Literary criticism

Pessimism keeps breaking in

State-of-criticism overviews and assessments almost always strike a bleak note —the critical mind naturally angles towards pessimism — so it can be worthwhile occasionally to announce that, against expectations, despite everything, literary criticism is still alive and in print. Recent technological and economic threats have not been as damaging as the so-called theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s, and while theory does colour some recent fiction (treated with ironic humour by Jeffrey Eugenides, say, or with cramped loyalty by Tom McCarthy), critics outside the academy now act as though it has been vanquished through institutional assimilation; the models are Edmund Wilson and Clive James, not Derrida and de Man.

Ezra Pound – the fascist years

‘There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?/ They don’t make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb, /Jumbled boulder and weed’, was Basil Bunting’s 1949 opinion of Pound’s Cantos; but as the sometime friend of Pound continued: ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round / If you want to avoid them.’ This judgment has proved wise. Here we are in 2014, not avoiding one of the most contentious figures in 20th-century literature: poet, midwife of Eliot’s The Waste Land, economist, translator, committed Fascist, anti-Semite, avid supporter of James Joyce and Mussolini, later alleged traitor to the United States of America and —

Clive James on his late flowering: ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I’m about to die and then don’t’

Clive James has published a new poem days before we meet. It opens, ‘Your death, near now, is of an easy sort’. It is about a Japanese maple his daughter has planted in the garden of his Cambridge home where we are sitting, and whether the poet will live to see the leaves flame red this autumn. The poem has made news. ‘At the moment,’ he says, laughing, ‘I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t. My wife is very funny on that subject.’ It is part of an astonishing late body of work. This month there is

Judge a critic by the quality of his mistakes

What the title promises is not found inside. It is a tease. John Sutherland says he has ‘been paid one way or another, to read books all my life’, yet he does not regard himself as well read in the genre of novels. With two million languishing in the British Library vaults, nobody could be, he insists. And although the publishers have given it the subtitle ‘A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities’, the author declares in his admirably succinct preface: ‘This book is not a guide.’ He’s right. It is an engaging game, or a compendium of games (as the Gamages Christmas catalogue used

Up close and personal | 24 April 2014

What should a writer write about? The question, so conducive to writer’s block, is made more acute when the writer is evidently well-balanced, free of trauma and historically secure. It is made still more urgent when that writer is solipsistic in tendency and keen to write, not about the world, but about perceptions of the world. Two American authors of the same period arrived at different solutions to the problem. Sylvia Plath, in her husband Ted Hughes’s assessment, first found nothing worth writing about, and then deliberately encouraged demons and hitherto controlled minor difficulties until they flared up and killed her. John Updike, on the other hand, had an immensely

The Roth of tenderness and of rage

In the autumn of 2012, Philip Roth told a French magazine that his latest book, Nemesis, would be his last. The storm of interest this created was surprising, given that he was 78. His creative spurt in his seventies (inexplicable, according to Roth: ‘my breakfast cereal stayed the same’) had given fans the illusion that, in the words of his fictional alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, ‘one’s story is not a skin to be shed….You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life.’ Roth, however, has now shed the skin of fiction; he is ‘unbound’ because he is no longer ‘chained to his

If only Craig Raine subjected his own work to the same critical scrutiny he applies to others’ 

It’s important not to be too immediately dismissive of poor Craig Raine. Book reviewers and editors like him, who invent rigid literary principles and then dismiss anything that fails to embody them, have been on the decline since the 1970s. It’s true that one would probably sooner go for guidance to a generous reader who tries to discover what an interesting book is seeking to do, and how it achieves it. But the principle-wielder is an endangered species, and however ill-founded the principles themselves may be, as readers we might welcome the existence of one or two. The trouble is, no one is really interested any more. The day I

Music at Midnight, by John Drury – review

When John Drury, himself an Anglican divine, told James Fenton (the son of a canon of Christ Church) that he was writing about George Herbert, Fenton replied with gnomic brio ‘The poet!’ adding ‘Both in intention and execution.’ Herbert’s authentic lightness and strength, pathos and wit, alertness and sympathy have long been as precious to poets as to fellow believers. In Music at Midnight Drury has produced a pleasantly old-fashioned account of Herbert’s life and poetry which will serve as an introduction to new readers and remind devotees of many favourite passages, sometimes interestingly contextualised. He declares at the outset that ‘poetry comes from life’ and that ‘the biographical structure

A Place in the Country, by W.G. Sebald – review

Within a few years, and in four books — The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), Vertigo (1999) and Austerlitz (2001) — W. G. Sebald achieved a reputation as a major international author. He was tipped for the Nobel, seen to supply heartening proof that ‘greatness in literature is still possible’ (John Banville) and that ‘literary greatness is still possible’ (Susan Sontag). Literary greatness it seemed, at times, was Sebald, and for a while after the publication of The Rings of Saturn, it was hard to find a work of fictive non-fiction that wasn’t riddled with grainy photographs of dubious quality integrated into the text. Despite Sebald’s sudden death

Abiding inspiration

In 1971 looking back over his life, Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) declared himself surprised at being referred to as a critic. Certainly his plan when young had been the pursuit of the literary life, ‘but what it envisaged was the career of the novelist. To this intention, criticism, when eventually I began to practise it, was always secondary, an afterthought: in short, not a vocation but an avocation.’ As Adam Kirsch comments, in his timely, incisive, succinct study, this admission was made when Trilling was ‘the most famous and authoritative literary critic in the English-speaking world.’ His volumes of critical essays, beginning with The Liberal Imagination (1950) — which sold 70,000