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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Holiday Reading Post by :rsgorman Category :Nonfictions Author :Arnold Bennett Date :May 2012 Read :1630

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Books And Persons: Being Comments On A Past Epoch 1908-1911 - Holiday Reading

(_4 Aug. '10_)

I came away for a holiday without any books, except one, and I cut off the whole of my supply of newspapers, except one. As a rule my baggage is most injurious to railway porters, and on the Continent very costly, because of the number of books and neckties it contains. I wear the neckties, but I never read the books. I am always meaning to read them, but something is always preventing me. Before starting, the awful thought harasses me: Supposing I wanted to read and I had naught! This time I decided that it would be agreeably perilous to run the risk. The unique book which I packed was the sixth volume of Montaigne in the Temple Classics edition. We are all aware, from the writings of Mr. A.B. Walkley, Sir William Robertson Nicoll, Mr. Hall Caine, and others, what a peerless companion is Montaigne; how in Montaigne there is a page to suit every mood; how the most diverse mentalities--the pious, the refined, the libertine, the philosophic, the egoistic, the altruistic, the merely silly--may find in him the food of sympathy. I knew I should be all right with Montaigne. I invariably read in bed of a night (unless paying in my temples the price of excess), and nobody who ever talked about bed-books has succeeded in leaving out Montaigne from his list. My luggage cost much less than usual. I positively looked forward to reading Montaigne. Yet when the first night in a little French hotel arrived, and I had perched the candle on the top of the ewer on the night-table in order to get it high enough, I discovered that instead of Montaigne I was going to read a verbatim account of a poisoning trial in the Paris _Journal_. That is about three weeks ago, and I have not yet opened my Montaigne. I have, however, talked enthusiastically to sundry French people about Montaigne, and explained to them that Florio's translation is at least equal to the original, and that Montaigne is truly beloved and understood in England alone.

* * * * *

It was on the second day of my holiday, in another small provincial town in Central France, where I was improving my mind and fitting myself for cultured society in London by the contemplation of cathedrals, that I came across, in a draper's and fancy-ware shop, a remaindered stock of French fiction, at 4-1/2d. the volume. Among these, to my intense disgust, was a translation of a little thing of my own, and also a collection of stories by Leonide Andreief, translated by Serge Persky, and published by _Le Monde Illustre_. Although I already possessed, in Montaigne, sustenance for months, I bought this volume, and at once read it. A small book by Andreief, "The Seven that were Hanged," was published in England--last year, I think--by Mr. Fifield. It received a very great deal of praise, and was, in fact, treated as a psychological masterpiece. I was disappointed with it myself, for the very simple reason that I found it tedious. I had difficulty in finishing it. I gather that Andreief has a great reputation in Russia, sharing with Gorky the leadership of the younger school. Well, I don't suppose that I shall ever read any more Gorky, who has assuredly not come up to expectations. There are things among the short stories of Andreief (the volume is entitled "Nouvelles") which are better than "The Seven that were Hanged." "The Governor," for example, is a pretty good tale, obviously written under the influence of Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyitch"; and a story about waiting at a railway station remains in the mind not unpleasantly. But the best of the book is second-rate, vitiated by diffuseness, imitativeness, and the usual sentimentality. Neither Andreief nor Gorky will ever seriously count. Neither of them comes within ten leagues of the late Anton Tchehkoff. I think there must be young novelists alive in Russia who are superior to these two alleged leaders. I have, in fact, heard talk of one Apoutkine, in this country of France, and I am taking measures to read him.

* * * * *

When at length I settled down in a small hotel in a village on the farther coast of Brittany, I had read nothing but Andreief and criminal processes. Nobody else in the hotel, save one old lady, read anything but criminal processes. It is true that it was a sadly vulgar hotel. My fellow-guests were mainly employees who had escaped for a fortnight from the big Paris shops. In particular there was a handsome young woman from the fur department of the Grands Magasins du Louvre, who (weather permitting) spent half her morning in a kimono at her bedroom window while her husband (perfumery department) discussed patriotism and feminism in the cafe below. When I remember the spectacle, which I have often seen, of the staff of the Grands Magasins du Louvre trooping into its prison at 7.30 a.m. to spend a happy day of eleven and a half hours in humouring the whims of the great shopping classes, I was charmed to watch this handsome and vapid creature idling away whole hours at her window and enjoying the gaze of persons like myself. She never read. Once when I had a bit of a discussion with her husband at lunch upon an intellectual matter, she got up and walked away with an impatient gesture of disdain, as if to say: "What has all this got to do with Love?" Her husband never read, either. Their friends did not read, not even newspapers. But another couple had an infant, aged three, and this infant had a rather fierce grandmother, and this grandmother read a great deal. She and I alone stood for literature. She would stay at home with the infant while the intermediate generation was away larking. She was always reading the same book. It was a thick book, with a glossy coloured cover displaying some scene in which homicide and passion were mingled; its price, new, was sixpence halfpenny, and its title was simply and magnificently, "Borgia!" with a note of exclamation after it. She confined herself to "Borgia!" She was tireless with "Borgia!" She went home to Paris reading "Borgia!" It was a shocking hotel, so different from the literary hotels of Switzerland, Bournemouth, and Scarborough, where all the guests read Meredith and Walter Pater. I ought to have been ashamed to be seen in such a place. My only excuse is that the other two hotels in the remote little village were just as bad, probably worse.

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