Saturday, 23 May 2015

Mike / Michael

First published in serial form under the title Michael, from November 1915 to ?
First published in book form in the UK under the title Mike, September(?) 1916
Published in the US (1916/17) under the title Michael¹
57,300 words
(First read 23/05/2015) 

¹ To be honest, Michael is the better title as that's how the hero's most often referred to.


One feels somehow that the writing of Mike […] imposed no particular strain upon Mr E. F. Benson. It suggests a delightfully easy command of material. But, of course, Mr Benson is a master of graceful narrative, and it is perhaps a tribute to his power that he should give the rather poignant situation to which his tale leads up so simple and, in a sense, so charming a directness. The lucidity of his examination of a mood and passion is delightful. The story turns upon the war. Mike, otherwise Lord Comber, gives up the Army for music, and is accidentally brought into contact with a young music teacher, Hermann Falbe, and his sister, for whom he develops an appreciation which in the case of the latter becomes love. The Falbes are of mixed parentage, their father being German, and, though they have lived their life in this country, Hermann is a German at heart. One of the best things in the book is the description of his emotions on paying a visit to his fatherland. When war breaks out Hermann leaves England in order to fight for his own country, and Mike rejoins the Army to fight for his. How, then, about the love affair between Mike and Hermann's sister? The conflict of emotions, personal and national, created by war and love is manifestly intricate, but Mr Benson treats it so cleverly that the play of feeling is easily followed. We cannot say that the novel is one of his best. It is none the less an attractive story. The writing is always pleasant, and the characterisation has a crisp distinction which is refreshing to encounter. All the characters interest us in some way, and their individual peculiarities are described with admirable skill.
~Liverpool Post and Mercury, 13/09/1916

The most human of romances that have been written about the war.
~Punch, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

Wonderfully fresh and amusing.
~Westminster Gazette, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

Mr Benson's masterpiece.
~Evening Standard, quoted in newspaper ad of 09/10/1916

It is not easy in times such as these to imagine a much more trying lot than that of those whose sympathies are in any great measure divided between two of the combatant nations by ties of parentage, association, or marriage. Such a case it is, or rather two such cases ~ for brother and sister are alike involved ~ that Mr Benson brings us to contemplate. But that problem arises only in the later stages of his story; in the earlier it is another case of divided allegiance, that of a son called on to decide between dutiful loyalty to a father's wishes and the sacrifice of his own feelings on the one hand, and on the other the assertion of his right to live his own life. Mr Benson has in this part taken care that our sympathies shall be on the right side, for he has presented his hero in most pleasing colours, as he has every right to do, and then, as if that were not enough, he has sought to strengthen his case by representing the father as an egregious ass and snob, self-centred, domineering, a repulsive blend of self-important arrogance and pompous fatuity. And just as we feel compelled to quarrel with his Lord Ashbridge, so do we think he has erred in overdoing the ineptness of his Lady Ashbridge and also of Mrs Falbe, who was also 'one of us'. Not even the pathetic picture that comes later of Michael's touching devotion to his mother can atone for the vacuousness of the initial portrait. Lady Barbara, on the other hand, with her brisk and healthy vigour, her since and humorous kindliness, is excellently drawn, though the author puts an unnecessary strain on our credence when he makes her husband ambassador. He makes a similar mistake, to our mind, in the last scene but one of his novel. But the main material of the story is excellent; the tracing of Michael's musical development is well done; his devotion to Germany, the genuine outcome of his debt to her, the fortnight at Bayreuth and Munich, with its revelation that “Germany was music,” the awakening of his own powers under the stimulus and skilful guidance of Hermann and Sylvia Falbe. And it is well also that some among us should be reminded that the patriotism of the German is in itself a deep-rooted and an ennobling thing. “Scratch a German,” says Hermann, “and you find two things ~ a sentimentalist and a soldier.”
~The Birmingham Daily Post, 11/10/1916

A story of music, love, and the war. Well written, sometimes even delightfully written. The ending has a situation of grievous distress, but joined to it is the triumph of faith and love.
~The Outlook (US), 28/02/1917

In Michael Mr. E. F. Benson shows himself, as always, a very capable storyteller with no genius to disarrange his neat workmanship. One habit of his he does not outgrow, which seems to me a bad habit from the point of view of workmanship: his habit of diffuse and repetitious dialogue. When two or three of his people get to talking, we may be sure they will use ten pages to say what a playwright would make them say in ten lines. But there are readers who like this sort of garrulity (witness the amazingly large constituency of Miss Ellen Glasgow), and no doubt they are readers to whom the general ingenuousness of Mr. Benson appeals. The Michael of this book is an English lord, very ugly and sincere, who tires of being a Guardsman and determines to devote himself to music. His father, the Earl of Ashbridge, is as highly coloured a caricature of the British aristocrat as has ever appeared on any stage. He is a snob, a martinet, a self-conscious ass, a person with no dignity of character or conduct: certainly not a gentleman. Well, of course he forbids Michael his music and orders him back into the Guards. Luckily the young man's grandmother has left him plenty of money. He sets forth for Baireuth and Munich, as the first stages of his musical journey, and falls in with a young Falbe, a brilliant musician and pianist who is to be Michael's master and friend. Falbe is half German, half English; but his German paternity determines his allegiance when the test comes. In his companionship and that of his sister Sylvia, a singer, Michael quickly finds himself. Almost at once he shows ability as pianist and composer. Friendship also comes to him, and love in the person of the beautiful Sylvia. So we have our situation. Meanwhile there have been tremblings of the earth, and suddenly the tempest of the war breaks forth. Falbe becomes all German, Michael all English, and poor Sylvia is torn between. Thus we are worked up to our catastrophe in the form of a chance encounter in the trenches between Michael and Falbe... Michael shoots and kills his friend, not recognising him until-the thing is done. The slayer returns to England wounded, and Sylvia must be told. Here, evidently, is a 'big scene' at hand. It is well, no doubt that Mr. Benson should not have laboured it, but he somehow fails to make anything of it at all. Michael tells the girl he has killed her brother, bursts into tears, and she tells him it is all right. The fact is, Mr. Benson's field is that of a mild social comedy, and his efforts at dramatic intensity of mood are inadequate to the verge of banality. To a point, there is characterisation here-—Michael seems real, the Falbes seem real, despite their association with that man of straw the Earl; but the action in which they are involved fails to come home to us the moment it attempts the heroic plane.
~H. W. Boynton in The Bookman (US), 03/1917

E. F. Benson has followed the lead of several English novelists by including in his newest book, Michael, just published by the George H Doran Company, a 'full-length description' of the German Kaiser. Benson's hero, Michael, is a young Englishman with a talent for the piano. The story opens before the war, and Michael journeys to Munich, where he hears Tristan at the Hof-Theatre. The Emperor is in the city, and having several years before been the personal guest of Michael's distinguished father in England, invites the young man to sit in the Imperial box with him. Benson's description of the Kaiser is interesting.
~The Evening Post [Wellington, New Zealand], 28/04/1917

No comments:

Post a Comment