Thursday, March 23, 2017

`With Bigger Windows'

As some readers get older, the attraction of minor writers grows on them. We know the majors and return to some with undiminished pleasure, but do I really want to read Kafka, Camus, Hemingway or Dostoevsky again? (All four have an adolescent appeal. None is quite adult.) Minor writers, previously unknown or unfairly ignored, are a gift to seasoned readers. And who’s to say they’re minor? Melville once was minor. Who would give up on Max Beerbohm because he’s not John Galsworthy?

I first learned of Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946) some years ago in the letters of Henry James. He seemed somehow insubstantial, an impression reinforced by my now-jettisoned prejudice that a writer had to produce a novel, preferably several, to be taken seriously. An American who lived most of his life in England, Smith seemed to know everybody, including Henry James, George Santayana and Bernard Berenson, and I had the impression he was a dabbler, an annoying wannabe like George Plimpton. Much later I read All Trivia (1933), Smith’s compendium of four earlier collections of anecdotes, aphorisms and one-liners, and was charmed. These are from the fourth, Last Words:

“The old know what they want; the young are sad and bewildered.”

“When elderly invalids meet with fellow-victims of their own ailments, then at least real conversation begins, and life is delicious.”

“What with its crude awakenings can youth know of the rich returns of awareness to elderly people from their afternoon naps; of their ironic thoughts and long retrospections, and the sweetness they taste of not being dead?”

Now I’m reading Reperusals and Re-Collections, a gathering of essays Smith published in 1937, loosely unified by the theme of rereading favorite writers. Among Smith’s reacquaintances are Jane Austen, Proust, Jeremy Taylor, Walter Pater, Donne and Madame de Sévigné. In the first essay, “Montaigne,” he writes:

“There are readers and I am one of them whose reading is rather like a series of intoxications. We fall in love with a book; it is our book, we feel, for life; we shall not need another. We cram-throat our friends with it in the cruellest fashion; make it a Gospel, which we preach in a spirit of propaganda and indignation, putting a woe on the world for a neglect of which last week we were equally guilty.”

Long-time serious readers will recognize the sentiment, a close analog of certain romantic attachments. When young, I felt compelled to proselytize for my “intoxications.” I’ve given that up as futile and often irritating. Today, I’m likelier to mention the book or author, and then leave it to the readers. The adventurous, driven ones are rare. Smith identifies the continuities in our reading loyalties, increasingly precious as we grow older:  

“There is something reassuring, too (at least, I find it so), in these renewals of former admirations. We all endeavour, as Spinoza says, to persist in our own being; and that endeavour is, he adds, the very essence of our existence. When, therefore, we find that what delighted us once can still delight us: that though the objects of our admiration may be intermittent, yet they move in fixed orbits, and their return is certain, these reappearances will suggest that we have after all maintained something of our own integrity; that a sort of system lies beneath the apparent variability of our interests; that there is, so to speak, a continuity within ourselves, a core of meaning which has not disintegrated with the years.”

Smith suggests there is self-knowledge to be found in an examination of our reading histories. A lovely speculation follows:

“And if we find, when we read again one of our classics -- say Virgil for instance -- that we like it better than ever, the experience may suggest an even more pleasing conjecture. Psychologists tell us that fullness of life is the goal of everything that lives, that the impulse towards completeness, towards ripeness and self-realization, is the most compelling of all motives. These discoveries in old books of new beauties and aspects of interest may persuade us, therefore, that we are not only still ourselves, but more ourselves than ever : that our spirit has not only persisted in its being, but has become more lucid in the process ; that the observatory or palace it has edified for its habitation, though always falling out of repair in places, one wing collapsing after another, is yet being always rebuilt on a more consistent plan, and with bigger windows.”

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