BOOKS NOVEMBER 16, 2011
by Susie Harries
Chatto & Windus, 928 pp., $48
IN 1933, SHORTLY AFTER fleeing the Nazis and arriving in London, a young German art historian wrote to the wife he had left behind in Gottingen. He had found a tiny room in Hampstead Garden Suburb, he told her, wherein there was “a sofa-bed and a little stool instead of a bedside table—no other table … A chest of drawers—barely big enough for my underwear. A bookshelf, almost full already. Where am I going to put my work things?”
Everything that would make Nikolaus Pevsner’s name is seeded in those few brief sentences. There is the daintily attentive eye for detail, the noting of inclusions and omissions, and above all, the cadenced desperation of a man forever being let down by the quotidian and the mundane. Here he is a decade and a half later, on East Retford in the county of Nottinghamshire: “A singularly unattractive town … the TOWN HALL of 1867 … is without any of the Victorian qualities which we are today ready to appreciate again: a bad Mansard roof and a bad turret … Of the few Georgian houses in the Square and the surrounding streets not one needs special mention … PARISH CHURCH OF ST SWITHIN. Big but also unrewarding.”
Susie Harries’s life of Pevsner is big, too—about the size, to resort to Pevsnerian precision, of two London bricks. To describe as unrewarding a book so diligently researched and ground-coveringly thorough might seem churlish. But no life that omits a bibliography while finding room to tell us about the number of times its subject was obliged to pick up his dog’s shit is entirely to be welcomed. What rewards there are to be found here are diminished by the fact of their having to be found—dug out, like the plums in a duff that has been steaming and swelling for rather too long. It took Harries more than twenty years to write this book, yet who after reading it would gainsay the interviewee who (early on) was worried that she had chosen the wrong subject? “I don’t know what you’re going to find to say,” he cautioned her. “The man did nothing but work.”
The work in question was The Buildings of England, a series of gazetteers to the architectural delights and delinquencies of the country in which Pevsner had found refuge. A labor of love for which he was paid a mere £900 a year, the series eventually ran to some forty-six volumes. Pevsner researched and wrote thirty-two of them himself, collaborating with younger authors on a further ten volumes. Twice a year he and his wife (or whomever else he could enlist as driver) would embark on month-long two-thousand-mile trips around a given county, travelling from one dingy rooming house to another in a beat-up old Wolseley Hornet. Their routes took them to as many illustrious buildings as possible, with Pevsner filling notebook after notebook with descriptions and aide-memoire cartoons.
In the evenings he would transcribe his notes into the terse, taxonomic treatises that made his name. “Quoins occur,” we learn at one point in Pevsner’s book on Buckinghamshire, “and in the mid C17 also occasionally superimposed orders of pilasters and a cupola or belvedere on the roof.” “The S side is the main front,” he notes elsewhere. “Five bays, the angles with evenly rusticated pilasters, then Ionic pilasters, and then, for the centre bay, attached Ionic columns on high plinths, carrying a pediment.” All right and proper, you can be sure, which doesn’t mean that his prose is innocent of the charge of carrying an impediment of its own—the impediment of tediousness. Alec Clifton-Taylor complained that, panoptically encompassing as Pevsner’s guides were, they never told you whether you should or should not bother making the trip to this church or that manor house. All was description, nowhere discrimination. John Betjeman thought the man he called “Herr Doktor Professor” duller still—less a writer than a scholarly accumulator of lifeless, recondite details. Himself an amateur architectural historian, Betjeman told would-be contributors to the series of companions to the English counties that he edited for Shell (which were in competition with Pevsner’s) that “the eye and the heart are the surest guides” to architectural taste. The Herr Doktor Professor, Betjeman not so subtly implied, was deficient in both organs.
Without quite wanting to do so, Susie Harries has come up with the goods to suggest Betjeman might have had a point. Pevsner remained blind to the horrors of what was going on in Nazi Germany for far longer than anyone vaguely sane could have done. Worse, his heart seems to have beaten in time with that of the lunatic zeitgeist. A Hegelian aesthete who held that the responsibility of the artist was the articulation of the national spirit—an argument eerily similar to that contemporaneously being put forward in Germany at the same time—Pevsner was to be heard descanting on cultural “degeneracy” and denouncing “international types” and “foreign influences” until well into Hitler’s reign of terror.
Fair enough, you might say: courageous and proper though it would have been to speak out, courage is always in short supply—we wouldn’t tell stories about it otherwise—and you should never imagine yourself capable of acting any more bravely than the next man. But how to explain the entry in Pevsner’s diary bemoaning his “impossible … big, crooked, Jewish” nose? How to account for the fact that one of the first letters he wrote to his (half-Jewish) wife from England gave thanks for the fact that “I am treated here entirely as a German and not as a Jew”? How to overlook his description in another letter of a fellow German refugee whom he found “rather BERLINER … an immature anti-Nazi … Such pushiness and such a thick skin … A horror … a living advertisement for anti-Semitism”? Being with this young man, Pevsner said, made him “feel like Streicher—physically repelled.”
One closes this book feeling more than a little mentally repelled. Nobody who spends a goodly part of their leisure-time walking the English landscape—as I do—is ever far from a copy of the relevant Pevsner. After reading Harries, though, you might feel rather more distant from the man who wrote them. Nothing could prevent me from laughing again at, say, his opening description of Byron’s ancestral home, Newstead Abbey—“not an Abbey”—but from now on I shall see his calculatedly characterless prose in a terrible new light. The facts and the figures that make up almost the entirety of Pevsner’s books, their Betjeman-baiting love of order and rigor and the inarguably categorized, can perhaps now be seen as an aspect of the love of order underlying an altogether more sinister worldview—one that tried to destroy England.
The historian’s job is not to tell us what to think, but to tell us what he thinks, so that our own thoughts may be refined or rearranged by dint of the comparison and argument. But there is no arguing with Pevsner. The stare-you-in-the-face rigor of his systematizing intellect—those cold, clean pages with their hanging indents, their bolds and italics and SMALL-CAPS—has the effect of making what is only his taste look like the truth. One knew this abstractly, of course, before ever reading this biography; but having read the book one feels it in one’s whole being—feels, moreover, that Pevsner himself wouldn’t have a clue what one was talking about in criticizing him in this way. I don’t for a moment think that she set out to tarnish her man, but Harries has changed the way we see him all the same. Pevsner wrote books about what men made with clay. Susie Harries has written one that proves at least a part of him was made of the same substance.
Christopher Bray is the author of Sean Connery (Pegasus). He is at work on a cultural history of Britain in the 1960s.