DAVID GARNETT HAS BEEN lucky in his friends. At 88 he can look back upon a life as rich in literary association as any since James Boswell's. As a boy he went a-sailing in a laundry basket with Captain Joseph Conrad, as a teenager he was nearly seduced by Frieda Lawrence, as a man he flirted with Carson McCullers (whom he judge the best American writer since Henry James). Great Friends, recording his memories of 17 famous writers, is an anecdotal, ramlbing, sentimental collection, and one sure to please anyone who enjoys literary gossip.
Garnett's good fortune began with his parents. His father, Edward, a publisher's reader from the 188os through the 1930s, was the English equivalent (slightly earlier in time) of Max Perkins. He discovered, or encouraged the early careers of, Conrad W. H. Hudson, Ford Madox Hueffer, Edward Thomas, John Galsworthy, D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells and H. E. Bates, all of whom became the friends and mentors of his only son. David Garnett's mother was perhaps even more praiseworthy; she was Constance Garnett, the indefatigable Russian translator who made Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov part of the English-speaking world.
Because of his parents' double-whammy influence on turn-of-the-century English letter, garnett was able to visit with Stephen Crane, take tea with Henry James at Lamb House, meet emigre intellectuals like Kropotkin. But the young boy especially admired poor, nature-loving W. H. Hudson and Edward Thomas. Both are, sadly, little read these days, though each is remembered for at least one literary reason -- Hudson for Green Mansions and Thomas for his influence on fellow poet Robert Frost. In contrast to their lightly sketched profiles, the chiaroscuro portrait of Ford Madox Hueffer, as Ford Madox Ford was known before World War I, is richly layered, evoking that writer's peculiar blend of self-pity, envy, rapacious sexualtiy, brilliance as an editor, unevenness as a novelist. Hueffer once wrote to Garnett's mother, when her son was casting about for a life's work, "Send David to me for a years, Connie, and I will teach him to write like Flaubert."
But Garnett didn't go -- so much for the chance to learn writing from the arthur of The Good Soldier. Instead he studied botany, specializing in mushrooms, and began to write on his own. Lady into Fox, his first and most celebrated novel, describes an instance of impeccable marital fidelity: A man remains infatuated with his wife even after she has been metamorphosed into a fox. This slight, disarming fable won two prestigious awards, brought praise from Conrad ("flawless in essence and exposition"), and notice from H. G. Wells, who prophesied that Garnett might repeat his own career as a scientist turned writer.
Even before his literary success, Bunny, as he was now called, had become acquainted with several figures in Vanessa Bell's Bloomsbury circle, among them exonomist John Maynard Keynes, biographer Lytton Strachey and novelist E. M. Forster. In his chapter on Keynes, Garnett depicts a model of Kindness, generosity and common sense. On weekends, to relieve the pressures of high-level government work, the master of modern economic thought would spend hours kneeling on a little piece of rug and carefully weed a gravel pathway, relaxing his mind in this simple activity. Inevitably, Garnett also writes about Virginia Woolf (offering, in passing, a cogent analysis of Mrs. Dolloway, but confesses that he, like his two sons, was somewhat afraid of her. He once announced to his children that "the Woolfs" were coming; later he found Virginia on her hands and knees howling in pursuit of the delighted little boys.
To earn a living in the 1920s, Garnett opened a bookshop with his friend Francis Birrell and teamed up the Frances Meynell in managing the Nonesuch Press. Through the press he came to meet George Moore, an Irish novelist of the Celtic twilight whose sun has pretty much set, but whom Garnett ranks with Conrad and James. Moore suggested composing a Nonesuch anthology, to be entitled Pure Poety; with utter ingenuousness, he then commissioned a ghost editor to select the poems. Still, this didn't spoil Garnett's admiration for a writer he describes as one of the masters of narrative transition. Such an unusual, and oddly affecting, compliment is enough to send a reader looking for Moore's novels and memoirs.
Compared to most of the Bloomsbury esthetes, Garnett was an outdoorsman. He spent much of the First World War working on various farms, loved to fish, learned to fly in the late '20s, and enjoyed the companionship of hearty, able-bodied men of action like T. E. Shaw (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and T. H. White (author of The Once and Future King). During a dry spell in his creativity after the Second World War, Garnett edited Lawrence's correspondence and prepared a selection of the White-Garnett letters.
Thoroughly affectionate and seldom critical, Garnett's biographical sketches are nonetheless reasonably indiscrete. He may have turned down Frieda Lawrence, but she was the exception. Garnett candidly describes himself as a libertine, without belief in conventional morality or religion. He hints often of liaisons -- and not only his own. Bunny assisted at the birth of Vanessa Bell's daughter Angelica who, he reveals, was secretly fathered by painter Duncan Grant, his close friend. Later, in 1942, after the death of his wife, Rachael Marshall, Garnett married Angelica Bell.
My only regrets, after reading Great Friends, were that it wasn't longer and didn't contain enough about David Garnett. So I went to the library and checked out his three-volume autobiography. The Golden Echo, the larger tableau from which many of these individual portraits are taken. Someone should bring these fascinating, even-toned volumes back into print, along with some of Garnett's fiction. In the meantime, Great Friends offers a good introduction to an appealing man and writer, as well as a survey of the human, occasionally all-too-human, side of the glorious dead.