Sunday, September 25, 2022

'As Alike As a Row of Bayonets'

A rare satisfaction: learning that a favorite writer speaks well of another writer one admires, especially if one or both are little-noted or unfashionable. It feels like confirmation of our judgment and prompts us to look for commonality between them. We like it when our friends get along. In a May 13, 1968 letter to Hugh Kenner, Guy Davenport asks: 

“I wonder if dear Ivy Compton-Burnett [1884-1969] is the last author to submit her MSS on cream-laid paper and written with a fountain pen?”


In his note to this sentence, Edward M. Burns quotes Davenport’s obituary for Compton-Burnett, published in October 7, 1969 issue of National Review: “She wrote her novels in longhand on Victorian cream laid paper, uncompromised by any invention later than the steel-nib pen, and publishers had to accept them in that unrelenting condition.”


On July 15, 1968, Davenport writes to Kenner: “Grand news, the recognition by the Right Hon. Lord Butler of Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett. She will arrive at  Hyde Park Gardens in an electric Daimler, proceeding at 15 MPH, dressed as if time had not moved since the Diamond Jubilee [of Queen Victoria, on June 22, 1897]. So much exposure to the world beyond her grounds may even fluster her stern composure and cause her to ask if Princess Marie Louise [of Schleswig-Holstein, 1872-1956, Queen Victoria’s last surviving granddaughter] be present for the occasion, or Kaiser Wilhelm.”


Burns in his note tells us Compton-Burnett was elevated to Dame Commander, with Lord Butler conferring “the Dignity of Companion of Literature” not only on the novelist but on Rebecca West, Compton MacKenzie and John Betjeman. In 1971, Davenport reviewed Compton-Burnett’s posthumously published final novel, The Last and the First, in The New York Times Book Review. Burns quotes these lines from the review:


“It is almost certain that her powerful novels will gain in significance and be thought of, in time, as some of the finest writing of our century. In the classical correctness of her plots and in her classical propensity for psychological rather than local realism, there is hidden her real distinction— that of doggedly refusing to under-write the standard transcendentalism of practically all our arts.”


I look for enthusiasm in a book review, whether it celebrates or savages the work at hand. A few more samples of Davenport’s wit and energy:


“The novel nags and preaches; poems exhort; most teachers have forgotten that a work of art need not be a sermon. A few writers (Joyce most notably) have declined to make their readers better people, and have concentrated on the first duty of fiction, which is to depict humanity for what it is.”


“[A]ll her novels . . . are as alike as a row of bayonets.”


Some can read these novels; some can’t. One must first have an ear for the crisp insults, the merciless innuendos, the precise, frank words that mean ten times what they say. And one must be patient. Style is all with Miss ComptonBurnett, and style is balance, a regular pace, a perfect evenness of tone.”


[All letters and annotations quoted can be found in Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner (ed. Edward M. Burns, Counterpoint, 2018).]  


Richard Zuelch said...

At 84, Joyce Carol Oates has lived almost as long (one year to go) as Ivy Compton-Burnett. But what a difference in output! Compton-Burnett published 20 novels in 50 years (1911-1971). Oates, since 1963, is currently up to 62 published novels (including some published under pseudonyms), per her Wiki page.

Yes, they are two *very* different writers in tone, subject matter, style, etc. But I suspect that, in the end, most of Oates's novels will quietly be allowed to go out of print after her death (if they haven't already) whereas there's been something of a Compton-Burnett revival in recent years. Quality over quantity, and all that.

Nige said...

It would have been entirely fitting if Ivy had submitted her novels in longhand on cream wove paper, but in fact she had them all typed out by her typist (from 1946 to 1969) Cicely Greig, who wrote a fascinating memoir of Ivy based on her experiences.