Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Letters of Noel Coward

Barry Day has done an amazingly thorough job of collecting what must be every letter Noel Coward ever wrote or received. Coward scholars will find this book a gold mine, as will anyone who really, really loves Mr. Coward. For someone like me, though, who merely likes Coward, this book is an overload of information -- 753 pages worth.

What’s astonishing is that so much correspondence survives, and that up until now most of it had never been published. It seems Coward’s mother, Violet, doted on him -- and vice versa -- and saved everything in print relating to him. He wrote to her at least once a week until the day she died and she hung onto those letters. He also wrote to and heard from an array of the world’s glitterati at the time -- George Bernard Shaw, the Lunts, Marlene Dietrich and Gertrude Lawrence to name a few -- and those missives were saved. That wit of his that created so many plays and songs is woven into these letters.

As Day writes in his introduction, personal letters “say just about as much about the individual relationships as they do about the matters being discussed.” Reading Coward’s letters lets us see “what it was like for him in real time, not as recollections in relative tranquility.” That’s certainly true, and is the great value of an old letter. After awhile, though, I began to prefer Day’s narration and explanations that preface the letters because they moved the work along. The book has just too many letters. Chatty letters are fun to write and receive, but not always of interest to outsiders, even if the correspondents are famous and talented people. Not every thought or feeling they had is worth hanging on to.

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