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Arnold Bennett

[clock] 7-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Autumn 1932

The Journal of Arnold Bennett, 1896-1910. New York: The Viking Press. $4.00. My Arnold Bennett. By Marguerite, his wife. New York: E). P. Dut-ton and Company. $2.75. Stroke of Luck and Dream of Destiny, An Unfinished Novel. By Arnold Bennett. Garden City: Doubleday, Doran and Company. $2.50.

He was a man whose whole life was bound up with his art, but there was not a trace of self-abnegation in his attitude towards it. “An artist works only to satisfy himself, and for the applause and appreciation neither of his fellows alive nor his fellows yet unborn.” But he was not always the artist. He was capable of “Clayhanger,” of “The Old Wives’ Tale,” yet he could put his name at the end of a score of “potboilers,” of “pocket philosophies” fit only for the Sunday supplements of Mr. Hearst’s incomparable newspapers. The paradox evident in his work traces itself back, in these new volumes, to a paradox in his life. Mrs. Bennett speaks truly of “the real man in him; the man of modest, simple needs, fighting for luxury, change of scenery and surroundings, wanting lots of money, otherwise ‘brass,’ in the language of the Five Towns—the ambitious man whose ambition had no limitation; the man capable of being spoilt by success and flattery, if he were not careful; the man who had to be backed up by honest and sentimental people, so as to allow the artificial man to ‘get there’ for certain!” We see him observing, analyzing minutely, scrutinizing life itself as hungrily as a journalist in search of “copy.” “His constant object was to get out of life, out of people, what could be got—toward the one end, his work.” His own words illustrate perfectly: “Walking from the Trocadero to the Bois de Boulogne, and so to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees, I search for the formula which should express Paris—in vain.”

He analyzes his work, praises it, condemns it, compares its qualities and its defects with those observable in the writings of others. Re-reading “Buried Alive,” he is immensely entertained. “I don’t think I have ever read a funnier book than this.” He aspires towards a higher plane than he has yet arrived at. He wants “a lofty nobility” in “The Old Wives’ Tale.” He finds “a Christ-like, all-embracing compassion” to be the “essential characteristic of the really great novelist.” But his appreciation is by no means confined to the kind of thing he can do himself. He finds “Peter Pan” “a work of sheer genius,” “the finest modern work for the English stage,” though he calls “What Every Woman Knows” “putridity,” “a despicable piece.” Some of his judgments are, naturally, erratic. In “Vathek” he finds “superb imagination, and superb irony, and superb style.” He cannot endure Galsworthy’s splendid novel, “Fraternity.” And, like Shaw, he fails utterly to penetrate the disgusting absurdities of Frank Harris’s book on Shakespeare.

He labors industriously at self-improvement. He puts himself through a course of reading in science and in philosophy. “I have just finished reading Norman Lockyer’s ‘Primer of Astronomy’ and I now understand sundry things I didn’t understand before.” He tries to improve his more personal aspects also. “It is humiliating that I cannot get through one single day without wounding or lightly abrading the sensibility of others, without wasting time and brainpower on thoughts that I do not desire to think, without yielding to appetites that I despise! I am so wrapped up in myself that I, if any one, ought to succeed in a relative self-perfection.” Perhaps that was why he did not succeed. In almost the next sentence he writes: “I have none of that scorn of inferior people . . . which is seen in many great men.”

Through it all one gets the impression of a terribly self-centered personality. Perhaps the artist is necessarily self-centered, though I cannot believe that Shakespeare was. There have been artists like Dante, like Milton, whom it would be absurd to call selfish in the usual sense of the term because, colossal as their egos were, they yet consecrated themselves and all their pride of art and pride of soul to something for which, in the final analysis, their inmost spirits cared immensely more than they cared for self or for art or for any other thing on the earth below or in the heavens above it. And there have been artists, like Shelley and like Keats, who, if they never achieved quite the magnificently integrating splendor of a Miltonian Weltanschauung, must yet have understood, as Arnold Bennett could never have understood, Miss Cather’s fine description of the artist as one who “fades away into the land and the people of his heart,” who “dies of love only to be born again.”

Perhaps it is not fair to Bennett to compare him with the giants. Yet on this score he can hardly stand comparison with his own contemporaries—with Galsworthy, with Shaw, and with Wells. Shaw and Wells have, to be sure, watched the shekels as carefully as Bennett himself watched them, yet neither ever defined his goal in terms of personal ambition. Bennett was not a selfish man in the baser sense of the term. He was capable of fine generosity; he was capable of being moved by quite impersonal considerations; his attitude towards his family was, in a very business-like fashion, thoroughly thoughtful and humane. Yet he tells us how he was writing in his office one day in 1897 when the report came in that a man had been killed in the street below, and he calmly continued writing. “The thing had happened within a few feet of me, and I had not troubled even to open my window and look out into the street. Only the catch in Miss Evor’s voice as she spoke to me gave warning that not everyone was unmoved.” And certainly he was exquisitely selfish towards his wife, who was thoroughly devoted to him, who unselfishly subordinated herself to his needs and his caprices all through their married life, yet whom he repudiated long before the end.

Arnold Bennett’s ideals in art and in life were never such as to encourage the development in him of what strong-minded persons refer to as sentimentalism. On the contrary, he hated sentiment and feared it, shied from it so conscientiously that it is evident that he felt—felt and stifled—immense possibilities within himself along that line. The genial tradition of English letters meant little to him, nor was he on terms of familiarity with the great literary monuments of the continent. Instead he modeled his work on that of a little group of moderns—Maupassant, Turgenev, Flaubert, the Goncourts, and others—with a definite interest in structure and something approximating a naturalistic attitude towards life. To these he added Spencer’s “First Principles” which, in his own opinion, had altered his whole view of life. “You can see ‘First Principles’ in nearly every line I write.”

Probably he was as great an artist as a man can be without religion, and the measure of his greatness is to be found in his straining against the limitations he so needlessly imposed upon himself. The Goncourts could not satisfy all of him. When he attended the funeral of his sister’s fiance, he felt that had they been in his place, the Goncourts “would have noted every item of it, and particularly watched themselves.” He adds, “I had intended to do as much, but the various incidental distractions proved too strong for my resolution.” He had nothing of the mystic in him. In a moment of illumination he declares that “there is no such thing as ugliness in the world,” but this is as far as he gets. Yet he holds out against Christianity as he holds out against what he thinks of as sentimentalism, and his wife was probably right in her feeling that he might have made a very good Christian if he had only been willing to let himself go. He is as far from Dreiser as he is from Dickens.

There are more than a million words in the notebooks Arnold Bennett left behind him when he died. The present large volume will be followed by two others of equal size. Mrs. Bennett’s little book is intimate and deeply pathetic. The new volume of fiction is not important, though there is some good character-drawing in “Stroke of Luck.” “Dream of Destiny,” as far as it goes, is all on the surface.


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