James Wood

  • Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books by John Carey
    Faber, 173 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 571 20448 1

John Carey’s new book, like his last one, The Intellectuals and the Masses, is a little swizzle-stick perfectly designed for flattening airy literary bubbles. Surprisingly, it is likable, wise and often right, the more so in tending to contradict The Intellectuals and the Masses, which had none of these qualities. The enemy has stayed the same – roughly, overweening literary Modernism. Has Carey’s curious Oxonian populism truly changed, or just, as it were, moved colleges?

The Intellectuals and the Masses was the most lucid and intelligent statement yet of an English conservative anti-Modernism familiar to readers of the Sunday Times and the Spectator. Carey’s cousins in populism sometimes include Simon Jenkins, Paul Johnson, A.N. Wilson and the late Auberon Waugh. An easy moralism animates this worldview. Picasso was a pig; Edmund Gosse was ‘a bore’; D.H. Lawrence hit Frieda and wanted to exterm-inate whole races; Virginia Woolf was a pretentious snob who said horrible things about the plebeian Joyce, and about the girls who worked at Woolworths; James Kelman acted like a barbarian at the Booker dinner, and so on.

Most of these commentators imagine themselves to be writing a form of intellectual history when they are only pouring gossip into fancy goblets at London book parties. They experience apparently no squeamishness, indeed no awareness of any difficulty, in moving between these troublesome lives and the troublesome work that was produced by them: the one naturally follows the other, as the overnight cell follows the police blotter. Robert Lowell was a rather unsavoury fellow; therefore we should not be surprised by the ‘irresponsible obscurity’ (Carey’s phrase) of his verse. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey moves swiftly from quoting unpleasant and fascistic comments about the masses by Yeats, Eliot, Woolf, Hamsun, Lawrence and others – most of those comments appearing in diaries, letters and journalism – to the conclusion that ‘the early 20th century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as Modernism … Realism of the sort it was assumed the masses appreciated was abandoned. So was logical coherence. Irrationality and obscurity were cultivated.’

That art demands a scandalous selfishness, and a selfishness which paradoxically isolates the writer from the much less selfish world that is his or her subject, that most serious artists do not live orderly lives, do not merely chew the cud of convention, and are given to not very nice statements, seems to be a surprise only to these commentators. Even the beloved Chekhov, we now know, talked occasionally about ‘Yids’, and serially trifled with the affections of female admirers. Carey was indeed defeated even on his own terms a few months after the publication of The Intellectuals and the Masses in 1992. He ended his assault on the nasty Modernists by applauding the fact that in contemporary poetry ‘obscurity is no longer the rule … The leading poets writing English in the second half of the 20th cent-ury, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, have all written poems that … can be readily ap-preciated by schoolchildren.’ That was July: in the autumn came the revelation of Larkin’s letters, containing heaped unpleasantnesses beyond anything in Woolf’s diaries or Lawrence’s letters, and the link between vile private statement and lovable public work became suddenly problematic – at least, to those for whom the problem was sudden.

Of course, Modernism is in some ways a false quarry, since it hardly invented the monstrosity of the will-to-greatness, or the artist’s certainty of superiority. Balzac, in Cousin Bette, distinguishes Wenceslas Steinbock, the talented demi-artist, from the real thing in a marvellous passage which also plentifully insults the masses, whom Balzac calls ‘blockheads’. The demi-artists, he says,

appear superior to real artists, who are taxed with aloofness, unsociability, rebellion against the conventions and civilised living; because great men belong to their creations. The entire detachment from all worldly concerns of true artists, and their devotion to their work, stamp them as egoists in the eyes of fools, who think that such men ought to go dressed like men about town performing the gyration that they call ‘their social duties’. People would like to see the lions of Atlas combed and scented like a marchioness’s lapdogs. Such men, who have few peers and rarely meet them, grow accustomed to shutting out the world, in their habit of solitude. They become incomprehensible to the majority, which, as we know, is composed of blockheads, the envious, ignoramuses, and skaters upon the surfaces of life.

This was written in 1846 or 1847, and exceeds any late romantic hauteur expressed by Virginia Woolf. It also decouples Carey’s connection between artistic disdain of the populace and an obscurity of style that must then exclude that populace.

Still, to be fair, if we take Flaubert as the first Modernist, some kind of revolution seems to have occurred in the writer’s relation to his reading public, and a new fear and hatred of the massed bourgeoisie arisen. Modern writers became much more likely to deliver themselves of blasphemies, misanthropic asides, snobberies of various kinds. Carey is very exercised by Nietzsche (‘a desperately restricted and unfulfilled human being … he ridicules the very concept of morality’) and lays at his door much of the proto-Nazism of Modernism. But Nietzsche, properly understood, should complicate Carey’s prejudices. Nietzsche ends Beyond Good and Evil by chastising his own thoughts for beginning to look like truths, ‘so pathetically righteous, so boring! … my old beloved wicked thoughts’. ‘Wicked thoughts’ – there is an admission here of a certain provisionality, a sense of necessary rebellion, a rhetoric being tested for the first time.

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