Thursday, March 06, 2008

Do you have any anecdotes to back up your evidence?

So, just finished the autobiography of G. K. Chesterton.

You can find a number of pictures of Chesterton on the web. He trained at art school, which helps to explain the poses he strikes for so many of his pictures. His face itself is a work of art: a moustache, a minuscule pair of spectacles, carefully unkempt hair, and a permanent scowl all bunched up together in the one ball. No, really - he did it on purpose. As he got older, you get the sense that Chesterton turned more and more perfectly spherical, until in the end, he was almost a perfect globe, punctuated at points by limbs and a head. In one of my favourite pictures, he holds a hand at his side - it's actually seated in a chair arm, but he seems to be patting his rump, emphasising his own sphericalness.

People write autobiographies for all sorts of reasons. They do it to tell the story of their life; or to put certain little-known facts about their life on record; or to commemorate their parents, relatives, and friends; or to record their part in great public affairs; or to confess their crimes and sins; or just to lie about their own life, either for glory or out of compulsion; or to correct or change the accounts about themselves that are read in newspapers and magazines; or to describe parts of their intellectual or social development; or simply as an excuse to collect together some of their earlier writings and anecdotes in a new form; or to present some sort of idealised version about their own country, family, or self; and so on. Chesterton, typically, writes his autobiography for all of the above reasons, and many others, and does it all at once.

He really can't help himself; a simple story becomes a shepherd's pie of ideas, all mixed in haphazardly together. So, in the course of a tale about an encounter with Winston Churchill (say) Chesterton might make a diversion to talk about the nature of public speakers, before becoming distracted by the issue of faith and politics, while taking his time in order to tell us a childhood reminiscence that led to his eventual conversion to Catholicism, and wind up his conversation with a few general observations disguised as paradoxes. Political tracts collide with personal, romantic observations, interleaved at points with poetic quotations. He begins the first chapter by telling, more or less at random, family anecdotes that circulated before his birth; in subsequent chapters he tells entertaining stories about school days, relates his life in journalism, discusses his travels overseas, makes a tribute to his friend Hillaire Belloc, and winds it all up with a rambling theological discourse apparently about how nice daffodils are.

Name-dropping is rampant. I've already mentioned Churchill and Belloc, but we also meet in these pages George Bernard Shaw (who he maintained an ongoing literary feud with), William Butler Yeats (apparently), Edmund Clerihew Bentley (inventor of the Clerihew, obviously), Edmund Gosse, H G Wells, and many, many others. But it must be said that Chesterton does this whole thing so well, more or less because he has such an extraordinary talent for fanciful names:

My sister in law was contributing to a Sunday paper in serial form one of those bravely, not to say brazenly, romantic romances... the villain on whom the tale revolved was represented as a theatrical producer on a colossal scale like that of Cochran or Reinhardt. He was represented as doing various unscrupulous things, as is the humble duty of a bad man in what is only meant to be a good story... But let us suppose, for the sake of argument or narrative, that his name in the story was Arthur Mandeville. Now it so happened that there floated about somewhere ... a private individual whose name actually was Arthur Mandeville... This man brought an action for heavy damages against the paper, on the ground for a malicious and vindictive blasting of his private reputation; and he won it.

Chesterton takes this small anecdote from his journalistic life, extends it, and begins to wonder about the possible consequences, asking whether authors would not in future have to rely upon numbers instead of actual names, or his own preferred means of avoiding the legal consequences: '... equipping all the characters with names so extraordinary that it was practically impossible that they could be the real names of any real people anywhere; and by way of illustration I wrote a moving love-scene between Bunchusa Blutterspangle and Splitcat Chintzibobs.'
Entertaining as all these anecdotes were, I began to have my doubts about their veracity rather early in the book; they were more or less confirmed by a later tale told by Chesterton, about a debate raging in the letters page of the newspapers over racial purity and the universal brotherhood of man, in which there appears letters by H G Wells, the 'White Man of Bexley', a 'real negro... who signed his letter, "Black Man"', a 'Brown Man', and a termination to the debate being brought, apparently, by a letter for which he remembers 'almost every word; for it was short and simple and touching in its appeal to larger and more tolerant ideals.'

The letter, in part:

Sir, May I express my regret that you should continue a correspondence which causes considerable pain to many innocent persons, who, by no fault of their own, but by the iron laws of nature, inherit a complexion uncommon among their fellow-creatures and attractive only to the elite.... Yours faithfully, Mauve Man with Green Spots.

It's not that I'm saying Chesterton is making this up (although it does bear remarkable similarities to an opening passage from The Napoleon of Notting Hill). It's just that Chesterton has a superb disdain of mere facts. You'd find this attitude rather confirmed by later tales he tells, for instance, those about H G Wells, 'who used, even in those days, to make irreverent darts and dashes through the sombre house and the sacred garden and drop notes to me over the garden wall.' (Incidentally, he keeps promising, when raising the subject of Wells, to say 'more later', and then seeming to forget the subject altogether, for no other reason, it seems, than that he suddenly finds another subject interesting. And a very good reason that is, too.)

But then, occasionally, you find yourself pulled up in your skepticism by a fact which is actually, factually true, such as his tale about his friend Maurice Baring, who apparently was fond of repeating the line "I like the sound of breaking glass". We don't have much reason for doubting this, as Hillaire Belloc said in one of his poems -

Like many of the upper class
He liked the sound of breaking glass.

And then adds in an addendum, which is the best place to add such things,

A line I stole - with subtle daring
From Wing Commander Maurice Baring.

I had originally suspected that Wing Commander Maurice Baring had been invented by Belloc specifically for the purposes of that excellent rhyme, just as I had thought that Chesterton had been making all his anecdotes up. But there you go; I was wrong on both counts.

Other characteristics of the book worth noting are the typical Chestertonian paradoxes -

'On almost every occasion when I have met somebody, I have met somebody else. That is, I have met a private man who was oddly different from the public man.'

'Meredith was not only full of life, but he was full of lives.'

'Those who now think too little of the Allied Cause are those who once thought too much of it.'
(And so on.)

The best, most grandly poetic gestures are often saved for the ends of chapters, or key points therein, to emphasise overarching themes. During a meeting with some Germans at some point prior to the first world war, he says 'and there rose up like an enormous shadow over that drinking hall the shadow of things to be.' (To take just one example.)

I certainly had a lot of fun with this little autobiography, and since I began this post by noting how I'd finished the book, I might as well finish it by showing how the book starts: it's neatly illustrative of the clever, witty way Chesterton has of subverting your expectations and letting you look at the old anew. The first chapter, by the way, is titled ' Hearsay Evidence':

Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment of private judgment, I am firmly of opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated the ridge. I do not allege any significance in the relation of the two buildings; and I indignantly deny that the church was chosen because it needed the whole water-power of West London to turn me into a Christian.


Steve said...

Why is it that really long sentences tire me out? I just can't bear the lack of full stops in his writing.

TimT said...

Probably a post Ernest Hemingway thing, since EH was one of the modernists who ruthlessly excised every unneeded detail from his writing. Long, flowing sentences with detailed clauses, punctuated at intervals by clarifying colons and semi-colons were common in 19th century writing and before.

Chesterton certainly was afflicted by the long, sententious, rambling style of his predecessors, but I rather like it. You can imagine him speaking in the same way, which might be the point.

Steve said...

I don't mind rambling writing if it is amusing, but I guess my point is it can still be done with full stops.

And correct me if I am wrong, but Dickens for one didn't suffer from this problem, did he? Maybe that's why he was popular!

I enjoyed your post nonetheless.

TimT said...

I'm certain that he did! Though glancing through a few of Dickens books online, I can see he varied this style a bit, often starting off with tricksy short sentences.

Full stops obviously aren't crucial when we speak, and Chesterton more or less writes like he speaks, which means a lot of commas and semi-colons to loosely mark the spots where he makes digressions, and so on.

TimT said...

Steve, if you dislike Chesterton's meagre use of full stops, then I can't imagine how you'd feel after making it through to the end of this sentence...

proserpine said...

Yes, but nineteenth-century long sentences at their best are written with an appreciation of the rhythm and cadence of the English language itself (with a poet's ear), notwithstanding the fact that we can't make a fair comparison with a French sentence in English translation. I think Chesterton has that appreciation, although I haven't read his autobiography (I'm thinking of his work on Dickens). It's no more like rambling than short, snappy sentences (although you have probably articulated one of the reasons why I have such an intense dislike of Hemingway). I can think of many contemporary writers who do that clause piled upon clause piled upon clause thing to great effect- Michael Ondaatje, for example.

And with Dickens you really have to make a distinction between the early and the late work, taking Dombey and Son (I think) as the transitional point, but for some really tight and brilliant short pieces by Dickens, try the journalism, especially The Uncommercial Traveller.

I really enjoyed the review, Tim.

TimT said...

Thanks. I've just done a little ruthless editing of my own to this post, changing the code for one link, changing an 'it' to 'this post', and taking one or two stray words. Ruthless, I say!

I guess it wasn't all Hemingway's fault, though he was a major influence. You find the same sort of pared-back writing in many authors of the time - note, for instance, the aphoristic poetic style of Auden, or even C S Lewis's in some of his more academic essays. They were unlikely to have been *majorly* influenced by Hemingway. Maybe an idea whose time had come?

Incidentally, it's more than possible to have witty aphorisms that are, at the same time, extremely long (P J O'Rourke does this), and a rambling writing style that nevertheless consists almost entirely of short, snappy sentences. (Can't think of a writer who does this, offhand, but I'm sure there has got to be a few examples). As I'm sure you know.

proserpine said...

Yeah, I suppose it's probably Hemingway's rampant misogyny which really gets to me! Auden (whom I love) has an aphoristic style, but it's just not the same- it has more of a density and a weight about it, for me. I guess I'd buy the comparison more with Larkin or somebody like that (the link is worth clicking for Alan Bennett's description of Larkin and the account of his "Brunette Coleman" fiasco).

I was thinking about similar things because I was reading bits of The Prelude (1805 version) and noticing afresh the way you frequently get such a detailed, long built-up sentence or scene ending in something so beautiful and small, like a bubble bursting, but delightfully so (that's not the proper lit. crit way of putting it, just my impression). I guess what I mean to say is that there's simple and there's flat and the latter is often mistaken for the former.
Anyway, if one wants to name drop, I think one best do it with as many outrageously obvious lies as possible and a moustache something like Daniel Day-Lewis in "There Will Be Blood".

PS- Did you see the reconstruction of Bach's face? God, that thing is going to give me nightmares!

redsaid said...

Damn! Blast! Thanks to this post about Chesterton, I feel like a mere amateur when it comes to sprawling digressions. In fact, this might prompt me to just altogether fire my pathetic parenthetical asides!

P.S. I have tagged you in a Meme. I apologise, but that is what you get for insisting on being one of my... oh, who am I kidding? My ONLY reader.

TimT said...

I don't think you should EVER give up digressions, just as I don't think any of us should ever give up digressions (by the way, speaking of digressions, was anyone watching ABC telly last night...?)

Chesterton is indeed the king of transgressive digressions, digressive transgressions, discursive digressions, and digressive discussions, but we can all aspire to live up to his high standards. Amongst my other plans, one of these days, I plan to write a novel that ends up being ALL FOOTNOTE. Or maybe 200 pages footnote to one page of real text.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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