In the next few months I will be launching a site devoted to the British author Arnold Bennett. At the moment there’s a dearth of good information about Bennett, which is surprising since for a while he was a top dog in the literary world.
Here’s a wikipedia entry . I discovered him after reading his amazing Old Wives’ Tale. Here’s what I wrote about Riceyman Steps:
The novel, Riceyman Steps, though nowhere as successful as his best work Old Wives Tale, nonetheless deserves plaudits for ambition and its tight focus on three expertly-drawn characters. The sentences are beautiful and give profound insights into characters, but lack of incident and forward action leave us with little desire to proceed. Characters don’t really make choices to change their fate; instead, they live on and on, with the occasional traumatic episode thrown in for good measure. The best thing about the work is how it avoids stereotypes about character types; for example, a miser may have real qualms about spending money, but can be persuaded in the right context to spend lavishly (though later he will resent doing so). I had a lot of trouble with the ending (which I’ll spell out only obliquely, although there isn’t much suspense); first, why did the novel give so much prominence to Joe (the housekeeper’s boyfriend) near the ending? It seemed out of place. Second, the death doesn’t really have any meaning except to confirm the narrator’s view that people ultimately get what they deserve. Okay, fine, but did the characters really choose their fates (or were they merely burdened by their ill habits?) Bennett doesn’t really present any alternatives; are any people in his world capable of living salutary lifestyles? That, I think, is a flaw of the novel; it fails to give us a glimpse into people who are avoiding the pitfalls of the protagonists. Conspicuously absent are children in this novel; there are literally no opportunities in this novel for the characters to display generosity or affection towards the outside world. How much of this penury is simply a result of the couple’s being childless? Bennett seems convinced that these people are not particularly sinister and even deserving of sympathy; still, the book’s ultimate purpose is moralistic; it exhort us to examine our hearts to see if we possess the same myopic shortcomings.
Here’s a strange dedication to him by Virginia Woolf (with whom they shared aesthetic disagreements):
Arnold Bennett died last night; which leaves me sadder than I should have supposed. A lovable genuine man: impeded, somehow a little awkward in life; well meaning; ponderous; kindly; coarse; knowing he was coarse; dimly floundering and feeling for something else; glutted with success; wounded in his feelings; avid; thicklipped; prosaic intolerably; rather dignified; set upon writing; yet always taken in; deluded by splendour and success; but naive; an old bore; an egotist; much at the mercy of life for all his competence; a shopkeeper’s view of literature; yet with the rudiments, covered over with fat and prosperity and the desire for hideous Empire furniture; of sensibility. Some real understanding power, as well as a gigantic absorbing power. These are the sorts of things that I think by fits and starts this morning, as I sit journalising; I remember his determination to write 1,000 words daily; and how he trotted off to do it that night, and feel some sorrow that now he will never sit down and begin methodically covering his regulation number of pages in his workmanlike beautiful but dull hand. Queer how one regrets the dispersal of anybody who seemed – as I say – genuine: who had direct contact with life – for he abused me; and yet I rather wished him to go on abusing me; and me abusing him. An element in life – even in mine that was so remote – taken away. This is what one minds.
(My reaction after reading this: what a bitch!).