Wednesday, October 11, 2017

`It Will Be News'

“. . . in spite of the champagne and the wit and the love of life, Agate faces the truth of his own time and class.”

What more can anyone do? James Agate (1877-1947) was an English theater, film and book critic, a remarkably industrious writer whose work has never found much of a home in the U.S. The author of the observation at the top, Jacques Barzun, tried. He edited and introduced The Later Ego (1951, Crown Publishers), the final two volumes of Agate’s nine-volume diary chronicling the years 1935 to 1947. As they were published the volumes were titled Ego, Ego 2, Ego 3, and so forth. Never was a work so justly titled, though “ego” here means less egocentric in the banal sense than unified by a single compelling sensibility. For Barzun, Agate’s work “ranks with Pepys’s diary for vividness of characterization and fullness of historical detail.”

As I’ve gotten older, my interest in less-than-formal forms has steadily grown. I seek out diaries, notebooks, journals, commonplace books and letters. Such writing is marginally less likely to be burdened with self-consciousness and pretentiousness. The sensation of masks being dropped (to be replaced by other masks, of course) is perceptible. I probably will never read Agate’s theater criticism (he’s not Max Beerbohm), but the diary is conversational in the best sense – often more dialogue than monologue. Agate seldom engages in earnest self-analysis, always a tedious exercise, and with a diary one feels less guilty when skipping over the dull bits. The diarist wisely incorporates other personalities into his daily musings. Barzun explains:

“. . . in the lively chronicle which follows you will not hear the drone of a single voice; you will not exclusively retrace the fortunes of one man nor live by proxy within a limited circle of contemporary Englishmen. Far from it. You will not even keep to one set of subjects, all intellectual, but will range freely through space and time and human activity. Food and the footlights and the screen take their turn with golf and motorcars and music. Literature and choice gossip alternate with bilingual puns and portraits of celebrities—live, dead, dying.”

That’s what I mean by conversational – good talk by a witty, well-read, occasionally silly, non-didactic, always amusing man. Barzun calls this quality “buoyancy.” During World War II, though sick and rapidly aging, Agate entertained the troops with speeches, corresponded with service members overseas and supplied them with free books. He had his priorities in order:

“In a hundred years, when my great toe began to ache and when it stopped aching will be of more interest to anybody coming fresh to this Diary than the peace terms. It will be news; they will be merely history.”

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