CUSTOMS AND CHARACTERS: Contemporary Portraits by Peter Quennell

CUSTOMS AND CHARACTERS: Contemporary Portraits

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Eight essays in which biographer/memoirist Quennell--""an accredited Survivor, a relic of the Georgian literary past"" at age 77--follows a theme, more or less, while sketching in portraits of acquaintances and drifting into historical/literary allusion at will. A singe encounter with Garbo (at 46), for instance, leads him to muse on beauties who hold themselves at a Garboesque distance. . . and the rarer types, like Diana Cooper, who ""seem to have been altogether at ease with the marvellous gift bestowed on them."" Likewise, a dinner-party glimpse of the older Mrs. Keppel (once Edward VII's favorite) leads to ""the art of pleasing"" (Mrs. K.'s graceful forte), then to Mrs, K.'s un-pleasing daughter Violet Trefusis and her involvement with the ever-beguiling Nicolson marriage. Roger Fry's ""disinterested gift of himself"" is the center of another piece--with similar praise for Vanessa Bell, but not for Virginia W. (Quennell has always been lukewarm on Bloomsbury.) There's a tribute to Augustus John, whose wayward lifestyle was a reaction, Quennell suggests, to his frustration, his Delacroix-like consciousness of some unfillable void; there are affectionate glimpses of poor Randolph Churchill, of T. S. Eliot's crippled editor-friend John Hayward (""he belonged to the sad procession of literary sick men, whose lives had been distorted, but whose minds quickened, by the ills from which they suffered""), of fashion-setter Daisy Fellowes. But the best piece by far is a portrait of Elizabeth Bowen--""In middle age, she would have made a magnificent prophetess on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel""--with shrewd Comments on her work (and an amusing side-glance at Ivy Compton-Burnett). Mild, ruminative reflections, with no revelations and little personal involvement--but, for an erudite, Anglophilic readership: elegant rambles.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 1982
Publisher: Little, Brown