Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eliot's Letters (The Weekend Australian)

Valerie Eliot and Hugh Haughton (eds.)
The Letters of T. S. Eliot:
Volume 1: 1898–1922 (871pp)
Volume 2: 1923–1925 (878pp)
Faber; $89.99 each

Last year, the publisher Faber and Faber celebrated its eightieth birthday with an exhibition at the British Library, ‘T. S. Eliot the Publisher’ – a tribute to Faber’s most famous employee. Featuring original manuscripts, correspondence and sound recordings, it was, by all accounts, absorbing. But for Eliot scholars the real action was happening down the road, in Cornwall, where the long-awaited second instalment of Eliot’s letters was flying from the presses. That a revised edition of the first instalment – over 200 pages longer than the original – was also being loaded into boxes did nothing to temper their enthusiasm. Here, after all, was the correspondence that, according to an article in the Guardian in 2005, Eliot aficionados ‘would kill for’.

No one, so far as I know, has been killed, though doubtless a few of the older academics have collapsed under the combined weight of these volumes, while some of the less excitable reviewers have affected to keel over from the tedium of their contents. Certainly, they aren’t a thrill-a-minute. But they do contain some fascinating insights not only into Eliot’s character and the ways in which that character both did and didn’t get into his poetry but also into the literary culture in which that poetry came to fruition, if ‘fruition’ is the word I want for an oeuvre so dominated by images of sterility. Moreover, they show just how instrumental Eliot was in transforming that culture. Even before he got to Faber, he had changed literary taste out of all recognition.

Edited by the poet’s widow, Valerie Eliot, and Professor Hugh Haughton, the letters begin in 1898 and end in 1925. The first volume is the more eventful, running to the end of 1922, the year in which Eliot published The Waste Land and began to edit the Criterion, the influential critical quarterly. The second volume covers just three years – years in which Eliot attempted to combine a full-time job at Lloyd’s Bank in London with his (unpaid) work for the Criterion, while also caring for his first wife, Vivienne, whose health was a constant source of anxiety. Indeed, so exhausted was Eliot in these years that it’s questionable whether he would have survived into his forties had it not been for the intervention, in 1924, of Geoffrey Faber, who wanted Eliot for Faber and Gwyer, which in 1929 became Faber and Faber. There is very little uplift in these letters but the story of how the publisher whose initial appears at the bottom of the spine befriended the man who appears on the cover is a happy ending of sorts.

The key event in Eliot’s life up to 1925, apart from his decision to move to London (he was born in Missouri and educated at Harvard), was his marriage to the volatile Vivienne Haigh-Wood. There has been not a little salacious speculation about this topic in recent decades but the simple truth, as revealed by these letters, is that Vivienne was extremely sick and that Eliot cared for her to the best of his ability, worrying himself nearly to death in the process. Eliot’s accounts of Vivienne’s symptoms (migraines, colitis ‘explosions’) are harrowing, while Vivienne’s letters, with their italicisations, exclamations and underlinings tell their own story of a mind in distress. It would be both too neat and too presumptuous to describe Eliot’s first wife as a tragic Muse but it’s clear from the letters that Eliot’s greatest poem, as well as describing a shattered civilisation, also describes a shattered mind. Part II of The Waste Land, ‘A Game of Chess’, contains a passage of fragmented speech (‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad’) that one strongly suspects is drawn from life.

Not all of the letters are depressing, however. Eliot could be a lively correspondent, especially when writing to literary friends, though the racist, misogynistic verses with which he furnishes Conrad Aiken are less amusing, in my opinion, than the joke-scholarly annotations that accompany them. Eliot’s letters to his cousin Eleanor Hinkley are particularly entertaining. Unfortunately, they are also the first to register Eliot’s anti-Semitism, which runs through these books like a trickle of sewage. Indeed, the new letters do nothing to dispel the charge of anti-Semitism that has, for some years, marred Eliot’s reputation. In one letter, to the patron John Quinn, he writes, ‘I am sick of doing business with Jew publishers who will not carry out their part of the contract unless they are forced to’ – an outburst made all the more depressing by the fact that Eliot wrote to his friend, the patron Sydney Schiff, on the same day. Perhaps he didn’t realise that Schiff was Jewish.

As a picture of literary society in early twentieth-century London, these volumes will be hard to beat. Modernism, when it got to England, was dependent on a peculiar mixture of aristocratic salonnières and evangelical firebrands for its protection and dissemination, and Eliot, though reliant on this milieu, appeared to regard it a little askance. (‘I have just been to a cubist tea’, he writes to Eleanor in 1915.) The impression one has of Eliot in these years is of a man who donned a series of masks. The letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell and other hostesses are unfailingly courteous, while those to poets such as Ezra Pound, Eliot’s de facto literary agent, are vigorous and sometimes wildly funny. Needless to say, the letters from Pound are some of the most enjoyable. Effectively bullying Harriet Monroe into publishing ‘Prufrock’ in Poetry, he manages to sing his client’s praises while simultaneously blowing his own trumpet – a neat feat if you can manage it.

The correspondence in the second volume is almost exclusively taken up with Eliot’s editorship of the Criterion – a role he fulfilled with extraordinary diligence. Most of the letters are rather dull but a number of controversies leaven the mix. Wyndham Lewis’s unflattering portrait of the literati in ‘The Apes of God’ (which appeared in 1924) did not, unsurprisingly, sit well with the Sitwells, some of whom were friends with Eliot. Fortunately, Eliot was fairly adept at rubbing such backs as were bitten in his pages. Indeed, he was a natural diplomat. Explaining his decision to move the work of one contributor to a later issue, he writes, ‘I do not want to spread the butter too thick by putting all the star performers in one number’ – thereby laying on the butter so thick it would clog the arteries merely to look at it.

Eliot once told the Paris Review that holding down a full-time job had helped him survive and develop as a poet but the evidence here is all to the contrary. While working for the bank, he wrote hardly a thing. Pound, aware of his friend’s dilemma, attempted to raise money on his behalf. Undoubtedly, the gesture was handsomely meant but Eliot was so sensitive to public exposure that it caused him more embarrassment than pleasure.

One of the last letters in the second volume is from Geoffrey Faber to Lady Rothermere, from whom Faber acquired the Criterion. It ends: ‘Eliot has just returned from La Turbie and is a different man after the change. But I fear he has a difficult time ahead of him.’ This, to put it mildly, is to put it mildly. Eliot would eventually separate from Vivienne, who would die in an asylum in 1947. Nevertheless, one gets the sense that Faber’s arrival was a turning point for Eliot. ‘[T]o make an end is to make a beginning’, wrote Eliot in his Four Quartets. We await the next volume on tenterhooks.

Full Marx for Lit Crit (The Weekend Australian)

Terry Eagleton and Matthew Beaumont
The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue
Verso Books; $39.95; 342pp

When I studied literature at university, Terry Eagleton was something of a celebrity. The author of such influential books as Criticism and Ideology and Literary Theory: An Introduction, he seemed to have found a critical register that rejected both ‘appreciation’ in the narrowly belletristic sense and the wilful obscurantism of most post-structuralism. He was, and indeed still is, a Marxist, and his literary criticism, like Marx’s philosophy, was an attempt to understand the world with a view to actually changing it. Needless to say, this latter idea was one that appealed to earnest undergraduates.

It helped that the university in question was in the northern British city of Salford, where Eagleton was born in 1943. Described by Engels as a ‘working-class quarter … unhealthy, dirty and dilapidated’, Salford was a tough environment even in the 1990s. Eagleton himself has described his childhood as ‘a perpetual narrative of suffering’ and this background is clearly fundamental to his later intellectual development. As Matthew Beaumont writes in his preface to The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue, perhaps a little overdramatically, ‘the Marxist critic reads literature through the eyes of our enslaved ancestors, in the name of our liberated grandchildren’.

The book takes the form of a series of interviews, each with its own bibliography. The structure is chronological, the emphasis both biographical and intellectual, such that the book effectively serves as an intellectual biography. Thus we move from Eagleton’s childhood in a working-class Irish Catholic community, to his various academic posts in Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester, to his recent, very public spat with Martin Amis in the British press. Beaumont, though clearly sympathetic to Eagleton’s criticism generally, does an excellent job of guiding the discussion in such a way as to elucidate the consistencies and inconsistencies in Eagleton’s positions over the years. The Task of the Critic can be a difficult book but it’s one that repays, and rewards, careful study.

The abovementioned Eagleton-Amis controversy, in which Eagleton took the novelist to task for his injudicious comments about Muslims, is one of a number of public interventions to have hit the headlines in recent years. Another was Eagleton’s sharp review of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in the London Review of Books in 2006. This coincided with a more theological or metaphysical ‘turn’ in his writing but if one point emerges from The Task of the Critic it’s that as far as Eagleton’s politics go religion is there in the DNA. Eagleton’s early attempts to reconcile Christianity and socialism coincided with Vatican II, when the Catholic Church threw open its doors to the prevailing winds of the twentieth century, and Eagleton was clearly impressed with its attempt to rethink the role of the Church in the world. His own attempt to liberate ‘the critical-utopian’ core of Christianity from literalists and evangelicals is one of which I’m highly sceptical but it is a fascinating contribution to the often polarised debate between Christians and ‘evangelical’ atheists.

It was, says Eagleton, at Cambridge University that these ideas began to take shape, and at which his ‘class instincts’ were first aroused. Cambridge in the 1960s was ‘a deeply patrician sort of place’ and Eagleton’s sense of class disloyalty was given a grimly symbolic twist by the fact that he learned of his father’s death as he was sitting the entrance exam. Throwing himself into political activism, he came to the notice of Raymond Williams, the radical left-wing cultural critic, against whose work, one way or another, Eagleton has defined his own. Williams it was who encouraged Eagleton to pose what he calls ‘some meta-questions’ (‘What am I supposed to be up to here?’) and to study literature not just for its own sake but as a means to understanding the culture and social conditions from which it emerges.

Since then, he has sought to formulate a muscular political criticism, the centrepiece of which is his 1983 book Literary Theory: An Introduction, which traces the history of literary criticism from the Romantics to postmodernism from an unashamedly Marxist perspective. For Eagleton, all literary criticism is political, even when – especially when – it is loudly proclaiming not to be so. (As he puts it in The Task of the Critic, ‘only those who have an “interest” can be disinterested’.) Despite this, there is nothing doctrinaire about Eagleton’s literary criticism. ‘Marxism’, he suggests, is principally a text ‘open to many different meanings and readings’. Rather than simply fight his corner, he has sifted critical developments such as feminism and psychoanalysis, attempting to find what is useful in each, while also assessing the claims of ‘theory’ and the theoretical approach more generally.

A problem for the Marxist literary critic is how to talk about the notion of value. One of the gains of cultural criticism has been to create an intellectual environment in which the grounds and conditions of value (and of valuation) are up for discussion. But in challenging the notion of eternally fixed value, the Marxist critic runs the risk of rejecting any notion of value whatsoever – of reducing the work of literature to an ideological document. Eagleton himself has been guilty of this. In 1993, he wrote and presented a television programme about Philip Larkin in which he managed to reduce the work of one of the great twentieth-century poets to a series of reactionary attitudes. In general, however, he has attempted to reconcile the notion of aesthetic value with his broadly historical-materialist approach and, indeed, to salvage such concepts as beauty and imagination from the recycling pile of post-structuralist criticism. One brilliant passage in The Ideology of the Aesthetic – one reiterated in The Task of the Critic – concerns the critical efficacy of the concepts of truth, morality and beauty, which, writes Eagleton, are ‘too important to be handed contemptuously over to the political enemy’.

Referring, in The Task of the Critic, to the lectures he gave at Cambridge University, Eagleton says, ‘I began speaking in public when I was twenty-one and I still haven’t shut up’. This, I can report, isn’t strictly true. In 1993, the year in which I graduated, Eagleton was awarded an honorary degree by Salford University. Incongruous in his academic robes, he stood on the dais at the end of the ceremony noticeably not singing ‘God Save the Queen’. Had he forgotten the words? I doubt it.

Navigating by Limelight (Sydney Morning Herald)

Clive James, The Blaze of Obscurity
Picador; $34.99; 325pp
Clive James, Opal Sunset: Selected Poems 1958–2008
Picador; $39.99; 179pp

Is Clive James ‘a brilliant bunch of guys’, as a writer on The New Yorker once asserted, or just one guy in whom the disciplines of literature bunch together brilliantly? The question is intended seriously, for it seems to me that while James’s bank balance has clearly benefited from his versatility, his reputation as a writer of genius has all too often suffered from it. The assumption varies according to who is making it: those who know James from ‘the crystal bucket’ are liable to regard his life outside it as a dilettantish claim to seriousness, while those who know James from his poetry and prose are liable to regard his TV work as an unpardonable distraction from the main event. In either case, the inference is the same: the more strings to his bow a person has, the smaller the feathers in his cap must be.

In the latest and probably penultimate instalment of his Unreliable Memoirs, The Blaze of Obscurity, James continues to make the case that what looks like literary tourism to some and fatal dissipation to others is in fact a far more interesting phenomenon: a career built on the twin assumptions that the artistic instinct is as pertinent to making a television programme as it is to composing a villanelle and that there is no such thing as a shallow subject, only a shallow treatment of it. It’s a point that some of James’s companions in the Modish London Literary World were perhaps a little slow to accept. But then James himself was slow to accept it. To get to the position where it became a principle, he had to swap his readership for an audience. He had, as he puts it, to ‘navigate by limelight’.

Here, then, are the TV years, and mightily entertaining they are, though as always with James the wisecracking delivery belies the serious brain beneath: the reader is having so much fun he doesn’t always notice that he’s getting an education. Here, the education is partly technical – one learns, for example, about the massive effort involved in making the travel documentaries for which James became particularly well known – and partly philosophical. The philosophical element tends to centre on the phenomenon of celebrity, the underlying theme of the book. Particularly interesting from a psychological point of view are those celebrities whose celebrity status has either overturned their sanity or is in the process of doing so. Peter Allen comes across as an egomaniac, while Tony Curtis provides ample evidence that limelight can eat away at the mind as decisively as quicklime decomposes the body.

I say that celebrity is the theme of the book but really it’s the changing relationship between celebrity status and real achievement that emerges as its principal focus. Fittingly, it is while shooting a programme in the US that James begins to realise that the democratisation of celebrity entails the marginalisation of talent. At a (so-called) talent pageant in Kentucky, he watches as ‘a hundred spherical mothers’ encourage their children in the belief that they are exceptional when all the evidence is to the contrary. ‘I would indeed be evoking a story about a logical development of democracy, in which everyone must be special, a uniformity of uniqueness.’

It is also while filming at the Louisville Pageant that James begins to develop his theory that ‘a documentary special must be built like a poem, first planned, then modified as the texture emerged’. It’s unclear if this relationship works both ways. Of course, one accepts James’s many assertions that TV allowed him to go on writing poetry simply by making him financially independent. But in one or two poems in Opal Sunset, James’s new selected poems, one gets the sense that at some deep level poet and performer are fundamentally at odds. Take, for example, the following stanza from ‘A Valediction for Philip Larkin’, written while James was filming in Kenya:

It is perhaps the right time to concede
That life is all downhill from here on in.
For doing justice to it, one will need,
If not in the strict sense a sense of sin,
More gravitas than fits into a grin.

Half of the poems in Opal Sunset are taken from the last five years. The reason for this, writes James in a note, is that he has hit ‘a productive streak’. ‘Winning streak’ would be more like it. For the fact is that the later work has increased in both technical skill and gravitas. In ‘Ramifications of Pure Beauty’, for example, James pays tribute to a technical marvel – the Focke-Wulf Ta-152: a Luftwaffe fighter-interceptor – in lines that are scarcely less accomplished. That, indeed, is the point of the stanza: to suggest that the instincts of the engineer are the same, in essence, as those of the artist:

What pulled it through the sky was left implied:
You had to know the turning blades were there,
Like the guns, the ammo and the man inside …

An aeroplane is a work of art. A poem is a feat of engineering. That, in a nutshell, is James’s aesthetic – one he has arrived at because of his versatility and not, as some might argue, in spite of it.

Fully Booked (Sydney Morning Herald)

Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing
Profile Books; $35; 236pp

Let me begin by declaring an interest. It so happens that I’m moving house in a few days and am really looking forward to it. In particular, I’m looking forward to the unpacking, as the greater proportion of what I will call, at the risk of sounding pompous, my library has remained in boxes since it first arrived on Australia’s shores some years ago. The new house will have space for the whole caboodle. I can’t wait to get my mitts on it.

The novelist and publisher Susan Hill would appreciate my eagerness. She, too, is fond of her library, which is, undoubtedly, much larger than mine. Indeed, she has so many books that she’s beginning to rather lose track of them. In Howards End is on the Landing, she describes the sudden realisation, while hunting for an elusive paperback, that her shelves are crammed with books she’s forgotten, books she wants to read again and books she’s never read at all. That last fact in particular leads her to a resolution: no new books for an entire year! Beginning in the ‘Small Dark Den’ and ending on the eponymous landing of her farmhouse in the English Cotswolds, she will get to know her library again.

Since Hill’s books are in no particular order, Howards End is on the Landing has a rather rambling quality, the author flitting from one thing to the next like an absent-minded and opinionated aunt. Of the authors that she most enjoys, Virginia Woolf is top of the list, closely followed by Charles Dickens, V. S. Naipaul and W. G. Sebald. She is honest about what she hasn’t read (The Great Gatsby, Nineteen Eighty-Four) and about what she doesn’t like. (Interestingly, Jane Austen leaves her cold.) For some reason she never condescends to explain, she doesn’t like Australian books. Of Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus she writes, ‘Someone told me that this was a great novel so I bought it, but then discovered that it was a great Australian novel so I put it away.’

Hill is now in her sixty-eighth year and has plenty of literary anecdotes with which to entertain the reader, though most of these are pretty underwhelming. There is an awkward audience with Edith Sitwell, a star-struck encounter with Ian Fleming and an exchange of glances with T. S. Eliot. There is also the time in the London Library when she happened upon E. M. Forster himself in the Elizabethan poetry section. Forster dropped a book on her foot. ‘The wonder of that encounter has never faded.’

Hill ends with a list of her top forty books, one of which is printed twice, making it a list of thirty-nine. Such carelessness is prevalent. Indeed, Hill gives the distinct impression of having tossed off Howards End is on the Landing between meetings at her publishing house. Anne Fadiman, author of the wonderful Ex Libris, would have prised an entire essay out of the little messages that one finds scrawled in second-hand volumes. All Hill can manage, by contrast, is this: ‘Who were they? Why did they give this book to that person? Did that person enjoy it? Why did they not keep it?’

Contrary to her stated aim, Hill reads hardly anything new over the course of her non-book-buying year, preferring instead to revisit old favourites. This wouldn’t matter, or would matter less, if what she had to say about the latter was original or interesting. Unfortunately, however, most of her judgments are so insipid as to be not worth making. At one point she writes, ‘I think the greatest satisfaction of reading published diaries is that of being admitted into other people’s worlds … and at the same time being party to their views of it all’ – which would indeed be hard to deny.

So where to put this book in the new library? In with the memoirs or the books about books? Or should I simply trade it in for credit at my local bookshop? Yes, I think that’s the way to go. Maybe I’ll give Eucalyptus a whirl.

The Profession of the Cod (Sydney Morning Herald)

Robert Adamson (ed.), The Best Australian Poems
Black Inc; $24.95; 240pp
Alan Wearne (ed.), The Best Australian Poetry
UQP; $24.95; 131pp

When, as a student of English literature, I became aware of the Poetry Wars, I declared myself a belligerent neutral. They seemed to me not a war at all but more like an amateur football match between two equally awful teams. On the one hand you had the formalists, many of whom appeared to regard traditional rhyme schemes and metrical patterns as moulds into which the blancmange of sentiment could be emptied willy-nilly. And, on the other, you had the iconoclasts who regarded any concession to form as a declaration of conservatism, if not a confession of something worse. This latter group was, and perhaps still is, especially prominent in Australia, where the kind of poems that rhyme and scan are often suspected of being in thrall to the aesthetic values of the mother country.

Both The Best Australian Poems 2009, edited by Robert Adamson, and The Best Australian Poetry 2009, edited by Alan Wearne, confirm what should never have needed confirming: that the best poems are neither arbitrarily formal nor wilfully iconoclastic. Form is not something grafted on. Form, if it is to be aesthetically successful, should bring us closer to the ‘truth’ of the poem, should underpin the poem’s content. Conversely, poets who don’t employ forms should treat the resulting ‘freedom’ as a challenge and not as an excuse to assail the reader with whatever phrases pop into their heads. I can’t remember who said it exactly, but whoever it was was exactly right: free verse is a contradiction in terms.

As an example of formal poetry at its best, take this stanza from Peter Steele’s poem, ‘Mending Gloves at Anglesea’, included in the Wearne anthology:

Uphill from Demon’s Bluff and the long blue haul
To pack-ice and white night,
The curtains drawn, slow bubbling at the stove
For company, a year and a day near done,
I’m needling the soft leather, with all
A male’s half-lost, half-won
Belief in patience, pleasure at putting right
Something gone wrong, and an eye to the next move.

This complex stanza, rhyming abcdadbc and containing lines of different lengths, is repeated throughout the entire poem, which is quite an achievement in itself. But the stanza is also intimately mapped into the content and overall atmosphere of the poem. Sewing is an intricate act and this stanza appears to mirror it, while also mirroring, it seems to me, the mood of contemplation or reverie that the act of sewing induces in the speaker. Here, the form is doing real work and emerges organically from the content of the poem.

Or take Stephen Edgar’s ‘Murray Dreaming’, included in the Adamson anthology. In this poem, Edgar describes the experience of a boy in an aquarium. In particular, he describes the boy’s enthrallment with a glass-walled room displaying a giant Murray cod. Here is the penultimate stanza:

Out in the day
Again, he saw the famous streets expound
Their theories about speed, the cars obey,
Racing to catch the sun,
The loud fast-forward crowds, and thought it odd
That in the multitudes not everyone
Should understand as he did the profound
Profession of the cod,
That held time, motionless, unknown to sound.

Again, a fairly complex stanza, and again a stanza that seems to echo or to underpin the mood of the poem. The combination of long and short lines allows the poet to contrast the traffic and the ‘fast-forward crowds’ with the stillness of the cod – a stillness subtly emphasised by the heavy pairing of ‘odd’ and ‘cod’ and the pauses in the final line. Once more, the form and content are in concert; they act together to produce their effects.

It seems to me that Edgar’s cod is to some extent a symbolic proxy for the ‘profession’ of the poet himself. Poetry, it is occasionally said, is a stay against eternity. That is why there is such an affinity between poetry and the subject of grief. A number of excellent poems in these anthologies appear to underscore that connection. Kevin Hart has a poem in each volume – one about his mother and one about his father – while Jaya Savige’s poem ‘The Pain Switch’ appears in both anthologies. All three poems demonstrate that control is far from synonymous with form. Take the first four lines of ‘The Pain Switch’, with their exquisitely harrowing rhythm and imagery:

The moon’s white knife, etching
its cold signature in your skin, strikes bone.
Butoh shapes snap across the ruin
of your face, taut as a top sheet in a ward.

There are, as is usual in these anthologies, a glut of wonderful nature poems with which to indulge our spring sensibilities. What is it about Australian poets that they manage to produce such fine nature poetry? My theory is that Australian poets have retained a sense of the strangeness of their environment that simply isn’t available to poets elsewhere in the Anglosphere. True or not, it remains a fact that Australian poets lead the way when it comes to the poetry of flora and fauna. Take, for example, the following lines from Michelle Leber’s ‘Heat Wave, Melbourne’:

A transparent shrimp
treads water – its swimmerets
on fast-flipper – crunches a piece

of eel grass with maxilliped-snatch,
does a ninety-degree shift,
drops the fragment,

then return-butts a dark-mouthed conniwink …

Owing more to David Attenborough than to William Wordsworth, these lines are a knockout. How to describe them, except to say that I know how that dark-mouthed conniwink feels?