§ “What the Hell?” by Peter Chamberlain. (1935)
A caricature of a rich asshole.
I got some links I've never seen bettered, platinum and pearl they are, with a set of studs to match. The tops screw in. I only got two left now, a prostitute pinched one, the bitch! Not that it makes any odds 'cos my shirts, they're specially made for me, show only two studs, see?
So I like to arrange them all on the dressing-room table with my ivory hair-brushes before I go to bed.
Chamberlain lets the guy run on like this for two pages, then applies the coup de grace with the last sentence.
Yes, I’ve got pretty everything I want. Well, then? Well, then? What the sweet Hell?
Chamberlain was a member of the Birmingham Group, whose aim roughly was to produce proletarian literature – such as this piece, if you think about it.
Unlike other members of the Group, Chamberlain was upper crust and had gone to an elite public school. He redeemed himself by becoming a “notable motorcycle journalist” (Wikipedia) and the author of a novel about the motor racing set in Birmingham and the Isle of Man.
Note that Chamberlain’s capitalist ogre is nouveau riche. My guess is that, Marxist or not, Chamberlain would not have been as scathing about old money.
§ “Private Views” by Stevie Smith (1938)
A review of the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art.
Smith is at her most virtuosic making fun of the bourgeois (though she would never use the term – too gauche) who have come to see the pictures.
So that, sitting on this elegantly buttoned leather sofa in Room III, we know again the soft moment of excitement when the rather queer dress was taken from the wardrobe, and the queer hat was placed at an incorrect angle to the face, that is for to-day slightly made-up (this is delicious, this quite wrong, distressing, funny maquillage that makes the women look a little too bold for their candid eyes). There is one lady who has a white lace arrangement that cascades from the crown of her hat across and beyond the wide brim, falling in a soft movement of a very good lace over her left eye, so that the remaining one eye, forced into contrasting prominence to do the work for two, holds and repels enquiry from anxious friends.
About the exhibition itself, Smith is more earnestly – therefore, less convincingly – biting.
... we have no special quarrel that Matisse, Picasso, Dali, are not here; but how disappointed we may feel that among the fine soldiers on the wall there is no hint of Goya's Wellington, among the grey landscapes no thought for Corot, and among the genre pictures no rhinoceros watched by Venetian ladies. Des fesses et des tétons? [Buttocks and tits] Among the nudes there is absolutely no sense of this, therefore no sense at all.
§ “Matisse and Picasso” by Clive Bell. (1933)
I put it forward as a hypothesis, and as nothing more, that what the journeyman, be he tinker, tailor, toy-maker or housepainter, but be he ever so little individual and an artist, is crudely and unconsciously manifesting, Picasso is trying to express deliberately, in full and perfect consciousness, and with exquisite delicacy. It is the complete consciousness that gives the touch of cynicism. He is trying to express his sense of such idiosyncrasy and oddity as has adhered, parasitewise, to our uniform and machine-ridden civilization. Matisse, meanwhile, is painting rapturously, as a bird sings, in the ageless garden of the French tradition. Probably, because he has founded no school, he will be admired by future generations — and he will be admired as long as painting is enjoyed — as the last of the great Impressionists.
§ “Light on the Bourgeoisie” by Robert Lynd. (1933)
Of course, there was a limit to how far each individual Brit would go for Marxism. For Lynd, the Russians reached that limit by arresting English gentlemen to be coerced and then convicted in the Moscow show trials, and by holding their class against them.
The English gentlemen were engineers and administrators employed by a British firm contracted to help build electric power generation plants. Russia’s great power generation project of the 1930’s was intended to prove that labor, politically inspired and unshackled from capitalism, could outdo itself in production capacity. When the construction projects ran into delays, Stalin blamed foreign saboteurs.
Lynd has a deft touch with irony. It slithers around his sentences like a snake in grass.
I hope no one will think I am defending the immorality of the rich... I am merely doing my best to point out that from the Machiavellian point of view there is something to be said for them. And in estimating their guilt it should always be remembered that many of them had not the advantage of having been brought up in an atmosphere of proletarian morality. Even one of the lawyers at the Moscow trial recognized the fact that a man who had not been brought up in true proletarian surroundings could not be expected to behave perfectly. Mac-Donald's counsel put forward the extenuating plea that the prisoner's lameness as a boy had prevented him from walking into working-class districts and so getting into touch with proletarian opinion. "Had his legs been sound," he declared, "then perhaps they would have taken him into a working-class district where he would have met with some other William of a more common type, he would have seen a corner of life different from his petty-bourgeois, middle-class, intellectual British family, an idea of which I believe you will get from Dickens's old novels, or from some other novels which depict the environment." Certainly those middle-class intellectual families which Dickens depicts — the Wellers, the Gargerys, the Sikeses, or even the Pecksniffs, the Nicklebys, or the Squeerses — were curiously walled in from proletarian truth and morality.
In the courts of the future, I hope, when a man is accused of a crime, it will be enough for the prosecuting counsel to point out that his brother rented a flour-mill in order to obtain a conviction. How much time English juries would have been saved if evidence of this kind had been accepted as proof of guilt. On several occasions in recent years we have seen old public schoolboys in the dock, and, instead of pointing out that they were old public schoolboys and therefore guilty, the prosecution has called all manner of tedious evidence to prove the obvious. For my part, I should like in such cases to see the counsel for the prosecution calling no evidence at all apart from the school and university career of the accused. What speech for the prosecution could be more damning than a speech consisting of the single sentence: "Gentlemen of the jury, the prisoner is an old Etonian"?
§ “The East End” by Harry Roberts. (1932)
Card-carrying approval of Volume III of The New Survey of London Life and Labour, an official Labor government publication, and card-carrying disapproval of a book entitled The Real East End “which, though full of information not to be found in any other single volume, is, for me, difficult to read with patience. It has that ‘intimate,’ patronizingly knowing quality which marks the writings of many of our bird-watching naturalists.” (Note the tentative, very British, “for me,” which would have been deleted by a Soviet censor.)
There also are some interesting curiosities in Turnstile One.
§ “From a Banned Writer to a Banned Singer” by James Joyce. (1932)
A series of Joycean word contraptions, à la Finnegan, each a mad-cap summary of a particular opera as performed by Joyce’s friend, the tenor, John O’Sullivan.
Is this our model vicar of Saint Wartburgh's, the reverend Mr Townhouser, Mus. Bac., discovered flagrant in a montagne de passed. She is obvious and is on her threelegged sofa in a half yard of casheselks, Madame de la Pierreuse. How duetonically she hands him his harp that once, bitting him, whom caught is willing: do blease to, fickar! She's as only roman as any puttana maddonna but the trouble is that the reverend T is reformed.
These operatic in-jokes originally were included in a letter from Joyce to “Sullivan” (for some reason Joyce drops the “O’”).
§ “Milton’s Blindness” a letter to the editor of The New Statesman from Paul Hookham, Oxford. (1930)
A great example of literary criticism from the close reading school.
Hookham posits that Milton was not totally blind, but suffered from a cataract – known to 17th century physicians, Hookham informs us, as “a gutta serena”
Hookham offers three quotations from Milton which convincingly support his idea. One of them is from Milton’s “Light”:
thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs,
Or dim suffusion veild.
The italics are Hookham’s.
§ “The Waterfall” by Ethel Smythe. (1932)
Smythe was a composer. Her The Wreckers was revived in this century by Leon Botstein. I saw it performed a few years ago – a bit Wagnerian, a bit Straussian, a bit Debussyesque; not bad at all.
“The Waterfall” is, though – i. e. bad. A rambling, impressionistic memoir of girlhood.
The dénouement comes when little Ethel, dressed as a Fenimore Cooper wilderness scout, unaware of the differences in male and female anatomies and believing that simply wearing male clothing confers on one the convenience of peeing while standing up, drenches herself in urine.
The euphemisms and circumlocutions which Smythe has to resort to
(all too soon came the moment when nice-minded little girls explain they have left their pocket-handkerchief up at the house and will be back directly) are more than made up for by her modernity in telling a story whose subject matter was way beyond the polite pale, which was in fact in dirty joke territory.
§ “Tuan Jim” by Petronella Elphinstone. (1932)
Elphinstone recounts a tale told to her and to many others including, allegedly, Joseph Conrad, by a ship chandler who, as first mate on an ill-fated pilgrim ship, was – so he and Elphinstone claim – the original of Lord Jim.
Needless to say, considering its impressive roster of authors, there are some wonderful pieces in Turnstile One.
§ “On I Know Not What” by Hillaire Belloc. (1920)
A scintillating experiment in the personal essay – in the spirit of Charles Lamb, with the stylistic high jinks of Tristram Shandy. This could have been really awful, but it’s not. It’s super.
I have by this time, you will observe, wandered somewhat from my subject. But then, what was my subject? If you know you are wiser than I ! What I had intended it to be I know well enough. What I had intended it to be I know well enough. I had intended it to be a disquisition upon the strange love of posthumous fame which is to be found in all the human race, and particularly in the miserable breed of writers. But really the subject has been done to death. I have myself written upon it recently in at least five places, and for all I know in these very pages. And when you come to think of it there is nothing new to be said about it.
§ “The Président de Brosses” by Lytton Strachey. (1931)
Charles de Brosses was the author of Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie (1760). According to Wikipedia, the book presented “a materialistic theory of the origin of religion, and represents one of the first theoretical works in the discipline of ethno-anthropology. Notably it contains the first historical occurrence of the word ‘fétichisme,’ later borrowed by Karl Marx in 1842 and used in his Capital (1867).”
Sounds like an important Enlightenment thinker, yes? Then why haven’t we (i. e., I) ever heard of him?
The reason, according to Strachey, is that he was condemned to semi-oblivion by Voltaire.
In 1760 Voltaire, ensconced at Ferney, purchased from de Brosses the life tenancy of a neighboring property, Tournay (along with the title, Comte de Tournay). In 1761 Voltaire refused to pay a bill for 281 francs presented by a Tournay peasant, Charlot Baudy, for firewood delivered before Voltaire’s purchase of Tournay. This led to an increasingly heated correspondence between Voltaire and de Brosses, with Voltaire persisting in his refusal to pay for firewood. At last, de Brosses sued Voltaire on Baudy’s behalf. When Voltaire realized he would lose the case, he agreed to a settlement, suggested by de Brosses, by which Voltaire would donate 281 francs towards the support of the poor of Tournay.
It was this rankling humiliation, says Strachey, that drove Voltaire to wage his relentless anti-de Brosses campaign. With his famous venomous wit, Voltaire belittled de Brosses’ books to his numerous celebrated friends and correspondents and, when de Brosses became the obvious candidate for a vacant seat in the French Academy, had him blackballed.
The President's moment had come — the testing moment of his life. What was he to do? It was still not too late to withdraw, to pay the money [to the peasant] with a shrug of the shoulders and put an end to this fearful hubbub and this terrifying enmity. For a short space he wavered. It was true that Voltaire was the greatest writer of the age, and perhaps he deserved some allowances on that score. In any case, he was an extremely dangerous antagonist — a man who had made mincemeat of all his literary opponents and fought on equal terms with Frederick the Great. But no! It was intolerable! His Burgundian blood boiled, and the proud traditions of aristocracy and the judicial habits of a lifetime asserted themselves. "Là-dessus on dit" — so he explained later to a friend — "c'est un homme dangereux. Et à cause de cela, faut-il donc le laisser être méchant impunément?” [On this point, everyone agrees: he is a dangerous man. Because of that, should one allow him to be nasty with impunity?]
No Marxism for Lytton Strachey, thank you. The very fact that Marxism was fashionable would have been enough to damn it for Strachey. Tournay’s (and Strachey’s) poor are not the exploited poor, yearning to break free, but the poor who will ever be with us.
§ “Ever Such a Nice Boy” by William Plomer. (1937)
Charming. A four-page story that reminds me the low-key vernacular humor that was being written in America at the same time by Ring Lardner, Robert Bentley, et. al. It opens:
You want to know how I first met Freddy? Oh, it’s quite a long story. No, we don’t come from the same place at all. You see, my home’s near Gloucester. I was in service there with Major and Mrs. Trumbull-Dykes. Mrs. Dykes was ever such a nice lady, she was just like a mother to me and writes to me every Christmas, not that I haven’t got a real mother, because of course I have, and she’s always been good to me too, I couldn’t wish for a better.
Not a whiff of Marxism. Everyone is quite content, even pleased, with their particular social class. The interactions between one class and another are congenial; between employed and employers they are collegial.
If Plomer had written this story today, he would be seen to be taking a stand on the question: Me Too – feminist uprising or millennial whining? However, no social consciousness niggled at him when this tripped off his pen:
Mind you, the Major was always a worry to her, you never knew what he’d be getting up to. I don’t believe there was nothing between them and hadn’t been for a long time, though I dare say the Major wished there was, so of course they always had separate bedrooms. Well, one afternoon about tea-time, yes, it must have been about tea-time because I was making the toast, the Major must always have his hot buttered toast for tea, there I was making the
toast and the Major come into the kitchen. Of course, I didn’t take no notice until he come up and caught hold of me. I asked him to let go and stop his games, but he wouldn’t, so I hit at his hands with the toasting-fork to
make him leave go of me. He had ever such big veins in his hands, they stood right out. “Oh, you little vixen! You little spitfire!” he said. “Well, you had no call to lay hands on me,” I said, “whatever would Mrs. Dykes say?” And as he wouldn’t stop his tricks I said ‘Give over, will you!” and hit him again over the knuckles with the toasting-fork. “Damn it, damn it,” he said, and then he run out.
Just as I was getting tea ready to take into the drawing-room Mrs. Dykes come in, she’d been out shopping, and “Oh, Edith,” she said, “I’ll just take the Major’s tea up to him. He’s ever so upset,” she said, “he’s hurt his hands something dreadful, he’s resting in his room. He caught them in the mowing machine and they’re all swollen up.” Of course I didn’t say anything, but you should have seen the state his hands were in. Of course, I didn’t mean to hurt him like that, but it was his own fault in a way, wasn’t it?
§ “Letter from Germany” by D. H. Lawrence. (1934)
These are not the Germans we once knew.
Perspicacious, considering when it was written.
§ “Gas at Abbotsford” by Virginia Woolf. (1940)
An amusing and cleverly written (it’s Virginia Woolf, so of course!) depiction of the domestic life of Sir Walter Scott, drawn mainly from the diaries of a painter, William Berwick, in residence to paint Scott’s portrait.
If you wish to amaze your friends and be the envy of your neighbors, Turnstile One is available from ABE Books for under ten dollars.