Letters to Max Beerbohm by Siegfried Sassoon

Max B Siegfriend SOne of the nicest bookish finds is when you discover that two authors you like kept a correspondence. Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett; William Maxwell and Eudora Welty; Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell. When people you like independently turn out to have connections, it’s like discovering two of your friends actually went to uni together. So imagine my happiness when I found a book of letters between Siegfried Sassoon and Max Beerbohm!

Granted, I haven’t actually read anything by Sassoon, but I grew very fond of him when I read another book of unexpected connections – Anna Thomasson’s A Curious Friendship, about Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier, but featuring a fair dose of Sassoon.

The full title of this collection, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, is Letters to Max Beerbohm & A Few Answers (1986). There are few answers not because they’ve been lost, but because Beerbohm was famously bad at writing them. His friends seem to have been pretty tolerant about this, and his letters (when he does write them) are friendly, fluid, and charming – but Sassoon bears the lion’s share of this exchange. Even this doesn’t quite make up enough for a book, and Hart-Davis has rifled through Sassoon’s diaries for more information to set the scene. (Hart-Davis’ footnotes are also occasionally rather amusing – for instance, he describes Sibyl Colefax as ‘relentless society hostess’.)

Who comes off the page? I got the impression that Sassoon was much younger than Beerbohm – each letter is soaked with a sort of affectionate awe. It turns out that, for the bulk of their correspondence (in the 1930s), Beerbohm was in his 60s and Sassoon was in his late 40s and early 50s. A difference, yes, but not as much a one as comes across.

They both write letters that speak of deep friendship (and a curious resentment of Yeats). They are witty, thoughtful, and show a closeness and respect that you wouldn’t be able to get except through reading a book of this sort. They also have sketches and jottings by Siegfried, which are great fun, as well as verse that he throws into the letters – presumably fairly off the cuff.

The diary entries are well chosen, giving context to their friendship, and the mix of diary and letters works well. I enjoyed this description of their friendship, from Sassoon:

Conversing with Max, everything turns to entertainment and delectable humour and evocation of the past. […] Not a thousandth part can be recorded. But I feel that these talks with Max permanently enrich my mind, and no doubt much of it will recur spontaneously in future memories; he is like travelling abroad – one feels the benefit afterwards.

Well, we have certainly benefit afterwards. This is a slight book, and I certainly wish they had written to each other more prolifically. If they had, this might have been up there with the William Maxwell/Sylvia Townsend Warner collection of letters (The Element of Lavishness) as one of the great literary correspondences. As it is, it is a brief and brilliant gem that will enhance an appreciation of either Sassoon or Beerbohm.

Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean

Reader For HireI will be writing Great British Bake Off recaps again this year, you may or may not be pleased to know – but I’m thinking that weekends are probably going to be the earliest I’m able to write them.

So, for today, I’ll point you towards another of my Shiny New Books reviews. This time it’s Reader for Hire (1986) by Raymond Jean, translated from French by Adriana Hunter.

It’s basically about how fab reading is. Find out more…

On Acting – Laurence Olivier

As if to act as an antidote to Emma’s disdain for the theatre, in Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, I have just finished reading Laurence Olivier’s On Acting (1986), lent to me by my friend Andrea.  Nobody could accuse Olivier of disdaining the theatre – indeed, his adulation for it far exceeds mine, and he has (of course) a much more experienced and wise eye to cast over it.

I was a little unsure about reading On Acting, because I’m not a huge fan of Olivier (he falls into the Kenneth Branagh category of just-too-actory for me) and thought it was his autobiography – but it turns out that he’d already published his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor, and this volume instead focused on the craft of the actor, particularly on playing Shakespeare on stage and screen.  Perfect!

Olivier starts off with a brief history of great actors of the past – Burbage, Kean et al – which isn’t a very auspicious start to the book.  As I discovered throughout the book, Olivier delivers anecdotes appallingly.  In this section, he often suffixes them with the acknowledgement that they’re probably false – and somehow he mismanages each anecdote so that it falls oddly flat.  I began to worry.  But once Olivier started writing about the craftsmanship of acting, he got much, much better.  The largest section of On Acting concerns various significant roles in Shakespeare, devoting a chapter to each.  Olivier writes of Hamlet, Othello, Richard III and more, with firsthand insight into playing the roles, and explaining how he developed and discovered the characters.  This stuff is like catnip to me.  Olivier’s exploration of these characters is attached to specific performances and is very personal, it cannot and does not claim to be objective literary criticism, but it’s fascinating.

How I love to read actors’ theories about the theatre!  Olivier does not skimp on this.  Here’s an excerpt I loved:

To achieve true theatre, you can’t have one man up front and the acolytes with their backs to the audience feeding the great star with lines as dull as dishwater.  What you must have is every character believing in himself and, therefore, contributing to the piece as a whole, placing and pushing the play in the right direction.  The third spear carrier on the left should believe that the play is all about the third spear carrier on the left.  I’ve always believed that.  If the character is nameless, the actor should give himself a name.  He should give himself a family, a background, a past.  Where was he born, what did he have for breakfast?  Perhaps he had troubles at home, perhaps his wife has left him, perhaps his wife has just presented him with a new baby, perhaps he is saving for something – and so on.  If the actor brings on with him a true belief in himself, we should be able to look at him at any moment during the action and see a complete three-dimensional figure and not a cardboard cut-out.  To transport an audience, they must see life and not paste.
It is, though, one of the few times that he acknowledges the need for a united company.  One of the things that did irk me in On Acting is the isolation in which Olivier prepares his roles – there seemed no sense that other actors’ decision might affect his performances, or even that he was aware of them.  He is also monumentally egotistical (he claims all actors must be) and often congratulates himself on brilliant work – which is perhaps the prerogative of the aging actor, looking back over a long and successful career.  When writing about film, he is a little less self-confident, and I gained a lot of respect for Olivier when he acknowledged the failings of his version of Pride and Prejudice:

I was very unhappy with the picture.  It was difficult to make Darcy into anything more than an unattractive-looking prig, and darling Greer seemed to me all wrong as Elizabeth.  To me, Jane Austen had made Elizabeth different from her affected, idiotic sister; she was the only down-to-earth one, but Greer played her as the most affected and silly of the lot.  I also thought that the best points in the book were missed, although apparently no one else did.
You’re not alone, Olivier!  I didn’t think it worked at all…

This isn’t the place to come if you want gossip about Olivier’s life.  Perhaps Confessions of an Actor has that, but I rather imagine it doesn’t.  On Acting isn’t just for the aspiring actor, either – goodness knows I have no ambitions in that direction – but it is a fascinating look behind the red curtain, and an authoritative examination of the acting profession.  Coming at it from another direction, it has unusual and interesting readings of Shakespeare’s plays.  Olivier is not a very gifted writer, although a mostly competent one, but his acting talent and vast experience excuse his mediocrity in that regard – and make On Acting a very engaging read.  It would seem an inexcusable boast from most actors, to cover so broad a topic as acting, but somehow Laurence Olivier seems (and certainly believes himself to be) the man allowed to do it.