"THEY ARE SO CLEAR and far away, those little
pictures," writes Desmond MacCarthy, reflecting upon The Anatomy of Melancholy. The same is true of MacCarthy's portraits: Asquith, Balfour, Bunyan, Conrad, Disraeli, Goethe, Horace, Meredith, Raleigh, Rossetti, Tetrazzini, Voltaire and the rest. Time has taken these people away, but MacCarthy has made them very clear.
He was literary critic ofThe New Statesman and later, until his death in 1952, of the London Sunday Times. There are men who read and read and read until at last they must scribble, scribble, scribble, he says of Burton, whom he describes as "the Prince of all scribaceous authors." But of course he knew he was talking also about himself. So it goes throughout this subdued, everlasting gallery: one observes the patient, urbane, bemused artist almost as thoroughly as he contemplates his peculiar assortment of subjects.
Some of them he knew, or at least had met. Others he understood by a process of divination. In either case, he quite magically resurrects them all.
He saw Conrad just once. They had lunch and went for a stroll. MacCarthy felt surprised by the length of Conrad's head, accentuated by the pointed beard. A hooked nose, black eyebrows, and hunched shoulders gave him more of a hawk-like look than his photographs suggested. His eyes were brilliant and dark, "but unless lit and expanded by enthusiasm or indignation, they remained half-hidden, and as though filmed in a kind of abstruse slumberous meditation."
It was spring when they wandered--Conrad hobbling -- beneath an avenue of elms. Wind fluttered the budding daffodils. Conrad paused, lifted his face, and said, "I walk here for the sake of that sound; it reminds me of the sea."
Perhaps more significant than these cameo portraits are MacCarthy's esthetic insights and certain slumberous meditations of his own. He had not found Conrad to be particularly ambitious, nor one who wrote for amusement, or to make money. What impulse, then, had made Conrad what he was? "I think it was because he had seen so many things in human nature and the world that he did not wish to be forgotten or to forget, that Conrad, to our great gain, became a writer."
Page after page is littered, casually, almost indifferently, with such germinal matter.
Brooding upon George Moore: "He has all his life, it seems, been more interested in examining the wrinkles in the sand left by the tide than in bathing in the sea."
From this acute, specific, albeit metaphorical criticism, MacCarthy often digresses to general conclusions with which one may or may not agree, but which, all the same, are not soon forgotten. He remarks that one problem of a writer's career is to decide "at what point he shall cease to remain passively open to new influences, shut the door, and make instead the most of what he has stored and understood. This process of self-construction is usually as gradual as the hardening and closing of the skull upon the growing brain. . . ."
Naturally he is attracted to authors, but also to politicians, and for the most part he writes about these hereditary enemies. Once in a while, though, some vagrant breeze catches him. After having read a 600-page biography of Father Ignatius, MacCarthy thought he should have a look at this unusual Benedictine. Accordingly he seated himself one afternoon at three o'clock "in a gay and gilded oblong room with a stage at the end of it. On this stood a grand- piano, a palm in a pot, a conjurer's table and a chair." There were in this room a great many vacant chairs and a row of red velvet sofas. The hour struck, he says, yet the Abbot had not appeared. Then, lo!--he sailed upon the stage, attached a gold pince-nez to his fine large nose and lost himself in the Bible, quite ignoring the audience. MacCarthy studied him. The robes of Father Ignatius were voluminous, he did not girdle them, and MacCarthy concludes that he resembles a haycock.
At length the Abbot looked up. He summoned his flock. Nearer. Come nearer, you dear good people. And MacCarthy discovered himself, along with several other lambs, helping to shove a red velvet sofa forward. Then, he reports, Father Ignatius clasped his hands, cast up his eyes sideways at the ceiling and exclaimed in loud tones of dramatic unction, "We thank Thee, O Lord, for the telephone of prayer."
So one proceeds through this quaint, deliberate, touching yet rather melancholy omnium-gatherum.
Latecomers to our precarious civilization might assume that Tetrazzini is a brand of spumoni, when in fact Madame Tetrazzini was the reigning diva of MacCarthy's time. He had read My Life of Song just before she returned triumphantly to a London music hall. Off he went to listen, and, as happened with Father Ignatius, this double exposure produced an essay. She sang three times as long as she had been expected to sing, while the pyramid of bouquets grew steadily higher. Touched by her artlessness, both in person and as the autobiography revealed her, he offers a characteristic anecdote:
"Little Tetrazzini," said her old maestro, "you have something very wonderful in your throat." "Have I? Please tell me what is there." "You have palaces and castles and horses and coaches, beautiful lands and lovely jewels. . . ."Portraits seems melancholy, perhaps, because while reading it you reflect that Sir Desmond MacCarthy is gone. Donne's assertion that any man's death diminishes us may toll majestically down the years, but the commonplace truth is that we miss some men more than others. MacCarthy did not write many books. Memories concerns literature: criticism, occasions, celebrities. Humanities, except for two short stories, consists of dramatic criticism. Whatever else he wrote has been absolutely neglected. Yet he was, the tattered dust jacket of Portraits reminds us, the last of a school of which Dr. Johnson was the first.
In any event, that is the book he wrote half a century ago. You must read Portraits with a pencil in hand because quite a few passages plead to be underlined, and there are splendid reasons for doing so. First, of course, for your own enlightenment and satisfaction. But also, if you memorize enough of what you have underlined, you will very often be invited to supper.