Beyond Holy Russia
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Colophon: Half-Title, Title, Copyright, Dedication

Final Thoughts

No record exists of what was said at Graham’s Memorial Service. Anyone who has ever given an address at such an occasion will know how hard it is to compress the details of even the most ordinary life into a ten-minute eulogy. The challenge must have been particularly difficult for whoever was charged with selecting a few details to capture the spirit of a man as complex as Graham. Graham himself noted in his memoirs that “how much takes place in a lifetime you will hardly know until you attempt to write it down”. He added that as he looked back he realised how he had often led “a double or even a triple life” – divided between “idealism, travel and intense literary work” – which meant that he tended to live in separate compartments, each with their own set of friends and acquaintances.1 It was a shrewd observation. Graham’s life was not defined by a neat narrative arc (to use that most tiresome of literary phrases). It was instead like all lives messy and uncertain, shaped by circumstances and chance meetings, yet still displaying certain enduring motifs and attitudes. The time has long gone when it is possible to believe that even the most formidable person, not even one of Carlyle’s “greats”, can develop an unproblematic sense of self founded on an acute awareness of inner motivation and drive. And yet most of us believe, to a greater or lesser extent, that a ghost does still live in the machine. Whatever the religious or metaphysical foundation for such a belief, and whatever the ruminations of the neuroscientists, all of us behave as though we possess coherent identities and live amongst others who have an equally strong sense of self. And the prevalence of this belief in a very real sense makes it so.

Some useful clues to Graham’s awareness of his own persona can be found in his most popular book, The Gentle Art of Tramping (1926), written roughly half-way through his life at a time when he was going through a deep personal crisis. The book was like so much of his work a curious mixture of the reflective and the mundane. Advice about how to brew coffee or find shelter from a storm was interspersed with philosophical reflections on landscape and destiny. The wistful tone of the book was rooted in its author’s sense that the young carefree vagabond, who had walked through alien landscapes, and peered beneath their surface to see deep meanings and profound truths, was somehow losing his vision as the cares of middle age began to intrude. Graham was still happy to quote Novalis to the effect that nature was “an encylopaedical index of our own souls”, with the result that the tramp could by looking outwards obtain a deeper insight into their own psyche, but the tone of Gentle Art leaves no doubt that the effortless sense of meaning was fast fading away. Its author noted sadly that it was often only ten years after a particular moment in time that one looked back and realised “How wonderful it was […] I was happy then”. Graham urged his readers to keep some kind of diary that would allow them to capture not just the events of the day, but also its more elusive meanings, warning that “the details of your spiritual adventures fade out unless you have a good memory or an aide-memoire”. And yet he was under no illusion that “poetic rhapsodies” or “intellectual notes” could fully capture particular experiences or insights. It was therefore important for each individual to appropriate for themselves the rare moments of illumination that they experienced whether on the road or in other settings of their daily lives. Every person, Graham wrote in Gentle Art, was an artist. All men and women were involved in a constant attempt to make sense of their lives as something more than a simple journey through the prosaic realities of day-to-day living.2

Graham used Gentle Art of Tramping to reflect on the similarity between tramping and pilgrimage as forms of “spiritual adventure”, insisting that both the tramp and the pilgrim should focus on the experience of the journey rather than the final destination. It was advice rooted in his sense that “the world is not a straight line […] it is an area, a broad surface […] Life is not length of time but breadth of human experience. Life is not a chain of events, but an area – something spreading out from a hidden centre and welling at once towards all points of the compass”.3 The final chapter of Gentle Art was headed ‘A Zigzag Walk’. Graham described how he had in the past when visiting big cities like Paris or New York cultivated the habit of exploring them by pursuing a diagonal path, turning first left and then right, repeating the sequence at each junction, in a way that led him away from the major thoroughfares and into back streets and courtyards he would otherwise have missed. The metaphor did not escape him. He noted on the final page of Gentle Art that “I am still on the zigzag way, pursuing the diagonal between the reason and the heart”.4 The references to reason and heart are not accidental. The previous chapters have shown that Graham was throughout the first half of his life torn between a love of the “Little World” of everyday experiences and a longing for the “Somewhere-Out-Beyond”. His love of travel was the product both of his desire to see new things and his hope of discovering places that could speak to his need to find a deeper meaning in the world. He was, to use the language of theology, searching for a sense of transcendence in the immanent, hoping that art or religion or nature could offer him an insight into the numinous, a hint of something eternal that was rooted in realities that lay beyond the material world.

The process of maturity is sometimes said to be rooted in giving up illusions and accepting the realities of life. That at least was Freud’s view. But it can perhaps be argued that real maturity consists of accepting the world as a disenchanted place where personal epiphanies and echoes of the transcendent are at best fleeting and partial. The fundamental things are not necessarily absent; they simply cannot be known in their entirety. It was this realisation that gradually dawned on Graham during the 1920s. Although he wrote little on the subject, Graham was throughout his life intrigued by the philosophy of Plato, and above all by the notion of Platonic ‘forms’ that represented the real essences of the things in the world. The celebrated allegory of the cave – which describes how men sitting in the dark, with their backs to the fire, would mistake the shadows on the wall for the things that cast the shadows – serves as a useful image for Graham’s own youthful view of the world. He may or may not have had this metaphor in mind when he later wrote how he had as a young man abandoned the “shadow” of secure employment in search of the “substance” he hoped to find in Russia.

The youthful Graham’s decision to tone down some of the more abstruse speculations that appeared in early books like A Tramp’s Sketches and Undiscovered Russia was governed in part by his recognition that it would broaden the market for his work. As time went by, he began to use his travel books to provide descriptions of the places he visited and the things he saw, a move that became more pronounced once the 1917 Revolution destroyed the country that had dominated his imagination for so many years. Graham was never really able to find a substitute for Holy Russia, nor the ideals it inspired in him, although his private diaries show that he remained true to many of his earlier ideas even as he wrote such seemingly prosaic works as Children of the Slaves and Europe Quo Vadis. The journalist in Graham could write fluently about people and places. The artist-thinker continued to seek (in the words of one critic of his work) “the deeper meaning of it all”. The crisis that followed in the mid 1920s was not simply a personal crisis resulting from the death of his parents and the disintegration of his marriage. It was also rooted in a dawning realisation that any sense of transcendence or epiphany could only be temporary and partial, something to be stored away and remembered, but doomed to be swept away in time by the prosaic cares and problems of the world.

Graham’s later work continued to be intimately shaped by his experiences but in a new way from before. Some novels such as Lost Battle, Balkan Monastery and African Tragedy drew extensively on his own life or the lives of those he knew. Others like The Padre of St Jacobs and One of the Ten Thousand displayed a fascination with the presentation of self in everyday life that was rooted in their author’s personal interest in the porous and shifting nature of identity. None of Graham’s later work really sought, though, to convey its author’s life-philosophy. This was in large part because his earlier sense that religion and nature could provide insights into profound truths about the world had largely evaporated. Or, more accurately, he now recognised that it was difficult if not impossible to talk unproblematically about such things. The shift was not of course a precise one. The younger Graham had written numerous books and articles that focused on the surface of the world, providing deft pen portraits of people and places whose liveliness and significance did not rest simply on their ability to articulate some deeper truth. The radical change in the nature of his work after the mid 1920s was nevertheless unmistakeable. The character of Graham’s books was increasingly determined by the question of market.

The change meant that his later work was seldom marred by the obscurantism and verbosity that sometimes marred his more youthful writings. But nor did it have the fire. It was not so much that the older Graham was content to paint the shadows, rather than peer towards the flames to see the forms that were casting them. It was that he no longer believed whole-heartedly in the poetics of Plato’s cave. It was only in the final ten or fifteen years of his life that he seemed to become enthralled once again by the insights and inspirations that had dominated his youth. Perhaps Graham’s awareness that his life was slowly drawing to a close led him to a philosophy of consolation that sought to transcend the material fact of extinction. Or perhaps – and contra Freud – he realised once more that life in its fullest sense consists of more than the here and now.

When Graham was still a young man he wrote a piece for the English Review on ‘The Death of Yesterday’s Books’,5 describing how some books died at birth, strangled by reviewers, whilst other flared up for a short time, only gradually to fade and die, passing from bookshelf to second-hand bookseller to jumble sale. He went on to note how “benevolent readers stare at rows of dead books and wonder if there may not be one of them that belies its title and its appearance. Many a man or woman has raised dead books to life as a result of searching the dusty stacks”. Most of Graham’s fifty plus books today firmly belong to the category of dead books, something that would doubtless mortify their author, who told a correspondent a few years before his death that he was prouder of his literary work than his status as a world traveller. It seems unlikely that any of his books are about to enjoy a spectacular rebirth, even if some of them continue to sell in dribs and drabs, beneficiaries of the print-on-demand phenomenon that has helped to raise “dead books to life”. Graham wrote too fast and too frequently, a result both of the need to earn money, and of what at times seemed a particularly obsessive form of graphomania. He was always a writer of insight and flair rather than sustained thought. And, as he himself acknowledged, he was at his best when writing directly from his own experience rather than through the second-hand medium of novels and biographies. And yet, for all their weaknesses, there is hidden away in the best of Graham’s books an intensity of vision that endures despite their archaic language and prolix style.

Graham lived a fascinating life that was fuelled not only by the desire to travel, but also by a desire to use his travel as a quest for something more important than the mere accumulation of experiences. Many of Graham’s youthful journeys became pilgrimages, prompted by a yearning for something that was half-sensed but little known, and by a determination to treat the journey itself as part of the search for meaning. His later life was shaped by a desire to come to terms with the loss of his earlier vision – or at least with the loss of his sense that the vision could be made actual in the world – a kind of ‘reconciliation with reality’ to use a phrase associated with the nineteenth-century Russian writer Vissarion Belinsky. To live is in a way to become disillusioned. Or, to quote the French writer Marcel Pagnol, it is to accept that life is “a few joys, quickly obliterated by unforgettable sorrows”. And yet any life worth the name is also about venturing out to search for what is important and true, even if what is important and true can never be fully known. Graham in old age occasionally jotted down notes about St Paul, and it is perhaps worth ending with a quote from the apostle’s first epistle to the Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known”.

1 Stephen Graham, Part of the Wonderful Scene (London: Collins, 1964), p. 307.

2 Stephen Graham, The Gentle Art of Tramping (New York: Appleton, 1926), pp. 209, 215, 216.

3 Ibid, p. 193.

4 Ibid, p. 271.

5 Stephen Graham, ‘The Death of Yesterday’s Books’, English Review, November 1923.