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Trick Perspectives

ISSUE:  Autumn 1944

In the last book of “Remembrance of Things Past,” the one entitled “The Past Recaptured,” Marcel Proust tells us how, after many painful years of hesitation, he was finally able to write his long autobiographical novel. He was staying in the country with friends who lent him their copy of the unpublished manuscript journal of the Goncourt brothers. Reading it, Proust was fascinated by the charm and intelligence of the many people whom the Goncourt brothers describe; and he began to wonder why, in his own social life, he had never been privileged to meet such delightful friends. Then it suddenly dawned on him that many of these fascinating friends of the Goncourt brothers were people whom he himself had known for many years and had always found vulgar, dull, and insignificant. And slowly he began to understand how tricks of memory and art can transform our dullest experiences, raising the insignificant to a level where, no longer present, it acquires a new significance.

Proust himself, some years after his death, was the victim of several of these tricks of memory, in the minds of others. An elderly Egyptian banker, for instance, had for many years tried to crash Paris society, living several months every year at the Hotel Ritz. One day in the twenties, he invited a nephew to lunch, a young Egyptian who was studying at the Sorbonne. Bored, the old uncle asked the younger man a few polite questions about his studies; and the student replied that he was writing a book on Marcel Proust. “Who’s that?” asked the uncle. “The greatest writer of our times,” the nephew answered. The uncle then remembered that he had once known a man called Proust, “that man Proust who always used to hang around here at the Ritz.” The nephew at once explained that “that man Proust” was indeed the same person as the great novelist. “But I was an intimate friend of his,” the uncle exclaimed, and then related how, for many years, Marcel Proust had vaguely planned to spend a winter in Egypt. “In fact, I had invited him to stay at my home in Alexandria, and he wrote me hundreds of letters about this trip that never materialized. I must still have all those letters in my desk in Alexandria.” The nephew explained that these old letters were now valuable literary documents; and at the earliest opportunity, the old man travelled back to Egypt, ransacked the whole house in search of Proust’s letters, never found them and fired his wdiole staff of servants, accusing them all of having stolen the priceless lost letters. But in the ensuing years, as a personal friend of the great dead writer Marcel Proust, the old Egyptian banker, with his anecdotes of “that man Proust of the Ritz,” finally became a prominent figure in the very best Paris society which he had spent so many years vainly trying to crash.

My own meeting with Marcel Proust was even more shadowy than the Egyptian banker’s; in fact, I have never sincerely been able to believe that it was actually Marcel Proust whom I met. Still, I have it on fairly reliable authority that I did meet Proust; and I really remember meeting an odd and haggard man who may easily have been the author of “Remembrance of Things Past.”

As a child, I suffered from a series of odd complaints which, many years later, became popularly known as allergic, as if a new name for an old devil were enough to exorcise him. Rashes would suddenly appear on my skin, or sudden swellings of the lips and even, at times, of the whole face; and there were moments when I experienced grave difficulty in mere breathing. My parents took me from physician to physician until, when I was nine or ten years old, I found myself one day consulting an eminent Paris practitioner who began by questioning me even more carefully than his colleagues had done before. On my second visit to his office. I was introduced to one of his other patients, a pale, fragile man with deep-set dark eyes and a greying skin, who spoke to me with extreme politeness, describing the symptoms of his own malady and questioning me with an odd insistence about mine. While we were thus discussing our ills, our physician listened carefully, comparing our various symptoms. My co-sufferer, at the time, did not impress me very much; it was only later that I understood how much he had helped me, an inexperienced child, to describe my sufferings accurately, by describing all his own in detail and, each time, asking me whether I had experienced the same pain.

Some ten years later, I was still being treated by the same physician wdio, one day that I was in bed with grippe, came to visit me and found me reading Proust’s novel. My physician admitted to me that he had never enjoyed Proust enough to read more than the first volume, and that he had always found Proust, as patient and friend, a rather cranky bore. Then he added: “If you had met him again and got to know him better, I doubt whether you would be as fascinated by his writings now.”

“Met him again?”

“Yes . . . Surely you remember meeting him in my office when I brought you together to compare your symptoms.”

I was amazed, remembering suddenly the pale fragile man, his deep-set eyes and greying skin, his extreme politeness and insistent questioning. Had this man indeed been Marcel Proust? Then began, for me, my years of doubt. Neither my mother nor mv father could remember having met Proust in the doctor’s office. Yes. they had been present on that occasion, and they remembered meeting another patient who had discussed my symptoms with the physician and compared them with his own. Rut they could not remember who this patient was; and had he been a great writer, they surely would have remembered some outstanding peculiarity of his character. And thus, for many years, I felt sure that my physician had been mistaken. He had probably confused several memories. He had indeed introduced me to one of his patients, and I could remember that, Rut it had perhaps been some third patient, now confused with Proust in his memory, and he had perhaps really introduced Proust not to me but to some other asthmatic child. It was only many years later that another story of another man’s meeting with Proust raised the whole problem again, adding more probability to my own meeting.

By that time, I was twenty-nine, a graduate student al the University of Chicago. One of my professors was the great Italian critic, G. A. Borgese, who, disappointed with our age for various reasons, had adopted a slightly hostile attitude towards much modern literature and often scoffed, in a friendly way, at my admiration for Proust, Gide, Eliot, and several other masters of my generation. And one evening, as we dined together and I, as usual, was insisting that Proust was one of the greatest novelists of all times, Borgese told me the following anecdote.

On his frequent trips to Paris before and during the last war, Borgese had met most of France’s leading writers and had been a frequent guest in all of the important literary salons of Paris. He thus received review-copies of many New French books, all dedicated and autographed by the authors, as is the custom in France. One day, he received a new novel that bore a particularly lengthy, intricate, and flattering inscription, signed by the author: Marcel Proust, But Borgese could not remember ever having met any writer of that name; so he put the book aside and forgot about it until, some months later, he chanced to find it again and began reading it. Immediately, he was struck by its peculiarities; again, he read the inscription which, cordial though it was, still suggested to him no face, no literary reputation.

He decided to solve the problem on his next trip to Paris and, a few weeks later, finding himself again in one of the familiar salons, Horgese questioned his hostess about “that man Proust.” Who was he? When and how could he, Borgese, have met this unknown new writer? The lady laughed: “Why, don’t you remember Marcel, the pale dark man who always used to come here with so-and-so?” At once Borgese remembered a really insignificant fellow, an insufferable snob whose lengthy anecdotes about uninteresting socialites and whose extreme politeness had always marked him as an alien in this literary crowd.

The great thinker or the great writer is generally an alien in our midst, a visitor from another world, the world of philosophy or of art. Often, like the albatross, so regal in its flight, he is grotesque and ungainly on terra firma. Often, too, he is painfully aware of his not being of our world and he then carefully tries to disguise himself by acting, while in our Rome, exactly as he thinks we Romans do. Then he seems unutterably conventional, quite servile in his ritualistic politeness, completely superficial in his elaborate avoidance of any significant or controversial topic. Like Lazarus returned from the grave, he knows too much; and he is careful not to disturb us with his painful knowledge, lest he rouse the ignorant to contradict him, and lest he then be forced to display his authority in a manner which would embarrass both him and his listeners. And this modesty of the truly great, in ethics or in art, is one of the reasons why, in a world that responds to publicity, the saint, the thinker, or the artist rarely achieves the same prestige as the politician or the “business genius,” both of whom live and act in relative worlds of the expedient rather than in absolute worlds of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

I was able to observe this modesty of the truly great and its confusing effects on another occasion, and then again only in retrospect.

As soon as the last war was over, in 1919, my mother put into effect a long-cherished plan, that of sending me away from our home in France to a preparatory school in England, in order to lick me into the shape of the traditional English gentleman. Thus I came first to Elstree school, from which I graduated in time to Charterhouse and thence to Balliol College, Oxford. My reactions to these institutions left me a permanent distaste for almost everything British and the material for several Kafka-like novels, should I ever have the courage to plunge back into the remembered horror of it all.

Elstree school, before the post-war fungoid growth of London’s northern suburbs, was set in an entirely rural landscape, about an hour by car from Hyde Park. The school was built on a hill and one reached it by the old Roman road known as Watling Street, still one of England’s busiest traffic-routes. On one side of Watling Street stood the school buildings, a cluster of dormitory-wings, class-rooms, and various annexes built around a central manor-house, an old brick building of the seventeenth century; on the other side, the chapel and the playing-fields, which one reached, without crossing Watling Street, by a tunnel leading from the school yard on one side to the fields on the other. From the school, the view was truly delightful: beyond Watling Street bordered by tall century-old trees, the broad green playing-fields, then sloping meadows, crazily divided by hedges, down to a large artificial lake, a reservoir beyond which the meadows rose again in gently curving hills, Far to the left, the land was more even, forming a broad valley; and there, in the meadows, an odd ruin marked the presumed site of the Battle of Potter’s Bar, where the Romans had defeated Boadicea, that almost legendary British queen.

This was the setting of my second remembered encounter with genius. Elstree school is, so to speak, a family business. Before my day, Launcelot Sanderson had been its head-master; when I came, his son Edward presided over the school’s fortunes; today, Edward’s son carries on the tradition. Three generations of handsome, tall Scottish gentlemen, all polished classical scholars, with their charming manners and elegant intellectual tastes, had thus perpetuated the standards of the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth. And each generation had, at one time or another, been to sea; in my time, the youngest was still an officer in the Royal Navy.

On Saturday afternoons in summer, visitors at the school were numerous: parents of the boys or friends of the Sanderson family. One Saturday in the summer of 1920, some circumstance had kept me away from the playing-fields where the rest of the school was playing cricket; and I happened to be crossing the entrance-hall, on my way from the music-room to the main class-room building, when the headmaster saw me, called me, and introduced me to an elderly bearded gentleman: “Mr. Conrad always enjoys speaking French. Will you be kind enough, Roditi, to keep him company while I attend to business with some other visitors?” And so, for a full hour, I walked round and round the cricket-field and spoke French to Joseph Conrad, an old friend of the Sanderson family, while the head-master entertained some boy’s parents.

I was then barely ten years old, and my acquaintance with great literature was limited, more or less, to Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare,” Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So Stories,” Caesar’s “De Bello Gallico” (my text-book in third-year Latin), and a few poems from class-room anthologies:

Lars Porsena of Clusium,

By the nine Gods he swore. . . .

I had never heard of Joseph Conrad, and it was not till some months later that I began reading his novels. As I walked and talked with him, I had no idea, at first, that I was even with a writer; and when he told me that he wrote books, I was not particularly impressed, for my interest in literature revealed itself only a year or two later, when in fourth-year Latin I began to translate passages of Motley’s “Dutch Republic” into Latin and, at the age of eleven, was first exposed to the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta . ,.

Conrad then had only four more years to live. He was a gentle, tired man. In his conversation with me, he asked me many questions about my family background and repeatedly told me how fortunate I was to know three languages (in those days I spoke Spanish, an almost lost accomplishment now, as well as English and French), and recounted to me various anecdotes from his own polyglot youth. But a child remembers only those experiences which caused him great pleasure or extreme pain; and I was still far too young to experience delight in the confessions of a literary man, so that I retained very little of Conrad’s conversation. He spoke French rather slowly, with a slight foreign accent and infinite care in the selection of his words, and one topic of his conversation has survived in my mind, looming ever larger as the rest recedes ever further into the dim past: tactfully, always indirectly, and as if afraid to arouse in me false ambitions and hopes, Conrad questioned me about my studies and hobbies and vaguely suggested that I might, some day, with my knowledge of languages and mere language, follow the path that he himself had followed and thus become a writer.

Some weeks later, one of my instructors (we called them masters) mentioned to me that he had seen me walking round the playing-field with Joseph Conrad; and when I appeared unimpressed, he explained to me how privileged I had been. I at once began reading “Lord Jim.” But never, in all my subsequent readings of Conrad, have I at all succeeded in detecting the modest and kindly old gentleman with whom I spent a summer afternoon, or in recapturing the essence of that conversation. My memories of Conrad have nothing to do with his writings; they belong to an entirely different cycle of experiences, that of my school years, as distinct from literature, which I later used as an escape from them, as the cycle of Arthurian legends is, in medieval romance, from the cycle of Roland and his paladins.

I was nineteen when the problem that these two meetings raised, the one with Proust and the other with Conrad, first became acute in my mind. As soon as my physician revealed to me that he had once introduced me to Proust, I began wondering why my brief acquaintance with these two famous writers had failed to leave any vivid impressions on me; and I blamed myself for having been too ignorant of their writings, at the time, to have been able to make the most of such unique opportunities or even to detect, in what had seemed to be very ordinary conversations, the unmistakable mark of real genius. For a couple of years, I was frequently worried by this delayed disappointment; and I even began to wonder whether I had ever actually met the real Proust and the real Conrad. Perhaps these reminders, from third persons who had apparently seen me in the company of the great, were mere illusion and gossip; perhaps indeed, the two men whom I had met had really been quite undistinguished persons whom my physician and my instructor, through some slip of the memory, had mistaken for Proust and Conrad. Then, in 1931, a third experience came to confirm the probability of the two earlier meetings by explaining quite clearly the phenomenon of vague disappointment.

I was then living in London, in furnished rooms at 111 Ebury Street, rooms which had once been those of Noel Coward, before his successes had allowed him to move to more splendid quarters. In England, it seems, nearly everybody, sooner or later, lives in rooms on Ebury Street, as was once explained to an old friend of mine, when she was still a child, by no lesser an authority than Henry James. Her parents were at that time moving from one elegant home in Relgravia to another; and during the transition, the whole family had been parked for a week in furnished rooms on Ebury Street, Henry James, a friend of the parents, chanced to call there and found the children very much distressed by the shabby appearance of their temporary home. In didactic tones, he explained to them that Ebury Street was a necessary and unavoidable experience in the process of growing up, and that everybody, sooner or later, came to live in such rooms. And thus it happened that I too was subjected to this experience. And one day, while I was living there, I received a letter from a friend, a young American “expatriate” writer in Paris, the author of a very odd work on the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, who pointed out to me that George Moore lived only a few doors away from my house, at 121 Ebury Street. Would I be kind enough, if my friend sent me some books, to call on Moore and ask him to autograph them? I wrote back that I would gladly accomplish the errand. And this time, I made up my mind to be fully prepared for the meeting with the great man. I bought “The Confessions of a Young Man,” “Esther Waters,” “The Brook Kerith,” “The Mummer’s Wife,” and “Impressions and Opinions” and read them very carefully. Then, one day, feeling fully armed and prepared, I called on the great man with my friend’s two books, “The Confessions” and, I believe, “Esther Waters.” But Moore was out, that afternoon, so I left the books in the hands of his elderly maidservant and returned to my rooms where I carefully penned a brief letter, explaining the nature of my errand, which I at once mailed to Moore. A week went by without any reply; two weeks later, determined at least to retrieve my friend’s two books, I called again.

This time I was more fortunate. Moore himself answered the bell and opened the door, an incredibly old and fragile man with quick, nervous gestures and a petulant tone. Stammering, I began to explain who I was, why I had come: “I’m the young man who …” But Moore would not let me finish my sentence: “Yes, of course, you’re the young man come to fetch the umbrella I borrowed the other day at Lady Ottoline’s. Please wait a minute while I fetch it.”

And without waiting to hear wdiat I had to say, George Moore disappeared forthwith, a figure of spun glass animated by sheer impatience, leaving me in the narrow entrance-hall of 121 Ebury Street, with the street-door still open behind me. When he returned with the unwanted umbrella, I was at last able to explain to him who I really was and why I had come. At that, he became really angry and began to rant against importunate young scribblers who never hesitate to disturb their distinguished elders. With desperate politeness, I replied that such visits as mine were part of the routine of glory; if this homage were really unwanted, he should long ago have avoided writing the kind of book that was bound to inspire it.

The great man softened, but only enough to lead me to a room which I presumed, from the presence of a desk, to be his study. He left me standing close to the door, with my overcoat still on and my hat in my hand, while he rushed to the desk and rapidly signed my friend’s two books which had apparently lain there, under a growing pile of unanswered mail, ever since I had delivered them two weeks earlier. I was so embarrassed by George Moore’s manner—he had not offered me a chair, far less any refreshment, but left me standing there like a laundryman awaiting payment—, that I scarcely had enough presence of mind to examine carefully the room where so much famous prose had presumably been written.

Some twelve years later, however, I chanced upon an autobiographical fragment by the great English painter Augustus John, published in a London magazine. And the following passage brought to life in my mind the long dormant visual impressions of that room which, as in an undeveloped photographic negative, had remained invisible all these years: “Moore was such an extraordinary character that it was worth partaking of his extremely meagre hospitality at Ebury Street merely to watch his behaviour and listen to his discourse. His sparse collection of second-rate pictures (by good painters), his Aubusson carpet upstairs, his half-bottle of sour wine, all made a proper setting for the grotesque figure in the foreground who with such honesty, love and naivete, expounded his views on literature and sex.”

The second-rate pictures I had indeed seen, but had not even suspected that they might be the work of first-rate impressionist painters. Of the half-bottle of sour wine and the views on literature and sex, I had apparently been deemed unworthy. Instead, as Moore rapidly signed the two volumes, I was treated to a brief fugue of irate but unintelligible mutterings and mumblings. As soon as the books were signed, they were pushed into my hands and I was at once bundled unceremoniously out of the study and back to the sidewalk of Ebury Street, with nothing to cherish but the memory of my own acute discomfort, of this brittle old man’s bad temper, and of a decor of faded flowered chintz slip-covers such as I had seen in a hundred other English “studies,” including that of my god-father, a general, and those of several very uninteresting retired civil servants or city solicitors.

Rut I had learned something: writers should be read but not seen. For they give us all the best of themselves in their writings rather than in their appearance, their behavior, and their life. Their life, indeed, can help us to understand their works only if we have previously read the latter very thoroughly and can already interpret what we learn of the life in terms of the writings, and not vice versa. Flaubert once remarked: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Rut “Madame Bovary” remains a far more fascinating book than any biography of Flaubert, and teaches us more about its author than the author’s life does about his work. A careful reading of Byron’s “Manfred” will still teach us more about the glamorous poet’s true self than any biography; and the real Byron, revealed in “Manfred,” is far more complex and difficult to visualize or understand than any posthumous portrait by Maurois, so that today there are generally more readers for the easy biography than for the difficult works.

In his life, the great writer, however odd, is still very much like his readers, a mere creature of flesh and blood, a political equal and a common man; but in his works, he is unique, almost a god. And just as in the myth of Amphitryon the visiting god was mistaken for a mere husband, so the genius in our midst can easily be mistaken for a very ordinary citizen; whereas a far less creative mind can leave on us a more lasting impression or, transmuted into art, can become a far more fascinating character. All this became very clear to me a few months after my first meeting with George Moore, when I met Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I had then published a few poems and book-reviews in some of the better English periodicals, and this minor success earned me, for a while, the great honor of being a frequent guest at Lady Ottoline’s weekly tea-parties. There I regularly met such titans as T. S. Eliot, Sturge Moore, and James Stephens. George Moore was also there twice when I was present, but he never recognized me and I had been far too humiliated to remind him of our first unfortunate meeting, and of the umbrella which he had thought that I had come to fetch, at a time when I did not even know who Lady Ottoline was. The ghosts of D. H. Lawrence and Henry James still hovered around the tea-table as wc sat where they had both been such frequent guests; and the walls of the room were covered with some of the best works of Augustus John, James Pride, Sickert, and other excellent English painters, several of whom I also met at these weekly gatherings.

But Lady Ottoline herself was always by far the most fascinating person there, as fascinating, one might say with all due respect, as Proust’s Madame Verdurin is today to his readers, however little Proust himself may have been faseinated by her original in real life. For Lady Ottoline’s life and manner were her art, and one could not easily imag-ine anyone’s being as she was except as a result of sheer creative will. She seemed to have come to this Bloomsburv tea-table straight from the porch of Chartres cathedral, for her proportions were exactly those of its tall gothic figures, with their narrow bodies and long limbs. And when she moved, another age of history came to life: her gestures were still courtly in a medieval way, but they were less austere than the style of Chartres, more flamboyant in the fourteenth-century Burgundian style. At times, too, she skipped the whole Renaissance period in her excitement, and suddenly became baroque, leading the conversation in a sort of stately pavane. For if she felt that one of her guests was talking too much or not quite brilliantly enough, she would draw herself up to her full height, at the head of the table, extend a long arm and flutter a perfumed handkerchief in the direction of another guest whom she questioned graciously but imperiously on some new topic. And when she spoke, it was in the languid style of the sentimental eighteenth century or of the Regency period, though her ideas were generally those of the late nineteenth century, from Ruskin and William Morris to Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The metaphysical poet Francis Quarlcs once described Adam as resuming, within his one body, all the future human race. For me, Lady Ottoline thus resumed the whole past of English culture, from the Anglo-Norman period right up to my own age. And none of her famous guests ever fascinated me as much as she did. Indeed, Lady Ottoline’s personality and her tea-parties were her art, and every great man that ever attended them was no longer a creator, as he sat there or spoke, nor even a subject, but only a touch of color or a word, something out of her vocabulary or off her palette, into which only she infused life, intelligence, and beauty.


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