Saturday, March 18, 2017

`The Type That Is Droll and Endearing'

Call it groundless sentimentality. I do, even as I embrace it. It’s like the knitted shamrock my mother pinned to my shirt each St. Patrick’s Day. When I reached a certain age I would take it off it before hitting the sidewalk. By then I sensed it was a demeaningly empty gesture, like lowering your head and remaining silent while everyone else in the room is praying, and I was a stiff-necked prig. For years, each St. Patrick’s Day, I have read something by or about an Irishman. It used to be Yeats, Joyce or Beckett. And then Swift, Hubert Butler or Flann O’Brien (thank you, Jay). Now I range about, breaking the pattern while maintaining it.

This year it was Dublin: A Portrait (Harper & Row, 1967), an oversize album of photos by Evelyn Hofer, with text by V.S. Pritchett. Earlier they had collaborated on London Perceived (1962) and New York Proclaimed (1965). Hilton Kramer observed that Hofer practiced a “very classic art -- flawless in its eye for form, tireless in its ability to `become saturated,’ as Pasternak said, in its subjects.” Hofer remains, as photographers should, out of her pictures. Her interest is the real, not the self. My favorite photo in Dublin is probably “Gravediggers, Glasnevin.” On a related theme, Hofer will also show you Joyce’s death mask.

In most such books, the text is an afterthought, filler, but Pritchett’s prose rivals Hofer’s photos for memorability. Here he welcomes you to the book:

“Dublin as it is; Dublin as it was. I must declare my interest. It is very personal. If I were to write an account of my education the city of Dublin would have to appear as one of my schoolmasters, a shabby, taunting, careless, half-laughing, reactionary.”

Pritchett is master of the modulated adjective array. He strings them like a necklace of different colored stones. He recalls Dickens’ vividness of language and characterization, without the cartoonish bent. See how he backs into a description of Oliver Goldsmith:

“Goldsmith’s case is even more interesting, if far less dramatic and effective, than Swift’s, in what it reveals of the Anglo-Irish mind of the time. `There he is, the poor fellow,’ the old fraud of a guide used to say, donkeys’ years ago, his eyes watering and his testy voice going soft, when taking one to look at the array of busts in Trinity College Library. He would stop for half a tear before Goldsmith’s innocent and comic face. A disastrous undergraduate, ugly, with a pointed nose—loving to dress up in gaudy clothes, incoherent in talk, over-fond of cards, reckless with money, but good at playing the flute, a sweet singer of Irish ballads and a wit when he wrote. Goldsmith is the type of all that is droll and endearing.”

Reading Pritchett, one often stops and says: I wish I had written that. Late in the book he writes: “Dubliners are still shocked by the wickedness of England and go there for a holiday from virtue.”

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