D. J. Enright, literary critic, novelist, poet, with a reticence comparable to Stevie Smith, is not literally insufferable. His reluctantly autobiographical commonplace books have dressed my bedside for some years, and with good temper and a mood for his lightly worn erudition, they offer diversion from insomnious thought-spreading. Mood is all important; on another occasion he’ll bring out my deep-shrouded Ajax, desirous to purge myself of his insufferable pride, his manner of finding yet another oblique way of emphasising his scholarship. Such is the nature of insomnia.
In Injury Time he tells the story of when fellow literary critic Frank Kermode moved house a few years before his death:
“[Kermode] had boxes of books, inscribed first editions and valuable manuscripts, ready for the removal men. The three workmen to whom he showed the boxes were Cambridge dustmen called in to make a special waste clearance. Thirty boxes had been consigned to the dustcart before the mistake was realised. The dustmen declined to climb into the cart, which contained a mechanical crusher.”
James Wood, literary critic, also often insufferable, tells the same story, adding that Kermode “was left with only his cheapest paperbacks, and his collection of literary theory.”
This came to mind recently as I accidentally gave away a book I learnt a few days later was very valuable. As its value was only pecuniary I was able to recover my equanimity remarkably quickly.
It struck me recently that there is a direct correlation, perhaps even an ideal relationship, between the state of my thumos and my wish list of books. At times it seems nothing I intend to read will cleave the frozen sea, so I cut and slash to its bare essentials. Fiction particularly slides, is intentionally forgotten, often as the voices of human affairs and their intertextual associations become too striking.
One must read something—where else can we escape ourselves—and this time it is D J Enright that lent me his axe, in the form of his genuinely witty and extremely intelligent The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony. It may sound a little like a dull undergraduate seminar, but is an oblique form of literary criticism masquerading as a study of irony as style in literature. It is a capricious amalgam that includes some illuminating writing on Proust and Freud, without getting bogged down in academic theorising. We are in safer hands with critics of Enright’s time as they were invariably better read and it is a joy to follow their untethered intellect as it capers back and forth across the literary ages. Somewhat comforted and revived by Enright, I tracked down his trilogy, memoir and commonplace books: Interplay, Play Resumed and Injury Time, and also a couple of the recent volumes of Auden’s Complete Works, prose from the 50s and 60s.
It is to Enright’s gently sardonic musings that I credit the expansion of my wish list of fiction, laying aside the aridness of combing news and social media for the latest play of politics in which each side understands neither the other or itself. As Winnie reflects in Happy Days, ‘One loses one’s classics’ so after breaking away reluctantly from another reading of Dante, I’ve turned to Luis de Góngora, “the Spanish Homer,” and his two-thousand line poem The Solitudes, translated by Edith Grossman. It is beautiful, quite difficult, and shall be my companion for some days to come.
You do often feel when you read academic criticism, not that I do it much, or when you hear academics talking about their books, that they forget that theirs is a secondary activity. They forget that however important a critic is, a first-rate critic is always less important, and less interesting, than a second-rate writer. Their job is, firstly, to explain, but secondly to celebrate rather than diminish.
I’m mostly behind Barnes’s opinion but some literary criticism is first-rate writing. When I feel like reading criticism I want erudition, something cultured, digressive and preferably tendentious. This list comprises ten favourite books that stand proudly alongside first-rate fiction:
Hugh Kenner – The Counterfeiters: An Historical Novel
Maurice Blanchot – The Space of Literature
Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
Guy Davenport – The Geography of the Imagination
Cynthia Ozick – Metaphor & Memory
Denis Donoghue – The Practise of Reading
William H. Gass – A Temple of Texts
D. J. Enright – The Alluring Problem: an Essay on Irony
Susan Sontag – Against Interpretation
Vladimir Nabokov – Lectures on Literature
The list is in no particular order. It could have easily grown to twenty and included work of Cyril Connolly, William Empson, Joseph Brodsky or Viktor Shlovsky.