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Friday, 13 September 2013

Gems among the put-downs

Not Radulph Glaber...
This post came about because I was reading a history of Sicily, a Kindle book, on my tablet, as I was coming home today, and encountered this:
…one, the notoriously unreliable monk Radulph Glaber (the wildness of whose imagination was rivalled only by that of his private life, which gives him a fair claim to have been expelled from more monasteries than any other littérateur of the eleventh century)…
—John Julius Norwich, The Normans in the South, 1016–1130, 1992.
Perhaps that was malicious, perhaps it wasn't. It was certainly fun to read, and I'll bet it was fun to write. I have committed one or two like that (but I'm not telling where), and I know how it feels.  And normally, the author can offer a claim of truth and public benefit.

Then I recalled that I had a few more barbed comments, not too unlike it, at home, on file. So I just opened the file, added the Norwich one, then pulled out the others for sharing. I was going to call this selection "literary malice", but a few of them don't quite fit the description "literary", and not all of them were malicious.
I have no doubt of your courage, Sir Robert, though you have of mine; but then consider what different lives we have led, and what a school of courage is that troop of Yeomanry at Tamworth — the Tory fencibles!  Who can doubt of your courage who has seen you at their head, marching up Pitt Street through Dundas Square onto Liverpool Lane? . . . the very horses looking at you as if you were going to take away 3 per cent. of their oats.  After such spectacles as these, the account you give of your own courage cannot be doubted . . .
— Sydney Smith (1771 - 1845), in a letter to Sir Robert Peel, June 20, 1842, quoted in Charles Mackay (ed.), A Thousand and One Gems of English Prose (n.d.), p. 400.
Mr Henry James has written a book called The Secret of Swedenborg and has kept it.
— William Dean Howells (1837 - 1920).
Born in Warsaw in 1838 and died there in 1861, aged twenty-three.  In this brief lifetime she accomplished, perhaps, more than any composer who ever lived, for she provided the piano of absolutely every tasteless sentimental person in the so-called civilized world with a piece of music which that person, however unaccomplished in a dull technical sense, could play.  It is probable that if the market stalls and back-street music shops of Britain were to be searched The Maiden's Prayer would be found to be still selling, and as for the Empire at large, Messrs. Allan of Melbourne reported in 1924, sixty years after the death of the composer, that their house alone was still disposing of 10,000 copies a year.
— Percy A. Scholes, The Oxford Companion to Music, 9th edition, 1955, page 64.
On behalf of Australians everywhere, I declare that last one to be malicious!
In retrospect I think my essay on Teilhard was good of its kind, but I confess that when on the insistence of an American writer friend I read Mark Twain's 'Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offences' I bowed my head in the presence of a master of literary criticism.
— Sir Peter Medawar (1915 - 1987), Plutos's Republic, introduction, 22.
These are fun:
Andrade is like an inverted Micawber, waiting for something to turn down.
— Sir Henry Tizard (1885 - 1959), recalled by C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), Science and Government, 1960.
The hatchet is buried for the present: but the handle is conveniently near the surface.
— Sir Henry Tizard (1885 - 1959) on Lord Cherwell, recalled by C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), Science and Government, 1960.
And Snow himself is always good value:
It would have been more accurate for Leavis to say that there has been no debate between him and me.  There has not: nor will there be.  For one simple and over-riding reason.  I can't trust him to keep to the ground-rules of academic or intellectual controversy.
— C. P. Snow (1905 - 1980), The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case, 1970.
Critics like Leavis always take a pounding, but so do others, and so does criticism:
You ought to be roasted alive, not that even well-cooked you would be to my taste.
— J. M. Barrie, to George Bernard Shaw, in response to GBS's criticism of his plays. 
When I am dead, I hope it may be said:'His sins were scarlet, but his books were read.'
— Hilaire Belloc (1870 - 1953), 'On His Books' in Stories Essays and Poems, Everyman Library 948, 1957, 413.
And then there was the one attributed to Sibelius, I think, to the effect that nobody ever erected a statue to a critic: I have yet to get a reliable source for that, so it isn't in my files. The same goes for the alleged Max Reger letter to Rudolph Louis. Louis was a critic for the Münchener Neuste Nachrichten and Reger allegedly wrote: 
I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me!"
("Ich sitze in dem kleinsten Zimmer in meinem Hause. Ich habe Ihre Kritik vor mir. Im nächsten Augenblick wird sie hinter mir sein.")
It's all over the web, and even in Wikipedia, but I am still checking. Now, one last poisonous put-down, to which there was (and is) an antidote:
It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.
— Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902), quoted in Henry Festing Jones, Samuel Butler, a Memoir, 1920.  Butler, by the way had been a sheep farmer in New Zealand, for what that's worth.
Here is an alternative view on one of those Carlyles: the Jenny mentioned below was Jane Carlyle, the same Mrs. Carlyle mentioned by Butler.

Jenny kiss'd me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in:
Say I'm weary, say I'm sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss'd me,
Say I'm growing old, but add,  Jenny kiss'd me.

— (James Henry) Leigh Hunt (1784 - 1859), Rondeau.

When I visited the Carlyle's house in London's Chelsea in 2010, the chair was still there, but I was neither allowed to sit in it nor to photograph it, the repulsive, anal-retentive toads!  All I have to recall it by is that small verselet.  There's plenty more in that commonplace quotes file that I should share.

Hmmm.  You know what?  I think I have just found another title for the Not Your Usual... series. I just checked, and there are more than 73,000 words in that file.  A bit of judicious weeding and I'll have a nice collection for injudicious reading!

Update, a few hours later: trimmed to 70 000 words, roughly banged into epub, mobi and pdf formats. A bit of cleaning-up to go, a bit more weeding...

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This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.

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