February 28, 1978. Checking in for the Concorde, we are warned to remove film from our pockets before passing through Security, which raises a question about the effect of detecting devices on people, as well as on unexposed film. The list of articles forbidden aboard includes aqualungs and, unless sealed in polyethylene bags, thermometers.
In compensation for the cramped ride and abrupt meal service on the Concorde, small luxuries are offered before and after the flight. Each passenger is individually escorted to a special waiting lounge, where businessmen are squinting at stock-market averages in The Wall Street Journal while stewards bring trays of paté and bottle after bottle of Dom Perignon, like caterers at a Palm Beach wedding. The décor is bright and cheerful, the chairs are noninstitutional, and the wall is a large window with a view of the aircraft’s bowsprit-like nose cone. Coats and carry-ons are collected here and taken on board ahead.
The airplane is even smaller than reported, and no wider, it seems, than the one-propeller craft of thirty years ago. Entering the doorway, we are obliged to duck, and, in the narrow aisle, to turn sideways to pass, which accounts for the advance cloakroom service: it would be difficult to remove overcoats without jabbing neighbors. In fact the pocket-mirror-sized window might have been designed for a maximum security prison, the seat to prepare the occupant for a spell in a straitjacket. Basketball players would be well advised to travel subsonically.
To judge by their twang, many of the travelers are Texans, tall men who crouch when they stand and who talk about oilionaire sheiks and developments in Oman and Kuwait. By contrast, the accents and vocabulary of the crew seem markedly British, as when the cabin attendant says, demonstrating a life jacket, “Pull the knob smartly downward.” She points to the “entertainment console” in the armrest, but the seat is too constricting for normal-sized people to be able to see the buttons and dials, and thus to hear the stolidly English earphone concert of Elgar, Walton, and Vaughan Williams. The engine noise, like that of a powerful vacuum cleaner, grows louder with revving, and whistles at take-off like a Fourth of July rocket. The climb seems more rapid than in other planes, and, after a sharp initial dip of the tail, steeper. Ears crackle and nostrils fill momentarily with the smell of combusting fuel. The captain announces: “In the interest of noise abatement, we will reduce our speed, then in about twenty minutes this delightful aircraft will come into its element.” The braking, over Coney Island, feels like the suspension before the plunge in a roller coaster.
At the head of the cabin a Mach-meter, like a digital clock, begins to register at MO:34. The numbers tick off quickly until reaching the speed of Mach 1, and again, beyond the sound barrier, Mach 2 (1,350 mph), where, fluctuating no more than a point or so, they remain throughout the trip. Within minutes, Long Island, the Sound, and snow-covered Connecticut are beneath us, as if on a vast map. At 72,000 feet we can see the curve of the earth, and the planet’s globe shape becomes a reality.
Food is served in small installments, on Lilliputian plates, and with cutlery suitable to furnish an F.A.O. Schwarz doll house—except for a souvenir swizzle stick with Concorde fantail. During the meal, at about 1 PM New York time, twilight falls, eerily, reminding us of an eclipse. V.A.S. complains that “to be hurried is not deluxe,” and she compares today’s miracle of technology unfavorably with train travel in Russia eighty years ago, when
Everyone brought flowers to the station, and we had caviar packed in ice, hampers with game, wines, buckets of champagne, and our own cow, “La Générale,” in the caboose. Tea was sold from large samovars in villages where the train stopped.
Reading time is too brief to satisfy my compulsion to finish books, even bad ones, in this case The Human Factor. Not for a moment does the reader picture the Bantu wife of the double-agent hero, or believe in his acquiescence in the murder of his innocent partner. But if the characters in the novel are disappointing, the writing is still more so (“…we’ve gone further than anyone realizes on our own”), and padded with far-fetched images:
The hackneyed phrase came warm and unintended to Castle’s tongue: it inspired him, as though, in penetrating a familiar cave, on some holiday at sea, he had observed on a familiar rock the primeval painting of a human face which he had always mistaken before for a chance pattern of fungi.
An announcement from the cockpit—“We will be landing fifteen minutes ahead of shedule”—terminates this, and as papers are stuffed into briefcases, and the Machmeter registers the deceleration, a man in the row behind us remarks to his companion that “in about three minutes we will cease to be targets for satellites and enter the range for earth stations.” The wheel-lowering is bumpier, the touchdown more jolting, the tug of the seat belt tighter than in ordinary jets, and at Heathrow we wait two hours for baggage, half the time saved on the flight.
March 5. The magazine section of today’s Telegraph contains a three-page article about the forthcoming show of paintings by V.A.S., “The Moon Goddess Who Lived History.” The director of her London gallery is quoted:
On the very same day Madame Stravinsky first called to discuss her exhibition, it so happens that Prokofiev also came by with his port-folio.
Prokofiev having died a quarter of a century ago, however, the reader must conclude either that the arrangements for Madame Stravinsky’s exhibition were fixed an unusually long time in advance, or that the Prokofiev in question was not the composer. (It was his son, Oleg, who is not mentioned.) The article also fumbles her anecdote about an encounter with swashbucklers on the Black Sea, saying that the ship on which she fled from Baku to Marseille in 1920 “was overrun by Turkish brigands [who] spoke Russian like Stalin.” But obviously these cut-throats, like their famous successor, were Georgians, not Turks.
A more serious misquotation, from another interview, has landed on the front page of the Guardian and provoked an international retentissement, as we learn from calls to New York and the Continent. What V.A.S. actually said was that she had burned Stravinsky’s love letters at his request before she came to America in 1940. What she is reported to have said is that she intends to burn these letters on returning to America. Messages arrive from everywhere, many of them drawing an analogy between V.A.S. and Clara Schumann, who actually did destroy some of her husband’s last compositions as well as correspondence.
March 9. Covent Garden. It is clear that tonight’s I domeneo has been thoroughly rehearsed and that the production is meant to display the company at its best. But the first two acts, played together, are too long, and this division of the drama is disastrously lopsided. Nor is the casting ideal. Stuart Burrows’s tenor is too sweet for the heroic title role, and though Ms. Cononovici, as Electra, has the right quality of voice, she cannot focus it. More serious faults than these are found in the staging, which centers on an enormous pair of self-animating staircases. The scenery and action are Wagnerian, rather than classical, and, within this format, the one unqualified success is the monster, a terrifying creature that gobbles’up some of the corps de ballet and belches smoke that both fills the theater and, at intermission, empties it more rapidly than usual.
Götz Friedrich, the director, is no less successful at inventing distractions than his master, Walter Felsenstein. Thus the removal of corpses becomes a major preoccupation. After Electra stabs herself—with a weapon that she holds like a sword swallower, before choosing a scabbard slightly lower down—the audience is obliged to watch as her body is slowly enshrouded, lifted, and borne off. Even during the great third-act quartet, bodies, distributed all over the stage, are carried out one by one, an ambulance service that diverts the attention, leaving little for the music. In another bit of stage business, Ilia sings Se il padre perdei seated on a stool, while I domeneo listens on another one, as if the director wished to point out that the style of the opera had fallen between. The staging never lacks movement, to be sure, but billowing drapery and the raising and lowering of panels are no substitute for drama.
The ever more vocal lobby for I domeneo has convinced many buffs that the opera deserves to be ranked with Mozart’s greatest, and that the right performance would make this apparent. If weaknesses in the work are mentioned at all, they are blamed entirely on the libretto, certainly no literary or dramatic masterpiece. Yet in spite of the marvels of the score, Mozart must share responsibility for the opera’s shortcomings, in the arias which are too long for their dramatic content and in those places where momentum builds only to stop dead. The latter fault may be characteristic of opera seria, but the same never happens in Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così, with which I domeneo is now being compared. And it is of these operas that I domeneo reminds us, rather than of its origins in the archaic style, which, in any event, the work transcends. To go further, I domeneo anticipates Romantic opera, even that of Verdi, in the choruses, the grandeur and complexity of the large ensemble scenes, the emotional extravagance, and the failure of credibility.
Though each piece astonishes more than the one before, none is so immediately indelible as any aria from the later operas, or even from Mozart’s other music of the I domeneo period, such as the Romanza in the Serenade, K. 361. A publicity release in today’s Financial Times states that I domeneo contains Mozart’s “most sublime early music.” But, with Mozart, is twenty-five “early”? By that age he had had extensive experience in the theater, and, while still younger, had attained maturity in almost every kind of instrumental and vocal music.
Circumstances were important in the creation of I domeneo. The role of Idamante, for instance, predominant at the beginning of the opera, becomes less so later because Mozart discovered that the castrato for whom he was writing the music could not render it satisfactorily. Also, the instrumental parts are lapidary even by Mozart’s standards, for the apparent reason that the Munich orchestra was so superior to any that had been placed at his disposal before.
March 12. New York. Reading T.S. Eliot’s early and, with few exceptions, never republished, criticism of prose fiction, I am amazed by his range, genius in making distinctions, and soundness of judgment—this last in contrast to many of his writings about versifying contemporaries (“there are poems by Mr. Herbert Read and Mr. Aldington which endure”;1 “Mr. Frost[‘s]…verse…is uninteresting, and what is uninteresting is unreadable, and what is unreadable is not read”2 ).
Not surprisingly, Eliot places the English Victorian novelists far below Stendhal and Flaubert: “The author of Amos Barton is a more serious writer than Dickens and the author of La Chartreuse de Parme is more serious than either.”3 Yet the critic’s strongest verbal affinities are for Dickens, a primarily “visual writer,”4 who “knew best what [America] looked like, but Whitman knew what it felt like.”5 The identification of The Waste Land’s canceled subtitle “He Do the Police in Different Voices” (from Our Mutual Friend) and of the description of the cat who “will do / As he do do” as an “echo” of “the solid and eternal Podsnap”6 gives new relevance to the well-known remark
Dickens’s figures belong to poetry…in that a single phrase, either by or about them, may be enough to set them wholly before us.7
In the early criticism, Eliot frequently refers to Dickens, observing, for example, that “little Em’ly [is] not nearly so moving to me as the Chancery prisoner in Pickwick,”8 that Henry James’s Mr. Striker (Roderick Hudson) is “too suggestive of Martin Chuzzlewit,”9 and that Henry Adams “remains little Paul Dombey asking questions.”10
Eliot’s taste for detective fiction accounts for his still more extensive writings about Wilkie Collins. The poet reviewed many murder stories during a period when he devoted only one essay to a major novelist, D.H. Lawrence, and this less as literary than as religious and philosophical criticism.11 The explanation for the time that Eliot spent on Paul Bourget’s Lazarine may lie in a subconscious fascination with a plot in which, in fortuitous and undiscoverable circumstances, the hero shoots his estranged wife—the uxoricide theme that emerged later in The Family Reunion. Otherwise, Lazarine is “uninteresting,” Eliot says, for Bourget fails to make us “understand particular feelings at particular moments.” His successful novels derive from the “talent of analysis in company with the talent of curiosity,” but in Lazarine the sense of curiosity has evaporated, and only analysis remains. “With such anatomists as Racine and Stendhal, life has an interest to which analysis is never adequate; there is always something unexplored.”12
Eliot is not attracted to “mysteries,” per se, but to the detectives in them, and to the pitting of his wits against those of an Arsène Lupin, about whom the poet once promised a full study. One of the rules which Eliot adduces for writers of detective fiction is that the sleuth must not be so highly intelligent that we are unable to keep pace with his inferences. Eliot warns, too, that love interest holds up a story, and that the characters need not be fully drawn, the most satisfactory kind being just real enough to make the story work. Also to be avoided are dependence on disguises, bizarre characters and motives, elaborate stage properties and involved mechanical business, the occult (including ghosts), scientific discoveries. As for the last, H.G. Wells’s “triumphs” in science fiction are attributable partly to his scrupulous observance of the limits of the genre.13 It should be noted, too, that though “the literary craftsman is too obviously the manipulator of the scene”14 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Eliot considered Stevenson “a writer of permanent importance…well enough established to survive Mr. Chesterton’s approval.”15
Turning to Sherlock Holmes, and exposing a number of his inconsistencies and illogicalities, Eliot sees him as a mere “formula…not even a very good detective.” What is more, he has no “rich humanity,” no “knowledge of the human heart,” and none of “the reality in any great character in Dickens or Thackeray or George Eliot….” Even so,
Every critic of The Novel who has a theory about the reality of characters…would do well to consider [why] Holmes…is just as real to us as Falstaff or the Wellers.16
But exasperatingly, Eliot reveals neither his own theory about this, nor, in another article,17 the nature of his “doubts” about The Turn of the Screw, though he later referred to “that transfinite world with which Henry James was in such close intercourse.”18 Surely the reality of Holmes, proven by the tourists who still ask directions to Baker Street, is established by the vividness of other characters, such as Dr. Watson and Professor Moriarty, and of the London of gaslights, hansom cabs, and fore-and-aft caps.
In the Lawrence essay, a review of J. Middleton Murry’s mother-complex biography, Son of Woman, Eliot challenges the argument that Lawrence cannot be judged as a pure artist, that this was not his intention, and that “he had an axe to grind.” Eliot’s response is that if Lawrence were not trying to make works of art, he should have been. “The less artist, the less prophet; Isaiah succeeded in being both.” Moreover,
To be a pure artist is by no means incompatible with having “an axe to grind.” Virgil and Dante had plenty of axes on the grindstone; Dickens and George Eliot are often at their best when they are grinding axes…. Unless there was [sic] grinding of axes, there would be very little to write about…. The false prophet kills the true artist.19
The last statement may apply to D.H. Lawrence, but not in general, as Richard Wagner’s life and work illustrate.
Eliot’s assessment of Lawrence’s powers was more fair than the received impression at the time:
He still theorizes…when he should merely see…. But there is one scene in this book [Aaron’s Rod]…in which one feels that the whole is governed by a creator who is purely creator, with the terrifying disinterestedness of the true creator.20
In his last book Aaron’s Rod is found the profoundest research into human nature…by any writer of our generation.21
Not only are there magnificent descriptions…but there are marvelous passages…of dialogue and narrative in which Lawrence really gets out of himself and inside other people…. [In one story, “Two Bluebirds”] he states a situation which no one else has ever put…. [He is a] great tragic figure, a waste of great powers of understanding and tenderness.22
On the other side of the ledger are Lawrence’s sins of egotism and spiritual pride, and his heresy, accusations that Eliot makes while pointing to his own Unitarian background, as if to fend off a charge of bigotry. Furthermore, Lawrence was “ignorant,” a word that Eliot changed to “uneducated” in a later essay in which he elaborates on the novelist’s search for “a religion of power and magic, of control rather than propitiation,” and says that he was “not an artist at all but a man with a sketchbook: his poetry…is only notes for poems.”23 By being “educated,” Eliot writes,
I mean having such an apprehension of the contours of the map of what has been written in the past as to see instinctively where everything belongs, and approximately where everything new is likely to belong; it means, furthermore, being able to allow for the books one has not read and the things one does not understand.24
A desirable condition, but have any except a handful of universal geniuses attained it?
Questions of religion do not enter into Eliot’s earlier criticism of fiction, but their place is taken, to some extent, by his expatriot prejudices, a vantage that provides the main interest in his comments on American writers, and is undoubtedly responsible for the unusual perspectives in his comparisons of French, Russian, and English novelists. In Eliot’s view, the uniquely American qualities are a result of environment:
The granite soil which produced the essential flavor of Hawthorne [is] just as inevitably the environment which stunted him…. Hawthorne, Poe, and Whitman are all pathetic creatures [though not because of] the lack of intelligent literary society, [this being] much more certainly responsible for some of their merits. The originality of these men…was forced out by the starved environment.25
Comparing “Ulalume” with “The Witch of Atlas,” Eliot observes that Poe’s poem is “more creative” than Shelley’s, just as Leaves of Grass is “more creative and original, at least in single lines,” than Browning’s Dramatic Monologues [sic]; and a similar judgment is made in favor of The Scarlet Letter over Adam Bede. The handicap suffered by the Americans is that “their world was thin, [and] worst of all…secondhand…a shadow.”
If some Americans were less than pleased by all of these pronouncements, and by the accompanying gibes at Boston society, many a former fellow-countryman must have been properly indignant on being told that “the essays of Emerson are already an encumbrance,” and that, while Hawthorne “gets New England, as James gets a larger part of America,…none of their respective contemporaries get [sic] anything above a village or two, or a jungle.” So much for Natty Bumppo. Incredibly, the native of Missouri did not read Huckleberry Finn until the 1940s.
Peculiarly American, in Hawthorne and James at any rate, is, in the latter’s phrase, a concern for “the deeper psychology.”
Neither Dickens nor Thackeray, certainly, had the smallest notion of this; George Eliot had a kind of heavy intellect for it…but all her genuine feeling went into the visual realism of Amos Barton.26
And Eliot visualizes her “walking in the garden and denying God as she affirmed the Moral Law with fuliginous solemnity.”27 Whatever the deeper psychology might be, Eliot’s elucidation of it is mystifying, especially in the remark:
Hawthorne grasped character through the relation of two or more persons to each other, and this is what no one else except James has done.
But apart from monologue and pure narrative what other means are there? Eliot’s later criticism of James is almost wholly defensive: 28
His technique has received the kind of praise usually accorded to some useless, ugly and ingenious piece of carving which has taken a long time to make.
And now Eliot says that James was not concerned with the portrayal of character in the usual sense, and blames his critics for failing to understand that “character is only one of the ways in which it is possible to grasp at reality.” James is “no less profound” than Dostoevsky, Eliot concludes, and more pertinent for the present age.
Kipling, Conrad, and Hardy are the novelists among Eliot’s older contemporaries for whom he had the highest regard, and his criticisms of the former, “the greatest master of the short story in English,” extend from an essay written in 1909 to a 1959 address before the Kipling Society. In 1919, Eliot noted that Plain Tales from the Hills paints
the one perfect picture of a society of English, narrow, snobbish, spiteful, ignorant, vulgar, set down absurdly in a continent of which they are unconscious,
an opinion, needless to say, that he did not repeat in his introduction to a selection of Kipling’s verse published during the Second World War.29
Eliot’s first published criticism of any prose fiction was a review of a book on the Wessex novels.30 The article is remarkable for the thematic connections in the statement that the slaughter of Sue Bridehead’s children in Jude is “horror nearer to Cyril Tourneur than to Sophocles,” thereby reminding us not only of the epigraph in the first draft of The Waste Land, Conrad’s “…’The horror! The horror!,”‘ but also of Sweeney/Agamemnon’s cry. Years later Eliot wrote that “in a world without meaning there can still be horror, but not tragedy,” since tragedy “belongs to a world in which right and wrong, and the soul and its destiny, are still the most important things.”31
In later life, Eliot found the philosophy of Hardy’s blank verse poems “uncongenial.”32 and criticized the novels, saying, for example, that a scene in Far from the Madding Crowd is “deliberately faked.” But at the time of Hardy’s death, Eliot wrote that “if any man was ever worthy to be buried in the Abbey on grounds of literary greatness alone, [it is] the author of The Dynasts, The Mayor of Casterbridge [“his finest novel as a whole”], and A Group of Noble Dames.”33
Eliot’s kinship among the Russians was with Turgenev, first as a writer living abroad—
[Turgenev’s grasp of] the uniformity of human nature [and his] interest in its variations made [him] cosmopolitan and made him a critic. He did not acquire these two qualities in Paris, he brought them with him—
and, second, in artistic philosophy, Turgenev’s “vigilant but never theoretic intelligence,” the “austere art of omission” which in the end may prove “most satisfying to the civilized mind.” Turgenev’s form par excellence is the conte, not the novel, for he
could not get lost in a character,34 could not become possessed by the illusion that any particular creation was, for the time being, the center of the universe. His detail, therefore, is not that of the exaggeration of the trivial in an abnormally stimulated consciousness, but really a way of setting the balance right. Hence the importance of frequent interruptions of external nature, and interruption always comes to correct the seriousness of life with the seriousness of art. 35
Even with Dostoevsky, and in contrast to Balzac, the
most successful, most imaginative flights are projections, continuations of the actual, the observed…. Dostoevsky’s…point of departure…is a human brain in a human environment….36
But Dostoevsky had
the gift, a sign of genius in itself, for utilizing his weakness; so that epilepsy and hysteria cease to be the defects of an individual and become…the entrance to a genuine and personal universe. I do not suppose that Dostoevsky’s struggles were fundamentally alien to Flaubert’s.37
Eliot observes that Dostoevsky is an especially dangerous model, for his “method is only permissible if you see things the way that Dostoevsky saw them.”38
Perhaps Eliot’s most perceptive remarks about the art of fiction are those found in “Beyle and Balzac.”39 Attacking Victor Hugo’s description of the Comédie humaine as “the union of imagination with observation,” Eliot maintains that “the greatest artists do not bring these two together,” and that in Balzac the combination produces little more than an “aura.” With Balzac,
the fantastic element…is not an extension of reality…. Balzac, relying upon atmosphere, is capable of evading an issue. The greatest novelists dispense with atmosphere. Beyle and Flaubert strip the world;40 and they were men of far more than the common intensity of feeling, of passion. It is this intensity…and consequent discontent with the inevitable inadequacy of actual living to the passionate capacity which drove them to art….
This is the familiar “impersonality” creed of Eliot, the most personal and autobiographical of poets, and the reader is hardly surprised to learn that “a great part of the superiority of Beyle and Flaubert to Balzac [is] the exposure, the dissociation of human feeling.”
August 17, 1978
The Dial, March 1921. ↩
The Dial, May 1922. ↩
The Dial, December 1920. ↩
Vanity Fair, July 1923. ↩
The Nation and Athenaeum, December 18, 1926. ↩
The Dial, April 1921. ↩
TLS, August 4, 1927. ↩
Preface to Bubu of Montparnasse, 1932. ↩
Little Review, August 1918. ↩
Athenaeum, May 23, 1919. ↩
Eliot’s analysis of Lawrence as a novelist, of “ses romans splendides et extrêmement mal écrits,” was published in La Nouvelle Revue Française, May 1, 1927, but is not quoted here since to translate the poet’s French would be an impertinence. What should be remarked is the article’s clairvoyant prediction: “[M. Huxley a] un talent pour ‘l’assimilation rapide de tout ce qui n’est pas essentiel et par le don du chic. Or le don du chic, combiné avec le désir du sérieux, donne ce monstre redoutable; une religiosité chic. C’est là ce que l’on doit craindre pour M. Huxley.” ↩
New Statesman, August 27, 1917. ↩
Criterion, June 1927. ↩
Introduction to All Hallow’s Eve, 1948. ↩
The Nation and Athenaeum, December 31, 1927. ↩
Criterion, June 1927. ↩
Little Review, August 1918. ↩
The Dial, August 1922. ↩
Criterion, July 1931. ↩
The Dial, August 1922. Cf. “What gives [Machiavelli’s] book its terrifying greatness is the fact that he does not seem to care” (Twentieth Century Verse, November/December 1937). ↩
Vanity Fair, July 1923. ↩
Criterion, July 1931. ↩
Revelation (1937). ↩
Ibid. A decade earlier, Eliot had written that “by education I do not mean erudition but a kind of mental and moral discipline” (The Nation and Athenaeum, September 17, 1927). ↩
Little Review, August 1918. ↩
Athenaeum, May 9, 1919. ↩
The Nation, March 23, 1918. In the Introduction to his mother’s poem “Savonarola” (1926), Eliot said of Romola that “unless George Eliot’s novel gave a faithful presentation of Romola’s time to George Eliot’s contemporaries, it would have little to say to us about George Eliot’s time.” ↩
Vanity Fair, February 1924. ↩
Eliot’s reply to Lionel Trilling on “Kipling’s Anti-Semitism” (Nation, January 15, 1944) contains the astonishing remark, “I am not aware that [Kipling] cherished any particularly anti-Semitic feelings.” ↩
Manchester Guardian, June 23, 1916. ↩
The Listener, September 18, 1941. ↩
Soltire Review, Summer 1957. ↩
Criterion, March 1928. ↩
Had Eliot read A House of Gentle Folk? ↩
The Egoist, December 1917. ↩
Athenaeum, May 30, 1919. ↩
The Dial, August 1922. ↩
Athenaeum, May 30, 1919. ↩
Elsewhere, Eliot quotes Gourmont—”la vie est un dépóuillement“—and adds that “to be free we must be stripped like the sea-god Glaucus” (Time and Tide, January 19, 1935). ↩