Lord Berners the name can hardly be uttered without a sniff and a smirk. The author's full name says it all: Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, Baronet, 14th Baron Berners. This peer of England, the last of his line, lived during the period (1883-1950) when the privileges of the aristocracy fell rapidly into anachronism and absurdity. The stories and short novels collected in this edition can be read as fables of this decline, a haunting mixture of hilarity and melancholy that could only have come from the pen of a man called by his own biographer The Last Eccentric. Lord Berners's writing tends to be funny in a way that only a very small number of brilliant English writers have the levitating capacity to be, and he ought to be read only when uninhibited laughter is an option. Take the scene in the novella The Camel, in which Mr. Scrimgeour, the church organist, bungles the vicar's entry on Sunday morning with a disastrous performance.
Lord Berners's prose is at all times beautiful, as clean as an English lawn, just as sharply cut, and with just as many surprising felicities to the senses. It would perhaps be nearest the mark to call his writing musical, especially since this self-same Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson was also an outstanding musician, whom Igor Stravinsky considered the best mid-century English composer. Music features centrally in the 1941 novel Count Omega, whose composer-hero succumbs to his own ambition. It is a comic twist on the Faust legend, a striking forerunner to Thomas Mann's tragic musical novel Doctor Faustus, which appeared only a few years later.
In First Childhood, the first of his two splendid and equally funny autobiographies (both published last year by Turtle Point Press), Lord Berners describes a portrait of his Victorian grandmother which hung in the dining-room at her estate. It showed her dressed in a rather elaborate evening gown of the period, smiling benevolently in complete disregard of a terrific thunderstorm that was approaching her in the background. He goes on to remark that the picture might, in fact, have stood for an allegory of the later Victorian period. In Lord Berners's own time, the storm had broken. The fact that he continued to smile benevolently through his wonderful stories is both a touch of his class and his class's last hurrah.
Michael Alec Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.