You can’t beat failure

Betty Miller and Henry James both wrote beautifully about the merits of failure. Here are a couple of quotes from a mid-summer mini-orgy of reading.

(1) I am cruising through Persephone’s re-issues of various female writing, and in Betty Miller’s Farewell To Leicester Square there’s a fine passage about the sweetness of failure and the emptiness of success.

At one point, her hero, a mordantly sensitive film director, notes that he has lost the sharpness of his youthful experience as an outsider. He’s in a London street:

“Looking up at these same trees tonight he felt in himself a disturbance of a different quality: a sharp unavailing nostalgia for the pain which he no longer experienced”.

This is, by the way, an extraordinary book. It would like to be Jamesian, I think. Or Whartonian. Miller is capable of schoolgirlish over-writing, but also really fine sharpness.

It is interesting that though herself a Jewess, Miller (Jonathan’s mother) writes about her hero’s Jewish background with pretty much the stereotyping of the ordinarily anti-Semitic writing of her day (and indeed any day before our own).

(2) I often read snippets of James Agate, and not merely because he was the Ken Tynan (perhaps the A A Gill) of his day. He was more the literary gentleman than anyone would try to be now, at least professionally. Anyway, here (from Ego 8, one of his series of diaries) is part of his appreciation of another culture vulture, his friend Leo Pavia, who had been a brilliant young pianist, but not quite brilliant enough:

“The boy was destined to be a failure in a wider field than piano-playing, but also to prove in his own person – to the everlasting credit of the law of compensation – that the lady in the Henry James story was not talking entire nonsense when she reflected that ‘There was something a failure was, a failure in the market, that a success somehow wasn’t’. Leo Pavia had a measure of genius, and all of it strictly unmarketable.”

There’s a lot of possibility here. Are we to say that people can’t attain success without losing what only failure can grant? Would that be a shot at the grace of humiliation? Or is it that success is usually too vulgar to be worth having? (In short, that the market can never price things properly, because it can only price by what lots of people, or lots of rich people, want?) Or is it that success is public, but many valuable things can only be cultivated in private?

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Publication date

11 August 2009


Mind & body