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A Long Distance Interview with "Our Modern Dumas"

Rafael Sabatini on the Witness Stand

One of the first and most terrifying of experiences which the literary English lion must face on reaching the port of New York is an "interview." Then, often to his amazement, he is questioned on any irrelevant subject that enters his interlocutor's head and the result is a jumble out of which one hopes the true man emerges in his true light. But what of the English author who refuses to travel? How about Mr. Sabatini, for instance, who counts his fans by the hundred thousand, not one of whom knows anything about his personality. The custom of interviews having been explained to Mr. Sabatini by letter, he kindly consented to answer the following questions.

"What about the trip to America? Are you really coming, and if so, when?"
"I certainly hope to come out to the States before very long. If I hesitate at all it is because the fame of American hospitality makes me fear that I may be killed by kindness. The letters that reach me from the unknown friends my books have made for me over there give me a foretaste of this. In themselves they would be enough to strip me naked of modesty were it not that this garment was twenty years in the weaving on the loom of hard work unrecognized."
"What of prohibition?"
"Being a temperate man, it logically follows that I abhor the very idea of prohibition. In my eyes a teetotaller is quite as intemperate as a drunkard, and he is without a drunkard's sense of decency. For whereas most drunkards are ashamed of their intemperance, most teetotallers glory in theirs, make a boast of it, and ram it down the throats (literally, in the form of ginger ale and such chemical abominations) of their guests and other victims. A drunkard is usually content to be drunk himself. He does not demand that the whole world shall be drunk with him. A teetotallers insists—and when possible enforces this insistence—that everybody else shall abstain as well."
"What do you consider to be your best novel?"
"My best novel is always, in my opinion, my last. But that is chiefly because by the time I have revised the typescript and revised the proofs, the narrative is so stale to me that I cannot bear the sight of its printed page. Yet if I have a favourite, it is Scaramouche. Perhaps this is inspired by gratitude, for Scaramouche was my Columbus. He discovered America for me."
"How do you feel about the earlier books that once went begging in this country and now are best sellers?"
"I have lately seen more than one quotation in the American Press of the pronouncement of 'The Head of a great American Publishing House' (unnamed) to the effect that: 'We were offered Sabatini years ago. We turned him down.' That is accurate enough. But he goes on to say: 'But the novels that were offered us were not Captain Bloods or Scaramouches or Sea Hawks.' The implication is that he is much too shrewd a fellow to have turned down one of these had he seen it in manuscript. To me he appears to be speaking with the voice of the American publishing trade in general. And yet, 'The Sea Hawk', was written ten years ago, was widely offered in America, but in vain. No American publisher would touch it, and at last, in despair, I consented to a sale of sheets by my London publisher to a firm in New York. Further, Houghton Mifflin were not the first American publishers to whom 'Scaramouche' was offered. One New York house liked it well enough to offer me fifty pounds outright for the American copyright, but not well enough to improve upon that offer when I confessed that I could not accept it. On the other hand several of my earlier books (which 'the head of that great American Publishing house' implies no discriminating publisher could be expected to handle) were actually set up and published in America. 'Mistress Wilding' just reissued by Houghton Mifflin, is one of these."
"Is the scene of your next novel laid entirely in America, and how did you happen to become interested in the Carolinas?"
"The scene of 'The Carolinian' is laid entirely in America; indeed, as the title suggests, in Carolina. The novel has grown out of a play that I wrote some years ago in collaboration with J. E. Harold Terry. For a long time I hesitated to tackle a phase of American history as a subject to lay before the American public, lest these good friends of mine should be afforded the means of discovering me for an imposter."
"Do any American authors, past or present, especially interest you?"
"I have not read many American authors, and it will be understood that the few I have read are mainly those working in the genre which I have, myself, adopted. Mary Johnston impressed me profoundly when I was still a youngster. The memory of two books of hers, 'The Old Dominion' and "By Order of the Company'—read and re-read many years ago, haunts me to this day. The secret of her power,—which I did not realize then but realize now, lies in the fact that her writings read as the chronicling not of things studied, but of things remembered, of things personally witnessed. That, it will, I think, be generally admitted is the highest quality you may look for in the historical novel. It is a vitalizing quality, found only, and not frequently, in historical fiction of the most modern. It is the unobtrusive manifestation of that highest quality in all art; the concealment of the art.
"A fairly well known novelist of the modern realistic school, by which I mean a synthetic author, an uninspired university product, a chronicler of unimportant and mainly sordid trifles, whose unimaginative and uninventive art lies somewhere between the arts of photography and journalism, whilst expressing, with that presumption which is the chief asset of his class, his contempt of the modern historical romance, has yet condescended to bestow upon Sir Walter Scott a pontifical benediction. Yet Scott, sound and scholarly though he may be, is utterly without that great quality to which I have referred. There is in reading him none of the illusion that he is relating to you something at first hand. On the contrary, he is almost at pains to reveal the means by which he builds his narrative."
"What fictional character appeals to you the most?"
"The Egotist makes the strongest appeal to me. I confess this is a commonplace choice, for just as down the ages that is man's commonest conception of his god, so man usually deifies the superlative human egotist whenever he meets him."

"How do you amuse yourself; any comments on skiing, fishing, etc.?"
"My favorite amusement is writing novels. My chief and most serious work in life is salmon fishing. To this I devote enormous pains and labour, from the dressing of the fly to the ultimate and occasional killing of the fish. It is the one accomplishment about which I am really vain, and in the pursuit of which I am intolerant of competition. It leaves me cold that men should write better novels than mine. But I hate the man who can kill more fish."
"What are your methods of work? Do you write regularly or irregularly, etc.?"
"My methods of work are regular in conception, irregular in fulfilment. The fact is that whatever I may resolve, when I am at work upon a book I am at work upon it all the time, and give myself little rest or recreation until it is done. But when it is done, then my mind turns to broken streams and whirling water and remains fixed upon those delectable subjects just as obstinately."
"How did you happen to choose English as your literary language, rather than Italian?"
"Accident determined the choice of a working language for me. As a matter of fact, my first steps in literature were taken in French. That was at the age of sixteen at Zug, in Switzerland, where I was at school. I was one of the two editors of a monthly miscellaneous magazine that was issued and circulated sub rosa. We were tri-lingual at the Ecole Cantonale, whose students came not only from French, Italian, and German-speaking Cantons, but also from France, Italy and Germany. The official language was German; but French was the most generally known. Hence our choice of the language.
"In English at that time I could just about make myself understood in simple matters. This little was thanks, of course, to my English mother; and a little it remained, because English was unknown to my father, whence it follows that Italian was always spoken at home. To this day it is the language I instinctively use in speaking to my mother, and I should never think of writing to her in any other, for, although an Englishwoman by birth, her life from the early age of fifteen was chiefly spent in Italy, and she is more fluent in Italian than in her native tongue."

"When and why did you go to England?"
"My facility in learning languages,—the only sign of intelligence acknowledged in me during my adolescence—is responsible for the rest, and was very nearly my ruin. The fact that at eighteen I spoke and wrote five languages with almost equal fluency, and possessed the foundation of a knowledge of a sixth (English) seemed to my father, who knew nothing about such matters, a splendid equipment for a commercial career. And England being preeminently the European land of commercial careers, and containing moreover the near relatives of my mother, who might be expected to take an interest in me, to England I was dispatched, dedicated to commerce."
"And when and why did you saddle up Pegasus?"
"For a few years I was diligent in commerce, and it is possible that I became less diligent. The cacoethes scribendi was upon me and I found myself escaping as much as possible from the temple of Mercury to go and do a little market-gardening on the lower slopes of Parnassus. I began to write for magazines, and actually, to my overwhelming astonishment at first, to sell what I wrote. I widened the field of my activities and embarked upon a little casual journalism. And then one day the late Peter Keary of C. Arthur Pearson, Ltd. wrote me a letter which I shall never destroy. It was my passport to the career of letters. Impressed by a short story I had written for Pearson's Magazine, he invited me to write a book and offered to commission it. Need I add that I closed with the offer before he had time to reconsider it?"
"How many Rafael Sabatinis are there? We have heard of the one who sculpts, but what of the one recently reported to have had his matrimonial hopes blighted by a lady in Tokyo, in spite of the fact you never have been there?"
"The 'Texas girl now married to an army attache in China' who, according to the Dallas Times-Herald, met the romancer (myself) in Tokyo, and was the object of my whirlwind wooing, proves herself by the statement the greater romancer of the two. She is also the more daring, because whilst I confine my fabrications to the dead, who are no longer able to contradict me, she does not hesitate to use the living as the characters of her fictions.
"Lest I do her an injustice I will divulge the alternative that occurs to me. It is that in addition to the Rafael Sabatini who paints and sculptures and who has already been confused with me, there is a third Rafael Sabatini, a dangerous fellow who roams the world in quest of amatory adventures.
"That he is not always as unsuccessful as in Tokyo I know from a rather bewildering letter that reached me some eighteen months ago. It was from a lady (presumably young, and let us hope beautiful) in Italy who had just read 'Scaramouche'. But congratulation was only a part of her subject. She addressed me with a fond familiarity and cited in embarrassing detail certain tender passages between us in the course of an alleged voyage jointly undertaken some two years earlier from New York to Naples. As I had never made any such voyage (just as I have never been in Tokyo) the serenity of my perfectly respectable family life was not compromised by a communication which, but for the alibi, might have been difficult to explain.
"The article in the Dallas Times-Herald, when taken in conjunction with that letter, leads me to the conclusion I have mentioned, of the existence of this third Rafael Sabatini, who is evidently an amorist of parts. I can better suffer the attribution of his success than of his failures. The Tokyo incident is not merely deplorable in its futility, but is of a character altogether outside my own experience. I proposed marriage to a lady only once in my life. Her acceptance of the proposal (of which, being of a cautious nature, I had assured myself beforehand) has removed all necessity of repeating the performance."
"This last question you may consider 'too much'. But would you feel like describing your personal appearance with the same well known skill that you devote to Messrs. Blood, Scaramouche, etc.?"
"Of my personal appearance, all that I can tell you is that it is considered typically, almost blatantly English. I am fair-haired and fair-skinned, moderately tall and vigorous, in this as in cast of feature resembling my mother and my mother's family. My eyes, however, are inherited from my father's people."

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