The House of Life, Mario Praz
The House of Life, Mario Praz

The House of Life, Mario Praz

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“I am going to build a little I Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill. If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged.” Many years ago I read those lines in a volume of Horace Walpole's letters. From then on, night after night, I built and furnished Strawberry Hill with him, till the fatal day when the explosion of a gunpowder deposit blew down its sham battlements and shattered its stained‐glass windows. It provided me with one of the greatest pleasures to be found in English literature. I never hoped to repeat the experience. In the first of these books, “The House of Life,” Mario Praz has given me that pleasure all over again, and more besides.

The house of the title is an apartment in the Palazzo Ricci, in Rome. The book tells how the author furnished it over the years with a vast number of pieces of furniture, pictures and knick‐knacks belonging to the period known to collectors as Empire, largely in the neoclawcal style. Many of the pieces he collected have a high artistic value: some are so‐so; and some have no value at all except in the eyes of Mario Praz, for like all great collectors, including Walpole, Praz has a weakness for the occasional piece of junk.

Part of this remarkable book, then, is the description of the joys, the agonies, and the downright pottiness of a devoted collector. It is brilliantly done. Praz tells how he operates, but never makes the mistake of saying why. A collector's mania can never be explained. It must remain a mystery, as William Ewart Gladstone knew. In the millions of words that fell from his lips in his lifetime, Mr. Gladstone never once explained why he went out into the streets at night and collected London prostitutes.

He used to put them in a Home, and we may suppose he was happy that they were off the streets and safe under a roof, just as Mario Praz is probably happy when a sofa is safe out of the hands of some vandal of an antique dealer and in the Palazzo Ricci. However, Gladstone did not say so, and neither does Praz. We collect with him as we read, we thoroughly enjoy doing it and we do not know why.

The description of his collection is only the frame for a series of portraits in words of the people he has met in the course of his life. If, as he says, some of his Empire pieces are “unfortunately defective” ” these human portraits are of a dazzling perfection; good enough, one might almost say, to be put up at Sotheby's.

The major figures in this part of the book are the women with whom he fell in love. Mario Praz has a soft spot in his heart for a flawed antique, but for the defects of his mistresses (if they ever became that) he has a practised eye and a prose style as sharp and smooth as a chisel. The best of these portraits is that of Doris, a married woman in Liverpool (Much of the book deals with the author's long stay in England).

As Praz's English friends said, Doris was a silly women. He insisted that she had great intelligence. Doris, unfortunately, entirely agreed with his English friends. She clearly liked her Italian lover, up to a point. She was happy when he called her beautiful but with Liverpudlian commonsense, she drew the line when he called her brainy. Finaliy, exhausted by the mental effort, she broke off the relationship.

Only one person, in a whole gallery of portraits, is vaguely drawn. This is the woman who became his wife. The marriage broke up. He says very little about the lady, but she seems to have been of an obliging disposition. He does not tell us of the final cause of the rupture, but to judge from the photographs in the book, it is possible that she courteously moved out to provide more room for her husband's rapidly ex panding collection of objets d'art.

The break‐up provides Praz with one of his finest passages of exquisite irony. His wife is sitting opposite him in the apartment, embroidering. “Perhaps,” says Praz, I abdicated my position as a man for the first time on that fatal day, when, not satisfied with the way in which my wife had worked a rose, I took it upon myself to instruct her. As I managed to make a rose less like a cabbage than hers had been, I grew proud. . . I betrayed something feminine in myself, such as exists in anyone who has a feeling for the arts. But this discovery of my skill was like the discovery of the lure of a vicious inclina tion. I in the blindness of my understanding, whetted my sight upon the bewitching wools” — and he worked a sofa cover. In the picture it looks very well done, but it cost him his wife. She took the hint and ultimately left him.

That, then, is a sample of Praz on himself. He is as good, and even better, in a hundred other little scenes: a Pre‐Raphaelite gathering in England, witih William Morris's daughter, wearing amber beads, an eyeglass, and an almost white moustache; a meeting with John Masefield, “dressed like a porter on Sunday .. with a lock of hair falling down his forehead as if he had just come out of the water,” a meeting in which Masefield's wife did all the talking; some haunting glimpses of Rome during the war, and a lyrical journey down the River Thames. Slowly, as one turns the pages of this beautifully produced book, one realizes that it is not a description of a house or an autobiography, but something much more. It is a masterly example of that most difficult of all things to write, the long essay.

Just how difficult it is can be seen in the second of the books under review. It is one of those expensive, illustrated volumes which sell so well. The title page is a literary curiosity, a perfect example of the disasters that can befall a scholar when he ventures out of his study and into the book trade. It reads:

“An Illustrated History of Furnishings From the Renaissance to the 20th Century.” In fact, the book begins in the Middle Ages: the last plate is dated 1905—and it is not a history at all.

However, if the reader who puts down his money for the book will ignore this piece of blarney, he will find that he has bought a handsomelymounted peep show that will provide him with hours of fascination. Praz has reproduced hundreds of watercolors and sketches, showing the sort of rooms people lived in, painted by their contemporaries. If the painters are sometimes not very good, the author's polished and entertaining commentaries more than atone for their deficiencies.

He makes no attempt to write a connected history—wisely enough, for it would have been intolerably dull. Instead, he introduces the plates with a long introduction, and this falls, with scholarly neatness, exactly between two stools. It tries to combine warm personal recollections with a vast and sometimes rambling erudition. It tells us, as a result, too little about Praz—and not enough about furniture. Yet it is Praz that we want. We can be grateful that, in the other book, we have the real man.

Mario Praz is the author of a classic of literary criticism, “The Romantic Agony.” His knowledge of English literature is such that, although he is an Italian, the English gave him a knighthood in appreciation of his services to it.

In “The House of Life,” he does not mention these triumphs, because they do not fit in to the pattern of the book. He has higher aims than boasting. Now, in his sixties, he is not content merely to serve literature. He has set out to create it, and he has wholly succeeded.

From the New York Times, November 8, 1964.