SIR: Faced with a review like Patrick Parrinder’s (LRB, 7 February), it is tempting, naturally, to simply snipe back. Clearly he feels that Eagleton’s work has a prestige beyond its merit, and that its lack or seriousness and intellectual depth is so self-evident that a combination of sarcasm, ad hominem remarks and hyperbole will convince us that we need not attend to the book’s central argument. But Eagleton is himself not one for kid gloves and so complaining about the tone of the review might seem like a case of special pleading. However, Eagleton also had a serious case to make about the state or criticism today. I suspect that Parrinder disagrees with his argument but he ought to confront it and offer a considered critique. Instead we get just the kind of academic one-upmanship which Eagleton is polemicising against. To say that Terry Eagleton is not a serious historian like E.P. Thompson is both true and, in this instance, irrelevant. The Function of Criticism has no pretensions to being that kind of history and unless Parrinder can connect this ‘fault’ to an objection to Eagleton’s basic point then he has told us nothing that Eagleton did not admit himself in the book’s preface. A general prejudice in favour of a certain kind of academic writing as against what Parrinder regards as the unserious genre of pamphlets it not a sign of intellectual depth and is not a substitute for debate over the issues at stake. Parrinder must use his scholarship to show us why a public sphere is not necessary or helpful to criticism. But his only approach to this question, the claim that even Marxist theory has been largely the product of isolation, is not very convincing, the implication being that the connection of Lenin, Trotsky. Luxemburg, Lukacs and Gramsci to political movements had a minimal or deleterious effect on their theoretical work. This, of course, is precisely the point which needs to be discussed: let Parrinder address his scholarly energies to it.
Finally, it is irresistible to note that amid a page and a half of accusations of philosophical inconsistency, shoddy thinking and poor scholarship, Parrinder finds two sentences to remind us that Eagleton has held steady in his political convictions. Nothing else could indicate so bluntly what he must think it means to be principled.
St Antony’s College, Oxford
SIR: A less generous review of Sartre’s War Diaries could scarcely have been written, without actually exposing itself to charges of prejudice and hostility, than that of John Sturrock (LRB, 7 February). Generosity may be no part of a reviewer’s moral baggage, but Sturrock stamps on a chance to invite readers to reach a richer understanding of the relation or Sartre’s thought to his experience. Sturrock implies throughout that the limbo in which Sartre found himself in Alsace was, if not quite of Sartre’s choosing (although he quite peculiarly intimates that Sartre’s partial blindness made him reluctant to ‘want to do more’), at least a pretext for gross self-indulgence. This hardly accords with Sartre’s own reflection on the dislocation in his existence that the ‘phoney war’ had effected, nor with the sense of impotence and the suffering that the Diaries manifest. And it hardly fits with Sartre’s later activity in the Resistance, which Sturrock prefers to deride. Nor was Sartre indifferent to ‘what is going on in Europe’: ‘A decree published in the Journal Officiel discreetly establishes concentration camps in France … what in the world am I supposed to defend, if it’s no longer even freedom?’ (page 22).
Sartre’s descriptions of his fellow soldiers are not, it is agreed, eulogies. But nor are they ‘malicious’ and defamatory in the way that Sturrock, taking them as if they were ‘character studies’ of an ordinary kind, chooses to suppose. Anyone who has read Sartre’s discussions of the elusiveness of the concept of character in Being and Nothingness, or paid any attention to Sartre’s way of understanding personality in his novels, should recognise that the descriptions are intended as appraisals in unorthodox and distinctive moral dimension. The War Diaries are not engaged in portraiture, and the subtle moral vision is far more consonant with a respect for others as free ends-in-themselves than is Sturrock’s characterisation of Sartre. Sartre is quite certainly not guilty of ‘savagely and quickly fictionalising those around him’.
This simplification is consistent with Sturrock’s snap dismissal of the concern for authenticity – presumably an issue that Sturrock’s theoretical affiliations have magically made redundant. It is also consistent with Sturrock’s underlying failing, which is to assume that biographical understanding can proceed by such facile reductions as that of Being and Nothingness to the Diaries, the former a ‘monstrous expansion’ of the latter, and then to reduce the Diaries to an unhappy marriage of egotism and an irresponsible ‘metropolitan clique’. It is a shame that Sartre’s other diaries were lost, for quite banal reasons. And a shame that Sturrock thinks one must be a fanatic to regret their loss.
SIR: Gillian Beer’s very kind review of my portrait-in-letters Clarkey (LRB, 7 February) raises a question which has puzzled me ever since I started to work on the subject. Dr Beer wonders if I have selected the most ‘arresting entries’ from Mary Clarke’s letters and journal. I have, of course – and to that extent no doubt falsified a correspondence which, like most others, contains its repetitions, banalities, private references etc. But I do not think I have been more selective, or more subjectively selective, than all but the most voluminous biographers; selection seems somehow to be more suspicious in a letter-portraitist than a biographer. But a subject like Mary Clarke, who is interesting above all for what she said and was (rather than what she did), seems to demand to be presented through her letters, with as little commentary (and surmise) as possible. I wonder how these consideration can be reconciled.
Gillian Beer writes: My point was not that there should be no selection, but that the principles of selection should be made clear. It is not possible in Clarkey to distinguish between gaps in the source-material and the editor’s choice, or to know the grounds of that choice.
Unfair to Food
SIR: I see small reason to entrust the review of three cookery books to Angela Carter (LRB, 24 January): a woman who obviously has a Puritanical contempt for decently prepared food, and considers eating a rather nasty necessity for staying alive. She shoves aside her subject with a panegyric on the Ethiopian famine: a situation largely brought about by a Leftist government which recently spent fortunes on entertaining a Third World Conference in grand style. If she is a crusader, she should go down there and help fight the circumstances, which have more to do with the plight of the natives than with someone trying to make a proper salad in their own kitchen.
She derides those who consider that cooking can be an ‘art’, yet she is a novelist, and many a serious scholar would consider the reading and creating of fiction a frivolous pastime; it is, perhaps, a matter of degree. She takes exception to someone who goes on about selecting a melon carefully, and calls it ‘genuinely decadent’. What actually to decadent is to take products which cost quite a lot and to turn them into something both disgusting to eat and bad for the health: a specially both in England and Scotland, whether on British Rail or in working-class homes bulging with sausages and fat, or whether one messes it up all on one’s own. She knows about ‘fast food’: let her stick to it, and spare the rest of us.
Peter Todd Mitchell
SIR: Fascinating as it is to learn that Angela Carter considers herself morally superior to anyone interested in eating good food (except maybe Elizabeth David), I found the general tenor of her argument difficult to follow. She sneers at those of us who buy expensive foodstuffs while Ethiopians starve. Does she think not buying these things will bring about beneficial changes in that country’s political turmoil? This suggests belief in some very strange conspiracies. Perhaps she only thinks self-righteous priggery a more appealing posture than self-indulgent piggery when confronting the woes of the world. But that kind of hauteur seems a bit rich coming from her, a novelist – what occupation could be more frivolous or useless in helping out the hungry … and with as much pretention as cookery to being an art? But I write to point out an error of suggestion (given that Ms Carter is free to imagine Elizabeth David’s appearance and manner in any way she wants, even if a moment’s research could have set that fantasy straight): Alice Waters it not Alice Brock, the Alice of Alice’s Restaurant.
SIR: Professor Geoffrey Hartman, in his review ‘Placing Leavis’ (LRB, 24 January), writes of the Leavises: ‘Together they make a painful hendiadys.’ Hands up all you readers who had to look this word up. And the Leavises so keen on plain English!
SIR: What can I say in reply to Professor Collinson (Letters, 7 February) but that he of all people writes as someone ‘passionately interested in imparting his views’, and that is one of the reasons why he is such a good historian. Of course, passion is not the only criterion: intelligence, knowledge, honesty in confronting the evidence, and no doubt lots of other things as well. But dispassionate history is not only boring, it is also an illusion.
SIR: In reading ‘Aid for the Starving’ by Keith Griffin (LRB, 6 December 1984). I see he mentions the ‘Jewish holocaust’. May I say that several generations of children have been raised associating the holocaust only with Jews. The holocaust should always be associated with the slaughter of about three million Catholics, five million Protestants, six million Jews and half a million gypsies.
North Hollywood, California
SIR: E.S. Turner in ‘Educating Georgie’ (LRB, 6 December 1984) wrote about Anne Edwards’s book on Queen Mary in which Sir Osbert Sitwell is quoted to the effect that he detected ‘many Rumanian traits in the Queen [there were family links with Transylvania] and among these were “the manner in which she smoked cigarettes; her love of jewels, and the way in which she wore them; and the particular sort of film star glamour that in advanced age overtook her appearance, and made her, with the stylisation of her clothes, such an attractive as well as imposing figure”.’
Rumanian traits? Not a single one of those quoted is other than a human trait. And as to the family links: nothing Rumanian there at all. Queen Mary’s background was in part Hungarian; in fact, one of her ancestors, a member of the Rhedey family – Hungarian nobles – was a ruling prince of Transylvania, which was an independent principality for centuries. Rumanians constituted a minority in Transylvania until World War I when, under the Treaty of Trianon, the province was given to Rumania where is still is and where Hungarians now constitute the largest minority in Europe.
E.S. Turner writes: I suppose we shall never know why Sir Osbert Sitwell thought Queen Mary’s style to be Rumanian. Oddly enough, at the time of Edward VIII’s abdication, the Queen is supposed to have exclaimed ‘Really, we might as well be in Rumania!’; presumably she was thinking of King Carol and Mme Lupescu. This, of course, is irrelevant to the point at issue.
SIR: The letters of Rover, Sally and Cali (Letters, 7 February and Letters, 6 December 1984) made me purr a good deal, but I am afraid they may give your human readers an inadequate idea of feline levels of literacy here and abroad. For years my own preferred reading has been serious newspapers and journals such as your own, spread out for me on flat surfaces. My mistress used to work at a typewriter, which meant that my proof-reading skills were useless to her, and she often sent out work containing errors. Since she has bought a micro-computer (a quieter and better feline working environment) I put in long working hours on her lap and subject every word on her screen to scrutiny. I am glad to say that since she has had the benefit of a cat’s vigilance both her accuracy and her style have much improved.
SIR: As a relatively new subscriber to the London Review of Books I think I could be forgiven for thinking that your writers are there to review books. I therefore read Peter Clarke’s article (LRB, 7 February) with astonishment. The only book referred to was Michael Crick’s Scargill and the Miners and all that is said about it is that it is ‘informative and well-documented’. The article turns out to be a tired and totally partisan attempt to do a propaganda piece for the Social Democratic Party. From any political viewpoint, the miners strike must rate as one of the most important political events in recent times: Crick’s book surely deserves a serious review? Perhaps Mr Clark had difficulty in finding any difference between the SDP’s policy on the strike and Mrs Thatcher’s? Perhaps he had difficulty in finding any SDP policy at all? Or does the LRB have a special relationship with the SDP? I think we should be told.
I am astonished that this relatively new subscriber was astonished. The SDP directorate might not have thought the article a puff, had they read it, and I can assure Mr Robson that the LRB’s ‘special relationship’ with the SDP is no more authentic than the one Harold Wilson used to talk about.
Editor, ‘London Review’
SIR: I am writing the official history of Royal Holloway College, which has been commissioned in honour of the centenary of the College (1886-1986), which also marks the completion of its merger with Bedford College. I should be most grateful to receive information from former members of Royal Holloway College, staff and students, in the form of personal reminiscences, impressions of College life, and recollections of former Principals and members of the staff, especially those appointed before the First World War. Information on all periods and aspects of College life will be of value. I should also be grateful to have the opportunity to read any letters, diaries or other documents in which Royal Holloway College is mentioned. Anything which is sent to me will be treated with care and safely returned.
Department of History, Royal Holloway College, Egham Hill, Egham, Surrey TW20 0EX
SIR: I am looking for anything from a scrap to volumes of information on Winifred Boggs, romantic novelist, author of at least twelve volumes of romance and light satire which were published between 1907 and 1930 under her own name, and another five titles under the pseudonym ‘Edward Burke’, published between 1913 and 1924. She was a distant relative of mine and I seek details for a family history. Her publishers have been helpful, but have little detail in their correspondence. I am grateful for any assistance that LRB readers can give me.
10 Rotherwick Road, London NW 11 7DA
The price of Diane Arbus: Magazine Work is £25, not £35 as stated in our last issue.
Editors, ‘London Review’