Stepping backwards through time via literature
In the past 10 days, whim, a desire for a breather from our breathless age, and heaven knows what else tempted me away from contemporary literature and into the past.
I’ve visited English country houses and nodded to mannered men and women, poked through the letters of our Founders on love and marriage, brushed against pre-World War II Parisian society, high and as low as you can go, and listened with delight while a writer and chef expounded on the art of eating.
From these excursions I emerged, as the line from the musical “South Pacific” puts it, “high as a flag on the Fourth of July.”
First up was Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” Though I’ve read “Sense and Sensibility,” and both read and taught “Pride and Prejudice,” I’d never cracked the cover of Jane Austen’s last novel. (Yes, this omission and my admission are embarrassments, but I can’t read everything.) “Persuasion” is, in short, a novel about a chance for second love. Anne Elliott, age 27, finds herself entangled again with Frederick Wentworth, a captain in the Navy, years after she broke off their engagement.
What struck me most about Austen’s novel was neither the plot nor the characters, but the eloquence of Austen’s language. Was there really a time when English-speaking people expressed themselves so articulately?
Actually, there was.
In William Bennett’s “Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches,” where I was seeking information for an article I was writing, the style of those early American writers mirrored that of Austen, their contemporary. In the chapter on Love and Courtship, for example, such luminaries as John and Abigail Adams, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson brought to their correspondence a similar wit, formality, and regard for language. Their communications may sound stiff as starch to our ears, but I soon understood that their etiquette and observance of convention acted as a sort of screen behind which they could protect themselves while dispatching ardent emotions.
Somerset Maugham’s “The Razor’s Edge,” which I’d first read 40 years earlier, fast-forwarded me in time more than a century from Austenian England, dropping me into places like the Riviera and Hemingway’s Paris. In this first-person novel we follow the stories of a half dozen characters as seen through the eyes of a writer whom Maugham names after himself. Here we find descriptions closer to those of our own fiction — at one point, for instance, Maugham takes us to a dirty Paris café frequented by crooks, whores, and addicts — but there remains an admirable elegance and grace of language. “Art,” writes Maugham midway through the story, “is triumphant when it can use convention as an instrument of its own purpose,” and this is perhaps the secret to his own success as a best-selling author of his time.
In its vestibule our public library keeps a cart of give-away books. During my visit with Austen, I found there M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating,” a compilation of five of her books on cooking, dining, and the enjoyment of a meal. I opened this “pleasingly plump” volume — that was a euphemism for overweight female adolescents in the town where I grew up — and chanced immediately on this line in Clifton Fadiman’s Introduction: “The alimentary canal contains the only stream that flows through all history and geography, having banks on which cluster those works that mark man at his most civilized.”
That did it for me; I tucked the volume into my backpack.
Now, some comments on the book. First, I shall never read “The Art of Eating” from cover to cover. It’s a “dipper” book, to be opened at random, a page or two enjoyed, and then closed again for a week or so until the next meeting.
Second, in my case, Fisher is casting her pearls before swine. Though I once did some cooking — I can still whip up a tasty breakfast casserole, a passable gazpacho, and an excellent quiche Lorraine — I now live most of my days alone, which means that expedience rather than excellence is my gold standard in the kitchen. High cuisine is a pan of fried potatoes and onions topped off by an egg or two and accompanied by a shot of generic ketchup.
But let’s return to those pearls. W.H. Auden once remarked of Fisher, “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose,” and the passage of time has not dimmed that assessment. Fisher’s words and sentences don’t just occupy space on a page. No — in every paragraph they glitter and shine, like the pebbles in a Carolina mountain stream when the sunlight strikes the water.
“When a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity which soon dims. At six years old his very bowels will heave when such a dish as creamed carrots or cold tapioca appears before him. His throat will close, and spots of nausea and rage swim in his vision. It is hard, later, to remember why, but at the time there is no pose in his disgust. He cannot eat; he says, ‘To hell with it.’”
Though preschoolers are unlikely to employ that last expression — they’re more inclined to spoon those creamed carrots onto the floor — prose of that sort, produced consistently over more than 700 pages, will bring me back again and again to Fisher, not to learn the art of eating, but to marvel at her art of writing.