Wednesday, December 18, 2013

`I Would Not Be Able to Stop Writing in My Head'

Two books, both published in England in 1948: Turnstile One: A Literary Miscellany, edited by V.S. Pritchett, and Why Do I Write?: An Exchange of Views Between Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett. The former is a selection of poems stories, essays and reviews published in The New Statesman and Nation; the latter, pretty much what the subtitle says, in epistolary form. A reader becomes a literary anthropologist while exploring this alien, sixty-five-year-old world, where manners and morals (seldom admirable among the literary set) remain quaintly formal and gracious, even if feigned. Much will seem foreign; much remains disturbingly familiar. 

There’s a fashionable Marxist-fading-to-sentimental-Fabian-Leftist blush to some of the pieces collected in Turnstile One. Leonard Woolf contributes (don’t laugh) “The Economic Determination of Jane Austen.” Harold J. Laski, an occasional Stalin apologist, contributes a seemingly civilized essay from 1943 titled “In Praise of Booksellers,” which begins: “It is time that someone paid a tribute to a noble body of men and women whose service to the nation in wartime has been badly overlooked—I mean the men and women who run the bookshops of this country. A good bookshop, after all, is one of the supreme temples of the human spirit….” Twaddle, of course. Seven years earlier, Orwell had something worthwhile to say on the subject. 

Among the highlights in Turnstile One: A story by Anton “Chehov,” “A Fishy Affaire” (translated by the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler). Short stories by Bowen and Pritchett. Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts,” Auden’s “Song” and MacNeice’s “Les Sylphides.”  A fine essay on Ivy Compton-Burnett, “An Austere Fiction,” by the music critic Desmond Shawe-Taylor. Rebecca West on Kipling, James Joyce on the Irish tenor John Sullivan, David Garnett on Charles Doughty. 

Why Do I Write? is the superior volume, largely because of Bowen and Pritchett. Both are happily independent, which makes them members of a rare breed among writers in any era. In their manner, their stance before readers, both are friendly but tart, neither antagonistic nor fawning. Neither of them, as fiction writers, is theory-minded, and they thrive on each other’s writerly company. Here is Bowen to Pritchett: 

“Perhaps one emotional reason why one may write is the need to work off, out of the system, the sense of being solitary and farouche. Solitary and farouche people don’t have relationships; they are quite unrelatable. If you and I were capable of being altogether house-trained and made jolly, we should be nicer people, but not writers. If I feel irked and uneasy when asked about the nature of my (as a writer) relation to society, this is because I’m being asked about the nature of something that does not, as far as I know, exist.” 

This is deliciously un-engagĂ©. Writers, after all, have the same social and political obligations as pipefitters and pastry chefs. The author of The Death of the Heart continues: 

“My writing, I am prepared to think, may be a substitute for something I have been born without—a so-called normal relation to society. My books are my relation to society. Why should people come and ask me what the nature of this relation is? It seems to me that it is the other people, the readers, who should know.” 

And Pritchett (with Kipling, the best of English short story writers), writes to Bowen:
“I do not write for the reader, for people, for society. I write for myself, for my own self-regarding pleasure, trying to excel and always failing of the excellence I desire. If no one ever read me, would I write? Perhaps not; but I would not be able to stop writing in my head.”

1 comment:

George said...

"temples of the human spirit".

The late great Georgetown Bookshop had a number of pictures taped up somewhere. Among them, with the caption "Our Kind of Customer" was one of browsers in a London bookshop that had lost its roof in the Blitz.