Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

A true giant at the game of trivia

LOGAN Pearsall Smith was to language what a dancing master is to a minuet. He made words bow and pose in artless profile and keep just gorgeous time. If there's something a little too powdered and periwigged about his prose, well, why not? Language in this century suffers far less from dandies than from mugs in leather windbreakers, flattening speech into expeditious grunts.

''Trivia'' was the term Smith coined for the aphorisms and mini-essays he began to jot down and assemble at the turn of the century, many of them praising the virtues of elegant language, even as he was practicing those virtues. He delighted in playing the Old Fogey at 35. ''Why,'' he fussed prettily, ''wasn't I born in an age of adjectives? Why can one no longer write of silver-shedding Tears and moon-tailed Peacocks and star-enameled Night?''

About these ads

For a man who mocked himself as an anachronism 80 years ago, Smith has worn exceedingly well. A collection, ''All Trivia,'' has just been published by Ticknor & Fields, along with a compilation of his letters, decorously titled ''A Chime of Words.''

Smith's most famous aphorism affirms, ''People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.'' This - and almost any other Smith aphorism - makes unmistakably clear that, while the man may be fancy, he is not a literary cake-decorator. ''Aphorisms are salted and not sugared almonds'' - this was Smith's nicely tart aphorism on aphorisms.

Writing a most eloquent tribute to ''Monotony,'' Smith liked to pretend that the plot of his life consisted of nothing more than the simple pleasure of a lingering hot bath in the morning and the adventure of walking London's rainy streets in the afternoon, ending up in a tearoom, where he discreetly eyed other lonely strangers, inventing little novels about their lives.

Smith had keen eyes for Social Comedy, the sort of phrase he enjoyed capitalizing. The more a reader examines his criticism of modern style, the more it seems to turn into a criticism of modern life. Indeed, it is possible to feel just a little terrorized by these sharp slivers of supposed trivia. Virginia Woolf's description of him appears to carry an implicit warning: ''A very well-brushed, bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked man . . . a little frosty, I conjecture, though kindly and humane of course rather than human.''

Ah, that little kicker at the end!

One does, in fact, feel a frost upon reading the tart rebuke: ''People who live among photographs of their friends are not friends for me.''

This self-deprecating man, with ironies within his ironies, is more iron than irony at the core. He does not believe his concerns are ''trivia.'' He thinks the world of ostentatious getting-spending-and-achieving is true trivia.

About these ads

Within the English expatriate, the original Philadelphia-Quaker Smith never disappeared, making the subtlest of moral judgments on Pomp and Vanity. The style was velvet; the substance was homespun. The dandy had the heart of a missionary.

In an epilogue to ''All Trivia,'' Smith wrote, ''Across the great gulf of Time I send, with a wave of my hand, a greeting to that quaint people we call Posterity, whom I, like other great writers, claim as my readers - urging them to hurry up and get born, that they may have the pleasure of reading 'Trivia.' ''

As always, he was being witty. As always, he was being serious. As usual, he was more than half right.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.