Monday, 20 August 2012

Not That It Matters - A.A. Milne

It's been about a decade since I blitzed most of A.A. Milne's very many books, and now I'm enjoying revisiting them.  I thought a trip down Milne Memory Lane would be a handy way to cross off 1919 on A Century of Books, so I picked up his collection of humorous essays from that year, Not That It Matters.

The first piece (although they are not in chronological order) starts 'Sometimes when the printer is waiting for an article which really should have been sent to him the day before, I sit at my desk and wonder if there is any possible subject in the whole world upon which I can possibly find anything to say.'  (The final line in the book, incidentally, is 'And Isaiah, we may be sure, did not carry a notebook.'  Which gives you some sense of the wide variety Milne covers in this collection.)

Some of the essays are very indicative of their time - from 1910 to 1919, as the essays appeared during that period in The Sphere, The Outlook, and The Star.  I'm not sure 'Smoking as a Fine Art' would appear anywhere today, except as a consciously controversial piece, nor could any 21st century essayist take for granted that his reader went for frequent country houseparties, attended Lords, and had strong memories of the First World War.  On the other hand, many of the topics Milne covers would be equally fit for a columnist today, if we still had the type who were allowed to meander through arbitrary topics, without the need to make a rapier political point or a satirical topical comment.  Milne writes on goldfish, daffodils, writing personal diaries, the charm of lunch, intellectual snobbery, and even what property programme presenters would now call 'kerb appeal' - but which was simply 'looking at the outside of a house' in Milne's day.

I love Milne's early work, because it is so joyful and youthful.  In the sketches and short pieces published in The Day's PlayThe Holiday Round and others, 'The Rabbits' often re-appear - these are happy, silly 20-somethings called things like Dahlia and (if me) addressed by their surnames.  They play cricket (badly), golf (badly), and indoor party games (badly) on endless and sunny country holidays.  It's all deliciously insouciant and, if not quite like A.A. Milne (or anybody) really was, great fun to read.  When Milne turns to essays, he can't include this cast, of course.  And he was in his late thirties when Not That It Matters was published - still young, perhaps, but hardly youthful.  He was a married man, though not a father quite yet, and his tone had changed slightly - from the exuberance which characterised his earliest books, to the calmly witty and jovial tone which was to see out the rest of his career.  Here's an example, more or less at random, of the style which makes me always so happy to return to Milne:
"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," said Keats, not actually picking out celery in so many words, but plainly including it in the general blessings of the autumn.
My main qualm with these essays is that they do often end in rather a forced manner.  He'll put in a reference that drags everything back to the opening line, or finishes off pat in a slightly different direction.  It doesn't feel especially natural, and is perhaps indicative of the looming deadlines Milne mentions in the first essay...

As the title suggests, nothing of life-changing importance is addressed in Not That It Matters.  He does not adopt a serious voice at any point - indeed, I cannot think of a time in any of his books where he becomes entirely serious, not even in Peace With Honour, a non-fiction (and excellent) book wherein he put forth his pacifist views.  Even at these moments his weightiest points are served with a waggle of the eyebrows and an amusing image.  That's how he made his impact.

I do prefer the whimsy of his fictional sketches to the panache of his essays, but it is still a delight and a joy to have Not That It Matters and its ilk waiting on my shelf.  It definitely bears re-reading, and I'll be going on a cycle through Milne's many and various books for the rest of life, I imagine.

Tomorrow I'll type out a whole of one of his essays, 'A Household Book', because I think it'll surprise quite a few people.  And will show to my brother that I was RIGHT about something I've been saying to him for a decade.  Ahem.  The essay is in praise of a then-underappreciated book by a famous author... and ends with this paragraph (come back tomorrow to see what it was!):
Well, of course, you will order the book at once.  But I must give you one word of warning.  When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, still less on the genius of ******* *******.  You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself... You may be worthy; I do not know.  But it is you who are on trial.

19 comments:

  1. I've (embarrassingly) never read anything by A.A. Milne other than his children's books. You've tempted me, however.

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    1. Oh don't be embarrassed, why should you be (unless you are writing an essay on him of course!)?

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    2. Most people haven't, Lucy! But do try him sometime :)

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  2. Wind in the Willows?

    re "Smoking as a Fine Art" - do you mean you don't subscribe to "The Chap"? Shame on you! :-0

    http://thechapmagazine.co.uk/

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    1. Now, how can you possibly have known that? Have I mentioned it before? Or do you have other tricks up your sleeve?

      (I refer to WITW, rather than the fact that I don't subscribe to The Chap - THAT doesn't require much intuition!)

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    2. Maybe I'm better read that you think! ;-)

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    3. You'd have had to have read this book, or maybe his biography?? (Or my comments on Claire's post the other day...)

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  3. The only AAM I've read apart from Pooh is "The Red House Mystery" which I thought was wonderful and it's a great shame he didn't write any more crime stories. The essays do sound rather lovely though - what of his non-Pooh stuff is best?

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    1. Kaggsy, I read "The Red House Mystery" a couple of weeks ago. It seemed like Milne was setting the stage for a series with Tony Gillingham and Bill Beverly in Holmes and Watson roles. I enjoyed the book too and wish he had written more.

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    2. It's fun, isn't it? I haven't read it for years, though. Four Days' Wonder is sort of detectivey, if memory serves, but very difficult to find.

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    3. Karen - that is a big question, which is his best! Hmm. I think my favourite might be his autobiography (It's Too Late Now, or simply An Autobiography in the US) but that might not be the first thing people want to read. His early sketches (e.g. The Holiday Round) are great fun, but he's capable of being much more thoughtful - as in the novel Two People.

      Basically I love nearly everything he wrote! The only books I found a little less successful were Chloe Marr, and his two collections of short stories (The Birthday Party and A Table Near The Band) - and I'm not one for poetry.

      Oh, his plays! They're wonderful too. If you can find the Penguin volume Four Plays (a different four from his earlier Four Plays, confusingly) then that has my favourites in - The Dover Road, Mr. Pim Passes By etc.

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  4. Oh Simon. I do love a book of familiar, personal essays. Years ago, I discovered "Not That It Matters" gathering dust in the stacks of my public library. I was enchanted and hurried back to check out "If I May," another book of Milne's delightful essays. I have "Not" on my Nook which is almost as good, but not quite, as owning the actual book. I somehow feel so much closer to the author with his or her physical book in hand.

    This spring, I just reread "Winnie the Pooh" and fell in love all over again.

    Thanks for all your suggestions in your list of 50 Books You Must Read. I have found some sparkling gems there.

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    1. How lovely that someone else knows this book! I do love his early essays and sketches, they're such fun - and not remotely edgy or anything, just good plain fun :)

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  5. I've seen you enthuse before about AA Milne, which tempted me into getting a copy of Two People not long ago (currently sitting fairly near the top of my TBR pile). That and The Red House Mystery were the only non-Pooh AAMs I could find, which seems a shame. It sounds like he'd be a good candidate for Persephone or another small publisher.

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    1. I did try to get them to consider the Mr. Pim Passes By novel, but Nicola wasn't a fan. Shame! But things are gradually coming out. Two People is brilliant - not his most humorous work by any means, but really good.

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  6. Okay, I'm moving Milne's The Sunny Side to the top of my TBR pile.

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    1. Hurray! I look forward to hearing your thoughts :)

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  7. Obviously, I think this sounds fabulous! I loved Once a Week and have been looking forward to reading more of his short writings since then, both essays and sketches. I love Milne's "meanderings"; he could make even the most mundane topics fascinating and amusing. The randomness of this makes it sound a little like the essays collected in Year In, Year Out, which is even more reason for me to track it down soon!

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    1. I thought you might like the sound of this, Claire! And you must try to find The Day's Play and The Holiday Round etc. - all, indeed, collected in Those Were The Days.

      It's so lovely having a Milne fan in the blogosphere. I never get tired of saying it!

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