I’m interested in a tone.
This sentence, for instance, in Ronald Firbank’s Caprice.
“My dear, I once was thought to be a very pretty woman. ... All I can do now is to urge my remains.”
This comes from an otherwise mildly repulsive secondary character, a Mrs. Smee, who Firbank mingles in with the theatrical set he is writing about. A woman whose first and abiding characteristic is her two moles. When two moles are thrown at the reader first thing, the reader backs up a bit, and a quick bit of mental business equating moles and witches occurs in the subconscious. Yet, Mrs. Smee’s remark implies a sort of conversational intelligence that is both bound to a certain class, or idea of class, and a certain ambiguous sexuality, the degree of which corresponds to the legal rigidity with which it was persecuted. One might well say that camp sprang from the law book.
One can in a way divide writers as followers of the law book or eccentrics from its captiousness by using the test of Firbank: those who can’t stand him – such as Kingsley Amis – will never find Mrs. Smee anything other than repulsive. Auden wrote that those who could not stand Firbank were all very well in other respects, but as for himself, he avoided them. It was Auden who saw the sly genius, the religious genius, in Firbank:
“All that really matters is in fact that the Firbank world should exist, a world in which a country church can have the “scheming look of an ex-cathedral” and a choir-boy who has been taking the lead in a mass of Palestrina’s “the vaguely distraught air of a kitten that had seen visions”, in which an inflamed girl can “leave the room warbling softly “depuis le jour,’”, and a queen motor for hours and hours with her crown on, it “was quite impossible not to mistake her”…
“Firbanks extraordinary achievement was to draw a picture, the finest, I believe, ever drawn by anyone, of the eafthly Paradise, not of course, as it really is, but as, in our fallen state, we imagine it to be, as the place, that is, where, without having to change our desires and beihaviour in any way, we suffer neither frustration nor guilt.”
The distinction between paradises – those we can imagine and the unimaginable paradise beyond our reckoning – is perhaps an Auden touch, whereas Firbank could reckon very well with the paradise in which his dolls hold sway. Still, what Firbank presents, and what Auden sees well, is that Firbank creates a world where, in spite of scandals and insinuations, nobody gets hurt. Innocence, here, is invulnerability – and it is that invulnerability which threads its way into the prose, into the style.
Style is, to use Barthes’s distinctions, a matter of the punctum, not the studium. A style is the equivalent of the italicized word – we recognize the difference in that word from its plain print kin, but at the same time, it is the same word. The style is meant to establish a clique – and to brave the dislike to which it is inevitably destined, the dislike of the rough and tumblers on the playground come to adulthood and hard liquor – the Kingsley Amises of the world. Firbank abounds in felicities – while it is the rough and tumblers glory to leave them out. Yet it is obvious to me that the greatest roughs in twentieth century literature – writers like Hemingway – learned how to write from the felicity-mongerers. Hemingway is forever paired with Stein in my mind.