(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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Ezra Pound defined literature as news that stays news. Literature is achieved by the sweated labors of a temperament facing the facts. Sir Noël Coward, playwright, actor, director, composer, novelist, diarist and for 30 years a short-story writer, was nothing if not a temperament, and for the better part of a generation, with eyes shaded by gesticulant hands trained in a posture of disciplined Tory salute, he faced great avalanches of limelit factual event in peace and war without once facing the fact of the end of the "modern" world. And then, worn out and fairly blinded in the neon atomic-age glare, he turned his back on the theater and walked out in a slow and stumbling rage, pulling off one of the longest reverse curtain calls on record….

The last four stories in [The Collected Stories of Noel Coward] are worthless and exasperating. Many of the rest have lovely, evocative moments, but almost all are written on sand that never found its way into any shapely hourglass. Only two of them—"Me and the Girls" and "Mr and Mrs. Edgehill"—are possible contenders for inclusion on a shelf of such comedic masters as Evelyn Waugh and William Trevor.

At the start, it all seems mad and bright and swell, even if plainly poor writing is in evidence right away, as in: "Not having much imagination, the signs of age in his face depressed him rarely." To compose comic sentences that describe abandon and deep feeling, Coward lugs a grab bag of farced effects with which to garland his reports….

Writing in a certain way about love was what Noël Coward was best at—writing, for example, that dialogue for Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in "Brief Encounter" (even if it was difficult, because of its eloquence, to imagine the interlocutors ever shucking their woolies to say or do more). (p. 9)

None of the fictions under consideration here gets near to becoming real news….

Taken together, Noël Coward's stories clock the often valorous flippancies and sudden heart attacks of a race of drifters in a time "gone with the Windsors," in the neat phrase of the critic Donald Lyons. The Windsors are mentioned and slapped in the last tale…. Coward never lived long enough to find the time to accept things as they were. Though knighted in 1970, he exited this world a literary has-been three years later. This book, which gathers together the stories from his four collections, all out of print in this country, will not bring him back. Happily, his position in the British theater seems unassailable. (p. 18)

James McCourt, "Valorous Flippancies," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 18, 1983, pp. 9, 18.

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Paul Fussell