Books: The Metropolitan Critic — Supplementary Viewpoints |
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Supplementary Viewpoints

It would be incestuous if the contributors to this column (‘Viewpoint’, in the TLS) were continually to join issue with one another, yet I can’t refrain from calling Anthony Burgess out into the yard over his remarks on literary journalism. His views on the parasitic ephemerality of the craft coincide so neatly with Cyril Connolly’s famous exhortations in The Condemned Playground that I don’t see why we shouldn’t apply to them that especially irritated suspicion we reserve for opinions too smoothly rehashed. It was Connolly’s notion that literary journalism was one of the Enemies of Promise which got in the road of writing masterpieces. Since Connolly’s journalistic flights plainly were his masterpieces, this argument had little substance when applied to his own case: nobody in his right mind would claim to discover more of Connolly’s individuality in The Rock Pool than so vigorously exists in ‘Told in Gath’ or ‘Where Engels Fears to Tread’ or (getting closer to now) ‘Bond Strikes Camp’. With Burgess we are in another part of the forest, he being the man who actually gets written the novels that other men only dream of writing — or, rather, that other regiments only dream of writing. Yet if Burgess’s literary journalism was meant to be such an inherently inferior activity he might have done us the grace of being worse at it, so that we could have saved the money it cost to buy Urgent Copy and the time it took to enjoy it. I have that excellent collection of pieces in front of me now, almost falling to bits from being read in the bath. I turn it over and find on the back a dramatically lit photograph of Anthony Burgess. But where is the Government Health Warning? Where does it say: ‘Listen sucker, the stuff inside was tossed off for the bread when by rights I should have been assembling another twenty-seven novels e modo ancor m’offende’?

Creative people should be slow to put sharp weapons in the hands of their opponents; and their opponents — in the short term if not the long — are in the academy, not the metropolis. Taking the brunt of new creative work is one of the things literary journalism is all about. It can do this well or badly, but at least it is committed to getting it done, whereas the academy is committed to not doing it — not yet. The academy has other tasks. Unfortunately the academy’s other tasks for a long time included the task of branding the London literary journalists as a subterranean mafia bent on draining the living culture of its precious bodily fluids. Ludicrous as this accusation was, it was levelled long enough and hard enough for some of it to rub off, and the opinion is by now widely disseminated that literary journalism is donkey-work and easily done. To which the answer is: it is easy to do badly and hard to do well; and that even at its worst it is not so dispensable as the average of academic writing; and that at its best it is the full complement to the academy’s best, the accuser of the academy’s average, and the necessary scourge of the academy’s worst. In the business of criticism the academy and the metropolis have a certain relationship to one another, and the line of this relationship is the backbone of a literary culture. On the one hand there are dons, and on the other hand literary journalists, who fail to see the necessity for this relationship, but that doesn’t make it any the less vital. Even when a scrap develops, it is really a struggle for the same blanket by two people in bed together, so a truce is the only workable outcome.

Certainly a literary journalist’s flexibility of response can decline rapidly into flim-flam if he fails to back it up with diligent study. Reviewing interferes drastically with one’s reading, and a typical early situation for a literary journalist is to find himself snowed under with review copies which do nothing to advance his education and sap the energy required for those books he should feel obliged to absorb. Unless he can read books of his choice at a ratio of about three to one with the books he is asked to review, he is unlikely to get out of the fix and establish himself as anything more exalted than a competent hack. This is the automatic levelling mechanism of literary journalism and has as much to do with sheer energy as with intelligence. People lacking an inordinate capacity for print are not advised to join in.

Of the reviewers with the ability to go on educating themselves while working there will be a few who write exceptionally well. These are the elite, and they are no more a conspiracy than are the Continental circus of Formula I drivers — they are simply self-selecting. What happens to them next has a lot to do with the esteem, or lack of it, in which literary journalism is held. Fewer first-class literary journalists would do such a numbingly thorough job of relaxing into lucrative but undemanding weekly posts if there were more outlets in which to publish solid work. As it is, in each paper we get permanent names doing temporary work, instead of vice versa. Anthony Burgess is just one of the people who have encouraged the notion that only the longer article is worthy of preservation — this despite the fact that his own book is full of exemplary 1,000-word pieces. Economics and the temper of the times allowing, the best literary journalists should collect and publish all their pieces every couple of years. The short literary essay is one of the key forms in modern critical writing — think of Conrad Aiken, let alone the towering example of Edmund Wilson. As it is, to assemble a representative collection of the best twentieth-century literary journalism you must haunt second-hand bookshops until your sinuses clog up with dust, and be prepared to bear away hulking great anthologies for the sake of a single article. A necessary lesson in the variety of culture, although often enough you will stumble on a real prize — Urgent Copy, for example, which I got for ten bob in a Charing Cross Road basement.

* * *

S. J. Perelman, I see from a bookshop catalogue, is currently offloading his collection of presentation copies from Ogden Nash. I don’t see much sense in paying extra money for an inscription, but in this case I would break the rule if I had the loot. Perelmania gets people that way. In a Sydney bookshop — E. Hugh Fugace’s, as Perelman might have dubbed it — I once bought Listen to the Mockingbird, A Child’s Garden of Curses, and Westward Ha! in a single batch. Revelling in the stuff, I suddenly realized it was going to be all right: a mixed style was legitimate, so long as you could muster the discipline. What I did not realize at the time is that it takes about ten years of flat-out sweat to muster the discipline. It is apparently a paradox, but on experience plain truth, that a mixed style cannot be evolved solely from studying mixed stylists — there must be a pure style for the mixed one to break free from, or else the freedom will mean nothing more than delinquency. Nevertheless I find it wearying that so great a proportion of the writing in British magazines and papers is done in a pure style. A humorous writer like Alan Coren might derive (brilliantly) from Perelman, but for most of the cisatlantic scriveners it’s as if the Americans had never existed. For myself, I find it hard to take a journalism uninfluenced by men like Mencken, Nathan, Perelman, Liebling, Gibbs (in his reviews), and Stone — mixed stylists all. We shouldn’t have to wait for a man’s opinions before grasping his attitude to life: the style should tell us instantly. Literary journalism should be as compact as possible while still being clear, as resonant as possible while still being unambiguous. This is to endorse, not contradict, John Wain’s demolition of R. P. Blackmur’s stylistic convolutions, in which Wain correctly pointed out that the propensity of English prose to say only one thing at a time was not its limitation but the final refinement of its subtlety.

* * *

Few literary experiences come as a total surprise: we get too much advance warning. When I finally hit the mother lode and can buy enough time to learn Russian, I expect to be overwhelmed by Pushkin but not surprised by him — the calibre of his critical champions tells me too well the order of the experience I am in for. Lately, however, I have had a genuine surprise — discovering the imagination of Trollope.

I had suspected his novels to be dressed-up ledgers, as if he were a proto-Galsworthy. It has been exciting to be faced with the Signora Madeline Neroni in Barchester Towers, a grotesque who proves her creator to be a master talent. Despite every scene-dodging lapse and constructional caprice, the Trollope novels I have so far read strike me as capital works. Somebody once called E. E. Cummings’s poems speeches from an unwritten play. I suppose Trollope’s books are scenes from an unwritten novel — certainly the reader doesn’t often feel that the point is made or the story rounded out. But they get you in. They are jumping with the unexpected. I am buying up the old, out-of-print Oxford editions wherever I find them, thankful that I knew next to nothing about the man before I started to read him. In fact I only got on to him because of the guilt engendered by doing a radio interview with Paul Johnson about James Pope-Hennessy’s recent critical biography. Feeling compelled to understand something of what I’d just been listening to — an unsettling proportion of which had been said by me — I read a copy of The Warden that had been lying around the house for years. The long road to learning is often the surest.

* * *

In a letter written from Calcutta in December 1935, and preserved in George Otto Trevelyan’s Life of Macaulay, Macaulay casually gives an account of his reading over the previous year. Fasten your seat belts, folks:

During the last thirteen months I have read Aeschylus twice; Sophocles twice; Euripides once; Pindar twice; Callimachus; Apollonius Rhodius; Quintus Calaber; Theocritus twice; Herodotus; Thucydides; almost all Xenophon’s works; almost all Plato; Aristotle’s Politics, and a good deal of his Organon, besides dipping elsewhere in him; the whole of Plutarch’s Lives; about half of Lucian; two or three books of Athenaeus; Plautus twice; Terence twice; Lucretius twice; Catullus; Tibullus; Propertius; Livy; Velleius Paterculus; Sallust; Caesar; and, lastly, Cicero. I have, indeed, still a little of Cicero left; but I shall finish him in a few days. I am now deep in Aristophanes and Lucian.

Now that our jaw has dropped wide open, Trevelyan makes sure it stays that way by inserting a stout stick. His gloss runs thus:

That the enormous list of classical works recorded in the foregoing letter was not only read through, but read with care, is proved by the pencil marks, single, double, and treble, which meander down the margin of such passages as excited the admiration of the student; and by the remarks, literary, historical, and grammatical, with which the critic has interspersed every volume, and sometimes every page. In the case of a favourite writer, Macaulay frequently corrects the errors of the press, and even the punctuation, as minutely as if he were preparing a book for another edition. He read Plautus, Terence, and Aristophanes four times through at Calcutta; and Euripides thrice.

It is at moments like this that I begin to regret (well, to go on regretting) those youthful years squandered on memorizing the contents of Flight magazine — every copy disfigured by pencil marks, single, double, and treble, meandering down the margin of such passages as excited my admiration.

* * *

People with high standards of junk are an ever-present threat. Whenever I join with a literatus in conversation about the trash we read in childhood, it invariably turns out that one of us devoured a better class of trash than the other. Speaking as the other, I can only announce a simmering envy for anyone who beefed up his reading skills on Rider Haggard, Rice Burroughs, Baroness Orczy and E. Phillips Oppenheim. Missing out on the stuff then, I missed out on it forever: there’s no point in trying to catch up, and no sanction for it, since with the age of innocence far in the past it’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that time put in on She is time subtracted from the permanent task of battling through the block-long sentences of La Prisonnière. Not to mention Thomas Mann: that I got through Tod in Venedig in German (earning the Leserkreuz with crossed eyes and nut clusters) can’t go on forever serving as an excuse for not tackling The Magic Mountain in English. Another time, as Auden put it, has other lives to live. All one can do is take a crumb of comfort from having once read King Solomon’s Mines — if that was the one about the cave full of spiders and the big white hunter who longed for a Gatling with which to clear a plain thronged with tinted warriors in five minutes. Pretty sure I read the actual book there, and not the Classics Illustrated sepia-coloured comic. Not, let it be said in passing, that the Classics Illustrateds were to be disparaged. Their comic-book version of the Bible was a better way of assimilating the key quotes than pasting deckle-edged texts in a Sunday School album: Christ’s speech-balloons were rimmed in pink, like clouds at sunset, and did a lot to focus the wandering juvenile attention on their gnomic contents.

At home we had few books, but we did have a cupboard full of out-of-date magazines — the Australian edition of Reader’s Digest, wartime copies of Picture Post and Life, and any amount of Redbook, Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post. I read them continually, as a supplement to my Modern Marvels encyclopedia. At about age ten I moved on to Biggles books, staying faithful to W. E. Johns for the two years I spent in an opportunity class — an institution dedicated to providing upper-bracket IQs with bigger sand-trays. It was in this class that I received my first blurred hint of other realms. There was a day when selected members of the class were asked to stand up and give a summary of any book they might recently have read. I gave a masterly précis of Biggles Flies East, complete with an extended-arm version of the epic aerial duel between Bigglesworth and Von Stalhein. It was tedious to find this performance upstaged by some clown who had been dipping into the early chapters of Joyce’s Ulysses. Having a schoolmaster for a father, my rival — it seems obvious now — was being brought up in an altogether superior intellectual climate. The hint did not take: I had no means of assessing its implications. While my rival was doubtless moving on to the letters of Madame de Sévigné and the Duino Elegies, I made the huge jump from Biggles to the Saint, quickly becoming a world expert on the writings of Leslie Charteris.

As my teens wore on (the days consumed in a technical school where I read five mathematical subjects with small result) I added further detectives and freelance adventurers to the roster. I read the complete works of Erle Stanley Gardner (including the A. A. Fair novels) in about a month, a feat of voracious celerity exactly equivalent to winning a pie-eating contest. I read all of Sapper —the wartime short stories being perhaps my first fleeting taste of realism — but none of Saki, who rested untouched in that other world, the world of estimable achievement on which by a sad miracle my hungry eyes never impinged. Ellery Queen, entire: but never Raymond Chandler. The Nero Wolfe books, but never Father Brown. Like a loser truffle-hound coming up with nothing but rocks, I must have had an infallible nose for rubbish.

In the two or three years before becoming eligible (just eligible) for university, I got on to war books, reading every best-selling author from Richard Pape (remember Boldness Be My Friend?) to Chester Wilmot, on every subject from the Tirpitz to midget submarines. It was during this obsession that I stumbled on the first clear cases of quality in writing, diffident in ambition though they now seem: Pierre Clostermann and Paul Brickhill (especially in The Great Escape, although The Dam Busters was a more engrossing subject) clearly stood out. And from Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island I got a terrific jolt, probably the most formative literary experience of my life: the early chapters of that book (still the most evocative writing about modern Sydney, with the possible exception of T. A. G. Hungerford’s The Ridge and the River and the certain exception of the early chapters of Kangaroo) dealt with experience I could actually test, and seemed to endow a known reality with an extra significance. After that, more by accident than planning — I enrolled in the Arts faculty because I liked to draw — university happened. Happened overnight. I met a young poet on the first day, listened bemusedly to his chatter, and was reading Four Quartets on the second day.

The best you can claim for such a grossly inadequate educational background is that it supplies a hefty impetus once you finally get the message. Being used to reading a tremendous amount of slag was at least a quantitative preparation for reading a tremendous amount of literature, the sense of shame providing an additional spur. That, at any rate, is the way I rationalize it. But there are some lacks that must remain clear losses. I found it reasonably easy to learn modern languages later on, but Latin was harder and Greek impossible. For anything in Latin beyond the simpler declarative sentences of Cornelius Nepos I need a parallel text. A memory stocked with hundreds of lines of Virgil, Horace, Propertius and Catullus scarcely compensates for a deficiency like that: the lines were all learnt parrot-fashion, and one is always conscious of a shaky grasp on the poetry of any language when one cannot parse an average sentence of its prose. As for Greek, it will have to wait for a five-year stretch when there is nothing else to do. Reading Rider Haggard instead of finishing Proust is a minor crime compared with beginning Trollope instead of learning to read Homer, but the latter is the crime I now find myself committing. One big compensation for being in such mental turmoil is, however, impossible to deny — literature will always be an adventure for anyone who came to it late. One has the eagerness of gratitude, if not the confidence of universal scholarship.

* * *

I suppose I was forced towards the above reflections by the fact that life of late has been lots of action, little meditation and no study whatsoever. I am in the kind of fret that the medieval literati dreaded like heresy — alienated from the spirit of contemplation. The state of mind breeds strange jealousies. Who, one wonders sourly, is the best educated man of recent times? Putting Curtius into times past, it would probably be a toss-up between Edgar Wind and Gianfranco Contini. But no; it has to be Contini, with his habit of revealing whole new ranges of erudition at a few seconds’ warning — such as the time when he walked into his first-year Romance philology class at Florence University and greeted an Arab freshman in Arabic. What stuns you about Contini is that his learning never outstrips his judgment. His essays (collected in that treasure-house of the mind, Varianti e altra linguistica) on the stylistic differences between Dante and Petrarch are instantly convincing to the lay reader of those two poets, yet the learning on which they are based is simply and strictly unapproachable. And just by sitting down to write about the intellectual experience conferred by reading a scholar like Contini, I find the sense of frustration ebbing away. Humbling in one way, minds of this order are liberating in another. By being beyond our aspirations, they help turn our aspirations towards encompassable aims. It is not a thing which should be said too easily, but now that I have got it said I will feel better about spending another day working in front of the cameras. Donne was right about the urge to study being the most ungovernable of the passions. But there is still the rent.

* * *

The loneliness of the long-distance reader is an exquisite one: the rewards for tackling and conquering the more impossible literary massifs are necessarily largely personal, since one is unlikely to encounter anyone else ready to evince a proper sense of inadequacy at not having attempted the task himself. In the four years since I finished Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic I have been unable to meet (a) anyone who has read it, with whom to compare notes; and (b) anyone appropriately dissatisfied at not having read it. To compound the dissatisfaction, the only bit of the book I have succeeded in remembering is the bit about the little children crying in the streets — a line known even to people who think Motley is a theatrical costumier. Useless to pretend that reading Motley was anything other than a struggle. I read War and Peace in two days and a night, drawn forward like a thrown rider with his foot caught in a stirrup. The Dutch Republic was read by fixing a daily task (five pages of the Everyman edition) and convincing myself it was a ration. I hope to find Mommsen more compelling, as Prescott arguably was and Gibbon definitely was. The Mommsen has been on my shelves for years, a long-standing rebuke in five fat volumes. The Duc de Saint-Simon, thank God, hasn’t yet got into the house: very good for one’s French, I understand, but very long. Boswell’s Johnson was a breeze — Caxton’s Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints so far hasn’t been. For the past few Saturday mornings a set of Grote’s Greece has been lined up on David’s bookstall in the Cambridge market, whining for me to give it a home. I might hold out for another month at most. The month after that, I’ll be halfway through it — guilty because it isn’t Livy.

Boswell said a man should keep notes on his reading: it’s the impulse, I suspect, at the heart of his journals. I’ve been keeping a journal of my own for about five years. By now it runs to eleven volumes, and contains all the detail of my working life — everything from fair copies of lyrics to types of aircraft flown in — while revealing nothing at all of my private life. It’s a working journal, and therefore not in competition with Pepys, Evelyn, Greville or Gide. In fact it’s not in competition with anything, except, possibly, old railway timetables and obsolete telephone directories: some Pottle of the future might find it a useful source for computing walking-distances between editorial offices in the area Great Portland Street/Soho/Fleet Street/Printing House Square, but beyond that it’s nothing more than a manifest of compulsive activity. The main function my journal serves is to repair the kind of mental lacuna by which one finds all the past easy to remember except the recent. For this deficiency a daily record comes in handy. There was a stage when my journal doubled as an elaborate commonplace book, and indeed I still note down sentences and short passages from a thousand different sources: but I took warning from Leopardi’s notebooks and ceased copying out long passages from books I already owned anyway. Leopardi, I suppose, read more than anybody else who has ever lived, Saintsbury not excluded. But the transcription damagingly extended his daily stint at the desk, until one day he tried to straighten up and found that his beloved literature had turned him into a hunchback.

(TLS, 1972)


When the TLS asked me to contribute to their ‘Viewpoints’ column I found out the hard way that the brief to write about anything you feel like is no privilege at all. (On the Observer it was a reward for long service that broke anyone who accepted.) Without something specific to react to, within three weeks you are chipping at the bone. Here is a hint of the crusty old Man of Letters I might have become if I had stuck at it. I would have been lucky to end up less dilapidated than J. C. Squire, who would pretend that he had written his piece but the wind had blown it out of his taxi. My diatribe against the dons was already obsolete: they were even then descending en masse from their ivory towers to go moonlighting in Grub Street. Supplementing their incomes, they served to hold down the price for the professionals: one of the factors which eventually made fulltime reviewing a mug’s game. I can’t remember why I dragged in Conrad Aiken from America when I might have given a whole list of British literary journalists who were already in my library. As I write, the seven volumes of Desmond MacCarthy’s collected journalism are stacked on the desk beside me. His pioneering long article on Proust is better than Jean-François Revel’s little book on Proust, which is in turn better than anybody else’s big book on Proust, except perhaps George Painter’s. Over tea and sandwiches before a BBC radio discussion programme (its then editor, Philip French, is one of the hidden presences behind this book and behind the career of almost every serious literary journalist for two generations) Margaret Drabble twitted me about my advocacy of a mixed style. She thought it was nonsense. I thought she was toffee-nosed until we started discussing Kingsley Amis, whereupon she guilelessly confided that if she could write a funny book like Lucky Jim that made a lot of intelligent people laugh themselves sick, she wouldn’t want anything else. I never forgot what she said, and have thought ever since that the best reason for being in London is to consort, whether in print or in private, with people who are self-assured enough to say what they really think about such matters, their minds on the common good instead of just their own prestige.

The stuff about Trollope was self-deception, which you can hear bubbling between the lines: after the first five novels I left the other fifty to some future prime minister. I was unfair to my father and mother when I said there were few books in our house: all of Dickens and Thackeray were there for a start, but I had a fatal instinct for the wrong stuff. There was no point complaining about not having sufficient Greek: I was just frittering away precious time I might have spent repairing the lacuna, which later on I set about doing, although not yet with entire success. Other languages keep getting in the road. The severe penalty for getting hooked on the intoxicating beauty of the Japanese language, for instance, is that the long-term demands of learning to read it in adult life leave you no spare time for anything else. Last year I came back from filming in Cairo longing to build on a fortnight’s flying start with Arabic — our van-driver had been a natural teacher — but it would have meant sacrificing the five years of snatched hours I had put into Japanese, whose kanji characters even the Japanese forget if they are away from home too long. Generous journalists call me a linguist. Censorious journalists call me a would-be linguist. In fact I command little beyond a few smatterings and am no linguist at all. Nor was Contini, really: he learned languages to read literature. It was just that he learned them very thoroughly, infecting generations of students with his quiet enthusiasm. Four years after his death, my wife and her friends who studied with him still call themselves continiani. Kenneth Tynan thought I had made Contini up. Perhaps in a way I did. He was one of my heroes. On the whole I chose them wisely. Having read this book again, I can’t say that it was written by a complete stranger. I still have some of the same enthusiasm, probably because I didn’t attempt what for me would have been the impossible — a career as a reviewer. Cyril Connolly was too severe on himself when he called reviewing an enemy of promise. Nor was he quite honest. He enjoyed the power and prestige of his weekly star billing at the Sunday Times. It paid for his tastes. But he had the inestimable advantage of an education acquired at the beginning of his life. Realizing that I was going to spend the rest of my life acquiring mine, I couldn’t afford to let regular reviewing interfere with it. So I paid for the groceries by doing television instead. Though there are always helpful young critics ready to call this my fatal mistake, it did have one unquestionable benefit. In recent years I have never had to write a piece of journalism of any kind except from choice. That I still choose to is a token of the lasting fascination the genre holds, even for hacks: the sudden conviction that you, and only you, can say what needs to be said about that topic at this moment. There is also the consideration that if you stick at it long enough you’ll get better. I think I must have done. On the evidence here presented, I could scarcely have got worse. But finally it is more profitable to be pleased at having made a start than shame-faced at its clumsiness. Conceit, that necessary instrument, can always use a boost. Humility takes care of itself. Even at the time I would have given everything in this book to have written one song for Dusty Springfield, but we have to go with what we’ve got.