Late in Greene on Capri (2000), her memoir of Graham Greene, Shirley Hazzard devotes six digressive pages to Sir Harold Acton (1904-1994), another visitor to that island in the Bay of Naples. It’s the best part of the book:
“That sonorous voice, at times nearly singsong, was the medium for a rich vocabulary in which `forthwith’ or `withal’ or `albeit’ were boldly refreshed and brought into play; in which `slake’ or `pullulate’ would be splendidly deployed. Harold’s enunciation of `writhe’ or `wrest’ made the w, and the contortion, palpable. All was unforced, unembarrassed, amusing and amused. There was no attempt to monopolise: he sought to stimulate the thought and talk of others, to bring the moments alive. Any signal of originality drew him to all manner of strangers, and bound him to friends."
Hazzard paints a portrait of an extinct species, one seldom successfully transplanted to the New World, a charmer out of the eighteenth century, a dilettante with something worth saying. In Cleveland, I don’t remember anyone at the bowling alley dropping “withal” or “pullulate’ into casual conversation. Today, such speech, when “unforced, unembarrassed, amusing and amused,” is beguiling and rare. Acton, in Hazzard’s reckoning, is an attractive character, and perhaps more interesting than his books, including two large volumes devoted to the Bourbon Kingdom of Naples. Hazzard says of her friend: “From his company one brought away unique lightness, tolerance, a sense of joy.” The one book of Acton’s I have read thus far is More Memoirs of an Aesthete (Methuen & Co., 1970), the sequel to Memoirs of an Aesthete (1948), which I have on order. Acton served in the RAF during World War II and in More Memoirs he describes, without heroics, being torpedoed in the Atlantic in 1942:
“There was not the slightest panic, just gloomy resignation. Numb with cold and damp with spray, I was surprised by my own detachment. Would one really relive one’s whole life in the moment of drowning? I thought of Robert Byron [author of The Road to Oxiana, dead at thirty-five when his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic] and hoped he did not have to endure a long-drawn agony. And I remembered a phrase in Jules Renard’s diary: `The smell of a putrefied shell-fish is enough to accuse the whole sea.’”
Typical of Acton, in a mortal moment, to recall a friend’s death and a tag from Renard. About the impact of the war on his life, Acton says:
“The war jolted me out of my ego but it did not increase my self-confidence. If I gained anything it was humility and tolerance of people who would have bored or repelled me in civilian life, but I lost rather more than I gained. In most of us, as Saint-Beuve remarked, there is a poet who died young – a poet we survive. The mere fact of war suffocated the poet in me. It taught me how to wait when I did not have much to wait for, but it never impelled me to write. For me art is the highest truth and I have always lived more intensely through works of art. And art is silenced by mechanized modern warfare. Now I felt with de Vigny: `Seul le silence est grand; tout le reste est faiblesse.’ [`Silence alone is great; all else is weakness.’]”
Aestheticism, deep feeling and thoughtfulness don’t often go together. For a dilettante, Acton is remarkably tolerant and even-handed, even democratic. As to the accusation of snobbery, he writes late in the book:
“I am only a snob in so far as I often want better company than my own. My imagination is historical, and as Doctor Johnson observed, `Were it not for imagination, Sir, a man would be as happy in the arms of a chambermaid as of a Duchess.’ A pithy saying if applied to brief encounters, but it demonstrates the lexicographer’s ignorance of French duchesses, who were accomplished amorists. Finesse may treble the bliss of an embrace.”