Barbara Everett’s thoughtful, often profound review of Hugh Kenner’s A Sinking Island (LRB, 10 November) prompts a few comments. When one reads Kenner or Hartman one longs for the earthiness of an Everett or a Bayley. Conversely, though, when one reads Barbara Everett or John Bayley on the ‘thinginess’ of the greatest literature something seems to be missing and one longs for Kenner or Hartman. I suppose criticism works by overstatement and no one critic can speak ‘the truth’.
Barbara Everett is right to insist that Eliot’s impact depends on the interconnection of the aesthetic and the moral in his work, and that ‘the inward debate of authority’ is crucial to our sense of him. The same is true of Beckett, and the attempt to see both as ‘high priests of Modernism’ does a disservice to them and to Modernism, suggesting as it does that they wish to substitute art for religion. But the mere introduction of Beckett into the picture makes one see the weakness of Everett’s attempt to see Amis’s work as in some way akin to Eliot’s and as unjustifiably slandered by Kenner. Those novelists who are highly regarded in their own countries and in the rest of Europe, but not in Britain, such as Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras, Yakov Shabtai and Aharon Appelfeld, have all, like Eliot and Beckett, sensed that to speak ‘with the voice of a person subject to his own experience, like everyone else: not a preacher, not a poet’ (Everett’s words about Larkin) requires a formal adventurousness, a willingness to take risks with the manner of speaking, which is quite absent from the work of Amis and the other much-touted English writers of the present.
Of course one can go on playing the game of who ‘really’ is in the Modernist tradition and who isn’t. I myself, like Everett, would make Auden rather than Bunting central. But that, as I understand it, is not the main thrust of Kenner’s argument. In this country, today, ‘ambitious’ tends to mean ‘long’; ‘wildly imaginative’ tends to mean ‘working in the minor mode of fantasy’; ‘sensitive’ and ‘compassionate’ to mean ‘this author still writes like Hardy.’ Instead of the ambition of an Eliot, a Kafka, or Beckett, to speak the truth at whatever cost in terms of popularity, we have variants on Hemingway’s absurd boast that he could take Tolstoy to 15 rounds, or the even more debased ambition to win a major prize. What I find absent from the bulk of contemporary English fiction and poetry, clever and witty as much of it is, is precisely that sense of the voice of a person subject to his or her own experience, which Everett finds in Larkin. ‘Defeated, the poet starts to sound like a person: unique,’ she writes. I think she is right, and not just about Larkin: there is a profound conjunction between the acknowledgment of defeat – as a writer, as well as as a person – and the quality of art. But the implications of that have not, it seems to me, ever really been taken on board in England. I don’t think American letters have all that much to boast about at present, but unfortunately more of Kenner’s critique of English writing holds than Everett is prepared to accept.
Larkin and the World
Ian Hamilton’s admirable review of the Collected Larkin (LRB, 13 October) was nevertheless surprising in its outright praise of ‘Aubade’. To poems about mortality every bosom of course returns a prompt echo, but mine also retorts that life offers more pressing, and indeed more reasonable fears:
wreck of body,
Slow decay of blood,
Or dull decrepitude …
The death of friends, or death
Of every brilliant eye
That made a catch in breath.
To which Yeatsian list we have to add: starvation, imprisonment, torture, perhaps not likely in this country (yet), but happening as I write in so many others.
Yeats in different mood praised ‘such men as come/Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb’, Larkin’s view of which can be imagined. Perhaps ‘Aubade’ has this dimly in mind? ‘Courage is no good’ etc. But the problem isn’t death, but life, and we never really find out what frightened Larkin about that, though some poems touch the nerve and flinch away. ‘Aubade’ articulates this central bafflement and refusal, the source of Larkin’s inability to break beyond self into an inhabited world. ‘Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!’: this is generous and memorable, except that absences is what they are not. That Larkin knew this needs no arguing, nor unhappily does the fact that, as poet, such knowledge seems to have been all too rarely available to him.
Open University, Milton Keynes
I am glad to think that my ‘piece of information’ has been logged by David Sutton (Letters, 13 October). I am not exactly sure, though, what he means by future editions of the Register being available ‘online’; I suspect that this will be of little benefit to those of us out in the sticks. In the meanwhile, readers might like to hear somewhat sooner of another ‘piece of information’ that’s come to light since I last wrote and which, again, is not in the two volumes as published. Indeed, scores of pieces. It perhaps says something for literary – and even political – history that company records should receive scant attention. Among the Armstrong Whitworth papers in the Tyne and Wear archives are brilliant ones by John Meade Falkner which touch on matters not entirely business; and even those show all the sense of human nature and its strange workings which makes his fiction remarkable.
Is there a reader of Primo Levi who can solve a puzzle for me? In ‘Anchovies I’, in The Wrench, the narrator is discussing the problem of being a ‘rigger-chemist’, of building up synthetic structures, illustrating his argument with a diagram on a paper napkin. The chemical compound he draws is an impossibility, for it includes a carbon atom with only three valency units and a nitrogen atom with only two. Is the structure illustrated like this in the original edition? Or is there a proof-reading error, a missed bond between adjacent items in the diagram? Or is this a Levi joke, since the narrator goes on to say: ‘with a bit of experience, it’s easy to tell right away the structures that can work from those that will be unstable or immediately fall to pieces.’
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
May I put the record straight with regard to a central point made in Robert Crawford’s review of my annotated edition of Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man looks at the Thistle (LRB, 10 November)? Crawford endorses my interpretation of the key idea of ‘antisyzygy’, or the combination of contraries, in MacDiarmid’s work, but suggests that I have not taken it far enough: ‘Buthlay might have gone further and included the enthusiasm for strange metaphysical blendings, manifested by MacDiarmid’s early admirer Herbert Grierson. The Edinburgh professor’s work had recently prompted Eliot’s celebration of poetry censured by Dr Johnson for having “the most heterogeneous ideas … yoked by violence together”.’ The fact is, however, that in my study of MacDiarmid published in 1964 and again in an expanded edition in 1982, I dealt quite specifically with that aspect of the case as follows: ‘The idea of antisyzygy … accommodates the recent (in 1926) rediscovery of the wit of Donne (defined by Johnson as discordia concors, in which “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together”) … “Of wit, thus defined,” as Johnson said of the 17th-century Metaphysical poets, MacDiarmid had “more than enough”; and it was by this apparently roundabout route that certain characteristics of A Drunk Man fitted in with the contemporary revival of Donne and the other Metaphysicals.’