I bought Nicolas Bentley’s book How Can You Bear to be Human? for its excellent title, and because I had seen some of his artwork elsewhere, and quite liked it. I’ve got to say, the title is probably the best thing about this book – but it passed an entertaining hour.
I don’t know the provenance of the book, but it must be collected from somewhere. It consists of brief, humorous pieces and cartoons – but often the cartoon doesn’t seem to bear any relation to the writing. Which is quite confusing, to say the least.
Bentley’s strength is definitely in his drawing, rather than his writing, but that is to be expected. His sketches aren’t ornately detailed, but with exaggeration which is not too exaggerated, he manages to convey exactly what he wishes – and is rather more subtle in his artwork than his prose. The prose is rather a mixed bag – it starts well, but the editor (perhaps Bentley himself?) probably decided to put the best things at the beginning.
My favourite piece was ‘Strange Interlude’, which is Provincial Ladyesque in its dealings with an awkward social occasion, including this exchange between the narrator and an offensive approaching couple:
“Well, my deahr?”
To which, in tones somewhat lower than his, she flashed the riposte: “Well?”
Again silence fell between them and they stood smiling mutely at each other.
“You have tried the punch?” she said at last.
Unable to block my ears in time, I caught his shrill response.
“I have indeed and I pronounce it capital.”
He grinned at me shyly with teeth that were rather too far apart. I noticed his hand had been surreptitiously exploring his pocket, and I guessed what for. He lent towards me and said sotto voce, with a look that appealed for my support and failed utterly:
“Do you suppose our hostess would permit a pipe?”
“I don’t smoke, so I wouldn’t know,” I said, lapsing through sheer nerves into the affectation of the conditional. He peered about him with a look of wildly exaggerated consternation and then, in order, I suppose, to keep up the conspiratorial pretence, tiptoed away.
Most of the pieces in How Can You Bear to be Human? are structured as humorous essays, rather than scenes like this – the essays being on topics from Hockey to Ballet to Hats Suitable For Dictators. Quite.
It’s all good fun, and the sort of Penguin book you could easily give someone as a present, or keep in the smallest room of the house. I had rather hoped for a flash of genius, which there was not, but it’s a nice glance into the humour of the 1950s.
[…] simple though I may be compared to, say, Professor Bronowski, compared to the man who delights more in Wolverhampton Wanderers than in Wordsworth, I am a creature of infinite complexity.