Saturday, March 14, 2009

"The dust and smoke and noise of modern literature have nothing in common with the pure, silent air of immortality."

Despite having never read any of Samuel Richardson's monumental novels, I have recently gotten into the habit of taking note when I come across valued authors delivering themselves of opinions of the man and his work. It's the least I can do for my friend Maggie, who valiantly slogged through the 1,630 pages of Richardson's Clarissa (1748) when I gave it to her for Christmas a couple of years ago--and retained the energy and goodwill to report on the book's pleasures and pains. ("I would not say that I didn't enjoy the book, but there is so, so much of it.") It seems only fair that, having followed Clarissa through her near-endless travails, Maggie should feel she has company, should be able to see herself as part of a centuries-long chorus of voices of those who've done the same--a survivors' support group, say.

So yesterday I as I was reading William Hazlitt's pleasantly meandering essay "On Reading Old Books" (1821), to which I'd been directed by Patrick Kurp at Anecdotal Evidence, I was pleased to encounter some strong praise for Richardson. Hazlitt writes,
I consider myself a thorough adept in Richardson. I like the longest of his novels best, and think no part of them tedious; nor should I ask to have anything better to do than to read them from beginning to end, to take them up when I chose, and lay them down when I was tired, in some old family mansion in the country, till every word and syllable relating to the bright Clarissa, the Divine Clementina, the beautiful Pamela, "with every trick and line of their sweet favour," were once more "graven in my heart's table."
Now, Maggie, surely that makes you feel that you could have done better by the bright Clarissa? Perhaps you should re-read her story, attempting to approach it this time in a more generous frame of mind?

Strong as is Hazlitt's praise for Richardson, it pales next to his words for Edmund Burke later in the essay. Burke's conservatisim was anathema to Hazlitt, but in some ways that made his appreciation of Burke's mind and writing even more powerful:
To understand an adversary is some praise: to admire him is more. . . . For the first time I ever cast my eyes on anything of Burke's . . . I said to myself, "this is true eloquence: this is a man pouring out his mind on paper." All other styles seemed to me pedantic and impertinent. Dr. Johnson's was walking on stilts; and even Junius's (who was at that time a favourite with me) with all his terseness, shrunk up into little antithetic points and well-trimmed sentences. But Burke's style was forked and playful as the lightening, crested like the serpent. He delivered plain things on plain ground; but when he rose, there was no end of his flights and circumgyrations.
But even the finest of prose styles can only go so far if the reader disagrees with the argument they decorate, and Hazlitt has fun reminding the reader of that:
I did not care for his doctrines. I was then and am still, proof against their contagion. . . . I conceived, too, that he might be wrong in his main argument, and yet deliver fifty truths in arriving at a false conclusion.
Hazlitt's essay--which he opens with the bald statement,
I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all.
--has not only caused me to reopen my volume of Burke, but has also inspired in me a general spate of re-reading, sending me back yesterday to Penelope Fitzgerald's light and lovely Gate of Angels and today to Moby-Dick . . . and all the while my favorite book to re-read, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, maintains its perpetual beck. We'll see if I'm strong enough to resist and instead pluck something from the stacks of the unread instead.


  1. I continue to be perplexed by the paradox in Hazlitt's statement whenever I come across it:
    "I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all."
    Reading 20 or 30 volumes over and over again requires initiation into those volumes (as "new books") at some point.
    Well, not to be hung up on Hazlitt, I would urge you to give Richardson a whirl by reading PAMELA. Manageable and delightful, PAMELA remains a reading sensation for me (and would, I suppose, be included among the 20-to-30 that I would reread if I were to follow Hazlitt as a model when deciding what I should read).

  2. Maggie5:34 PM

    I can think of many word to describe Miss Clarissa Harlowe, but I don't thin bright would be one of them.

  3. Maggie5:39 PM

    That should be: I can think of many words to describe Miss Clarissa Harlowe, but bright would not be one of them. I will grant her that she is not as hasty in her correspondence as I.

  4. jim prentiss10:09 AM

    Because it is a short story and one of my favorites, I reread "Chess Story" by Stefan Zweig. It seems that I pluck it off my bookshelf every year.

  5. Love Hazlitt, but Richardson, not so much... except I find it interesting that for a stretch of that novel, Clarissa becomes a kind of a proto-Hunger Artist...

  6. R. T.,
    I think Pamela is likely to be my initiation into Richardson, if for no other reason than that I love Fielding, but have put off reading Shamela until I've read its progenitor.

    As for Hazlitt's contention that he only re-reads those certain books: I imagine that was both an overstatement of the case and the word of a forty-three-year-old man who felt himself to be no longer young. Reading new books is for young men, re-reading them is for older men?

    And Jim, you may have just sold me on Zweig . . .