Ronald Firbank: A Biography
by Miriam J. Benkovits
Knopf, 300 pp., $6.95
by Ronald Firbank
New Directions, 342 pp., $7.50
“I suppose I’m getting squeamish! But this Ronald Firbank I can’t take to at all. Valmouth! Was there ever a novel more coarse? I assure you I hadn’t gone very far when I had to put it down.”
“It’s out,” Mrs. Bedley suavely said, “as well,” she added, “as the rest of them.”
“I once met him,” Miss Hopkins said, dilating slightly the retinae of her eyes. “He told me writing books was by no means easy!”
Mrs. Barleymoon shrugged.
—The Flower Beneath the Foot
Mrs. Bedley means that the book is out of the circulating library, but it seems that Firbank has been “out” recently, at least in the United States. Miss Benkovits notes in her bibliography that last year only two volumes were in print, neither of which included his masterpiece, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli. This can now be found in the reprinted New Directions collection (1949), together with The Flower Beneath the Foot, Prancing Nigger, Valmouth, and The Artificial Princess, with the old Introduction by the late Osbert Sitwell. The ladies’ comments have their point: Firbank is by no means a coarse writer, but all his books are full of delicate innuendo.
He was not always exact (instead of “retinae” he should, I think have put “pupillae“) but he was extremely painstaking. Miss Benkovits shows in her biography, which is itself painstaking, that Firbank did not find writing books easy, but was a highly dedicated artist. His little books were worked up slowly from notes, he searched endlessly for the right word and cut down drafts ruthlessly, to produce that economical dialogue from which Evelyn Waugh learned so much. He said he was all construction when he got going. His later work, which looks so casual, must be taken seriously as craftsmanship.
Firbank was the most fantastic of all English dandies and decadents, and became a mythical figure in his lifetime. Since he was excessively shy, elusive, and drunken, there are comparatively few records of his conversation, though many of his attenuated appearance. Most of the best are in Ifan Kyrle Fletcher’s memoir of 1930, which has pieces by Augustus John and other friends, and in Sitwell’s Introduction. These are, however, not always accurate, and have often had to be corrected by Miss Benkovits from her great knowledge of the documents. Disappointingly she has failed to add any story or fact that adds anything striking to one’s impression of Firbank. The best is an unpublished piece by Nancy Cunard, who describes him talking really well, in the last year of his life: “How consecutive he was. A new personality was revealed…. The effect of his conversation was as stimulating as the wind over rough cliff-grass…. It showed me the vitality of his being beneath all the ‘fantasia-fantasia.’ ”
The man evidently had a bottom of good sense. He also had a sound financial basis for his eccentric way of life: we learn that he had inherited at least £700 …