Saturday, May 01, 2010

George Saintsbury, Notes on a Cellar Book

George Saintsbury, Note on a Cellar-Book, New York, The MacMillan Company, 1933.

I mentioned that I had been asked for, and had actually begun, a History of Wine, and that, if circumstances had been more favourable, I should have liked to resume it. Rather to my surprise the hint was jumped at, and not only private but public, and (if I may coin a word in the manner in which I have often of old shocked purist ears) even ‘publisherial’ requests reached me. I felt the compliment, but could not fully entertain the idea. There would have been considerable literature to look up; and while I was not favourably situated in respect of access to it, my original farewell had been no trick, but the result of a genuine sense that I was getting too old for such a work. It [Preliminary xiii] would need infinite research to satisfy my own ideas of thoroughness: for I have never yet given a second-hand opinion of any thing, or book, or person. Also, I should have had to drink more good wine than would now be good for my pocket or perhaps even my health, and more bad than I could contemplate without dismay in my advancing years. So I resisted, not indeed the devil (who for the best of reasons hates wine), but these too amiable angels, as to any exhaustive treatment of the subject. (xiii-xiv)

It did not, however, seem to me that there was anything inconsistent with what I had said in committing to paper certain notes and reminiscences on that subject which might amuse some readers, be profitably to other if things go well, and, whether they go well or ill, add a little to the literature of one of the three great joys in life. A man must have a mighty conceit of himself if he thinks that he can add much worth adding to what has been already written of Women and Song. But except in song itself (wherein, alas, I have but critical and not creative skill), and in ways rather general than particular, I must say I think Wine has been stinted of its due literary sizings. There are noble exceptions, Thackeray perhaps the greatest of them. But the series books on wine have, as a rule, been rather dull, and the non-serious books and even passages not very ‘ingoing.’ (xiv)

I have known a most virtuous person, a true wine-lover and man of great talent… seldom give us the ‘streaks of the tulip’ as [he] should. So that a little preciseness may help, if only on a small scale and in a discursive fashion, to make the subject ripe and real to some extent, if not to the extent it deserves. (xv)

It is possible that someone, not a hopeless bobolistionist, may say, ‘Mr. Saintsbury appears to have spent a great deal of money on mere luxuries.’ If I meet this ‘by anticipation’ (as some people say when they wan to save themselves the trouble of a letter of thanks, having previously tormented others with one of request) it is not out of pusillanimity or a guilty conscience. But I would request readers to observe in the first place that the outlay here implied or acknowledged was spread over rather more than half a century; and secondly, that, as I have more fully explained in the little book itself, I very rarely bought more at a time than a single dozen of each wine named, nay, half a dozen or even odd bottles by way of experiment. In wine, as in books and other things, I have tried to be (very minor) Ulysses, steering ever from the known to the unknown. (xvi)

There is no money, among that [xvi] which I have spent since I began to earn my living, of the expenditure of which I am less ashamed, or which gave me better value in return, than the price of the liquids chronicled in this booklet. When they were good they pleased my senses, cheered my spirits, improved my moral and intellectual powers, besides enabling me to confer the same benefits on other people. (xvi-xvii)


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