Friday, December 03, 2021

'Preferring the Master’s Work to the Master'

“As he never tired of saying, he mocked what he loved.” 

Who but a lover has the right, the privilege, to mock the beloved? A mere critic is presumptuous in his carping. He can’t be trusted to mock sensitively, with wit. His mockery is a blunt-force weapon. A lover’s is a paean to the beloved. So it is with Max Beerbohm and his favorite among the novelists of his day, Henry James.


Beerbohm wrote a pitch-perfect parody of James’ prose style in “The Mote in the Middle Distance” (A Christmas Garland, 1912) and drew at least twenty-two affectionate caricatures of him (see here and here). In his copy of The Aspern Papers (1888), given to him by James, Beerbohm drew an image of the novelist doubled over in pain on the title page, with the caption: “Mr Henry James in the act of parturiating a sentence.” His final work in prose, “An Incident” (Mainly on the Air, 1957), is devoted to James. We know from N. John Hall’s Max Beerbohm: A Kind of a Life (2002) that Beerbohm was encouraged by Elizabeth Jungmann, his secretary, literary executor and second wife, and New Yorker writer S.N. Behrman to write down an anecdote he was fond of recalling, dating from the spring of 1909.


Beerbohm is in London and had just left a luncheon party given by Somerset Maugham. He wishes to go quickly to his club, the Savile, to read James’ just-published story “The Velvet Glove,” when he encounters “a slowly ascending figure that seemed to me vaguely familiar.”  It is, of course, James and “his magnificently massive and shapely brow.” James recognizes the thirty-six-year-old Beerbohm and asks if any art exhibitions in the city are worth visiting. When Beerbohm suggests one, James asks if he would be willing to act as his guide.


“I felt much honoured—and yet, to my great surprise, I heard myself saying instantly ‘Well, I’m afraid I can’t. I have to be in Kensington at half-past three.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you young men, always entangled in webs of engagements, yes, yes . . .’ and passed on up the slope.”


Beerbohm admits he “fibbed” to the writer he most admired. Why? “It was mainly my aforesaid impatience to be reading ‘The Velvet Glove.’” Beerbohm, in other words, takes the Jamesian themes of art vs. life, young vs. seasoned artist, and makes them his own. “An Incident” concludes:


“And here I was now in the Savile, reading it. It was, of course, a very good story, and yet, from time to time, I found my mind wandering away from it. It was not so characteristic, not so intensely Jamesian a story as James would have founded on the theme of what had just been happening between us—the theme of a disciple loyally—or unloyally--preferring the Master’s work to the Master.”


Beerbohm wrote “An Incident” in 1954 and it was broadcast on the BBC on June 14, 1956, three weeks after his death. The sentence quoted at the top is by Hall, who goes on to note that Beerbohm “positively adored the prose of Henry James.”


Busyantine said...

Henry James lived for some years in Rye at Lamb House. In E. F. Benson's wonderfully amusing series of books, Mapp and Lucia, the town is renamed Tilling and Lamb House becomes The Mallards.
Benson himself lived in The Mallards. He wrote in The Spectator about Max Beerbohm
Rumer Godden also lived in Lamb House. Visitors to Rye can,suitably, take tea in Lamb House gardens.

Thomas Parker said...

In this age of "mashups," it has long been my secret wish that someone would write a Conan the Barbarian story in the style of Henry James, and a Henry James story in the style of Robert E. Howard. It's no surprise that I'm still waiting...