Saturday, June 29, 2019

'This Is a Soil Very Suitable for Prose'

In Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life (2002), N. John Hall quotes a passage from W. Somerset Maugham’s autobiography, The Summing Up (1938):

“[T]o write good prose is an affair of good manners. It is, unlike verse, a civil art. Poetry is baroque. Baroque is tragic, massive and mystical. It is elemental. It demands depth. . . . Prose is a rococo art. It needs taste rather than power, decorum rather than inspiration and vigour rather than grandeur.”

This makes good sense. I haven’t read Maugham since I was a kid (Of Human Bondage, Cakes and Ale), largely out of unexamined snobbery, and I suspect the loss is mine. The Summing Up is a brief book, fewer than two-hundred pages, and can be read in a single evening, though you’ll be slowed down by wanting to copy out so many useful passages. Maugham writes aphoristically but keeps things moving along. He says Swift’s prose “enchanted” him, beginning with The Tale of a Tub, though it is “a tiresome allegory”:

“But the style is admirable. I cannot imagine that English can be better written. Here are no flowery periods, fantastic turns of phrase or high-flown images. It is a civilized prose, natural, discreet and pointed. There is no attempt to surprise by an extravagant vocabulary. It looks as though Swift made do with the first word that came to hand, but since he had an acute and logical brain it was always the right one, and he put it in the right place. The strength and balance of his sentences are due to an exquisite taste. As I had done before I copied passages and then tried to write them out again from memory. I tried altering words or the order in which they were set. I found that the only possible words were those Swift had used and that the order in which he had placed them was the only possible order. It is an impeccable prose.”   

On one of the reasons for obscurity in prose:

“People often write obscurely because they have never taken the trouble to learn to write clearly. This sort of obscurity you find too often in modern philosophers, in men of science, and even in literary critics. Here it is indeed strange. You would have thought that men who passed their lives in the study of the great masters of literature would be sufficiently sensitive to the beauty of language to write if not beautifully at least with perspicuity. Yet you will find in their works sentence after sentence that you must read twice to discover the sense. Often you can only guess at it, for the writers have evidently not said what they intended.”

It’s tempting to keep quoting Maugham on writing. Here’s one more sample:

“It has been said that good prose should resemble the conversation of a well-bred man. Conversation is only possible when men's minds are free from pressing anxieties. Their lives must be reasonably secure and they must have no grave concern about their souls. They must attach importance to the refinements of civilisation. They must value courtesy, they must pay attention to their persons (and have we not also been told that good prose should be like the clothes of a well-dressed man, appropriate but unobtrusive?), they must fear to bore, they must be neither flippant nor solemn, but always apt; and they must look upon ‘enthusiasm’ with a critical glance. This is a soil very suitable for prose.”

Hall notes that Beerbohm and Maugham were friends, and writes: “[T]he hallmarks of what Maugham considered good prose – precision, ease, sobriety, humour, courtesy, tolerance, horse sense, together with a refusal to risk being boring, and an abhorrence of enthusiasm – are apt descriptors of Max’s prose, especially the later prose.” That is, Beerbohm’s finest prose, especially that found in the And Even Now (1920) essays.
[Beerbohm died on May 20, 1956, in Rapallo, his body was cremated in Genoa, and his ashes were interred in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on this date, June 29, that same year.]

No comments: