Reading to Percy Lubbock
Percy Lubbock (1879-1965) was an English author, principally a literary critic, admired also in his lifetime for his fine English prose style. He had lived in Italy since his marriage in the late 1920s, for much of the time since the early 1930s in a handsome villa on the Ligurian coast near Lerici in north-west Italy, built for his wife Sybil and him to a traditional Tuscan design. Sybil had died in 1943 and after the Second World War Percy had suffered deteriorating eyesight, becoming largely blind by the late 1950s. He remained mentally active, so employed readers to keep abreast of current events and developments in the literary world. I did this between school and university in 1964. At the start I was still seventeen years old, to Percy’s eighty-four.
The first sight of Percy installed in his armchair, with his large belly encased in a blue silk dressing gown, half closed eyes, swishing gently with a round raffia fan if the weather was hot, was the Buddha. If I was unnerved, I don’t remember it, and I don’t think I would have been as soon as he started speaking. ‘You must remember that inside, I’m just like you’ he said at an early stage. He told me about feeling less awkward as one of the only benefits of being older. We talked about what to read – he was open to anything that appealed to me – and about how. ‘Don’t try to act what the characters say, I can do that for myself. Just read quickly and evenly, so that I can feel I am turning the pages of a book for myself.’ We did, in fact, have a routine for reading which started, in theory, from 11 am until lunchtime, with The Times. This was the old-style broadsheet Times, with classified advertisements on the front page, leaders and letters on the middle pages, and news with not many photographs on the other pages. It was to be read in a particular order: obituaries first; leaders second; letters third; news fourth, with particular emphasis on crime or personal or cultural interest
stories, rather than politics.
Occasionally also before lunch if Percy wanted to write a letter, he would dictate it, I would write it in longhand and he would sign it. Then, allowing for a siesta, at 4pm we had tea and started on the ‘serious’ reading of the day – a novel or a non-fictional prose work. Nominally this continued until dinner at 8, but at 6 there would be cocktails. After dinner we either listened to music, long playing records of his favourite Classical composers, especially Elgar (he loved ‘The Dream of Gerontius’), Schubert (Great C Major symphony, I particularly remember) and Beethoven, or I read poetry. When his nephew Jocelyn was there, he would play on the piano. He was a pianist of concert standard with a love for late nineteenth/early twentieth century French composers as Fauré, Ravel and Saint-Saens, so these occasions were great treats. They were also funny. The moment Jocelyn started playing, Percy’s eyes would close and his head slump forward onto his chest. ‘He’s asleep, fast asleep’, Jocelyn would mouth making a series of appropriate facial expressions, while he played through the piece beautifully. The second the last note was played, the head would be raised: ‘What’s next?’ The moment the next piece started, the eyes closed and the head went down, and the whole routine would be repeated three or four times.
Among books which were first published in 1963-64, we read John Le Carré’s The Spy who came in from the Cold, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Gordon Waterfield’s biography Layard of Nineveh. We were baffled by the Le Carré, as perhaps the author intended. Lord of the Flies gripped Percy with the horror of the situation. Layard of Nineveh led to a comic encounter with a senior British admiral who had come on a visit from La Spezia. Percy was not going to make things easy for this top brass, so instead of his normal engaging, humorous manner, he just sat there saying nothing. A long silence followed until eventually the admiral saw Layard of Nineveh, lying on the table. He picked it up. ‘Jolly good book’, he said. That was all the conversation I remember. Although Percy was ready to try any new book, I realised early on how rewarding it was to read him works by authors he knew. An example was Henry James’s Portrait of
a Lady. When we got to the point where the physical appearance of Ralph was first being described, Percy said, ‘That’s how Robert Louis Stevenson looked’. He went on to describe how he had once seen Stevenson when he had visited his school, and he had also met William Morris. The reading was never as rigorous as the timetable might suggest, because we would get into a conversation arising from something just read, and these could go in all directions. When we were reading something we both enjoyed, we simply broke the ‘rules’, as, for example, with Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. In no time we dispensed with The Times, which at that moment (spring of 1964) was full of how many army units were being sent to Vietnam. It even managed to push poetry or music out of the after dinner sessions.
A great gift of Percy’s to anyone who spent time with him was his love of poetry. His knowledge of all English poetry to the early twentieth century was huge and he had a particular feeling for the romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, with Keats first, followed by Shelley and Coleridge. He also knew intimately and loved Browning’s work, particularly the dramatic monologues. He knew by heart swathes of poetry and could recite word perfectly the Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to a Grecian Urn and large parts of Kubla Khan among, I am sure, much more. Two nights before his death, when we knew he was fading, I read him some of the Keats odes and as he was being helped to bed later he said, ‘What a strange case mine is, being kept alive on Keats’. He had also written short poetic pieces himself in a rhythmic nineteenth century style. He recited one or two of these to me, a majestic piece on a sunset and a sharper piece on a lover disappointed. This is how I remember them (I have forgotten the first two lines of the second piece so they are my invention):
‘Tis but a day that is dead:
Why then this cloud-canopied pomp,
This banner empurpled proudly brushing the zenith?
Nay, if a god’s deathbed lay under,
A sunset worthily had curtained that paramount agony.
And now, ‘tis but a day that is dead.
Quick, hasten it into the night!
[I vainly hoped to see her face, But now must look some other place.]
Yet stay! You, madam, seated there,
I hate your smiles and tousled hair,
You know her,
I might hear her name.
I thought my thoughts so loud and clear,
It almost seemed they ought to hear.
So bitter-sore each silent word,
I almost wished they could have heard.
Browning, I think, may have been the catalyst for a change in our reading habits, towards big projects. We read The Ring and the Book, his dramatic narrative poem of twenty-one thousand lines, inspired by the record of the trial for murder of Count Guido Franceschini in 1698. He was accused and found guilty of killing his wife Pompilia and her parents out of jealousy, and Browning recreates as verse monologues the views of nine actors in the events around the case and Franceschini’s appeal. Percy, as ever, was absorbed in the drama of the different viewpoints and the language used to express the character of those speaking, and he drew me also into this. Our next project was more ambitious, and certainly more obscure: William Morris’s The Earthly Paradise. The idea in this work is that medieval Norse seamen set off in search of the everlasting life, which they do not find. Instead they end up in a Classical Greek community that has somehow miraculously survived. Twice a month they meet their hosts to feast and tell tales from their respective mythologies. They do this in blank verse, and they meet over twelve months, so that there are twenty-four verse stories in all. These rolled along pleasantly, but lacked the dramatic bite that Browning had put into the different speakers in The Ring and the Book. And the work is very long: I remember little except for satisfaction at completing a task we reckoned only a few PhD students would have accomplished that year!
Our third project was The Faerie Queene - the huge epic poem of Edmund
Spenser, written in rhyming stanzas and published in the 1590s. Being written in the English of Shakespeare’s time was the least of its difficulties. As the author put it, it was ‘cloudily enwrapped in Allegorical devises’, at some level celebrating Elizabeth I, but more directly exploring the virtues of knights. To even contemplate reading this voluntarily at age eighteen is testimony to Percy’s intellectual stimulus. We could work at it together, in a totally lopsided way, with his knowledge on one side and my ignorance on the other. I hope he derived pleasure if not benefit. I gained both, though it was a struggle to read through those stanzas in anything like a coherent way. We ran out of time about two-thirds through, when I had to go off to university, but then Spenser himself did not complete his work.
There were many visitors and in the warmer summer weather there was generally a substantial cast of characters, not all concerned with English literature. One visit was by the then young Sunday Times journalist, Hunter Davies, who went on to write a biography of the Beatles. He covered Percy’s eighty-fifth birthday and did so with an article entitled ‘Bosh Grotto’, referring to a comment Percy was liable to write in the margins of books he read and to the sea-cave beneath the house. Another visit was by Montgomery Hyde, an ex-barrister who had become a successful author of books about colourful legal cases (trials of Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement etc.). He was then living at Lamb House, Rye, the English house of Henry James, and he had asked Percy if he would donate James’s pocket watch to the museum there. Percy had said yes, if he came and collected it in person. Hyde was an ebullient character, with a touch of slightly comical self-importance. We had an amusing outing to a restaurant when he took a photograph of us with his flies undone. He was currently writing A History of Pornography and, on another occasion, he and Percy were chatting about Samuel Pepys’s attitude to pornography, Percy having been Pepys Librarian at Magdalene College, Cambridge, sixty years previously, in 1904. Hyde said he had never been able to find a transcript of a scandalous scene in Pepys’s diaries concerning the Duke of Buckingham. Percy recited from memory the details which seem needless to repeat about what the Duke did.
It was tough to go from this to being a first-year undergraduate. One day in the following summer vacation, there was a phone call from Percy’s niece Georgette: ‘Percy is not well, and we fear the worst. We have no reader and he would be so happy if you were able to come out’. I found him obviously weakened. I can’t remember what we read then, except for the Keats. We got through a week to my birthday on 1 August, when the doctor said that he was showing pre-coma symptoms. He was well enough to make a charming toast that evening, but his capacities were beginning to peel away. His Italian, which he spoke well to a high literary standard – ‘an easy language to speak badly, a very difficult one to speak well’ – had left him. The next day he remained in bed. At lunchtime he had just had an ice cream, and made a joke about his boyish love of it. Georgette said she was holding his arm feeling his pulse when it stopped. I helped her tie a napkin round his head, so that the mouth stayed closed and she closed his eyes. The face was wrinkled and old. We laid him flat on the bed. A few hours later, the wrinkles had smoothed out, the face was set in a gentle smile and there was still some colour in his cheeks. He looked serene and – there is no other word – beautiful.
Percy’s obituary in The Times painted a picture of general decline in his last years. As the reading shows, this was so untrue on the intellectual level. He was chair-bound and largely blind, but alert and amusing. He once said to me, ‘You will write about me?’ and I said yes, so here it is, after all these years. It brings such pleasure to think of him and that friendship. His own view is expressed in this letter he dictated when I had temporarily gone back to England when my father was recovering after an operation:
My dear Henry,
I am glad to hear what I indeed did not doubt, that you are much needed and of much help where you are, especially to your mother.
I hope all will go well and that you will soon be able to tell me the date of your return. You will know how welcome you are when you
see and hear me, and I shall then try to convince you that throughout your absence I have borne in mind your last injunction to me, and you will remember what that was. I have missed and still miss you very much, especially in my inner consciousness, which is the most sensitive spot. For the daily play of life I have been greatly helped by both the Simons, and occasionally by a casual raven as well. As for Hume, I think the book for us is Human Nature and Understanding. We are neither of us deficient in either, but it would be interesting to hear how the philosopher regards us. You will already have heard from Annina about Jocelyn’s misfortune and all it has meant for us here. We expect Georgette back this evening, so we shall all learn details from her. It sadly affects our plans, but I cannot but be thankful that it was not worse. We have the Ratcliffes from King’s here now, so we don’t want for music. Enough, dear Henry, for the present and I shall hope to hear good news from you before long.
Ever with affection yours,
(I cannot now remember my injunction, but it might have related to my intention to return soon. There was no copy available of Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, so instead we read The Faerie Queene.)
I would want also to give a better sense of him as a writer, but the story just told is after his active phase. His type of elaborately crafted English has been out of fashion for many years now, and even his best-known books, The Craft of Fiction, encapsulating his thinking on the nineteenth century novel, and Earlham, his evocation of the home of his grandparents, now the Law Faculty of the University of East Anglia, are less read than a generation ago. A book that I believe he thought was among his best work is his novel, The Region Cloud, an allegory to some degree of his relationship with Henry James, for whom he was a literary secretary, also editing his letters after his death. This has suffered from being an action-free novel, about perceptions of subtly changing relationships, but it can surely be seen
in perspective beside some of the better-known novels of its time – it was published in 1925. A slighter book, perhaps, but one I like particularly for its lightness and the location in Rome, is Roman Pictures, published two years earlier. This is a fictional social circle where the narrator moves from one person to the next in settings in Rome until he arrives back where he began, all the time encountering characteristic and gently satirised people in their habitats. His most solid contribution was probably as a literary critic, one of the earliest contributors to the Times Literary Supplement, for which he wrote for thirty years from its beginning in 1902. Now that the identities of the previously anonymous contributors are known, Percy’s own work can be seen more fully. In there are his views on many works of the first third of the twentieth century. If these are related to the works published in his own name, there is a better basis than before for seeing his work as a whole. I hope that someone may take that on.