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.

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