Wednesday, May 20, 2015

`An Unassuming But Percipient Moralist'

With mingled pride and humility, Jane Austen adopted the finicky, déclassé sailor’s hobby of scrimshaw as the emblem of her art. In an 1816 letter to her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, a would-be novelist who had misplaced a manuscript, the author of small, perfect novels writes:

“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

Austen’s work, seemingly narrow of compass, is as “full of Variety & Glow” as – whose? The temptation, for rhetorical purposes, is to cite an artist of vast ambition and accomplishment, a Tolstoy or James. Permit me a U-turn as I nominate Max Beerbohm, a proudly self-identified “small writer.”  A recently published selection of his essays is rightly and without mockery or false modesty titled The Prince of Minor Writers. Like Austen, he occasionally skirted perfection. He can be at once elegant and seriously silly, but never should be confused with the campy shenanigans of, say, Ronald Firbank. Beerbohm is never cruel; merely amused. His “(two Inches wide) of Ivory” is devoted to human folly. His best work is found in the early essays, those in particular collected in And Even Now (1920). Of them, “Laughter” is my favorite. In its early pages, Beerbohm sketches his vision of a good life:

“As to what is most precious among the accessories to the world we live in, different men hold different opinions. There are people whom the sea depresses, whom mountains exhilarate. Personally, I want the sea always—some not populous edge of it for choice; and with it sunshine, and wine, and a little music.”

Often, one senses Beerbohm is dealing in a rarified form of autobiography, without the banal details. Later in the same paragraph, he writes, in a style that recalls Chesterton:

“There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been granted may happen to die in a workhouse. No matter. I will not admit that he has failed in life. Another, who has never laughed thus, may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds overhead. What then? I regard him as a failure.”

Reading Beerbohm closely is like tuning a static-free radio late at night and receiving two signals simultaneously. Neither cancels the other. One is a clear, reasonable, cultivated voice; the other betrays an irony so subtle it can be confused with silence. Beerbohm deals in nuance at the nano-scale. After Beerbohm’s death, Siegfried Sassoon delivered a radio tribute to his old friend on the BBC. The address is included in Letters to Max Beerbohm (ed. Rupert Hart-Davis, Faber and Faber, 1986). In it, Sassoon says:

“In his early essays he had posed himself somewhat as the fastidious trifler. Beau Beerbohm was the public figure he chose to adopt – and what else, one wonders, could have conformed to his artistic perfectionism? But let me warn the uninitiated – and how I envy them their initiation – against believing that his was the artificial euphuism of a dandified dilettante. For behind that studied elegance, that insistence on scrupulous refinement of utterance, was the toughest of professional experts – the brilliant and formidable dramatic critic, the sprightly but uncompromising caricaturist, the superfine story-teller, and the cumulatively accomplished essayist, who was also an unassuming but percipient moralist.”   

Beerbohm died in Rapallo, Italy, on this date, May 20, in 1956, at the age of eighty-three.

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