Story type: Essay
I always think that the author who places his own photograph as an illustrated frontispiece to his own book must be either an exceedingly brave man or an exceedingly misguided one. At any rate, he runs a terrible risk, amounting almost to certain calamity, in regard to his literary admirers. I have never yet known an author–and this applies to authoresses as well–whose face, if you liked his work, was not an acute disappointment the moment you clapped eyes upon it. For example, I am a devoted admirer of “Amiel’s Journal”, but it is years since I have torn Amiel’s photograph from the covers of his book. I could not bear to think that such lovely, such poetical thoughts, should issue from a man who, in his portrait, anyway, looks like nothing so much as a melancholy Methodist minister, the most cheerful characteristic of whom is “Bright’s disease.”
In the days of my extreme youth I admired a well-known authoress–in public, be it understood, as is the way of youth. The world was given to understand that in her seductive heroines she really drew her own portrait. This same world lived long in blissful ignorance that what was stated to be a fact was only the very small portion of a half-truth. For years this famous lady refused to have her photo published. She even went so far as to tell the world so in every “interview” which journalists obtained from her–either regarding her views on “How best to obtain an extra sugar-allowance in war-time,” or concerning “Queen Mary’s noble example to English women to wear always the same-sort-of-looking hat.” This extreme modesty piqued the curiosity of her ten million readers enormously. The ten million, of which I was a member, imagined that she must be too beautiful and too elegant to possess brains, unless she were a positive miracle. We pictured her as tall and graceful, with a lovely willowy figure and an expression all sad tenderness when it wasn’t all sweet smiles.
Then one fatal day the famous authoress decided–too late, I’m afraid, by more than twenty years–to show her face to the ten million worshippers who demanded so greatly to see it. The irrevocable step being taken, disillusion jumped to our eyes, as the French say, and nearly blinded us. Instead of the goddess we had anticipated, all we saw was, gazing at us out of the pages of an illustrated newspaper, an over-plump, middle-aged “party” with no figure and a fuzzy fringe, who stood smiling in an open French window, and herself completely filling it! The shock to our worship was so intense that it made most of us think several times before spending 7s. on her new love story, were it ever so romantic. And so that was the net result of that!
Wiser far is the other well-known authoress, who apparently had her last photograph taken somewhere back in the early nineties, and still sends it forth to the press as her “latest portrait study,” which, perhaps, if she be as wise as she is witty, it will for ever be.
No, I think that authors who insist upon their own photographs appearing in their own books are either very foolish or puffed out with pompous pride. Nobody really wants to look at them a second time; or, even if they do, nine times out of ten those who stay to look remain to wish they hadn’t. I have never yet known an author’s face which compared in charm and interest with the books he writes. Taking literature as a professional example, it cannot truthfully be said that beauty often follows brains. In the case of authors, as in so many other cases, to leave everything to the imagination is by far the better policy in the long run. But there is this consolation, anyway–we are what we are, after all, and our faces are very often libels on our “souls.”
Granting this, the theory of the resurrection of the body always leaves me inordinately cold. As far as I, myself, am concerned, the worms can have my body–and welcome. May I prove extremely indigestible, that’s all! Preferably, I want to “cease upon the midnight without pain,” in the middle of a dynamite explosion. I want, as it were, to return to the dust from which I came in one big bang! And if I must have a Christian burial, then I hope that all of me which remains for my more or less sorrowing relatives to bury, decently and in order, will, at most, be one–old boot! Of course, if I do die in the middle of an explosion, I grant that, if the resurrection of the body really be a fact, then I shall find it extremely tiresome to hunt everywhere for my spare parts. It will be such a colossal bore having to worry all the other people, also busy collecting themselves, who went up with me in the “bang,” by keeping on demanding of them the information, “Excuse me, but have you by any chance seen anything of a big-toe nail knocking about?” I always feel so sorry for those Egyptian princesses whose teeth and hair, whose jewels and old bones, proved such an irresistible attraction to the New Zealand and Australian soldiers when they were in camp near Cairo, that they stole out at night to rob their tombs, and sent the plunder thus obtained “way back home to the old shack” as souvenirs of the Great War. It will be so perfectly aggravating for these royal ladies to resurrect in a tomb which, in parenthesis, they had purposely constructed to last them until the Day of Judgment–to resurrect therein, only to discover that some of their necessary parts are either in Auckland, or in Sydney, or in Melbourne, or, perhaps, in all three cities. It will be but poor consolation to learn that the rest of them may, perhaps, be discovered among the sands of the desert–that is to say, if they scratch about long enough looking for them. Personally, if I get the chance, I shall immediately go about purloining other people’s physical perfections, so that, when at last I am ready for the next move onward, I shall consist of one part Hercules and three-parts Owen Nares! I shall indeed look lovely, shan’t I? In the meanwhile, I realise that, physically speaking, I am far better imagined than understood. Not that I am very much worse than the average? on the other hand, I am certainly not much better–so who would be the happier for gazing at my photograph? No, indeed, it cannot be for their beauty that authors insert their own photographs–sometimes, even, on the outside covers of their own books! For what beauty they do possess has usually been lost somewhere on the original negative. If they still yearn to let themselves be seen, as well as read, I would suggest that the frontispiece be the one page in the book to be uncut, so that their readers, should they wish to peep at the author’s physiognomy for curiosity’s sake, may–if that curiosity prove its own punishment–leave those first pages uncut until the book falls to pieces on the bookshelf. For myself, I hate to read some beautifully written thought, only to have the author’s distinctly unbeautiful face always protruding between me and my delight–like some utterance of the commonplace in the middle of a discussion on “souls.”
I suppose it is that authors–like everybody else–cannot understand that how they look to themselves and to those who love them, and so are used to them, they will not necessarily look to other people, who merely want to gaze upon their photograph because they cannot look upon their waxwork. We all get so used to our own blemishes by seeing them every morning when we brush our hair that we have long since ceased to regard them seriously. But ten to one a stranger will notice nothing else. That is always the way of a stranger’s regard. But, after all, to fail to impress someone who knows you and loves you is nothing at all; to fail, however, to impress someone who yearns to become acquainted with you, is very often to lose a possible friend. Better a thousand times that an adoring reader should keep yearning to know what her favourite author looks like than, having at last satisfied her curiosity, she should exclaim disappointedly, “Gosh! To think that he could look like that!!”
If an author feels that indeed he must show the world what he looks like, let him issue to the public merely a “vague impression” of himself–a Cubist one for preference. A Cubist portrait can look like anything . . . but to look like anything is infinitely preferable to looking like nothing on this earth, isn’t it?