Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Collecting Thackeray

Last time I did something like this, it was much, much worse. William Blake's birthday rolls around, and for no very good reason other than that, I propose some kind of bookstore shindy to mark the day. Don't ask me now what got into me because I still could not tell you. Blake has never been, and is not to this day, my kind of guy. I haven't much truck with mystics. ( I did have a brief period reading the Saints, just to try to understand the phrase "heroic virtue", a coinage of St. Augustine of Hippo, again not a favorite. Despite a variety of sympathetic newer translations, I could never get past Augustine being such a typical, middle-aged ass; the Confessions, at least to my mind, being the blueprint for every awkward conversation between embarrassed youth and the pompous, provincial father, confident in the weight of his own
ridiculously little sins. "I was quite the rascal, in my day, but you know, son..." As to the mystics proper, about the only really sympathetic soul I found was dear, ugly old Teresa of Ávila, who had a weakness for chocolate, rapturous ecstasies and sensible shoes. My kinda visionary. Oh, and the dazzlingly pornographic St. John of the Cross. Hot.) Also, I am not much for the Old or New Testaments, but given a choice, and leaving out that last mad book -- a Blake Favorite -- I'd have to plump for the New. Blake is very much an Old Testament fellow. There's usually at least a whiff of brimstone and a hint of plagues in all but his smallest verse. He could barely bring himself to look at his own sleeping baby without remembering the fallen state of Adam. And, at length, he can make Milton sound modern, and theologically cheerful by comparison. No easy trick, that. Nothing I read about the man convinced me to like him any better, either. Grim little character. A burden to even his kindest friends, and shockingly nasty to his most ardent admirers.

I've always been properly awed by Blake's pictures. Technically, what he did can be dazzling, and without fully understanding it, I am perfectly ready to concede his preeminence as the greatest printer, if not painter, England ever produced. But I've never really cared for his figures which, like his verse characters, always seem inhuman to me; great blocks of cramped flesh, big empty eyes dripping unnaturally weighty tears, enacting scenes of suffering in tableau rather than feeling-- or more importantly, thinking -- anything. Don't think he much liked the species.

So why then stage an hour's public reading at the bookstore? Safe to say, when I proposed it, I hadn't thought the idea through. As a result, I was stuck with Mr. Blake for more than a month. I came to admire his unique genius -- as everything I read night and day confirmed it -- but I can't say the experience was at all happy. The reading itself turned out to be far more pleasant than I had anticipated. I found a good variety of poetry to read aloud, and more music in what I read than I might ever have heard in any other way. Some students came, and a few even read, and the crowd was gratifyingly large for such a performance. The evening was counted a success, in the end, but I swore never to do such a thing again.

And I haven't since. In public readings, I've stuck to what I know and to authors more familiar not just to me, but popular with audiences. Dickens, and Twain and Saki and Wodehouse, even Auden, have all proven surprisingly successful, not just because of their familiarity, but because in everything I selected to read, they communicated, if nothing else, a recognizable emotion, creditable sentiments, and universal good humor. Even the angriest of Auden's war poems, or Dickens' sermons, even Saki's acid wit, always invited sympathy. Read aloud, most great writers require very little beyond volume and practice to find an understanding audience.

Now I've taken up Thackeray. Not the same case as Blake, obviously. I like Thackeray. To begin with, the novelist is genuinely funny. The one thing I've found that will win any audience to even the most cynical or seemingly unsympathetic writer is just that. I personally have found this to be increasingly true as just a reader of books in general, even or specially serious books. Without it, no matter how masterful the writing or beautiful the thought, I can not quite like a book or love the author. With it, even the darkest subject or however unhappy the circumstances described, I can allow for any mood, almost any tone, and even opinion with which I might otherwise most strenuously disagree or disdain. Without humor, I've become convinced, no writer, no artist, can have anything like real genius. (If one can't find something comic even in Picasso's "Guernica", one isn't looking very seriously, probably because of the pious docent lecturing over-excited school children always at one's elbow in modern museums.) No one can deny Thackeray was a funny man. He had wit. He knew how to tell a joke, write a burlesque, build a gag, as Buster Keaton might have put it. On a most basic level, he liked funny words, funny names, puns, eccentricities of the language and of common speech. He was also a sophisticated man, and the writer of all the great Victorian writers with perhaps the deepest appreciation of English prose. He was a student of the17th & 18th Centuries, where he set some of his best books, and about which he gave some of his most famous and successful lectures. He knew Addison and Steele, Johnson and Boswell, Swift, as well or better than any man not actually of their times. Like Dickens, he loved the great comic English novelists of the century previous to his own, and unlike Dickens, he sought in his own style to refine what he felt, as a gentleman, to be the excesses, improprieties and imperfections of Swift, Fielding and Smollett. He may or may not have been wrong in this, or at least he may have taken the whole business of being a gentleman too seriously, at least for our taste today. He wrote quite pathetically -- in a good, old way --about missing the freedom those earlier writers had to discuss sex honestly, for example, but like a cat who dreams of catching a really fine, big bird, he probably wouldn't have known what to do with it if he had, and would have been genuinely disgusted by even the now seemingly rather mild honesty of a writer no later to literature than the Edwardian novelist, George Moore. (Of a writer later still, like D. H. Lawrence, he could not, frankly, have conceived.) Where Dickens seemed instinctively to draw on the great, chaotic exuberance of a writer like Smollett, and emulate the indignation rather than the spite of a writer like Swift, Thackeray, as an altogether more conventional soul, and less confident comic performer, when he could, chose to concentrate on refining the emotions, shading character and making the novel, and the novelist, finer, meaning both better made up and seen to be so.

All of the above makes him both a much better subject for a public reading than a writer like Blake, obviously, and frankly, a more difficult writer than Dickens or Twain, or even Saki, to excerpt for reading publicly. Funny, as I said, is always good. But even when forced into writing for serial publication, Thackeray never really mastered thinking in scenes. Dickens was an actor. That was actually his first real dream of being an artist. It could be argued that Dickens always saw even his later, darker and more discursive novels, to some extent, as productions to be mounted, scenery to be set, characters to be enlivened, each acted in turn, plots resolved, the curtain coming up and going down on the whole long, dizzying business of life, but always spilling out into the street after. Twain likewise always brings something of the storyteller and his audience, large or small, to everything he writes. Thackeray is always a writer, even when he lectured, and however lax his structure could seem to later critics like Henry James, who thought Thackeray's novels "loose and baggy monsters," even at his very best and most careful, Thackeray can not quite survive being put up on his feet, alone as it were, without chapters before and after, and the narrator in company. Famously, Thackeray called his greatest characters, in Vanity Fair, his greatest novel, "puppets." So they can seem, off the page, without the writer ever present. (Witness the failure of even the best adaptations of Thackeray to film and television.)

Finding something of Thackeray's to read, in roughly forty minutes, with a minimum of explanation or introduction, has then proved less easy than I had assumed. In my familiarity with not just Vanity Fair, which I've read now, straight through, at least three times, and all the major novels, I was surprised to find that even the chapters I remembered best could not really be pulled out and presented as whole. Editing anything from Thackeray's longer fiction down to a serviceable size has not proved possible. Turning to shorter things, much of the novelist's humorous journalism, his comic essays and satires, are so dependent on the character assumed for each: Charles James Yellowplush, Michael Angelo Titmarsh and George Savage Fitz-Boodle, and the peculiarities of language, station and times unique to each and immediately recognizable to Thackeray's original readers but not to a contemporary audience, as to be of not much use to me either. Thackeray wrote very little short fiction. Luckily, I think I've found just such a short piece for the reading, but meanwhile I've been reading, reading, reading and hunting for quite awhile now, and time moves faster when a date for a reading has been set.

I am lucky in having access to quite nearly the whole of Thackeray from which to draw. In collecting pieces that may or may not end up in the reading, I've been able to use the "Illustrated Cabinet Edition," Merrill & Baker Publishers, New York, undated but at a guess I'd say early Twentieth Century, that I bought for a song years ago from an online auction. (It is pictured, in part, at the top of this entry.) At what? sixteen volumes? it is a handsome old thing, quite the prettiest set I ever saw and could afford to buy. I first read The Newcommes, and Pendennis, and The Virginians, among others, in this set. A Couple of the volumes are a wee bit delicate in their condition by now, The History of Henry Esmond Esquire -- perhaps Thackeray's best other than his first, and a favorite of his contemporaries -- is specially so. I have the old Modern Library, with the green cover, that I could not keep from rereading this week and so lugging back and forth to work with me. These old Modern Library books are faithful things and travel better than their older, prettier relatives.

I've also included a spine from the first broken set of Thackeray that I bought seven or eight volumes of from a used bookstore where I was working when I first truly went mad for getting sets of standard authors. Never could find the other volumes, naturally, or afford this bigger and more practical, if no less well-made set when I happened on it elsewhere. Still, here I first read The Book of Snobs, and the essays, and the famous lectures on The Four Georges and Thackeray's marvelous history of English comic writers.

This is not to mention the earliest paperback I first read of Vanity Fair, now long since lost to time, or the ugly little hardcover, with tight gray pages, in which I first met Henry Esmond, and Barry Lyndon.

I mention each of these editions, each of these books, to suggest something of the abundance of great writing from which I am now struggling to draw out some few pieces that I might use in the upcoming reading. I read my way haphazardly through a huge Cambridge or Oxford edition of Blake -- I forget which now, and think I sold the book along as soon as I was done with my Blake reading -- and half a dozen or more other books by or about the poet, in preparation for that evening's work. To get ready for reading Thackeray, there is obviously even more that I might read, or read again, and still not find, as I might easily with Dickens or Twain, half a dozen easy pieces to at least consider. In part, as I've suggested, this has something to do with the unfamiliarity I must assume for a new audience with this writer, and also to do with his style as compared with theirs. It has also to do, of course with my own anxiety to bring at least some small part of what is no longer much read, though it should be, to what may prove a small, but loyal -- bless 'em -- audience at the bookstore, come July 14th. If I am finding Thackeray more difficult than I had first assumed, though still not so difficult as Blake, Heavens be praised, I must admit that my own emotion, my affection for Thackeray, would seem to be more of a complication, in this instance, than an advantage.

Appearances to the contrary, I do not believe in collecting books. I believe in reading books. I have been lucky enough to find Thackeray, not just in the books pictured or mentioned here, but in two fat volumes of his letters, in the letters of his great friend, and one of the greatest letter writers in history, Edward Fitzgerald, in a collection of letters from the great unconsummated love affair of the second half of the novelist's life, Mrs. Brookfield, and in books new minted from our Espresso Book Machine at the bookstore. I could go on, but obviously that's what I've been doing here all night, isn't it? The point though is that for me at least, preparing for this celebration of Thackeray's 200th birthday has been well worth any difficulty, just as having all this Thackeray now scattered about the desk and spilling onto the floor and piled up next to my bed has been, honestly, in the end, nothing but a joy. I own these books because I read and will continue to read these books. I want to do this reading because, in my own small way, I want to encourage others who might not otherwise to go and do likewise. I want to see more than just Vanity Fair in print and on bookstore shelves. I want desperately to communicate, by whatever means, and however clumsily I may be doing so, something not of the difficulties of reading Thackeray aloud, but the deep and abiding pleasure of reading Thackeray. if I've yet to make that clear, hopefully I may yet. There's still time.

Meanwhile, I can't quite imagine that anyone will read this. I would encourage anyone who may have had the sense just to scroll to the bottom here, to scroll on. There are, I believe, good things to be had, hopefully, below.

Thackeray. William Makepeace Thackeray. Look for him here, elsewhere, anywhere he may be yet. This isn't about my books, you know, it's about his.


  1. I have only read Vanity Fair, but if you promise his other work will be as completely engrossing and give me an anti-hero/ine as wonderful as Becky, I will press on... thank you for your very lovely and encouraging message the other day, it made me happy! x

    PS Word verification: staksses. Gollum's view of a bookshop/library, perhaps..

  2. Alas, good Fishwife, there is no other quite like dear, devilish Becky. Nevertheless, there's much good to be had in, for example Pendennis or The Newcommes.

    Now -- where "staksses"? I've just given a quick read through searching for what I assume was a typo, but couldn't find. Advise, please.