Elementary, my dear Sir Arthur

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One of the least known of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's works is a book called Through the Magic Door, which is not a work of fiction at all but a controlled, reminiscent ramble along his bookshelf, chatting about his favourite books as if he were on Desert Island Discs. At one point, in fact, he actually invents the idea of Desert Island Discs: "Were I condemned to spend a year upon a desert island," he says, "and allowed only one book for my companion, it is certainly that which I should choose."

(It is Gibbon's Decline and Fall he is talking about, and he goes on to say, rather splendidly: "With our more elastic methods we may consider his manner pompous, but he lived in an age when Dr Johnson's turgid periods had corrupted our literature.")

Well, this weekend I have been browsing through the Conan Doyle book again, and I came by and by to a debate Conan Doyle conducts with himself on whether Poe or Maupassant did more for the short story, and there I spotted a small aside by Doyle which I had not noticed before.

He says: "Talking of weird American stories, have you ever read any of the works of Ambrose Bierce? I have one of his works here, In the Midst of Life. This man had a flavour quite his own, and was a great artist in his own way. It is not cheering reading, but it leaves its mark upon you, and that is the proof of good work."

This in turn has prompted me to dig out a book I bought 20 or more years ago, published by Dover and entitled The Sardonic Humour of Ambrose Bierce, which has a lot of his verse in it (too much for my liking), and some of his tales. Here, to give you the flavour, is a little verse, "Arbor Day":

Hasten, children, black and

white -

Celebrate the yearly rite.

Every pupil plant a tree:

It will grow some day to be

Big and strong enough to bear

A School Director hanging

there.

And here is the beginning of one of his stories, "An Imperfect Conflagration", taken from a collection called The Parenticide Club:

"Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father - an act which made a deep impression on me at the time. This was before my marriage, while I was still living with my parents in Wisconsin. My father and I were in the library of our home, dividing the proceeds of a burglary which we had committed that night ..."

I can remember the first time I read those words, and the frisson that came on me at the realisation that I had found a truly remarkable writer, funny and savage. The mixture of the formality of tone and the squalor of the subject matter is in the true tradition of Swift and Voltaire. The little rhyme about hanging a school director seems a little extreme even today (the only comparison I can think of is the modern alternative comedy joke: "Help a London child - kill a social worker") but to come across that sort of savage humour in the 1890s must have been staggering. Assuming, that is, that anyone in Britain was even aware of Bierce's existence.

To write the kind of lacerating prose that Bierce wrote, castigating human folly and the self-deceptions of human nature, would be to evoke gasps of horror even now. To have written like that in 1890 must have seemed like madness.

Here's another opening to another story, which he entitled "Oil of Dog":

"My name is Boffer Bings. I was born of honest parents in one of the humbler walks of life, my father being a manufacturer of dog-oil, and my mother having a small studio in the shadow of the village church, where she disposed of unwelcome babes. In my boyhood I was trained to habits of industry; I not only assisted my father in procuring dogs for his vats, but was frequently employed by my mother to carry away the debris of her work in the studio. In performance of this duty I sometimes had need of all my natural intelligence, for all the law officers of the vicinity were opposed to my mother's business ..."

Not cheering reading, as Doyle says, but hard to forget, as he also says. Doyle was writing in 1907 - at least, his book was published in 1907 - at which time Bierce had another six years to live, so I cannot help wondering why Doyle referred to him in the past tense ("This man had a flavour quite his own, and was a great artist in his own way" and so on).

Perhaps he was infected by Bierce's own preoccupation with death. Bierce vanished into Mexico in 1913, writing to friends: "If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life."

He was never heard of again. But he is not forgotten, not in this neck of the woods at least.

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