The Peripatetic Reviewer
A GOOD room can make all the difference in the world. I came to Harvard in the autumn of l919 as a transfer, an unclassified student fresh from having served with the Moroccan Division. I was twentyone, fell old before my time, and knew exactly three men in the university veterans who had been with me in France. I arrived on the day college opened, and after registration I went out to search for a room. My budget was limited, for I was working my way through, and as I studied the list of vacancies I checked the least expensive.
As the day lengthened, the prospects seemed not too encouraging: each involved three or four flights of stairs ending in a small room under the eaves. I worked my way along Mt. Auburn Street (known as the “Gold Coast,” though I didn’t know it) and eventually came to a pie-shaped brick building with an odd but discernible face on its rounded front. This, as I was to learn later, was the home of the Harvard Lampoon. At the moment its janitor, a tough little number in a dusty derby, sat picking his teeth on the steps.
“Know of any good rooms around here?” I ventured. He looked me over for the fish-out-ofwater specimen that I was. “Well,” he said, indicating a handsome stone facade halfway up a side street, “why don’t you try up there? They might have something.”
So over I went and rang the bell, and when a white-coated steward opened the door, I asked if they had any rooms to rent.
“This is the Delphic Club,” he said, and shut the door firmly in my face.
When I turned back, my helpful guide had disappeared. Somewhat chastened, I continued on into the less collegiate part of Mt. Auburn Street.
Opposite the new Catholic church was a humble frame building and in the window the beckoning sign, “Room for Rent.” Miss Phelan, the landlady, as Irish as she was genial, showed me what she had: a bedroom and study on the ground floor. The price was more than I thought I could afford, and while I was hesitating, she led me upstairs. “Here is the bathroom,” she said, “and these are our prize rooms” — indicating the suite directly above mine. “They belong to Mr. Hillyer, the poet. He teaches in the English Department.”
Prize rooms they certainly were, with waxed hardwood floors, an open hearth on which birch logs had been laid, chintz curtains at the windows, old prints (two of them, I noticed, of Queen Elizabeth), bookshelves to the ceiling, and in the corner a tea table with what looked to be old china.
Robert Hillyer’s room was the luckiest thing that happened to me that year. It was so attractive, after the bare, grim cubicles I had been inspecting, that it made me want to stay; and my acquaintance with Bob, which grew into friendship, added an extra dimension to my education, He was enough older to be my mentor, and his knowledge and love of English were contagious.
This was in the age of Prohibition when cocktails were deviously concocted. My father occasionally supplied me with New Jersey applejack, and this I shared with Rob and his friends. They were a remarkable group: Foster Damon, who was working on his book on Blake; Stewart Mitchell, the managing editor of The Dial; Charles Brackett, who had just sold his stories to the Saturday Evening Post and was about ready to quit the Law School; Malcolm Cowley, in his last year as an undergraduate; John Dos Passos, who was beginning his Three Soldiers; and good-natured Ronald Levinson, who kept the peace when the temperaments clashed. Foster and Charlie Brackett had a natural antipathy for each other. They were both fencers, and lacking foils they would have at each other using their right arms as weapons and with enough thrust to imperil Bob’s old teacups.
I am gregarious by nature, and what saved me from going too social was the talk and intent ness of this group. They lived for writing and they were nourished on books. Secretly I was appalled by how much more they had read than I; now I was trying to catch up, and I remember how surprised I was when Bob remarked casually that his possessive reading was behind him. He had done it in his years at Kent and Harvard before he went into the service. He had done it; it was in his mind and stored away. Naturally what he did was to share his familiars with me, freshening my understanding of Spenser’s Faerie Queerte and Hakluyt’s Voyages, and strange books like Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams and W. H. Hudson‘s Green Mansions, and always the Elizabethan poets.
In an English education it is usually the tutor who opens the horizons of the mind. For me there were two: Dean L. B. R. Briggs, for whom I did my utmost in English 5, and Robert Hillyer, a friend who made the intake of English literature seem as natural as breathing.
A year later, when Bob went to Copenhagen on a fellowship, I moved up into his quarters and a sophomore moved into mine—Donald Oenslager, who even then was absorbed in a model theater which he lit and decorated in his spare time. There is a progression in such things.
Friendship and art
To the art of making friends, Clive Bell brought gusto, a relish for wit, an unquenchable admiration for women, and an appreciation of the arts which, as it was tested and developed, made him a leading critic in Europe. All this is to be inferred from his entertaining memoir, Old Friends (Harcourt, Brace, $4.50). In his first term at Trinity College in Cambridge in 1899 he became a charter member of the Midnight Society, a group of undergraduates who met in his rooms to strengthen themselves with whiskey or punch and to spout verse or read aloud till early dawn. Of the six members one was the brother of Virginia Woolf; a second, Leonard Woolf, was to be her husband; and a third was Lytton Strachey. So in a way this was, as he says, “the foundation of Bloomsbury.” In 1904 Mr. Bell made his first trip to Paris, befriended by the three painters, Gerald Kelly, Morrice, the Canadian, and Roderick O’Conor. They guided him to their favorite haunts in Montparnasse and Montmartre and laid the groundwork for his future friendships with Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Segonzac, and Cocteau, After his return to London he married Vanessa Stephen, Virginia Woolfs older sister. Few of our contemporaries have had such diverse and cosmopolitan friendships, and fewer still could write about them so charmingly.
The most endearing portrait in the book, and to me the most skillful in its revelation, is that of Virginia Woolf — skillful because he has caught so well her changing moods, the shimmering genius of her writing, and the mischievous playfulness of her wit. He says that Orlando “gives the best idea of her with her elbows on the tea-table letting herself go,”and that The Waves and To the Lighthouse were “the only perfect masterpieces she ever produced.”He says that until her familiar correspondence has been published (which personal discretion and libel now forbid) “even a vague idea of the fun and spirit of Virginia’s talk can hardly be gained by those who did not know her.” He tells of what she meant to his children and of how during a gloomy winter downpour in the country, as Lytton Strachey and he sat watching the premature darkness, Strachey asked, “Loves apart, whom would you most like to see coming up the drive?” And the answer for them both was: “Virginia of course.”
I suspect that the most difficult and judicious of the chapters to write was that on his dear friend Roger Fry. He regarded Fry as his superior, but in this evaluation we see critic against critic, friend appraising friend, with a discrimination and affection well conveyed.
The chapters on Strachey and Maynard Keynes are illuminating; the encounter with T. S. Eliot fun; his scrutiny of Sickert devastating. Paris in 1904 and in the twenties, the concluding pieces, are evocative, full of spirit and fresh impressions, swift in judgment, as in his remarks about Picasso and Gertrude Stein, memorable in the accounts of unlikely dinners, as that tended by “nice Mr. Shiff” in honor of Diaghileff and the Ballet, to which came Picasso, Stravinsky, Joyce, and Proust —all this told so gaily and with such a sense of immediacy that one reads with envy, wishing to have been there.
The daily double
Daphne du Maurier, who excels in mystification, has found for herself a slightly incredible but wholly fascinating situation to explore in her new novel, The Scapegoat (Doubleday, $3.95). Her hero is an English bachelor of thirty-eight, lawabiding and scholarly. He has spent the summer in France collecting notes for the new series of lectures which he is to deliver to his students in London. He speaks such effortless French that he passes for a Frenchman, but he is never admitted into a French inner circle, and now as he drives his little Ford toward the Channel he is filled with a feeling of futility, of never having lived. John pauses for a drink at Le Mans and in the buffet is suddenly jolted by a stranger, and on looking up finds that he is looking at himself, at his double.
The Frenchman is as shocked as he. They dine and drink together, confidences are given, and the Frenchman, who is clearly in some deep trouble, proposes that they exchange their clothes and their lives. John is giggling at the suggestion as he passes out. Next afternoon he awakens to find that the frenchman has disappeared, taking his clothes, his passport, and his car, and that he — the survivor — is Comte Jean de Gue, whose chauffeur is waiting below.
Since he has no choice, he decides to bluff the masquerade as far as he can carry it, and in this he is ably assisted by his chauffeur, Gaston, who seems not the least surprised by his hangover. But his arrival at the château really puts him to the test, for now he must accommodate himself to the possessive demands of the aging, doting Countess, his mother, to the complaints of Françoise, his pregnant wife, and to the affectionate observation of his ton-year-old daughter, Marie-Noel. The dogs, the little terriers and the ancient retriever César, fail to recognize him, and there are also some difficult moments with mistresses, his sister-in-law and the warmhearted Béla in the Village.
The suspense of the story is heightened by the unmasking of one relationship after another, which Miss du Maurier achieves by the most dexterous power of inference. The novel constantly pivots on the essential difference in the two men: the Frenchman Jean, so amorous, so reckless of anything save his own gratification, so audacious: the English John, so much more sensitive than sensuous, and so thoughtful in his endeavor to hold the family its failing fortunes together. Her pictures of the old château and of its disintegrating little glass foundry are warm with life and acute in their perception of French character. With wizardry Miss du Maurier makes the book believable and compelling to unravel. One accepts Johns deception not as a masquerade but, temporarily, as life itself, with what Coleridge would call “the willing suspension of one’s disbelief.”
Be fat and strenuous
“As a boy,”writes Roger I. Lee, “I was rather on the frail side.”To anyone looking at his ample scope today, that is hard to believe. He began filling out in early manhood, and the more he weighed the more work he could do, so why stop? With this defense of corpulence he cheerily begins his autobiography, The Happy Life of a Doctor (Little, Brown, $4.00). He writes with the healthy skepticism of a Yankee, with a shrewd and quizzical humor, with a candor affectionate or blunt, and with much self-satisfaction.
When he entered the Medical School, medicine was the fourth choice of Harvard graduates, preceded by law, business, and leaching, and this book of Dr. Lee’s is his personal testimony of how far medicine has advanced in American esteem these past five decades. I like the range of his interests; I like his shrewd estimates of doctors’ fees, the sanity with which he scrutinizes mental disturbances, and the experience with which he speaks, of the athletic heart. I enjoy the account of his war services as head of Base Hospital No. 5 in France; I enjoy the genial and decisive episodes which he selects from his twenty-three years’ service on the Harvard Corporation; and most of all I admire the honesty of his friendships, dulcet and combative, with men as different as Dr. Fred C. Shattuck, Dr. Harvey Cushing, Sir Almroth Wright, Sir Alexander Fleming, President Lowell and President Conant, John Haynes Holmes, his roommate in college, and Dr. Lawrence J. Henderson, whom he rates the greatest intellect with whom he ever came in contact. Bel ween the lines and never presumptuous is the incentive to get as much out of life as he has.