Tuesday, July 30, 2013

`'Tis All He Has Left Me'

On this date, July 30, in 1821, Charles Lamb revealed to his friend John Taylor the identity of the fictional double who forever threatened to displace his reality, Elia, that anagram of a lie: 

“Poor ELIA, the real, (for I am but a counterfeit) is dead. The fact is, a person of that name, an Italian, was a fellow clerk of mine at the South Sea House, thirty (not forty) years ago, when the characters I described there existed, but had left it like myself many years; and I having a brother now there, and doubting how he might relish certain descriptions in it, I clapt down the name of Elia to it, which passed off pretty well, for Elia himself added the function of an author to that of a scrivener, like myself.” 

Lamb published the first of his Elia essays in The London Magazine in 1820, turning out fifty-two of them in five years, all published in book form in Essays of Elia (1823) and Last Essays of Elia (1833). To the latter volume, Lamb appended a preface, “By a Friend of the Late Elia,” in which he writes: “To say truth, it is time he were gone. The humour of the thing, if there was ever much in it, was pretty well exhausted; and a two years' and a half existence has been a tolerable duration for a phantom.” For another two paragraphs he eulogizes his mythical alter ego, who shares with Lamb his stutter, his fondness for tobacco (“the Indian weed”) and an occasional drink (“temperate in his meals and diversions, but always kept a little on this side of abstemiousness”), and general oddness of character. Lamb/Elia writes of Elia/Lamb: “Few understood him; and I am not certain that at all times he quite understood himself. He too much affected that dangerous figure -- irony.” Recounting to Taylor his attempt to have a reunion with Elia, Lamb sounds a note of genuine fictional pathos: 

“I went there the other day (not having seen him for a year) to laugh over with him at my usurpation of his name, and found him, alas! no more than a name, for he died of consumption eleven months ago, and I knew not of it. So the name has fairly devolved to me, I think; and ’tis all he has left me.”

No comments: