Monday, February 23, 2009

"The writer of half a century has outlived his critics; and, alas! has survived those whom he once had an ambition to please."

One of the most rewarding of my many current fascinations is Isaac D'Israeli's monumental collection of literary opinion, quotation, gossip, and anecdote, Curiosities of Literature, which D'Israeli shepherded through nine editions between 1791 and 1834. The preface to the ninth edition supplies the title to today's post, which finds me looking at Isaac's son, novelist and, later, prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Benjamin published his first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), at age twenty, and while it sold well, the critical response was savage. The worst of the reviews, in Blackwood's Magazine, called Disraeli "an obscure person for whom nobody gives a straw," and according to the The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, we can read the following passage from Disraeli's later novel Contarini Fleming (1832) as a lightly fictionalized account of the effect it had on him at the time:
With what horror, with what blank despair, with what supreme appalling astonishment did I find myself for the first time in my life the subject of the most reckless, the most malignant and the most adroit ridicule. I was sacrificed, I was scalped. . . . The criticism fell from my hand. A film floated over my vision, my knees trembled. I felt that sickness of heart that we experience in our first scrape. I was ridiculous. It was time to die.
Though the elder D'Israeli was, according to Benjamin's most recent biographer, Adam Kirsch, so wrapped up in his books as to be "an almost ethereal presence," Isaac does strike me as the sort who would at least take note of the bad review, and perhaps even think to send his son a note directing him to the wisdom offered in the Curiosities under "Sketches of Criticism."

In that essay, D'Israeli displays his admirable habit of getting straight to the point:
It may perhaps be some satisfaction to show the young writer, that the most celebrated ancients have been as rudely subjected to the tyranny of criticism as the moderns. Detraction has ever poured the “waters of bitterness.”
After which he offers us a ringing catalog of the calumnies under which the most celebrated of ancient authors have suffered, both in their lifetimes and after their deaths. Regarding Plato, for example, we are given a catalog of epithets that gathers momentum as it descends from the heights:
Plato, who has been called, by Clement of Alexandria, the Moses of Athens; the philosopher of the Christians, by Arnobius; and the god of philosophers, by Cicero; Athenæus accuses of envy; Theopompus, of lying; Suidas, of avarice; Aulus Gellius, of robbery; Porphyry, of incontinence; and Aristophanes, of impiety.
An account of Horace, on the other hand, reminds us that, as JT still assures us these many centuries later, what goes around comes around:
Horace censures the coarse humour of Plautus; and Horace, in his turn, has been blamed for the free use he made of the Greek minor poets.
D'Israeli's account of the criticisms of the Attic Nights of Aulus Gelius (who himself, you'll recall, had the temerity to call Plato a robber) are worth including both for their turn of phrase and for their invocation of an old favorite, Robert Burton:
The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, and the Deipnosophists of Athenæus, while they have been extolled by one party, have been degraded by another. They have been considered as botchers of rags and remnants; their diligence has not been accompanied by judgement; and their taste inclined more to the frivolous than to the useful. Compilers, indeed, are liable to a hard fate, for little distinction is made in their ranks; a disagreeable situation, in which honest Burton seems to have been placed; for he says of his work, that some will cry out, “This is a thinge of meere industrie; a collection without wit or invention ; a very toy! So men are valued! their labours vilified by fellowes of no worth themselves, as things of nought; who could not have done as much? some understande too little, and some too much.”
As the ghost of Robert Frost will surely haunt me for writing, one could do worse than be a botcher of rags and remnants.

But perhaps the sweetest consolation came far too late for either father or son to see it: Blackwood's Magazine itself offered praise for Vivian Grey in its February 1905 issue. In an unsigned article titled "Musings without Method," the magazine wrote of a recent rise in the critical opinion of Disraeli's novels--and specifically of Vivian Grey:
That it has the faults of inexperience is obvious. "Books written by boys," said Disraeli, "which pretend to give a picture of manners, and to deal in knowledge of human nature, must be affected." And Vivian Grey is affected in style, in plot, and in character. Nevertheless, it possesses the quality of sincerity--a sincerity to youth and high spirits.
While the journal acknowledges that,
It is Byronic, it is lackadaisical, it is fantastic. Its hero cares not for dinner so long as he is in time for the guava and liqueurs.
--at the same time it admires the fact that
[U]nder the velvet glove of aestheticism there is the iron hand of action, and Vivian Grey, when he is not displaying his eloquence, is ready to manage mankind "by studying their tempers and humouring their weaknesses." In other words, he has always a smile for a friend and a sneer for the world. But to whatever page you turn in this romance you find traces of the life and energy which were characteristic of its author. He tried many things in his life and save in poetry he always succeeded.
I, for one, would be happy with such an epitaph as that last.

Assuming D'Israeli senior continues to hold my interest, I just may have to also dive into the works of Disraeli junior; I'll report back what I learn.

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