Delighted to See Himself

Stefan Collini

  • Maurice Bowra: A Life by Leslie Mitchell
    Oxford, 385 pp, £25.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 929584 5

What is the best case that can be made for Maurice Bowra? In his day, and it was a long day, he was the most celebrated don in Oxford, and therefore in England. Born in 1898, he became a fellow of Wadham in 1922; he was elected its warden in 1938, holding that office, astonishingly, until 1970; he died a year later. He wrote or edited some thirty books, mostly semi-scholarly, semi-popular expositions of the imperishable qualities of the ancient Greeks, though also studies of, and translations from, modern European poetry. But, as his friend Isaiah Berlin later wrote, ‘those who knew him solely through his published works can have no inkling of his genius.’

What Bowra did best was talk. ‘I hear you are the funniest man in the world,’ was the opening gambit of one visiting politician, who, predictably, was snubbed. All accounts of Bowra emphasise his wit: quick, sharp, sometimes riotously inventive, often savagely satirical, much of it (to judge by quoted specimens) exhibiting a rather Wildean posiness. But the talk could also be serious, learned and cultivated, as well as incisive, frank and shocking (he liked to shock). Accounts by admirers, of whom there were many, stress his role in ‘liberating’ them from the conventionality, philistinism and moralism of their backgrounds. This involved a good deal of talk about the Greeks, about European literature, and about sex.

Bowra was widely renowned for his talk, but he was not, as suaver operators often used to be described, a ‘good conversationalist’. Bowra talked at you; if, unwisely, you tried to interrupt, he talked over you. His goal was intellectual seduction; that failing or being out of the question, he talked for victory; in cases where that seemed too benign, he pressed on to annihilation. When he was at the top of his game, as he often was in the 1920s and 1930s, it could be, the admiring accounts concur, heady stuff. And it was not as though the inner circle of his admirers was composed of dummies: Berlin, Betjeman, Kenneth Clark, John Sparrow, as well as, a little later, Noel Annan and Stuart Hampshire – all capable of the odd spot of talking themselves. But they acknowledged Bowra as their master, which was fortunate since no other terms were on offer.

With the young, Bowra’s preferred pedagogical resource was the dinner party. The chosen young men were not so much being instructed in a ‘subject’ as inducted into a civilisation. The Greeks had taught us how to live: it was an aristocratic code, requiring a lot of leisure (there were servants to do the messy bits); it expressed a stoic view of life, meeting the arbitrary cruelties of existence without flinching. Above all, it was a civilisation that accorded pre-eminence to poetry, the perfect fusion of form and meaning. Bowra cared passionately about poetry and he led others to care too. His best writing was invariably about poetry, ancient and modern, and some of the leading poets of the age seem to have reciprocated his regard. Edith Sitwell, thought by some (including herself) to come into this category, hailed The Heritage of Symbolism, published in 1943, as ‘the most important work of criticism of our time’. Few others perhaps, particularly among professional literary critics, would have agreed with this judgment: even by the 1930s his belletristic style of appreciation was beginning to seem old-fashioned and amateurish. But several of his books, including Sophoclean Tragedy (1944) and, especially, The Greek Experience (1957), met a need in communicating some of the flavour of Greek literature to an increasingly Greekless readership.

Yet even as one is trying to make out the best case for Bowra, he has a way of emerging as a complete monster. It was already clear while he was an undergraduate, as Leslie Mitchell acknowledges in this stylish, indulgent biography, that ‘Bowra’s company was not for the squeamish.’ He ‘aimed to be the arbiter of everything that was said and done’ in his circle. It was emphatically his circle: he recruited to it, and he excommunicated. Only those who bent the knee could be admitted, and he was implacable in dealing with those who crossed him. As Mitchell neutrally observes: ‘To Bowra, these contests of will were of supreme importance.’ He aimed to dominate any gathering he attended. ‘Maurice entered a room “like a naval vessel”, with all the guns run out’; perhaps more tellingly, a character in an Elizabeth Bowen novel based partly on Bowra is said, when entering a room, to be always ‘delighted to see himself’. He spoke with a booming voice, which got louder as he got deafer: ‘He really ought to be fitted with a silencer,’ one friend winced.

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