“Who’s Who” by A. A. Milne

I like my novels long. When I had read three pages of this one I glanced at the end, and found to my delight that there were two thousand seven hundred and twenty-five pages more to come. I returned with a sigh of pleasure to page 4. I was just at the place where Leslie Patrick Abercrombie wins the prize “for laying out Prestatyn,” some local wrestler, presumably, who had challenged the crowd at a country fair. After laying him out, Abercrombie returns to his books and becomes editor of the Town Planning Review. A wonderfully drawn character.

The plot of this oddly named novel is too complicated to describe at length. It opens with the conferment of the C.M.G. on Kuli Khan Abbas in 1903, an incident of which the anonymous author might have made a good deal more, and closes with a brief description of the Rev. Samuel Marinus Zwemer’s home in New York City; but much has happened in the meanwhile. Thousands of characters have made their brief appearance on the stage, and have been hustled off to make room for others, but so unerringly are they drawn that we feel that we are in the presence of living people. Take Colette Willy, for example, who comes in on page 2656 at a time when the denouement is clearly at hand. The author, who is working up to his great scene –the appointment of Dr. Norman Wilsmore to the International Commission for the Publication of Annual Tables of Physical and Chemical Constants– draws her for us in a few lightning touches. She is “authoress, actress.” She has written two little books: Dialogue de Betes and La Retraite Sentimentale. That is all. But is it not enough? Has he not made Colette Willy live before us? A lesser writer might have plunged into elaborate details about her telephone number and her permanent address, but, like the true artist that he is, our author leaves all those things unsaid. For though he can be a realist when necessary (as in the case of Wallis Budge, to which I shall refer directly), he does not hesitate to trust to the impressionist sketch when the situation demands it.

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Wallis Budge is apparently the hero of the taie; at any rate, the author devotes most space to him–some hundred and twenty lines or so. He does not appear until page 341, by which time we are on familiar terms with some two or three thousand of the less important characters. It is typical of the writer that, once he has described a character to us, has (so to speak) set him on his feet, he appears to lose interest in his creation, and it is only rarely that further reference is made to him. Alfred Budd, for instance, who became British Vice-Consul of San Sebastian in 1907, and resides, as the intelligent reader will have guessed, at the San Sebastian British Vice-Consulate, obtains the M.V.O. in 1908. Nothing is said, however, of the resultant effect on his character, nor is any adequate description given–either then or later–of the San Sebastian scenery. On the other hand, Bucy, who first appears on page 340, turns up again on page 644 as the Marquess de Bucy, a Grandee of Spain. I was half-expecting that the body would be discovered about this time, but the author is still busy over his protagonists, and only leaves the Marquess in order to introduce to us his three musketeers, de Bunsen, de Burgh, and de Butts.

But it is time that I returned to our hero, Dr. Wallis Budge. Although Budge is a golfer of world-wide experience, having “conducted excavations in Egypt, the Island of Meroe, Nineveh and Mesopotamia,” it is upon his mental rather than his athletic abilities that the author dwells most lovingly. The fact that in 1886 he wrote a pamphlet upon The Coptic History of Elijah the Tishbite, and followed it up in 1888 with one on The Coptic Martyrdom of George of Cappadocia (which is, of course, in every drawing-room) may not seem at first to have much bearing upon the tremendous events which followed later. But the author is artistically right in drawing our attention to them; for it is probable that, had these popular works not been written, our hero would never have been encouraged to proceed with his Magical Texts of Za-Walda-Hawaryat, Tasfa Maryam, Sebhat-Le’ab, Gabra Shelase Tezasu, Aheta-Mikael, which had such a startling effect on the lives of all the other characters, and led indirectly to the finding of the blood-stain on the bath-mat. My own suspicions fell immediately upon Thomas Rooke, of whom we are told nothing more than “R.W.S.,” which is obviously the cabbalistic sign of some secret society.

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One of the author’s weaknesses is a certain carelessness in the naming of his characters. For instance, no fewer than two hundred and forty-one of them are called Smith. True, he endeavours to distinguish between them by giving them such different Christian names as John, Henry, Charles, and so forth, but the result is bound to be confusing. Sometimes, indeed, he does not even bother to distinguish between their Christian names. Thus we have three Henry Smiths, who appear to have mixed themselves up even in the author’s mind. He tells us that Colonel Henry’s chief recreation is “the study of the things around him,” but it sounds much more like that of the Reverend Henry, whose opportunities in the pulpit would be considerably greater. It is the same with the Thomsons, the Williamses and others. When once he hits upon one of these popular names, he is carried away for several pages, and insists on calling everybody Thomson. But occasionally he has an inspiration. Temistocle Zammit is a good name, though the humour of calling a famous musician Zimbalist is perhaps a little too obvious.

In conclusion, one can say that while our author’s merits are many, his faults are of no great moment. Certainly he handles his love-scenes badly. Many of his characters are married but he tells us little of the early scenes of courtship, and says nothing of any previous engagements which were afterwards broken off. Also, he is apparently incapable of describing a child, unless it is the offspring of titled persons and will itself succeed to the title; even then he prefers to dismiss it in a parenthesis. But as a picture of the present-day Englishman his novel can hardly be surpassed. He is not a writer who is only at home with one class. He can describe the utterly unknown and unimportant with as much gusto as he describes the genius or the old nobility. True, he overcrowds his canvas, but one must recognize this as his method. It is so that he expresses himself best; just as one painter can express himself best in a rendering of the whole Town Council of Slappenham, while another only requires a single haddock on a plate.

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His future will be watched with interest. He hints in his introduction that he has another volume in preparation, in which he will introduce to us several entirely new C.B.E.’s, besides carrying on the histories (in the familiar manner of our modern novelists) of many of those with whom we have already made friends. Who’s Who, 1920, it is to be called, and I, for one, shall look out for it with the utmost eagerness.

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