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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This item is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.

Letters John Ash, Robert Fraser, Helen Martin, Michael Hulse, Stan Smith, Nicolas Tredell
Sir: In the interests of keeping a promising controversy going a little longer may I boldly state at once that I do not think Donald Wesling is an 'idiot'. Further, I have considerable sympathy for the kind of post-structuralist criticism he seems to be advocating in his 'For a Materialist Poetics' (PNR 30). English literary criticism could do with some of 'the precisions of formal linguistics', and it is important that an attempt be made to narrow 'the distance between description and interpretation of the poetic text'. Too much criticism in Britain remains superficially descriptive and anecdotal, and interpretation often fails to go beyond the primitive and essentially philistine level of 'what the poet really means to say'. In the interests of correcting this situation we may have to put up with a certain amount of specialised terminology, but I'm less sure that we should accept coinages such as 'form-drive'. Surely the idea could have been expressed in a less outlandish way? The coinage isn't essential to the matter in hand: Professor Wesling chooses to write in this way because he finds it congenial-perhaps because it gives the effect of novelty and intellectual rigour. In fact his style is so opaque and unfocussed that it's difficult not to conclude that he has merely substituted a new, more fashionable imprecision for the old imprecisions of the 'A'-level class-room and the university seminar. His insensitivity to language is such that it leads him into unintentional absurdities: for example, a 'causal knitting backwards to Wordsworth's moment' (my italics) suggests the activity of a demented maiden-aunt.

If his intention really is 'to find a language which will open poetry to a larger subject matter and audience', then it has to be said that he is bewilderingly far from that goal. Nor can he be seen (as he would like) as an heir to the estate of Walter Benjamin, for Benjamin achieved his genuine complexity and rigour without doing violence to the language he wrote in. If we still read Benjamin this is due, in part, to the formal perfection of his prose style, and his felicitous use of image and metaphor-which is to say, he is not just an acute critic but, before all else, a great writer. It requires no 'collusion' on the part of PNR's regular contributors for them to conclude that Professor Wesling falls too far below the very high standards he sets himself.
Manchester 16
JOHN ASH

THE FRANKFURT BOOK FAIR

Sir: Far be it from me to take issue with Donald Davie, with whose work and views I am much in sympathy, but his editorial comments (PNR 31) on the Frankfurt Book Fair ignore the realities with which most professional writers live. 'What brought those 5,000 publishers to Frankfurt?' he asks. The answer is to sell books, a time-honoured process without the proceeds from which most authors, including many featured on the English Literature syllabus, would have starved. Can any of us afford to be quite so contemptuous of commercial dealings to which we owe, not merely our own survival, but that of Dickens and, after his bankruptcy, Scott?

All authors love to be read; some of us like to be discussed; but, without royalty payments, many of us would be forced into silence. Rowse's biography of Shakespeare informs me that the playwright took some interest in the ways in which his work was promoted. Should the humble rest of us be more high-minded? In the contemporary world there is, to be sure, an alternative to the market-place, but it consists in recourse, direct or indirect, to the State, either through receipt of subsidy, or by employment in an educational system which, in this country at least, is itself largely dependent on the public purse. It surprises me that Professor Davie, whose aversion to Socialism is well documented, should be so suspicious of the free commercial exchange which enables the writer to keep the Arts Council and the Department of Social Security at bay.

Davie concludes his Editorial by endorsing Sue Finlay's earlier plea for a release from the 'abuse of language by the bureaucratic state'. Let me add my voice. The last instance I witnessed of such abuse was on an application form for Unemployment Benefit. Having been rescued from the indignity of signing it by a renewed flow of cheques from my publishers, I am very grateful to the Directors for seeing fit to display their wares in Frankfurt and thus permitting me to cultivate the 'basic values' which both Davie and I hold dear in peace if not prosperity.
London SE22
ROBERT FRASER

Sir: Against Professor Davie's editorial in PNR 31 may I call the Davie who wrote Thomas Hardy and British Poetry and ask him to read from the opening pages of that book? Has he moved so far from the world he perceived there in only ten years? Why, he was almost a Marxist critic ten years before the centenary!
Poole, Dorset
HELEN MARTIN

In response to Donald Davie's editorial, Michael Hulse writes: Donald Davie questions the value of my report from the 1982 Frankfurt Book Fair in particular and of reports from abroad in general. I don't propose to dwell on the uncouthness of Professor Davie's tone in that editorial, nor on those moments when his argument, if we may call it that, descends to something rather less than argument: 'he is a wag, our Mr Hulse', and so on. Rather, I would like to answer one or two of his specific points, and then to add an observation or so of my own concerning these 'Letters' from abroad.

First, the Book Fair itself. Naturally the Frankfurt Fair, while it attracts many visitors from the general public, is aimed primarily at the trade. Rights are bought and sold, trends assessed, and so on: the TLS, major newspapers and weekly periodicals are very good at supplying Book Fair basics, and I should have thought that information on these matters would be of interest not only to Professor Davie's 'Leftists'. I should no more call myself a Leftist than a Rightist, just for the record: I do not need to be either to realise that marketing, distasteful as this apparently is to Professor Davie, must sooner or later enter into any discussion of literature in our times. It seems to me to be a truism close to banality that the nature of literature is to some extent determined by the relationship it has with its readership, and that that relationship, in turn, is determined by the processes of getting the books into the readers' hands. This may have been less the case in the 1780s than today; but it would certainly be irresponsible to shut one's eyes to a condition of literature which, like it or not, we must live with. May I recommend that Professor Davie begin filling in by reading James Sutherland's excellent study of the fiction industry? To assess a condition that has come into existence is by no means the same as accepting or condoning it: the responsible critic can still prick the Ragtime bubble. But the place for the battle against disagreeable hype marketing is precisely there, in responsible criticism: to shrug off the importance of the Frankfurt Fair per se and to reach for one's 'Leftist' revolver is no answer.

One has to be very careful in talking about the Fair. It serves purposes of literary exchange and flux which are admirable, if only because it is the annual forum for the trading of translation rights. I'd be the last to deny that a good deal of unpleasant pushing goes on there. Of course it does. Alas, that's the way it is: surely it would be healthiest to give thanks for the good we have and combat the bad on its own ground?

Professor Davie wonders who James Clavell is. He is a best-selling writer of what I am told-I have never succeeded in reading one-are rather awful books, the latest being Noble House. My reference to him together with the self-projecting Yevtushenko was intended as a mild irony, especially as this reference was followed by the names of Atwood and Vargas Llosa, two writers whose claims to consideration are rather weightier, whatever one's opinion of (say) Surfacing. Yes, these writers were in Frankfurt as publishers' mascots. Business is business. If the presence of a respected writer at the Fair were to assist sales of his books and thus see to the wider distribution of a healthy literature, would this be deplorable? Professor Davie's loaded rhetoric ('mascots') is surely too blinkered . . .

As for those book trade spokesmen, yes, I'm afraid the German book trade is much better organized than (say) its British counterpart, and these men are employed by the association to present the consensus view of German publishers to the media. It is typical of the British (in particular) to resent the efficiency of the Germans-as if making a train run on time were somehow the next step to being a Nazi (this kind of thing is often suggested, for instance in Enright's cheap poem about German dustbins). I should be happy to have Professor Davie persuade me that a well-organized book trade that can afford to have spokesmen is a bad thing.

Lastly, Professor Davie takes issue with my reference to Frankfurt's special theme in 1982, religion. If the phrase 'special theme' wounds one's sensibility-and most assuredly I am one with Davie and Sisson in knowing the struggle with, or for, belief to be the central question in one's life-I can only point out that this is Frankfurt's terminology. And I was careful to state that I am unqualified to offer opinions on the contrast between recent theological writing and the work of Bloch, Barth and others. I agree that my phrase 'intellectual low gear' was clumsily chosen; but Professor Davie's implication that religion might be for me an area of experience suitable only for drollery or style-mongering is repellent.

But never mind the details. The larger issue is the value or desirability of 'Letters' from abroad in PNR's reports section, and I should say right away that this is a question that has troubled me too in the two and a half years during which I have contributed such letters to PNR. For one thing, it has troubled me precisely because I do not have access to inside circles in Germany-I do not, as Professor Davie seems to imply, pick up my information at publishers' parties. I live in Nuremberg and work at a provincial university nearby, Eichstätt, and rely for information on newspapers, television and radio, and new publications. This is not ideal, but I have come to the conclusion that precisely this outsider position has something of an insulating effect, in so far as the more ephemeral trends and ups and downs simply don't appear in my letters. I have written on Peter Huchel, Martin Walser's lectures, on the climate of literary prize-giving in the Federal Republic, recently on Ernst Jünger, and on other questions which I do not think can be dismissed as ephemera. (The Frankfurt Book Fair is naturally of less consequence than any of these, and I should be reluctant to have anyone think my response to certain points raised by Professor Davie indicated a belief that my Frankfurt article was of great value-it wasn't.) My aims in these letters are modest: I am not a prophet or a punter, I am merely passing on an elementary perception or so from the everyday German context.

The question that this raises is presumably the essential one: why bother at all? And here I find that Professor Davie simply doesn't take that 'international outlook' seriously enough when he shrugs it off as 'doubtless a very good thing'. Possibly living abroad for so long has enabled me to forget how easy it is for islanders to think in non-international terms (by which I do not mean Professor Davie himself); but for me the reading of literature from non-British areas-whether from English-speaking parts or from Latin America or Africa or Asia (etc.)-is so much a sine qua non that it must be taken for granted. This sounds like ostentation on my part, but in fact it proceeds from the humble realisation that one little island, or fifty states, are not the whole story. And for those who have achieved this essential realisation, the pig-headedness of those many many more who choose to avoid it is a constant grief. The writing of letters from abroad is for me rather more than symbolic, rather more than 'a standing reproach to our insularity': it is the communication of fundamentals, of certain things which I would hope could be taken for granted at least among those who do not pretend that English or American literature is the whole story. In this respect, it becomes almost a matter of conscience: if one sees oneself as a European rather than an Englishman, one may as well do something practical about it.

That is one answer, and it is perhaps too personal. If I were to reply less personally to that 'why bother?', I should have to stress the value of cross-fertilization. How important Goethe was for the nineteenth century in England-Arnold, Lewes, George Eliot, and of course Turner's use of the Farbenlehre, and so forth. Randall Jarrell, an American, was the last English-speaking man of letters to have a vibrant sense of connection with Goethe, as far as I can see: if we pass over Enright's Faust Book, there is no one in England today who betrays much sign of having taken Goethe into his bloodstream. And if this is true of Goethe, it is also true of German literature in general: even that isolated best-seller, The Tin Drum, had its most direct effect on two writers, Marques and Rushdie, of non-English origin. The British have become more and more content to suppose that their once-a-month poetry workshops or literary lunches in London are all that matters; if PNR's reports pages keep a line open to foreign parts, this is more than merely a reproach, I hope-it also helps ensure that information is available to all. I have learnt from the letters from France and Italy things that otherwise I would have remained ignorant of, and for this I am grateful. A report can alert one to a name, a name can send one to a book, a book can change one's awareness of this or that experience, even of life. I offer no more platitudes; for on this basic point, I think, Professor Davie and I can agree. And if he should reiterate his point about (say) misinforming the Turks as to the significance of Raine, I reply that his reader in Ankara might not be incapable of reading a report alertly (does Professor Davie mean to imply that PNR readers are unable to read the foreign letters with a sense of proportion?)-and that panic about the possibility of misinformation can lead to the cutting of lines that are best kept open.

INVIOLABLE VOICE?

Sir: There is clearly no point in taking on Nicolas Tredell's main contention in his observations on my Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (PNR 30). I cannot however allow his minor quibbles-out of which so much of his major argument is constructed-to go unchallenged.

Mr Tredell accuses me of misquoting Larkin by missing out the 'not' in the line 'Our children will not know it's a different country'. I confess to a lapse in proof-reading. But, should Mr Tredell care to give it a second thought, he will see that the absence or presence does not alter one jot my claim that Larkin 'evokes posterity as if it were the real and only tribunal before which to judge the perfidies of the present'. This should be made clear by my analogy: 'By the same polemic device, children were once cast to ask their fathers (at least on hoardings): "What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?" ' Just as in the poster, the children do not need to know. It is we, the guilty, who know our reprobation. Larkin is simply casting the children as innocent reproaches to our knowledge.

This is symptomatic of Tredell's approach, which seizes on trivial or summarizing or merely connective sentences and foregrounds them as key statements of intent. Thus he observes-of my remark that 'Hardy's whole poetic output is, in a sense, a wrestling with. . .that split in the bourgeois soul of which Lukács writes'-'So much for Hardy.' He does not point out that this is a resume which concludes twenty-five pages of close exposition. To use it to suggest that I in any way merely dismiss Hardy's work is monstrous, given the tenor of that reading. My 'perfunctory' reference to 'the harrowing private source' of Hughes's post-apocalyptic poetry is likewise detached from the sentence which follows: 'But what transforms the poems into public, historically representative texts', thereby suppressing its true function.

A similar manoeuvre occurs with his complaint about my fall into 'clichés such as the "nightmare of Vietnam" and the "ugly realities" of Ulster'. Both of these occur in a passage discussing the tension between journalistic cliche and poetic refinements in handling such dark historical moments. The unspoken quotation marks in my own account, indicated by the irony which speaks of 'a shell-shocked Georgianism that could easily be mistaken for indifference before the ugly realities of life, and death, in Ulster', would have been picked up by a more sensitive reader. A less 'sensitive' reader, however, would not have sought to evade thinking about the noxious misery of Vietnam and Ulster by picking at scabs of style.

As in his review of Catherine Belsey over the page, Mr Tredell tries to reassure himself that all is well by suggesting that, insofar as there is any good in them, these trendy new critics are really recognisable old critics deflected from wholeness by the pressure 'to try and be historian, sociologist, psychoanalyst, semiologist and political radical'. Personally, I don't feel the strain, though he clearly does. Mr Tredell has missed-or avoided-the point of my book: that history is not out there, to be fled, transcended, or even embraced, but in here, in the very constitution of the self. Perhaps Mr Tredell's point-scoring review is only one more instance of that evasion of history which I characterise as typical of the English experience.
University of Dundee
STAN SMITH

Nicolas Tredell writes: Dr Smith may not feel the strain of the multiple roles he is trying to play; his book certainly shows it. The 'minor quibbles' that upset him so much typify Inviolable Voice as a whole. No doubt that is why they upset him.

His determination to stand by his reading of Larkin's lines whatever those lines actually say would be comic if it were not so dangerously assured in its righteousness. To evoke posterity as a 'tribunal', as he claims Larkin does, would be to evoke a posterity capable of questioning, of sitting in judgement on, the present; this is fundamentally different from the posterity that Larkin does in fact evoke, which will be unable to question and judge because the present has failed to pass on the perceptions that would have enabled it to do so. Larkin is concerned with a failure of historical memory. Dr Smith's inaccurate and denigratory analogy with Great War propaganda simply drives home the superficiality of his reading. Here, as elsewhere in his book, his response to a poem is hampered by confused prejudice masquerading as historical pertinacity.

Dr Smith's remark about Hardy would be dismissively reductionist even if it was, as he claims, the triumphant conclusion of a sustained and coherent argument: but it is nothing of the kind. Agreed, it comes almost at the end of twenty-five pages (the quantity is clearly important to Dr Smith) of discussion of Hardy; but that discussion in no way supports, or justifies, the crude summation of Hardy as an example of the 'split bourgeois soul' so confidently diagnosed by Lukács-that integrated socialist soul. The objection to Dr Smith's comments on Hughes was that no attempt was made to explain how poems from a 'private source' are transformed into 'public, historically representative texts'; Dr Smith's letter does nothing to meet this. Indeed, it compounds the confusion: if, as he says in his last paragraph, history is 'in the very constitution of the self', what sense does it make to talk of the 'private source' of a poem? Aren't all poems thereby automatically public, representative? But why are some poems more representative than others? Questions like these are crucial, but unexplored, in his book.

In his readings of Hughes, of Hardy, of Larkin, of the other poets in his book, Dr Smith, in an attempt to prop up a conceptually weak case, all too often moves from moderately competent close readings to generalizations which rest on a simplified and schematic view of history. For him, history is certainly not 'out there'; it is the shadow-play of his own preconceptions. How much reading has he done, of primary historical sources, to support his large historical generalizations? His clichés, which would need the context of a much more distinguished prose than he can command to achieve the saving irony that he claims for them, epitomize his reductionism. These 'scabs of style' (hardly a felicitous phrase) are not mere excrescences on an otherwise healthy organism: they indicate a radical disorder: his account of history, politics and society is stale with stereotyped patterns. His book succeeds, astonishingly, in making the twentieth century look dull.

Dr Smith clearly thinks of himself, along with Catherine Belsey (his choice of allies is significant) as a bold, radical innovator striking fear into a moribund and evasive culture. In fact, he is a spokesman for what is rapidly becoming, in literary studies in England, a complacent orthodoxy which combines a bricolage of ill-understood and poorly applied theoretical perspectives with radical gestures that entail no personal risk, but convey a false, comforting feeling of confronting the problems of Ulster, the Third World, or Mrs Thatcher's Britain. It is Dr Smith who represents an evasion: of history and responsibility: of the arduous work that authoritative literary and cultural analysis and effective political action, in their different ways, demand.

This item is taken from PN Review 32, Volume 9 Number 6, July - August 1983.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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