Saturday, June 28, 2014

`The Fundamental Sine Qua Non of Complete Living'

In the first volume of the three-volume Journals of Arnold Bennett (Cassell and Co. Ltd., 1932), in the entry dated Oct. 15, 1896, the novelist notes publication of a new edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, edited by Augustine Birrell. The book’s appearance, Bennett says, “reminds me once again that I have read but little of that work.” Surprising, but not disillusioningly so. Bennett projects a bluff, man-of-the-world manner. No aesthete, he. He’s a hardworking pro, in the business to earn a living, and never pretends otherwise. His best novels, long out of fashion -- The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), Clayhanger (1910) and Riceyman Steps (1923) -- are devoted to representing life in the industrial Five Towns, the Staffordshire Potteries, and in London. Bennett (1867-1931) lived much of his life in France, served in the British Ministry of Information as director of propaganda for that country during World War I, and was widely read in French literature. He had the distinction of being condescended to by Virginia Woolf and having an omelet named after him – accomplishments worthy of inclusion in anyone’s epitaph. He was no drooling Philistine and never went to university as student or teacher. The journal entry continues: 

“Does there, I wonder, exist a being who has read all, or approximately all, that the person of average culture is supposed to have read, and that not to have read is a social sin? If such a being does exist, surely he is an old, a very old, man, who has read steadily that which he ought to have read sixteen hours a day, from early infancy.” 

The question, comical even in 1896, sounds ponderously ironical today. One can’t imagine it being asked with serious intent in 2014. Failure to read as a “social sin?” The reverse is more likely, even among the chattering classes. Bennett goes on: “I cannot recall a single author of whom I have read everything -- even of Jane Austen.” He admits not having read “large tracts” of some thirty prominent English writers, including Shakespeare, Spenser, Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Sterne, Johnson, Lamb, Wordsworth, Tennyson and George Eliot. He adds, wryly, “A list of the masterpieces I have not read would fill a volume…With only one author can I call myself familiar, Jane Austen. With Keats and Stevenson I have an acquaintance. So far of English. Of foreign authors I am familiar with de Maupassant and the de Goncourts. I have yet to finish Don Quixote!” 

An extraordinary admission by a major writer, but one uttered neither in shame nor reverse snobbery. Only in the subsequent paragraph does Bennett squirm a little, as though taking Virginia Woolf seriously: 

“Nevertheless I cannot accuse myself of default. I have been extremely fond of reading since I was 20, and since I was 20 I have read practically nothing (save professionally as a literary critic) but what was `right.’ My leisure has been moderate, my desire strong and steady, my taste in selection certainly above the average, and yet in ten years I seem scarcely to have made an impression upon the intolerable multitude of volumes which `everyone is supposed to have read.’” 

We hear this mea culpa often among readers, those for whom books are trophies, not what the critic Kenneth Burke called them: “equipment for living.” In a curious little volume he published in 1908, Literary Taste: How to Form It -- a sort of Miss Manners guide for strivers after an air of bookishness -- Bennett is still concerned with the status conferred by reading. After admitting that “literary taste thus serves two purposes: as a certificate of correct culture and as a private pastime,” Bennett adds: 

“People who regard literary taste simply as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction; though the one is the most perfect of distractions, and though the other is unsurpassed by any other accomplishment in elegance or in power to impress the universal snobbery of civilized mankind. Literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

I have thought with some envy of times when taste was still a desirable acquisition and wondered how it could be restored... I enjoyed this.