On 4 March it will be ten years since the death of the writer Francis Hope – killed at 34 in the Turkish Airlines DC10 crash outside Paris – and this last week I have been going through a small mountain of his journalism, for a possible collection of his ‘literary essays and reviews’. For about twelve years, Hope wrote regularly for the New Statesman, the Observer, the TLS: he also contributed to several smaller journals – including my own verse periodical, The Review, which he served for a decade as a member of the editorial board (indeed, so far as I can remember, he attended all three annual general meetings). He worked both as a magazine essayist and as a ‘real’ journalist, and even for a time appeared as a reporter for TV’s Panorama. I guess that over the years he must have published more than a quarter of a million words. Enough for a book? That remains to be seen. So far, the message seems to be that five one-thousand-word pieces on five separate novels by Saul Bellow don’t actually add up to a five-thousand-word appraisal. In the meantime, though, I’ve been reminded just how good Francis Hope was as a reviewer: deft, sardonic and wide-ranging, valuably unenchantable throughout the dopey Sixties.
Francis Hope did publish one book – a volume of verse called Instead of a Poet. If he had published his own book of essays, he might very easily have called it Instead of a Critic. His short life often seemed like a junction of high roads not taken – or, more precisely, not altogether taken to. At Oxford in the late Fifties he had been everybody’s tip for stardom: but as what? As a literary critic, a poet, a novelist, a politician, a historian, an all-purpose socio-cultural sage? No one knew where he was going: he was simply ‘going far’. Later on, the same tipsters began wondering. All that brilliance, but no tomes. All that lightly-worn learning, but was not the lightness becoming more distinctive than the learning? All that irony and poise but nothing entirely non-ironical to show for it.
‘Instead of’ shades easily into ‘if only’. If only he had laboured on that novel (those novels?), if only he hadn’t been dazzled by Fleet Street and TV, if only he had been more (or less) – instead of more or less – left-wing. And sometimes it got personal: if only he were a touch more feelingful in manner, less nervous about seeming to have little nerve. Was it lack of courage, failure of ambition, or simply an undermining vein of lordliness?
I remember hearing stuff like this, and indeed I remember thinking some of it myself. But then I’d also think: this is a man still in his early thirties – and, in any case, what had we, his idly censorious contemporaries, yet managed to achieve? I suppose we simply thought that he was more promising than we were: he had a duty to deliver. Then, his death. Cyril Connolly’s famous tag had been one of Hope’s favourites, and I have to confess that it plopped lumpishly into my head a minute or two after I heard that he’d been killed: ‘Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.’ He wouldn’t have liked me much for being so pat, but he would have been glad that the divinities were lower-case. Francis Hope relished the stance of rational materialist in a decade of sweet unreason, of premature grown-up in the retarded Age of Youth. As he once memorably put it, ‘we lie about heaven in our infancy.’
Turning from Francis Hope’s fastidious reviews to the scrappy bombast of Anthony Burgess’s Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939makes me wonder for a second why I’m being hesitant about knitting together Hope’s short pieces for a book. And yet, who would want to be remembered for less than his best, and how would Anthony Burgess feel if we were to judge his Contribution on the basis of this hastily-assembled showing? Burgess’s book – as all the world must know – is a riposte to the Book Marketing Council’s ‘Best Novels of Our Time’ hype, and many of its quirks may have to do with his displeasure at having been, shall we say, disincluded from that list of the elect. Wherever possible, he sees to it that their taste is rebuked by his. He starts off by lopping two titles from the BMC list on the grounds that neither of them is what he would call a novel. Animal Farm, he rumbles, is a ‘fable’ and ‘hence cannot be considered for inclusion here’ and Lord of the Flies – although it ‘probably’ earned Golding ‘his Nobel wreath’ – ‘is a little too systematised and allegorical to be regarded as a true novel’. Bad luck, chaps. Would Burgess have been quite so vehement in more relaxed conditions? Would he, for instance, have included Henry Green’s Party Going in his 99 if this ‘carefully wrought poem’ had been favoured by the BMC? Probably not. Thus, Kingsley Amis’s Anti-Death League more or less has to be preferred to Take a girl like you, Iris Murdoch’s The Bell to her The Sea, the Sea, Humboldt’s Gift to Herzog, Pale Fire to Lolita, and so on. With J. D. Salinger, he capitulates and picks The Catcher in the Rye, but then to have swerved here might have meant acknowledging the Glass tales as ‘true novellas’, or as, bits of a true-novel-in-progress.
With Waugh and Powell, too, there is a problem. Clearly, Sword of Honour and A Dance to the Music of Time are pretty well untouchable. Even here, however, Burgess does his best to deviate. He is aloof about Anthony Powell (‘a work we may not always like, but we cannot ignore it’), and with Waugh he salvages some maverick zest by also picking Brideshead Revisited. In fact, he doesn’t just pick it, he goes to pieces over it: ‘I have read Brideshead Revisited at least a dozen times and have never failed to be charmed and moved, even to tears.’ At least a dozen times? Well, if you say so.
Still, it’s all good fun, we will be told, and it drums up business for ‘the trade’. I’m not so sure. Consider the following Burgessian puffs and see if you feel moved to sprint off to your local Smith’s. (As my contribution to the fun, I’ll let you identify the victims):
1. One is reluctant to give this a place among what seem to be the most endearing works of fiction in the last forty-odd years, chiefly because the author himself makes such extravagant claims for it.
2. What does a Chopin nocturne mean? The same negative answer applies to all –’s novels.
3. Even where technique seems to fail, there can be no doubt of its almost blinding sincerity.
4. Alas, her style is undistinguished, even slipshod, but human concern shines through.
5. She deliberately narrowed her range, working over the same ground again and again, offering few new surprises.
I notice that, since Burgess’s list appeared, Graham Greene has offered his round-up of the post-war greats – ten favourites not included in the BMC pantheon nor (apart from one – Under the Volcano) in Burgess’s. Where will this end? And when, oh when will somebody pick Earthly Powers! Greene, by the way, scolded Burgess for not honouring P. G. Wodehouse – ‘our greatest comic novelist’ – but then forgot to include the old wag in his own Top Ten. Enough?
Enough. This selfsame word, come to think of it, sprang unbidden to the lips about half-way through the first act of Michael Hastings’s play Tom and Viv, now showing at the Royal Court. The play purports to be an account of T. S. Eliot’s first marriage, to Vivien Haigh-Wood, and I had been pretty well put off it by Peter Redgrove’s letter to the TLS: ‘if Eliot’s diagnosis of the ills of our civilisation in prose and poetry had its root in his own sexual distress and inability in his prime to form a personal relationship with the feminine, then we have a right to know.’ In the same issue of the TLS, however, the play’s author was upbraiding his critics for not having ‘accorded me the courtesy of going to see the play’, so I braced myself and went.
I wish I hadn’t. It really is an irritating piece of work. One sympathetic reviewer said that she might have felt differently about the merits of the play if it had been called Bob and Doris – she might have liked it less, that is to say. Maybe she would; and maybe I’d have liked it more. The fact is, though, that it could never have been other than it is – a thin, staccato pageant that aims to win applause for its impersonation of the actual Eliot marriage. On the one hand, it claims for itself imaginative licence, the licence to speculate, and even to invent; on the other, it boasts of its own scholarly reliability – there are acknowledgements to the Bodleian, the Berg Collection, the ‘indefatigable research’ of someone called Annie Gatti, and so on. Since few in the audience can possibly know which claim is being made for what, and since there are no footnotes in the text with which these scholarly acknowledgements are made, it is fairly easy for Hastings to pass the whole thing off as ‘essentially’ true to the facts.
From the moment ‘Tom’ appears on stage, however, the questions cannot help but start. Did he really look like that – puddingy and middle-aged at 27? Did he really say things like ‘I find it an enormous effort to be trivial’ or ‘I bask in your light. I mean I worship you.’ Did Vivienne (not Vivien, as Eliot seems to have called her) ever in life come close to urging him that he should ‘jump all about. Make an absolute arse of yourself ... Oh Tom! Plunge. Plunge’? ‘Well, of course not,’ Hastings will reply: ‘I am a playwright and this is me imagining what they might well have said.’ And so it is. And that’s the trouble. It sounds fake: a not-too-clever 1980s guess at what a shy American poet might have sounded like seventy years ago when confronted by an unstable English deb. Here is Tom, meeting his new mother-in-law:
I won’t excuse what we’ve done. I can’t apologise for being in love with Vivie. She’s married me on nothing. I am convinced she is the right person. She has made this sacrifice. She is my life. I ... don’t know what to do.
ROSE HAIGH-WOOD: You could of course – sit down.
(Huge laugh here from the groundlings as unstylish American poet, brolly and bowler all atangle, mumbles his apologies and sits.)
From this point on, distortions and improbabilities abound – usually to Eliot’s disadvantage. The drift of the play is that Vivien was a victim and although nobody gets ‘blamed’, it is evident that Hastings is far more interested in the break-up of the marriage than in the efforts that were made to keep it going. We know from Eliot’s own letters what he went through, what they both went through, during the first six years of marriage. These years are skipped by Hastings. We jolt from 1915 to 1921, with only a brief bridging narrative from Vivien’s oafish brother (this character is based on Hastings’s key informant) to help us on our way.
All this is unpleasant to watch (in addition to the text, there are the audience’s O-Level guffaws to contend with) and I’m afraid I didn’t last beyond the first interval. After a week or so, however, the thing has become chiefly memorable for its absurdities: Vivien trying to explain The Waste Land to her Dad, with Eliot muttering from the sidelines, ‘That’s not what I meant at all’; or Eliot himself struggling to confess his deepest fears in stumbling Hastingsese:
I am a poet at night who hopes to achieve the rank of Branch Manager. But I’m afraid the clerk is almost destroyed with the idea that he will never write anything of lasting value. It eats into him. It’s like a man who gets vertigo on a doorstep. There is the world of failure.
Stricken with flu since writing the above, I seem to have been reduced to leafing through the Sunday Telegraph. ‘Nicholas Garland on the squalor and glory of Cairo: part one of his Egyptian journal.’ Garland on Cairo is rather similar to Hastings on Eliot: Garland, for instance, thinks the Sphinx is female and has long hair. Best of all is his meeting with a driver called Mahomed (sic) – hired for him by the Telegraph’s Cairo correspondent, Kathryn Davies: ‘Kathryn introduced me to him as Mr Nick, but he can’t remember that, or possibly can’t bring himself to use such a ridiculous name. He calls me “Gentlemen”, which I like. It makes me feel there is more than one of me and we are all rather grand.’ Ms Davies must have secretly had it in for her visitor from the old country. Or could she not have known that, in Arabic, ‘Mr Nick’ means ‘Mr Fuck’?