Barriers of Silliness

J.I.M. Stewart

  • The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations by Julian Symons
    Orbis, 143 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 85613 362 0
  • Critical Observations by Julian Symons
    Faber, 213 pp, £9.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 571 11688 4
  • As I walked down New Grub Street: Memories of a Writing Life by Walter Allen
    Heinemann, 276 pp, £8.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 434 01829 5

The first of Julian Symons’s ‘original investigations’, entitled ‘How a hermit was disturbed in his retirement’, is an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective is lured away from his bee-keeping activities (Holmes has ‘developed a cage of a new type that can be slipped between two combs in the brood chamber’) by a distressed young woman posing, rather pointlessly, as a local journalist. This fails to deceive Holmes for a moment – for has she not sent him a handwritten letter from a private address? – and the real occasion of her visit turns out to be anxiety over her recently-acquired fiancé, who has unaccountably disappeared for some weeks and so may well be dead. It takes Holmes a couple of days to show that he is still alive and not at all likely to prove an agreeable husband. This is decidedly no three-pipe problem. Mr Symons’s plot is of a modest near-transparency from the start – a fact cunningly enhancing an authentic Conan Doyle effect in a story exhibiting throughout a striking and amusing command of pastiche.

The second investigation is called ‘About Miss Marple and St Mary Mead’ and is exactly that: we hear everything about this female sleuth and her village that can be derived from a careful sifting through the fairly numerous books that Agatha Christie wrote about her. The remaining pieces are all to some extent the same sort of thing, relying for the most part on the mild entertainment to be derived from treating detective stories as historical documents through a close study of which reliable short biographies of their protagonists may be built up. In this scholarly activity numerous difficulties, needless to say, confront the biographer. Mr H. R. F. Keating has been driven to the conclusion that Hercule Poirot was aged 130 (or a little more) at the time of his death as recorded in Curtain. This is a perplexing improbability which Mr Symons (with the advantage of working from Captain Arthur Hastings’s notes on the life of his eminent friend) examines in considerable depth. Again, a little less than half-way through his career, Ellery Queen exhibits a species of personality-change so drastic that investigation is wholly baffled until we arrive at the happy discovery that there were two Ellery Queens – the second of whom was not indeed Ellery but Dan. Ellery went to Harvard and Dan to Amherst (familiar to Mr Symons since he was a visiting professor there). It appears that both had a distinct flair for crime.

This formula – in danger of becoming tedious when much concerned with the great detectives’ sexual inclinations, taste in indoor furnishing, favourite cuisine and the like – is resourcefully varied and relieved by Mr Symons through all sorts of Pirandello-like dodges. In Los Angeles he interviews an elderly private eye who may or may not be the original of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and who recounts an ostensibly real-life gangster episode which brought Chandler and the archetypal Marlowe together. Similarly the investigation of the Ellery Queen biographical tangle leads into a little ‘sealed room’ problem fortified by some authentic Amherst local colour. Maigret has a brief encounter with a cocky little Belgian police detective of whose identity we can be in no doubt. But was the girl who made her appeal to Holmes Miss Marple in youth? This mystery remains unsolved.

It is perhaps the lavish, accomplished and indefinably sinister illustrations by Tom Adams that make this so triumphantly a bumper book for buffs. Mr Adams’s portraits of the seven great detectives reappear as a circle of medallions on the dust-jacket. Thus synoptically viewed, they strike me, perplexedly, as patently criminal types. Ellery Queen has certainly poisoned his wife, and Miss Marple is surely a lady who has achieved something outstandingly heinous in a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

Turning from The Great Detectives to Critical Observations, one is almost tempted to suppose that with Mr Symons it must be as with Ellery Queen: two distinct personalities are sharing a name. The writer of the first book is indeed the same accomplished artist as the writer of the second, but he has expended what is likely to strike us as much labour in extracting amusement from an essentially trivial source, and at least intermittently there is something uncomfortable about this. The second book holds quite as much wit, exhibits in appropriate places as light a touch, as the first, while at the same time achieving a serious, perceptive, and in places formidable assessment of remarkably diverse literary reputations from the close of the 19th century to the present day. There is perhaps a special interest in the spectacle of promise unfulfilled. This appears at the beginning of the book in an essay on the author’s namesake, Arthur Symons, whose image, we are told, ‘is of that outmoded but honourable figure, the Man of Letters’, and who, from a position of considerable eminence as editor of the Savoy, declined into ‘humdrum respectableness and then the spindrift of madness’. It appears again, much later, in ‘Ruthven Todd: Some Details for a Portrait’. Here is, in the first place, a sympathetic and brilliant character-study of a close friend. But at the same time Todd is presented as being, like Arthur Symons in the Nineties, the representative figure of a decade. The Thirties have had their notable survivors, of whom Mr Symons himself is one, but can be viewed as exhibiting a ‘lost generation’, just as the Nineties can be. Amid its crush of talented and disorganised persons Todd’s was plainly a significant figure indeed.

F. R. Leavis was talented, but scarcely disorganised, and in a series of brief essays Mr Symons is rather severe on both the man and his journal, Scrutiny. At the same time, he is alert to find what may be termed exculpatory factors in the case. ‘If anything could destroy in advance a belief in the merits of Scrutiny it would be the fact that Dr Leavis is such a clumsy and graceless writer.’ (This used to be very familiar Oxford doctrine. ‘Would you take riding lessons,’ I recall an Oxford examination candidate who had put in a good word for the Cambridge sage being asked, ‘from a man who can’t sit a horse?’) But Mr Symons has an explanation for that awful prose. ‘Scrutiny was founded and run by a teacher.’ Essentially Leavis is ‘a man talking, not always coherently but with the mixture of didacticism and passion that convinces the young, about the values of literature’, and his distressing style is simply an extension of this informality from speech to writing. What is more: ‘Once past the barrier of silliness raised by Leavis himself, it is possible to see him as a critic often profound, generous and humane.’ I feel that thus to do justice to a figure by whom he is plainly a good deal repelled comes the more easily to Mr Symons because here is another man who, like Arthur Symons and Ruthven Todd, lived beyond his time and on a diminishing capital of influence and esteem.

But what of Edith Sitwell? In an essay absurdly entitled (after Gertrude Stein) ‘Miss Edith Sitwell Have and Had and Heard’ Mr Symons can only be described as going all out for this talented lady’s peculiar scalp. It is asserted that for a long time – although she was concerned to deny it – Miss Sitwell’s muse was justly ignored. She wrote incomprehensibly about her own verse, and published a book called Aspects of Modern Poetry in which she cribbed a great deal from – of all people – Dr Leavis himself. Then came the Second World War and a sudden upsurge in reputation, with Maurice Bowra, Stephen Spender, John Piper, Kenneth Clark, John Lehmann and others going hysterical about her: a kind of trendy Stringalong situation, we are invited to judge. Then by 1954 it is all over and the balloon deflated for good. Can my dislike of this piece – a piece executed with great verve – conceivably arise from the circumstance of its being directed against a lady? After some heart-searching, I can only hope not. And certainly Dr Sitwell, like Dr Leavis, erected a sufficient barrier of silliness around herself. But perhaps her better poetry deserves more pausing before than is here attempted.

The obsessional life and astonishing output of Georges Simenon are reviewed briefly but with authority, and bold claims are made for him which are not readily to be refuted. Simenon writes with a recording angel’s understanding and impersonal sympathy about all manner of men, upper-class men excluded. He ‘gives us the appearance and atmosphere of places better than any other living novelist ... The writer of the hard novels [i.e. non-Maigret ones] is the most extraordinary literary phenomenon of the century.’ But Mr Symons immediately adds that this ‘is not the same thing as being a great novelist’.

The essays on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both admirably balanced appraisals, tell a similar story.

It was Chandler’s strength, and his weakness, that he brought [a] basically sentimental aestheticism to the crime stories, so that they had increasingly to be about a romantic hero whose activities gave the novels at least ‘a quality of redemption’ so that he could think of them as art. That was the weakness. The strength lay in the fact that by treating seriously everything he did Chandler achieved even in his early stories for the pulps more than his fellow practitioners.

Yet Chandler, we are roundly told, ‘could be deeply imperceptive and philistine’. Hammett is in some ways a more serious writer, producing brutal and often revolting stuff (Bourbon somewhere ‘tastes a little bit like it had been drained off a corpse’) which is nevertheless deployed within a ‘code of honesty’, an insistence on the virtue of personal in contrast to corporate loyalties, vindicating him as a writer of ‘strongly moral’ fiction. And Hammett, again, exhibits that attraction of promise unfulfilled. ‘His life as a novelist had lasted for only six years’ and in 27 years thereafter he never completed a book. Drink, Hollywood and Joe McCarthy were between them too much for a potentially major novelist. ‘The Glass Key is a magnificent novel, The Maltese Falcon remains a model of the detective thriller, no other book of the time gives violence and corruption the raw reality of Red Harvest.’ No mean achievement. But that was it.

Walter Allen is another Thirties man. Senior to Mr Symons by less than a year, he was the first boy from King Edward’s Grammar School, Ashton, ever to attempt Oxford entrance, being sent up to Balliol as a candidate for a scholarship in English literature. He failed to win it, but describes the occasion in the first of many scintillating set-pieces of autobiography in the present book. Entering the University of Birmingham as very much a second best, he had no great success there either, perhaps because he found its Professor of English, Ernest de Selincourt, then one of the principal grandees of English Studies, a singularly unsympathetic character. So there was nothing for it. Knowing that he was going to be a writer – probably a novelist – the young Walter went up to London and plunged into New Grub Street, where he was to spend the greater part of an active literary career.

His chief endowments, as they appear in these pages, were not so disadvantageous then as they might be now. Books gave him enormous pleasure, and he very readily became excited and obsessed by them. He admired their writers, and also contrived to like them, particularly when their paranoias, eccentricities and general tiresomeness rendered this difficult. He was clearly liked in return, as well by the genuinely eminent as by the absurd, and he now brings all manner of men – or at least of literary men – alive for us. Julian Maclaren-Ross, a bizarrely-disposed egomaniac natural, is marvellously recalled in half a dozen pages which are immediately followed by a full-length portrait of L. P. Hartley: diffident and self-deprecating, victimised by servants, a great weekender at country houses, the hero of a long vendetta with the swans of the Bradford Avon. W. H. Auden, in schoolmasterly vein, minutely regiments a marriage ceremony of the praiseworthy sort he had himself engaged in with Erika Mann; E. M. Forster is suddenly prompted to wonder why he has a regular luncheon engagement with Somerset Maugham; Wyndham Lewis invites Mr Allen to dinner, and then rings up Julian Symons to find out whether his projected guest is to be trusted. There are places in which we are perhaps told a little too much about unremarkable persons and insignificant occasions. But the greater part of the book is of high anecdotal merit.

Mr Allen’s chronicle concludes upon his accepting in 1967 the Chair of English in the New University of Ulster. He had come to feel that he ‘belonged to the last generation of the old type of literary journalist, those who numbered among them Fielding, Goldsmith, Johnson, Smollett, Hazlitt, Pritchett’, and that everything was turning against him. The critics and reviewers now making their reputations ‘were men like Frank Kermode and Christopher Ricks, who were academics primarily’ – and who as a class, we may add, would in an earlier generation have been confining themselves to the conservative tasks of textual scholarship within environments remote from even the fringes of literary society. Moreover, Mr Allen says, ‘the traditional literary and political weeklies were plainly running down to a slow death,’ and the growth of television was beginning to straiten and impair the kind of Sound Broadcasting which had hitherto afforded some scope for serious critical activity. There remained the American lecture circuits, far from challenging in point of the professional standards required or understood. So Mr Allen took himself off to ‘the olive-grove of Academe’. Had he won that Balliol scholarship as a boy, he might well have become a professor in one or another olive-grove while yet of tender years. There would have been gains, no doubt. But a great deal, including this mature and entertaining book, would have been lost to us.