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It is with an uncommon feeling of gratification that I am able to begin a paper on Hugh Walpole with the words, in their completest sense, an appreciation. But this rises from no greater fact than a personal difficulty in agreeing with the world at large about the most desirable elements for a novel. Here it is possible to say that Mr. Walpole possesses almost entirely the qualities which seem to me the base, the absolute foundation, of a beauty without which creative writing is empty. In him, to become as specific as possible, there is splendidly joined the consciousness of both the inner and outer worlds.
And, for a particular purpose, I shall put my conviction about his novels into an arbitrary arrangement with no reference to the actual order of appearance of his dignified row of volumes. Such a choice opens with a consideration of what is purely a story of inner pressures, it continues to embrace books devoted principally to the visible world, to London, and ends with a mingling of the seen and unseen in Russia.
Yet, to deny at once all pedantic pretense, it must be made clear that my real concern is with the pleasure, the glow and sense of recognition, to be had from his pages. The evoked emotions, which belong to the heart rather than the head, are the great, the final, mark of the true novelist. And they may be, perhaps, expressed in the single word, magic. Anyone who is susceptible to this quality needs no explanation of its power and importance, while it is almost impossible of description to those upon whom it has no effect. It is quite enough to repeat it ... magic. At once a train of images, of memories of fine books, will be set in motion. Among them the father of Peter Westcott will appear--a grim evil in a decaying house heavy with the odor of rotten apples; and, accompanying them, the mind will be flooded with the charmed moments of Mr. Walpole's descriptions: Russian nights with frozen stars, rooms swimming placid and strange in old mirrors, golden ballrooms and London dusks, the pale quiver of spring, of vernal fragrance, under the high sooty glass dome of a railroad station.
In this, at once, the remarkable delicacy of his perceptions is made apparent: it is impossible, in thinking of these books, to separate what occurs in the sphere of reality from the vivid pressures, the dim forces, that, lying back of conscious existence, are always gathering like portentous storms behind Mr. Walpole's stories. To have stated so calmly his passionate belief in just these influences was, at the time most of his books were written, an act of that courage he has so persistently extolled. Yet the details of his fortitude belong properly to the examination of individual novels.
Time, however, has altogether justified his spiritual preoccupations: the literature of the surface of things, the sting of onions in a glittering tin bowl, æsthetic boys--still the wistful ghost of Wilde, the flaneur--dragged through the pages of Freud, unlimited sentences in sociology hardly humanized by a tagging of proper names and mechanical desires, have been swept into the dust-bin for temporary reactions and fevers. Nothing can be gained by speculation about the future, it is enough to realize that, in imaginative letters, the school of arrogant materialism has been discredited; and that Mr. Walpole, because of his steadiness in the face of skeptical and mocking devils, has easily, securely, entirely, survived the most blasting and calamitous ordeal men have had yet to meet.
His books, from the first to the last, have not become antiquated; they are as fresh to-day as they were at any time through the past ten or twelve years; the people in them, true in costume and speech to their various moments, are equally true to that which in man is changeless. They, the novels, are at once provincial, as the best novels invariably are, and universal as any deep penetration of humanity, any considerable artistry, must be. Never merely cosmopolitan, never merely smart--even in his knowledge of smart people--they are sincere without being stupid, serious without a touch of hypocrisy; and on the other hand, light without vapidity, entertaining with never a compromise nor the least descent from the most dignified of engagements.
All this, on the plane to which I am confined--the pleasure to be had from accumulated words--is as rare as it is delightful. The world, particularly the world of novel-writing, is choked with solemn pretensions and sly lies; it, the latter, is the fertile field of all the ignorances--the dogmatic, the degenerate, the hysterical, the venal. And, unhappily, there seems to be very nearly a public for each; unhappily the deeply bitten prejudices of men, the secretive hopes of women, control to an amazing degree their opinions of the one medium--the written story--that should be kept superior to all pettiness as a resource solely of alleviation. Usually great creative writers--gifted, together with pity, with clarity of vision--have dealt in a mood of severity with life; they are largely barred, by their covenant with truth, from the multitude; but Mr. Walpole, not lacking in the final gesture of greatness, has yet the optimism that sees integrity as the master of the terrors. Literature, different from painting and music, serves beauty rather by the detestation of ugliness than in the recording of lyrical felicities. But, again, Mr. Walpole has countless passages of approval, of verbal loveliness, that must make him acceptable not only to a few but to many.
In reading, for example, The Secret City, there is the satisfaction of realizing that the consequent enjoyment rises from an unquestionably pure source. It is a preoccupation to be followed with utter security--for once an admirable thing, a fine thing, is altogether pleasurable.