Sunday, February 1, 2009

Household Gods

The familiar spirits in this house are all of them minors; minor poets, minor novelists, practitioners of fine letters, but not necessarily of the first rank. There are Gods here and they have their books and their icons. A postcard of Auden sits on the poetry shelves. Henry James, the first true God of my youth, is everywhere about me; in the Library of America, in a few first editions, in biographies and memoirs and pictures. Dickens has not one, but three shelves, three full editions. Sam Weller and The Artful Dodger, in porcelain stand together on a shelf. Fagin, as a jug with a stopper, sits on another. In the hall, Bumble and Gamp and Trotty Veck are framed down one wall. A figurine of Emlyn Williams reading as Charles Dickens stands before the Complete Oxford edition. Complete sets of Balzac, of Fielding, of Thackeray and Austen and Scott, of Flaubert and Hugo, of Conrad, of others, have pride of place in one room or the next. Shakespeare has his corner, Hardy his. And not all that are revered are dead, but I would hesitate to deify the living. None the less, Gunter Grass is here, and David Plante, and Steven Millhauser...

But the majors are not my familiars. They are admired, even loved, but they are not to be befriended as a minor writer might be. Oliver Goldsmith wrote a great play, a great poem, an imperishable novel, but somehow he is not among the great. And yet he is here, he is loved, and I believe, he is my friend. I turn to him as one would to a friend, less for counsel than comfort. In his essays from "The Bee," or when he wears a Chinese mask in The Citizen of the World, when he is met in company with Johnson, or memorialized in Irving, he is always, somehow, no higher than a man my size. Charles Lamb has been as true a friend to me, in his essays and his letters, as any I have known. To call him even saintly, as Lucas did, would I think embarrass him, and rightly so. He was but a little man, again no bigger than me, but better, funnier, kinder. When I touch fire to tobacco, I blush to think he would blush too, having fought even harder than I have to quit -- and failed as often or more. I may venerate Auden and love Keats, but I'd turn first to Clare, to Cowper, to Charlotte Mew before Mrs. Browning, when I want a song not a concert. Edward Lear is dearer to me, in some ways, than Donne. I am a great fan of Waugh, but love Nancy Mitford better, and Jessica Mitford almost more, though this last list is one of diminishing gifts.

And dearest perhaps of all to me, is the little man, Max Beerbohm. My husband knows, in case of a fire, to save the Max Beerbohm "firsts" before he thinks of saving me.

But everyone I've mentioned had genius, in greater or lesser measure. There are those without it, or with it in patches, with only talent, or stories or charm. It is not only the major minors who I feel watch over this room. Storm Jameson is here now, if nowhere else still. Margaret Lane will stay, even if all she'd ever done was write her biography of Beatrix Potter -- though she did more than that. I could show you.

The familiars are mine because they have a place here. Molly Keane by as much right as Thomas Mann, more as I like her better. And I believe, however foolishly, that my affections are returned to me. Because I keep these books, and keep the memory of their authors, because I still read H. E. Bates, he is somewhere, somehow present here. There are shrines to Dickens. Mrs. Gaskell's on the television nearly as often as her friend Charlotte Bronte. But who keeps company now with Mrs. Humphry Ward?

And Beerbohm and Lamb, Goldsmith and Savage Landor, Moore and John Jay Chapman, they keep me company as often or more than Byron or William Butler Yeats or Flaubert.

I repeat these names here tonight, in an incantatory spirit, in gratitude to their spirits, large and small, that the sound of these names, and the names of their books, familiar and otherwise, might be heard, that these good souls might go out again and find others to welcome them in. What else can I do? Who am I to say "this should live?"

When we gab about living in a "post-literate" age, and libraries become Internet cafes and bookstores make their money from movies, when a survey asks Americans if they've ever lied about having read a book to impress a date, and no one under twenty mentions so much as a single title they've even pretended to read, then it is the minor artist who goes quiet first. It is Penelope Gilliatt who goes before Gide, though Gide is going too. Say the names of those we owe an hour's pleasure. Say the title of a book out of print. Watch over my friends with me, befriend them yourselves. Make them new friends when you can. Tell me the names of your friends I don't know. Minor art is not lesser art. The words are the same, the language is ours, the language they left us. Keep it. Light a candle. Read a poem not taught in school. Read a short story by an author unanthologized. Read an essay from a book, not printed off the Net. Tell a friend. Say the names with me.

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