V2 (I am
told that you can now mention it in print so long as you just call it V2 and dont
describe it too minutely) supplies another instance of the contrariness of human nature.
People are complaining of the sudden unexpected wallop with which these things go off .
It wouldnt be so bad if you got a bit of warning is the usual formula.
There is even a tendency to talk nostalgically of the days of the V1. The good old
doodlebug did at least give you time to get under the table, etc. etc. Whereas, in fact,
when the doodlebugs were actually dropping, the usual subject of complaint was the
uncomfortable waiting period before they went off. Some people are never satisfied.
Personally, I am no lover of the V2, especially at this moment when the house still seems
to be rocking from a recent explosion, but what depresses me about these things is the way
they set people talking about the next war. Every time one goes off I hear gloomy
references to next time, and the reflection: I suppose theyll be
able to shoot them across the Atlantic by that time. But if you ask who will be
fighting whom when this universally expected war breaks out, you get no clear answer. It
is just war in the abstract the notion that human beings could ever behave sanely
having apparently faded out of many peoples memories.
Maurice Baring, in his book on Russian literature, which was
published in 1907 and must have been the means of introducing many people in this country
to the great Russian novelists, remarks that English books were always popular in Russia.
Among other favourites he mentions The Diary of a Nobody (which, by the way, is
reprinted by the Everyman Library, if you can run across a copy).
I have always wondered what on earth The Diary of a Nobody
could be like in a Russian translation, and indeed I have faintly suspected that the
Russians may have enjoyed it because when translated it was just like Chekhov. But in a way it
would be a very good book to read if you wanted to get a picture of English life, even
though it was written in the eighties and has an intensely strong smell of that period.
Charles Pooter is a true Englishman both in native gentleness and his impenetrable
stupidity. The interesting thing, however, is to follow this book up to its origins. What
does it ultimately derive from? Almost certainly, I think, from Don Quixote, of
which, indeed, it is a sort of modern anglicized version. Pooter is a high-minded, even
adventurous man, constantly suffering disasters brought upon him by his own folly, and
surrounded by a whole tribe of Sancho Panzas. But apart from the comparative mildness of
the things that befall him, one can see in the endings of the two books the enormous
difference between the age of Cervantes and our own.
In the end the Grossmiths have to take pity on poor Pooter.
Everything, or nearly everything, comes right, and at the last there is a tinge of
sentimentality which does not quite fit in with the rest of the book. The fact is that, in
spite of the way we actually behave, we cannot any longer feel that the infliction of pain
is merely funny. Nietzsche
remarks somewhere that the pathos of Don Quixote may well be a modern discovery.
Quite likely Cervantes didnt mean Don Quixote to seem pathetic perhaps he
just meant him to be funny and intended it as a screaming joke when the poor old man has
half his teeth knocked out by a sling-stone. However this may be with Don Quixote, I am
fairly certain that it is true of Falstaff. Except possibly for the final scene in Henry
V, there is nothing to show that Shakespeare
sees Falstaff as a pathetic as well as a comic figure. He is just a punching-bag for
fortune, a sort of Billy Bunter with a gift for language. The thing that seems saddest to
us is Falstaffs helpless dependence on his odious patron, Prince Harry, whom John Masefield aptly
described as a disgusting beefy brute. There is no sign, or at any rate, no
clear sign, that Shakespeare sees anything pathetic or degrading in such a relationship.
Say what you like, things do change. A few years ago I was walking across
Hungerford Bridge with a lady aged about sixty or perhaps less. The tide was out, and as
we looked down at the beds of filthy, almost liquid mud, she remarked:
When I was a little girl we used to throw pennies to the
mudlarks down there.
I was intrigued and asked what mudlarks were. She explained that
in those days professional beggars, known as mudlarks, used to sit under the bridge
waiting for people to throw them pennies. The pennies would bury themselves deep in the
mud, and the mudlarks would plunge in head first and recover them. It was considered a
most amusing spectacle.
Is there anyone who would degrade himself in that way nowadays?
And how many people are there who would get a kick out of watching it?
Shortly before his assassination, Trotsky
had completed a Life of Stalin. One may assume that it was not an altogether
unbiased book, but obviously a biography of Stalin by Trotsky or,
for that matter, a biography of Trotsky by Stalin would be a winner from a selling
point of view. A very well-known American firm of publishers were to issue it. The book
had been printed and this is the point that I have been waiting to verify before
mentioning this matter in my notes the review copies had been sent out when the
U.S.A. entered the war. The book was immediately withdrawn, and the reviewers were asked
to cooperate in avoiding any comment whatever regarding the biography and its
They have cooperated remarkably well. The affair has gone almost
unmentioned in the American press and, as far as I know, entirely unmentioned in the
British press, although the facts were well known and obviously worth a paragraph or two.
Since the American entry into the war made the U.S.A. and the
U.S.S.R. allies, I think that to withdraw the book was an understandable if not
particularly admirable deed. What is disgusting is the general willingness to suppress all
mention of it. A little while back I attended a meeting of the PEN Club, which was held to
celebrate the tercentenary of Areopagitica, Miltons famous tract
on the freedom of the press. There were countless speeches emphasizing the importance of
preserving intellectual liberty, even in war-time. If I remember rightly, Miltons
phrase about the special sin of murdering a book was printed on the PEN
leaflet for the occasion. But I heard no reference to this particular murder, the facts of
which were no doubt known to plenty of people there.
Here is another little brain-tickler. The following often- quoted passage comes from
Act V of Shakespeares tragedy, Timon of Athens: