[This is part of Powys' One Hundred Best Books.]
51. CHEKHOV—SEAGULL. Chekhov's plays and short stories are published by Scribners in admirable translations.
Chekhov is one of the gentlest and sweetest tempered of Russian writers. There is in him a genuine graciousness, a politeness of soul, an innate delicacy, which is not touched—as such qualities often are in the work of Turgenev—with any kind of self-conscious Olympianism. A doctor, a consumptive, and a passionate lover of children, there is a whimsical humanity about all that Chekhov writes which has a singular and quite special appeal.
The “Seagull” is a play full of delicate subtleties and dreamy glimpses of shy humane wisdom. The manner in which outward things—the mere background and scenery of the play—are used to deepen and enhance the dramatic interest is a thing peculiarly characteristic of this author. Chekhov has that kind of imaginative sensibility which makes every material object one encounters significant with spiritual intimations.
The mere business of plot—whether in his plays or stories—is not the important matter. The important matter is a certain sudden and pathetic illumination thrown upon the essential truth by some casual grouping of persons or of things—some emphatic or symbolic gesture—some significant movement among the silent “listeners.”
52. ARTZIBASHEFF. SANINE, translation published by Huebsch.
Artzibasheff is an extremist. The suicidal “motif” in the “Breaking-point” is worked out with an appalling and devastating thoroughness.
Pessimism, in a superficial sense, could hardly go further; though compared with Dostoyevsky's insight into the “infinite” in character, one is conscious of a certain closing of doors and narrowing of issues. “Sanine” himself is a sort of idealization of the sublimated common sense which seems to be this writer’s selected virtue. Artzibasheff appears to advocate, as the wisest and sanest way of dealing with life, a certain robust and contemptuous self-assertion, kindly, genial, without baseness or malice; but free from any scruple and quite untroubled by remorse.
If regarded seriously—as he appears to be intended to be—as an approximate human ideal, one cannot help feeling that in spite of his humorous anarchism and subjective zest for life, Sanine has in him something sententious and tiresome. He is, so to speak, an immoral prig; nor do his vivacious spirits compensate us for the lack of delicacy and irony in him. On the other hand there is something direct, downright and “honest” about his clear-thinking, and his shameless eroticism which wins our liking and affection, if not our admiration. Artzibasheff is indeed one of the few writers who dare excite our sympathy not only for the seduced in this world but for the seducer.
53. STERNE—TRISTRAM SHANDY.
Sterne is a writer who less than any one else in the present list reveals the secrets of his manner and mind to the casual and hasty reader. “Tristram Shandy” and “The Sentimental Journey” are books to be enjoyed slowly and lingeringly, with many humorous after-thoughts and a certain Rabelaisian unction. A shrewd and ironical wisdom, gentle and light-fingered and redolent of evasive sentiment, is evoked from these digressive and wanton pages.
At his best Sterne is capable of an imaginative interpretation of character which for delicacy and subtlety has never been surpassed. For the Epicurean in literature, his unfailing charm will be found in his style—a style so baffling in the furtive beauty of its disarming simplicity that even the greatest of literary critics have been unable to analyze its peculiar flavor. There is a winnowed purity about it, and a kind of elfish grace; and with both these things there mixes, strangely enough, a certain homely, almost Dutch domesticity, quaint and mellow and a little wanton—like a picture by Jan Steen.
54. JONATHAN SWIFT. TALE OF A TUB.
Swift’s mysterious and saturnine character, his outbursts of terrible rage; his exquisite moments of tenderness; his sledge-hammer blows; his diabolical irony; form a dramatic and tragic spectacle which no psychologist can afford to miss.
With the “saeva indignatio” alluded to in his own epitaph, he puts his back, as it were, to the “flamantia moenia mundi” and hits out, insanely and blindly, at the human crowd he loathes. His secretive and desperate passion for Stella, his little girl pupil; his barbarous treatment of Vanessa—his savage championship of the Irish people against the Government—make up the dominant “notes” of a character so formidable that the terror of his personality strikes us with the force of an engine of destruction.
His misanthropy is like the misanthropy of Shakespeare’s Timon—his crushing sarcasms strike blow after blow at the poor flesh and blood he despises. The hatefulness of average humanity drives him to distraction and in his madness, like a wounded Titan, he spares nothing. To the whole human race he seems to utter the terrible words he puts into the mouth of God:
“I to such blockheads set my wit,
And damn you all—Go, go, you’re bit!”
55. CHARLES LAMB. THE ESSAYS OF ELIA.
Charles Lamb remains, of all English prose-writers, the one whose manner is the most beautiful. So rich, so delicate, so imaginative, so full of surprises, is the style of this seductive writer, that, for sheer magic and inspiration, his equals can only be found among the very greatest poets.
It is impossible to over-estimate the value of Charles Lamb’s philosophy. He indicates in his delicate evasive way—not directly, but as it were, in little fragments and morsels and broken snatches—a deep and subtle reconciliation between the wisdom of Epicurus and the wisdom of Christ. And through and beyond all this, there may be felt, as with the great poets, an indescribable sense of something withdrawn, withheld, reserved, inscrutable—a sense of a secret, rather to be intimated to the initiated, than revealed to the vulgar—a sense of a clue to a sort of Pantagruelian serenity; a serenity produced by no crude optimism but by some happy inward knowledge of a neglected hope. The great Rabelaisian motto, “bon espoir y gist au fond!” seems to emanate from the most wistful and poignant of his pages. He pities the unpitied, he redeems the commonplace, he makes the ordinary as if it were not ordinary, and by the sheer genius of his imagination he throws an indescribable glamour over the “little things” of the darkest of our days.
Moving among old books, old houses, old streets, old acquaintances, old wines, old pictures, old memories, he is yet possessed of so original and personal a touch that his own wit seems as though it were the very soul and body of the qualities he so caressingly interprets.
56. SIR WALTER SCOTT. GUY MANNERING.
57. BRIDE OF LAMMERMOOR.
58. HEART OF MIDLOTHIAN.
The large, easy, leisurely manner of Scott’s writing, its digressiveness, its nonchalant carelessness, its indifference to artistic quality, has in some sort of way numbed and atrophied the interest in his work of those who have been caught up and waylaid by the modern spirit. And yet Scott’s novels have ample and admirable excellencies. In his expansive and digressive fashion he can give his characters—especially the older and the more idiosyncratic among them—a surprising and convincing verisimilitude.
He can create a plot which, though not dramatically flawless, has movement and energy and stir. The sweetness and modesty of his disposition lends itself to his portrayal of the more gracious aspects of human life, especially as seen in the humors and oddities of very simple and naïve persons.
Under the stress of occasional emotion he can rise to quite noble heights of feeling and he is able to throw a startling glamour of romance over certain familiar and recurrent human situations. At his best there is a grandeur and simplicity of utterance about what his characters say and an ease and largeness of sympathy about his own commentaries upon them, which must win admiration even from those most avid of modern pathology. Without the passion of Balzac, or the insight of Dostoyevsky, or the art of Turgenev, there is yet, in the sweetness of Scott’s own personality, and in the biblical grandeur of certain of the scenes he evokes, a quality and a charm which it would be at once foolish and arbitrary to neglect.
59. THACKERAY. THE HISTORY OF HENRY ESMOND.
Thackeray is a writer who occupies a curious and very interesting position. Devoid of the noble and romantic sympathies of Scott, and corrupted to the basic fibers of his being by Early Victorian snobbishness, he is yet—none can deny it—a powerful creator of living people and an accomplished and graceful stylist.
Without philosophy, without faith, without moral courage, the uneasy slave of conventional morality, and with a hopeless vein of sheer worldly philistinism in his book, Thackeray is yet able, by a certain unconquerable insight into the motives and impulses of mediocre people, and by a certain weight and mass of creative force, to give a convincing reality to his pictures of life, which is almost devastating in its sneering and sentimental accuracy.
The most winning and attractive thing about him is his devotion to the eighteenth century; a century whose manners he is able to depict in his large and gracious way without being disturbed by the pressure of that contemporary vulgarity which finds a too lively response in something bourgeois and snobbish in his own nature.
Dealing with the eighteenth century he escapes not only from his age but from himself.
60. CHARLES DICKENS. GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
The compiler has placed in this list only one of Dickens’ books for a somewhat different reason from that which has influenced him in other cases. All Dickens’ novels have a unique value, and such an equal value, that almost any one of them, chosen at random, can serve as an example of the rest.
Those who still are not prohibited, by temperamental difficulty or by some modern fashion, from enjoying the peculiar atmosphere of this astonishing person’s work, will be found reverting to him constantly and indiscriminately. “Great Expectations” is perhaps, as a more “artistic” book than the rest, the most fitted of them all to entice towards a more sympathetic understanding of his mood, those who are held from reading him by some more or less accidental reason. The most characteristic thing about this great genius is the power he possesses of breathing palpable life into what is often called the inanimate. Like Hans Andersen, the writer of fairy-stories, and, in a measure, like all children, Dickens endows with fantastic spirituality the most apparently dead things in our ordinary environment.
His imagination plays superb tricks with such objects and things, touching the most dilapidated of them with a magic such as the genius of a great poet uses, when dealing with nature—only the “nature” of Dickens is made of less lovely matters than leaves and flowers.
The wild exaggerations of Dickens—his reckless contempt for realistic possibility—need not hinder us from enjoying, apart from his reveling humor and his too facile sentiment, those inspired outbursts of inevitable truth, wherein the inmost identity of his queer people stands revealed to us. His world may be a world of goblins and fairies, but there cross it sometimes figures of an arresting appeal and human voices of divine imagination.
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