THE first impression of him in conversation must always have been surprise that so frail, vague and extraordinary a creature could ever have arranged—let alone have created—a book.... It was obvious as well, even at first sight, that Firbank's health was far from strong. But this delicacy at least was possessed of one advantage; it prevented him from being forced to waste time in the Army. The constant callings-up and medical examinations had, though, further shattered his health, just as he in his turn must have somewhat shattered the health of the various military authorities with whom he came in contact. He told us, for example, that when, after a dozen or so examinations, the War Office finally rejected him as totally unfit for service (which anyone else could have told at a single glance), and then, in its usual muddled way, immediately called him up again, he replied through his lawyer with the threat of a suit for libel. The War Office, at a time when it governed the world, was so startled by this simple piece of individual initiative that it at once sent back to him a humble apology.
Sitwell, Noble Essences, pp. 78-79.
OSBERT Sitwell was often in Oxford to visit his brother, and this led to my oddest experience there. One afternoon in February they took me [Sassoon] to see Ronald Firbank, who was living in a house opposite All Souls. None of us had met him before, but his impressionist novels had led us to expect a somewhat peculiar person, so we weren't surprised when he received us in a closely-curtained room lighted by numerous candles and filled with a profusion of exotic flowers. A large table was elaborately set out with a banquet of rich confectionery and hothouse fruits. Firbank, whose appearance was as orchidaceous as his fictional fantasies, behaved so strangely that all attempts at ordinary conversation became almost farcical. His murmured remarks were almost inaudible, and he was too nervous to sit still for more than half a minute at a time. The only coherent information he gave me was when I heavily inquired where his wonderful fruit came from. `Blenheim,' he exclaimed with an hysterical giggle, and then darted away to put a picture-frame straight, leaving me wondering how peaches were grown at Blenheim in mid-winter. The Sitwells were more successful in mitigating his helpless discomposure, but even Osbert's suavely reassuring manner failed to elicit anything except the disconnected utterances which were his method of evading direct explanations. For instance, when Sacheverell spoke appreciatively of his latest novel, Caprice, he turned his head away and remarked, in a choking voice, `I can't bear calceolarias! Can you? . . .
A few days later I invited him to tea, for I was curious to observe how he shaped by daylight and away from his `highly stylized' surroundings. Rather to my surprise he accepted. Anxious to entertain him appropriately, I bought a monumental bunch of grapes, and a glutinous chocolate cake. Powdered, ninetyish, and insuperably shy, he sat with eyes averted from me and my well-meaning repast. His most rational response to my attempts at drawing him out about literature and art was `I adore italics, don't you?' His cup of tea remained untasted, and he quailed when I drew his attention to my large and cosy pile of crumpets. As a gesture of politeness he slowly absorbed a single grape.
Siegfried Sassoon, Siegfried's Journey, 1916-1920 (1945), pp. 135-136.
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