I made the rounds of his shop, scouting for the usual suspects – Chekhov, Sisson, Ford, Montale, Epstein, Stead, Mandelstam, Santayana, Liebling, Yourcenar, Davenport. I found a first edition of Liebling’s Mink and Red Herring, but it’s priced at $70 and I already have a hardcover reprint. On a bottom shelf I spied Me Again: Uncollected Writing of Stevie Smith (1981). Sure, I’ve read it before, and this copy is beat-up and brown, but Smith is irresistible, and for five bucks it’s a steal. Some find Smith too cloyingly cute. I find her brave, funny and wise when it comes to her favorite subject, death. Penelope Fitzgerald agreed when she reviewed the posthumously published volume in 1981:
“Eccentricity can go very well with sincerity, and, in Stevie’s case, with shrewdness. She calculated the effect of her collection of queer hats and sticks, her face ‘pale as sand’, pale as her white stockings, and also, I think, of her apparent obsession with death.”
More gold: Mainly on the Air, a Max Beerbohm collection, mostly of radio talks, first published in 1946. This is the enlarged edition from 1957, hardcover, for twelve dollars. Facing the title page is a photo by Cecil Beaton of a still dapper Beerbohm. Judging from the “Gelato” sign in the background, he’s sitting on a wall in Rapallo. The volume concludes with a lecture Beerbohm delivered in 1943 on the odious man and writer Lytton Strachey, whom he knew and about whom he has reservations. The piece is filled with splendid passages:
“It takes all kinds to make a world, or even to make a national literature. Even for spirits less fastidious than Strachey’s, there is, even at the best of times, a great charm in the past. Time, that sedulous artist, has been at work on it, electing and rejecting with great tact. The past is a work of art, free from irrelevancies and loose ends. There are, for our vision, comparatively few people in it, and all of them are interesting people. The dullards have all disappeared—all but those whose dullness was so pronounced as to be in itself for us an amusing virtue. And in the past there is so blessedly nothing for us to worry about. Everything is settled. There’s nothing to be done about it—nothing but to contemplate it and blandly form theories about this or that aspect of it.”
How could I resist? I can stop any time I want.