Friday, August 26, 2016

`Incomparable Physical Portraiture'

“Figure a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair . . .”

I appreciate writers who suggest the interiors of people through artful characterizations of their appearance. In crude hands it’s invective; in cruder hands, caricature or clumsy allegory. It’s a trick I first associated with Dickens. He’s strictly a cartoonist – sometimes amusing but seldom revealing of inner states or essential qualities. More sophisticated are Gogol,Kipling, Nabokov, Bellow – and V.S. Pritchett. This is from Pritchett’s story “The Voice” (It May Never Happen, 1945), set during a rescue effort in London during the Blitz:

“Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eye-lashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.”

And this, from “Many Are Disappointed,” in the same collection:

“He was a lanky man with a high forehead and a Hitler moustache and his lips lay over his mouth as if they were kissing the air or whispering to it. He was a dark, harsh-looking, cocksure man, but with a gentle voice and it was hard to see his eyes under his strong glasses. His lashes were long and his lids often half lowered which gave him an air of seriousness and shyness. But he stuck his thumbs in his waistcoat and stuck out his legs to show his loud check stockings and he had that ring on his finger.”

A friend has lobbied me to pick up Carlyle again. Years ago I read Sartor Resartus because Melville read him. I found the Scot embodied a quality that triggers an allergic reaction in me – earnestness crossed with a prophet’s righteous anger. The later Tolstoy suffers from a related condition. This time I’ve started small, hunting and pecking among the less central works, in particular the letters. He’s awfully good, and indefatigable. The passage at the top is from a letter Carlyle wrote to his brother John on June 24, 1824, after his first visit to Coleridge at Highgate. The letter continues:

“. . . you will have some faint idea of Coleridge. He is a kind, good soul, full of religion and affection, and poetry and animal magnetism. His cardinal sin is that he wants will; he has no resolution, he shrinks from pain or labour in any of its shapes. His very attitude bespeaks this: he never straightens his knee joints, he stoops with his fat ill shapen shoulders, and in walking he does not tread but shove and slide my father would call it skluiffing [Scots: “to trail the feet along the ground in walking”]? . . . The conversation of the man is much as I anticipated. A forest of thoughts; some true, many false, most part dubious, all of them ingenious in some degree, often in a high degree. But there is no method in his talk; he wanders like a man sailing among many currents, whithersoever his lazy mind directs him; and what is more unpleasant he preaches, or rather soliloquizes: he cannot speak; he can only “tal-k” (so he names it) . . . I reckon him a man of great and useless genius, a strange not at all a great man.”

In “The Carlyles” (Complete Collected Essays, 1991), Pritchett praises his “pungency, his incomparable physical portraiture and power of image-making,” and judges Carlyle “a writer as great as Swift, if he had lived a hundred years earlier – or perhaps in some more solid period ahead of us.”

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