23 JANUARY 1909, Page 21


MR. MAURICE BARING has a curious mind, nicely observant of the small things which float like straws on the stream of these tearing years of change in Russia. No one writing in English gives us a more truthful picture of the Russian peasant as he works and lives and talks; and Mr. Baring is able to do this because he simply sets down what the peasant has said to him in conversations of which (being a first-rate linguist) he has had the good fortune to understand the fine shades. Of course Mr. Baring exerts a selective power even when he appears to be only an exact chronicler. • To say that is merely to say that he is an artist, which be proves himself to be to the tip of his pen. He is no politician, and in many ways we are glad of it, as in the occasional passages in which he forces himself to turn from life and literature to politics he, at all events, has no prepossessions. In this respect he is rather like a cultivated Russian himself. The first demand of his brain is to be acquainted with all that is both new and old in literature and art, and be becomes a politician only when an excessive degree of idiocy on the part of those who rule has forced the affairs of government on the general notice. The educated Russian is ashamed not to know something about a book or an author that has any chance of being mentioned in the conversation of intelligent people. Educated Englishmen, so far as they are typical, are perhaps divided into two classes : those who frankly do not care much whether they are thought borne:s or not, and, in fact, generally escape all humiliation by successfully avoiding the uncongenial company of persons among whom humiliation would be possible; and those who do feel as the Russian does, but are perhaps more chagrined by being forced to a confession of ignorance than by the actual consciousness of it. One chapter of Mr. Baring's graceful and entertaining book is called "A Conversation with a Landowner," and this is all about Russian literature. We had expected it to be about land. The choice of the title is very characteristic of Mr. Baring. His method is made up of implications, or, to put it differently, there are myriads of refracted lights which illuminate things that be does not expressly offer to tell us any- thing about. The landowner was a fair specimen of his class, and, the noble and professional classes being what they are in Russia, it was even more likely that he would speak to an educated stranger about Russian literature, which belongs to all the world, than about the piece of land which belonged Only to himself. All that is implied in the title.

Mr. Baring is conscious of so little violence in his political feeling about Russia that he concludes he must be impartial. We are far from thinking that detachment always means judiciousness, for ardent human sentiment often inspires the greatest political causes, and without it truth could not even be perceived, much less compassed. But in this case we believe Mr. Baring has come very near the truth, and we Might name the chapter on "Prince Ourousov's Memoirs" as an excellent example of fair-minded investigation and of the power to apportion guilt without passion.

To our thinking, the most attractive pages in the book are those which describe conversations in third-class railway carriages. Take this conversation with a dock labourer :—

• Russian Essays and Bork% By Maurice Baring. London, Methuen and Co. [51. net.] "He asked me what I was. I said that I was an English corre- spondent. He asked then what I travelled in. I said I was not that kind of correspondent but a newspaper correspondent. Here he called a third friend, who was sitting near us, and said, 'Come and look ; there is a correspondent here. He is an English correspon- dent.' Rhe friend came—a man with a red beard and a loose shirt with a pattern of flowers on it. I don't know you,' said the new man. ' No; but let us make each other's acquaintance,' I said. You can talk to him,' explained the dock labourer ; we have been talking for hours. Although he is plainly a man who has received higher education.' 'As to whether he has received higher or lower education wo don't know,' said the friend, because we haven't yet asked him: Then he paused, reflected, shook hands, and exclaimed: Now we know each other.' But,' said the dock labourer, how do you print your articles P Do you take a printing press with you when you go, for instance, to the north like you are doing now?' I remarked that they were printed in London, and that I did not have to print them myself. ' Please send me one,' he said ; 'I will give you my address.' `But it's written in English,' I answered. You can send me a translation in Russian,' he retorted."

The whole story of the railway journey is a singularly lifelike record of small politenesses and annoyances, and of combined strictness and leniency in the officials in dealing with poor passengers. The theory of writing which is understood by the French definition of Alms vues has caused many sins in English, but in Mr. Baring's bands it is safe, because he sees the precise limits in the value of an idea ; lie knows where to begin and where to end; and, above all, he has the humour which salts the whole. One old peasant in Mr. Baring's

carriage travelled without a ticket :-

"Ho remained there nearly all night, but at one of the stations the guard said Is there no one for this station ? ' and looking at the peasant, added: Where are you for, old mau,? ' The man mumbled in pretended sloop. Where is your ticket ' asked the guard. No answer. At last when the question had been repeated thrice, he said: 'I am a poor, little, old man." You haven't got a ticket,' said the guard. Get out, devil, you might lose me my place—and I a married man. Devil ! Devil ! Devil !' It is on account of my extreme poverty,' said the old man, and he was turned out."

We like, too, the answer of a recruit to whom Mr. Baring offered a meat patty after some conversation : " No, thank

you. I am greatly satisfied with you as it is, without your giving me a meat patty."

As may be imagined when all educated men profess a certain culture, there is bound to be a good deal of superficiality even though the standard be high. Mr. Baring met a business man in Moscow who was aghast because Mr. Baring admitted his ignorance of all the laws of dynamics. But this same man believed that Browning's " Ring and the Book " was " an old- fashioned milk-and-water poem, rather like one of Trollope's novels." The advantage of Russian criticism, however, is that it does come from an open mind. It is not intolerant and exclusive as too much French criticism is, for all its lustre; nor does it follow up false scents with the industrious enthusiasm of so many Germans. In dramatic literature Mr. Baring finds that Russia owes nothing to France. She was untroubled by the exigent theories of the " well-made " play. Indeed, to read Mr. Baring one might think that she had never even heard of the unities. He says :—

" Russian playwrights have proved that excellent plays can be written in which the situations are neither more nor less dramatic than those which occur every day before our eyes among our immediate circle of acquaintance. They have also proved another thing—that the public finds this kind of play interesting in the extreme and flocks to see it ; and this leads one to conclude that the secret of the matter lies possibly in the fact that these plays are true pictures of life, and not would-be pictures of life which are in reality false, and that the former cannot help being interesting, and the latter cannot help being tedious. I believe that plays written about real life, iu which the characters live and behave as they do in reality, would be not only interesting but successful in any country."

We cannot help thinking that Mr. Baring is wrong here, and the reason is probably that the artist is stronger in him than the critic. However " everydayisli" a play may seem, it is, in fact, conveyed to us through an artificial medium, and the impression received by the spectator is not the reality, but only the symbol or the equivalent of it. There is a trans- position of the reality just as much as there is when a human voice comes out of a gramophone. Mr. Baring might tell us that the conversations he reports are " real," and so they are in that they are obviously and essentially true; but they are something better than real. If his artistry had not played on them, they might have been as commonplace as we dare say they seemed to the tired peasants and recruits who took part iu them.