I confess to indulging here in that “third degree of horror,” as Hilaire Belloc puts it, which is “writing about what other people have written about writing”! In this case it’s hard to resist. Reading, like food and drink, is best when it is a shared pleasure.
While Belloc has left us essays on inumerable topics, for sheer fun I admit that I like nothing better than his discussion of other authors. The first volume from my shelf is A Conversation With an Angel (1928). In his piece “On Gibbon,” Belloc says that the eighteenth century author and skeptic, famous for his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “had little historical sense, and, on the top of that, did not wish to tell the truth…. On which account he is a bad historian. But as a writer—what a writer!” Undoubtedly some of the most interesting studies are about people whom an author admires but disagrees with. Belloc’s essays on Gibbon and the Whig historian Thomas Macaulay fall into this category. In “On Books That Change the World” he discusses socially influential works, like Calvin’s Institutes, Rousseau’s Contrat Social, or “that abominably boring, endless haystack, Marx’s Kapital.” His best piece in the volume is “Dickens Revisited,” in which he admits the shortcomings of the great Victorian novelist, but insists that
Dickens has a marvellous faculty for seizing upon certain permanent characteristics present in certain classes…. He has appreciated as no else has, out of a great number of talented men and even men of genius who have dealt with it, the superb irony of the London populace. He gets exactly… the motives of hypocrisy and vanity in our average selves.
Another collection is Short Talks With the Dead (1926), which features an amusing tribute to Livy as the patron saint of prolific writers: “Take heart, therefore, you my fellow hacks, and when men jeer at you for writing and still writing, answer over your right shoulder: ‘Livy,’ and turn to the task again.” Belloc’s discussion of Byron explains why the romantic poet was so acclaimed by the English of his day and yet a generation or two later, was widely ignored. He believes that Byron “expressed what men felt, could not themselves express, but desired to hear expressed.” My favorite essay is Belloc’s review of Rasselas, the philosophical novel by Johnson, in which he compares it favorably with Voltaire’s Candide. He admires Johnson’s highly epigramatic style:
There are some men who think that concision is a matter of short sentences and short words. It is not so. Concision is a matter of giving what you have to give in the least compass compatible with lucidity; and Johnson pulls it off.
Another fine piece of Johnsonia is Belloc’s essay on Boswell, found in The Silence of the Sea (1941), along with literary studies of Walter Scott, Bunyan and Jane Austen. I hope that someday Belloc’s commentaries on books and authors will be gathered together in a single volume.