Tuesday, October 18, 2016

`This Weighing of Delights'

“The disconcerting fact may first be pointed out that if you write badly about good writing, however profound may be your convictions or emphatic your expression of them, your style has a tiresome trick (as a wit once pointed out) of whispering: `Don't listen!’ in your readers’ ears.”

The “wit” Logan Pearsall Smith coyly alludes to in “Fine Writing” (1936) is probably Smith himself. I discovered him as a footnote to Henry James, which sounds like climbing the Alps to retrieve a pebble, except that dwelling exclusively at the higher elevations makes breathing difficult. Minor writers possess gifts their betters lack. Besides, I’m not convinced any writer who gives even solitary moments of pleasure can be dismissed merely as “minor.” For those moments his impact on at least one reader is major. Who would sacrifice Max Beerbohm or O. Henry for the sake of tight-assed critical rigor? Minor does not imply dullness, a quality possessed by many major writers. There’s nothing dull about Smith’s Trivia (1902) and More Trivia (1921). Admittedly, “fine writing” carries a hothouse stench in our utilitarian age. (What is the prose counterpart of “poetaster”?) For Smith, irony is the saving grace of fine writing, not purple prose:

“. . . I should be inclined to say that an ironic way of writing is the one to which Prose is peculiarly adapted. I could instance among the ancients the irony of Plato, of Tacitus, and Lucian, and among the moderns the irony of Hamlet and of Falstaff, of Pascal, of Burton, Sterne, and Fielding, of Voltaire, of Swift, and of Gibbon, who was perhaps a greater artist than he knew.”

Smith isn’t talking about today’s cheapened, reflexive sense of irony, the lingua franca of undergraduates and second-rate comedians. He might approve of a phrase coined by Joseph Epstein when describing the work of A.J. Liebling – “worldly-ironic.” Liebling is another writer pigeonholed as “minor,” largely because he worked as a journalist, for newspapers and The New Yorker. That is, the deadline was his Muse, and he didn’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration or a hefty advance to strike. He wrote so he could pay the rent and go on eating, which he did to glorious excess. My favorite among his books is forever changing. Usually I say Normandy Revisited (1958) or The Earl of Louisiana (1961). At the moment it’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962). Take this dose of artfully muted and celebrative irony from that volume:

“It is from this weighing of delights against their cost that the student eater (particularly if he is a student at the University of Paris) erects the scale of values that will serve him until he dies or has to reside in the Middle West for a long period.”

If I believed in reincarnation, I would want to come back as A.J. Liebling, who wrote beautifully and wittily (“fine writing”), and knew how to enjoy himself along the way. Smith and Liebling were born on this date, Oct. 18, in 1865 and 1904, respectively.

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

I liked how Smith predicted social media's ravenous appetite for novelty in relationships, back in Afterthoughts, 1931:

We need new friends. Some of us are cannibals who have eaten their old friends up; others must have ever-renewed audiences before whom to re-enact an ideal version of their lives.