Tuesday, September 17, 2019

'He Had Always to Do His Very Best'

I’ve been catching up with an old friend, a former newspaper colleague whom I haven’t seen in person in thirty years. He is the funniest human being I have ever known, blessed with the comedian’s full arsenal: quick wittedness, long memory, a gift for mimicry and sound effects, a genius for puns, and no mercy when it comes to idiots. Jim is now a successful lawyer.

He couldn’t cut it as a reporter. Jim’s failing in journalism was peculiar. He would return from an assignment all revved up and entertain the city desk with what he had seen. Everyone laughed, then Jim sat down at the keyboard and choked. He couldn’t translate talk into news copy. Writing for him was slow and agonizing, and the final product was, by his admission, dull. That doesn’t stop reporters who turn lousy copy into thirty-year careers, but Jim was also blessed with self-awareness. He quit the newspaper and went to law school.
When the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy died in 1952 at age seventy-five, Max Beerbohm broadcast a brief, touching remembrance of his old friend on the BBC. In “Sir Desmond MacCarthy” (Mainly on the Air, 1946; rev. 1957), Beerbohm recounts the time Virginia Woolf hired a stenographer to surreptitiously record MacCarthy’s inspired, eloquent conversation. When transcribed, however, “the typescript was a disappointment. Without the inflections of the voice, without the accompanying gestures and changes of facial expression, how could it have been otherwise?” A rare exception was Laurence Sterne: “Writing, when properly managed,” says Tristram Shandy, “(as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation.”

The gifts seem seldom to overlap. Beerbohm might be writing of Jim: “Talk was Desmond’s natural medium for expression. In writing he never acquired self-confidence and facility. Writing was always to him a task and rather a terror.” Then, in a Beerbohm-esque maneuver, he reverses direction:

“And that is perhaps the reason why he wrote so splendidly well. He had always to do his very best. Sometimes I regretted that he had been destined to write mostly about books; for I have always been less greatly interested in books than in human beings: I had not one whit of Desmond’s scholarship; whereas Desmond’s instinct for human life and character was impassioned and unerring, and I delighted most of all in his portrayals of men known to him . . .”

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