Anglais, terriblement anglais


Ever since Rome established its domination of the Mediterranean, letter-writing has been a regular adjunct of civilized life. The spread of Latinitas and reliable couriers allowed Cicero to exchange personal messages and canvass cronies throughout the Roman world. His letters, like those of many subsequent writers, are at once seemingly off the record and artfully composed. The epistolary Cicero is as much the advocate of his own fame, and poster-boy of his wit, as Cicero the orator. If a writer’s correspondence seems to reveal him without artifice, his prose is professionally calculated to entertain, seduce or intimidate. “When an artist spits”, the Dadaist said, “that’s art!” And when Graham Greene writes a letter, it is no less (or more) his work than anything else. To believe that letters affect to show what he was “really like” discounts his mutability. In any case, to be “like” implies approximation, if not imposture, the novelist’s working habit. It was said of a portrait by John Singer Sargent that you couldn’t see the man for the likeness. Greene was like many things, but no one essential thing, unless it was English: “Anglais, terriblement anglais”, was a French critic’s sighing encomium.

more from the TLS here.