Allan Massie

Life and letters | 28 July 2012

Life and letters | 28 July 2012
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With few exceptions, literary journalists moulder in the grave and are soon forgotten. They may get some sort of posthumous life if they are made the subject of other books. John Gross rescued a few from oblivion in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters. Otherwise it is usually only those who were also poets, novelists or social commentators such as Matthew Arnold, who are not soon forgotten. When I was young, the Sunday papers were dominated by Connolly, Mortimer, Toynbee, Nicolson and Davenport. I delighted in them all, and equally in V. S. Pritchett in the New Statesman. All of course were excoriated by F. R. Leavis in stern puritanical Cambridge. Fair enough: to academics engaged in ‘close reading’ or, later, in ‘theory’, the literary journalist has always been a flâneur or dilettante. Nevertheless, all those I have mentioned wrote well, and were influential in their day. Pritchett was of course a master of the short story and so his work survives. But the others? Where are the Snows of yesteryear?

Desmond MacCarthy belonged to an earlier generation. Born in 1877, he died in 1952, just about when I was starting to read the Sundays and the weeklies. He had been a distinguished theatre critic as well as a reviewer and literary journalist, this last the term he applied to himself. There can’t be many left who read him regularly. It was a surprise to come the other day on a collection of his pieces published in 1984 — I suppose I reviewed it somewhere. The surprise was only slightly diminished when I saw the first chapter was a memoir of MacCarthy by Lord David Cecil, whom I knew to be his son-in-law. So I suppose Cecil persuaded someone at Constable to publish the book. I can’t believe it was a profitable venture.

Nevertheless it was worth publishing and most of the essays remain enjoyable to read, and are sometimes illuminating. MacCarthy had the happy gift of the striking phrase: the characteristic of Henry James’s later style ‘is a spontaneous complexity’. This seems to me exactly right.

On the other hand, though MacCarthy  took great pleasure in James’s novels, his criticism of James’s theory ‘that it was necessary to get rid of the omniscient narrator’ seems very much to the point. James saddled novelists with the tyranny of ‘the point of view’, his insistence ‘that everything recounted in a novel should be seen through the eyes of some character in it; not necessarily the same, and perhaps through one character after another.’ There’s a lot to be said for the theory, which subsequently attracted Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, and I remember being reproved by an editor who criticised the first chapters of a novel I had sent her because the point of view kept shifting. She may have been right in this case — the novel anyway was later abandoned. Yet MacCarthy remarked on ‘the fatal flaw’ in the theory. ‘If the narrator is abolished’ — that is the omniscient author as narrator — then ‘the characters who narrate in his place become inevitably endowed with the novelist’s own peculiar faculties and intellectual temper’.

‘Inevitably’ is probably an exaggeration. Good authors are often capable of impersonating a narrator very different from themselves. Yet MacCarthy is surely justified in observing that this is what happened in James’s later novels: ‘The characters were often so steeped in the colours of their creator’s mind, that their individual tints barely showed through the permeating dye.’ This is not the sort of language that academic critics may use, but it is an acute observation. Seeing everything through the eyes of one character may actually deprive that character of individuality.

The collection includes a nice essay on ‘Reviewers and Professors’. It is written as a dialogue between a literary editor and an aspiring young reviewer. ‘It is useless,’ the editor says, ‘your coming here and telling me you can review five-sixths of the books that come out.’ Instead the young reviewer should  make it clear that he knows a lot about a few subjects, and branch out from there. ‘You are enthusiastically and ignorantly interested in literature. Your enthusiasm is to the good; your ignorance to the bad. But that can be overcome — if you condescend to crib from critics who know much more than you do.’ ‘If you are going to be a literary reviewer, you must start by acquiring a Library of Criticism. You must lay down the Professors.’

Good advice, then and now. The best literary journalists write from a well-stored mind. Some of them may even be worth reading, in small doses anyway, long after they are dead.  Desmond MacCarthy proves to be — somewhat to my surprise.

— Allan Massie