Monday, August 3, 2015

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “HAIL AND FAREWELL” by George Moore (originally published as three separate volumes “AVE” [1911], “SALVE” [1912] and “VALE” [1914]; revised and published as a single volume “HAIL AND FAREWELL” in 1925)  

As I’ve remarked before on this blog [look up GeorgeMoore for comments on his novels Esther Waters and The Lake], George Moore (1852-1933), like Henry James, had the maddening habit of writing and publishing a book, and then years later tinkering with it and bringing out a new and “revised” edition. This may be a perfectly valid procedure for a non-fiction work, into which new research has been invested after the first publication. But it is merely fastidious affectation with a work of fiction, which the public has already had the chance to read and judge. In the case of Hail and Farewell, however, George Moore might have had very good reasons to revise. Originally published as three separate volumes, Ave, Salve and Vale between 1911 and 1914, Hail and Farewell is Moore’s autobiography of his life among the literati of Ireland in the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a little controversial because in it, Moore drew very unflattering portraits of people who were still alive. It is possible that in his 1925 revision, he modified his poisoned portraits or toned it down somewhat. He certainly shortened it.
I say “possible” because I have read only the original three-volume version and not the revision. The three volumes in question were lent to me by the late and great Auckland craft-printer Ronald Holloway. They were first editions from 1911, 1912 and 1914, so of course I handled them with care before returning them to Ron. I remember the pleasure Moore’s racy style gave me – so much so that I whizzed through the first volume Ave at a single sitting. But I also remember the slightly queasy feeling much of it gave me. A self-opinionated egotist, Moore’s view of Irish literary life always implies, and frequently asserts explicitly, the author’s immense superiority to all his contemporaries. Finally, as Moore departs from Ireland, he lets us know that the Irish are really a backward and stupid bunch, and Moore much prefers the literary life of Paris or London (where indeed he resided for most of the rest of his life). Writing when he was in his ‘sixties, it is an understatement to say that Moore was clearly settling some old scores, even if he spins many engaging anecdotes en route.
To orient you a bit more explicitly, here is what the original three volumes offer by way of narrative.
Ave has Moore, in 1894, leaving London with his fellow Irishman, the pious Catholic playwright Edward Martyn, and returning to Dublin in the hope of helping establish an Irish Literary Theatre. He rubs shoulders with Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats and Douglas Hyde and “A.E.” and other luminaries in Irish literary nationalism. The Church disapproves of Yeats’ ultra-nationalist play The Countess Cathleen. Moore quarrels with Martyn over a play Martyn has written which Moore judges to be so unpolished that he undertakes to re-write it himself. Moore is uncomfortable in Dublin, whose literary leaders he increasingly judges as provincial. He takes a number of European trips. He attends the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Having long since abandoned the Catholicism in which he was raised, he decides that he will be more comfortable as an agnostic living in England. But there is shrieking jingoism in England at the end of the 1890s, at the time of the Boer War. Moore publicly denounces the British use of “concentration camps”. This drives him back to Ireland where he decides to settle permanently. Even though he speaks no Irish, he becomes involved in the Gaelic League’s attempt to revive the language.
Salve continues the memoir chronologically. In 1901, “A.E.” kindly finds Moore a house to live in, in Dublin. Moore continues to be involved with Yeats, Lady Gregory and others in the Irish Literary Theatre, which now becomes the Irish National Theatre. To help the Irish language movement, Moore writes (in English) stories of Irish peasant life, based in part on his childhood memories of his life in County Mayo, from which the (wealthy and land-owning) Moores originated. The arrangement is that his stories will be translated into Gaelic by others, and printed in an Irish-language magazine edited by the Jesuit Father Tom Finley. The arrangement works well enough, but Moore is allergic to Catholic clergy, and all his encounters with the priest set him off on angry theorising about how all religious dogma is the enemy of true art. (In the process, and somewhat implausibly, he manages to interpret all Medieval and Renaissance Catholic art as really being “pagan” – I’ve noticed that this particular dodge had recently become quite commonplace among those who like the Art but want to strip the Church of any relationship with it.) Indeed, Salve comes to be dominated by Moore’s growing anti-Catholicism. He quarrels with Martyn and mocks him for his “peasant” religion. More disastrously, he quarrels with his younger brother, Colonel Maurice Moore, a practising Catholic who still lives with his family at Moore Hall in County Mayo, even though George Moore, the older brother, is heir to the estate and in control of their inheritance. Neither Maurice nor George enjoyed their schooling at the Catholic Oscott College in England (George recalls the confessional being used as a means of discipline, and claims that a priest once tried to seduce him). However, their attitudes to religion are now diametrically opposed. George has no real commitment to religious belief, but to signal his contempt for a Catholic-dominated nation he decides to publicly declare himself a Protestant and decides to leave Ireland permanently. (His sceptical researches into the New Testament at this point were clearly the origin of his sceptical novel about Jesus, The Brook Kerith). He begins to make a round of valedictory visits to friends.
And so to the third volume, Vale, in which Moore shakes the dust of Ireland from his feet.  On the framework of sitting by his fireside smoking his cigar, Moore recalls his past, including his grandfather’s pretensions to literary culture and his father’s failed attempts to make a soldier of him. He recalls his mingling with raffish racecourse types in England. (His novel Esther Waters is specifically referenced.) He remembers his training as a painter, his bohemian life in London and Paris, his quarrels with James McNeill Whistler, his friendships with Manet and Degas and Renoir. And he recalls Yeats railing at middle-class philistinism in the arts… which leads Moore to theorise that all art is really middle-class, and maybe Yeats is written-out as a poet. Moore expresses contempt for Lady Gregory’s artificial language in re-telling Irish folk tales.  He gives an account of the hostile reception given to J.M.Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, and a wrenching version of Synge’s death from cancer, too sick, as he lay in hospital, to gaze at the Wicklow Hills where he had roamed and dying with tears in his eyes. More than any other part of the trilogy, Vale is dominated by anecdotes and reminiscences of the artistic and literary life. But it ends on a note of psychological cruelty. Visiting his Catholic brother Maurice at Moore Hall, George rails against Catholic orders, who are being bequeathed some of the stately homes where gentry used to live. George had never married and was childless, despite – not always credibly – boasting of many past love affairs. As controller of the estate, George says that Maurice may inherit Moore Hall so long as he does not raise his children as Catholics. Colonel Moore indignantly rejects this attempt at financial blackmail. George Moore leaves Ireland for good.
For all the engaging briskness of his style, for all his genuine wit and the brightness of his anecdotes, George Moore the egotist can’t help emerging as a somewhat repugnant character in this autobiography. He is the man who tells Yeats how to write, presumes to advise Synge on how he should revise his plays, belittles artists greater than himself, such as Whistler, and generally expects to be accepted as the great authority on all things cultural. Reading between the lines (especially in the second volume Salve), it is clear that he did not make as big a noise in the Gaelic language scene as he expected to. I gain the distinct impression that the only people who continued to listen to him during his whole Irish sojourn were the acquiescent “A.E.”, the long-suffering Edward Martyn, and his brother Maurice, no matter how much he mocked them. Indeed, upon finishing the whole trilogy, I couldn’t help wondering how many quarrels he had really had in Ireland and how many peoples’ backs he had got up. In the last volume, he openly admits how much his first volume had irritated people. This leads me to some speculations. Did he eventually leave Ireland to avoid all the embarrassment and ill feeling his waspish pen-portraits had caused?  Or was he by this stage simply bored with his intellectual toying with Gaelicism?
As in all memoirs, autobiographies and reminiscences, there is the problem of conversations being (supposedly) remembered word-for-word from many years previously. To his credit, George Moore does record at length his brother’s reasonable rejection of his eventual proposal about their inheritance; but more often it is Moore who is recorded as having triumphed in any exchange of words with others.
So, with all the usual caveats, Hail and Farewell has to be seen as one of those self-justifying exercises by a very talented literary egotist. In re-reading it, I was most reminded of similarly self-promoting memoirs such as Wyndham Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I was also reminded of the pitfalls of taking an egotist’s memoirs as objective fact – in which respect I think of the memoirs of Gunter Grass and Lillian Hellman, about whom I have previously commented.
And yet, like the memoirs of Hemingway and Wyndham Lewis, Hail and Farewell has been a veritable source-book for literary historians, and with very good reason. It is filled with good anecdotes about Irish literary worthies, malicious and patronising though many of them are. My pen was kept busy copying the best of them into my reading diary. The malicious side of me relishes Moore’s backhanded introduction to Yeats:
I could see that among much Irish humbug there was in him a genuine love of his art, and he was more intelligent than his verses had led me to expect.” (Ave, Chapter 1).
He describes Yeats as something of a literary fop, and delights in depicting the bard, with spiritual pretensions, scoffing the iced buns to which he was addicted. Later, he mocks Yeats’ infatuation with Maud Gonne thus:
Yeats, walking by, saw divinity. We have all enjoyed that dream. If our lady be small, we see her with a hand-mirror in her boudoir, and if she be tall as an Amazon, well then we see her riding across the sky hurling a javelin.” (Ave, Chapter 2)
Yet he does also have one luminous scene where, while discussing poetry with Yeats, he shares with Yeats the sight of 36 swans rising from the lake at Coole Park “a great clamour of wings, and the snowy plumage of thirty-six great birds rushing down the lake, straining to rise from its surface… a suggestion of fairyland.” (Ave, Chapter 9). And he does have an interesting description of standing with Yeats and watching a fisherman cast his fly. (Salve, Chapter 8). The references to two of Yeats’ best-known poems are obvious.
Perhaps signalling his own alienation from the literary in-group, he comments sensibly enough:
We are apt to think we are living intensely when we congregate in numbers in drawing-rooms and gossip about the latest publications, social and literary, and there is a tendency in us to look askance at the man who likes to spend the evening alone with his book and his cat….” (Ave, Chapter 4)
It is interesting that one of the main reasons he gives for dumping Catholicism and tactically allying himself to Protestantism is that Protestantism will lead people more quickly away from Christianity altogether:
“…when papists have been persuaded to bring up their children as Protestants the next generation may cross over to the agnostic end of the quadrille. My [Protestant] co-religionists will not like to hear me say it, but I will say it all the same: Protestantism is but a stage in the human journey [towards agnosticism]” (Salve, Chapter 12).
The limitations of Moore’s aesthetic are evident in his dismissive comments about Whistler:
His jokes were disagreeable to me; he did not seem to take art seriously…. Whistler discoursed to his friends on the beauty of Oriental art, and his praises sent me to the Japanese screen, but I could discover no correct drawing in it, and begged one of the visitors to tell me how faces represented by two or three lines and a couple of dots could be considered well drawn.” (Vale, Chapter 2).
Indeed, the limitations of his views are evident in his many references to his own greatness and to his being the salvation of Irish literature, if only other Irish writers would listen to him.
I have more to criticise in the Hail and Farewell trilogy than to praise. But it is memorable, it is readable, and its value as literary history is beyond dispute.

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