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This review is taken from PN Review 31, Volume 9 Number 5, May - June 1983.

MINOR CIVILITIES Peter Quennell, Customs and Characters (Weidenfeld) £10.95

A sense of gratuitous book-making infects a high proportion of Weidenfeld publications, and an almost equally high proportion of contemporary reminiscences. But these are the attractive memoirs of a likeable man, meant to beguile an hour, gently to seduce the mind, to live in the memory when more exciting books have withered away, to recur in conversation, to last, in short to be a work of art. They belong to the pre-Hemingway and pre-Orwell period of English prose; their style summons up the London Mercury, which was a better magazine than we think.

Their subject-matter is partly the grand world where the rich, the successful, the famous and the beautiful meet. In Peter Quennell's lifetime that world has lost most of its glamour and nearly all its power, but it exists of course to this day. It is a perfectly valid theme, on which Peter Quennell is an expert and (as others die off) growing to be unrivalled. It touches on the lives of some important writers and artists. He is a teller of searching anecdotes, his ramblings are deliberate, he conveys a sharp sense of moral atmosphere. But his great examples, Saint Simon and Proust, excel him in precision, in the analysis of change, and above all in copiousness.

Peter Quennell throws a little light on T. S. Eliot, but the honesty, clarity and kindness of his record must be set off against a haunting vagueness elsewhere, as if mist were already sucking away ...


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