourgeniev. He says that educated Russian opinion would no more think of comparing Tourgeniev with Dostoievsky than educated English opinion would think of comparing Charlotte Yonge with Charlotte Bronte. This is absurd. Whatever may be Tourgeniev's general inferiority (and I do not admit it), he was a great artist and a complete artist. And he was a realist. There is all earth and heaven between the two Charlottes. One was an artist, the other was an excellent Christian body who produced stories that have far less relation to life than Frith's "Derby Day" has to the actual fact and poetry of Epsom. If Mr. Baring had bracketed Tourgeniev with Charlotte Bronte and Dostoievsky with the lonely Emily, I should have credited him with a subtle originality.
About half of the book is given to a straightforward, detailed, homely account of Dostoievsky, his character, genius, and works. It was very much wanted in English. I thought I had read all the chief works of the five great Russian novelists, but last year I came across one of Dostoievsky's, "The Brothers Karamazov," of which I had not heard. It was a French translation, in two thick volumes. I thought it contained some of the greatest scenes that I had ever encountered in fiction, and I at once classed it with Stendhal's "Chartreuse de Parme" and Dostoievsky's "Crime and Punishment" as one of the supreme marvels of the world. Nevertheless, certain aspects of it puzzled me. When I mentioned it to friends I was told that I had gone daft about it, and that it was not a major work. Happening to meet Mrs. Garnett, the never-to-be-sufficiently-thanked translator of Tourgeniev and of Tolstoy, I made inquiries from her about it, and she said: "It is his masterpiece." We were then separated by a ruthless host, with my difficulties unsolved. I now learn from Mr. Baring that the French translation is bad and incomplete, and that the original work, vast as it is, is only a preliminary fragment of a truly enormous novel which death prevented Dostoievsky from finishing. Death, this is yet another proof of your astonishing clumsiness! The scene with the old monk at the beginning of "The Brothers Karamazov" is in the very grandest heroical manner. There is nothing in either English or French prose literature to hold a candle to it. And really I do not exaggerate! There is probably nothing in Russian literature to match it, outside Dostoievsky. It ranks, in my mind, with the scene towards the beginning of "Crime and Punishment," when in the inn the drunken father relates his daughter's "shame." These pages are unique. They reach the highest and most terrible pathos that the novelist's art has ever reached. And if an author's reputation among people of taste depended solely on his success with single scenes Dostoievsky would outrank all other novelists, if not all poets. But it does not. Dostoievsky's works—all of them—have grave faults. They have especially the grave fault of imperfection, that fault which Tourgeniev and Flaubert avoided. They are tremendously unlevel, badly constructed both in large outline and in detail. The fact is that the difficulties under which he worked were too much for the artist in him. Mr. Baring admits these faults, but he does not sufficiently dwell on them. He glances at them and leaves them, with the result that the final impression given by his essay is apt to be a false one. Nobody, perhaps, ever understood and sympathized with human nature as Dostoievsky did. Indubitably nobody ever with the help of God and good luck ever swooped so high into tragic grandeur. But the man had fearful falls. He could not trust his wings. He is an adorable, a magnificent, and a profoundly sad figure in letters. He is anything you like. But he could not compass the calm and exquisite soft beauty of "On the Eve" or "A House of Gentlefolk."...
[14 July '10]
Mr. John Galsworthy, whose volume of sketches, "A Motley," is now in process of being reviewed, is just finishing another novel, which will no doubt be published in the autumn. That novels have to be finished is the great disadvantage of the novelist's career—otherwise, as every one knows, a bed of roses, a velvet cushion, a hammock under a ripe pear-tree. To begin a novel is delightful. To finish it is the devil. Not because, on parting with his characters, the novelist's heart is torn by the grief which Thackeray described so characteristically. (The novelist who has put his back into a novel will be ready to kick the whole crowd of his characters down the front-door steps.) But because the strain of keeping a long book at the proper emotional level through page after page and chapter after chapter is simply appalling, and as the end approaches becomes almost intolerable. I have just finished a novel myself; my nineteenth, I think. So I know the rudiments of the experience. For those in peril on the sea, and for novelists finishing novels, prayers ought to be offered up.
In accordance with my habit of re-reading books which have uncommonly interested me on first perusal, I have recently read again "A Man of Property." Well, it stands the test. It is certainly the most perfect of Mr. Galsworthy's novels up to now. Except for the confused impression caused by the too rapid presentation of all the numerous members of the Forsyte family at the opening, it has practically no faults. In construction it is unlike any other novel that I know, but that is not to say it has no constructive design—as some critics have said. It is merely to say that it is original. There are no weak parts in the book, no places where the author has stopped to take his breath and wipe his brow. The tension is never relaxed. This is one of the two qualities without which a novel cannot be first class and great. The other is the quality of sound, harmonious design. Both qualities are exceedingly rare, and I do not know which is the rarer. In the actual material of the book, the finest quality is its extraordinary passionate cruelty towards the oppressors as distinguished from the oppressed. That oppressors should be treated with less sympathy than oppressed is contrary to my own notion of the ethics of creative art, but the result in Mr. Galsworthy's work is something very pleasing. Since "A Man of Property," the idea that the creator of the universe, or the Original Will, or whatever you like to call it or him, made a grotesque fundamental mistake in the conception of our particular planet, has apparently gained much ground in Mr. Galsworthy's mind. I hope that this ground may slowly be recovered by the opposite idea. Anyhow, the Forsyte is universal. We are all Forsytes, just as we are all Willoughby Patternes, and this incontrovertible statement implies inevitably that Mr. Galsworthy is a writer of the highest rank. I re-read "A Man of Property" immediately after re-reading Dostoievsky's "Crime and Punishment," and immediately before re-reading Bjoernson's "Arne." It ranks well with these European masterpieces.
SUPPRESSIONS IN "DE PROFUNDIS"
[21 July '10]
Some time ago I pointed out (what was to me a new discovery) that certain passages in the German translation of Oscar Wilde's "De Profundis" did not exist in the original English version as printed; and I suggested that Mr. Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's faithful literary executor, should explain. He has been good enough to do so. He informs me that the passages in question were restored in the edition of "De Profundis" (the thirteenth) in Wilde's Complete Works, issued by Messrs. Methuen to a limited public, and that they have been retained in the fourteenth (separate) edition, of which Mr. Ross sends me a copy. I possessed only the first edition. I do not want to part with it, but the fourteenth is a great deal more interesting than the first. It contains a dedicatory letter by Mr. Ross to Dr. Max Meyerfeld ("But for you I do not think the book would ever have been published"), and some highly interesting letters written in Reading Gaol by Wilde to Mr. Ross (which had previously been published in Germany). In the course of this dedicatory letter, Mr. Ross says: "In sending copy to Messrs. Methuen (to whom alone I submitted it) I anticipated refusal, as though the work were my own. A very distinguished man of letters who acted as their reader advised, however, its acceptance, and urged, in view of the uncertainty of its reception, the excision of certain passages, to which I readily assented."
* * * * *
This explains clearly enough the motive for suppressing the passages. But even after making allowance for the natural timidity and apprehensiveness of the publishers' reader, I cannot quite understand why those particular passages were cut out. Here is one of them: "I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colours of things; there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or sonnet; at the same time I widened its range and enriched its characteristics. Drama, novel, poem in prose, poem in rhyme, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. To truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram. Along with these things I had things that were different. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease." It is difficult to see anything in the factitious but delightful brilliance of this very characteristic swagger that could have endangered the book's reception.
* * * * *
Mr. Ross's letter to me concludes thus: "'De Profundis,' however, even in its present form, is only a fragment. The whole work could not be published in the lifetime of the present generation." This makes, within a month, the third toothsome dish as to which I have had the exasperating news that it is being reserved for that spoiled child, posterity. I may say, however, that I do not regard "De Profundis" as one of Wilde's best books. I was disappointed with it. It is too frequently insincere, and the occasion was not one for pose. And it has another fault. I happened to meet M. Henry Davray several times while he was translating the book into French. M. Davray's knowledge of English is profound, and I was accordingly somewhat disconcerted when one day, pointing to a sentence in the original, he asked, "What does that mean?" I thought, "Is Davray at last 'stumped'?" I examined the sentence with care, and then answered, "It doesn't mean anything." "I thought so," said M. Davray. We looked at each other. M. Davray was an old friend of Wilde's, and was one of the dozen men who attended his desolating funeral. And I was an enthusiastic admirer of Wilde's style at its best. We said no more. But a day or two later a similar incident happened, and yet another.
* * * * *
Wilde's letters to Mr. Ross from prison are extremely good. They begin sombrely, but after a time the wit lightens, and towards the end it is playing continually. The first gleam of it is this: "I am going to take up the study of German. Indeed prison seems to be the proper place for such a study." On the subject of the natural life, he says a thing which is exquisitely wise: "Stevenson's letters are most disappointing also. I see that romantic surroundings are the worst surroundings for a romantic writer. In Gower Street Stevenson would have written a new 'Trois Mousquetaires,' in Samoa he writes letters to the Times about Germans. I see also the traces of a terrible strain to lead a natural life. To chop wood with any advantage to oneself or profit to others, one should not be able to describe the process. In point of fact the natural life is the unconscious life. Stevenson merely extended the sphere of the artificial by taking to digging. The whole dreary book has given me a lesson. If I spend my future life reading Baudelaire in a cafe I shall be leading a more natural life than if I take to hedger's work or plant cacao in mud-swamps."
[4 Aug. '10]
I came away for a holiday without any books, except one, and I cut off the whole of my supply of newspapers, except one. As a rule my baggage is most injurious to railway porters, and on the Continent very costly, because of the number of books and neckties it contains. I wear the neckties, but I never read the books. I am always meaning to read them, but something is always preventing me. Before starting, the awful thought harasses me: Supposing I wanted to read and I had naught! This time I decided that it would be agreeably perilous to run the risk. The unique book which I packed was the sixth volume of Montaigne in the Temple Classics edition. We are all aware, from the writings of Mr. A.B. Walkley, Sir William Robertson Nicoll, Mr. Hall Caine, and others, what a peerless companion is Montaigne; how in Montaigne there is a page to suit every mood; how the most diverse mentalities—the pious, the refined, the libertine, the philosophic, the egoistic, the altruistic, the merely silly—may find in him the food of sympathy. I knew I should be all right with Montaigne. I invariably read in bed of a night (unless paying in my temples the price of excess), and nobody who ever talked about bed-books has succeeded in leaving out Montaigne from his list. My luggage cost much less than usual. I positively looked forward to reading Montaigne. Yet when the first night in a little French hotel arrived, and I had perched the candle on the top of the ewer on the night-table in order to get it high enough, I discovered that instead of Montaigne I was going to read a verbatim account of a poisoning trial in the Paris Journal. That is about three weeks ago, and I have not yet opened my Montaigne. I have, however, talked enthusiastically to sundry French people about Montaigne, and explained to them that Florio's translation is at least equal to the original, and that Montaigne is truly beloved and understood in England alone.
* * * * *
It was on the second day of my holiday, in another small provincial town in Central France, where I was improving my mind and fitting myself for cultured society in London by the contemplation of cathedrals, that I came across, in a draper's and fancy-ware shop, a remaindered stock of French fiction, at 4-1/2d. the volume. Among these, to my intense disgust, was a translation of a little thing of my own, and also a collection of stories by Leonide Andreief, translated by Serge Persky, and published by Le Monde Illustre. Although I already possessed, in Montaigne, sustenance for months, I bought this volume, and at once read it. A small book by Andreief, "The Seven that were Hanged," was published in England—last year, I think—by Mr. Fifield. It received a very great deal of praise, and was, in fact, treated as a psychological masterpiece. I was disappointed with it myself, for the very simple reason that I found it tedious. I had difficulty in finishing it. I gather that Andreief has a great reputation in Russia, sharing with Gorky the leadership of the younger school. Well, I don't suppose that I shall ever read any more Gorky, who has assuredly not come up to expectations. There are things among the short stories of Andreief (the volume is entitled "Nouvelles") which are better than "The Seven that were Hanged." "The Governor," for example, is a pretty good tale, obviously written under the influence of Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyitch"; and a story about waiting at a railway station remains in the mind not unpleasantly. But the best of the book is second-rate, vitiated by diffuseness, imitativeness, and the usual sentimentality. Neither Andreief nor Gorky will ever seriously count. Neither of them comes within ten leagues of the late Anton Tchehkoff. I think there must be young novelists alive in Russia who are superior to these two alleged leaders. I have, in fact, heard talk of one Apoutkine, in this country of France, and I am taking measures to read him.
* * * * *
When at length I settled down in a small hotel in a village on the farther coast of Brittany, I had read nothing but Andreief and criminal processes. Nobody else in the hotel, save one old lady, read anything but criminal processes. It is true that it was a sadly vulgar hotel. My fellow-guests were mainly employees who had escaped for a fortnight from the big Paris shops. In particular there was a handsome young woman from the fur department of the Grands Magasins du Louvre, who (weather permitting) spent half her morning in a kimono at her bedroom window while her husband (perfumery department) discussed patriotism and feminism in the cafe below. When I remember the spectacle, which I have often seen, of the staff of the Grands Magasins du Louvre trooping into its prison at 7.30 a.m. to spend a happy day of eleven and a half hours in humouring the whims of the great shopping classes, I was charmed to watch this handsome and vapid creature idling away whole hours at her window and enjoying the gaze of persons like myself. She never read. Once when I had a bit of a discussion with her husband at lunch upon an intellectual matter, she got up and walked away with an impatient gesture of disdain, as if to say: "What has all this got to do with Love?" Her husband never read, either. Their friends did not read, not even newspapers. But another couple had an infant, aged three, and this infant had a rather fierce grandmother, and this grandmother read a great deal. She and I alone stood for literature. She would stay at home with the infant while the intermediate generation was away larking. She was always reading the same book. It was a thick book, with a glossy coloured cover displaying some scene in which homicide and passion were mingled; its price, new, was sixpence halfpenny, and its title was simply and magnificently, "Borgia!" with a note of exclamation after it. She confined herself to "Borgia!" She was tireless with "Borgia!" She went home to Paris reading "Borgia!" It was a shocking hotel, so different from the literary hotels of Switzerland, Bournemouth, and Scarborough, where all the guests read Meredith and Walter Pater. I ought to have been ashamed to be seen in such a place. My only excuse is that the other two hotels in the remote little village were just as bad, probably worse.
THE BRITISH ACADEMY OF LETTERS
[Sidenote:18 Aug. '10]
A correspondent writes angrily to me because I have not written angrily about the list of authors recently put forward as Academicians of the proposed new British Academy of Letters. The fact is that the entire scheme of the British Academy of Letters had a near shave of escaping my attention altogether. I only heard of it by accident, being away on a holiday in a land where they have had enough of academies. But for the miracle of a newspaper found on a fishing-boat I might not have even known what on earth my correspondent was raging about. In literary circles such as mine the new British Academy of Letters has not been extensively advertised. In the main I agree with my correspondent's criticisms of the list. But I must say that his ire shows a certain naivete. None but a young and trustful man could have expected the list to be otherwise than profoundly and utterly grotesque. A list of creative artists that did not suffer acutely from this defect could only be compiled by creative artists themselves. Not all, and not nearly all, creative artists would be qualified to sit on the compiling committee, but nobody who was not a creative artist would be qualified. The rest of the world has no sure ground of judgment, for the true critical faculty is inseparable from the creative. The least critical word of the most prejudiced and ignorant creative artist is more valuable than whole volumes writ by dilettanti of measureless refinement and erudition. I am not aware of the identity of the persons who sat down together and compiled the pleasing preliminary list of twenty-seven academicians, but I am perfectly certain that the predominant among them were not original artists. The artist, at the present stage of social evolution, would as soon think of worrying himself about the formation of an academy, as of putting up for the St. Pancras Borough Council. He has something else to do. He fears the deadly contacts with those prim, restless, and tedious dilettanti. And of course he knows that academies are the enemies of originality and progress.
* * * * *
That list was undoubtedly sketched out by a coterie of dilettanti. London swarms with the dilettanti of letters. They do not belong to the criminal classes, but their good intentions, their culture, their judiciousness, and their infernal cheek amount perhaps to worse than arson or assault. Their attitude towards the creative artist is always one of large, tolerant pity. They honestly think that if only the artist knew his business as they know his business, if only he had their discernment and impartiality, and if only he wasn't so confoundedly ignorant and violent—how different he would be, how much nicer and better, how much more effective! They are eternally ready to show an artist where he is wrong and what he ought to do in order to obtain their laudations unreserved. In a personal encounter, they will invariably ride over him like a regiment of polite cavalry, because they are accustomed to personal encounters. They shine at tea, at dinner, and after dinner. They talk more easily than he does, and write more easily too. They can express themselves more readily. And they know such a deuce of a lot. And they can balance pros and cons with astonishing virtuosity. The Press is their washpot. And they are influential in other places. They can get pensions for their favourites. They know the latest methods of pulling an artichoke to pieces. And they will say among themselves, forgiving but slightly pained: "Yes, he's written a very remarkable novel, but he doesn't know how to eat an artichoke." They would be higher than the angels were it not for the fact that, in art, they are exquisitely and perfectly footling. They cannot believe this, the public cannot believe it. Nevertheless, every artist knows it to be true. They have never done anything themselves except fuss around.
* * * * *
As for us, we are their hobby. And since unoriginality is their most striking characteristic, some of us are occasionally pretty nearly hobbied to extinction by them. In every generation they select some artist, usually for reasons quite unconnected with art, and put him exceedingly high up in a niche by himself. And when you name his name you must hush your voice, and discussion ends. Thus in the present generation, in letters, they have selected Joseph Conrad, a great artist, but not the only artist on the island. When Conrad is mentioned they say, "Ah, Conrad!" and bow the head. And in the list, compiled presumably to represent what is finest in English literature at an epoch when the novel is admittedly paramount, there are half a dozen of everything except novelists. There is only one practising novelist, and he is not an Englishman. I said a moment ago that the most striking characteristic of the dilettanti is unoriginality. But possibly a serene unhumorousness runs it close.
* * * * *
The master-thought at the bottom of this scheme is not an Academy of British Letters for literary artists, but an Academy of British Letters for literary dilettanti. A few genuine artists, if the scheme blossoms, will undoubtedly be found in it. But that will be an accident. Some of the more decorative dilettanti have had a vision of themselves as academicians. Hence the proposal for an academy. In the public mind dilettanti are apt to be confused with artists. Indeed, the greater the artist, the more likely the excellent public is to regard him as a sort of inferior and unserious barbaric dilettante. (Fortunately posterity does not make these mistakes.) A genuine original artist is bound to make a sad spectacle of himself in an academy. Knowing this, Anatole France, the greatest man in the Academie Francaise, never goes near the sittings. He has got from the institution all that advantage of advertisement which he was legitimately entitled to get, and he has no further use for the Academie Francaise. His contempt for it as an artist is not concealed. What can academicians do except put on a uniform and make eulogistic discourses to each other under the eyes of fashionably-attired American female tourists? The Authors' Society does more practical good for the art of literature in a year than an Academy of Letters could do in forty years.
* * * * *
The existing British Academy of Learning may or may not be a dignified and serious institution. I do not know. But I see no reason why it should not be. It has not interested the public, and it never will. Advertisement does not enter into it to any appreciable extent. Moreover, it is much more difficult to be a dilettante of learning than a dilettante of letters. You are sooner found out. Further, learning can be organized, and organized with advantage. Creative art cannot. All artistic academies are bad. The one real use of an artistic academy is to advertise the art which it represents, to cause the excellent public to think and chatter about that art and to support it by buying specimens of it. The Royal Academy has admirably succeeded in this business, as may be seen at Burlington Gardens any afternoon in the season. But it has succeeded at the price of making itself grotesque and vicious; and it retards, though of course it cannot stop, the progress of graphic art. Certain arts are in need of advertisement. For example, sculpture. An Academy of Sculpture might, just now, do some good and little harm. But literature is in no need of advertisement in this country. It is advertised more than all the others arts put together. It includes the theatre. It is advertised to death. Be sure that if it really did stand in need of advertisement, no dilettante would have twice looked at it. The one point which interests me about the proposed academy is whether uniforms are comprised in the scheme.
[25 Aug. '10]
One of the moral advantages of not being a regular professional, labelled, literary critic is that when one has been unable to read a book to the end, one may admit the same cheerfully. It often happens to the professional critic not to be able to finish a book, but of course he must hide the weakness, for it is his business to get to the end of books whether they weary him or not. It is as much his living to finish reading a book as it is mine to finish writing a book. Twice lately I have got ignominiously "stuck" in novels, and in each case I particularly regretted the sad breakdown. Gabriele d'Annunzio's "Forse che si forse che no" has been my undoing. I began it in the French version by Donatella Cross (Calmann-Levy, 3 fr. 50), and I began it with joy and hope. The translation, by the way, is very good. Whatever mountebank tricks d'Annunzio may play as a human being, he has undoubtedly written some very great works. He is an intensely original artist. You may sometimes think him silly, foppish, extravagant, or even caddish (as in "Il Fuoco"), but you have to admit that the English notions of what constitutes extravagance or caddishness are by no means universally held. And anyhow you have to admit that here is a man who really holds an attitude towards life, who is steeped in the sense of style, and who has a superb passion for beauty. Some of d'Annunzio's novels were a revelation, dazzling. And who that began even "Il Fuoco" could resist it? How adult, how subtle, how (in the proper signification) refined, seems the sexuality of d'Annunzio after the timid, gawky, infantile, barbaric sexuality of our "island story"! People are not far wrong on the Continent when they say, as they do say, that English novelists cannot deal with an Englishwoman—or could not up till a few years ago. They never get into the same room with her. They peep like schoolboys through the crack of the door. D'Annunzio can deal with an Italian woman. He does so in the first part of "Forse che si forse che no." She is only one sort of woman, but she is one sort—and that's something! He has not done many things better than the long scene in the Mantuan palace. There is nothing to modern British taste positively immoral in this first part, but it is tremendously sexual. It contains a description of a kiss—just a kiss and nothing more—that is magnificent and overwhelming. You may say that you don't want a magnificent and overwhelming description of a kiss in your fiction. To that I reply that I do want it. Unfortunately d'Annunzio leaves the old palace and goes out on to the aviation ground, and, for me, gradually becomes unreadable. The agonies that I suffered night after night fighting against the wild tedium of d'Annunzio's airmanship, and determined that I would find out what he was after or perish, and in the end perishing—in sleep! To this hour I don't know for sure what he was driving at—what is the theme of the book! But if his theme is what I dimly guess it to be, then the less said about it the better in Britain.
* * * * *
The other book which has engaged me in a stand-up fight and floored me is A.F. Wedgwood's "The Shadow of a Titan" (Duckworth, 6s.). For this I am genuinely sorry; I had great hopes of it. I was seriously informed that "The Shadow of a Titan" is a first-class thing, something to make one quote Keats's "On First Reading Chapman's 'Homer.'" A most extraordinary review of it appeared in the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper not given to facile enthusiasms about new writers, and a paper which, on the whole, reviews fiction more capably and conscientiously than any other daily in the kingdom. Well, I wouldn't care to say anything more strongly in favour of "The Shadow of a Titan" than that it is clever. Clever it is, especially in its style. The style has the vulgarly glittering cleverness of, say, Professor Walter Raleigh. It is exhausting, and not a bit beautiful. The author—whoever he may be; the name is quite unfamiliar to me, but this is not the first time he has held a pen—chooses his material without originality. Much of it is the common material of the library novel, seen and handled in the common way. When I was floored I had just got to a part which disclosed the epical influence of Mr. Joseph Conrad. It had all the characteristics of Mr. Conrad save his deep sense of form and his creative genius.... However, I couldn't proceed with it. In brief, for me, it was dull. Probably the latter half was much better, but I couldn't cut my way through to the latter half.
MR. A.C. BENSON
[1 Sep. '10]
I am indebted to Mr. Murray for sending what is to me a new manifestation of the entirely precious activity of Mr. Arthur Christopher Benson. Mr. Benson, in "The Thread of Gold," ministers to all that is highest and most sacred in the Mudie temperament. It is not a new book; only I have been getting behind-hand. It was first printed in 1905, and it seems to have been on and off the printing-presses ever since, and now Mr. Murray has issued it, very neatly, at a shilling net, so that people who have never even been inside Mudie's may obtain it. I have read the book with intense joy, hugging myself, and every now and then running off to a sister-spirit with a "I say, just listen to this!" The opening sentence of one of the various introductions serves well to display Mr. A.C. Benson at his superlative: "I have for a great part of my life desired, perhaps more than I have desired anything else, to make a beautiful book; and I have tried, perhaps too hard and too often, to do this, without ever quite succeeding" [my italics]. Oh, triple modesty! The violet-like beauty of that word "quite"! Thus he tried perhaps too hard and too often to produce something beautiful! Not that for a moment I believe the excellent Mr. Benson to be so fatuous as these phrases, like scores of others in the book, would indicate. It is merely that heaven has been pleased to deprive him of any glimmer of humour, and that he is the victim of a style which, under an appearance of neatness and efficiency and honesty, is really disorderly, loose, inefficient, and traitorous. His pages abound in instances of the unfaithfulness of his style, which is continually giving him away and making him say what he does not in fact want to say. For example: "Such traces as one sees in the chapels of the Oxford Movement ... would be purely deplorable from the artistic point of view, if they did not possess a historical interest." As if historical interest could make them less deplorable from an artistic point of view! It might make them less deplorable from another point of view. Three times he explains the motif of the book. Here is the third and, at present, the last version of the motif: "That whether we are conquerors or conquered, triumphant or despairing, prosperous or pitiful, well or ailing, we are all these things through Him that loves us." I seem to remember that the late Frances Ridley Havergal burst into the world with this information I recommend her works to Mr. Benson. In another of the introductions he says: "I think that God put it into my heart to write this book, and I hope that he [not He] will allow me to persevere." Personally (conceited though I am), I never put myself to the trouble of formulating hopes concerning the Infinite Purpose, but if I did I should hope that He just won't. Mr. Benson proceeds: "And yet indeed I know that I am not fit for so holy a task." Here we have one of the most diverting instances of Mr. Benson's trick-playing style. He didn't mean that; he only said it. Much, if not most, of "The Thread of of Gold" is merely absurd. Some of it is pretentious, some of it inept. All of it is utterly banal. All of it has the astounding calm assurance of mediocrity. It is a solemn thought that tens of thousands of well-dressed mortals alive and idle to-day consider themselves to have been uplifted by the perusal of this work. It is also a solemn thought that God in His infinite mercy and wisdom is still allowing Mr. Benson to persevere in his so holy task, thus responding to Mr. Benson's hopes.
THE LITERARY PERIODICAL
[8 Sep. 10]
I have just had news of a purely literary paper which is shortly to be started. I do not mean a paper devoted to literary criticisms chiefly, but chiefly to creative work. This will be something of a novelty in England. Its founders are two men who possess, happily, a practical acquaintance with publishing. The aim of the paper will be to print, and to sell, imaginative writing of the highest character. Its purpose is artistic, and neither political nor moral. Dangers and difficulties lie before an enterprise of this kind. The first and the principal difficulty will be the difficulty of obtaining the high-class stuff in sufficient quantities to fill the paper. The rate of pay will not and cannot be high, and authors capable of producing really high-class stuff—I mean stuff high-class in execution as well as in intention—are strangely keen on getting the best possible remuneration for it. Idle to argue that genuine artists ought to be indifferent to money! They are not. And what is still more curious, they will seldom produce their best work unless they really do want money. This is a fact which will stand against all the sentimental denyings of dilettanti. And, of course, genuine artists are quite right in getting every cent they can. The richest of them don't get enough. But even if the rates of pay of the new organ were high, the difficulty would still be rather acute, because the whole mass of really high-class stuff produced is relatively very small. High-class stuff is like radium. And the number of men who can produce it is strictly limited. There are dozens and scores of men who can write stuff which has all the mannerisms and external characteristics of high-class stuff, but which is not high-class. Extinct exotic periodicals, such as the Yellow Book, the Savoy, the Dial, the Anglo-Saxon, and such publications as the Neolith, richly prove this. What was and is the matter with all of them is literary priggishness, and dullness. One used to read them more often as a duty than as a pleasure.
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A great danger is the inevitable tendency to disdain the public and to appeal only to artists. Artists, like washerwomen, cannot live on one another. Moreover, nobody has any right to disdain the public. You will find that, as a general rule, the greatest artists have managed to get and to keep on good terms with the public. If an artist is clever enough—if he is not narrow, insolent, and unbalanced—he will usually contrive while pleasing himself to please the public, or a public. It is his business to do so. If he does not do so he proves himself incompetent. He is merely mumbling to himself. Just as the finite connotes the infinite, so an artist connotes a public. The artist who says he doesn't care a fig for the public is a liar. He may have many admirable virtues, but he is a liar. The tragedy of all the smaller literary periodicals in France is that the breach between them and the public is complete. They are unhealthy, because they have not sufficient force to keep themselves alive, and they make no effort to acquire that force. They scorn that force. They are kept alive by private subsidies. A paper cannot be established in a fortnight, but no artistic paper which has no reasonable prospect of paying its way ought to continue to exist; for it demonstrates nothing but an obstinacy which is ridiculous. The first business of the editor of an artistic periodical is to interest the public in questions of art. He cannot possibly convince them till he has interested them up to the point of regularly listening to him. Enthusiastic artists are apt to forget this. It is no use being brilliant and conscientious on a tub at a street corner unless you can attract some kind of a crowd. The public has just got to be considered. You may say that it is not easy to make any public listen to the truth about anything. Well, of course, it isn't. But it can be done by tact, and tact, and tact.
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I do not think that there is a remunerative public in England for any really literary paper which entirely bars politics and morals. England is not an artistic country, in the sense that Latin countries are artistic, and no end can be served by pretending that it is. Its serious interests are political and moral. Personally, I fail to see how politics and morals can be separated from art. I should be very sorry to separate my art from my politics. And I am convinced that the conductors of the new organ will perceive later, if not sooner, that political and moral altercations must not be kept out of their columns. At any rate they will have to be propagandist, pugilistic, and even bloodthirsty. They will have to formulate a creed, and to try to ram it down people's throats. To print merely so many square feet of the best obtainable imaginative stuff, and to let the stuff speak for itself, will assuredly not suffice in this excellent country.
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My mind returns to the exceeding difficulty of obtaining the right contributors. English editors have never appreciated the importance of this. As English manufacturers sit still and wait for customers, so English editors sit still and wait for contributors. The interestingness of the New Age, if I may make an observation which the editorial pen might hesitate to make, is due to the fact that contributors have always been searched for zealously and indefatigably. They have been compelled to come in—sometimes with a lasso, sometimes with a revolver, sometimes with a lure of flattery; but they have been captured. American editors are much better than English editors in this supreme matter. The profound truth has not escaped them that good copy does not as a rule fly in unbidden at the office window. They don't idiotically pretend that they have far more of the right kind of stuff than they know what to do with, as does the medium-fatuous English editor. They cajole. They run round. They hustle. The letters which I get from American editors are one of the joys of my simple life. They are so un-English. They write: "Won't you be good enough to let us hear from you?" Or, "We are anxious [underlined] to see your output." Imagine that from an English editor! And they contrive to say what they mean, picturesquely. One editor wrote me: "We want material that will hit the mark without producing either insomnia or heart-failure." An editor capable of such self-expression endears himself at once to any possible contributor. And, above all, they do not fear each other, as ours do, nor tremble at the thought of Mrs. Grundy (I mean the best ones). A letter which I received only a few days ago ended thus: "We are not running the magazine for the benefit of the Young Person, and we are not afraid of Realism so long as it is interesting. Hoping to hear from you." I lay these paragraphs respectfully at the feet of the conductors of the new paper.
THE LENGTH OF NOVELS
[22 Sep. '10]
It happened lately to a lady who is one of the pillars of the British Weekly to state in her column of innocuous gossip about clothes, weather, and holidays, that a hundred thousand words or three hundred and fifty pages was the "comfortable limit" for a novel. I feel sure she meant no harm by it, and that she attached but little importance to it. The thing was expressed with a condescension which was perhaps scarcely becoming in a paragraphist, but such accidents will happen even in the most workmanlike columns of gossip, and are to be forgiven. Nevertheless, the Westminster Gazette has seized hold of the paragraph, framed it in 22-carat gold, and hung it up for observation, and a magnificent summer correspondence has blossomed round about it, to the great profit of the Westminster Gazette, which receives, gratis, daily about a column and a half of matter signed by expensive names. Other papers, daily and weekly, have also joined in the din and the fray. As the discussion is perfectly futile, I do not propose to add to it. In spite of the more or less violent expression of preferences, nobody really cares whether a novel is long or short. In spite of the fact that a certain type of mind, common among publishers, is always apt to complain that novels at a given moment are either too long or too short, the length of a novel has no influence whatever on its success or failure. One of the most successful novels of the present generation, "Ships that Pass in the Night," is barely 60,000 words long. One of the most successful novels of the present generation, "The Heavenly Twins," is quite 200,000 words long. Both were of the right length for the public. As for the mid-Victorian novels, most of the correspondents appear to have a very vague idea of their length. It is said they "exceed 200,000 words." It would be within the mark to say that they exceed 400,000 words. There is not one of them, however, that would not be tremendously improved by being cut down to about half. And even then the best of them would not compare with "The Mayor of Casterbridge" or "Nostromo" or "The Way of all Flesh." The damning fault of all mid-Victorian novels is that they are incurably ugly and sentimental. Novelists had not yet discovered that the first business of a work of art is to be beautiful, and its second not to be sentimental.
ARTISTS AND MONEY
[6 Oct. '10]
A month ago, apropos of the difficulties of running a high-class literary periodical, I wrote the following words: "Idle to argue that genuine artists ought to be indifferent to money! They are not. And what is still more curious, they will seldom produce their best work unless they really do want money." This pronouncement came at an unfortunate moment, which was the very moment when Mr. Sampson happened to be denying, with a certain fine heat, the thesis of Lord Rosebery that poverty is good for poets. Somebody even quoted me against Mr. Sampson in favour of Lord Rosebery. This I much regret, and it has been on my mind ever since. I do not wish to be impolite on the subject of Lord Rosebery. He is an ageing man, probably exacerbated by the consciousness of failure. At one time—many years ago—he had his hours of righteous enthusiasm. And he has always upheld the banner of letters in a social sphere whose notorious proud stupidity has been immemorially blind to the true function of art in life. But if any remark of Lord Rosebery's at a public banquet could fairly be adduced in real support of an argument of mine, I should be disturbed. And, fact, I heartily agreed with Mr. Sampson's demolishment of Lord Rosebery's speech about genius and poverty. Lord Rosebery was talking nonsense, and as with all his faults he cannot be charged with the stupidity of his class, he must have known that he was talking nonsense. The truth is that as the official mouthpiece of the nation he was merely trying to excuse, in an official perfunctory way, the inexcusable behaviour of the nation towards its artists.
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As regards my own assertion that genuine artists will seldom produce their best work unless they really do want money, I fail to see how it conspires with Lord Rosebery's assertion. Moreover, I must explain that I was not thinking of poets. I was thinking of prose-writers, who do have a chance of making a bit of money. Money has scarcely any influence on the activity of poets, because they are aware that, no matter how well they succeed, the chances are a million to one against any appreciable monetary reward. An extreme lack of money will, of course, hamper them, and must, of course, do harm to the artist in them. An assured plenty of money may conceivably induce lethargy. But the hope of making money by their art will not spur them on, for there is no hope. No! I ought to have said explicitly at the time that I had in mind, not poets, who by the indifference of the public are set apart from money, but of those artists who have a reasonable opportunity of becoming public darlings and of earning now and then incomes which a grocer would not despise. That these latter are constantly influenced by money, and spurred to their finest efforts by the need of the money necessary for the satisfaction of their tastes, is a fact amply proved by the experience of everybody who is on intimate terms with them in real life. It almost amounts to common literary knowledge. It applies equally to the mediocre and to the distinguished artist. Those persons who have not participated in the pleasures and the pains of intimacy with distinguished writers depending for a livelihood on their pens, can learn the truth about them by reading the correspondence of such authors as Scott, Balzac, Dickens, de Maupassant, and Stevenson. It is an absolute certainty that we owe about half the "Comedie Humaine" to Balzac's extravagant imprudence. It is equally sure that Scott's mania for landed estate was responsible for a very considerable part of his artistic output. And so on. When once an artist has "tasted" the money of art, the desire thus set up will keep his genius hard at work better than any other incentive. It occasionally happens that an artist financially prudent, after doing a few fine things, either makes or comes into so much money that he is wealthy for the rest of his life. Such a condition induces idleness, induces a disinclination to fight against artistic difficulties. Naturally! I could give living instances in England to-day. But my discretion sends me to France for an instance. Take Francois de Curel. Francois de Curel was writing, twenty years ago, dramatic works of the very best kind. Their value was acknowledged by the few, and it remains permanent. The author is definitely classed as a genius in the history of the French theatre. But the verdict has not yet been endorsed by the public. For quite a number of years M. de Curel has produced practically nothing on the stage. He has preferred to withdraw from the battle against the indifference of the public. Had he needed money, the hope of money would have forced him to continue the battle, and we should have had perhaps half a dozen really fine plays by Francois de Curel that do not at present exist. But he did not need money. He is in receipt of a large income from iron foundries.