Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Boy at the Hogarth Press!

Our book today is The Boy at the Hogarth Press, the jaunty little squib Richard Kennedy wrote in 1972 about his time working as a sixteen-year-old factotum ('more totum than fact,' as one wag puts it) in 1928 at the famous small publishing operation set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, frequented by other luminaries from the Bloomsbury set, and staffed by two much older, harried women and Kennedy himself, who writes up his reminiscences in the form of a contemporaneous diary and fills the slim volume with his own sketches, which have the wavering lines and immediate emotional honesty of pure memories.

Perhaps the whole thing is made of pure memories, but one is allowed to doubt. The joy of reading this volume is almost certainly the joy of writing it: gently skewering the haze of veneration that's settled about Bloomsbury despite near-constant attempts to puncture it – after all, what would a callow 16-year-old know of that? No, Kennedy is having his little joke (and very consciously adding to the long and storied British genre of workplace-memoirs) by letting our hindsight work wonders on the literary legends his younger self comes to know.

He gets a job at Hogarth Press at the very bottom of the publishing ladder – twining packages and running them to the post office, etc. - but he's treated extremely decently by his illustrious bosses: he's frequently invited to take long walks with Leonard, and he's often encouraged to attend the Woolfs' parties (they also introduce the lad to the other two besetting features of Bloomsbury: pretension and non-stop smoking).

But the decency isn't constant – the guilty little thrill of reading this book (it takes 15 minutes to finish the thing) is getting glimpses of the Woolfs as absent-minded, cranky, or downright abusive bosses, as when one of the office women runs afoul of Leonard's weirdly inconsistent and spiky wrath:
Leonard Woolf obviously does not think her [Mrs. Cartwright] at all efficient. In fact he was bloody awful to her in front of Miss Belcher and myself because she tried to cover up some trivial mistake. When he's annoyed, his voice goes up into a sort of exasperated wail, especially when he's saying words like 'Why???' and 'Absurd!!!' which he drags out to show how unreasonable something is. He does have a special way of talking which I think comes of the care he takes to say exactly what he means. It's kind of a drawl.

On the whole, Virginia is a gentler presence (although Kennedy at one point allows that a very sharp 'meanness' might lie just beneath the surface of how she deals with people, a point enlarged most wonderfully in Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants), although even her calmest moments have their barbs just under the surface:
In the printing room when Mrs W is setting type and I am machining we work in silence, unless, of course, she is in one of her happy moods – if she's going to a party or been talking round London, which she often does.

Today I interrupted her to ask her what Proust was like, as a reviewer had called her the 'English Proust'. At first she did not understand because I had pronounced Proust to rhyme with Faust and not boost. But she laughed and said she couldn't do French cooking, but it was very delicious.

And Kennedy the adult takes great delight at winking in the direction of Kennedy the boy's puckish observations, as on one of the day's most controversial painters (would to God that's all he'd remained):
LW sent me with a letter to a gallery which the police have closed down and I saw some of D. H. Lawrence's paintings. They all seemed to be pictures of himself in the nude, and were done pretty crudely. It looked as if he had taken off his clothes and then sat down and painted himself: working in the nude at the nude. They made me think of a coal miner after his bath.

Despite the fact that the young Kennedy eventually screws up and gets angrily dismissed by Leonard Woolf, this is very much an affectionate snapshot of the slightly seedy side of Parnassus. Certainly there are worse ways to spend your fifteen minutes.

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