Out of the jiffybag

Frank Kermode

  • For Love and Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling 1969-1987 by Jonathan Raban
    Collins Harvill, 350 pp, £11.50, November 1987, ISBN 0 00 272279 8
  • Original Copy: Selected Reviews and Journalism 1969-1986 by John Carey
    Faber, 278 pp, £9.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 571 14879 4

Here begins a review of two books which are largely collections of reviews, and some readers, reviewing it, are sure to ask whether this flea-on-flea process is desirable or even tolerable. My feeling is that such criticism is prejudiced. That which appears in the ephemerae isn’t necessarily ephemeral. Not all reviews are written lefthandedly by authors who save their best efforts for quite different sorts of writing. They may, as Jonathan Raban’s title suggests, be working for love as well as money, and it is easy to understand their wish to give their best work in this kind a more permanent form.

Raban has some engaging remarks on this subject. As he says, very few people can now make a living by writing reviews; he thinks, perhaps wrongly, that it was possible to do so as recently as 1969, but in any case it is true that fees have gone down in real terms and ‘it’s hard to corrupt anyone now on £70.’ Indeed the risk for young writers is that they may love the job too much. ‘Waking to the flop of the jiffybag on the mat, he knows it as the sound of the beginning of a good day’; the piece he does will be published quite quickly, while the book he neglects in order to meet the deadline of the literary editor won’t in any case see the light for a year or two. Moreover reviewing gives him the satisfaction of being a part of the judicial process by which books are sorted out at the discretion of a handful of his peers.

It is true that just as people read reviews rather than books, they prefer short reviews to long ones, so the snap judgments of the dailies and Sundays have undue influence. But this doesn’t mean there is no place for serious reviewing. Raban knows what good reviewing is not – its purpose is not to remind the reader that the reviewer is cleverer and more interesting than the book under consideration – and he also knows what it is. A good review gives a fair account of the book, yet is a well-composed piece in its own right. Raban’s model is V.S. Pritchett, certainly the master of the 1500-word review. As Raban noticed in the New Statesman office, ‘there was no mistaking a manuscript by Pritchett – it was overlaid with small embellishments in longhand, many of them crossed out and recorrected to the point where the sheet of paper was in places blackened ... From a distance of several yards off, you could see that a review by Pritchett was a serious and intricate piece of work.’

The hundred or so pages of reviews Raban offers for inspection here may not reach that level, but they are never ephemeral and are occasionally remarkable, like the longish piece on Mayhew. He’s not a slasher – though there is a very severe notice of the autobiographies of Anthony Powell and Peter Quennell – and he seems to enjoy being generous to other reviewers, as when he justly praises John Updike. He is full of gratitude to literary editors, commemorating Ian Hamilton’s work on the New Review in terms only this side of idolatry. Such writers and editors do the work he wants to help with – they keep going some intelligent conversation about books.

Raban has neatly stitched together autobiographical commentary with samples of various kinds of journalism – travel, gossip, reportage. The categories tend to blur, the flavour is always distinctive. He is in many ways a traditional man of letters, but he is also modern, so that you see with pleasure how his reading has shaped without subduing his style. The book ends with an enchanting essay about learning to use a sextant. First he determines the latitude and longitude of his North Kensington flat, then buys a boat. His account of the working of the instrument is absolutely his own yet he probably couldn’t have done it had not Kipling shown him how.

It should be clear from this that Raban is never guilty of supposing that he can use lower writing power because what he’s doing is only journalism. Here is a passage about the Cape Verde Islands, rejected, so he informs us, by Geo. ‘On all the islands I’d visited, I’d watched fishermen push out 14-foot home-built skiffs through the surf and come back with tuna as big as aero engines, looking complacently silvery and riveted. That enterprise struck me as dangerous; at sea the boats were no bigger than walnut shells and everywhere I looked I saw sharks.’ The aero engines sound Martian, but are how tuna look; the walnut shells sound as commonplace and terrestrial as skiffs; when you join the two worlds you see why the figure has the absolute specificity that makes you feel good.

In a brief account of his brief academic career Raban says he discovered a preference for Empson over Leavis, for ‘exuberant common sense’ over the advocacy of the ‘culturally sanative’. Clearly this was the right choice for a young writer on the point of developing his own voice and range – partly because you can’t successfully imitate Empson’s, but also because that master continually furnished an example of idiosyncratic, occasionally bizarre research. Raban soon found he could do all sorts of bizarre research himself. There is an embarrassingly well-written account, rather like an early Angus Wilson story, of a terrible Christmas package holiday in a Bournemouth hotel. As ‘Raban’ and a very temporary ‘Mrs Raban’ consort and occasionally cavort with their culturally ‘dispossessed’ fellow guests one feels much as they must have done, while remaining undecided as to whether they aren’t more odious than their ghastly companions. There is also a candid, uneasy study of the author’s father, who seems to have accepted it patiently: away during the war, he was in the usual way resented by his son on his return; later he amazed him by obeying a call to the Anglican ministry. Also worth mentioning are the mildly hilarious account of the aged Freya Stark proceeding down the Euphrates on a raft, and pieces about his learning to sail, and then doing so – down the Mississippi, round the British Isles, as more fully reported elsewhere.

The book as a whole is as deftly constructed as Pritchett could wish: the splices are expert, and there are only a few repetitions. Raban is interesting everywhere, in London as in Florida; he carries around that Martian perspective, using it, for instance, on the condoms that used to festoon the trees beside the river at Putney ‘like pale bulbous fruits’; they’d disappeared when he checked, perhaps because of the pill or improved facilities indoors. Somebody should commission him, as in the good days of Geoffrey Cannon the Radio Times might have done, to go back and see whether the unexpected renascence of the condom has restored the Putney decorations.

The Oxford English Faculty supplies the papers with two very different sorts of reviewer – the ubiquitous John Bayley and John Carey, more stably attached to the Sunday Times. They could hardly be more different – Bayley a kind of long-legged fly, his bright skittering sustained by surface tension, Carey banging in critical nails with a demotic hammer. The first thing to say about the latter’s Original Copy is that reading it gives a different impression from scanning the individual pieces on Sunday mornings. You get a much more formidable impression of the man’s style.

His prose, and also – to use the word in no derogatory sense – his pose, are Orwellian. ‘English writing in the 20th century has persistently catered for minorities and élites to the exclusion of a large potential readership of ordinary, intelligent people who have developed, over the years, an understandable dislike of “culture” and the “cultured”,’ he cries. ‘Most 20th-century authors, and in particular the greats like Yeats, Eliot and Lawrence, who regularly feature in A-level and undergraduate syllabuses, inculcate a contempt for ordinary, decent, bread-earning citizens, which must inevitably unsettle youngsters who are on the point of choosing a career.’ Mercifully, the texts are usually obscure; the young victims have to work hard to discover that they are exactly the sort of persons who are being insulted, and quite a lot of them are too lazy or too thick to get that far ... There’s a good deal of this kind of thing, and Carey clearly feels he knows what the put-upon bread-earners really like and should be given. His postbag tells him they enjoy as much as anything a really harsh review, a poke in the nose for somebody who richly deserves it, and he argues that this taste for public executions should be catered for.

Raban, reviewing Carey’s book on Thackeray, begins by saying that ‘Carey brings to academe all the virtues of Grub Street: cleverness, wit, concision, impertinence, and an endearing readiness to sacrifice messy accuracy for a memorable and slashing phrase. He is the hatchet man’s hatchet man.’ I doubt if Carey would want to dissent from this description. In a preliminary autobiographical section (‘Self’) he gives us the notorious ‘Down with Dons’ (1975), which hammers donnish cults such as that of Maurice Bowra, claims that dons tend to be insolent and bumptious and to have insolent and bumptious children, calls them ‘envious careerists’ devoting their time to petty intrigue, and snobs who despise the non-dons who support them. Undergraduates are not much better. The ‘dandified sodomy’ of Bowra’s prime has gone, to be replaced by defiance of authority and impudent sit-ins. None of them, don or student, has any idea how insignificant Oxford, and I suppose, a fortiori, all other universities, really are. The non-dons, Carey’s favourite class, are good-natured and decent, but would rapidly put a stop to all this nonsense if they understood that they were paying for it.

This tough talking is possible only to one who cannot be accused of envy because he has the top job, however insignificant it may be (and we needn’t disagree about that). If John Carey were just a top literature prof we should feel small need to attend to his sociological grumbles. However, he is also a writer. His powers are evident in a piece about his passion for vegetable gardening. It contains, among much else, a beautiful description of parsnips, qualified only by an unacceptable declaration that they aren’t really eatable: but this is probably a rhetorical trick to emphasise their visual beauty. ‘After Christmas the time comes to crack the frosty crust over them and lug them, gross, whiskered and reeking, from their lairs. Once you have done that, and have scraped the earth from their sweaty white sides with a sharp knife, the parsnip’s capacity for giving pleasure is pretty well exhausted.’

A man who feels like this about parsnips is likely to enjoy such books as Martin Green’s Children of the Sun, in which people like Harold Acton and Brian Howard and Cyril Connolly, and all who profess to believe that heterosexual affairs are ‘the mark of state-subsidised undergraduates’, are dug reeking from their lairs, scraped and dumped. Like Orwell, he has a particular loathing for such people when they also affect a passion for the proletariat – John Strachey, for instance, with his ‘asinine high-pitched Bloomsbury voice’. One after another the nobs are scarified: Lady Diana Cooper, around whom ‘men of all ages flocked ... like gulls round a council tip,’ and who herself had ‘a talent for scavenging that would have done credit to a coyote’, Lady Mosley, Daphne Rae, Beatrice Webb. After them come the writer nobs: Jack Kerouac, ‘babbling on with the fluency of a jammed beer-tap’, Jean-Paul Sartre, whose ‘demand that intellectuals should “integrate with the masses” seems even more unreal than it would otherwise, coming from a man who could not bear to face an orange’.

It does seem a bit doubtful that plain bread-earners share these views, especially the ones about naughty aristocrats, who seem on the whole to please the popular taste. Few plain men are as plain as Carey says he is. He applauds a book which says there have always been nuclear families – attempts to argue that they are a recent invention are the work of ludicrously affected dons; and although he dislikes a good deal of what is nowadays going on among a population deprived of their ancient advantages, he still supposes that the great mass of non-dons has a sound bottom of sense, doubtless plumbed daily by the Murdoch publications. It is this public he is addressing when he offers his views on Pope, Scott, Carlyle, Heaney, Larkin etc.

These assumptions contribute powerfully to his excellence as a reviewer, but he has other gifts, equally important though less spectacular. He knows how to combine economical information about the book he is discussing with a running commentary, brusque, sour or funny. C.S. Lewis, we’re told, spent most of his adult life in voluntary servitude to a ‘tyrannical lady’ called Mrs Moore, until in 1950 Mrs Moore ‘fortunately went mad’. He dislikes weakness, and is especially tough on self-regard, though willing to admit that these moral faults do not necessarily make for bad writing. It was ‘a condition’ of Evelyn Waugh’s ‘greatness as a writer that he does not appear to have realised what an intolerable person he was.’ On the other hand, E.M. Forster moaned about his terrible experiences at public school and wished he hadn’t been educated with the sons of gentlemen, so Carey speculates as to what might have happened if the novelist had gone to school with the children of decent bread-earners: ‘Workers’ children would probably have torn him to pieces.’ Moreover, since it appears that Forster was thirty before he discovered what men and women do when they copulate, it would ‘perhaps ... have been better for the novels if he had never found out about sex at all’. Auden’s knowledge of the workers was limited to a jaunt with the Gresham School Sociological Society to a boot factory in Norwich: yet he was clever enough to write some good poems.

Carey naturally isn’t a canon-snob, and will take on Agatha Christie’s autobiography (‘like being hit over the head with a net curtain’) or James Fox’s White Mischief (‘these sinister humanoids’). At a different level, and at greater length, there is a hatchet job on the Leavises, and especially on Fiction and the Reading Public. This is a piece of real weight, though he uses it to express his loathing for ‘evaluation’ (what do reviewers have to do with that?); and about the only thing he finds satisfactory in the book is evidence that Modernism, with its ‘antagonism to common humanity’, is loathsome. He holds this view strongly, as we’ve seen, and it accounts for his view of Lowell (‘irresponsible obscurity’) as well as for his praise of Dirk Bogarde (‘irresistible’), Edward Blishen (‘lose no time in starting’ to read him), D.J. Enright (‘a champion of ordinary existence against the whimsies of the over-educated’) and Craig Raine (‘thank goodness, a far cry from The Waste Land, and the indictment of earthly existence as foul and absurd, which has been a sacred tenet of Modernism’).

Plain men cannot write plain prose in the manner of Orwell or Carey: to do it you must be over-educated (just as you must, by the standards here proposed, be over-educated to be an Oxford professor). To write as well as Carey or Raban you don’t have to be a don, but you must, in one way or another, be unplain. These are, whether by don or non-don, irresistible collections.