Books: Even As We Speak — Karl’s Strange Engine |
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Karl’s Strange Engine

Rebecca’s Vest by Karl Miller

As compact and nutritious as a field ration, this deceptively slight autobiography is a classic from the day it appears. Whether its author appears is another question, which he is the first to ask. He takes off his helmet, and then the mask, but there is still the make-up. Fascinated by doubleness, the author of a highly original critical work on the subject, he calls himself a double man, but understates the case. There are more than two of him in there.

Just to start with, there are the child who is the father of the man, the man who is the author of the knotty style, and the knotty stylist who can straighten the prose of others. In a generation of outstanding literary editors, he stood out even from the rest: the back ends of the Spectator and the New Statesman, and both ends of the Listener, flourished under his tutelage. His recent departure from the London Review of Books was bad news not just for that paper but for the whole of letters. If he has indeed edited his last magazine, then an era is over. We should remember, however, the Stoppardian discovery that every exit is an entrance somewhere else. For Karl Miller to fall back for a better jump would suit the duplex nature of a limelit recluse who always relished the idea of leaving even as he arrived, seeing things through to the bitter end only on the understanding that he was sorry he ever started. Miller willingly appropriates D. H. Lawrence’s observation about some dark-blooded miner, that his soul was a strange engine.

Miller’s strange engine first turned its cogs in Scotland. A shilling version of his life would say that he was a fatherless boy from Edinburgh who did well at school, found out just how systematic the class system could be when he was drafted into National Service, achieved upward mobility as a scholarship boy at Cambridge, and went on to bulk large in the general transformation of the postwar British arts world which now looks more like a functioning meritocracy than any other aspect of the national life. Such would be a true enough account, but it would imply that he had left Scotland behind.

He never has, and Britain is lucky that he is more of a Scots patriot than a Scottish Nationalist, or he would make a formidable champion for secession. Instead he favours a Länder solution, the cherishing of regional identity. Much of his written work — he is rightly sorry that there hasn’t been more — is in critical but proud appraisal of Scots writers and thinkers. Drummond of Hawthornden, Burns, Sir Walter Scott — he knows where they are coming from and belongs among their number. But he is not a bit provincial, for one conspicuous reason: the province had schools that opened on the world. In the Athens of the North he was taught Latin and Greek, a background that gave him, eventually, the whole of Europe for a garden. The inculcation of hard books — how enviable an upbringing it now seems. It makes England, not Scotland, look like the province.

The vest of the title was worn by the Rebecca in Ivanhoe. Scott clearly appreciated her abundance of cleavage. Miller appreciated it in his turn. The boy bent over his books was also the boy who watched some of the other boys having sexual intercourse with a small hole dug in the earth. Sexual intercourse was tremendously in evidence. Or, to put it Miller’s way:

‘The sexual intercourse of things’ — pioneering epigram of James Hogg, in one of his parodies of the Lake School, for the world’s blends and bonds and mucous mutualities — was tremendously in evidence.

He means that there was a lot of it about.

Unfortunately most of it was in the mind. The girls were hard to get, yielding up their chaste treasures in the dark of the cinema to stocking-top height only, whereupon the frail but firm hand clamped down. Miller had obligatory recourse to secret diaries, basic training in the ability to brood. The classicist chastened the romantic, the romantic energized the classicist, and a personality was developed which had the gift of attracting company by its air of solitude. Fleetingly invoked, the name of Alain-Fournier fills the bill. Miller often compares himself to young Werther but the hero of Le Grand Meaulnes is a better fit. Karl Meaulnes must have wowed the girls even then.

Later on the girls became women and Karl Meaulnes pursued his sentimental education among them with what sounds like success, although the hints are so reticent as to achieve a better simulacrum of modesty than male memoirists commonly contrive. He doesn’t claim it himself (and probably won’t enjoy having it claimed for him), but his combination of certitude and vulnerability didn’t hurt him at all with the female collaborators on his various publications. As with his eminent contemporaries Ian Hamilton and Terence Kilmartin, testosterone behind the editorial desk commanded an impressive loyalty amongst the surrounding oestrogen. Male contributors slaving for these hard taskmasters could easily fall prey to envy. We would have preferred to see our editors as the kind of limping squadron adjutant who looks after a chap’s kit when he flies off to fight. But they were up there at the front of the formation, silk scarves fluttering in the slip-stream, the roar of their strange engines barely drowning the massed female sighs aimed adoringly from below.

The dandy in himself is one of the selves Miller explores. Without Cambridge he would never have broken out into his fastidious clothes. At Cambridge the double man became triple at least. Studying under F. R. Leavis, he deepened his seriousness, even to the point where he could see that the good Doctor, egged on by the implacable Queenie, had pushed seriousness to the verge of frivolity. But serious Miller was drawn to the frivolity of Mark Boxer, who incarnated the appealing notion that stylishness was a discipline too. All those of us who still keenly feel Boxer’s absence will feel it more keenly for his presence here. His portrait is one of the many keepsake miniatures which would make this book a little wall of Hilliards if there were nothing else going on. But Miller being Miller, the other people, though he generously paints them as if they were there for themselves, are inevitably there for him. That people are dear to us according to how they help us grow is one of the book’s many implicit teachings.

In later life Miller has been a professor (of English, at University College, London) and it is easy to imagine the Edinburgh schoolteacher that he might have been in his early life if academic brilliance had not led him away. Muriel Spark’s Jean Brodie, haughty but susceptible, strikes a chord within his breast. The most valuable poise contains a passion. The clear intellect performs its intricacies of style only on the surface of the instinctual deep. One of Miller’s favoured paintings is Raeburn’s, of the skater on the loch, his arms folded with apparent insouciance, buoyed up by impending doom. The author of this book is on thin ice, and prefers it that way.

Self-pity, self-examination, self-renewal — they all saved him from self-satisfaction. He could easily have relaxed into the Establishment. Instead he has been one of the indispensable people who have helped the Establishment to shake itself up — an injection of responsibility which one would like to see institutionalized in its turn. But to keep a country’s institutions alert takes a supply of functionaries who are bigger than the job, overqualified, containing multitudes. They are hard to come by. Placemen settle in.

At one stage there was a Miller who hobnobbed with aristocrats. Unlike Evelyn Waugh’s aristocrats, some of whom tried to tell him that they were not the romantic paragons he painted them as, Miller’s really were romantic paragons: the McEwen family, whose boy children came home from Eton on a private railway track to their country seat, Marchmont. A gifted and tragic bunch who embodied all of Miller’s romantic longings — the death of his particular friend, Rory McEwen, is written short but with tears for ink — they could have pulled Karl Meaulnes in and made him le grand Miller, with Marchmont for his Coole Park. But another Miller, the footballer, drew him back towards the proletariat. Even at the time when I was seeing all of the best London literary editors at least once a week I was told that I would never get their true measure unless I saw them play football on the weekend.

I imagine he was Killer Miller. Certainly I wouldn’t have wanted to try putting a ball past him, having felt his wrath at Langham Place when he was editor of the Listener and I wrote a radio column without having listened to the radio. As a result I had to listen to him. It was such a hell of a tongue-lashing that I left it to go on by itself and sprinted away down the corridor. His secretary, holding her high heels in her hands, just managed to catch me. It turned out that I wasn’t fired at all. If the reason I never listened to radio was that I always watched television, I might try to redeem myself by reviewing that instead. Thus his generosity had an influence on my life.

There are scores of writers who would pay him the same tribute. This book shows where that generosity came from — a mind whose outlook is fortified by the gaze within. If his prose does everything but fly, it is only because he lacks the fluent writer’s actorish knack of completing himself on the page. Miller, already complete, can’t allow himself the glib rush. But his considered pause, his capacity to dwell, gives us a unique book, whose only false note lies in its carelessly voiced double assumption that he will not edit again or write enough good books. Coming from a man well aware that at the same age Verdi was twenty years short of composing Falstaff, it sounds like petulance, as if the skater on the loch had decided to walk home in a huff.

(Spectator, 25 September, 1993)