Villa Rubein, and Other Stories
Villa Rubein, and Other Stories
Villa Rubein and Other Stories
Writing not long ago to my oldest literary friend, I expressed in a moment of heedless sentiment the wish that we might have again one of our talks of long-past days, over the purposes and methods of our art. And my friend, wiser than I, as he has always been, replied with this doubting phrase “Could we recapture the zest of that old time?”
I would not like to believe that our faith in the value of imaginative art has diminished, that we think it less worth while to struggle for glimpses of truth and for the words which may pass them on to other eyes; or that we can no longer discern the star we tried to follow; but I do fear, with him, that half a lifetime of endeavour has dulled the exuberance which kept one up till morning discussing the ways and means of aesthetic achievement. We have discovered, perhaps with a certain finality, that by no talk can a writer add a cubit to his stature, or change the temperament which moulds and colours the vision of life he sets before the few who will pause to look at it. And so – the rest is silence, and what of work we may still do will be done in that dogged muteness which is the lot of advancing years.
Other times, other men and modes, but not other truth. Truth, though essentially relative, like Einstein’s theory, will never lose its ever-new and unique quality-perfect proportion; for Truth, to the human consciousness at least, is but that vitally just relation of part to whole which is the very condition of life itself. And the task before the imaginative writer, whether at the end of the last century or all these aeons later, is the presentation of a vision which to eye and ear and mind has the implicit proportions of Truth.
I confess to have always looked for a certain flavour in the writings of others, and craved it for my own, believing that all true vision is so coloured by the temperament of the seer, as to have not only the just proportions but the essential novelty of a living thing for, after all, no two living things are alike. A work of fiction should carry the hall mark of its author as surely as a Goya, a Daumier, a Velasquez, and a Mathew Maris, should be the unmistakable creations of those masters. This is not to speak of tricks and manners which lend themselves to that facile elf, the caricaturist, but of a certain individual way of seeing and feeling. A young poet once said of another and more popular poet: “Oh! yes, but be cuts no ice.” And, when one came to think of it, he did not; a certain flabbiness of spirit, a lack of temperament, an absence, perhaps, of the ironic, or passionate, view, insubstantiated his work; it had no edge – just a felicity which passed for distinction with the crowd.
Let me not be understood to imply that a novel should be a sort of sandwich, in which the author’s mood or philosophy is the slice of ham. One’s demand is for a far more subtle impregnation of flavour; just that, for instance, which makes De Maupassant a more poignant and fascinating writer than his master Flaubert, Dickens and Thackeray more living and permanent than George Eliot or Trollope. It once fell to my lot to be the preliminary critic of a book on painting, designed to prove that the artist’s sole function was the impersonal elucidation of the truths of nature. I was regretfully compelled to observe that there were no such things as the truths of Nature, for the purposes of art, apart from the individual vision of the artist. Seer and thing seen, inextricably involved one with the other, form the texture of any masterpiece; and I, at least, demand therefrom a distinct impression of temperament. I never saw, in the flesh, either De Maupassant or Tchekov – those masters of such different methods entirely devoid of didacticism – but their work leaves on me a strangely potent sense of personality. Such subtle intermingling of seer with thing seen is the outcome only of long and intricate brooding, a process not too favoured by modern life, yet without which we achieve little but a fluent chaos of clever insignificant impressions, a kind of glorified journalism, holding much the same relation to the deeply-impregnated work of Turgenev, Hardy, and Conrad, as a film bears to a play.
Speaking for myself, with the immodesty required of one who hazards an introduction to his own work, I was writing fiction for five years before I could master even its primary technique, much less achieve that union of seer with thing seen, which perhaps begins to show itself a little in this volume – binding up the scanty harvests of 1899, 1900, and 1901 – especially in the tales: “A Knight,” and “Salvation of a Forsyte.” Men, women, trees, and works of fiction – very tiny are the seeds from which they spring. I used really to see the “Knight” – in 1896, was it? – sitting in the “Place” in front of the Casino at Monte Carlo; and because his dried-up elegance, his burnt straw hat, quiet courtesy of attitude, and big dog, used to fascinate and intrigue me, I began to imagine his life so as to answer my own questions and to satisfy, I suppose, the mood I was in. I never spoke to him, I never saw him again. His real story, no doubt, was as different from that which I wove around his figure as night from day.
As for Swithin, wild horses will not drag from me confession of where and when I first saw the prototype which became enlarged to his bulky stature. I owe Swithin much, for he first released the satirist in me, and is, moreover, the only one of my characters whom I killed before I gave him life, for it is in “The Man of Property” that Swithin Forsyte more memorably lives.
Ranging beyond this volume, I cannot recollect writing the first words of “The Island Pharisees” – but it would be about August, 1901. Like all the stories in “Villa Rubein,” and, indeed, most of my tales, the book originated in the curiosity, philosophic reflections, and unphilosophic emotions roused in me by some single figure in real life. In this case it was Ferrand, whose real name, of course, was not Ferrand, and who died in some “sacred institution” many years ago of a consumption brought on by the conditions of his wandering life. If not “a beloved,” he was a true vagabond, and I first met him in the Champs Elysees, just as in “The Pigeon” he describes his meeting with Wellwyn. Though drawn very much from life, he did not in the end turn out very like the Ferrand of real life – the figures of fiction soon diverge from their prototypes.
The first draft of “The Island Pharisees” was buried in a drawer; when retrieved the other day, after nineteen years, it disclosed a picaresque string of anecdotes told by Ferrand in the first person. These two-thirds of a book were laid to rest by Edward Garnett’s dictum that its author was not sufficiently within Ferrand’s skin; and, struggling heavily with laziness and pride, he started afresh in the skin of Shelton. Three times be wrote that novel, and then it was long in finding the eye of Sydney Pawling, who accepted it for Heinemann’s in 1904. That was a period of ferment and transition with me, a kind of long awakening to the home truths of social existence and national character. The liquor bubbled too furiously for clear bottling. And the book, after all, became but an introduction to all those following novels which depict – somewhat satirically – the various sections of English “Society” with a more or less capital “S.”
Looking back on the long-stretched-out body of one’s work, it is interesting to mark the endless duel fought within a man between the emotional and critical sides of his nature, first one, then the other, getting the upper hand, and too seldom fusing till the result has the mellowness of full achievement. One can even tell the nature of one’s readers, by their preference for the work which reveals more of this side than of that. My early work was certainly more emotional than critical. But from 1901 came nine years when the critical was, in the main, holding sway. From 1910 to 1918 the emotional again struggled for the upper hand; and from that time on there seems to have been something of a “dead beat.” So the conflict goes, by what mysterious tides promoted, I know not.
An author must ever wish to discover a hapless member of the Public who, never yet having read a word of his writing, would submit to the ordeal of reading him right through from beginning to end. Probably the effect could only be judged through an autopsy, but in the remote case of survival, it would interest one so profoundly to see the differences, if any, produced in that reader’s character or outlook over life. This, however, is a consummation which will remain devoutly to be wished, for there is a limit to human complaisance. One will never know the exact measure of one’s infecting power; or whether, indeed, one is not just a long soporific.
A writer they say, should not favouritize among his creations; but then a writer should not do so many things that he does. This writer, certainly, confesses to having favourites, and of his novels so far be likes best: The Forsyte Series; “The Country House”; “Fraternity”; “The Dark Flower”; and “Five Tales”; believing these to be the works which most fully achieve fusion of seer with thing seen, most subtly disclose the individuality of their author, and best reveal such of truth as has been vouchsafed to him. JOHN GALSWORTHY.
TO MY SISTER BLANCHE LILIAN SAUTER
Walking along the river wall at Botzen, Edmund Dawney said to Alois Harz: “Would you care to know the family at that pink house, Villa Rubein?”
Harz answered with a smile:
“Come with me then this afternoon.”
They had stopped before an old house with a blind, deserted look, that stood by itself on the wall; Harz pushed the door open.
“Come in, you don’t want breakfast yet. I’m going to paint the river to-day.”
He ran up the bare broad stairs, and Dawney followed leisurely, his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his waistcoat, and his head thrown back.
In the attic which filled the whole top story, Harz had pulled a canvas to the window. He was a young man of middle height, square shouldered, active, with an angular face, high cheek-bones, and a strong, sharp chin. His eyes were piercing and steel-blue, his eyebrows very flexible, nose long and thin with a high bridge; and his dark, unparted hair fitted him like a cap. His clothes looked as if he never gave them a second thought.
This room, which served for studio, bedroom, and sitting-room, was bare and dusty. Below the window the river in spring flood rushed down the valley, a stream, of molten bronze. Harz dodged before the canvas like a fencer finding his distance; Dawney took his seat on a packingcase.
“The snows have gone with a rush this year,” he drawled. “The Talfer comes down brown, the Eisack comes down blue; they flow into the Etsch and make it green; a parable of the Spring for you, my painter.”
Harz mixed his colours.
“I’ve no time for parables,” he said, “no time for anything. If I could be guaranteed to live to ninety-nine, like Titian – he had a chance. Look at that poor fellow who was killed the other day! All that struggle, and then – just at the turn!”
He spoke English with a foreign accent; his voice was rather harsh, but his smile very kindly.
Dawney lit a cigarette.
“You painters,” he said, “are better off than most of us. You can strike out your own line. Now if I choose to treat a case out of the ordinary way and the patient dies, I’m ruined.”
“My dear Doctor – if I don’t paint what the public likes, I starve; all the same I’m going to paint in my own way; in the end I shall come out on top.”
“It pays to work in the groove, my friend, until you’ve made your name; after that – do what you like, they’ll lick your boots all the same.”
“Ah, you don’t love your work.”
Dawney answered slowly: “Never so happy as when my hands are full. But I want to make money, to get known, to have a good time, good cigars, good wine. I hate discomfort. No, my boy, I must work it on the usual lines; I don’t like it, but I must lump it. One starts in life with some notion of the ideal – it’s gone by the board with me. I’ve got to shove along until I’ve made my name, and then, my little man – then – ”
“Then you’ll be soft!”
“You pay dearly for that first period!”
“Take my chance of that; there’s no other way.”
Harz poised his brush, as though it were a spear:
“A man must do the best in him. If he has to suffer – let him!”
Dawney stretched his large soft body; a calculating look had come into his eyes.
“You’re a tough little man!” he said.
“I’ve had to be tough.”
Dawney rose; tobacco smoke was wreathed round his unruffled hair.
“Touching Villa Rubein,” he said, “shall I call for you? It’s a mixed household, English mostly – very decent people.”