Tuesday, October 14, 2014

`The Nostalgic Present, as Grammarians Might Call It'

I couldn’t have read Max Beerbohm with much understanding or sympathy at age twenty. My receiver was otherwise tuned. Appreciating Beerbohm requires a reader to possess a past to which he has ready access, and a taste for fine-tuned irony. The distracted and immortal young are past-less, and we acquire one only by accumulating years and paying attention. Recoverable memory, we learn to our regret, is seldom passive. In “No. 2. The Pines” (And Even Now, 1920), written in 1914, Beerbohm describes his youthful visits with Charles Algernon Swinburne, beginning in 1899. The title refers to the address of Swinburne’s home in Putney. Beerbohm writes: 

 “It is odd how little remains to a man of his own past--how few minutes of even his memorable hours are not clean forgotten, and how few seconds in any one of those minutes can be recaptured... I am middle-aged, and have lived a vast number of seconds. Subtract one third of these, for one mustn't count sleep as life. The residual number is still enormous. Not a single one of those seconds was unimportant to me in its passage. Many of them bored me, of course; but even boredom is a positive state: one chafes at it and hates it; strange that one should afterwards forget it! And stranger still that of one’s actual happinesses and unhappinesses so tiny and tattered a remnant clings about one!” 

What was bothering you forty-two years ago? What were you enjoying? I can’t remember either. Born in 1872, Beerbohm was forty-two when writing about Swinburne, whom he first met at age twenty-seven. “No. 2. The Pines” is as much about Beerbohm, memory and the seductiveness of the past as it is about Swinburne. He refers to the poet as “the flammiferous boy of the dim past – a legendary creature, sole kin to the phoenix.” When he visits him for the first time, Beerbohm remembers, “I had the instant sense of having slipped away from the harsh light of the ordinary and contemporary into the dimness of an odd, august past. Here, in this dark hall, the past was present.” 

Whether Beerbohm felt this at twenty-seven is debatable, but surely he did at forty-two. Here, Beerbohm writes of his own proclivities by way of Swinburne: “In life, as in (that for him more truly actual thing) literature, it was always the preterit that enthralled him. Of any passing events, of anything the newspapers were full of, never a word from him; and I should have been sorry if there had been.” In another small masterpiece from And Even Now, “The Golden Drugget,” Beerbohm describes a rather drab, undistinguished inn near his home in Rapallo, overlooking the Gulf of Genoa, in Italy: 

“By moonlight, too, it is negligible. Stars are rather unbecoming to it. But on a thoroughly dark night, when it is manifest as nothing but a strip of yellow light cast across the road from an ever-open door, great always is its magic for me. Is? I mean was. But then, I mean also will be. And so I cleave to the present tense--the nostalgic present, as grammarians might call it.” 

No, Beerbohm is not for most young and earnest readers, nor for those eternally marooned in the present. His ideal reader is – well, difficult to characterize and perhaps as elusive as Beerbohm himself. Let Joseph Epstein, his most articulate champion, catalogue his charms. Then work backwards and judge whether he suits your tastes and gifts as a reader: 

“Think of a significant essayist and you think of the personality he conveys: the gentle Charles Lamb, the passionate William Hazlitt, the gloomy George Orwell. Max Beerbohm’ artistic personality is not so readily captured in a lone epithet. It is complex and elusive, yet distinct for all that. It is the personality of the slightly world-weary spectator, sitting along the sideline, a cigarette in hand, a man far from indifferent to worldly things but not quite caught up in them either; a man of considerable sophistication who has yet retained a certain oddly childish mischievousness; charming but not hotly intimate; ready to admit his own flaws but too exquisitely tactful to point out yours; yet for all his charm, his admitted naiveté, his penchant for fun, decidedly not someone over whose eyes you can ever for a moment hope to pull the wool (make that, in Beerbohm’s case, cashmere).”


Rand Careaga said...

Since you ask, forty-two years ago (well, closer to forty, but from here that's tactically a rounding error) I was enjoying...Max Beerbohm, whom up to that point I'd known only as a caricaturist. For a college course in late Victorian lit I contrived as my term paper a scholarly monograph on an obscure poet manqué of the "Yellow Nineties," including an analysis of my subject's only novel, an inept retelling of the Faust legend.

My professor liked it quite a bit, but told me "Of course, Beerbohm did this better with Enoch Soames. I blinked, uncomprehending. He lent me his copy of Seven Men and Two Others, which I read entranced. As to nostalgia, remember that this was a man who published The Works of Max Beerbohm when he was a wizened twenty-four.

Early in his career, John Updike cited an annotation in Beerbohm's own copy of The Works. On the copyright page the following boilerplate appears:

London: John Lane, The Bodley Head
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons

Added, in Beerbohm's own hand:

This plain announcement, nicely read,
Iambically runs.

Updike adds: "Indeed, were I a high priest of literature, I would have this quatrain made into an amulet, and wear it around my neck, for luck."

And of course, over a century later "The Happy Hypocrite" remains the nonpareil "fairy tale for tired men."

Rand Careaga said...

I meant "technically" rather than "tactically" above (mysterious are the ways of brainfarts), and intended a close quote after Enoch Soames. Sigh.