The man of action is never the hero of English letters. Byron will always be understood to have been an orchid, or some Italianate exotic, who required sun and wine and ancient marbles to keep him writing, a circumstance which prevents him from ever entirely being loved by the English. They take their revenge by remembering his good looks better than they remember his good poems. Something similar has happened to Bruce Chatwin, another heliotrope with a well-turned heel whose prose is admired but whose journeys in search of desert configurations and hundred-year-old Chinese eggs to swallow will always, at some level, hold him outside the mahogany parlor of English satisfactions.
I say English very deliberately because the same is not true of Ireland or Scotland or Wales, where Joyce, Stevenson, and Dylan Thomas could be better thought of, in the long run if not immediately, for having planted their feet and their imaginations in foreign places, encountering the social rigors of Trieste, the jungle fevers of Samoa, and even the questionable richness of the American university campus. But there is a tendency with the English to dislike writers who fail to sustain their stay-at-home virtues, who fail, indeed, to devote themselves to the occasionally poetic business of nothing very much happening all the time. A writer like Graham Greene was greatly enjoyed but never deeply loved by the culture that produced him. How could he be, roaming around Africa, Vietnam, and Antibes, and taking too little interest in the daily business of Surrey? Stephen Spender never grasped how much he made himself disliked when he spoke about Spain, and George Orwell, I suspect, was forgiven that particular lapse not so much for having written a good book about the experience as by showing the mettle in his English character by soon after wearing down his shoes on the road to Wigan Pier.
England’s inwardness can be charming (Noël Coward) but it can also be grotesque (Anthony Powell). Taking too deep and unsuspicious an interest in foreign parts has traditionally been understood to constitute a lapse of taste, unless, like E.M. Forster or Apsley Cherry-Garrard—he of The Worst Journey in the World—the writer is seen to carry his fascinating Englishness into all weathers, even into a confrontation with icy death.
To the most grounded English writers, there will always be a corner of every foreign field that is forever England, and if not, then God help the field. In the days before we were war buddies, America used to come in for its fair share of these insults too. Rudyard Kipling went to San Francisco and behaved like any popular English author should if he cares about his popularity: he complained about it not being sufficiently like home. “They delude themselves into the belief that they talk English,” he wrote in his American Notes,
and I have already been…
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