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Spoils

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 their accompanying captions, which open in the house of Marcus Lucretius Fronto at Pompeii and close with Art Nouveau. The author’s own interest noticeably increases as he approaches 1800; from then on his knowledge is considerable and the illustrations very rich and entertaining. Still the minatiae occupy the foreground of his attention, but his preferred period is one of minutiac.

Before that the reader has suffered from irrelevant and space filling remarks which nearly reach self-caricature: “Unlike Thackeray who, in his Meditations at Versailles of the following century, represented the Sun-King in cruel déshabillé, Robert’s intention was not mercilessly satirical.” This is in reference to Hubert Robert’s depiction of Madame Geoffrin at breakfast. it displays the rather desperate linking of literature and painting which is a peculiarity of Praz’s manner, and there are several comparable signs of strain. Presumably it is a wicked proofreading error which gives us Shakespeare’s man who hath no music in his soul being fat for treasons, etc. But what exactly is meant by such a comment as “The room is treated like a palette smeared with an archipelago of greedy colors”? At one point we are solemnly informed—though this reviewer refuses to believe it—that “A necklace of real stones will seem suspect when worn by a parvenu, while counterfeit diamonds can be carried off by the distinction of the wearer.” This is the voice not of Proust but of the Duchesse de Guermantes. But even she would hardly be banal enough to record what is perfectly apparent from an illustration, viz: “Sitting behind the circular table with a green cover is a young girl…”

The History of Furnishing has to be appreciated as being basically an attractive album of pictures of interiors through the ages. Throughout, the evidence is pictorial and painters as great as Antonello da Messina and Vermeer are pressed, not without embarrassment, into service. That is a dangerous device, but let it pass. By the time we enter the boudoir of Queen Hortense or the Duchesse de Berry, the documents have dwindled in artistic excellence but increased in topographical accuracy. And they often retain a distinct charm. It is here that the author is at his best. The more tremulous the watercolor, the more offbeat the moment—some Russian neo-classic interior, for example—the keener the response of Praz. The album itself becomes a substitute for these books of photographs of Switzerland that ingenue girls were always being required to study in plays of the Nineties. One can evoke the ideal interior in which it should be perused, one a good deal earlier in the nineteenth century: a muslin-curtained Neapolitan-Biedermeier room with a few pieces of Vienna porcelain and perhaps a portrait by Girodet. And in that sort of room Praz is supremely at home. Indeed, it virtually is his home.

The rooms of his flat in the Via Giulia in Rome are opened for inspection in The House of Life, a title cloudy with literary allusion (Pater’s autobiographical essay, Rossetti’s sonnet sequence, perhaps even a dash of Dante) but sadly inappropriate. This house of life is as lacking in vitality as it is lacking in people. Here are indeed the spoils of Poynton but no Fleda Vetch or Mrs. Gereth. The spoils were not, James stated in his Preface, “directly articulate.” It is as if Praz set out to remedy this fact; for although many people are mentioned in his autobiography—including a wife and daughter—the most vivid characters are a clutch of waxes and watercolors, an Aubusson carpet, or an Empire couch. Whatever poetry is to be extracted from such things is here skilfully extracted. Most of them have been collected by their owner and inevitably recall to him the circumstances of their acquisition. We are in the author’s past at the first step; and then in the past suggested by previous owners or by historical associations.

Of course, any autobiographer must naturally dwell on what has happened, is over and done, but there is dangerous monotony in trying to re-orchestrate the superb symphony of A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Praz is a scholar with artistic sensibilities. Such a scholar does not, however, make an artist. Reminded so often of the heartbreaking beauty of the final pages of Du Cote de Chez Swann, the reader turns sulky at this inferior, Italian, version of the theme. The broken doll, the faded photograph, the portrait of some unknown person in the costume of 1820—these may well arouse authentic Prazian sensations, but the mood they evoke is not original to him. It is a strangely isolated person who thinks himself unique in feeling the magic of such things; and, alas, it takes an artist to convey it.

There are undoubtedly some extraordinary passages of self-revelation in The House of Life, a book which, it must be granted, is disarming in its honesty. The author seems to recognize that people have never meant as much to him as objects. He writes, for example, that his wife thought that once there was an Empire cradle in the house “I should want a baby too.” Aware of the ridiculous sound of this, Praz is at other times willing to concede the general indication of his character. He records the slow failure of his marriage and some disillusionment with his daughter as a child. When he was still quite young he seems to have fallen into a sort of passivity like that of a flower cut off from its roots. It is as if he had culture but no roots. One of the shrewdest and liveliest passages in the whole autobiography is provided by a letter from Vernon Lee who wrote with italics to Praz in 1924: “I used sometimes to be bored by the feeling that the real you was not yet there, that you were all made up of literature,” Even now Praz does not seem to be aware of how this pierces to the heart of his dilemma, nor does he do justice to Vernon Lee’s generous treatment of youthful, soulful, vague, bookish, timid Praz. Today it is a received opinion among those who have heard of Vernon Lee (at least until the very recent biography) to think she was just a silly old Lesbian, but here her gruff friendly letters blow through dusty corridors with refreshing sense and vivacity. Perhaps a few more such people would finally have pushed Praz out into the light of common day. As it is, he seems from the autobiography to be like some Pirandellian creation, lost in a mist of uncertainty, clinging sadly to scholarship and aestheticism positively in lieu of life, waiting for a producer to animate him and set him on the stage of human experience.

In the muted sense of art against life—withdrawal against activity—which can be detected in the book, there is a profound old-fashionedness. Today’s scholars are not withdrawn aesthetes but often actively engaged in politics and, let us hope, polygamy. Praz remains amazed at the paradox of the scholar-artist who can tolerate surroundings that are not aesthetically pleasing (by which he anyway means pleasing to him, Praz). But this is too naive. It recalls Pater’s rooms in nineteenth-century Oxford or the romantic concept of the scholar as once popularized by Anatole France. One almost expects Praz to want his professors to be absent-minded men in carpet slippers with pebble glasses and shapeless clothes. Instead, it would be easy, and easy it is indeed, to be horrified by the mummified perfection of Praz’s surroundings, with the bibelots and the objects under glass cases, and the seats worked in petit-point. The reader wonders first who dusts it all and how can one live so suffocatingly enclosed by the past?

In mentioning people like Pater, and even Vernon Lee, one begins to understand something of Praz’s strange inheritance and circumstances. He is the last of those Victorians with a passionate attachment to Italy—only in his case it is the Italian with a passionate attachment (or, at least, an attachment) to English literature. He is the scholar who does not have ideas so much as vague sensations. His books tend to be anthologies of effective extracts and tiny facts which somehow fade from the mind after they are read. All the wealth of cultural allusion is like a film saving the author from digging down to the real hard gold of thought. Aestheticism floats like a veil obscuring rather than revealing, a lace curtain of respectability to keep us from the naked truth.

And with Praz one might guess at something else: the frank difficulty of the intelligent Italian in his own country, itself so clogged with the past. If it can still be detected today, how much stronger must it have been when Praz was growing up. There is such a long tradition of inertia in Italy, inertia before the spectacle of Church and State, and since 1800 it seems to have bred a particular brand of disillusion and noia in such Italians as for example Leopardi, and Puccini, and Praz. Let it be granted they are all utterly different from one another, and perhaps only Leopardi owned to the sensation; yet they seem to share this secret mood which against their will turns the freshest fruit to ashes. It would be possible to see in The House of Life a lesson for Italy and an allegory of its own position. Much of the furniture and furnishings collected by Praz are beautiful, or at least interesting and evocative. Yet one cannot stay in such a “house of life” without cutting oneself off from the thought and evolution and animation that give meaning to life itself. It is noisy and dusty outside—even squalid—but from that slimy mud, not from sterile perfection, have risen the artists who justify man’s way to man.

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