Barrie: The Story of J. M. B

By Denis MackailSCRIBNERS
MR. MACKAIL’S Barrie is a curious and probably a unique combination of the new-fashioned psychograph with the old-fashioned official ‘Life and Letters.’ The book runs, in ounces, well into the forties; in pages, beyond seven hundred; in words, to over a third of a million. If it could have existed a generation ago, it would have been printed in two big library volumes it not three. It gives us almost as intensive a knowledge of Barrie in the reportable physical events of his life from childhood to the grave as we have of Pepys’s life for the comparatively brief periods of the diaries. Long passages of his career are set down, not by the month or the week, but by the day, the hour, almost by the single breath. Every play is traced in all possible detail from the first germ of suggestion through all the stages of incubation and composition and revision to casting and rehearsal, with an account of its run, its effect on critics and public in two countries, the effect of those effects on the author, and copious jottings on subsequent revivals.
No living man who has not kept a very full diary all his life, with copies of all his letters and papers, can possibly know as much about his own existence as we know about Barrie’s after reading Mr. Mackail. The miracle of the performance is that its seemingly inordinate thoroughness does not weary you. The reason why it does not is that, in and behind the outward events, it keeps you in constant awareness of the incredible, fantastic, mystifying variety of creatures that Barrie always was in his inward and secret life. In a sometimes excessively clipped, note-taking, nervously informal style - essentially the style of a stream-of-consciousness novel — J. M. B. is revealed to us as a man sociable and lonely, friendly and formidable, perverse and lovable, always incalculable, sometimes ridiculous, endowed with an almost supernatural charm; a Sentimental Tommy who had all sorts of contradictory qualities in excelsis and vented them not only successively but simultaneously. At every turn there was the self who acted and spoke, another self that watched him do it, and still another that watched the watcher — stratum upon stratum of self-criticism inextricably mixed with self-admiration, and all beyond anyone’s getting more nearly to the bottom of than Barrie himself got in one of his notebooks: ‘It is as if long after writing P. Pan its true meaning came to me. Desperate attempts to grow up but can’t.’
W. F.