Wednesday, 28 February 2018

What Makes a Great Writer?

The title of this post may sound as if I have gone off on some philosophical quest, the end goal of which is beyond the limits of my abilities to achieve, so I had better start by explaining what makes me ask the question. At our committee meeting last weekend, we had an interesting discussion about what it is we value about Siegfried Sassoon and what, as a society, we should be concentrating on. Some members want a more in-depth analysis of Sassoon's work. Others are interested in Sassoon the man, what he did with his life and how he was influenced by, and in turn influenced, others.
The number of Sassoon scholars compared with, say, the number of Owen scholars, is not great, but from time to time we have had speakers who have gone to considerable trouble to analyse his work. For example, we had two very memorable talks at our annual conference at Radley in 2012, when we heard from Gladys Mary Coles and Michael Copp, who explored Sassoon's Modernist credentials and the influences on his poetry. We have also had interesting talks, over the years, about Sassoon's relationships with significant figures such as John Masefield, Glen Byam Shaw, David Thomas and Robert Graves, to name but a few.
This divergence of opinion makes me wonder how many writers have become revered for the way they dealt with the vicissitudes of life and/or what they achieved outside literature. How many people would be reading T E Lawrence's books now if it hadn't been for his role in the Arab rebellion? And yet I don't think that Agatha Christie's novels owe their popularity to the nervous breakdown she seems to have had in 1926, or even to the archaeological work in the Middle East that she undertook with her second husband. (But then, how many would say that Agatha Christie was a "great" writer?) There was, at one time, an Agatha Christie Society in the UK, but it no longer exists, though her family continue to manage her huge estate through a company called "Agatha Christie Ltd" and run an official website.
An obvious example of a writer whose talents have been "set off" by the rest of her life is Barbara Pym, about whose thriving literary society I have previously written. She could be considered a writer's favourite, since her misfortune was to be ignored by publishers for fifteen years following her initial success. This is something that has happened to countless authors over the centuries, notably another St Hilda's graduate, Val McDermid, who had early success with a play and then nothing until 1987, when the first of her crime novels was published. However, Pym's triumphant return to the public eye was highly publicised and has made her the shining example of a writer whose brilliance was eventually recognised - sadly, within two years of her untimely death.
Writers who died young have often been celebrated at the expense of those who had the good fortune - or misfortune - to live a long time. Wilfred Owen was unquestionably an outstanding poet, but his fame has certainly been enhanced by the manner and timing of his death. The same might be said of Rupert Brooke: "The Soldier" is quoted so frequently that few question Brooke's poetic genius, yet the name of Laurence Binyon is practically unknown to those who hear "For the Fallen" at every memorial service. Why is Brooke more famous? Could it not be that he died in 1915 while Binyon lived into his seventies?
Is it hardship itself, rather than the ability to survive hardship, that makes a truly great writer? John Keats' family were not paupers, but he was orphaned young and his health was always at risk. His associate Shelley, whose genius cannot be in any doubt, was viciously bullied at Eton, though it is hard to tell whether this caused or was a result of his increasingly undisciplined conduct while at school. His eventual elopement with Harriet Westbrook set him on a path of nonconformity that would indirectly lead to his death. I do not think that either of them owes their fame to having died in their twenties, but it must be recognised that their reputations have flourished in quite a different way from their near-contemporary William Wordsworth, many of whose poems have become the butt of unkind humour.
C S Lewis is a popular writer who lived to a reasonable age and whose diverse works are appreciated by academics, by children, and by those with a religious or philosophical bent. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think or talk about Lewis without wanting to know more about his personal life - not just the dramatic circumstances of his marriage to Joy Gresham but also the mystery of his earlier relationship with Jane Moore, the mother of a fellow First World War officer killed in 1918, whom Lewis had promised to "look after" for him.
As usual with my blog posts, I don't have any answers. I would, however, like to know what proportion of readers know or care about their favourite authors' personal lives and influences, and whether they think these are important enough to be the subject of lectures and conferences. Is it just prurient curiosity that makes us continue to ask questions about Stephen Tennant and Robert Ross, or is it an awareness that their friendships with Sassoon had a bearing on what he wrote? Or is it simply that we find other people's lives interesting, whether they are writers, artists, musicians, actors or the people next door? Whether or not you are a member of a literary society, do let me know what you think.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Withdrawal Symptoms

Are you starting to experience withdrawal symptoms as the number of First World War-related activities and events thins out with the centenary of the Armistice now in sight? Or are you suffering from overload and will you simply be glad to hear the last of it?
Not to worry, in either case. The Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship has the good fortune to be associated with a man who, despite his quip to the effect that "most people think I died in 1919", still had some of his greatest achievements ahead of him when the Great War ended. We will have centenaries to celebrate for many years to come, and, who knows, by the centenary of his death in 2067, his work may be attracting an even bigger audience than it already does, but for quite different reasons.
By the time the war ended in 1918, many of the great war poets had sung their song and passed away. Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, and many lesser-known but equally talented poets had fallen in battle and would never write another poem. Wilfred Owen's work remained to be discovered by the global audience it now has, but that event was not too far away. Sassoon, meanwhile, was struggling for inspiration; he might well have thought that the most meaningful period of his life was over.
Yet it was only now, right at the end of the war, that he became personally acquainted with two figures who would be of major importance to him: Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. These meetings were perhaps a little overshadowed, in these immediate post-war years, by the loss of two men who might have given him some guidance for the future - Robert Ross, who died in October 1918, and William Rivers, who died in 1922. Both deaths were very sudden, and floored Sassoon, their emotional effect being as great as the wartime deaths of close friends like Owen and David Thomas. The new friends he made over the years never quite made up for the losses; how could they?
He did not know it, but this was to be the period when he discovered the depths of his literary talent and fulfilled the early promise of his war poetry. To Sassoon, writing a popular memoir cannot have seemed such a great achievement. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, though it won literary prizes and went so quickly onto school syllabuses that his own son found himself studying it for O-level, did not make its author particularly proud. Sassoon said that "my real biography is in my poetry", but this can only be true if one takes into account all the lesser-known poems from the post-war period as well as the classic war poems.
So we may not go on celebrating centenaries quite as busily as we have been doing these past few years (which will be something of a relief for anyone involved in organising commemorative events), but there will still be notable achievements for us to mark: the publication of Owen's Poems in 1920, edited by Sassoon with the indispensable assistance of Edith Sitwell; Sassoon's involvement with the South Wales miners' strike of 1921; and of course the publication of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man in 1928. Perhaps the latter centenary will be a good opportunity to get together with the Robert Graves Society, who will undoubtedly be recognising the centenary of the publication of Graves' war memoir, Good-Bye to All That (in which Sassoon so prominently features) in 2029. Thank you, Sig, for keeping us so busy.