Phut-Phut

James Wood

  • Critical Times: The History of the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ by Derwent May
    HarperCollins, 606 pp, £25.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 00 711449 4

There is a story that Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, was being introduced at a lecture in New York. Mysticism, the introducer said sarcastically, is nothing; but a history of nothing – well, that is science. The same can be said, multipliedly, of Derwent May’s book, which is essentially a history of the book review, a genre of such tiny dignity that its life might better be left unexamined. Over large portions, this book is about nothing – or, nothing more than the weekly phut-phut of the English literary establishment. It is a book in which the reader learns how to endure, if never quite outwit, a dark regime of sentences such as ‘One feature for which the Lit Supp has always been famous is its cantankerous letters,’ or ‘One of the happiest events for the Lit Supp in 1916 was Virginia Woolf’s return in the spring to health, and to its reviewing team.’

Nevertheless, this history, while locally numbing, is cumulatively quite stimulating. Something will come of nothing: the book review does have a history, even if it turns out to be largely a history of the littérateur. Critical Times, while recording the not uninteresting rise of a great literary journal, also tells us something about the growing status of fiction in 20th-century intellectual discourse, and about the largely welcome professionalisation of literary criticism since the Second World War. F.R. Leavis once sneered that since Modernism the only art form to have developed significantly had been the advertisement. Perhaps unexpectedly, the evidence presented by May suggests that the book review could be added to Leavis’s sour index.

May’s history begins in 1902, when the Lit Supp, as it was quickly nicknamed, was born from the rib of the Times, partly as an overflow for reviews from the newspaper. May’s selection of detail, from an enormous supply of it, is shrewd, and we learn quite a lot about the easy, gentlemanly literary habits of early 20th-century London. The paper’s first lead review was of More Letters of Edward Fitzgerald, done by Augustine Birrell, a barrister, a Liberal MP, and the author of a volume of essays entitled Obiter Dicta. The first poem was by Harold Begbie. It was an anthem for Empire, and May succinctly describes it as ‘rather an absurd poem’. English studies, as an academic discipline, hardly existed. This world was Q’s cave: a warm, amateurish, freshly-dug hideout in which, say, G.S. Gordon, when he succeeded Walter Raleigh as Merton Professor of English at Oxford, ‘was said to have got the job largely on the strength of his Lit Supp contributions’. In that first year of the TLS’s existence, The Wings of the Dove was reviewed by Constance Fletcher, who wondered how James’s novel would do ‘for short railway journeys and drowsy hammocks’, and Youth (which contained Heart of Darkness), reviewed by William Beach Thomas, who had robustly little time for Conrad’s dense pessimism. Two years later, on Chekhov’s death, Francis Gribble magniloquently wavered on the fine point of the Russian’s stature: ‘he may or may not have been a man of genius.’

Too often, reviewing was an annex of manners. The triply-named bookman – Arthur Quiller-Couch, Arthur Clutton-Brock, John Cann Bailey – fumed or fawned for seven hundred inconsequential words and then retired to his club, where he could doze amid a cloudy consensus. At times intellectual life was more strenuous than that. May quotes from the diary of John Cann Bailey (who would become one of the early regular fiction reviewers); here is a typical day of his, from 1894:

Breakfast 9.20. Times and letters. Writing at Gibbon (article on), 11.15. 1.20 lunch. Saintsbury Lyrics. Out 3-5 p.m. Tea with Watson’s new volume of poems. Writing Gibbon till 7.15. Dinner at club. Back here 9 to read Lucretius with Richmond and Dodgson. Then at 11.15 went in to F. Smith and had long talk about marriage. Bed 12.30, an hour later than usual.

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