Wednesday, October 10, 2012

`The Mortar of His Own Idiosyncrasy'

“A few very unfortunate people do not enjoy him, and probably never could be made to do so. Most of those who care for literature at all revel in him: and do not in the least need to be told to do so. And, as was said before, there is hardly any difference between his published works and his letters except that the former stand a little—a very little—more `upon ceremony.’” 

Who is George Saintsbury writing about? Keats, you say? P.G. Wodehouse? Even William James is a reasonable guess. In A Letter Book (1922), Saintsbury collects samples of what he calls “the art of letter-writing,” from Synesius, a fourth-century Greek, through Ruskin and Stevenson. Above he is praising Charles Lamb, Elia’s alter ego, whose letters are funnier, better written and more touching, memorable and self-revealing than the polished essays or memoirs of most other writers. Saintsbury includes a letter Lamb wrote to Wordsworth on Feb. 18, 1818, in which he describes his job at the East India Company, where he worked as a clerk for thirty-three years: 

“The dear abstract notion of the East India Company, as long as she is unseen, is pretty, rather poetical; but as she makes herself manifest by the persons of such beasts, I loathe and detest her as the scarlet what-do-you-call-her of Babylon. I thought, after abridging us of all our red-letter days, they had done their worst; but I was deceived in the length to which heads of offices, those true liberty-haters, can go. They are the tyrants; not Ferdinand, nor Nero.” 

Nearly every sentence written by Lamb contains a Lambian twist that marks it as indelibly his creation, like linguistic DNA. His prose is rich, never bland like oatmeal, too rich for some, like pâté de foie gras. I understand readers who find his sentences mannered or cloying, though I don’t share the sentiment. Lamb undercuts preciousness with humor, a lesson lost on many writers. He’s serious about not taking things seriously. In his History of English Prose Rhythm (1912), Saintsbury corrals Lamb with Carlyle and labels both “eccentric,” a Janus-faced word meant kindly in this context. Lamb acknowledges his debt to his seventeenth-century precursors and admits to being a “sedulous ape” of Browne, Burton and Fuller. He schooled himself in Sterne, too, just as Sterne sedulously aped Burton. Saintsbury writes: 

“His style is a perfectly achieved conglomerate, the particles conglomerated being perceptible, but indissolubly united, and in fact unified, by the mortar of his own idiosyncrasy.” 

That’s a sentence worthy of Lamb, almost but not quite too clever and overweening. Saintsbury goes on to call him “in his less fantastic moods, an absolutely consummate master.” Lamb reliably jokes and digresses and puts on the reader, and usually gets the job done, though one doesn’t read his essays and letters for edification in the conventional sense. His prose is never passive and sometimes it threatens hyperactivity. In his preface to The Last Essays of Elia, Lamb writes a death notice for Elia, or vice versa. Parse this passage: 

“I am now at liberty to confess, that much which I have heard objected to my late friend’s writings was well-founded. Crude they are, I grant you—a sort of unlicked, incondite things—villainously pranked in an affected array of antique modes and phrases. They had not been his, if they had been other than such; and better it is, that a writer should be natural in a self-pleasing quaintness, than to affect a naturalness (so called) that should be strange to him.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

Too little has been written about Lamb. I think you, my dear Patrick, are just the man to contribute a volume. (Or tome.) My own admiration for him is a direct result of absorbing yours.