Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Birthday: There really could only be one Ronald Firbank, ever.

Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (1886-1926)
Author, Character

“Firbank, it seems, was born blushing;” one critic wrote. “His associates never fail to mention his social awkwardness, particularly the incessant fluttering of hands (or compulsive washing of same) and the hysterical laughter which would periodically erupt, leaving him incapable of completing an anecdote. Attempting to embolden himself with drink merely exacerbated the problem.”
The Firbanks were New Money. Only two generations and a parliamentary seat for his father separated them from the soil. Home- and privately- schooled, he went down to Trinity College, Cambridge, where his principal achievements were the refinement of his eccentricities and his conversion to Catholicism in 1907.
“While at Cambridge, Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland recalls seeing the effete Firbank incongruously dressed ‘in the costume of sport’. Confounded, Holland enquired what he had been doing, and learning that he had apparently been playing football, further enquired whether it was rugby or soccer. ‘Oh,’ replied Firbank, ‘I don’t remember’.”
Firbank left Cambridge, without a degree, in 1909. He set about the business of being Ronald Firbank. It was a full-time occupation, and a peripatetic one, James Cowley writes at Strange Flowers:
His delicate health led him to constantly seek out more sympathetic climes, and his friends knew of his comings and goings largely from notices in The Times.
He telegraphed one pal, “Tomorrow I go to Haiti.They say the President is a Perfect Dear!” He presented a marchesa an armload of lilies and suggested they embark, at once, for America. The socialite Nancy Cunard recalled one raucous evening:
A charming, but at that moment insufferably drunk, young man was with me and we were about to have dinner. Noisily and lengthily captious at the menu’s many suggestions, he had finally reached the point of announcing ‘I’ll have…I’ll have a…’ while the waiter stood by looking more than weary. At that moment Firbank swept in, ecstatic, and came dancingly towards us. As I tried to introduce them my companion scowled at him, muttered something about ‘fairies’ and reached the end of his thought: ‘A beefsteak’. ‘And what with, sir?’ asked the waiter. ‘What with, what with?’ groaned the angry man, ‘with…’ Firbank stood poised above us. With a swoop over the table and an ingratiating giggle he suggested clearly and winningly: ‘Try violets!’

Firbank published his first short story in 1905, and in the last decade of his short life produced eight short novels. In Society it is always possible for one- if not excluded entirely- to move in the best circles without ever being fully admitted, and there was Firbank’s orbit. Like Proust, and Coward, Saki and Wilde, he was a sharp observer of “the rituals of his circle as well as its hostility to outsiders, but the barbs in his writing are sometimes so subtle that they only become visible on a second reading. While his plots and dialogue can occasionally seem as precious and overstuffed as a Victorian salon, Firbank was also remarkably forward-looking, such as in the impressionistic passages in Valmouth which record fragments of conversation, out of context, or his regular deployment of characters who were gay or lesbian or otherwise alienated,” Cowley writes.

Here is a charming domestic scene in le monde de Ronald:

“And, then, oh yes! Atalanta is getting too pronounced.” She spoke lightly, leaning back a little in her deep arm-chair. It was the end of a somewhat lively review.On such a languid afternoon how hard it seemed to bear a cross! Pleasant to tilt it a little…Her listener waved her handkerchief expressively. She felt, just then, it was safer not to speak. Tactfully she rose.On a dark canvas screen were grouped some inconceivably delicate Persian miniatures.She bent towards them. “Oh, what gems!”But Lady Georgia would not let her go.“A mother’s rôle,” she said, “is apt to become a strain.”Mrs Henedge turned towards her. “Well, what can you do, dear?” she inquired, and with a sigh she looked away sadly over the comparative country of the square.Lady Georgia Blueharnis owned that house off Hill Street from whose curved iron balconies it would have seemed right for dames in staid silks to lean melodiously at certain moments of the day. In Grecian-Walpole times the house had been the scene of an embassy; but since then it had reflowered unexpectedly as a sympathetic background, suitable to shelter plain domesticity – or even more.Not that Lady Georgia could be said to be domestic….Her interests in life were far too scattered. Known to the world as the Isabelle d’Este of her day, her investigations of art had led her chiefly outside the family pale.“It is better,” Mrs. Henedge said, when she had admired the massive foliage in the square, and had sighed once or twice again, “to be pronounced than to be a bag of bones. And thank goodness Atalanta’s not eccentric! Think of poor Mr. Rienzi-Smith who lives in continual terror lest one day his wife may do something really strange – perhaps run down Piccadilly without a hat…Take a shorter view of life, dear, don’t look so far ahead!”“I was thinking only of Monday.”“There will be eleven bridesmaids besides At’y!”“They will look Satanic.”“Yes; it’s perhaps too close to picture them!”“I don’t know, yet,” Lady Georgia said, “what I shall wear. But I shall be very plain.”“The cake,” Mrs. Henedge said, beginning to purr, “is to be an exact replica of the Victoria Memorial.”“Do you know where the honeymoon’s to be spent?”“They begin, I believe, by Brussels—”“I can hardly imagine anyone,” Lady Georgia observed, “setting out deliberately for Brussels.”
It is easy to imagine Firbank as the model for the stuttering- and literally unsinkable- Anthony Blanche in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Firbank characters were always declaiming the indignities of modernity: “The world is disgracefully managed, and one hardly knows to whom to complain.”
In The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), Firbank needled the virtuous, with himself as the foil:

'The Passing of Rose I read the other day,' Mrs. Montgomery said, 'and so enjoyed it.'
'Isn't that one of Ronald Firbank's books?'
'No, dear, I don't think it is....'
'I suppose I'm getting squeamish! But this Ronald Firbank I can't take to at all.
Valmouth! Was there ever a novel more Coarse? I assure you I hadn't gone very far when I had to put it down.'
'It's out', Mrs. Bedley suavely said, 'as well', she added, 'as the rest of them.'‘I once met him', Miss Hopkins said, dilating slightly the retinae of her eyes. 'He told me writing books was by no means easy!'
A moment later a nun enters the shop:
'Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank, or Inclinations by the same author?' she asked.
'Neither: I'm sorry—both are out!'

Nuns and priests constantly flit in and out of Firbank’s imagination, the air thick with incense and moral compromise. His tastes in Catholicism ran to the theatrical. His last book, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), is an irreligious religious farce set in the cathedral of a Spanish prince of the church, whose enthusiasms include the baptism of pet dogs in his cathedral ('And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee "Crack"!') and an unsuitable passion for choir-boys.

Firbank’s was a minor talent, but to those with a taste for the minor keys, he was a master. E.M. Forster thought trying to analyze Firbank’s genius akin to breaking a butterfly upon the wheel. In her famous 1964 essay, “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag listed the Firbank novels as part of that aesthetic’s canon.

Edmund Wilson reckoned him one of the finest writers of his time. Waugh in his day, and Alan Hollinghurst, in this, found him praiseworthy. Auden said, “A person who dislikes Ronald Firbank may for all I know, possess some admirable quality, but I do not wish ever to see him again.” As Abraham Lincoln has said, on Facebook, “Those who like this sort of thing will find this is the sort of thing they like. Or not.”

Orbiting the Mediterranean- Spain, Italy, The Middle East, North Africa- for diversions and a cure for his many ailments, Firbank died, alone, in a Rome hotel. His friend, Lord Berners- himself an Olympic pentathlete of eccentricities- arranged the funeral. Not knowing Firbank’s brand, he buried his friend at the Protestant Cemetery. In the interests of decorum, Firbank was later reinterred at the Campo Verano, amidst prominent Jesuits and C.K.S. Moncrieff, translator of Proust.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #LGBT #Charlotte #Firbank

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