What’s this?

Ian Sansom

  • Where Did It All Go Right? by A. Alvarez
    Richard Cohen, 344 pp, £20.00, September 1999, ISBN 1 86066 173 4

‘Every critic,’ H.L. Mencken wrote in his notebooks,

is in the position, so to speak, of God ... He can smite without being smitten. He challenges other men’s work, and is exposed to no comparable challenge of his own. The more reputations he breaks, the more his own reputation is secured – and there is no lawful agency to determine, as he himself professes to determine in the case of other men, whether his motives are honest and his methods are fair.

Al Alvarez was in the position of God until he started to question his methods and motives. In this autobiography he looks back with some regret on a long life as a professional man of letters – poetry editor of the Observer, a contributor to the New Yorker under William Shawn, a TV and radio critic and commentator, a good old-fashioned littérateur. Reflecting on his years spent writing about contemporary poetry, ‘always the shabbiest and most malicious fringe of the literary world’, he admits that

during those ten long years I wrote criticism regularly, seriously and sometimes even passionately; but secretly I believed that criticism was somehow not a wholly valid occupation. It was more like a holding operation while I waited for the unlikely moment – it became more and more unlikely as the years went by – when my luck would change and my number would come up. I thought of what I was doing as a long apprenticeship in the discipline of prose – good for me, like callisthenics, but somehow to one side of my real concerns.

It is good to admit, and good of Alvarez to admit, that the writing of criticism is often an act of postponement. This explains a lot: what are Christopher Ricks’s essays, say, or Harold Bloom’s books, but preludes to great unwritten poems? And mere reviewing is even worse: apology rather than excuse. So was Alvarez wasting his time? Not entirely. He was and remains one of the few critics both to understand the appeal of Ted Hughes’s poetry and grasp its dangers – quite an achievement. In Where Did It All Go Right? he returns to the fray, commenting bitterly on what he calls Hughes’s ‘loony methods for getting through to his creative under-life’, and criticising them for their effects on Sylvia Plath, on whom ‘Hughes’s creative strategies’, he claims,

would have worked ... like, say, the ‘recovered memory’ games untrained rogue psychotherapists play on unwary patients – releasing the inner demons then stepping aside with no thought of the consequences. Because he truly believed in her talent he did it ... in the name of poetry. He handed her the key she had been looking for to find her dead father and, always the good student, she went down into the cellarage, key in hand. But the ghouls she released were malign. They helped her write great poems, but they destroyed her marriage, then they destroyed her.

It is clear, I think, from this kind of roughing up that Alvarez is interested primarily not in literary, but in moral criticism. And in this he has been exemplary and consistent. In an article on ‘The Limits of Analysis’, for example, published in the American Scholar back in 1959, he claimed that ‘fundamentally, the fault of merely technical analysis is much the same as that of merely appreciative criticism, for all that one exploits a method, and the other a trick of sensitivity. Both are too easy; both, essentially, are at best middlebrow.’ ‘The two essential elements of primary criticism,’ he goes on to say,

are judgment and intuitive pertinacity ... The one demand that can be reasonably made of the critic is that he be original. In the last analysis, it doesn’t matter if he is right or wrong, bigoted or generous, narrow-minded or catholic, provided he says his own say, gets his own feelings straight and sets up his own standards for inspection and, if necessary, for disagreement; provided, that is, he creates his own moral world with as much intelligence as he can muster.

These words found an echo a few years later in ‘The New Poetry, or Beyond the Gentility Principle’, Alvarez’s famous introduction to the anthology, The New Poetry (1962), with its plea for ‘a new seriousness’, and again thirty years later when he describes in his Faber Book of Modern European Poetry (1992) the kind of poetry he most admires: ‘It is a poetry based on clarity, irony and a distaste for whatever is exaggerated or ornate or overstated, a poetry of private life, good behaviour and that much-abused term “decency”.’ Where Did It All Go Right? spans these years and tells the story of Alvarez’s long search for ‘decency’.

The quest has taken him in some odd directions and up some dead ends: one thinks of the reductio ad absurdum of The Savage God (1971), his study of suicide, in which he claimed that the arts could ‘survive morally’ only by virtue of the artist ‘in his role as scapegoat ... testing out his own death and vulnerability for and on himself’. At the same time, as editor of Penguin’s series of Modern European Poets in Translation, he was championing poets such as Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, whose preoccupations were more wide-ranging and, in many ways, more urgent. What seems to have characterised Alvarez’s tortuous path is his continual rolling back of the many false claims and promises – the blandishments – of literature. In his autobiography, as ever, he is at pains – indeed, is sometimes straining – to emphasise the value of Life over Art. He insists again and again that his non-literary achievements matter more to him than literary ones. He writes, of course, about climbing, and playing poker, but he remembers also winning the diving cup at Oundle (‘I have never had a moment of greater glory than that, before or since’). He also claims, of a favourable write-up in the Northampton Echo when he played rugby for Northampton, that ‘no review of any of my books has ever given me such pleasure.’ In another writer this might seem like false modesty, or forestalling, but Alvarez is an ornery individual who has spent much of his life knocking writers and writing, and measuring himself up against other challenges.

In Where Did It All Go Right? he writes about meeting writers, artists, musicians, critics even (Empson, Leavis, Richards, R.P. Blackmur), many of whom he admired and some of whom became friends, but he writes about none of them with anything like the enthusiasm and passion that he musters for his friend, the climber Mo Anthoine, in Feeding the Rat (1988), an odd book even by Alvarez’s own extraordinary standards. ‘He is now 48 years old,’ he writes of Anthoine, in a tone somewhere between muscle mag and Mills and Boon,

and his untidy mop of hair is greying at the edges. He is short – five feet seven inches – and slightly top-heavy in build: deep chest, arms like logs, surprisingly spindly legs. His shoulder muscles – the deltoids and latissimi dorsi – are so highly developed that when he stretches out his arms he looks as if he were about to take off. He has a 17-inch neck and never wears a tie because he is convinced that no shirt that fits his neck will fit him anywhere else. His head is big and square and intelligent, his chin is small, and his upper lip seems to be equipped with an extra set of muscles that enable it to twist and curl like a Hallowe’en mask – apparently, all by itself. He has blue eyes but there is a fleck of brown in the left eye that looks disconcertingly like a spot of blood.

Anthoine was a god. Empson and the like mere votaries.

The only individual Alvarez describes in this book with the same kind of gusto is another friend, the actor Zero Mostel, who also stretched his body to and beyond its limits – ‘a huge presence’, according to Alvarez, ‘in every sense’.

He had a great wobbling overripe body but he moved like a cat; his eyes rolled and swivelled like pinballs; his face seemed to be made of some high-tech material that he could manipulate into any shape he wanted; he sang; he danced; he bellowed like a bull and cooed like a dove; he imitated wallpaper; he turned himself into a coffee percolator.

Mostel’s, like Anthoine’s, is a symbolic body, a body bursting and articulate, full of ‘that wild beast grace’ of Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, with its famous injunction, in Leishman’s translation: ‘You must change your life.’

Alvarez admires these eloquent and instructive bodies as he admires an eloquent and instructive body of work. He likes poems and poets who stand with their chests out, shoulders squared, having drawn themselves up to their full height: clear-eyed, square-jawed, firm, intelligent, and emotionally direct. Where the autobiography expresses an admiration for soldiers, climbers, riggers and poker-players, the criticism has always stressed the desirability of hardness and resilience. He likes critics who are tough-minded and in control (Empson and Richards) and his own favourite terms of critical praise and approbation are all related to the physical. This has resulted in the distinctive and invigorating Alvarez prose style – F.R. Leavis meets L.L. Bean – but it makes his favourite writers sound rather like a squad of marines, or weekend hikers. Writing about Richard Eberhart in 1960, for example, he claimed that ‘Eberhart ... is a prolific writer, so the metaphysical pieces may merely be poetic callisthenics to keep him fit until his next burst of creative energy.’ Of Hugh MacDiarmid in 1962: ‘He has managed a curious creative amalgam of old and new, uniting great feeling for his country, its traditions and language, with the strengths of the ideal modern industrial man: virile, unaffected, passionate.’ Of Dryden: he ‘set, once and for all, the standard of tough clarity, unassuming purity of language, and ironic common sense by which all poetry, sooner or later, is judged’. Zbigniew Herbert’s poems are concerned ‘with his strategies of survival’. Reviewing The Whitsun Weddings for the Observer in 1964 he laments that Larkin ‘has never thrown his hat into the heavyweight ring’, but in the Spectator, in the same year, Sartre is praised because ‘he has gone into the ring with nearly every literary form, except poetry: novels, plays, stories, philosophy, aesthetics, politics and criticism.’ Of his hero Donne, he writes in The School of Donne (1961), that ‘the continual impression his poems make is of the mind in action, its resources insisted upon, even in the teeth of technique.’ This is poetry as unarmed combat.

There is an amusing, playful, public-school roughness about it all – the critic as hearty – but there is also a streak of cruelty. Reliving in the autobiography the famously savage review of Edith Sitwell he wrote in 1956, he describes her, with some relish, as ‘the sacred cow of English literature’, and his review was indeed a kind of blood-sacrifice, with Sitwell the victim, tethered, and ready for slaughter. In Where Did It All Go Right? Alvarez’s former friend John Wain receives the same treatment – punished for being feeble of mind and feeble of body – and there are numerous other little tussles and boasts. Alvarez is a writer who is certainly not oblivious of the extent of his own charms and perhaps he rather overestimates them. Of Sylvia Plath, for example, he writes: ‘I have never kidded myself that changing from friend to lover would have made a jot of difference to her in the end.’ This is a perfect example of a sentence that is kidding itself. He also likes to figure himself as a boxer, literally and metaphorically, which leaves him wide open to challenge. He writes about doing some boxing at school and then goes on to refer to himself, several times, as ‘a boxer’. No, no. Muhammad Ali was a boxer, Sonny Liston was a boxer, even Frank Bruno was a boxer: Alvarez boxed.

Despite all this bluster and beefing about, Alvarez puts one in mind not so much of a reckless slugger and controversialist like Norman Mailer, as of a more genteel tradition of eccentric but robust writing; of a writer like A.J. Liebling, say, a man of legendary appetites, who found in boxing, as in eating and friendship, a source of pleasure, not merely an excuse for braggadocio and competition. At least half of Alvarez’s autobiography is concerned with a retelling of his own London childhood and family history – a rich seam of anecdotes about a lost world of nannies, cooks, parlourmaids and chauffeurs. His reminiscences about his mother and father in particular – some of which will be familiar to readers of what one now realises was largely an autobiographical novel, Day of Atonement (1991) – are determinedly tear-jerking. And there are other portraits that can only be described as ‘wry and affectionate’. But he also writes brilliantly about discovering himself in America, about freeing himself from the imposed burden of Englishness, and also about the happiness of writing a poem, about drinking with John Berryman, dining with Robert Lowell, driving with Stirling Moss, about his lovers, and briefly about his first – brief – marriage, to Frieda Lawrence’s granddaughter. There are in fact more than enough highly polished little gems about family and friends and 20th-century writers, artists and critics to merit the price of the book. (An important part of the reviewer’s task, according to Alvarez, writing in the New Statesman in 1959, is ‘to tell the readers whether or not they should buy the book’. So, yes.)

Undoubtedly the most important encounter in Where Did It All Go Right?, the point at which it ceases to be a set of nicely worked reminiscences and becomes a work of real significance is with Auden, who often had a strange effect on people – one thinks not only of his mesmerising his contemporaries at Oxford, but also of Ginsberg kneeling to kiss his turn-ups, and of his popular turns at the Poetry Internationals. Interviewing Auden at his rundown apartment in St Mark’s Place in New York in 1964, Alvarez gets to talking to him about the life of the freelance. Auden sits in his slippers smoking, saying he’s glad not to have to worry any more about touting for work. ‘Still,’ he says, to the jobbing Alvarez, by way of consolation, ‘writing for the Observer, you have great power.’ This was the moment of revelation: ‘So far as he was concerned,’ Alvarez recalls,

I wasn’t a genuine writer and never had been. I was just another one of them: one of the critics, editors and commentators, the peddlers of opinion and influence, one of the literary world’s necessary evils. I had assumed, for no good reason, that he and people I respected would never be stupid enough to be taken in by appearances which even I found unconvincing. Now I realised that I had assumed wrongly.

Alvarez’s critical spirit didn’t exactly wither and die at that moment, and his commissions did not cease: only a few years later, for example, he published a collection of essays and reviews, Beyond All This Fiddle (1968), and only a few months ago he was writing in the New York Review of Books, repeating yet again his favourite quip from C.K. Ogden about the reviewer suffering from ‘hand-to-mouth disease’. But he did start writing novels, like Hers (1974), in which he excoriates academics (‘culture bearers in their fantasies, but in reality politicians scrabbling for power and influence in a society of adolescents’), and embarked on that unclassifiable series of books for which one suspects he had trouble finding a publisher, but for which he may be best remembered, like Feeding the Rat, Offshore: A North Sea Journey (1986) and Night (1995), his ‘Exploration of Night Life, Night Language, Sleep and Dreams’. And of course he kept up the poetry, not great poetry, but a poetry which has been content to state the obvious and wonder about the rest, as in ‘Rain’ (‘New leaf, new world, the rain comes down./A shimmering figure in red, who is it? Who?’), ‘Nature Morte’ (‘What have I done? What have I lost?’) and ‘Snow’:

Life. The snow falls blankly. Crack and hiss
Of the fire. To the flower-faced clock my heart
Stubbornly echoes, ‘What’s this? What’s this?’
        What’s this?

So what is it, this career spanning more than forty years, in which Alvarez has managed to write no great novels, no great poetry and no single great critical book (although The Shaping Spirit: Studies in Modern English and American Poets, published in 1958, is good criticism, of its kind)? How and why is he important? Is it that he has taught that criticism has a moral duty? Yet we can learn that elsewhere – almost anywhere – and anyway, he went on to abandon serious literary criticism. That we should pursue happiness, as he constantly reminds us to do? But happiness is hard to find: one need only remember Auden on the bennies, and Waugh on the chloral, or E.B. White and S.J. Perelman struggling through life on antidepressants. Or, as he continually insists, that ‘the only method is to be very intelligent’? But we know that from Eliot. That life is full of unexpected surprises? We know that from Forrest Gump. The question – put point-blank by Auden in ‘Horae Canonicae’ – is: ‘Can poets (can men in television)/Be saved?’ Can the critic?