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A Man and His Legend
Arnold Bennett. By Reginald Pound. (Heinemann. 21s.) " I HAVE never had a clear or fixed ambition," stated Arnold Bennett, towards the end of his days. The career with its stupendous impetus was, we are to take it, without plan : it was typical that he shrank from autobiography, wilich infers the wish to stamp a pattern on life. "Everything has gone wrong, my girl," he muttered to Dorothy Cheston Bennett as he lay confusedly dying. There had been a succession of ups-and-downs, of eventualities ; nothing so singly traceable as an ascent or descent ; nothing yet to evaluate as awhole, in the last issue. If he intended to look back, he died too soon. There had been Success, a long range of peaks of unequal height, separated by dips of unequal depth, drifted across by some undefined nightmare. There had been the incredible realisation of the vie reVee on the part of an original nobody from the Six Towns (he elected to call them Five for the sake of euphony) and the deliberate, prodigal spinning of a legend. There had been accomplishment on a scale wearying even to remember : the unremitting, killing, ambidexterous work—one hand for money, the other for fame in art. There had been "mental efficiency," sustained against a background of insomnia. Almost every day was on record, there in the Journals ; totals of words per annum were added up. To what all amounted, others were left to say.
Much too-much, accordingly falls on the biographer. Mr. Reginald POund has been left to tackle a story which lacks shape—had it had shape, Bennett might well have written it. Mr. Pound's task has been rendered factually easy, psychologically probably more exacting, by the massive existence- of the Journals ; in addition to these he has had recourse to letters till now unpublished, friends' memories and the talk, albums and documents of the Bennett relatives. He has followed the track through the Six Towns, and back through the scenes of a vanished London. Thoroughness, blended with fascina- tion, has perhaps caused Mr. Pound to mass almost too much material for a single purpose—or too much, at least, for any purpose but his. For he does reflect in a somewhat unwieldy book the high-powered unWieldiness of the life ; if his manner is inconsecutive, so were Arnold-Bennett's fortunes ; if his pages seem overcrowded, so were the years. At least, Mr. Pound has given us a full-sized portrait.
Arnold Bennett desired celebrity, and won it : he revelled in what was won. Only a giant temperament could sustain so much— the glare, the pressure, the tempo. He had been an uncouth adoles- cent, moody, cramped by a speech defect, an uncertain scholar, a slow developer. It happened that the first story he ever read (read to himself, that was) was The Ugly Duck/jug: it was to fill him with " a sense of the deep sadness which pervades all romance, beauty and adventure "—none the less, it was in search of those that, as a youth he left the Midlands for London. H. G. Wells, years later, found himself" exposed to the question whether Bennett was an educated type. I would say that in my sense of the word he was absolutelY immune to education and that he did not need it." Enough that he learned French, and he read the masters : there set in an association of France with genius, an identification of art with fame. Mr. Pound finds that a desire to emulate, not an intention to excel, was the career's mainspring : a phantasmagoric image of Second Empire affluence, homage and prestige. Bennett's life conformed, by thg end, to his most extreme wish : as a novelist he is probably all the better for having lived his fantasies, not written them. Nor, as a nu n, was he doomed to outlive their spell—the yacht, the dinners, the boll. rooms, the palatial hotels, the fine festive houses : nothing gorgeoui and concrete came to be Dead Sea fruit. Intangibles, it may be, wc re less certain : in the major novels, where he allows space, melancholY follows at slow march behind the characters ; he traced in fiction what he ignored in life—the inevitability of the route of fate. These are works of fulfilment, not of desire, lacking—it has later been found—in poetry. The great French, it must be recollected, were his masters. The many secondary novels are works of gusto, addiction, dry sense, notation, method. It appears that he sometimes did know, sometimes not, on which of two planes, as a novelist, he was writing' He had an almost dehumanised concentration ; he had arrived al perfected craft.
" Am I an artist ? " The stir, the hope, the premonitory inkliul of a sensation began early ; the Journals registered a suspense, between arrogance and uncertainty. Impatience for verdicts, ea each book, gave place to impatience with them. Affirmation came with The Old Wives' Tale : Wells spoke, Conrad spoke, then Hardy. Clayhanger and the later Riceyman Steps were also to stand up, rocks, over his otherwise tidal reputation. Generally, reception 105 uncertain, sales only just less so ; sales, at home, in America, ne■er completely dropped, but above a point the market stayed unpredi t- able. Arnold Bennett's intense concern with money, once found faintly repugnant, seems sympathetic now : he was haunted bY insecurity, never forgot the pawnshop. Money was an affirmation he had to have ; something he had to generate by the brain. Jourr a- lism, with which he began and ended, brought in the money rapidly with most sureness ; the rate soared, with his authority, to half a crown a word. Power became total in this sphere—Arnold Bennett, book-critic, was the kingmaker ; the best-seller lists waited upon his pen.
Many of his contemporaries are still living • Mr. Pound must there- fore evoke the man both for those who knew him and those who know but the legend—legend already a little blurred, already worked upon by distortion. The touch on the private life, the domestic chaos, has been, one may say, excellently discreet ; the abiding frier d- ships (Bennett broke few contacts) and the dementing relationship with the theatre have been accorded the space their importance asks.
About the fact of celebrity there is a touch of miracle. Arnold Bennett's queer body, jutting unfinished face, bounderish hair-crest, puffed eyelid a and wobbling chin might have been specially moulded for their role. There was a sublimation of disability. Bonhomousness, a splendid air of top form, stood guard over the inner tensions ; his Midland recalcitrance sprang surprises—you never knew where you had him ; that was the best of all. The never-mastered stammer gave further, grand, arresting drama to speech. He had himself charged the stammer, years ago, to the conflict within him of two wills—one anxious to speak and the other not. How much silence stayed in him, we shall never know. ELIZABETH BOWEN