James Wood

  • Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books by John Carey
    Faber, 173 pp, £6.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 571 20448 1

John Carey’s new book, like his last one, The Intellectuals and the Masses, is a little swizzle-stick perfectly designed for flattening airy literary bubbles. Surprisingly, it is likable, wise and often right, the more so in tending to contradict The Intellectuals and the Masses, which had none of these qualities. The enemy has stayed the same – roughly, overweening literary Modernism. Has Carey’s curious Oxonian populism truly changed, or just, as it were, moved colleges?

The Intellectuals and the Masses was the most lucid and intelligent statement yet of an English conservative anti-Modernism familiar to readers of the Sunday Times and the Spectator. Carey’s cousins in populism sometimes include Simon Jenkins, Paul Johnson, A.N. Wilson and the late Auberon Waugh. An easy moralism animates this worldview. Picasso was a pig; Edmund Gosse was ‘a bore’; D.H. Lawrence hit Frieda and wanted to exterm-inate whole races; Virginia Woolf was a pretentious snob who said horrible things about the plebeian Joyce, and about the girls who worked at Woolworths; James Kelman acted like a barbarian at the Booker dinner, and so on.

Most of these commentators imagine themselves to be writing a form of intellectual history when they are only pouring gossip into fancy goblets at London book parties. They experience apparently no squeamishness, indeed no awareness of any difficulty, in moving between these troublesome lives and the troublesome work that was produced by them: the one naturally follows the other, as the overnight cell follows the police blotter. Robert Lowell was a rather unsavoury fellow; therefore we should not be surprised by the ‘irresponsible obscurity’ (Carey’s phrase) of his verse. In The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey moves swiftly from quoting unpleasant and fascistic comments about the masses by Yeats, Eliot, Woolf, Hamsun, Lawrence and others – most of those comments appearing in diaries, letters and journalism – to the conclusion that ‘the early 20th century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as Modernism … Realism of the sort it was assumed the masses appreciated was abandoned. So was logical coherence. Irrationality and obscurity were cultivated.’

That art demands a scandalous selfishness, and a selfishness which paradoxically isolates the writer from the much less selfish world that is his or her subject, that most serious artists do not live orderly lives, do not merely chew the cud of convention, and are given to not very nice statements, seems to be a surprise only to these commentators. Even the beloved Chekhov, we now know, talked occasionally about ‘Yids’, and serially trifled with the affections of female admirers. Carey was indeed defeated even on his own terms a few months after the publication of The Intellectuals and the Masses in 1992. He ended his assault on the nasty Modernists by applauding the fact that in contemporary poetry ‘obscurity is no longer the rule … The leading poets writing English in the second half of the 20th cent-ury, Larkin, Hughes and Heaney, have all written poems that … can be readily ap-preciated by schoolchildren.’ That was July: in the autumn came the revelation of Larkin’s letters, containing heaped unpleasantnesses beyond anything in Woolf’s diaries or Lawrence’s letters, and the link between vile private statement and lovable public work became suddenly problematic – at least, to those for whom the problem was sudden.

Of course, Modernism is in some ways a false quarry, since it hardly invented the monstrosity of the will-to-greatness, or the artist’s certainty of superiority. Balzac, in Cousin Bette, distinguishes Wenceslas Steinbock, the talented demi-artist, from the real thing in a marvellous passage which also plentifully insults the masses, whom Balzac calls ‘blockheads’. The demi-artists, he says,

appear superior to real artists, who are taxed with aloofness, unsociability, rebellion against the conventions and civilised living; because great men belong to their creations. The entire detachment from all worldly concerns of true artists, and their devotion to their work, stamp them as egoists in the eyes of fools, who think that such men ought to go dressed like men about town performing the gyration that they call ‘their social duties’. People would like to see the lions of Atlas combed and scented like a marchioness’s lapdogs. Such men, who have few peers and rarely meet them, grow accustomed to shutting out the world, in their habit of solitude. They become incomprehensible to the majority, which, as we know, is composed of blockheads, the envious, ignoramuses, and skaters upon the surfaces of life.

This was written in 1846 or 1847, and exceeds any late romantic hauteur expressed by Virginia Woolf. It also decouples Carey’s connection between artistic disdain of the populace and an obscurity of style that must then exclude that populace.

Still, to be fair, if we take Flaubert as the first Modernist, some kind of revolution seems to have occurred in the writer’s relation to his reading public, and a new fear and hatred of the massed bourgeoisie arisen. Modern writers became much more likely to deliver themselves of blasphemies, misanthropic asides, snobberies of various kinds. Carey is very exercised by Nietzsche (‘a desperately restricted and unfulfilled human being … he ridicules the very concept of morality’) and lays at his door much of the proto-Nazism of Modernism. But Nietzsche, properly understood, should complicate Carey’s prejudices. Nietzsche ends Beyond Good and Evil by chastising his own thoughts for beginning to look like truths, ‘so pathetically righteous, so boring! … my old beloved wicked thoughts’. ‘Wicked thoughts’ – there is an admission here of a certain provisionality, a sense of necessary rebellion, a rhetoric being tested for the first time.

What demanded rebellion? Carey never asks the question. It was not simply a matter of deciding that the masses were horrible and then devising an art that would exclude them. Doesn’t the example of Madame Bovary suggest, to the contrary, that Modernism’s anxiety had to do with a recognition that the masses were now an inevitable component of modern art, that art would have to depict them and then be read and judged by them? Diderot had not had to worry about ‘a reading public’, because it did not exist; but for whom was Flaubert writing Madame Bovary? Was it not for the very people who would condemn it? The ‘blockheads’? Carey’s terms, quite apart from their simplicity, assume that modern art had nothing to fear from a new mass reading public, that it was always a matter of the unpleasant Modernists ganging up on the suburban clerks, rather than the other way round.

Carey properly dislikes Modernism’s tendency to generalise about the masses; Woolf, he says, never saw the ordinary individual, only a lower class. And he has written splendidly about Arnold Bennett and the way that novelist cherished social ordinariness. But his own idea of the masses is of course a generalisation, too. ‘Realism of the sort it was assumed the masses appreciated was abandoned,’ he writes – an assumption not unlike many of those he imputes to Modernism. But it is Carey who has decided that the masses can only understand simple realism; by contrast, it was Modernism that so anxiously desired (and feared) the reading public’s comprehension of its new radical techniques. Carey praises Joyce for bothering to create that ordinary hero, Bloom, but finds that he must condemn Ulysses because ‘Bloom himself would never and could never have read Ulysses or a book like Ulysses. The complexity of the novel, its avant-garde technique, its obscurity, rigorously exclude people like Bloom from its readership. More than almost any other 20th-century novel, it is for intellectuals only.’

But who is deciding that a man like Bloom ‘would never and could never’ appreciate Ulysses? Joyce, who like every artist wants the largest readership? Or Carey? This is merely elitism in populism’s clothing. In Carey’s generalisation, the masses can do no wrong. But modern art was partly a rebellion against massification because the masses were believed to incarnate and enforce generalising conformities. Modern artists, when they generalised about the masses, were generalising about what they feared was itself a new generalising force in society. This is contradictory, perhaps, and often it took unpleasant forms, but it is not necessarily incoherent, or even wrong. (Tocqueville had feared the same about the conformities of American democracy.) Nietzsche was not just thumbing his nose at the masses for the fun of it. He believed that the ‘herd morality’ of Christianity enslaved the masses, was unfair to them, because it turned ‘free spirits’ into a mass: ‘all these moralities … all baroque and unreasonable in form, because they address themselves to “all”, because they generalise where generalisation is impermissible’, he writes in Beyond Good and Evil – this is a version of Carey’s own argument in The Intellectuals and the Masses.

The ‘unpleasantness’ of modern art can’t be detached from the modernity of blasphemy. It was Christianity that had condemned the massa damnata; ‘the whole lump of mankind is under the condemnation of Adam’s sinne,’ Donne writes in a sermon from 1620. The secular condemnations of the masses, by Nietzsche or Lawrence or Céline, are at once repetitions and blasphemous invers-ions of Christianity’s summary judgments. There is not just ‘pride and prejudice’ in this (Carey’s subtitle is Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939), but a rage at mass enslavement, and a rebellion against it. Céline, watching ‘the bloated molluscs’ who toil in Wall Street, or Eliot the dead who walk over London Bridge, are complaining about a modern world that kills people by turning them into masses. Carey would doubtless reply that they are not enslaved, and it is not the Modernist’s right to say so. But his is merely one elitism trying to correct another: what right has Carey’s elitist optimism over the elitist pessimism of Modernism? And which is necessarily the more sympathetic vision, the one that complains about their enslavement and offers them, however complicatedly, Modernist art, or the one that assumes they are not enslaved and offers them easy realist art, because that is ‘assumed’ to be what they like?

Mass enslavement did, indeed, become a real threat, and not just to artists, in the 1930s. Carey’s populism sees only gentle Wellsian cyclists, not blackshirts. But Karl Kraus and Joseph Roth had something to fear from their masses. When Thomas Mann condemns ‘the vulgarity of Hitler’ and laments, in his diaries, the ‘wretched, isolated, demented people, misled by a wild and stupid band of adventurers whom they take for mythical heroes’, is this an example of literary pride and prejudice or of the saving distinction of the refined and sceptical artist?

So much for English philistinism. But John Carey is not a philistine, and Pure Pleasure, which discusses 50 20th-century books that Carey has enjoyed, is itself a very pleasurable book. Carey’s populism differs from the establishment populism of a Paul Johnson not simply because Carey is actually an intellectual but because his complaints vibrate with an appealing, nonconformist, almost Leavis-like outrage. He truly dislikes, and helps us to dislike with him, the bleating toffs, the scented scribe agonising over his weightless sonnet, the glassy metropolitan snobs, the varsity idlers in their pleated gowns – in short, what Larkin once called ‘the shit in his shuttered château’. He may be a limited and biased reader of Woolf’s rousing, anti-Edwardian manifesto for the examination of consciousness in fiction, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, but the surly provincial in me – dare I say it, my inner Lawrence – can hardly help cheering when he writes: ‘The essay was originally delivered as a paper to a Cambridge undergraduate society, and it reverberates with the mirth of upper-class young people contemplating the sordid lives of their social inferiors. One can almost hear the well-bred laughter as Woolf impersonates Arnold Bennett planning a fictional character.’

You might argue that Woolf originally wrote this essay for an American paper, in 1923, and delivered a longer version of it (‘Character in Fiction’) a year later, and that its snobberies therefore have not much to do with its later, Cambridge audience. You might note that the essay was itself a response to a negative review by Bennett of Jacob’s Room, in which the senior novelist complained that Woolf’s characters were not ‘real’, while – she later mocked this – the character of Sherlock Holmes, he felt, was. You might agree with Carey that Woolf misrepresents Bennett’s art, while feeling that her attack on the ‘materialism’ of the Edwardian novelists is more complicated, and simply more just, than Carey will ever allow. You might note, as Carey never does, that when Bennett died Woolf remarked, in her diary, not only on his lovability, but on his ‘real understanding power’ as well as his ‘gigantic absorbing power’ as an artist.

Reading Woolf’s essay with these things in mind, I do not hear the sounds of upper-class mirth that Carey detects. But I have heard them elsewhere in life, and like every reader of Woolf, have heard them elsewhere in her writings. And though it is a bit affected when Carey, in his new book, talks about ‘book snobs’ and ‘the literati’ (‘the literati used to scorn Kipling for his imperialism’), and one thinks he is putting it on when he writes, in defence of Edward Thomas, that ‘he is a poet of Englishness, and this has earned him the contempt of intellectuals’ (this is like those cultural materialists who try to convince their readers that E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture is still a dominant text), and one feels he is being absurd when he favours Katherine Mansfield over Woolf only because, ‘as a “colonial” and a banker’s daughter Mansfield knew what it was to be cold-shouldered by the literati’ – despite all this, one feels an attractive spirit of partisanship in Carey’s writing, an alliance with the ordinary, the plain-spoken, the unlettered, the sympathetic and the humane. Carey writes with an Orwellian attention to ‘decency’; the oddity is merely that this pitchfork prodder is the Merton Professor of English.

But again, this is not an unattractive oddity. It is not nonsensical to seek in literature, especially in fiction, a humane attention to the details of ordinary life. Think of Flaubert and Chekhov. In Madame Bovary, as countless readers have experienced, one feels that, for all the novel’s greatness, the characters are doomed, while in Chekhov we feel that they are merely imprisoned. We feel that Flaubert is, finally, disgusted, mortified (and the religious emphasis is exact) by his foolish bourgeois subjects, while Chekhov loves his characters. If realism was a modern stylistic agony for Flaubert, it was a moral necessity for Chekhov; if Flaubert retained and aestheticised religious judgment, Chekhov paganised life; if Flaubert’s people are all mistakes, Chekhov’s are all forgiven. Chekhov, to my mind, is the more humane artist, and, for all the difficulty of holding writers’ lives to account, it would be a severe disappointment for me to learn that Chekhov the man was considerably less humane than his work.

One instinctively knows, therefore, what Carey means when he writes of Kipling, one of the authors he selects in Pure Pleasure, that he

was no ordinary imperialist. He cared for the individual caught up in the system. His obsessive mimicry is a facet of this. The speakers in these stories include a Yankee gun-runner, a Sikh cavalry trooper, several British squaddies and naval personnel of various ranks, all pouring out their different brands of slang, jargon and technical know-how. The effect is to give each a distinctive presence, and that is crucial. Kipling’s art reveals what is special about seemingly nondescript people. The implications are democratic… . Menials and underdogs in these stories repeatedly perform better than those in command. A boatload of misfits outmanoeuvres the top brass of the Channel Fleet. A humble Tommy vanquishes a young Boer toff, whose jeering voice reminds him of the squire back home. Kipling’s estimate of the British Army was ‘brainy men languishing under an effete system’. That went for British society too.

This is not academic criticism; it is barely literary journalism. It is really popular communication. But it has a moral power. Pure Pleasure is a compilation of Carey’s Sunday Times series, ‘John Carey’s Books of the Century’, thousand-word pieces, appearing weekly, in which he selected a 20th-century book he liked and recommended it to his readers. He deliberately chose, he tells us, not the ‘thumping masterpieces’, but ‘less trumpeted and less familiar favourites by the same authors (Joyce’s Portrait, not Ulysses; D.H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy, not the novels) … Books which I do not like, or have never been able to finish, were naturally omitted (no Proust, no Faulkner).’ He chose the books not on grounds of literary greatness, but ‘took pure reading-pleasure as my criterion – the pleasure the books have given to me, and the pleasure I hope others will get from being reminded of them, or perhaps introduced to them’.

There is a politics here, as well as an aesthetics. Again and again, books are recommended because they warn against literature and literariness. Carey likes A Room with a View for the way it delineates English ‘priggishness, snobbery and custom … A Room with a View is a book that warns against books, or against too much trust in them.’ He writes warmly – and very well – of The Old Wives’ Tale, for the way Bennett shows ‘how important the small and the ordinary are to us’. The History of Mr Polly is ‘a novel of social protest’. There is the stubbornly English Edward Thomas, beset by contemptuous ‘intellectuals’; and the cold-shouldered Katherine Mansfield. He chooses Hasek’s great novel The Good Soldier Svejk, and writes very appealingly about it – and should perhaps have mentioned that Kundera calls it, in The Art of the Novel, ‘perhaps the last great popular novel’. Of Huxley’s Those Barren Leaves, Carey writes that ‘beneath this sparkling surface … an anti-novel gradually accumulates.’ Lucky Jim is defended against the charge of philistinism: Jim Dixon ‘hates the possessors of culture rather than culture itself’. Carey even tries to make a radical populist case for Decline and Fall, because ‘it satirises the aristocrats and those who kow-tow to them’, and because when Waugh was at Oxford, ‘he felt inferior because he was just a suburban publisher’s son, without wealth or title.’ (That this might tell us something unpleasant about Waugh’s snobbish social sensitivities and aspirations, that it might actually constitute a case against the untitled boy from Hampstead – poor, deprived suburb – does not occur to Carey, so eager is he to co-opt Waugh, as it were, onto the editorial board of Scrutiny.) The book’s final selection is Graham Swift’s Last Orders. Carey writes appreciatively of the way Swift captures Cockney speech and ends powerfully: ‘If a language reflects the temper of its people, we should be proud of this book’s language – or proud of the generation, now passing, that spoke it.’

Of course, there are crudities of thought and argument. If high literature is so often arguing against itself, or written by people who do not come from the polished upper classes, then at what point should one stop making such a petit-bourgeois fuss about its ‘literariness’ and simply concede that it is not so high and precious after all, and is in fact largely written by the petite bourgeoisie (Dickens, Hardy, George Eliot)? I don’t think, as Carey does, that Elizabeth Bowen ‘goes beyond’ Henry James (whom Carey doesn’t seem to like) in her ability to depict inner thought and feeling, and I am unable to make sense of his claim that Lucky Jim represents ‘one of the first attempts in English to describe women realistically’. But for all that, this is a wide selection, which includes Joyce, and Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’, and Mann’s The Confessions of Felix Krull. There are wise insights into Auden’s poems, The Secret Agent, Gorky’s memoir of his childhood, The Tin Drum, Sartre’s memoir Words, and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot. This last novel was new to me; there are surely few readers who will not learn something from Pure Pleasure.

This is not, then, the face of English philistinism. Besides, we know that there is a literature of the kind Kipling wrote, in which the thoughts and drifting fantasies of people whom the novel had not previously tended to bother with, or had indeed apologised for briefly considering, were newly allowed to flourish. In The Longest Journey, Forster writes archly that Mr Ansell was a ‘provincial draper of moderate prosperity’ who ought to be classed ‘with those phenomena that are not really there’. But it is not only Arnold Bennett who would attend to Mr Ansell. Think not only of Chekhov, but of the Italian verismo of Giovanni Verga, the simple Sicilian stories of Pirandello, and of Pavese’s novels; or of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy; of Bohumil Hrabal; of Christina Stead; of Henry Green’s Loving; or of V.S. Pritchett’s short stories – Pritchett, who was told by H.G. Wells in the 1930s that the working classes could not be written about without comedy and condescension. All these writers thought Mr Ansell worthy of being classed with those phenomena that are really there. Carey, as it happens, does not include any of these writers, and his selection sometimes hugs the English coast a bit greedily (he might have given a place to Confessions of Zeno, that marvellous comedy admired by Arnold Bennett). But the humane and gentle spirit of these writers is instinct with the spirit which animates his lively pieces about Kipling, Gorky, Hasek, Edward Thomas, Orwell and Heaney.

How strangely this little book contradicts the snarling Intellectuals and the Masses, and not just in tone. Forster, Eliot and Lawrence, enemies in the earlier book, are favourites here. About Lawrence’s superb but unstable Twilight in Italy, Carey notes without sarcasm that for Lawrence the trip represents ‘an escape from the guilt and repression of the Christian North to the warmth of the pagan South’. Where is Nietzsche when you need him? He even seems to enjoy – and they are enjoyable – Lawrence’s frenzies of abolition in this book: ‘His prose is lulling, incantatory, and he loves or hates the people he meets with passionate arbitrariness.’ Orwell’s Coming up for Air, which in the last book was used as an example of the intellectuals’ hostility to the creeping suburbs, is here welcomed.

Above all, Carey demonstrates quite clearly what he was unwilling to admit in The Intellectuals and the Masses: that works of literature are variegated and disruptive, that they are frequently self-divided, that they may rebel against the ideologies of their creators and that they can’t be pillaged for compliant quotations. It is just this that Carey seems to discover about Brighton Rock, a novel he used in his last book as an example of Modernist hauteur – constructed, he wrote, ‘around the idea that by comparison with Catholics ordinary mass mankind does not truly exist at all. Loathing of what the masses have done to England reverberates throughout the novel.’ But in Pure Pleasure, Carey argues that ‘the more Greene heaps insult on Ida’ – the brassy barmaid – ‘the more the novel turns against him … Pinkie, too, refuses to become the character his creator planned … So the novel was saved by its characters from Greene’s intentions.’

Of course, people aren’t hurt by aesthetics; to get round this awkwardness in The Intellectuals and the Masses, Carey had to convert the aesthetic into the moral, and make novels sound as if they were propositional arguments. But in a book devoted to the idea of the most ‘pleasurable’ works of art, the aesthetic always threatens to return: how else do we assess ‘pleasure’? Carey tries to bury aesthetics – the aesthetic, in his world, always leads to art-for-art’s sake and Modernist preciousness – by bluffly referring only to ‘pure reading-pleasure’. So it is endearing to see Carey helplessly readmitting the aesthetic from time to time; as when he praises The Secret Agent for the coiled ironies of its style: ‘it is a supreme literary artefact’; or as, when he answers his own question about why one should read Updike’s Rabbit novels, by saying: ‘Updike’s writing is why. Each page is a cascade of delicately caught sense impressions.’

If Carey at times seems unsure who exactly his readers are (do they like Thomas Mann or Kingsley Amis?) and who exactly his enemies are, if he swerves between easy and more difficult pleasures, and between aesthetics and politics, he is, in a sense, only re-enacting Modernism’s very anxieties – though this may be too much for Carey to admit, even in his fine, all-pleasuring new mood.