An Illustrated History of Furnishing
by Mario Praz
Braziller, 396 pp., $25.00
The House of Life
by Mario Praz
Oxford, 360 pp., $10.00
Although the second of these two books is a sort of autobiography, the two produce a surprisingly homogeneous effect. Both are not so much concerned as positively obsessed with interior decor, down to the minutest detail of ormolu lion-claw table legs and waxen flowers under glass domes. Both are written in the same allusive, digressive manner, plentifully sprinkled with quotations, especially from English literature (ranging from Langland to Francis Thompson). Some of the same anecdotes appear in both books. Above all, both exhale a strong sense of the faded past, as if petals dropped by Proust and Pater had been dried and preserved in an old muslin bag before being scattered over the pages. Well may the reader fall into a daze, if not a doze, as he stirs the pot-pourri, wondering which is the history of furnishing and which the history of Praz. Both books are handsomely illustrated and presented. It is the larger and more opulent volume that is the history of furnishing; the other is concerned rather with the history of the furnishing of the author’s flat in Rome. His own tendency to fly to the literary allusion is infectious when one attempts to define the tone of the two books, with their melancholy feeling for vanished lives, their weakness for obscure royal ladies of the past, and the often trumpery relics of such people’s existence:
Or shredded perfumes, like a cloud
From closet long to quiet vow’d,
With moth’d and dropping arras hung,
Mouldering her lute and books among,
As when a queen, long dead, was young.
Unexpectedly, Browning has here hit exactly the Praz note, which sounds pervasively—like gentle rain—throughout the two books. Each is translated by a different virtuoso, it should be noted, but both have caught the elegiac cadence, the diffused sadness, a certain dryness, all of which are perhaps more obtrusive than the author quite realized. What seems intended to be the distilled essence of pure aestheticism comes finally to smell more like mouldy privet. An inherent solitariness, dreary days in alien Liverpool, an ambivalent attitude to real life, plus a passion for meticulous cataloguing of objects—such seem to have formed the basis not only for the autobiography but for the history of furnishing.
Though the History is in its detail most scholarly, its foundations remain deeply romantic. This hardly matters except that it prevents the author from ever offering any general ideas or conclusions. His history is almost entirely static and we get no real sense of evolution. The book is prefaced by an elegiac and rhetorical essay which might be more effective if delivered aloud than read in the cruel permanence of print. The allusions and details are certainly learned. To what do they add up? They do not add up at all. Drops of water are scattered lightly from a well of culture which is unable, or unwilling, to provide a proper drink. One moves on, somewhat thirsty, to the illustrations and …