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This article is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

from NB by JC
A walk through the Times Literary Supplement
James Campbell
March 23, 2001

Anyone nursing a rejection slip is likely to feel better after perusing the current issue of the Missouri Review. The latest in its ‘Found Text’ series is a feature on readers’ reports from the archives of the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. The list of rejectees is spectacular, and the comments are frank. In 1949, for example, a reader recommended turning down a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges, El Aleph, with the comment ‘they are utterly untranslatable, at least into anything that could be expected to sell more than 750 copies’. The reader himself found the stories ‘remarkable’, but thought they would appear to the general public as ‘$50-a-pound caviar’. El Aleph would not be translated for another twenty-one years.

Anaïs Nin was felt to be ‘a small, arbitrary, overpraised talent who has been able to hide her emptiness behind a lot of chinoiserie’, and A Spy in the House of Love, later a Penguin Classic, was kicked out. In 1953, the young Peter Matthiessen submitted ‘a very bad novel’ called Signs of Winter. ‘We had great hopes for this guy’, sighed the reader, before stamping ‘REJECT’. The title has never seen the light of day. Two years later, Knopf saw off Italo Calvino, with reluctance, and the young James Baldwin, without it. Giovanni’s Room merited extended comment, as Baldwin had published a promising debut novel with the firm in 1953. The novel seemed to the first reader ‘an unhappy, talented, and repellent book’, to the second ‘a bleak little tale’, and to the third ‘hopelessly bad’. ‘We must try to persuade him to put this away; it will do neither publisher nor author any good. It will have bad reviews and bad sales.’

Sales to date have probably topped the million mark.

In 1956, it was the turn of Lolita (‘impossible for us’), followed by a novel by John Barth (‘I cannot conceive of a healthy mind producing this’), Isaac Bashevis Singer (‘not worth Knopf’s time and effort’), an apprentice Joyce Carol Oates (‘for all I know the long-hairs may single this out as a masterpiece… but it is incomprehensible’). Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar got a similar reception – ‘ill-conceived, poorly written, occasionally atrocious’ – as did Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and The Joke by Milan Kundera. The last was found to be ‘a long sentimental wail’. Knopf published later novels by Kundera.

Apart from their entertainment value, the reports give an intimate glimpse of the times in which they were written. Knopf readers no longer write reports.

April 13, 2001

Carrie Kipling, Rudyard’s wife, was ‘one of the most loathed women of her generation’, according to a new book about her. It is also reported there that Henry James called her ‘this hard capable little person’. You may be wondering how it is possible to gauge degrees of loathing for an entire generation; you may even be aware that what James said was ‘this hard, devoted, capable little person’ – somewhat different – but only a pedant would want to spoil good hype.

The book in question, by Adam Nicolson, is part of a new series, Short Lives, published by Short Books. The ninety-six-page Life of the devoted and capable Carrie is called The Hated Wife. On the back cover, Nicci Gerrard, the Observer journalist, joins in: ‘Adam Nicolson takes Mrs Kipling – for so long despised – and gives her back her humanity.’ Hated, loathed, despised? Well, you say, at least Carrie had the consolation of being married to a great man. Wrong again. ‘It was she who provided the backbone that her husband privately lacked.’

Even Mr Nicolson acknowledges that Carrie Kipling could be awkward. Her sister-in-law Mai, as well as certain friends, ‘thought there was something mad about Carrie’. She was jealous of Mai’s beauty, and as a result, Mr Nicolson says, was apt to ‘patronize’ her. She suspected her brother of cheating her financially, and treated him ‘with a miserliness which any man would have resented’. But the time of the great writer’s wife has come – Fanny Stevenson, Frieda Lawrence, Nora Joyce, Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald and others have been receiving their rewards at last. There is no reason to leave Carrie behind.

As part of the process, the great writer himself must undergo revision. Not only did Kipling lack backbone, he was secretly queer. ‘It was not Carrie with whom Kipling fell in love’, Mr Nicolson writes, ‘but her brother Wolcott.’ Does he mean that the two men were lovers? ‘The way in which, in later life, Kipling wrote and spoke with such frantic loathing of homosexuality as a beastly and bestial business has been taken as a sign that they were.’ It couldn’t, by any chance, be a sign that they weren’t?

August 22, 2003

If you study at the University of Colorado, Boulder, you might benefit from the teaching of Frederick Luis Aldama, Assistant Professor of English. Mr Aldama’s new book, Postethnic Narrative Criticism deals with the work of Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Oscar Acosta and other writers. Dig that postethnic rhythm: ‘The Acosta­as-character’s hypervisibility as abnormal / unreal ethnosexual object ironically leads him into an empowered ethnosexual position that playfully resists hegemonic structures.’ The chapter on Rushdie is equally playful:

Rushdie’s magicorealism gives texture to a culturally and racially complex and comprehensive fourthspace; rather than invent story-worlds and narrators that reproduce a binary opposition between a firstspace – coded as racial Other, prerational, magical – Rushdie uses magicorealism as the form to invent fourthspace narratives that critically revise such divisions.

But hold on there. It’s time to stop mocking this kind of thing, and to ask what tragedies have befallen the Aldamas of academe to have caused their minds to melt. We were just getting into our new compassionate mode when we read the preface to Aldama’s book – and there discovered that his misfortune is all our fault. The author tells us that, as a boy in the 1980s, he journeyed ‘far from my Mexican / Guatemalan-American family’ and arrived in London, a city ‘filled to the brim with Marmite-eating xenophobes’. His sojourn ‘coincided with Mrs Thatcher’s reign of terror’. The Prime Minister had begun ‘to “sweep up” Britain’s impure Others… council flats were levelled and the urban poor displaced’. When young Aldama and other Others ‘wandered too deeply into London’s moneyed West End, police would inform us of a city curfew and escort us to the nearest underground station’.

Distracted by reigns of terror in Chile, Uganda, Cambodia, not to mention the social upheavals in parts of Mexico and Guatemala, we missed our own. Things have picked up, though. The Marmite-eaters are in retreat, the moneyed West End curfew has been lifted. As for the displaced urban poor, they are in place again, and numerous enough to please even an Assistant Professor. Come back, Mr Aldama. Let us help you learn to write the English of the new impurity.

January 5, 2007

Where are the poets of the war? This was the question posed in a leading article in the TLS of August 8, 1942, when Britain and other nations were three years into the struggle against Germany. The leader writer contrasted the current situation with that of ‘the last war’ which ‘threw up a fair amount of notable poetry’. To the names of soldier-poets from the First World War, such as Owen, Graves, Sassoon, Brooke and Rosenberg, could be added Kipling, Bridges, Hardy and others who were ‘not soldiers’, but who viewed the conflict ‘through the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of years’. Indeed, our editorialist said, ‘the singers of war have been for the most part not soldiers’, even though the poetry of Europe is ‘full of war’.

We have now been at war for over five years, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq. Where are the poets of the war? We exclude, for the moment, poems gathered together in collections such as 100 Poets Against the War, edited by Todd Swift, and 101 Poets Against War, edited by Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan, the very titles of which amount to a political agenda (the former contained new work; the latter, poems from all ages). The kind of war poetry you want, as a reader, challenges your assumptions with doubt, pity, glory, even gore.

Our most distinguished living war poet is probably Christopher Logue, but his War Music, a wonderful modernist assembly kit based on a selective chart of the Iliad, can only be applied to the present situation in the sense that practically anything can. Under no reading could it be classed as anti-war. James Fenton has written about a previous war; Seamus Heaney and others have addressed themselves to the Troubles in Northern Ireland (at least one poem in Heaney’s latest collection glances in the direction of Afghanistan). But no writer of distinction has borne down on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the authority of direct experience and few, if any, with ‘the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the years’. An exception might be Harold Pinter. No writer has ever been so belligerent about belligerence.

One explanation for the paucity of war poetry lies in the ending of National Service. Another in the present-day unfashionable standing of nationalism and militarism. ‘Is there no such thing as righteous indignation?’ our editorialist wrote in 1942. ‘May not a dear homeland be in imminent danger?’

As it turned out, the Second World War threw up ‘a fair amount of notable poetry’ by Keith Douglas, Sydney Keyes, Alan Ross and others. In 1942, they appeared to our leader writer as the reserves (the first two were killed; the third seriously wounded). Yet he conceded that war had given them that much-desired thing, a subject. ‘Were there no war, they would still be poets, but poets compelled, like all children of this age, to think, observe, and write within a narrow living-space.’

February 8, 2008

How senior politicians find the time to write, while shouldering the burdens of office, is a mystery to us all. Take Gordon Brown, for example. Since September 2006, he has published three books, two of them since becoming Prime Minister: Courage: Eight portraits; Britain’s Everyday Heroes; and Moving Britain Forward: Speeches. These are added to his existing bibliography, which includes biographies of the socialist MPs James Maxton and Keir Hardie.

Mr Brown has also contributed to other people’s books. Readers of the TLS of January 18 may recall the review of several studies of the great economist Adam Smith, one of which, Adam Smith, Radical and Egalitarian by Iain McLean, came with a foreword ‘written specially’ by the Prime Minister. Our reviewer, Richard Bourke, quoted a sentence from the introduction: ‘Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ Mr Bourke pondered this, and wondered ‘how exactly has coming from Kirkcaldy enabled the Prime Minister to arrive at his understanding?’ Mr Brown’s introduction then indulged in some fine feeling about Adam Smith’s civic virtue and ‘neighbourliness’, which left Mr Bourke, a senior lecturer in history at the University of London, unimpressed.

This curious claim to intuitive geographical sympathy rang a bell. In December 2005, Mr Brown delivered the Hugo Young memorial lecture at Chatham House, London, in which he said: ‘Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of Moral Sentiments.’

The Prime Minister has now written an introduction to the first British edition of The Roads to Modernity by Gertrude Himmelfarb, which tackles ‘such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume and Edmund Burke’. First Brown tells us that ‘the British Enlightenment’ was ‘not just the province of the privileged’, but was, in New Labour style, ‘accessible to all’. He then writes: ‘Coming from Kirkcaldy as Adam Smith did, I have come to understand that his Wealth of Nations was underpinned by his Theory of Moral Sentiments.’ There follows some fine feeling about civic virtue and ‘neighbourliness’. Having two arms and two legs, as George Santayana did, we have come to understand that those who do not remember their own waffle are condemned to repeat it.

June 20, 2008

Writing in the Guardian Review last month, the novelist Hilary Mantel recalled her life in Botswana in 1978. The country had one road, no television, and little in the way of a free press. Ms Mantel ‘subscribed to the TLS, which came late after many overland adventures’. The investment might appear sensible, but Ms Mantel found it ‘hardly a publication to get you excited’. For what seemed to her ‘like months’ during that year, the letters columns ‘were dominated by a fraught, increasingly savage set of exchanges about Gray’s Elegy’. The correspondence ‘centred on the line “And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds”, which – some lamented – Gray wouldn’t have written if he had been less ignorant about sheep farming’.

Unlike Ms Mantel, we find the idea of an exchange on eighteenth-century sheep farming a diverting prospect. When we rummaged the TLS index for 1978 in search of Thomas Gray, however, we drew a blank. Nor is there any reference to the poet or his Elegy in 1979. We did find a well-informed piece about the manuscript of the poem in the issue of May 27, 1977, but there is not a word in it about sheep farming, and not a single savage reader wrote in response.

Now there has landed on our desk something to get Ms Mantel properly excited: Elegy in a Country Churchyard: Latin translations, a collection of forty-five versions of Gray’s poem, starting in 1762, eleven years after its original publication, concluding with that of Donald Gibson, one of the book’s editors, made in 2001.

The opening lines of the Elegy are among the best-known in English poetry:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Robert Langrishe’s version, made in 1775, takes an enjoyably straightforward approach:
Vespertina notat finem campana diei,
Pigra armenta boant, tarde tenduntque per agros,
Passibus erga domum lassis se vertit arator,
Et totas terras tenebrisque mihique relinquit.

As for the line mysteriously engraved in Ms Mantel’s memory – ‘And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds’ – Langrishe offers ‘Tinnitus ad somnum pecudes ducitque soporans’, which even she might think neat and to the point.

For music, as well as meaning, Langrishe’s rendering of the famous opening beats many others. John Wright (1786) gives us the tongue-twisting ‘Triste dat occidui signum campana diei’, while William Woty (1789) offers just as much of a mouthful, with ‘Decessum graviter pulsat Campana diei’. Henry Latham’s 1864 attempt seems positively discordant: ‘Jam campana diem morituram plangit’. Latham’s rendering of the drowsy tinklings – ‘aut qua / Languescente procul tinnit ovile sono’ – likewise misses the soporific substance, his daring caesura notwithstanding.

Our hope is that these samplings will inspire Ms Mantel to recall the real name of the journal in which she read the savage exchanges, and that she will pass it on. No one should have cause to think her one ‘in aeternum se ad muta oblivia tradens’ – or to turn from Langrishe’s eloquent rendering back to the original, ‘to dumb forgetfulness a prey’.

January 23, 2009

To who it may concern: In a letter published in the Guardian (January 17), headed ‘Whom is doomed’, the children’s author Michael Rosen rebuked an earlier letter writer, Andrew Papworth, for insisting on the correct use of whom. The paper’s error occurred in a headline, which read: ‘Signed, sealed, delivered: by who?’ Mr Papworth described this as poor usage. Mr Rosen objected: ‘It could only have been called “poor” if the usage had created difficulties for the reader… Neither the Guardian nor anyone else should let themselves be cowed by the grammar bullies.’

In Mr Papworth’s eyes, the headline-writer appeared to be a person in who he had no trust, to who he would not entrust his journalistic copy, for who he would not write nothing. Far be it from we to wag the fingers at Mr Rosen. His point – no usage is ‘poor’ that makes itself understood – is common enough, and neglects the advantages of style and elegance. If writers theirselves are heard declaring that it doesn’t matter what you write, only that you are understood, then we feel impelled to put a fight up. Ask not who the bell tolls for, Mr Rosen, it tolls for thou.

February 17, 2012

February 14 will henceforth be known as Saint Jeanette’s Day. Fresh from having issued a 250-page public shaming of her adoptive mother, Jeanette Winterson is ‘optimistic about love again’:
love in every shape and size and disguise. Known love, new love, love’s ghosts, love’s hopes… Love is an ecosystem. You can’t neglect it, exploit it, pollute it, and wonder what happened to the birds and the bees.

With money ‘gone’ – ‘it was an illusion’ – there is an opportunity to ‘re-think love’.

Once a child preacher in Accrington, Lancashire, Jeanette has never ceased quoting from the Book of Jeanette. No other contemporary writer would get away with it – imagine Julian Barnes instructing us to ‘re-think love’ – but for some reason she does. The Guardian gave up its front page on February 14, for Jeanette to say, ‘hug those who love us – and give some hugs to those who don’t get loved enough’. And to say it again: ‘Love your loved ones. Love the stranger.’

There was something for every member of the flock. If ‘love is an ecosystem’ has you re-thinking just that bit too much, try ‘There are so many different kinds of love’, or ‘Love is an alternative currency.’ Or, indeed, ‘Children need so much love.’ Teenagers were not forgotten. ‘They need to see that love can change and deepen.’ Think about it, then re-think about it. Money is an illusion, but ‘love isn’t a commodity’.

‘We all had a fantasy that love could take care of itself.’ We did, didn’t we all? Now let’s make the planet ‘a place we can call home’. Love your loved ones. (Saint Jeanette didn’t re-think that one through.) The piece will remain on the website until April 1, when the Guardian will take it down.

October 5, 2012

When travelling, Drummond Moir copies the wording of signs in hotels: ‘To call a broad from France, first dial 00.’ ‘Please leave your values at the front desk.’ ‘French widow in every room.’ He has seen an advertisement for Dickens’s fifth novel, ‘Barney, by Rudge’, read in a newspaper that ‘Bishops Agree Sex Abuse Rules’ and enjoyed a government report that promised, ‘There can be no scared cows’. A notice in his car park assures drivers: ‘Illegally parked cars will be fine.’ All find their way into Just My Typo.

Among the most enjoyable is the metatypo, such as the deferential erratum from the Dublin Journal: ‘In our last issue: for His Grace the Duchess of Dorset, read Her Grace, the Duke of Dorset.’ Punctuation is all, as station sign-writers know: ‘Passengers must stay with their luggage at all times or they will be taken away and destroyed.’ Who will argue with the slogan of the well-known insurance firm: ‘Prudential – were there to help you’?

Did Fox News really broadcast the bulletin, ‘Obama Bin Laden is dead’? Did an anti-immigration group carry a sign that said ‘Respect Are Country: Read English’. And while it is delightful to think of the church choir congregating for evening sinning practice, we do wonder. Never mind. As an 1864 edition of the Bible suggested, ‘Rejoice and be exceedingly clad!’

January 11, 2013

About once a year, there is a mini-debate about the timidity of book reviewing. It has been going on for some time. ‘Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns.’ That was Elizabeth Hardwick, in 1959. More recently, a writer in the online journal Slate suggested that the blogging, tweeting free-for-all that sometimes passes for criticism fosters too much ‘niceness’, not necessarily a nice quality.

To halt the saccharine spread, the not-so nice sharpened their tools and carved out the Hatchet Job of the Year. The first award went to Adam Mars-Jones, for a review of Michael Cunningham’s book By Nightfall, and the shortlist for the second has been announced. There are eight nominations, including Richard Evans’s review of A.N. Wilson’s Hitler (‘It’s hard to think why a publishing house that once had a respected history list agreed to produce this travesty’; New Statesman), Claire Harman on Silver: A return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion (‘at every turn the former Poet Laureate clogs the works with verbiage’; Evening Standard), Allan Massie on Craig Raine’s novel The Divine Comedy (‘some of the writing is very bad’; Scotsman), Camilla Long on Rachel Cusk’s story of her marriage break-up, Aftermath (‘quite simply, bizarre… acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah’; Sunday Times) and Ron Charles on Martin Amis’s ‘ham-fisted’ Lionel Asbo (Washington Post).

The favourite is likely to be the review by Zoë Heller of Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, which appeared in the New York Review of Books last month. One commentator had already relished it as ‘a hatchet job among hatchet jobs’; another welcomed the ‘most pointedly brutal review’ of 2012.

Brutality is never nice. Enjoying a healthy demolition as much as anyone, however, we reached for Ms Heller’s piece with a certain shameful anticipation – only to discover that it is thoughtful and well-written, not in the least brutal; on a par with the excellent review of Rushdie’s book in the TLS by Eric Ormsby. Hatchet-job prizes are good fun (not so much for Rushdie, Cusk and others) but it would be unfortunate if critics felt they were being urged to draw blood, to show off their ‘sharp’ edge. The reviewer’s chief responsibility is to the potential purchaser of the book, who, unlike the remunerated reviewer, is asked to pay hard-earned cash for the product. The most difficult task for a reviewer is to remain true in writing to the feelings experienced while reading, to convey them in elegant, entertaining prose. It’s tougher than being brutal.

October 4, 2012

Picking up a glossy Penguin edition of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock in a friend’s house the other day, we read on the cover that it is ‘Now a Major Motion Picture’. Is it? Was it ‘major’ even in 2010 when the film in question appeared, with Helen Mirren in the role of Ida (not to be confused with the Boulting brothers’ 1947 version)? We have a vague memory of its release, thanks to the disproportionate amount of publicity movies attract when a household name is in the cast. One of five films Ms Mirren made that year, it disappeared almost immediately, on the back of weary reviews.

What is a major film? Casablanca, maybe; City Lights; High Noon; Vertigo; ; The Battle of Algiers; Les 400 Coups; The Bill Douglas Trilogy. Throw in something by Bergman. Everyone has their own ideas and their own list. We successfully avoided the latest screen version of Brighton Rock. The cover image on the unhappy Penguin of Sam Riley, who played Pinkie, compounded by an inane foreword by the screenwriter Rowan Joffe, put us off rereading the novel. We have never heard anyone mention the film in conversation, even to say they disliked it. What’s the ‘major’ bit?

A new edition of William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying has just been issued, with a picture of the actor (and director) James Franco on the cover, and the same legend, ‘Now a Major Motion Picture’. It drew criticism from pro-Faulknerians and anti-Francoites, countered by the familiar philistine response: ‘If this causes a single kid in high school to pick up Faulkner’s novel, then the film will have done its job.’

As I Lay Dying is, in fact, officially a minor motion picture. The Huffington Post reported this week that ‘James Franco’s adaptation of As I Lay Dying was scheduled for a Sept 27 theatrical debut. Days before the film was set to arrive in theaters, however, it was announced that it will not be shown on the big screen.’ The distributor, Millennium Films, plans to release Franco’s As I Lay Dying on October 22, on iTunes.

At the end of August, a brick-sized copy of Salinger, edited by David Shields and Shane Salerno, arrived, bearing a self-directed compliment on the cover: ‘The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film’. That’ll be the acclaimed film that had yet to be released when the book came out? The acclaimed film that was panned when it appeared last month? If Salerno and Shields cause one kid in high school… then who cares what fictions they come up with?

November 27, 2015

Carol, directed by Todd Haynes and starring Cate Blanchett, may or may not be a stimulating film, but it is based on one of the dullest of Patricia Highsmith’s twenty-two novels. At its best, Highsmith’s intrigue derives from the guilty thoughts of an innocent person, and the clear conscience of a guilty one. There is no crime in Carol; just a repetitious story of two women in love.

Originally called The Price of Salt (١٩٥٢), Carol was Highsmith’s second book. That she herself knew the mode was not for her is suggested by the fact that she published it under the name Claire Morgan. Forgotten for decades, Carol is currently being acclaimed as a classic. ‘It soon chalked up a million copies’, Jill Dawson wrote in the Guardian in May, referring to the Bantam paperback of ١٩٥٣ – an implausible figure, now repeated whenever the novel is mentioned. You will find it on Wikipedia, for example (source: ‘Dawson, Jill, Guardian, May 13, 2015’). Ms Dawson’s own source is likely to be Highsmith, who claimed in the afterword to the 1991 reissue of Carol – the first to use her real name – that the ١٩٥٣ edition sold ‘nearly a million’. That’s already a reduction. A Bantam paperback from 1969 estimates ‘over half a million copies in print’.

Million-selling or even half-million-selling books were as rare then as they are now. The initial print run for one of the biggest books of 1952, The Old Man and the Sea, was 50,000 copies and we may assume that Steinbeck’s East of Eden had a similar production, though both books sold many times that figure as their reputations grew. That year’s Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly) might have sold half a million.

There are now several editions of Carol to choose from, including one issued by Norton under the original title. On the cover, we read: ‘The novel that inspired Lolita’ – a contentious claim and one that would have baffled Vladimir Nabokov. Where did it come from? In Volume Two of Brian Boyd’s comprehensive biography of Nabokov (The American Years), there is a mention of Carroll, Lewis, but none of Carol, or of Highsmith, Patricia. The source is likely to be an article by Terry Castle, Professor of Humanities at Stanford, published in the New Republic in ٢٠٠٣. ‘I have long had a theory that Nabokov knew The Price of Salt, and modelled the climactic cross-country car chase in Lolita on Therese and Carol’s frenzied bid for freedom.’

You can have theories about whatever you choose, but this one hasn’t got much going for it: Nabokov began writing Lolita in ١٩٤٩; by the time The Price of Salt appeared, his novel was largely complete. It is likely he never heard of ‘Claire Morgan’, before or after. We have a theory that Ms Castle doesn’t know Lolita’s publication history: in a second piece on the subject (Slate, May 23, 2006), she gives the date of the first edition as 1958, three years late.

You can say anything you like about Highsmith these days, as long as it fits the project. Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay of Carol, told the Guardian that Highsmith found Plein Soleil – the ١٩٦٠ French adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley – ‘ridiculous’, even though it is well established that its star, Alain Delon, was her favourite Ripley. As for the film of Carol, Nagy is confident that Highsmith ‘would have finally thought we’ve got something’.

We have another theory: it’s safer, on the whole, to stay at home and read The Cry of the Owl, The Tremor of Forgery, This Sweet Sickness, Deep Water or any of the Ripleys.

September 2, 2016

Do you read reviews of your books? We never do. We’re in good company. Asked by an audience member at an event how she felt about the poor reception of her latest, In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri ‘fell silent, pursing her lips… ‘I don’t read reviews’, she said.’ Jeanette Winterson doesn’t read them, ‘because by then it’s too late – whatever anyone says, the book won’t change’. A. L. Kennedy leaves it to her publisher to ‘tell me how they’re going’. Not only can John Banville not read reviews of his books, he can’t stand the books themselves. ‘They are an embarrassment to me’, he told the Irish Independent. The Scottish novelist Ronald Frame isn’t reviewed as much as he once was, but he won’t have noticed. ‘The reviews, I was told, were welcoming’, he said of Havisham (٢٠١٤). ‘I never read my reviews – truly!’

Ian McEwan is the same. His new novel, Nutshell, is released this week. In a Guardian interview, he admitted that he expects the reviews to be ‘wildly varied’, but naturally he won’t be reading them. His wife provides edited summaries, steering clear of the worst ones. When he happened to see that ‘some troll-like person on the Spectator’ had declared his previous novel, The Children Act, to be ‘unforgivably bad’, he simply ‘had to turn my head away’. At the same time, he claims, unconvincingly, that it made him smile. Not only him. ‘When I told Julian Barnes, he fell about laughing. I mean, how bad can I get?’

Or how unobservant? We have the Spectator review to hand. It begins by stating that The Children Act ‘could hardly be more attuned to the temper of the times’ and ends by comparing it to James Joyce’s long story ‘The Dead’. Not bad. In between, the writing is judged ‘lazy’ and the plot development ‘improbable’; but the phrase ‘unforgivably bad’ is not there.

The ‘troll-like’ reviewer – troll-like in the Nordic sense or in the computerish way? – was Cressida Connolly, daughter of the celebrated critic Cyril. She has written books of her own, including one about happy childhoods. On the basis of a single encounter many years ago, she seemed to us as untroll-like a figure as it is possible to be (in either sense). The sole appearance of the word ‘unforgivable’ in the Spectator review of The Children Act is in the headline, and it isn’t linked with ‘bad’. So wind back the film, Mr McEwan. Let Julian Barnes rise up from his fallen-about hilarity. The wistful smile can remain in place. Two years of suffering over an unforgivably bad review that never happened! All you had to do was read it.

October 28, 2016

J.H. Prynne is the magus of incomprehensibility. No one does it with more conviction. Open a Prynne text at random and – it’s there, the magic touch:
Never or, will to it, nerve throw past most
over soon after, and grasp again offensive
likely before ever mud downwards cut, snip
relative to next time beset play genuine it
Since Force of Circumstance (1962), his first book, Prynne has inscribed secret codes, seldom flirting with communication. He takes English words and arranges them in a syntax of which only he and a few devotees know the purpose:
By the or and or other near true, yet as done
to allow this for also, for the for than
over far found extravagant inlet

Or we thought he knew. From an interview in the Fall issue of the Paris Review, we learn that even Prynne, the Life Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, has scant idea of what Prynne the poet is getting at. His Paris Review interviewers cunningly ask him to comment on a passage of his own work, which one reads aloud: ‘For sure not in good likeness, profile in slant along the catchment / proposed, the speech corridor’, etc. The recital over, Prynne is nonplussed. ‘Well, I wouldn’t like to be confronted with a passage like that, now that we’ve propounded it. I’d walk out, I think.’

In 2011, Prynne had ‘one of those feelings that I sometimes have, that maybe I’m about to write something’. He checked into a hotel in Thailand, carrying one book in his luggage: V. Adrian Parsegian’s Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for biologists, chemists, engineers and physicists. He began to write a poem. ‘I had no idea what its subject matter was going to be. I had no idea about its range of material. I had no idea about its prosodic formulism.’ After four or five hours of ‘feverish’ writing, he would break off, perhaps to read Van der Waals Forces, before continuing:

‘By the time I got to page twenty-plus, I had no idea what the rest of it was about, because I’d never once turned the pages back to see what the earlier writing had been doing… Some of the things I wrote down astonished me. I’d think, Did I write that? Don’t ask! Did I mean that? Don’t ask!’

The interview is also of interest for revealing Prynne’s political standpoint, a brand of old-school Maoism:

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me… It’s still an active part of my thinking practice, which is curious because it’s no longer part of the intellectual world of the Chinese… I would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than I am in the good period of post-Maoist China.

Politics have informed the poetry. Discussing his own book Down where changed (١٩٧٩), Prynne states that it is one of several to have conducted a ‘part argument against clemency. The argument is that mercy is a serious disruption of the moral order . . . and that means that mercy is an extravagant extra.’ When next confronted by an inscrutable Prynne poem, and hearing yourself mutter, ‘Have mercy, old boy’, understand that there is none.

August 2, 2019

Is it ok? Not everything is these days. Joe Cain, Professor of History and Philosophy of Biology at University College London, has decided it is not ok for a lecture theatre at his university to be named after Francis Galton (1822–1911). Galton’s name is ‘linked with racist, misogynist and hierarchical ideologies’, and virtuous Professor Cain refuses to teach there.

Is it ok to read Vladimir Nabokov? The retiring editor in chief at Jonathan Cape, Dan Franklin, has said that he would not publish Lolita now. Is it ok to admire T.S. Eliot? (‘My house is a decayed house, / And the Jew squats on the window sill’, among other unprintables.) Ezra Pound? How could you, after reading his view that ‘Adolf’ was ‘clear on the bacillus of kikism’? Is it ok to read Philip Larkin, racist and pornographer? William Faulkner? Oh boy. The phrase ‘trigger warning’ might have been coined to protect the young against the traumas that lie in store for a reader of Absalom, Absalom! Is it ok to read William Burroughs, merciless pursuer of boys in Tangiers? What about Chester Himes, the fourth corner of the Ralph Ellison–Richard Wright–James Baldwin quadrangle? An article in the LRB last year offered more detail than you needed to know about how he beat black and white women black and blue.

It is not ok to like Norman Mailer. Don’t even ask about Henry Miller. The question of whether it’s ok to read John Updike was addressed in the TLS recently by Claire Lowdon (it is) who, in the course of the article, also cast forgiving glances in the direction of Bellow, Roth and other big male beasts.

The beast is not exclusive to America. It is really not ok to read Guy de Maupassant. If you think it is ok to adore Flaubert, you haven’t opened his letters from Egypt. Is it ok to read Albert Camus, that modern saint? You know the one, whose adultery drove his wife to attempt suicide. How can it be ok to read Louis Althusser, wife strangler? It is so not ok to read Kipling’s ‘If’ that it was removed from a wall at Manchester University to protect students. It has been replaced by some deeply ok and deeply awful lines by Maya Angelou.

Perhaps it’s better not to read at all, which is what lots of people are doing anyway. Some say we should be debating these matters. If we organize a talk on the subject, will you take part? The venue is the Galton Lecture Theatre, University College London.

September 6, 2019

With even a minimal interest in modern poetry, you should be able to formulate answers to the following: ‘What, in your view, have been the most (a) encouraging, (b) discouraging features of the poetry scene during the past decade?’

The commonest responses to both parts of the question will inevitably gesture towards diversity. There are more women poets, more BAME, more LGBT, all encouraging. North of the border, someone will be discouraged by the continuing neglect of MacCaig, Morgan, Crichton Smith, Mackay Brown. Will anybody respond to (a) with news of an interesting new school, or the emergence of ‘a really big talent’ that makes ‘the business of reading poetry exciting once more’? Who sets the scene for appreciation of poetry today anyway? What is the scene? Hollie McNish or A.E. Stallings?

The words about an exciting ‘big talent’ are those of Philip Larkin, made in the course of his response to questions (a) and (b) when asked in 1972. A symposium on ‘The State of Poetry’ was published in Ian Hamilton’s little magazine the Review that year. Larkin said that the most encouraging features of the past decade (the 1960s, in effect) were the good poems. The most discouraging? The bad ones. You’d think the same answer would do today, but no one likes to say how bad the bad ones are, for fear of being accused of something awful.

The Review put the questions to thirty-five active writers, all but two of them men, all of them ‘white’ (a debatable category, but let’s move on), none outspokenly gay. Thom Gunn either was not asked or did not reply. Edwin Morgan, though he had written many poems of love and loss, had yet to come out of the closet.

Several of those questioned expressed surprise at Hamilton’s choice of words. ‘Poetry ‘scene’, is it?’ (Julian Symons) ‘No doubt the salient development is the one (consciously?) signalled by your use of the phrase ‘the poetry scene’.’ (John Fuller) ‘The ‘poetry scene’ is recognizably a phrase of our own time, and stands for something very discouraging indeed.’ (Martin Dodsworth)

There would be no such fastidiousness now. What was the problem? The ‘scene’ was the Mersey Scene: Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough. David Harsent’s feeling was typical: ‘A nasty piece of cross-breeding between the Beats and rock music spawned a gruesome monster in Liverpool.’ Clive James joined in. ‘I can’t get discouraged or even bored by the success of the Liverpudlians in particular or the artless unwashed in general.’ One of the Liverpudlians, gamely invited to contribute, was Adrian Henri. He could not have seen James’s response in advance, but had no need to. ‘If I were Clive James, no doubt the answer to the question would be (a) me, (b) you!’

His reaction to the unwashed notwithstanding, James did not wish to take ‘the Roy Fullerish mandarin disapproval – ramrod-backed on the last bastion, defending standards to the final yawn’. As chance would have it, Roy Fuller contributed too. Imagine coming on like this today: ‘Like the increase of educational opportunity, in the field of poetry the increased ease of publication and of public appearance has been of dubious benefit.’

To read the symposium almost fifty years on is to ask oneself, over and again: Would they say the same things now? Alan Brownjohn disliked the Liverpudlians, but detested ‘the poetry of modern “folk”… It is worse than the worst of Liverpool. Dylan thinks he’s good’.

What a thought. Back numbers of the Review, if you come across them, are always worth picking up. If only for the opportunity to marvel at how much the poetry scene has changed. 

This article is taken from PN Review 266, Volume 48 Number 6, July - August 2022.

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