Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Foreword to the New Edition |
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The Metropolitan Critic — Foreword to the New Edition

Twenty years after it was first published, a copy of my début book is on the desk before me. What do I see? My detractors will not be surprised to hear that the first thing I see is myself. My name on the front cover of the dustwrapper as big as the book’s tide, and between name and title is interposed a close-up photograph of the author looking pretty satisfied. The back of the wrapper is a repetition of the front, so that makes two photographs. The earlier appearance of this book thus amounted to a double-headed billboard. I must have been at least dimly aware of having laid myself to censure, because Julian Barnes remembers how I got my retaliation in first. He tells the story of how I turned the first copy of the book over in my hands, nodded with would-be objectivity, and said ‘I think it works.’ He tells the story. I don’t.

Actually the amphisbaenic dustwrapper was the publisher’s idea. Faber and Faber had done me proud, which was very nice of them, because The Metropolitan Critic wasn’t at all the manuscript that they had expected to get as my first book. I had signed a contract with Faber’s distinguished chief editor Charles Monteith to provide a critical biography of Louis MacNeice, a poet I revered. Two years of neurotic inactivity had proved to everyone, and finally even to me, that I was not at that fime capable of writing a full-length monograph about anything. But psychologically determined sloth had a powerful compounding element, which, although it in no way excused my dereliction of duty towards MacNeice, to some extent makes it explicable. Caught up in the excitement of what Dr Leavis used to denigrate as the Modish London Literary World, I was putting all I had into book reviews, articles and feuilletons of every stamp. It felt like concentration to me, even if it looked like dissipation to everyone else. As it happened, there was one other person besides myself who thought that I was better off writing pieces than a book: Ian Hamilton, whose encouragement I acknowledged fulsomely, and therefore not fully enough, in the Foreword to the first edition (a foreword which is retained here, along with the rest of the ur-text, in order to avoid all suspicions of a cover-up). I should have simply, soberly said that he gave me the courage of my convictions by saying that my pieces were pieces of a book, so I should collect them, give the collection a name, publish it, and let the reviewers argue about whether it was worth the effort or not.

They were very kind, strangely enough. Later they were equally charitable to a second book of pieces, At the Pillars of Hercules. It was only with my third, fourth and fifth volumes of collected literary pieces — all still in print — that I sometimes heard, from book reviewers, how book reviews are ephemeral by their nature and should be left to die off in the periodicals where they enjoy their necessarily brief life. For the book reviewers who talked like this it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I have never believed in its general application, and indeed have devoted part of my career to expressing exactly the opposite principle: if I don’t think a contribution to a periodical stands a chance of future life in a book, I try to avoid writing it in the first place. If that sounds like conceit, the contrary humility sounds to me like arrogance in disguise, a licence for talking through the hat. But I can’t deny that the early version of my confidence on this point had a bumptiousness to it that bordered on the absurd, and occasionally went over the border by a mile. God knows how I got such a forgiving press. A sitting duck carrying on like a peacock, I could have been quoted against myself to destruction.

For this revision I have left almost all the initial excesses unretouched, apart from one or two blunders of fact which close editing should have caught at the time, along with a rich assortment of misprints. (Charles Monteith had understandably passed the job down the line.) To serve justice, however, I have added a footnote to any piece whose argument or expression now needs qualification, justification or apology. Especially obstreperous pieces could have been left out altogether, but one of my chief reasons for reissuing the book under my own purview is that it might otherwise come back to haunt me. There is always some pestiferous, unbrushoffable student somewhere who has got hold of a copy of it, and nowadays there is no writer of any type, no matter how resolutely frivolous, who can hope to escape the Ordeal by Thesis. My work has already been the subject of doctoral theses in Italian and Dutch. My Italian admirer, whose language I can read with fair fluency, made no mention of The Metropolitan Critic either as a title or as a descriptive term. I was alarmed to see, however, that my Dutch admirer, whose language I can’t read at all, employed the term freely. Retaining its English orthography, it was scattered conspicuously through his plump concoction like currants in a bun. There were pages dedicated to what a Metropolitan Critic was, or is.

Well, what is a metropolitan critic? The best answer I had to give at the time was provided by the book’s title essay on Edmund Wilson. The best answer I could give now would be roughly the same, if less cockily expressed. I still think, and indeed now know for certain, that I was lucky to have been debarred by nature and lack of attainments from the academic life, but I would be less likely now to imply that the urban hubbub has it all over the scholarly cloisters as a nursery for the critical mind. Some of our best scholars are among our best critics; there can be no doubt of it. Equally, however, there can be no doubt that it helps some of us to get our rolled-up sleeves greasy in the sinks of Grub Street. Always and forever a necessary concept, Grub Street in those days was still a tangible place — no longer a specific location as it had been in the eighteenth century and as Fleet Street still was in the twentieth, but having dimensions nevertheless, somewhere parallel to Fleet Street and sharing many of the same denizens, pubs, drinking clubs and cheap restaurants. During and after the war, Grub Street ran through Fitzrovia, because most of the cash that the minor literati lived on came from Broadcasting House, the BBC’s headquarters in Great Portland Street. By the late-Sixties, although the as yet unsapped strength of the Listener still exerted its pull from Langham Place, Grub Street was veering towards where the literary editors of the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and the Observer worked and, most importantly, drank. It’s a complicated story which I might one day try to tell in an instalment of my unreliable memoirs that will probably be the most ill-advised yet. For now it should be enough to say that by the early-Seventies, in my own opinion at least, Grub Street began and .ded in Soho, at a Greek Street pub called The Pillars of Hercules, the same place I later named my book after. That was where Ian Hamilton, then literary editor of the TLS and sole editor of his own little magazine The Review, received his writers, blue-pencilled their copy and commissioned new articles. The TLS was anonymous but had a world-wide readership: Hamilton’s sense of dutyy to it was fierce and if he thought you hadn’t given the bunch of poetry books you were reviewing your full attention he would shred your typescript right there in front of you and everybody else. His sense of duty to The Review went beyond the fierce and far into the fanatical. Although The Review had a tiny readership, it wielded impressive influence among poets and their critics, most of whom were condemned by it and condemned it in their turn, but all of whom would have been pleased to be published in it, because it had the irresistible appeal of austerity, integrity, and almost suicidal dedication. It didn’t pay a penny and your sweat-soaked manuscript might end up on the floor of The Pillars of Hercules along with the beer-stains and the stray crisps. To be in The Review meant you were serious.

Unfortunately to be involved with its editor meant, in my own case, that I scarcely drew a sober breath. He had a hard head but I didn’t. At The Pillars of Hercules I spent all too much time standing near the bar or leaning against it for support. The Pillars of Hercules was my base. As editorial office it was short of facilities but long on the stimulating atmosphere which editors must generate if they are to jemmy finished contributions out of feckless writers. Those were the days, of course, when Grub Street was full of editors who knew how to do that. There was always the possibility, though, that I remember it that way because I was more excitable then. Certainly my prose, now that I read it again, bears out that interpretation. My universities were behind me. I was on the town, trying to set the Thames on fire with a cigarette lighter. My prose creaked and groaned with ill-timed hoopla that I would self-censor now before it even reached the page. It could just be, however, that when I wrote less tactfully I felt more truly. Whoever the young man was who put his first book together out of clippings stuck with Clag to sheets of foolscap, he was certainly open to experience. If I could go back in time to stand at his shoulder, I would tell him for Christ’s sake to calm down. But if he had, I wouldn’t be where I am today, wherever that is. I would like to think that my course had led me al som de l’escalina, to the head of the stairs, to the squared circle in which one can strut one’s best stuff to the acclaim of the common people, and they are right. There is an equal chance, however, that another tag applies, facilis descensus Averni: that I have thrown away what little I had in pursuit of an illusion. Either way, towards my making or my undoing, this book, composed by a freelance out of scraps written for peanuts, was the first step.

— London, 1994.