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Logan Pearsall Smith

On the Anglo-American belletrist.


The great difficulty in writing about Logan Pearsall Smith is in explaining what sort of an author he was. There is no category in the modern literary world that he fits; it is difficult to imagine his books finding a publisher today, and impossible to imagine this most fastidious of all prose stylists earning a living as a journalist or academic. And if Logan would be out of place in our time, he was hardly less out of place in his own. His published writings do not exactly ignore the world wars and tumultuous politics of his lifetime, but they regard the events around him with a certain polite bafflement:

‘And what do you think of the International Situation?’ asked that foreign Countess, with her foreign, fascinating smile.

Was she a Spy? I felt I must be careful.

‘What do I think?’ I evasively echoed; and then, carried away by the profound and melancholy interest of this question, ‘Think?’ I queried, ‘do I ever really think? Is there anything inside me but cotton-wool? How can I, with a mind full of grey monkeys with blue faces, call myself a Thinker? What am I anyhow?’ I pursued the sad inquiry: ‘A noodle, a pigwidgeon, a ninny-hammer—a bubble on the wave, Madame, a leaf in the wind!’

The volumes of Trivia for which Logan is best known belong to no established literary genre: they mix fictitious anecdotes with aphorisms and pensées. Yet the polishing and revision of these pieces of light writing would occupy him for more than four decades, from the turn of the century until his death in 1946; each new edition of the popular Trivia books brought an opportunity for further refinement. Logan could spend an entire day rewriting a single sentence: in his old age, much of the day’s work would take place in bed, where he would add layer upon layer of near-illegible scrawl to a small piece of scrap paper, fumbling for his fountain pen when it got lost in the bedclothes. During this period a secretary was at hand to consult dictionaries and reference books as he searched for a word with exactly the right shade of meaning. In this Proustian atmosphere Logan revised his work again and again, aiming for the clarity and perfection that was his aesthetic ideal. A caricature by Max Beerbohm depicts Logan presenting his latest to the editors of the London Mercury: the manuscript, held between the author’s thumb and forefinger, is the size of a postage stamp.

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Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and a contributing editor at The Lamp.