Saturday, May 02, 2015

`With No Claims to Immortality'

The question F. Seymour Smith, an English critic and anthologist, poses in the title of his 1953 volume, What Shall I Read Next?, he answers, in part, in its introduction: “What then can any reader do, but select severely according to his known taste, his chance acquaintance with the books which are important for his own enjoyments and mental development, and to his memory of books read about or discussed.” The book is a sequel of sorts to An English Library: An Annotated List of 1300 Classics (1943), which was also published for the National Book League by Cambridge University Press. It included no titles by any author then alive. Smith devotes What Shall I Read? to the twentieth century. Some readers, he says, “will find it useful as a shopping list.” True, but it’s also useful, more than sixty years later, as a core sample of mid-century literary tastes on the cusp of the coming Cultural Revolution. Smith’s lists suggest all vision is partial and Time is the truest critic. 

Retrospectively, 1953 represents a pivotal era. Consider the novels. Saul Bellow, absent from Smith’s book, published The Adventures of Augie March that year. Anthony Powell is represented by Afternoon Men (1931) and From a View to a Death (1933), though he had already published the first two volumes in his twelve-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. Kingsley Amis, also a no-show on Smith’s list, would publish Lucky Jim in 1954. Lolita was two years (and more) away. Ralph Ellison, absent, gave us Invisible Man in 1952. No Beckett. Muriel Spark was not quite on the scene. Smith does include Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), four novels by Elizabeth Bowen and five by Ivy Compton-Burnett (“upper-middle class characters who all obey the law of the jungle in conversation”), but no Stevie Smith, Flann O’Brien or Eudora Welty. He is sufficiently inspired to include John Collier’s His Monkey Wife (1930), Raymond Chandler’s first two novels, four titles by P.G. Wodehouse, Allen Tate’s The Fathers (1938) and Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947).  

Smith recommends three novels by Henry Green – Living (1929), Loving (1945), Nothing (1950) – and comments, rather bafflingly: “Examples of the work of a gifted writer with a Gallic touch and individuality. The last named [one of Green’s lesser creations] is a beautifully written and proportioned comedy of middle-age and youth in 1948. Owing nothing to easily aroused excitement [?], but everything to craftsmanship and talent, it yet achieved a considerable popularity amongst discerning readers who appreciated the enjoyment of a difficult piece of work finely done.” Sad to think Green would live another twenty years but had already published his final novel. 

Smith’s taste can be amusingly dubious. He recommends seven titles by Evelyn Waugh but then says Thomas Wolfe’s novels are written “with almost overwhelming power and realism, full to the brim with a wild, exulting sense of the tragedy of life.” Defending the inclusion of so many recent books, as yet unevaluated by Time, Smith says: 

“In the past…there is enough and more to occupy the leisure of most of us. But the present has pressing claims, too. It is sometimes more important for us to read a current book with no claims to immortality or to life beyond its copyright, than to have read Urn Burial, or Martin Chuzzlewit. For most of us the matter must be one of balance and compromise.”

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