Thursday, December 15, 2016

`A Trill of Laughter Echoing Out of the Past'

“This was a thing always new to me. I never tired of that little bell-like euphony; those funny little lucid and level trills.”

A new clerk, a student, has gone to work at the library. She is, I suppose, unremarkable. Not much of a reader, I discovered, but equipped with the usual awe a certain type of non-reader reserves for those who do read. She has the gift of convincing pleasantry. One is certain she means every word of her small talk. And she has the sort of laugh that challenges one to amuse her with every syllable uttered. Her laughter is a species of music, girlish and yet not irritating, and I knew I had heard it described somewhere. I was almost certain it was Beerbohm, but where? Beerbohm is a writer of small touches, not grand gestures, and can never be reduced to mere “themes.” The book of his I know best is And Even Now, the essay collection he published in 1921. A brief online search confirmed the source of my hazy memory and the sentences reproduced above: “William and Mary.” In describing Mary, the young bride, Beerbohm settles on “charm,” an elusive but immediately recognizable quality: 

“There was no stint of that charm when William was not reading to us. Mary was in no awe of him, apart from his work, and in no awe at all of me: she used to laugh at us both, for one thing and another—just the same laugh as I had first heard when William tried to unharness the pony. I cultivated in myself whatever amused her in me; I drew out whatever amused her in William; I never let slip any of the things that amused her in herself. `Chaff’ is a great bond; and I should have enjoyed our bouts of it even without Mary’s own special obbligato.”

Were William and Mary real people, acquaintances of Beerbohm? We’ll never know and it’s not important. The essay’s nineteen pages contain a novel. It’s a study in tone, ranging from satire (William starts outs as a devotee of William Morris) to heartbreak: “It was not a difficult pilgrimage that I made some days later—back towards the past, for that past’s sake and honour.” Read the entire essay and marvel at Beerbohm’s tonal mastery, his way with nuances of sound and emotion. It’s one of those works, like a great poem, where you want to point and say, “How does he do that? How does he skirt sentimentality so movingly?” With his hand on the door knob to the old cottage, he says:

“That was my answer; and the rejoinder to it was more than I had thought to hear—a whole quick sequence of notes, faint but clear, playful, yet poignantly sad, like a trill of laughter echoing out of the past, or even merely out of this neighbouring darkness. It was so like something I had known, so recognisable and oh, recognising, that I was lost in wonder.”

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