Saturday, January 07, 2006

Isaiah Berlin to Elizabeth Bowen 1938

This is Isaiah Berlin in 1927.
(click to enlarge)
For the past few years he's been a favorite author. I own, but haven't yet begun to read the compilation of letters he wrote between 1928 and 1946. Recently I pulled it off the shelf and read the first letter that came in view. It's good -- worth sharing.

He wrote it immediately after completing work on his Karl Marx book. He'd been traveling -- to Italy, Austria, France, and then Ireland. The book's editor, Henry Hardy, says he spent a night at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin where he observed 'Mr. Yeats chanting verse in a corner to a young woman.' The letter concerns his next stop in Ireland, visiting Elizabeth Bowen at Bowen's Court in County Cork.

Henry Hardy gives the following context for the letter and provides some helpful footnotes. There's a biographical glossary in the back of the book containing entries on most of the people the letter mentions.
IB returned to England at a time of political crisis. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had begun a series of meetings with Hitler in an attempt to avert the threat of a war over Germany's demand that it should annexe the Sudetenland. The first of these, at Berchtesgarten on or September, raised hopes that war might be avoided, but disagreements, and hence preparations for war, continued until the Munich Conference of 29--30 September, when Britain and France accepted that Czechoslovakia should cede the Sudetenland to Germany.

Here's the letter.

Saturday [after 15 September 1938]
All Souls

Dear Elizabeth,
I have never - this is really true - had so much to thank for before in my life. I don't in the least know how to convey it, the overcompensation against my emotional mother + life in England & in Oxford has so far atrophied all my natural capacity for expressing direct personal feeling, that I must necessarily hope that they will get expressed by some cumulative effect of everything else one says, the alternative is frightful Henry James circumnavigation with, allusions to a state too sacred to be unlocked or described etc. & all this fearful embarrassment because I don't know how to say that I enjoyed myself enormously, that in the middle of it I was conscious of inability to repay, that I theoretically condemned {that} the whole complex of payment-repayment, but that for all that I was pursued by a sense of insufficient sensibility to offer in return, that I hope that my well known ponderous inadaptability didn't get on your nerves too much, that the possibility of finishing K. Marx in peace is due to you solely, that my affection, admiration, & a circumambient complex of unstateable feeling has risen to a point which I shd be angry if I could articulate - I can't continue with this, 1 hope I hope I convey, that I have induced ideas. Let me rather give an account of the succeeding hours.

Upon leaving you all at Fermoy[1] (as astringent a scene as even I cd desire) I found myself in the company, as you know, of Mrs Walton,[2] who spoke to me with the special air adapted to one who was at once a literary funny & a friend of the picaresque Foster.[3] That is, she spoke slowly, & apologized for every reference to local life, lamented her husband's ruthless devotion to his Irish home[4] and the pleasures of her youth & of London: she complained too of her husband's light head, & predicted that he would behave badly after a sherry party, when he wd dine in Bowen's Court to meet Mr Lennox Robinson.[5] She supposed she wd bear of it later: these things had happened more than once, & she was tired of inventing ad hoc explanations of it to allay shocked neighbours. This increasing intimacy, which I supported by a series of pontoon like Maurice 'yes' sounds, was interrupted by the arrival of a friend of hers, called Reggie certainly, & possibly also Stern or Stearn or Stirn. He greeted me with great affability, told gallant stories of insults to foreign station masters, & was finally left alone with me, after Mrs W.'s departure. Thereupon we settled down to a solid hour of discussion of the horse trade - I inquired, with I thought not really excessive crassness, about yearlings, hunters etc. being definitely pleased to see no look of frustration in my companion's eyes: I learnt a great deal about the habits of Cork horsebreeders, verified the story of the President's descent,[6] & altogether enjoyed the full pleasures of a highbrow behaving unfamiliarly without excessive loss of dignity. We became very
====footnotes to this page====
[1] Town in County Cork.

[2] Diana Florence Walton (I904-s3). a neighbour of Elizabeth Bowen. One of her sons remembers her talking of the train journey from Fermoy with IB, and reports that he resolutely disdained any interest in looking through the window'. In the 1920s she had lived at islip. near Oxford. where - as a beautiful young woman living close ov - she was Inuch in demand at undergraduate dances. Maybe these are among the pleasures of her youth that she lamented, and also one of the reasons why she regretted 'her husband's ruthless devotion to his frish home'. for whose management she was responsible.

[3] John Foster is alleged to have had an affair with a relative of Diana Walton. Diana Hill 09n-ps1, an aHegation whose plausibility is perhaps increased by IB's remade however hyperbolic it may be, that Foster 'went to bed with more ladies than anybody in the twentieth century' (MI Tape 20).

[4]Clifford, in a magnificent setting in the north of Co. Cork, overlooking the river Blackwater.

[5] (Esmé Stuart) Lennox Robinson (1886-1958), Irish playwright and theatre director.

[6] Douglas Hyde (1860- 2949), of Elizabethan settler descent, became first President of Irehind in
====end of footnotes====
attached on the boat & in the English train - he is a revolting little man - it was very full & we shared a sleeping car. In some wayside station at 6. am. men in pyjamas ran out & bought newspapers, with Chamberlain's journey in them: 'the war is postponed' said my horsedealer & then something like 'whizzbang' & went to sleep again. I never, as Turgenev, wd say, saw him again. He was a very minor cad of about 1870, & continued the cord with the past, which didn't snap till one reached London. Oxford was in a state of absolute enchantment. The sun shone, the town was empty & extremely beautiful, the Warden of New College was walking very slowly in a panama hat, & Mr Rowse was mild & almost deferential. I spent a few hours there, a the sleepless night & the general state of unrest kept me afloat - I am sure you know the condition, in a state of abnormally acute sensibility, irrational ecstasy & suspended animation, all until one reached London, & collapsed into the pedestrian mood of my parents. On the next morning & through the whole of the next day I went through a period of misery and nostalgia which persists still & which nothing can cure. All the faces of ordinary passers-by - even one's friends, Freddie whom I called on, & who said how much he wished he'd been in Ireland - in Bowenscourt I mean - & Stuart whom I met by accident waiting for Renée, & who looked at me really like a frightened gazelle lest she come a find us together & demand some explanation, until I left him feeling at least 25 years his senior, & very grave, bearded, operatic, melancholy & wise, all lacked lustre - I don't know how else to put it, after the terrific temperament & glitter of everything in County Cork, persons, physical objects, the weather. I saw Stephen almost out of desire to achieve contact with a definite person, & he was that, certainly, but plaintive, saying Inez had written a wonderful novel sadly, a then on & on again about Spain.

The sense of being driven out of paradise was so acute - I suppose Turgenev felt it when forced to leave the West a return to his literary coterie in Russia - that I am resolved not to let it happen so easily, to create possibility of returning to Ireland, at specified intervals however rare, but definite, which wd give stability to one's hopes. You will perhaps rightly suspect a Salzburg once more. Possibly. Except that Salzburg scenes used to return definitely theatricalized, definitely as artificial & sentimentalized as they were meant to be by Reinhardt[1] or somebody, whereas my memory of isolated place & times in Bowen's Court: notably the broad stairs, & the moment before turning the handle of the dining room in the morning, a the beginning of enchanted life (I apologize if this is badly put), the moment of carrying a candlestick from one room into the other, the stern reality of aunt Annie's[2]
====footnotes to this page====
[1] Max Reinhardt

[2]Anne Marcella Cole Bowen, one of EB's pateral aunts.
====end of footnotes====
room, & the splendid sensation of the sanctity & hardships of a dedicated life, the infinite pleasure of one's bed afterwards, & Curiosities of Literature[1] & To the North[2] by candlelight (the latter I've been stupid about, & left in Oxford on Thursday & cannot finish till Tuesday when I return & then I will send back promptly) the (I thought) much too short walk with you & David C. - again like M. de Charlus,[3] why couldn't it go on & on? releasing one during its second portion & allowing one to say all sorts of things? Even the official theatre - Mr O'Mahoney[4] in knickerbockers drinking claret decoratively on the steps, & treating the company to his fund of laid up erudition & charm & the evening walk among the sneezing troops, a the complete unbelievability of it even at the time to me (I should never dare to confess this to you at the moment, I am certain) & above all the terrific allusiveness of everything to everything else, the sense of everything as chargé du passé et gros de 1'avenir, I can't go on; here there is a lull, the newspapers read like a cheap serial, Chamberlain from having been a sad, mean, bedraggled figure is a national hero, Runciman[5] sold the Czechs piecemeal & bit by bit while he prepared I think to sell them wholesale - Miss Grant Duffs book at 6 pence in Pelican on Czechoslovakia[6] comes out in a half million edition to-morrow - theatres are half empty, the ballet more so still, I shall return to Oxford with relief, it is very self-possessed & frigid: I can hardly believe that I have been as happy as I have: I shall return his detective story to Alan I think it is very good. My love to Noreen[7] who has no flaws. And to Humphry when he comes I can't bear to finish this letter. I must go.

This is inconceivably inadequate - these & not when writing K.M. is what I really long to be able to write, a sentiment which is absolutely truthfully stated - & wd rightly have been despised by Flaubert or Tolstoy equally. This is like inability to go to bed. The pleasure of nostalgia is too acute. I've now suddenly recollected the Victorian evening in Cork, & the appearance of everyone in the box, & the directness and keenness of all one's
====footnotes to this page====
[1] Curiosities of Literature. Consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations, Literary, Critical, and Historical (London, 1791), published anonymously by Isaac d'Israeli, father of Benjamin Disraeli.

[2] EB's novel, published by Gollancz in 1932.

[3] Baron (Palamide) de Charlus, a character in Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (Paris, 1913-27). Probably a reference to the male brothel scene early in the last volume, Le Temps retrouvé, where Charius is beaten and then stays to chat.

[4] Eoin 'Pope' O'Mahony (1904-70), barrister by profession, a great raconteur and broadcaster who frequently discussed clan history on the radio, a familiar bearded figure travelling the roads of Ireland, and a well-known visitor at Bowens Court.

[5] Walter Runciman, Ist Viscount Runciman of Doxford (1870-1949), head of the mission to Czechoslovakia July-September 1938. See Shiela Grant Duff, The Parting of Ways, 173 ff.

[6] S. Grant Duff, Europe and the Czechs (Harmondsworth, 1938).

[7] Noreen Colley, a much younger cousin of EB, daughter of her Aunt Edie Colley.
====end of footnotes====
sensations, as if filtered & intensified by the period frame in which they occurred. I must end on a cautionary note. As I was driving out of Oxford in a taxi, the Broad being blocked, past Wadham, I saw Maurice contentedly in its doorway, surveying & approving. I stopped the taxi, & was at once rushed over the house, the red carpets, late Victorian desks (hideous I thought I must confess, & oddly vulgar for M. is this the David C. virus working insensibly? I must acquire an antidote at once) cellars, attics, bathrooms, bedrooms, sculleries & kitchens, he was well, benevolent, extremely nice. & colossally happy, & not wholly unlike Markie[1] - a character I am prepared to defend always & against anyone.

My love
====footnotes to this page====
[W[arden] Fisher quite polite about K.M.].[2]

[1] A character in To the North based on Maurice Bowra: see 288/4

[2] IB's outer brackets.

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