Being all right, and being wrong

Barbara Everett

  • Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers 1946-1989 by Anthony Powell
    Heinemann, 501 pp, £20.00, May 1990, ISBN 0 434 59928 X
  • Haydn and the Valve Trumpet by Craig Raine
    Faber, 498 pp, £20.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 571 15084 5

Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren’t much alike as writers. But the novelist’s Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet are both very good, solid selections of occasional writing. The five hundred pages to which they both run are mainly literary journalism, with some illuminating essays on the social-historical from Powell, and vivid side-glances at painters and painting from Raine. With all their differences, the two writers have one thing in common. Both dislike most kinds of academic literary criticism. And this antipathy can’t be disentangled from the effective virtues of their work.

It seems safe to assume that academics have as much right to discourse on books as have poets and novelists to write them. Nor do minds as able as Powell’s and Raine’s need telling that in modern society the arts depend on a current of ideas which it is the universities’ task – at least in theory – to provide and protect. The trouble comes with the theory.

Nobody could pretend that universities are at present, or were ever, especially alive with applied intelligence. In addition, we are in a difficult phase of academic literary criticism, which has the air of getting cleverer and cleverer while simultaneously moving close to pointlessness. The new quasi-theoretical modes as often as not find a use for Shakespeare or Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot by exposing them, morally or politically or otherwise, as no good. This is annoying for writers and farcical for readers.

Though sometimes plainly motivated, this effect is basically incidental. Academic life is now governed by the thesis; and a thesis is required to show an authoritative mastery of its literary subject easily converting to a stance of superiority on the part of the researcher. Moreover, such research techniques have managed almost universally to demand of all literary criticism that it have what is referred to as ‘system’. This seems reasonable. Unfortunately, what passes for system academically is often no more than mechanism, producing results painfully shallow in comparison with the real systems of high-powered human intelligence.

Defending literature now can place the liberal academic in positions which it’s not altogether ludicrous to relate to that of the trapped liberal of the Thirties, confronted by competing totalitarianisms. And those positions are inherited by university-trained writers like Powell and Raine. Both enunciate principles as congenial as they now sound dated: Powell’s civilised ‘plea for mutual tolerance among authors writing on the same subject’, Raine’s brave ‘nothing is more difficult than being open-minded.’ Any liberal reader reads and admires and sympathises with their impassioned defence of the writer as against the academic. And of course poems and novels are better and more vital than critical essays. But at the moments when both try to find a way of saying why this is so, they get curiously trapped between the philistine and the Romantic-aesthetic. Thinking about the arts is at once more important than they sometimes make it sound, and harder.

Anthony Powell’s Introduction makes a distinction between the literary and the journalistic. Speaking of himself as, for as long ‘as I can remember’, an ‘avid reader of reviews’ (and on the evidence of this book an over-forty-year-long writer of them), he discriminates: ‘the odd thing is that gifted people are often incapable of writing good ones; the hacks sometimes making a better job of it.’ It’s a valuable point. But a reader may find it difficult not to stop and wonder whether this distinguished novelist ranks himself with the gifted who can’t or with the hacks who can. A commonsensical distinction doesn’t seem to work from the inside. There is something in common between Powell’s thinking here and frequent critical reactions to his long fictional sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time. Almost invariably, Widmerpool gets treated as the most interesting and the most important character. Important he may be as a central mechanism, antithetical to the silent contemplative narrator. But this power-seeking success-hungry caricature is, in fact, far less interesting in himself than are the book’s harvest of failures, Nick’s friends whom the spinning of the wheel flings in sequence out to the edges of the action and over: Moreland, Stringham, even Macclintick.

Powell’s novels seem to inhabit a straightforward and external social world. But one of the themes his reviews return to is the fluidity of English social life, its continual shift of hierarchies. And another factor gives his fiction its peculiar uncertainties, shadows and ironies. We read only through the narrator; experience is always as solitary as it is social. Moreland remains fascinating because, in his unsecretive, entertaining way, unknown – an individual.

At the end of the sequence, the aesthetic and contemplative Nick has to face the fact that of all his old associates his most constant fellow-traveller has been the gross careerist, Widmerpool. Ironies of this kind may be allowed to affect the occasional writing too. Powell distinguishes between ‘gifted people’ and ‘hacks’. But, like Nick and Widmerpool, gifted people and hacks may be in some ways opposed, in other ways identical. The really good writer is perhaps the gifted person who can learn from the hack. Accordingly, there is a special pleasure in watching so good a novelist hacking his way, expertly if idiosyncratically, through five hundred pages and forty years of journalism. The final achievement isn’t altogether removed from a work of art.

This effect is possible because Powell is (setting aside for a moment everything Celtic in the question) an English writer. Powell and Raine come together in a peculiar and very interesting Britishness, their sense of art an English one. This is what makes both, for all their late-Romantic aestheticism, simultaneously risk the philistine in leaning backwards towards an Augustan lack of cant. (Johnson’s often misunderstood attack on the corruptive power of arrogant pretension, ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money,’ is the great text for journalism. And both Powell and Raine can take on a special sharp-edged no-nonsense realism which shows them as Sons of Sam.)

Both as novelist and journalist, Powell is interested in time. Those who don’t enjoy his fictions sometimes call them ‘mundane’, a word whose meaning is parallel to that of ‘journal’ itself. Miscellaneous Verdicts is ‘miscellaneous’ in the sense that it reflects the chaos of time. Its basis (along with a few Punch pastiches and some longer social-historical essays, originally used as Introductions) is what were when first published short newspaper reviews, of around a thousand words each: a length that brings out the writer’s packed taciturnity. These short reviews are sometimes, in the case of favourite writers, run together into discussions which, spanning decades as they do, show interesting changes of feeling: an admiration of Kipling which gradually deepens and comes to see him as a great writer, a real appreciation of Hemingway (‘it is largely due to him that people are not still writing like Hugh Walpole’) which regretfully absorbs thirty years of information about his dark and difficult personality.

The collection has other things to say about Powell himself as a writer. Though he deals competently with some poets (Betjeman and Roy Fuller, Kingsley Amis and Larkin), verse isn’t really his medium. Powell responds with most certainty to those literary forms most involved with time’s randomness, its ‘miscellaneousness’: the novel, the diary, the biography. Literature is for him, to a large extent, what he calls in a Conrad essay the study ‘of human nature at close range’. And in another, speaking of Osbert Lancaster, he names ‘temperament’ as ‘the overriding element in any artist’. For all his evident if reticent romanticism, Powell is absorbed by the literary as a study of human life – a concept that goes straight back to the 18th century.

Yet this is a period which Powell isn’t interested in for its own sake. He is best on writing after about 1850. His treatment of his contemporaries is often lit up by personal acquaintance, by his capacity to put biographers right about what actually happened on social occasions. But this preference for the Victorian and the Modern breaks down at one point. Certain aspects of the English Renaissance draw him, particularly the 17th century, when a great culture was in decay. As a writer, Powell clearly loves certain heroic spirits – Burton and Aubrey are most to his mind and taste – who confronted the gigantic and ruined flux of their culture, shaping it into some kind of disciplined pattern. Thus Powell himself divides his book into four firm sections: ‘The British’, which introduces us to an older England, from Burton to Kipling; ‘The Americans’, from Edgar Allan Poe to Truman Capote, a culture as far from us in space as is the older England in time; ‘My Contemporaries’, from Ivy Compton-Burnett to V.S. Naipaul, where the richest, funniest and saddest anecdotes are to be found; and a short fourth section, ‘Proust and Proustian Matters’. In this section Powell’s interest in the social takes at one point the form of a rather dazzling disquisition on food in Proust.

A writer who quite often, for his own purposes, mimics dullness, Powell includes in this collection many things which are genuinely if quietly fascinating. All of them focus (like Proust’s food) the strange interactions and interconnections which mark our lives and literatures, experience private and public, individual and social. Telling in his opening essay, a pleasant study of Burton first written for the Radio Times, how he first discovered the Anatomy among other dusty file-copies during hours of unemployment at the publisher where he worked, he adds: ‘There are perhaps worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office.’

Some of the best moments in his fiction derive from the surprises of the relation of the arts to social convention, the whole ‘buyer’s market’. Effective and subtle surprises of this kind turn up in his journalism too. One of his favourite styles as a reviewer is that of the gruff history master. He will open a review, as if telling the boys, ‘Evelyn Waugh was born in 1903,’ ‘Alice James, born 1848, was the only sister of Henry James.’ And these decent and helpful conventions (now hopelessly out of date – a startling number of the intelligent young now know no history at all) will sometimes metamorphose inside themselves. ‘In the early Thirties, no writer did more than Peter Fleming (1907-71) to convince older people that the younger generation was “all right”.’ It is a serviceable formula, and its use couldn’t be called sardonic. But impassivity here reaches the level of art. Being ‘all right’, or being thought to be so, becomes a condition of great importance to life, but open to all ironies. The detachment of the end of this short review isn’t anything like schoolmasterly: ‘His death was all he could have desired, a right and left when grouse shooting, and his heart stopped beating before he reached the ground.’

Miscellaneous Verdicts is itself ‘all right’ in any number of different ways: its greatest distinction may be the dance which Powell made his reviewing perform for years around the idea and the fact of a writer’s rectitude. Craig Raine’s Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is as gifted and richly entertaining as Powell’s volume. But it offers one contrast in style so marked as to be almost ideal. Raine isn’t, in a sense, concerned with being ‘right’. In fact, he reveals that if a critic is good enough, he can afford to be wrong.

Being wrong is his general theme. A fine brisk essay on Joyce (‘New Secondhand Clothes’) surveys an earlier stage of the current battle over Joyce texts by stating the principle that misprints occur and don’t matter. This is true up to the point that meaning is more important than text. But Raine gives his theory more space in his opening essay. He mentions a critic who recently made the mistake of arguing that Haydn was influenced by a form of the trumpet which proved not to have been invented until after the composer’s death. Raine’s point is that, in this case as everywhere else, it’s the music that counts, not the nonsense we talk about it. Hence Raine’s choice of a title for his book which works by a kind of triumphant wonkiness. Interestingly different from the amused offhand anonymity of Miscellaneous Verdicts, the attractively nubbly Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is a short Raine poem in itself.

Raine’s tough commonsensicality, his respect for real life and for the serious ‘game’ which he takes poetry to be, and most of all the intelligence of his good-natured gusto and rage, all work together to give integrity to his arguments. Yet in the simplest possible way he can get things wrong in a manner that may dent his case just a little. The dust-jacket of Raine’s book sets his title in a box against a fine etching by Rembrandt, one perhaps even too fine to have been used to sell a book (‘there are perhaps worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher’s office’). The inside of the jacket identifies this beautiful image as The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors. This is a naming which Raine defends in one of his later essays, ‘At a Slight Angle to the Universe’, which rebuts sentimental linking of the artist with the child. The artist may be childlike, he suggests, only in his or her capacity to correct stale and sedate quasi-philosophies, like the young Christ in his dispute with the Doctors of the Temple; and Raine turns to the etching by Rembrandt usually known as Joseph Telling his Dreams, claiming that its true subject is that of Christ with the Doctors. If Raine had been right, there might have been even less to be said for using it as a dust-jacket: identifying critics with Jesus just must be a mistake. But luckily Raine is wrong. The subject is what it has always been taken to be, ‘Joseph Telling his Dreams’.

Rembrandt left behind at least two real treatments of the topos of Jesus with the Doctors, in each case leaving the subject iconographically unmistakable: brief but definite indications of monumental masonry show that the location is the Temple. The print on Raine’s cover is no vast stone edifice filled with Scribes and Pharisees: it is an intimate domestic interior. The old lady behind the boy is in a bed, perhaps a day-bed – you can see bed-curtains, not to mention a night-cap; she is conceivably Joseph’s mother, Rachel, who bore him very late in life (though she was actually dead by this stage of Joseph’s existence). The figure surely can’t be the young Mary, mother of Jesus, and she wouldn’t lie around in a Jewish temple anyway. The loving old man on the left isn’t a Pharisee but Joseph’s adoring elderly father, Jacob; the sullen averted faces to the right aren’t intellectuals but his embittered older brothers, soon to attempt his murder in jealous rage. And the wonderfully intent boy at the centre has the face of a poet, not of God; he is dressed not in sanctity but in the very best and most expensive possible 17th-century boy’s topcoat – the many-coloured dreamcoat, in short.

The mixture of great virtues and great mistakes is an essential part of what Raine is doing and saying. At one point, he lays down the sturdy affirmation, ‘Eliot is a poet by whom critics are judged’ – and this is certainly true. But Eliot was a critic himself, as many poets are. He goes on to argue that the general theme of Eliot’s verse ‘from first to last’ is ‘Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.’ Even Henry James, whose novel The Ambassadors is the source of this phrase, wouldn’t have said it in propria persona: it’s odder still from Eliot.

Raine is a splendid critic of the textures of language, the ‘pidgin’ or ‘Babylonish dialect’ that each artist makes his own. On Dickens, on Joyce, on Elizabeth Bishop and John Betjeman – perhaps the best essays – he has things to say both brilliant and new. But he wouldn’t have said them, paradoxically, had he not been a critic capable of mistakes. In all his essays he brings virtues easy to class as ‘journalistic’ up to the level of the genuinely literary. He does so from a strong refusal to cut the arts out of life. ‘Poets hate the sanitised, sentimental, overly spiritual version of what they do. They always want the unpoetical.’ And: ‘If there isn’t the sustained effort to accommodate the unpoetical, poetry is likely to revert to the poetical.’ This is a poet speaking, a voice too individual to be mistakable for Jesus. But Joseph is quite good enough.