Books 91 through 100 - Dodgson to Bennett
[Note: this is part of Powys' One Hundred Best Books.]
91. CHARLES L. DODGSON. ALICE IN WONDERLAND. The edition with the original illustrations.
It would be ridiculous to compile a list of a hundred best books and leave out this one. Lack of space alone prevents us from including “Through the Looking Glass” too.
“Alice” is after all as much of a classic now and by the same right, the right of a universal appeal, to every type of child, as Mother Goose of the Nursery Rhymes. She had only to appear—this slender-legged, straight-haired, Early-Victorian little prude, to enter at once the inmost arcana of the temple of art. The book is a singular evidence of what the power of a desperate devotion can do—a devotion like this of Mr. Dodgson to all little girls—when a certain whimsical genius belongs to the possessed by it.
The creator of Alice has really done nothing but permit his absorbing worship of many demure little maids to focus and concentrate itself into an almost incredible transformation of what was the intrinsic nature of the writer into what was the intrinsic nature of the “written-about.”
The author of this book has indeed, so to speak, eluded the limitations of his own skin, and by the magic of his love for little girls has passed—carrying his grown-up cleverness with him—actually into the little girl’s inmost consciousness. The book might be quite as witty as it is and quite as amusing but it would not carry for us that peculiar “perfume in the mention,” that provocative enchantment, if it were not much more—Oh, so much more—than merely amusing. The thousand and one reactions, impressions, intimations, of a little girl’s consciousness, are reproduced here with a faithfulness that is absolutely startling. What really makes the transformation complete is the absence in “Alice” of that half-comic sententious priggishness which, as soon as we have ceased to be children, we find so curiously irritating in Kingsley’s “Water Babies.”
92. JOHN GALSWORTHY. THE COUNTRY HOUSE.
John Galsworthy is almost alone among modern writers in the possession of a genius, which in the most exact sense of that admirable word, can only be described as the genius of a gentleman. It is a style singularly sensitive, a little vibrant perhaps sometimes, and so tense as to become attenuated, but of a most rare and wistful beauty. His humor which is his weakest point is a thing of almost feminine perceptions but quaintly pliable, as the sense of humor in women often is, to an odd strain of peevish extravagance.
The chivalrous nobility of Mr. Galsworthy’s habitual mood is at once the cause of certain fragilities and betrayals in the mass and weight of his art and the cause of the indignant pity which evokes some of his finest touches.
It seems to irritate his nerves almost to frenzy to contemplate the shackles and fetters with which, whether in the domestic or social or legal world, the free spirits of men and women are bound down and imprisoned.
The touching figure of Mrs. Pendyce in the “Country House”—the tragic figure of Irene Soames Forsyte in the “Man of Property”—the pitiful figure of the little Model in “Fraternity”—have all something of the same quality.
95. W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM. OF HUMAN BONDAGE.
In this remarkable book Mr. W. Somerset Maugham surpasses by a long distance the average novels of recent appearance. The portion of the book which deals with Paris, especially with that mad poet there, who expounds the philosophy of the “Pattern,” is as suggestive a piece of literature as any we have seen for half a dozen years.
The passage towards the end of the book on the subject of the genius of El Greco is also profoundly interesting; and the sentences which comment so gravely and beautifully upon the cry of the Christ, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” have a rare and most moving power.
96. GILBERT CANNAN. ROUND THE CORNER.
“Round the Corner” is perhaps Mr. Cannan’s best book but “Young Earnest” and “Old Mole” are also curious and interesting volumes.
Mr. Cannan is as typical a modern writer as could be found anywhere. And yet modernity is not his only charm. He has genuine psychological insight and though this insight comes in flashes and is not continuous it often gives an original twist to his characters which helps to make them strangely convincing and appealing. “Round the Corner” is a genuine masterpiece. It is the history of the most charming and touching clergyman described in all English fiction since the Vicar of Wakefield; and the massive, solid manner in which the story is constructed, the vigor and reality of the interplay of the various members of Francis’ family, the admirable portrait of the mother, the grand and solemn close of the book, make it one of the most powerful works of fiction England has produced during the last decade.
Now and again—and what praise could go further?--there are little touches of clear-cut realism, of that kind which has a mystical background, which actually suggest some of the lighter and more idyllic work of Goethe himself. The book has genuine wisdom in it, of a sort superior to any philosophical system, and one feels at the close the tonic and soothing effect of a powerful moral influence, sweetening and refining one’s general reaction towards life.
97. VINCENT O’SULLIVAN. THE GOOD GIRL. Published by Dutton & Co.
This admirable work of art is not known as well as it deserves either in England or America. It is a work of genius in every sense of that word, and it produces on the mind that curious sense of completeness and finality which only such works produce.
Mr. L.U. Wilkinson—himself a writer of powerful achievement—says of “The Good Girl”: “It does what I have always desired should be done; it reduces ‘atmosphere’ and ‘nature’ to their proper subordinate place. It wastes no energy. It focuses one’s intellect and one’s emotion. It creates characters who resemble none others in fiction. It is imaginative realism of the highest level of excellence.”
The complex figure of Vendred, the hero of the story, the evasive provocative Mona Lisa-like portrait of Mrs. Dover, the extraordinary and stimulating art with which her husband is described, the agitating and tragic appeal made to us by Vendred’s child-wife, the unfortunate Louise—all these together make up one of the most absorbing and unforgettable impressions we have received for many years.
Of Mr. and Mrs. Dover in their relation to one another the following passage reverberates through one’s mind:--“They would sit opposite one another silently, criticising with a drastic pitiless criticism. This in itself showed where they had arrived; for faith has to be shaken before there is room for criticism, and if love survives the criticism of lovers, it is altogether different from the love they began with. Lovers can be almost anything they choose to each other and still be in love, but they cannot be critical. That is blighting.”
Perhaps the most tragic thing in the book is the letter written by Louise to Vendred when the luckless child discovers her husband’s intrigue with her mother:--“I came to you in the middle of the night last night because I was afraid of the wind. The fire was burning and I saw. I am gone, you will never see me again.”
The last scenes of the unfortunate girl’s life—indirectly described by the ruffian who got possession of her in Paris—produce on the mind that sickening sense of the wanton stupidity of the Universe which fills one with hopeless pity.
The author of this book must have a noble and formidable soul.
98. OLIVER ONIONS. THE STORY OF LOUIE.
“The Story of Louie” is the last and finest volume of an astonishing trilogy—the first two volumes of which are named respectively “In Accordance with the Evidence” and “The Debit Account.”
The mere fact that in the midst of our contemptible hatred of “long books” this excellent trilogy should have appeared, is an indication of the daring and originality of Mr. Oliver Onions.
Mr. Onions is one of the few modern writers—along with Hardy, Conrad and James—who is entirely untouched by political or ethical propagandism. His trilogy is a genuinely creative work of a high and exclusive order. The manner in which, to quote Mr. L.U. Wilkinson again—“the whole prospect is, as it were, strained through the character of one or other of the leading persons is in itself a proof of this writer’s fine artistic instinct.” The way in which all the leading persons in the book stand out in clear relief and indelibly print themselves on the mind is evidence of the value of this method. And what masterly irony in the contrast between “Evie” for instance as Jeffries sees her and “Evie” as she is seen by her rival Louie!
Nowhere in literature, except in Dostoyevsky, has the ferocious struggle of two women over a man been so savagely and truly portrayed as in the great scene in “Louie” between that young woman and Evie when the latter visits her in her rooms.
Oliver Onions’ humor has that large and vigorous expansiveness, touched with something almost sardonic, which we associate with some of the very greatest writers. There is always present in his work a certain free sweep of imagination which deals masterfully and suggestively with all manner of sordid material.
99. ARNOLD BENNETT. CLAYHANGER.
“Clayhanger” with its sequels, “Hilda Lessways” and “These Twain,” makes up an imposing and convincing trilogy of middle-class life in the English Pottery Towns. To these books should be added “Old Wives’ Tale,” “Anna of the Five Towns” and all the others among this writer’s works which deal with these Pottery places he knows so superbly well.
Outside the Five Towns Mr. Bennett loses something of the power of his touch. He is an interesting example of a writer with a definite “milieu” out of whose happy security he is always ill-advised to stray.
But within his own region he is a powerful master. No one in modern English fiction has treated so creatively and illuminatingly the least interesting and least romantic strata of human society which is perhaps to be found in the whole world.
And yet he endows this paralyzing bourgeoisie with astonishing life. One turns back from much more exciting literature to these ignorant, conceited, restricted and undistinguished people.
One turns back to them because Mr. Bennett shows one the tragic humanity, eternally and mysteriously fascinating, to be found beneath these vulgar and unlovely exteriors. Nor when it comes to the problem of sex itself is this writer less of a master. Never has the undying conflict, the world-old struggle, between those who, in the Catullian phrase, “love and hate” at the same time, been more convincingly brought into the light than in the relations between these uninteresting but strangely appealing people.
Arnold Bennett’s knowledge of the Five Towns gives to his work a background of significant congruity whose interaction upon the characters of his plots has the same kind of weight and portentousness as the interaction of Nature in the books of Mr. Hardy.
Such a background may be in itself materialistic and sordid, but in the imaginative reaction it produces upon the characters it has the genuine poetic quality.
100. OXFORD BOOK OF ENGLISH VERSE.
This is by far the best anthology of English poetry, its only rival being the first series of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Those interested in the work of more recent poets and in the latest poetic “movements” in England and America would be wise to turn to Putnam’s “Georgian Poetry”—two series—and “The New Poetry” by Harriet Monroe, published by Macmillan. The compiler of this selection of books feels himself that the most poetical among the younger poets of our age is Walter de la Mare and of the poems which Mr. de la Mare has so far written, he finds the best to be those extraordinary and magical verses entitled “The Listeners” which seem to come nearer to giving a voice to the unutterable margin of our days than any others written within the last ten years.