Thursday, January 08, 2015

`Dogmatising About Style'

During World War II, two writers prohibited from writing publically in their respective countries, Germany and England, devoted much thought privately to matters of prose style. The secret journals of both were published only after their deaths. Theodor Haecker (1889-1945) was a Catholic convert, author of books on Virgil and Kierkegaard, and translator of Newman into German. He was also an early opponent of National Socialism, and from 1935 until his death one month before the end of World War II he remained under house arrest and was prohibited by the Nazis from publishing.  His house in Munich was destroyed by Allied bombing early in 1944, when Haecker was already sick and going blind. Starting in 1939, he secretly kept a journal, published in an English translation by Alexander Dru in 1950 as Journal in the Night (Pantheon Books).  In his useful introduction, Dru convincingly likens Haecker to Charles Péguy. In a passage from 1944, when Haecker had already moved to a village outside Augsburg, his oldest son was a prisoner in England and his youngest was soon to be lost on the Russian front, he writes: 

“The written language must continually be refreshed by the spoken language, this is by great writers, whose living soliloquies (monologues or dialogues) are spontaneous and lead directly from the heart of feeling to language, without going a roundabout way, avoiding the usual worn-out, conventional lines, avoiding the old pipe lines, choked with old phrases, so furred-up that language loses all its élan, all its strength and all its purity.” 

During the war, Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) served as an officer in the Radio Security Service of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and became part of the Ultra decrypting operation. In defiance of security regulations, the future Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford kept a secret journal, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and published as The Wartime Journals by I.B. Tauris in 2012. Not a log of daily events, the journal was written by Trevor-Roper in emulation of The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1912). His subjects, treated essayistically, are often literary. He devotes seven pages to Charles M. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888) and keeps a commonplace book of favorite passages from Shakespeare and Milton. In 1942 he reads de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater for the first time and loves it. He frequently cites Homer, Horace and Housman, and lauds his beloved literary and historical mentor, Edward Gibbon. In 1942 he writes: 

“I was dogmatising about style, and saying that perfect style is lucid and effortless, the expression not of simplicity but of complexities mastered and at rest; and at once I saw it before me, a still, translucent sea, deep, smooth, and serene, but beneath which a diver would find coiled and tangled forests of weeds, and submarine deserts of broken rocks and shipwrecks and dead bones, and coral labyrinths, and green caverns, and darkness, and subaqueous slime; but all these would be far below, deducible, not seen, under the smooth, glassy surface.” 

Less lucid than fulsome, though forgivable in a private journal if not in a finished essay. Trevor-Roper, engaged in intelligence work aimed at preserving Western Civilization, taking time to riff stylishly and a little self-indulgently on the beauties of prose style, is deeply touching. Of course, though writing clandestinely, he was in a free nation, not under house arrest. The passage continues: 

“But even before I had finished my generalization, while I was still illustrating it with the classical names of Swift and Gibbon, and Johnson, and Flaubert, I saw the same scene at low tide, the water breaking over rotten, barnacled hulks and twisted spars, and gurgling up dark, tortuous caverns, and forming pools that reflected the whole sky in their narrow compass, with star-fish and sea-anemones in them; and there were gulls and cormorants and kittywakes about, and whelks and sea-urchins and hermit-crabs under the weeds and stones; and I realized that of course I was forgetting those wonderful baroque writers, Apuleius, and St Augustine and John Donne, and Milton and Sir Thomas Browne.” 

If Haecker’s prose is austere and defiant, written by a courageous man alone in a room, Trevor-Roper’s is belles-lettristic, deeply informed by tradition and comparably courageous.

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Now there's a coinage - belleslettristic! It's easy for you to say that!