IT IS A JOY to see R. B. Cunninghame Graham, that man's man and witer's writer, having a renaissance. Until The South American Sketches (Oklahoma, 1978), it had been nearly 30 years since the last Graham selection. Then last year Cedric Watts and Laurence Davies' fine biography was issued by Cambridge. Now comes Reincarnation , a serlection of vintage Graham with a perceptive preface by Alanna Knight.
It's hearty but skimpy fare, containing only 15 stories (all for the 57 in A. F. Tschiffely's anthology Rodeo in 1936), but these are "infinite riches in a small room," and we applaud the inclusions. Here is "Beattock for Moffat," one of the finest short stories in English, with its bare truth ("Jock, do ye think I'll live as far as Moffat? I should na' like to die in London in the smoke"). And "The Gold Fish," in which a poor messenger carries a bowl of valuable gold fish to the sultan a country away. Never pausing for long, "for he was born to run," the man hurries through arid deserts and frosty mountains, shielding his charges, only to lose his way and his life. And "The Captive," unvarnished realism with some of the best word pictures ever essayed.
But one quibbles at the omissions. Although the stories are geographically balanced, three -- two too many -- concern prostitutes, and none of the three is as powerful as the absent "Christie Christison" or the preface to Charity . Among the missing is "The Pyramid," that intimate look at Victorian musichalls; "The Fourth Magus," Graham's lovely statement on Christianity; and "Calvary," a condemnation of man's cruelty to animals. Absent too is the magnificent "Un Pelado" and its poor condemned Mexican who sees the irony when his captors tear down the first scaffold because it is not level.
Even in such a small sample, room could have been made. "Mist in Monteith" is a mood sketch, "At Navalcan" doesn't quite come off, and "A Hundred in the Shade" is a shade prolix -- these could have been omitted.
For Graham was no flawless pot. He wrote too quickly, and his proofing was so abject that Joseph Conrad even offered to do it for him. Plus he was indifferent as H. M. Tomlinson to plot. But Graham was satisfied to leave the flaws in, to show he was first a man, only second a writer. He was, after all, 40 when he began to write. He'd been in jail on three continents, was an accomplished fencer, an even better horseman, and was absolutely Don Quixote, breaking lances and attacking pomposity and sophistry. A romantic and genuine ("There are only two classes," he declared, "the genuine and the humbug"), a man who fought the growth of technology inside and imperialism outside his country. In between traveling, serving in Parliament and fighting, this indefatigable man wrote.
And, despite his faults, how well he wrote! So well that Conrad and Shaw borrowed liberally from him and Ford Madox Ford called him the most brilliant writer of that day. Blending realism (the Edwardians blenched at his sights and smells) and a poet's flair with a compassion for the weak that never strayed into sentimentality, he became a favorite of leading writers. But never with staid British audiences and critics who resented his individualism and his habit of attacking them in his stories.
Reading Graham is a sensory delight. He makes the reader see and hear and feel at full consciousness. A heterogenous writer, he wrote over 30 volumes on far-flung places and peoples. Whatever the locale, one of his abiding themes was failure. Success he viewed as fortuitous, usually illusory, often stolen, and always ephemeral. But his characters, unlike those of much of modern fiction (and life), don't whine. Nor do they lose hope: "God is not a bad man, after all," they keep saying.
Wherever in memory his protean pen took him, perhaps his most enduring portrait is that of the gaucho, "Slight, sinewy, with faces the color of mahogany, they sit upon their saddles, upright as lances, swinging to every motion of the horse."
This book happily reincarnates the artistry and vigor of this astounding man, a man who, if we let him, can teach us much.