“An attachment to writers of a previous generation needn’t be a nostalgia but a back-to-the-future, a wished for alternative to the too often facetious present and a hope for things to come . . .”
A reader objects to mention of Max Beerbohm. “Too boring, too precious,” and so on. His indictment fits not Beerbohm, the most amusing of writers, but -- well, likely nominees are plentiful and welcome. Beerbohm was the most major of minor writers, a miniaturist of delicacy and inveterate irony, sometimes savage. He writes to his first biographer: “My gifts are small. I've used them very well and discreetly, never straining them; and the result is that I've made a charming little reputation. But that reputation is a frail plant.” Can you think of a contemporary writer confident enough to say such a thing?
In the profoundly optimistic passage quoted at the top, the Irish poet Derek Mahon is referring most immediately to Cyril Connolly in his essay “Montaigne Redivivus” (Red Sails, 2104), but any writer from the past who has earned our gratitude will do. No place is more provincial than the present, and one of the reasons we read the best writers, apart from pure pleasure, is to get a little distance on the world we already inhabit and presume to know. Look at the soft-headed vandals at Penn who this week removed Shakespeare’s portrait and replaced it with a hack’s. Mahon says: “Quite soon we’ll see the crime of elitism on the statute books, another nail in the coffin of civilization.”
Joseph Epstein, a Beerbohm admirer, recently read Theodor Mommsen’s The History of Rome and said it “made the most profound impression upon me, and simultaneously provided the greatest pleasure.” I know the feeling – not with Mommsen, whose work I’ve never read, but with a hundred other books that moved me. That’s how I felt after reading Landor’s Imaginary Conversations, Swift’s Drapier’s Letters and Tacitus (1958) by Ronald Syme, after it was suggested to me by Epstein, who writes in his Mommsen piece:
“Literature is a house of many mansions, and such historians have provided one of the most stately among them. The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was given the job of waiting at the village gates for the arrival of the Messiah. The pay wasn’t great, he was told, but the work was steady. So it is, as serious readers will have noticed, with the reading life. The pay may not be great, but one is never out of work.”