Saturday, March 18, 2023

'They Have Faded from the Glass of Time'

There’s a class of writers judged unimportant by the usual standards, by the usual people – minor (that patronizing word), un-engagé, witty rather than weighty, blithely indifferent to literary fashion and significance. The English seem to specialize in this species. Think of Sydney Smith, Maurice Baring, Saki, James Lees-Milne, perhaps Walter de la Mare (surely a major writer), Lord Berners and Henry ‘Chips’ Channon. The unlikely alpha male of the bunch, the major English minor writer is, of course, Max Beerbohm. Among his friends was another, the New Jersey-born British essayist and critic Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946) – a writer whose resistance to pigeon-holing and portentousness defines him. 

I first encountered Smith years ago by way of Henry James’ letters. He seemed to know everyone. He adored Jane Austen and called himself a “Mansfield Parker.” His best-known line is “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” His best book is the endlessly rereadable All Trivia (1933) – a title that celebrates the very quality I’ve been trying to describe. It's a book of aphorisms and fictional anecdotes to pick up casually and browse in, strictly for amusement. Beerbohm described such volumes as "Bedside books. Dippable-into." This brief sketch, “The Pyramid,” is a fair sample of Smith’s approach:


“‘To read Gibbon,’' I said, as we paced that terrace in the sunshine, ‘to peruse his metallic, melancholy pages, and then forget them; to re-read and re-forget the Decline and Fall; to fill the mind with that great, sad, splendid, meaningless panorama of History, and then to watch those Kings and Conquerors, those Heresiarchs and monks and Patriarchs and Councils, all fade away from our memory, as they have faded from the glass of Time—’


“As she turned to me with a glance full of enthusiasm, ‘What is so enchanting,’ I reflected, ‘as the dawn of an acquaintance with a clever woman with whom one can share one’s thoughts?’


“It was her remark about History, how she believed that the builders of the Great Pyramid had foreseen and foretold many events of Modern History, which made a soul-estranging shadow, an Egyptian darkness, loom between us on that terrace.”


[Smith originally published Trivia in 1902, More Trivia in 1922, Afterthoughts in 1931, and collected them in All Trivia (1933).]

1 comment:

Nige said...

I wonder if you've read Julia Strachey's memories of living in Logan Pearsall Smith's household? They paint a rather startling picture –