Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dipping into "the higher gossip," Or, Time to read James Lees-Milne

In the Barnes and Noble Review this week, Michael Dirda writes in praise of English diarist James Lees-Milne, whose many volumes of diaries and one volume of memoir, Another Self (1970), Dirda argues, belong on the short shelf of masterpieces of “the higher gossip”:
Their pages are packed with amusing anecdotes, erotic adventures, moral observations, lyrical evocations of the past, bits of biography, encounters with unusual people, and glorious descriptions of nature, art, places, and society. These are, in short, works that recreate a time and a place, while also plunging us deep into a tattered human heart.
I’ve only ever glanced at Lees-Milne, but the passages that Dirda draws out of his diaries are entertaining enough to guarantee that I’ll give him a more serious read.

It seems a fitting, as a coda to Monday’s post about sex and vulgarity, to highlight some of the spicier bits that Dirda quotes. Like this scene, from Lees-Milnes’s memoir, in which his mother, about to turn him loose at boarding school, realizes that he should probably be told about sex:
'Which reminds me,' she added, in a rather portentous and uncharacteristic tone, 'your father would wish me to give you a little, just a little piece of advice. About life generally.' She paused, and then suddenly corrected herself. 'On the whole, it might be better if you asked the headmaster to explain all about the disgusting side of it.' And then to herself and half aloud, she added 'Not that I myself have ever found it exactly that.'
Or this, from the diaries:
Dined with Charles Fry [a director of the publishing house Batsford's] back from the States. He drank seven whiskies and soda while I was with him between 7:30 and 10:30. He is violently pro-American and anti-English. He said he had been away eleven and a half weeks and slept with forty people during that time.
I find hints of Powellian characterization in that description, reminiscent of some of the lines in Powell’s notebooks--which is perhaps not surprising, as the two were contemporaries and ran in not dissimilar circles of upper-class artists, writers, and hangers-on.

Lees-Milne turns up in Powell’s own journals in a handful of places, a couple of them interesting enough to pass on. First, there is an entry describing a luncheon with Lees-Milne and his wife, Alvilde, on August 20, 1987, before which Powell had just finished re-reading the Diaries, as a counterpoint to the letters of Rupert Hart-Davis and Lord Lyttleton (which Dirda, by the way, also praises). Writes Powell,
He has less of Rupert’s practical grasp of how people react in relation to the arts, books, or journalism, though often acute in the Diaries about individuals’ social behaviour, with which he came in much amusing contact among owners of more-or-less stately homes.
Later, Powell notes that he
quite misjudged Jim’s reaction to my having reread (I think for third time) and enjoyed, all his Diaries. I supposed he would be greatly interested in small points in them I brought up, but he scarcely noticed these, only saying something like, “Oh, how could you wade through all that?”
Which jibes with a telling observation Powell made a couple of years later, in July of 1991, following another lunch:
He is oddly uninterested in his own life, which I noticed when he lunched with us.
If true, that would put him at odds with other masters of “the higher gossip” from Dirda’s list--such as my longtime favorites Casanova and Boswell--but would help explain his apparent attention, appreciated by Powell, to the oddities of others.

Before I hie myself to the library in search of some Lees-Milne, it seems right to leave you with some lines from Powell’s notebooks that I suspect Lees-Milne, with his broad experience of people, would have appreciated. First, a sentiment that surely anyone dealing with the superannuated super-wealthy would agree with:
The actual existence of other people gets on the nerves of some individuals.
Then, to bring things back full circle to the topic of love and sex, a line from Lees-Milne’s assessment of Emily Bronte,
It is unfulfilled love which intensifies passion.
--which, Powell might add, also has the benefit of keeping the lover from ever realizing that:
All love affairs are special cases, and yet at the same time each is the same case.
An argument that, for all his narcissism and self-regard, I think even Casanova would find congenial.

1 comment:

  1. I recently read the biography of JL-M - he was a super writer but did misremember quite a bit as I remember...
    Lovely post thanks for sharing