Friday, July 13, 2012

The gossipy bits of literary biography

I'm still scrambling a bit to stay on a reasonable blogging pace amid the demands of work and travel, so the next few days will likely see me simply sharing some passages from two books that have been my regular companions for the first half of this year, Craig Brown's One on One and John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists. I've written already about both; suffice it to say that if, like me, you enjoy the gossipy bits of literary biography, you should have these books on your shelves. (For a more in-depth consideration of Sutherland's book, you can't do much better than this post from Open Letters Monthly, which addresses the book's weaknesses as well as its obvious strengths--and offers the added bonus of Sutherland himself responding in the comments.)

The pleasure of Sutherland's book lie largely in its scope--the sheer number of eminently forgettable authors whose oeuvre he's apparently read is astonishing. (Of forgotten American hack J. H. Ingraham Sutherland writes, "The most interesting novel of his third, holy phase is The Sunny South.") Then there are his pithy turns of phrase. Of Poe he writes,
The skull on the desk, that standard Ignatian aid to meditation, is common enough in literature. With Poe, the warm flesh is still slithering off the bone.
It was the pattern of his life to succeed brilliantly, then move on before getting bogged down in the consequences of his own brilliance. If necessary he would drink himself out of the sinecures friends were willing to set up for him.
Of Mark Twain, he writes,
Mark Twain, we may say, made American literature talk--unlike, say, Henry James, who merely made it write.
Melville, in the midst of a full entry, elicits this eye-popping sentence about his seafaring years,
Communal onanism was called "claw for claw"--sailors going at each other's privates like fighting cocks.
Of Anne Bronte he writes,
Anne survived her brother by only a few months, dying decently, but tragically early, of the family complaint. One imagines she met her end more dutifully.
And of Emily,
Emily is the most enigmatic of the writing sisters. No clear image of her remarkable personality can be formed. Branwell sneered at her as "lean and scant" aged sixteen. She, famously, counselled that he should be "whipped" for his malefactions. She evidently thought well of the whip and used it, as Mrs Gaskell records, on her faithful hound, Keeper, when he dared to lie on her bed. A tawny beast with a "roar like a lion," Keeper followed his mistress's coffin to the grave and, for nights thereafter, moaned outside her bedroom door.
Readers, this book is for you.

Brown's book, meanwhile, follows a daisy chain of chance encounters between writers, artists, and other cultural and historical figures from the nineteenth century to the present. Dozen of old favorites turn up in its pages, including Tolstoy, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, and many more, but the scene that has remained most vivid in my mind these many months is from a chance meeting between Evelyn Waugh and Alec Guinness in 1955. They're both at St. Ignatius chapel to witness the confirmation of Waugh's god-daughter, Edith Sitwell, and they're joined by, in Waugh's words, "an old deaf woman with dyed hair," who, according to Brown, "walks unsteadily with the aid of two sticks." Her "bare arms are encased in metal bangles which give [Guinness] the impression that she is some ancient warrior."

In attempting to sit, she falls, and her bangles go flying:
"My jewels!" she cries. "Please to bring back my jewels!"

Waugh and Guinness dutifully get down on all fours and wriggle their way under the pews and around the candle sconces, trying to retrieve "everything round and glittering."

"How many jewels were you wearing?" Waugh asks the old deaf woman.

"Seventy," she replies.

Under the pews, Waugh whispers to Guinness, "What nationality?"

"Russian, at a guess," says Guinness, sliding on his stomach beneath a pew and dirtying his smart suit.

"Or Rumanian," says Waugh. "She crossed herself backwards. She may be a Maronite Christian, in which case beware."

The two men start laughing, and soon, according to Guinness, get "barely controllable hysterics." They pick up all the bangles they can find. Guinness counts them into her hands, but the old deaf woman looks suspiciously at the pair of them, as if they might have pocketed a few.

"Is that all?" she asks.

"Sixty-eight," says Guinness.

"You are still wearing two," observes Waugh.
That story rivals the story of Guinness's premonitory warning to James Dean--also included in Brown's book--as the best Alec Guinness story I know.

1 comment:

  1. A few weeks ago, I picked up Guiness's Answered Prayers, which includes the Sitwell baptism and the warning to James Dean--at Kultura Books on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. It is well worth reading