In Edward Garnett, whose "Friday Nights" which appeared almost a hundred years ago, we come as near as we are likely to come in our time to the first-hand, the real critic. He is by profession a publisher's reader, which makes the fact all the more remarkable. Working all the week for a commercial interest which, however dignified, can never coincide with immortal interests, so to speak, he was in the habit of pleasing himself on Friday nights and writing essays on his private favorites. He has made himself in this way the most influential critic of English literature of his day — in the opinion of his colleagues.
Odd as it may sound, there must have been a man who first suspected the greatness of Shakespeare. We must imagine the bard stooping his way out of the inn where he had relaxed and one of the company left behind saying to the other, ‘There goes one of the greatest minds that ever was’, and the other replying, in good Elizabethan, of course, and possibly without anachronisms, popular as they were in those days, ‘My dear fellow, how can that be? Was he not drinking ale through his teeth here a moment ago the same as you and me? You may take it from me that great minds are not drunk-ale-with, they are across-the-ages-paid-homage-to. Why, even if he is a great mind—-which I utterly dispute—it spoils the thing for ever if you have drunk ale with him. What you say is as absurd as sucking an egg with a telescope. It can't be done.’
We shall never know who the man was who was thus rebuked on that unknown occasion—it may have been Ben Jonson——but we can be certain that he had something in common with Garnett. It was he, for example, who ‘discovered’ Joseph Conrad. That is to say, he accepted "Almayer’s Folly" for publication and we have it from the author himself that, if it had not been accepted, he would have made no second attempt at the art of literature. And we find also that Garnett wrote of Conrad as early as 1898 with a penetration which keeps his writing fresh and alive today when it is easy for Tom, Dick, and Harry to praise our great adopted novelist. He writes:
For Conrad's art, in its essence, reminds us much of his compatriot's (Chopin)—-it is a delicate, and occasionally a powerful instrument. There is a story, ‘The Lagoon‘, in the Tales of Unrest, which flows out of itself in subtle cadence, in rise and flow and fall of emotion, just as you may hear Ernst's delicate music rise and sweep and flow from the violin. For occasionally the author's intense fidelity to the life he has observed seems to melt and fade away in a lyrical impulse, the hard things of actual life die and are lost in a song of beauty, just as the night comes to overwhelm the hard edges of the day.
When "Nostromo" appeared in 1904, Garnett wrote a review of that extraordinary novel which seizes on its special qualities and its defects with astonishing precision. We now know that Nostromo is not only unique among Conrad novels but also unique among novels in general. His words in 1904 were that ‘Mr. Conrad has achieved something which it is not in the power of any English contemporary novelist to touch.’ Strong words they must have seemed then; to-day we might find the qualifying adjective ‘English’ unnecessary.
But Conrad is no longer neglected. Garnett’s services to a writer, who has had to wait longer still for recognition and has much more ‘coming to him’ yet, are even more noteworthy.
There is much else in Friday Nights, of which a strict review would have to take cognizance. The chapter on W. H. Hudson, written in 1903, is profound and exhaustive, showing ‘the extreme originality with which he enlarges both the poets’ and the scientists‘ horizon, at one and the same time’, and here again Garnett is writing as a discoverer. Others may find the volume more interesting for its essays on foreign literature, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Tchehov (Chekhov), or on contemporary Americans, Robert Frost and others, or on D. H. Lawrence, but in most cases they may take it for granted that the dates at the ends of the chapters have their story to tell.
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