Berenson’s Last Years

Sunset and Twilight

From the Diaries of 1947-1958 by Bernard Berenson, edited by Nicky Mariano
Harcourt, 576 pp., $10.00

The Selected Letters of Bernard Berenson

edited by A.K. McComb, with an Epilogue by Nicky Mariano
Houghton Mifflin, 336 pp., $5.00

Bernard Berenson
Bernard Berenson; drawing by David Levine

“Few are the survivors to whom I can say, ‘Can you remember?”‘ Berenson was only eighty when he remarked on that particular sadness of old age. He lived thirteen years more, and up to the last eighteen months, with what he deplores in these final diaries as a more and more desperate loss of mind and energy, he kept up his lucid and voluminous output of written words. It is not his fault that any scribble from a famous figure nowadays gets into print. The present volume of letters is a case in point; except for two exchanges of interest at least to special students, one involving Santayana and the other dispelling some nasty notions that got around for a time about Berenson’s role during the last war, the collection is unfortunate. It would have been better to wait until more of the correspondence was available, most people’s letters in the last century or so being of doubtful general interest at best and usually appearing with a smell of cult about them, as these do. But that is happily not true of the diaries, so far. There must be roomfuls of Berenson’s papers still unpublished, and it would be painful to think they were going to go on dribbling into print indefinitely, especially as Sunset and Twilight (the title doesn’t sound like him at all) is too good, even grand, a finale. The selection must have been difficult. It has been made with tact and good sense so far as one can judge, and is introduced in a remarkable piece of prose that could serve as a model in such matters, blending friendship with clarity, by Iris Origo.

The grandeur of the volume is as a document of extreme old age, not only in the aspect of rumination and appraisal of a life but in the daily report of mental and physical decomposition, at an age when the will or capacity to give evidence is generally lost, so that the rest of us who are not there yet can only guess, when we don’t turn away, as in former times with the question of life after death. In this respect the book is unique; there has never been anything like it that I know of; it is as startling as if a baby were to come out with a full account of its thoughts, feelings, and states of body from one hour to the next. One thinks of Tolstoy’s last journals, the anguish in them, and his ending each night’s entry with the next day’s date and the notation, “If I am alive.” But that is not a comparable record; from the great creators in literature there could never be one, the whole drive and habit of mind being antithetical to it. In Berenson’s case there was no such distraction. He occasionally suffered, as he reports, from his own lack of creativity;…

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