Marilyn Butler

  • Three-Quarter Face by Penelope Gilliatt
    Secker, 295 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 436 17958 X
  • Show People by Kenneth Tynan
    Weidenfeld, 317 pp, £8.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 297 77842 0
  • When the lights go down by Pauline Kael
    Boyars, 592 pp, £8.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 7145 2726 2

The short topical review-article is a literary discovery of the last two hundred years or so – the age of mass literacy and the mass-circulation newspaper. A good review column is read by more people than any criticism at book length, and often deserves to be. It should have been the review and not the novel that Jane Austen meant when she hailed the form in which ‘the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ She might also have had reviewers in mind, not novelists, when she noted their extraordinary sheepishness in alluding to their own skills. Some of the very best are nowadays competing with one another in that ungenerous and impolitic custom ‘of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding’.

Most of us would never have heard of Penelope Gilliatt and of the late Kenneth Tynan if they had not been weekly columnists. Both made a name as the Observer’s regular reviewers of (respectively) films and the theatre. It is true that Gilliatt was also a novelist, and that Tynan became the literary manager of the National Theatre. But when each transferred their sphere of operations from London to New York, they conquered a new public through their journalism, especially for the New Yorker, which first printed many of the pieces in their new books. Even so, in the late Seventies they seem to have been leaving behind the common-or-garden review in favour of something longer, presumably more lucrative, almost certainly more fun to write – the star profile.

Profiles and not bread-and-butter reviews make up Tynan’s book and much of Gilliatt’s. Tynan is here bent on recommending his new form, which he does by insinuating that it is an older activity than his former practice of reviewing:

Many publishers believe that modern readers care only for long-distance, marathon writing, and that there is no room left for such middle-distance, eight hundred metre stuff as essays. Out of the window – if these experts are right – goes Montaigne. To the bonfire with William Hazlitt, closely followed by Max Beerbohm, Sainte-Beuve and John Aubrey. A brusque kiss-off to Francis Bacon, Charles Lamb, La Bruyère and the best of Mencken, not to mention Svetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; and into the garbage goes Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, perhaps the finest book of profile-essays ever written ... I am not, of course, claiming a place for myself among the masters I have named above. (Although, when Lamb is at his most whimsical, I sometimes think I could go a couple of rounds with him and not make a total fool of myself.)

With such connections, the ‘profile-essay’ leaves behind its poor relation, the review. Not a word of the studio hand-out, and no hint that the story of a star’s private life has become an ancillary service of the entertainment industry. Perhaps it’s a detail that Johnson wrote about poets, while Tynan, with the single exception of Tom Stoppard, prefers performers. Or that some of Johnson’s subjects were obscure, while Tynan’s other four are stars of stage, screen or box – Ralph Richardson, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks and Louise Brooks. Still, he makes a polished bid for literary respectability, and Penelope Gilliatt, introducing her own collection, has an even more exalted sense of what she is about:

The mysteries of creativity are not to be found in misquoted gossip-press cuttings or even in verbatim public statements ... The essence of a profile proper, I believe, lies in spending convivial and discursive time with a person over weeks, sometimes spread out over years ... First of all, one has to love and admire and have pondered over the subject’s work and cast of mind. This is why the writing of a profile is kin to creating a character in fiction ... It takes fiction, with its fugitive insights and heed, to tell us about the prevailing idiom of a character. The centre of things lies in listening and watching at the living moment. To my mind, tape-recorders tell very little. After a time – the length of time depending on whether the person is either shy or reassured by the sight of someone taking notes of talk in cars or at mealtimes, which Nanny said wasn’t polite – my way of going about it is to make notes in one of my scores of black leather notebooks ... The truth lies, of course, not only in talk, but also in behaviour. Sometimes one catches it as the character sees friends, plays word games, or goes walking with a dog. One can go shopping with people, or cook, as I did with the late, great Jean Renoir in Paris, or deal with pigeons on a terrace as I did with Woody Allen.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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