No Life to Speak Of
H. F. ELLIS is a Londoner whose light prose has frequently appeared in the Atlantic. He is the author, also, of an extraordinarily funny book, The Vexations of A. J. Wentworth.
by H. F. ELLIS
I NEVER read an autobiography yet that wasn’t full of turning-points. “Dismayed by my father’s anger, which even to my unfledged six-yearold mind seemed out of all proportion to the trifling peccadillo of which I had been guilty, to have its provenance rather in some deep-seated psychological malaise beyond my ken, I stole away to the attic and threw myself sobbing on a pile of my mother’s discarded bonnets. Their proximity brought me some comfort, but becoming aware after a while of a hard object beneath my aching head (for I was at that time subject to blinding headaches and intermittent fits of nausea) I drew it out and found in my hand an old tattered volume that must somehow have been overlooked when my father turned every book, other than Wesley’s Sermons, out of the house. It was Lord Derby’s translation of Homer’s Iliad! I opened it and began to read. Instantly, the world was changed . . .”
My own parents, who had no idea how to nurture genius, kept Homer in the dining-room bookcase, where I naturally had no occasion to discover it. Even if I had, I doubt whether my reactions would have been of a kind to rate inclusion in a book of Memoirs at $7.50. Take the time — and there must have been such a time — when I first looked into Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale.”How did I face up to that challenging episode?
“This, then, was the answer. Here was the key for which, unknowingly, I had been groping ever since that day, nearly five years ago now, when the iridescent colors of a fresh mackerel, glimpsed furtively through a crack in the kitchen door, had sent me into inexplicable transports of delight. Beauty was the key, and it was mine, all mine. Whatever befell me, whenever I trudged wearily to and from the hated day-school, or fought back the bitter tears of mortification as I wrestled vainly to make up lost ground in geometry, or submitted dumbly to the misery of being plunged head-first in a water butt during one of my grandfather’s bouts of drunkenness — even that humiliation would be irradiated, transformed, imbued with a Meaning at which I had hitherto but dimly guessed. I capered madly, I remember . . .”
I remember nothing of the kind. I have had my emotions, like everybody else, on reading Keats’s Odes, and I dare say I could describe them, given time and a promise of adequate payment per thousand words; but it seems to me they came gradually and rather too late in life to be of interest to the general public.
The keen memories of autobiographers are a constant amazement to me. It is nothing to them to recall, for a couple of pages, their thoughts on first seeing Queen Victoria riding by in a carriage. I cannot recall mine of first eating a chocolate éclair, though for a boy that must have been quite an experience. Even the big moments, the occasions that any boy of proper sensibility ought to have recognized as at least potential turning-points, seem to have made no lasting impression on my mind. That first day away from the sheltering walls of home, faring forth alone into the uncertainties and terrors of school life — surely I ought to be able to dredge up something out of that, some incident, a word spoken, that made me what I am today?
Nothing comes back to me. Nothing. At least, wait. I do remember, now I come to think of it, that there was a sailor stretched out on the luggage rack in the railway compartment I had imagined unoccupied except for me. It was the nearest he could get to a hammock, I suppose, when traveling by train. Anyway, the first thing I knew about it was a voice from above my head asking, “Like a bit of chocolate, sonny?”
Is there anything there? Did not that rough but kindly voice, breaking in as if by magic on my agonies of homesickness, the dumb welling misery that only those — did it not, in short, kindle in my heart a halfconscious realization of something-orother that will be with me, God helping, to my dying day? Not as I recall the episode. It may well have been so, no doubt; but all I could swear to in a court of law is that the block of chocolate the sailor handed down was so thick and of such monstrous toughness that I could by no means bite any off and only succeeded in making on its granite surface a feeble scraping, as of the teeth of mice.
There was also, if anybody cares, a smell of carbolic soap in the washplace where I hung up my coat on arrival at the school.
It is extremely disappointing. Whether my life so far has been of an extravagantly even dullness, or whether I have had my turningpoints like other men and stupidly forgotten them, I cannot certainly decide. But I do think I have had bad luck. Some men cannot turn aside into an empty church in the cool of the evening without hearing the opening bars of a Bach fugue swelling and soaring up into the shadows. I hear nothing — and even if I did, it would turn out not to be Dr. Schweitzer at the organ. I am one of the three men who never met T. E. Lawrence. D.H. never wrote me so much as a card. If I once ran into Shaw at a cocktail party I have forgotten it. On the day after my tenth birthday, often a turning-point for autobiographers, I was sick.
But let us be clear about one thing. On the day I do decide to write my autobiography, the memories will come flooding back. I shall recall things that will surprise you. I may recall things that surprise me. And when your children’s children, sobbing up there in the attic, come to open the book, it will be as if the heavens had split asunder, rolled back layer upon layer, disintegrated in a great white sheet of flame, to reveal in the very heart of that vast cataclysm the key that will unlock for them the way to I am not quite sure yet what. Truth, perhaps.