A Christmas Garland/Dickens
I had often wondered why when people talked to me of Tintoretto I always found myself thinking of Turgéneff. It seemed to me strange that I should think of Turgéneff instead of thinking of Tintoretto; for at first sight nothing can be more far apart than the Slav mind and the Flemish. But one morning, some years ago, while I was musing by my fireplace in Victoria Street, Dolmetsch came to see me. He had a soiled roll of music under his left arm. I said, "How are you?" He said, "I am well. And you?" I said, "I, too, am well. What is that, my dear Dolmetsch, that you carry under your left arm?" He answered, "It is a Mass by Palestrina." "Will you read me the score?" I asked. I was afraid he would say no. But Dolmetsch is not one of those men who say no, and he read me the score. He did not read very well, but I had never heard it before, so when he finished I begged of him he would read it to me again. He said, "Very well, M**re, I will read it to you again." I remember his exact words, because they seemed to me at the time to be the sort of thing that only Dolmetsch could have said. It was a foggy morning in Victoria Street, and while Dolmetsch read again the first few bars, I thought how Renoir would have loved to paint in such an atmosphere the tops of the plane trees that flaccidly show above the wall of Buckingham Palace…. Why had I never been invited to Buckingham Palace? I did not want to go there, but it would have been nice to have been asked…. How brave gaillard was Renoir, and how well he painted from that subfusc palette!…
My roving thoughts were caught back to the divine score which Arnold Dolmetsch was reading to me. How well placed they were, those semibreves! Could anyone but Palestrina have placed them so nicely? I wondered what girl Palestrina was courting when he conceived them. She must have been blonde, surely, and with narrow flanks…. There are moments when one does not think of girls, are there not, dear reader? And I swear to you that such a moment came to me while Dolmetsch mumbled the last two bars of that Mass. The notes were "do, la, sol, do, fa, do, sol, la," and as he mumbled them I sat upright and stared into space, for it had become suddenly plain to me why when people talked of Tintoretto I always found myself thinking of Turgéneff.
I do not say that this story that I have told to you is a very good story, and I am afraid that I have not well told it. Some day, when I have time, I should like to re-write it. But meantime I let it stand, because without it you could not receive what is upmost in my thoughts, and which I wish you to share with me. Without it, what I am yearning to say might seem to you a hard saying; but now you will understand me.
There never was a writer except Dickens. Perhaps you have never heard say of him? No matter, till a few days past he was only a name to me. I remember that when I was a young man in Paris, I read a praise of him in some journal; but in those days I was kneeling at other altars, I was scrubbing other doorsteps…. So has it been ever since; always a false god, always the wrong doorstep. I am sick of the smell of the incense I have swung to this and that false god—Zola, Yeats, et tous ces autres. I am angry to have got housemaid's knee, because I got it on doorsteps that led to nowhere. There is but one doorstep worth scrubbing. The doorstep of Charles Dickens....
Did he write many books? I know not, it does not greatly matter, he wrote the "Pickwick Papers"; that suffices. I have read as yet but one chapter, describing a Christmas party in a country house. Strange that anyone should have essayed to write about anything but that! Christmas—I see it now—is the only moment in which men and women are really alive, are really worth writing about. At other seasons they do not exist for the purpose of art. I spit on all seasons except Christmas…. Is he not in all fiction the greatest figure, this Mr. Wardell, this old "squire" rosy-cheeked, who entertains this Christmas party at his house? He is more truthful, he is more significant, than any figure in Balzac. He is better than all Balzac's figures rolled into one…. I used to kneel on that doorstep. Balzac wrote many books. But now it behoves me to ask myself whether he ever wrote a good book. One knows that he used to write for fifteen hours at a stretch, gulping down coffee all the while. But it does not follow that the coffee was good, nor does it follow that what he wrote was good. The Comédie Humaine is all chicory…. I had wished for some years to say this, I am glad d'avoir débarrassé ma poitrine de ça.
To have described divinely a Christmas party is something, but it is not everything. The disengaging of the erotic motive is everything, is the only touchstone. If while that is being done we are soothed into a trance, a nebulous delirium of the nerves, then we know the novelist to be a supreme novelist. If we retain consciousness, he is not supreme, and to be less than supreme in art is to not exist…. Dickens disengages the erotic motive through two figures, Mr. Winkle, a sportman, and Miss Arabella, "a young lady with fur-topped boots." They go skating, he helps her over a stile. Can one not well see her? She steps over the stile and her shin defines itself through her balbriggan stocking. She is a knock-kneed girl, and she looks at Mr. Winkle with that sensual regard that sometimes comes when the wind is north-west. Yes, it is a north-west wind that is blowing over this landscape that Hals or Winchoven might have painted—no, Winchoven would have fumbled it with rose-madder, but Hals would have done it well. Hals would have approved—would he not?—the pollard aspens, these pollard aspens deciduous and wistful, which the rime makes glistening. That field, how well ploughed it is, and are they not like petticoats, those clouds low-hanging? Yes, Hals would have stated them well, but only Manet could have stated the slope of the thighs of the girl—how does she call herself?—Arabella—it is a so hard name to remember—as she steps across the stile. Manet would have found pleasure in her cheeks also. They are a little chapped with the north-west wind that makes the pollard aspens to quiver. How adorable a thing it is, a girl's nose that the north-west wind renders red! We may tire of it sometimes, because we sometimes tire of all things, but Winkle does not know this. Is Arabella his mistress? If she is not, she has been, or at any rate she will be. How full she is of temperament, is she not? Her shoulder-blades seem a little carelessly modelled, but how good they are in intention! How well placed that smut on her left cheek!
Strange thoughts of her surge up vaguely in me as I watch her—thoughts that I cannot express in English…. Elle est plus vieille que les roches entre lesquelles elle s'est assise; comme le vampire elle a été fréquemment morte, et a appris les secrets du tombeau; et s'est plongée dans des mers profondes, et conserve autour d'elle leur jour ruiné; et, comme Lède, était mère d'Hélène de Troie, et, comme Sainte-Anne, mère de Maria; et tout cela n'a été pour elle que…. I desist, for not through French can be expressed the thoughts that surge in me. French is a stale language. So are all the European languages, one can say in them nothing fresh…. The stalest of them all is Erse….
Deep down in my heart a sudden voice whispers me that there is only one land wherein art may reveal herself once more. Of what avail to await her anywhere else than in Mexico? Only there can the apocalypse happen. I will take a ticket for Mexico, I will buy a Mexican grammar, I will be a Mexican…. On a hillside, or beside some grey pool, gazing out across those plains poor and arid, I will await the first pale showings of the new dawn….