Mary-Kay Wilmers is excessively gloomy, or excessively modest, in declaring that ‘there are few great book reviews’ and that ‘the best one can hope for is that some will prove memorable over the lifetime of an editor or his magazine’ (LRB, 15 September). Has she forgotten that a not insignificant proportion of the canon of non-fictional prose consists of books reviews – by, for instance, George Eliot, Henry James, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Graham Greene, W.H. Auden – often disguised by re-labelling as ‘essays’? The genre is threatened, however, by the restrictions on space imposed by most papers these days: Macaulay’s classic essays on Boswell and Byron (both book reviews) hardly get going within an 800-word limit, and some recent collections of reprinted reviews look disturbingly anorexic. May the LRB, unseduced by delusions of ‘coverage’, long continue to set an example in this respect.
University of Nottingham
Not that often
In answer to Diana Mosley’s letter (Letters, 27 October), I quote from Charles Higham’s Wallis, pages 343 and 344: ‘Much of 1952 and 1953 was absorbed in work on the two houses. During this period the Duke resumed and the Duchess acquired a warm friendship … The Mosleys dined at the Mill twice a week, and the Windsors almost as frequently at the Temple de la Gloire.’ Mr Higham quotes (on page 402) as a source for this statement ‘one of the most memorable interviews of his life’ – afforded him in her home by Lady Mosley. This information was difficult to check since, most unhappily, I do not have direct access to the Duchess of Windsor’s visitors’ book.
Dr Holmes’s letter (Letters, 27 October) was helpful, and pretty accurate, I think. I would just like to append a few observations. Freud is on record as saying that the most difficult patients were the ‘so-called intellectuals’, because with them ‘the right hand never knew what the left hand was doing.’ Maybe; no one, at all events, should be called upon/allowed to make any important, and potentially traumatic, decisions while being treated for a nervous breakdown, because they can’t think straight, partly because of the condition and partly because of the drugs. To be fair to ‘my’ psychiatrist, he did forestall me in some of my dafter plans for flight. Common sense becomes a very uncommon commodity in crises like these: but that, of course, is part of Dr Holmes’s point. My wife, my family and my friends gave me plenty of good advice, but I could not take it.
Dr Holmes’s observation about ‘valuing oneself’ certainly went home. I think this is a very hard thing to do at this particularly nasty moment in history, especially, perhaps, for those working in the ‘caring’ professions, among which I am perverse enough to include academia. What Lawrence neatly labelled ‘the plausible ethics of productivity’ seem set to sweep the board, and there is a real danger of what Michael Polanyi called ‘personal knowledge’ dying out in the new well-upholstered (for some) Tory Dark Ages. You can see the disappointment and chagrin in the faces of colleagues and students, and a bit of self-reproach. Schoolteachers have suffered great indignities. The best one can say for an experience like mine is that it makes you think about, for instance, the power of the human spirit to withstand a season in hell. (I am thinking particularly of the support given by my wife and my friends.) But when I reread my Diary, I am also struck by its egotism. It takes a long time, I think, in this sort of mental condition, before one can stop thinking only of oneself, and ‘manipulating’ other people (whether in fact or in fancy). This seems to be part of the system of defences that depression builds around itself. It must be very hard to live with. But I would also ask Dr Holmes to think of my piece as writing. Lawrence said he ‘shed his sicknesses’ in his book. The Diary was painful to write, but achieves a kind of distance by imposing an order, a sort of ‘plot’. Maybe in doing so it falls between two (or more) stools.
People ask me about ECT. Breakdown is a nasty business, and can just go on and on. ECT is a nasty treatment, but it works, after a fashion, and may be a life-saver. I’m pretty sure its long-term effects are negative, however, and I wonder if it should be used as much as it is. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t wipe out memories, but it does seem to reduce the affect attaching to them. The trouble is that this loss of affect seems to persist well beyond the treatment. Or is this middle age?
The Salinger Affair
Julian Barnes’s review of In Search of J.D. Salinger is a very clear statement of the possible case to be made against the book – perhaps too clear to be fair (LRB, 27 October). Ian Hamilton’s book has helped to crystallise the debate about the morality of biography and it may well be that it is much easier now to encamp on the moral high ground than it would have been for Hamilton when he set out to write the book and got that letter from Salinger asking him to stop. In Search of J.D. Salinger shows very effectively the flirtatious way in which Salinger has used his reclusiveness in his fiction, and elsewhere. The dust-jacket for Franny and Zooey, for instance, said: ‘My wife has asked me to say, however, in a single burst of candour, that I live in Westport with my dog.’ Why write that easily-detectable lie unless to provoke biographical interest and speculation? There were good reasons for Hamilton to think, when he got the letter, that Salinger’s No might really mean ‘If you insist’.
Salinger isn’t the only American novelist not to want a biography written about him: Mark Harris’s book Drumlin Woodchuck is the account of a failed attempt to write a life of Saul Bellow. It could serve as a how-to manual for anyone wanting to thwart a biographer. Bellow obviously hated the idea of the book being written about him, but fended Harris off by local, tactical and undemanding means, rather than by going to live behind a crocodile-infested moat in New Hampshire. The published book even quotes Bellow’s letters, with Bellow’s permission, but at the same time it reveals virtually nothing about the novelist we didn’t already know: ‘What could you possibly reveal about me that I haven’t already revealed about myself?’ Comparing the Bellow non-biography with the Salinger one, it’s easy to see how obsessed with fame and publicity Salinger is, how his reclusiveness involves a complicity with the American fame which has destroyed so many writers. No doubt Seymour Glass would say that some kinds of rejection are merely another form of attachment.
Finally, it isn’t at all fair to blame Hamilton for the now-notorious picture of Salinger recoiling in horror (‘this is what Hamilton – unintentionally, perhaps even well-intentionedly – has done to Salinger: given him that hateful moment’). Photographers have been pursuing Salinger and attempting to take pictures of him for years.
Forms and Inspirations
In Vikram Seth’s article ‘Forms and Inspirations’ (LRB, 29 September), stanza 5.3 of his poem The Golden Gate should have read as follows:
How do I justify this stanza?
These feminine rhymes? My wrinkled muse?
This whole passé extravaganza?
How can I (careless of time) use
The dusty bread moulds of Onegin
In the brave bakery of Reagan?
The loaves will surely fail to rise
Or else go stale before my eyes.
The truth is, I can’t justify it.
But as no shroud of critical terms
Can save my corpse from boring worms,
I may as well have fun and try it.
If it works, good; and if not, well,
A theory won’t postpone its knell.
Editors, ‘London Review’