When I was a teenager, two of my favourite writers were Max Beerbohm and Lytton Strachey.
Put aside their subject matter for a moment. What thrilled me about these two was the structure, the cadence, the musicality of their prose.
I’ve been rediscovering them both. Today I re-read Beerbohm’s 1943 Rede Lecture on Lytton Strachey. It’s a slender, purple pamphlet my grandfather gave me (or which I liberated from his shelves).
It’s twenty years since I read it, so every word was fresh. Take a read:
The English language, being part Latin, part Saxon, is, in my rough insular opinion, an even finer medium than the French one. Latin is, one might say, its bony structure, Saxon its flesh and blood.”
In the best writing neither element prevails. The two merge indistinguishably in each other.
He’s right. He reminds me of Anthony Trollope talking about Mrs Stanhope’s dress-sense in Barchester Towers.
She well knew the great architectural secret of decorating her constructions, and never condescended to construct a decoration.
Latin is the construction. Saxon the life and blood that animates it.
It’s also bloody difficult to get right, as Beerbohm knew.
A true gift for writing, though in spite of the telephone we all do still write letters sometimes, and though authors of books are more than ever numerous, is not widely bestowed. Nor is a true gift for painting, or for playing the violin; and of that we are somehow aware. We do not say to a violinist “Just think out clearly what you want to express and then go straight ahead. Never mind how you handle your bow,” nor to a painter, “Got your subject and your scheme of colour in your head all right, eh? Then don’t bother about how you lay your paints on, dear old boy.” Let us not make similar remarks to writers.
But when you do get it right, the results are startling. Beerbohm again:
If I were asked what seemed to me the paramount quality of Lytton Strachey’s prose, I should reply, in one word, Beauty. That is perhaps a rather old-fashioned word, a word jarring to young writers, and to young painters and musicians, and by them associated with folly, with vanity and frivolity. To me it is still a noble word, and I fancy it will some day come back into fashion. I believe that the quality it connotes is essential to all the arts.
Maybe I’m old-fashioned too, but I wholeheartedly agree.