Tuesday, November 03, 2015

`The True Lover of Books'

“He suffered little pain; he could see a friend almost every day; he was surrounded by the tenderest love and devotion, and he still could read.”

Sounds like the ideal finale, doesn’t it? What more could a book-minded person ask for? When I hear that an inmate awaiting execution is permitted to order his final meal à la carte, and selects a triple cheeseburger and cheesy fries, washed down with Mountain Dew, I draw up my bookish menu: “My Life” for the entrée and a side of Sonnet LIII. One might at least go cholesterol-free. To continue:

“What did he not read? I have seen a list of the books that were to be brought to him from the London Library. It begins with the names of Réville, Martineau, Brunetière, Flint, Vauvenargues, Vandal, Sabatier, Chateaubriand, Sorel, Pater, Ostrogorski, W. Watson, and Dostoieffsky. Some of our biblical critics are there and Emile Zola. Then when other books failed, he fell back upon the old, old story. Need I name it? He told his nurse that his enjoyment of books had begun and would end with Boswell’s `Life of Johnson.’”

The reporter here is the English lawyer and historian Frederic W. Maitland (1850-1906) in The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906). Stephen (1832-1904) was one of those indefatigably industrious Victorians, a species long extinct. He edited the Cornhill Magazine, wrote and edited some twenty books, climbed mountains and wrote about them, served as president of the Alpine Club and found time to sire Virginia Woolf. His heart seems to have been in the Age of Johnson and the decades immediately preceding it. In 1882 he published Swift. In English Literature and Society in the Eighteenth Century (1904) he writes:

“The society is still small enough to have in the club a single representative body and one man for dictator. Johnson succeeded in this capacity to Pope, Dryden, and his namesake Ben, but he was the last of the race.”

In his Samuel Johnson (1878), Stephen defends the much-maligned Boswell (in particular against Macaulay’s nastiness), and endorses his use of less-than-flattering material about Johnson, a practice much criticized in his day:

“To bring out the beauty of a character by means of its external oddities is the triumph of a kindly humourist; and Boswell would have acted as absurdly in suppressing Johnson’s weaknesses, as Sterne would have done had he made Uncle Toby a perfectly sound and rational person. But to see this required an insight so rare that it is wanting in nearly all the biographers who have followed Boswell's steps, and is the most conclusive proof that Boswell was a man of a higher intellectual capacity than has been generally admitted.”

And in “Dr Johnson’s Writings,” collected in his three-volume, wonderfully titled Hours in a Library (1874-79), Stephen writes:

“When reading Boswell, we are half ashamed of his power over our sympathies. It is like turning over a portfolio of sketches, caricatured, inadequate, and each only giving some imperfect aspect of the original. Macaulay’s smart paradoxes only increase our perplexity by throwing the superficial contrasts into stronger relief. Mr Carlyle, with true imaginative insight, gives us at once the essence of Johnson; he brings before our eyes the luminous body of which we had previously been conscious only by a series of imperfect images refracted through a number of distorting media. To render such a service effectively is the highest triumph of criticism.”

Much of the most valuable criticism is a salvage operation, restoring the lost, forgotten and misunderstood to its rightful place in front of us. Stephen is a master of this, and his motivation, distilled to its essence, is an old-fashioned love of books. In the final chapter of his life of Stephen, “The Sunset,” Maitland writes:

“This true lover of books, I may observe, had not in him one spark of bibliolatry or bibliomania. His books, if by `books’ be meant corporeal things, were, as he said, a `mangy’ lot, and he did not treat them tenderly [a practice he shared with Johnson].”

1 comment:

Suspirius said...

When Stephen refers to Carlyle on Boswell and Johnson, it isn’t actually to The Hero as Man of Letters lecture but to Carlyle’s review in Fraser’s Magazine (April and May, 1832) of the same edition of the Life as that savaged eight months earlier by Macaulay. Carlyle being Carlyle, he doesn’t let Boswell off scot-free – a wine-bibber and plate-licker, a vain heedless babbler, a sycophant-coxcomb with bag-cheeks hanging like half-filled wine-skins and a coarsely protruded shelf-mouth surmounting a fat dewlapped chin, all bespeaking sensuality, pretension and boisterous imbecility – but “poor Bozzy” emerges from the mauling gloriously redeemed by “a celestial spark of goodness, vivacity and reverence for wisdom” whereas Macaulay leaves him belittled and ridiculous.