The luxury of chosen loneliness

The End of the Line
August 1, 1997

This is the fourth and last volume of reminiscences by Richard Cobb, and the comparable successor to Still Life, A Classical Education and Something to hold onto. It treats episodes and places from Cobb's schooldays and wartime service, but above all recalls his visits to Paris and the French provinces, as well as to Vienna and Bulgaria, over a chronological span from the 1930s to the 1970s, and concludes with a poignant envoi written just before his death. It is characterised throughout by its remarkably precise evocations of place and atmosphere, all the sharper for their typically being experienced by the writer either alone, or in the company of more or less passing local acquaintances. Cobb's ability to encapsulate the quality of a place (often a down-at-heel or indeed louche one) by means of judiciously isolated detail is memorable; and the same is true to a lesser extent of the cameo figures who people his landscapes. The mood shifts from one detestation of the stifling Austrian capital, to one of fascination with the sinister strangeness of Bulgaria, to what is the unstated leitmotif of the book, the complex yet unshakeable love of a France that has to some degree vanished, but which in other respects can still resonate with a francophile reader of the 1990s - indeed the tenacity of those modest details of the quotidien which Cobb makes so vividly present bodes well for the enduring uniqueness of that country. The deeper and more universal subject of this book is Cobb's desire for and delight in his own company. We are repeatedly given access to a kind of public privacy, whereby the writer is both part of and alone within a given society, accompanied as much by his sketch pad and his wine glass as by any more animate companions; yet this exploitation of the luxury of chosen loneliness does nothing to reduce his perceptiveness about the real thing: "Railway stations, the quaysides of ports, are the natural haunts of lonely people." Other moments of often sententious insight (just as acute is the shamelessly smug remark that "there is something very satisfying about being disliked by the right sort of people") puncture the gentle irony of the book.

Cobb's style is endearingly idiosyncratic: his chapters devoted to France in particular are peppered with French terms, as well as gallicisms of both lexis and syntax; and the early chapters abound in long parentheses and scattered italics, conveying with a studied carelessness the impression of orality (that it is studied becomes apparent from the more authentically informal later chapters). Occasionally he will complete a chapter with a postscript from later years, or even comment on his own writing, notably as he rounds off the recollection of a few perfect days of solitude in the small provincial town of Bar-sur-Seine in the 1950s. There are moments of opacity too, but the impression is of an educated allusiveness, so that it does not greatly matter if an occasional reference is lost on the reader. Generically, it would be difficult to situate these pieces with any clarity: the book is called a memoir, but autobiographical features predominate, so that a pact is established with the reader by means of devices which convey the search for accuracy in the narrator, who is both main subject and fil conducteur; and, in the earlier chapters, the older writer observes the younger man with a detached but affectionate irony. But in other respects the reader in fact learns remarkably little about the biography of Cobb; the work is intensely personal, but rarely intimate; and the term which appears in the title of two of the previous volumes, "sketches", might have served here.

This is not a profound work, indeed in some respects it is a wilfully ephemeral one, whose place is in the club or the common room. Yet it has something of the quality of a conversation with a rather entertaining emeritus fellow, whose anecdotes may nonetheless merge into a philosophy of life; and that of Cobb, never articulated as such but still powerfully and cumulatively resonant is, in the words of another essayist, Montaigne, to "savoir jouir loyalement de son etre".

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

The End of the Line: A Memoir

Author - Richard Cobb
ISBN - 0 7195 5460 8
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £20.00
Pages - 229

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