As some people are rightly considered "citizens of the world," Peter Quennell is a citizen of history. For the purposes of this collection of pen portraits, the "contemporary" period in the subtitle extends back at least to the time of Lord Byron (on whom Quennell has written two studies), though its focus centers on people he actually has known--particularly the tight little circle of geniuses, eccentrics and erotic adventurers who brightened and diversified the English artistic, political and literary landscape between the two great wars of this century.
As his inspiration and, to some extent, his model, he has taken the Duc de Saint-Simon, whose sly, malicious, beautifully styled memoirs bring the court of Louis XIV vividly to life. His effort, confined to a single, slim volume, seems fragmentary compared with the massive, minutely detailed work of the Frenchman. He lacks a dominant central character such as the Sun King to pull his observations together, and he does not have the touch of malice that can do so much for a writer's style. But in compensation, he has an even larger and more diversified cast of characters, and his literary style is based on unflinching accuracy, which serves almost as well as venom.
Take the first of his portraits--a very small one, since he hardly knew the man and uses him chiefly to brighten his introduction. "I am myself becoming an accredited Survivor," he confesses, "a relic of the Georgian literary past, to whom students now and then appeal. 'Ah, did you once see Orwell plain?' is a question that I have already been asked under several different guises; and I have done my best to provide an honest answer."
In this case, the answer is that he did see Orwell and spoke with him briefly once, but unfortunately the conversation was not terribly interesting. On the other hand, he has a sharp eye and an alert style, and even without scintillating dialogue, the little portrait he tosses off is memorable: "Orwell's lengthy, hollow-cheeked face reflected the essential kindness of his nature. A thin military moustache bordered his tight-lipped mouth. He had a beaky, distinguished nose, rather large ears, a big, irregularly prominent chin and a broad and deeply wrinkled forehead. In some aspects he resembled a seventeenth-century Puritan, one of Cromwell's 'preaching generals'; and he also possessed the air of haggard nobility we attribute to Don Quixote. He was no Tom Paine, no Robespierrian revolutionary, but, like Quixote, had launched a chivalrous crusade against the giants and dragons of his own era."
Orwell has a higher recognition factor than most of the figures who populate Quennell's memoir, though there are others--some glimpsed from a closer vantage point. Teilhard de Chardin is seen momentarily on the storm-swept deck of a steamship off the cost of China, and T.S. Eliot--the friend of a friend--is shown not intimately but in domestic, relaxed surroundings. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West fill several absorbing pages, partly drawn from first-hand observation. Winston Churchill looms vaguely in the background--the closest thing in Quennell's work to Saint-Simon's Louis XIV, if he had known him better--but his son Randolph is observed much more closely and in vivid color, introduced with the rueful observation: "Randolph had many admirable qualities and deserved a kindlier fate; to be the only son of a great man is a doubtful privilege."
Greta Garbo dominates his first chapter, which is devoted to feminine beauty and masculine obsession, but it is more of a literary-philosophical essay than a personal memoir. His most vivid personal experience with her--in fact the only one--was at a garden party on the Riviera when she was about 55 "and some of her luminous beauty had gone the way of youth." The conversation was trivial, the most memorable quote from the aging goddess was "I luv carrots. They are zo zexy!" and he recalls that "her accent, I noticed was peculiarly Swedish." But these petty details are used skillfully, subliminally, to underline a sort of thesis--that remoteness and mystery are essential elements in a certain kind of feminine charm.
"Customs and Characters" seems rather loosely organized around two basic ploys--the introduction of Big Names (even when Quennell has had only a glancing contact with their owners) and the use of a series of quasi-philosophical theses on types of human character as a sort of peg on which to hang his portraits and arrange them into coherent chapters. But he often, happily, digresses from strict conceptual tidiness and these digressions, often related to less-known figures, provide many of his most spirited passages. Some of the people he has known emerge, in his writing, almost as living, breathing abstractions: Violet Trefusis, whose relation to truth "was always a flirtatious, loosely-knit alliance rather than a firmly faithful bond"; Daisy Fellowes, "a ruthless Amazon Queen in the war of the sexes"; Augustus John in his declining years, after he "had lost faith in his talents," and his "distinction consisted in what he had somehow failed to do rather than his real achievement."
Ultimately, Quennell contributes only marginally to what is known about his various subjects, perhaps a bit more to the accumulated reflections on what their lives may have signified. But what he offers the reader in this wandering survey of personalities is a reflection of his own--a sense of having spent a few relaxed, not entirely aimless hours with one who has lived long and well and thoughtfully and who shares the highlights of that experience with a distinguished sense of style.