A wondrous friend and I are always talking about how our Venn diagram of reading enjoyment intersects only on older books, and diverges entirely in the latter half of the 20th and 21st century. (I wend Zoe Heller; she, Junot Diaz.) But one thing we agree on is how thoroughly this older generation spanks the younger, line by line, in a way that is not only striking but mortifying, possibly.
I just finished CAKES AND ALE at her urging, having had it at my bedside for the last six weeks, and I was struck by how often I wanted to write down a line or a passage and then had to stop because eventually I would have just transcribed the entire book. Apparently my friend found herself unable to stop following her husband around the apartment reading them aloud. Now I am on the fourth page of Jean Stafford’s stories and am marveling at her ability to index “every datum of our shared millennial life” like she is tossing down a handful of peanuts, no offense to Franzen, whose book I truly enjoyed but will never pick up again.
Anyway, I am nattering at you, with Maugham and Stafford, just briefly, and then I promise I will leave you alone.
From Cakes and Ale:
I had watched with admiration his rise in the world of letters. His career might have served as a model for any young man entering upon the pursuit of literature. I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like a wise man’s daily does of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when he first read that Charles Dickens in an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his books, used the word (and of late the critics have been doing it with agreeable frequency) he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a crossword puzzle.
I do not know if others are like myself, but I am conscious that I cannot contemplate beauty long. For me no poet made a falser statement than Keats when he wrote the first line of Endymion. When the thing of beauty has given me the magic of its sensation my mind quickly wanders; I listen with incredulity to the persons who tell me that they can look with rapture for hours at a view or a picture. beauty is an ecstasy; it is as simple as hunger. There is really nothing to be said about it. It is like the perfume of a rose: you can smell it and that is all: that is why the criticism of art, except in so far as it is unconcerned with beauty and therefore with art, is tiresome. All the critic can tell you with regard to Titian’s Entombment of Christ, perhaps of all the pictures in the world that which has most pure beauty, is to go and look at it. What else he has to say is history, or biography, or what not. But people add other qualities to beauty–sublimity, human interest, tenderness, love–because beauty does not long content them. Beauty is perfect, and perfection (such is human nature) holds our attention but for a little while. The mathematician who after seeing Phedre asked: “Qu’est-ce que ca prouve?” was not such a fool as he has been generally made out. No one has ever been able to explain why the Doric temple of Paestum is more beautiful than a glass of cold beer except by bringing in considerations that have nothing to do with beauty. Beauty is a blind alley. It is a mountain peak that once reached leads nowhere. That is why in the end we find more to entrance us in El Greco than in Titian, in the end the incomplete achievement of Shakespeare than in the consummate success of Racine. Too much has been written about beauty. That is why I have written a little more.
On old rooms, and love (you have to read the book for this):
The room made me, as Mrs. Hudson put it, go queer all over. All the hopes that had been cherished there, the bright visions of the future, the flaming passion of youth; the regrets, the disillusion, the weariness, the resignation; so much had been felt in that room, by so many, the whole gamut of human emotion, that it seemed strangely to have acquired a troubling and enigmatic personality of its own. I have no notion why, but it made me think of a woman at a cross-road with a finger on her lips, looking back and with the other hand beckoning. What I obscurely (and rather shamefacedly) felt, communicated it to Mrs. Hudson, for she gave a laugh and with a characteristic gesture rubbed her prominent nose.
“My word, people are funny,” she said. “When I think of all the gentlemen I’ve ‘ad here, I give you my word you wouldn’t believe it if I told you some of the things I know about them. One of them’s funnier than the other. Sometimes I lie abed thinking of them and laugh. Well, it would be a bad world if you didn’t get a good laugh now and then, but, lor’, lodgers really are the limit.”
And just briefly, from Stafford, as my typing fingers are exhausted.
First line of “Maggie Meriwether’s Rich Experience” (as if that weren’t enough):
There was a hole so neat it looked tailored in the dead center of the large round beige velours mat that had been thrown on the grass in the shade of the venerable sycamore, and though it protruded a clump of mint, so chic in its air of casualness, so piquant in its fragrance in the heat of mid-July, that Mme Floquet, a brisk Greek in middle life, suggested, speaking in French with a commandingly eccentric accent, that her host, Karl von Bubnoff, M. le Baron, had contrived it all with shears and a trowel before his Sunday guests arrived at his manorial house, Magnamont, in Chantilly.
She had never seen anyone so nondescript; he looked like a bundle that might have contained anything on earth.