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Pat Rogers

Pat Rogers, a professor of English at the University of Bristol, is the author of a study of Robinson Crusoe and of Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift and Grub Street.

Defoe or the Devil

Pat Rogers, 2 March 1989

Comically observant, admonitory, but not quite reproachful, very English in its good-humoured and long-suffering manner, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe is in more ways than one a caution. The cautionary tale it tells concerns the unplanned growth of the canon of Defoe’s works, which has sprawled from a hundred items to something like six times that figure in the last two centuries. P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens take us through the stages of this galloping hypertrophy more in sorrow than in anger, but they leave no doubt that the guilty men who have swollen the corpus with their rash attributions have been abetted by the passivity of other Defoe scholars. They argue that our sense of Defoe has been distorted by this process of aggrandisement, which has been going on virtually unchecked, and at an accelerating pace, in the 20th century. What they would like to see is a ‘root and branch’ exercise to clear away false accretions on the body of Defoe’s authenticated writing. So far so good: and no reader of their book can possibly demur at large parts of their thesis.

Oddity’s Rainbow

Pat Rogers, 8 January 1987

John Wesley had a few words for Sterne: ‘For oddity, uncouthness, and unlikeness to all the world beside, I suppose the writer is without a rival.’ Well, something odd will do for ever if the sensation-seekers have their way; Tristram Shandy has outlasted Johnson’s Dictionary, even in the classroom. Sterne was the first author to come up with fully explicatable – as distinct from explicable – texts, in English fiction anyway. His books are as necessary to the formalists as to the historians of feeling, and it is his apparent formlessness which guarantees him this place. Quite often he is rejected by students on first acquaintance, partly through a priggishness which will allow only the young to talk dirty. But he comes into his own in the graduate school and the Zapp-it-to-me international seminars, where priggishness takes more unnatural and exclusive forms.’

Heroes

Pat Rogers, 6 November 1986

Sated with hermeneutics, weary of metacriticism? No head for the heights of abstraction – vertigo hits you as soon as you set foot on the gossamer constructions of current art theory? You get ringing in your ears when you read Norman Bryson, and fear you have caught Ménière’s disease off the page? Do not despair. There is a remedy. The second posthumous volume of Edgar Wind’s essays outdoes even its sumptuous predecessor in intellectual glitter and academic burnishing. Only 120 large pages of text, but they come with 124 plates; in the ratio of historical weight to linear extent they must constitute the densest object in the universe of books. If a more searching scholarly examination of mainstream European ideas has been published in this country during the 1980s, then I have missed it.’

Puellilia

Pat Rogers, 7 August 1986

We shouldn’t need Dale Spender to remind us that the language of literary history is man-made, and the order it imposes on the past a male construct. We shouldn’t, but we probably do, and the truth remains salutary, even though Spender’s book is about as flawed in execution as it is possible to get without the pages flying apart as you read. Mothers of the Novel has a perfectly defensible, indeed defence-worthy, thesis. A very good case could be made in favour of Spender’s assertion: ‘If the laws of literary criticism were to be made explicit they would require as their first entry that the sex of the author is the single most important factor in any test of greatness and in any preservation for posterity.’ Spender fails to make this case mainly because her own criteria of greatness are so muddled and her notion of historical causation is so wobbly. But imperfect advocacy of an important argument is one of the factors which have enabled men to go on silencing female utterance, so even a book as crude, inaccurate and derivative as this one should not be allowed to prejudice the case.

Dancing Senator

Pat Rogers, 7 November 1985

With the irrelevant tidiness of an obsessive, Horace Walpole started his main series of memoirs in January 1751 – by one reckoning, the exact mid-point of the century. Actually he had already made one abortive stab with Memoirs from the Declaration of the War with Spain’, begun in 1746, now first published by John Brooke as an appendix to his edition. The title is misleading, for these are annals of the Hanoverian accession, and don’t get anywhere within hailing distance of Jenkins Ear. The date is significant: Robert Walpole had died in 1745, and a year later his son’s arrested political development brings him back to the quarrels of a previous generation. Many people are liberated by the death of a dominant parent: Horace felt the full burden of his past only when his father had departed.’

Street Wise

Pat Rogers, 3 October 1985

It takes no time to see that Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is a book wrought with extreme cunning. A slower discovery arrives, that this virtuosity on the surface goes with imaginative density and profundity of inquiry. Inquiry into many related topics: the vagrancy of youth, the corruption of obsession, the permanence of evil. Allusive throughout, the text (though it contains a character named Eliot) does not utter the passage from The Waste Land which seems to underlie its themes, the one on the ‘unreal city’ at dawn:

Pooh to London

Pat Rogers, 22 December 1983

Against the ruins of love and idealism, Alice Thomas Ellis shores up the fragmentary consolations of art. Her books are beautifully fashioned, tailored, cut from superior cloth: you’re aware of the chunks from the fabric of experience that she has rejected, and her characters know just enough of the outside world not to be able to make sense of themselves. The setting (Oxfordshire/Berkshire? – anyway, the Radcliffe is where you rush for a casualty ward) might suggest this is Pym’s No 1 country, but the heroine Claudia is married to a businesslike printer, and Silicon Valley is obviously just down the road. I say ‘heroine’, although with characteristic artifice Ellis has devolved some of the responsibility. Claudia is the focus of the fairly slender narrative, but the centre of awareness lies with her friend Sylvie, calmly disillusioned and cruelly direct (‘I say men and women are incompatible and shouldn’t spend too much time together at all … Swans and pigeons and things seem to muddle along quite happily, but most mammals don’t’). It isn’t that the author backs Sylvie exactly, simply that she is allowed the eloquence of her convictions.

Holy Padlock

Pat Rogers, 6 October 1983

Entering Mexico at the start of The Lawless Roads, Graham Greene saw among the peasant women of Monterrey the signs of a real religious life about him – ‘the continuous traffic of piety’. One of the most striking things about Samuel Johnson is the depth of his urge towards piety: not spirituality at every moment, but what we might today call ‘mere’ piety. His private diaries are written in the margin of the Christian year: feasts and fast-days provide a grid for his moral thought, his meditations shade into his journal, and anniversaries chime with acts of remembrance and contrition. He was, of course, a good Protestant, though perhaps one deaf to the blandishments of the Catholic faith only on account of an ‘obstinate rationality’, as he memorably told Boswell. But a loyal Church of England man became habituated, not just to Anglican rite and usage, but also to the calendar set out at the head of the Prayer Book. He absorbed as second nature the lessons proper for holidays, the proper psalms on certain days, the tables of vigils and days of abstinence.–

Tristram Rushdie

Pat Rogers, 15 September 1983

Four titles, and an abstract noun apiece – well, Melvyn Bragg has two, but it’s the well-known coupling as in (exactly as in, that’s rather the trouble) a fight for love-’n’-glory. Salman Rushdie’s word is a real operative concept, indeed a kind of virtue insistently contrasted with shamelessness. A.N. Wilsons term is more ironic and oblique, suggestive of the British public in a fit of morality: you get the sense that maybe too much of a fuss is about to be made of something. Sylvia Murphy’s knowledge is, to start with, not abstract at all, since it refers to a kind of encyclopedia or dictionnaire des idées reçues. All of these titles point to something about the book in question, I suppose, but none quite hits its central merit or interest. And it does play into the hands of that slack critical cliché, where a work is always found to be (weak copulative) about (weaker preposition) something. Half-baked analysis may cry out for ‘Themes’, but creators who know different shouldn’t go along with this reduction.–

Pepys’s Place

Pat Rogers, 16 June 1983

The completion of the new Pepys edition is certainly a publishing event, and thanks to the 350th anniversary of the diarist’s birth it has turned into a media event as well. But is it a literary event, exactly? When the first volume appeared in 1970, the editors laid some stress on their author’s ‘essentially artistic gift’, and suggested that the work was written as though ‘by an alter ego, by another man in the same skin, one who watched understandingly but rather detachedly the behaviour and motives of his fellow-lodger’. These words were penned by Robert Latham’s collaborator, William Matthews, who died in 1976. He was a scholar in the old style, not given to trendy assimilation of historic sources into the narratology of modern angst. But his effort to see the diary as something more than ‘full, objective reporting’, a bigger literary deal than just ‘a concomitant of Pepys’s delight in book-keeping’, points in the right direction. The work somehow retains its currency as ‘one of the great classics of literature’ (to stick with Matthews), without often being read or assessed as literature. Books such as Boswell’s Johnson and Macaulay’s History once gave rise to the same apparent category error, but they have long since received the full hermeneutic treatment. So far Pepys has survived intact, greater in the public imagination than his own words. The fulfilment of this outstanding scholarly enterprise makes one speculate how long he can preserve this state of innocence.

Ambassadors

Pat Rogers, 3 June 1982

By the Western calendar, the events chronicled in Shusaku Endo’s latest novel take place between 1613 and 1624. But of course that is an artificial way of looking at the matter. Half the book takes place in Mexico and Europe; Endo has the cosmopolitan range of a partly ‘Westernised’ figure, educated in the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, the heart of the issue concerns Japan, ‘a wall with windows no larger than gunports, windows to keep an eye on those coming in, not to look out upon the wider world’. We are encouraged by the translator’s postscript, and by one or two unguarded phrases in the text, to see the book as a metaphysical disquisition, a scrutiny of the nature of politics in any time or place. But the specifics are more imaginatively vital than any abstract moralising. Endo is, pace many commentators, pervaded by history: the morality emerges from that history.

Public Life

Pat Rogers, 1 April 1982

The original title of Christa Wolf’s novel, Kindheitsmuster, could mean something like ‘a pattern of childhood’, but her translators have rightly gone for a more idiomatic expression. In turning the noun into an attributive adjective, they’ve stressed the idea of an exemplary upbringing, and that is wholly apt. The career of Nelly Jordan is normative, within a certain German (though here specifically Nazi) tradition. Furthermore, she stands for a generation, and for part of a race. Whilst there’s no suggestion that the pattern will in any way be replicated under very different political conditions, the book does present the German experience in the Hitler era as something intelligible, even logical. There is play with the notion of Verfall (‘decay’, but also ‘forfeit’, ‘lapse’): ‘No other language knows verfallen in the sense of “irretrievably lost, because enslaved by one’s own, deep-down consent”.’ What this consent amounts to is at the heart of a powerful and finely sustained novel.

Old Stragers

Pat Rogers, 7 May 1981

Is stage-history much use finally? Finally, that is, beyond all this fiddle over plans and parterres and side-boxes, the cost of nails and packthread, the greenroom gossip? I concede straight away that if you are mounting a performance, as they say, ‘in period’, then you need the basic historical dimensions and data, just as when you are playing ‘authentic’ baroque music you have to tune your strings to the right pitch. And if you are reconstructing the second Globe in Detroit, or for that matter re-erecting the Holborn Empire in Holborn, you cannot allow much latitude to guesswork. But those are special requirements, and most readers of these books will be calling up theatrical history for a broader range of in-sights. Their hopes will be only partially fulfilled.

Letter

Alas! Deceived

25 March 1993

Alan Bennett’s remarkable appraisal of Philip Larkin (LRB, 25 March), touching, funny and just as it is, may perhaps bear one small qualification. Bennett writes: ‘That Hull was the back of beyond in the Fifties wasn’t simply a London opinion; it prevailed in Hull itself.’ He cites his own experience at an interview for a university job in 1959, and quotes the professor’s...

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