Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2006

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: February 2006

Nick Hornby
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  • Eminent Churchillians—Andrew Roberts
  • The Holy Fox: A Biography of Lord Halifax—Andrew Roberts
  • The Tender Bar: A Memoir—J. R. Moehringer
  • The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil—George Saunders
  • Only in London—Hanan Al-Shaykh
  • Traffics and Discoveries—Rudyard Kipling
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare—G. K. Chesterton
  • Ghosting: A Double Life—Jennie Erdal
  • Untold Stories—Alan Bennett
  • Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985—Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite
  • Scenes from Life—William Cooper


  • Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940–1985—Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite
  • On Beauty—Zadie Smith
  • Five Days in London, May 1940—John Lukacs
  • All the King’s Men—Robert Penn Warren
  • Only in London—Hanan Al-Shaykh
  • What Good Are the Arts?—John Carey
  • The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare—G. K. Chesterton

If, as a recent survey in the UK suggested, most people buy books because they like to be seen reading rather than because they actually enjoy it, then I would suggest that you can’t beat a collection of letters by an author—and if that author is a poet, then so much the better. The implication is clear: you know the poet’s work inside out (indeed, what you’re saying is that if you read his or her entire oeuvre one more time, then the lines would ring round and round in your head like a Kelly Clarkson tune), and you now need something else, something that might help to shed some light on some of the more obscure couplets.

So there I am, reading Larkin’s letters every chance I get, and impressing the hell out of anyone who spots me doing so. (Never mind that I never go anywhere, and that therefore the only person likely to spot me doing so is my partner, who at the time I’m most likely to be reading Larkin’s letters is very much a sleeping partner.) And what I’m actually reading is stuff like this: “Katherine Mansfield is a cunt.” “I think this [poem] is really bloody cunting fucking good.” “I have just made up a rhyme: After a particularly good game of rugger / A man called me a bugger / Merely because in a loose scrum / I had my cock up his bum.” “Your letter found me last night when I came in off the piss: in point of fact I had spewed out of a train window and farted in the presence of ladies and generally misbehaved myself.” And so on. In other words, you get to have your cake and eat it: you look like un homme ou femme sérieux/sérieuse, but you feel like a twelve-year-old who’s somehow being allowed to read Playboy in an English lesson. And what you come to realize is that the lifestyle of a naughty twelve-year-old is enervating to the max, if you’re a grown-up; indeed, there are quite a few thirteen-year-olds who would find great chunks of Larkin’s correspondence embarrassingly puerile.

The irony is that I was drawn to Larkin’s letters through that beautiful poem “Church Going,” which makes a case for the value of churches long after organized religion has lost its appeal and its point: “And that much never can be obsolete / Since someone will forever be surprising / A hunger in himself to be more serious.” This last line was quoted in an article I was reading in the Economist, of all places, and it struck a post-Gilead chord with me, so I reread a few of the poems and then decided that I’d like access to the prose version of the mind that created them. And yes, you can see where Larkin’s hunger to become more serious came from; if I had a mouth like that, I’d have wanted to pay frequent visits to God’s house, too.

Larkin writes brilliantly and enthusiastically about his jazz records, and every now and again there’s a peach of a letter about writing:

Poetry (at any rate in my case) is like trying to remember a tune you’ve forgotten. All corrections are attempts to get nearer to the forgotten tune. A poem is written because the poet gets a sudden vision—lasting one second or less—and he attempts to express the whole of which the vision is a part.

And that’s the sort of thing you want, surely, when you wade through a writer’s letters. What you end up with, however, is a lot of stuff about farting and wanking. Every now and again you are reminded forcibly that the ability to write fiction or poetry is not necessarily indicative of a particularly refined intelligence, no matter what we’d like to believe; it’s a freakish talent, like the ability to bend a ball into the top corner of the goal from a thirty-yard free kick, but no one’s interested in reading Thierry Henry’s collected letters—no literary critic, anyway. And Thierry would never call Katherine Mansfield a cunt, not least because he’s a big fan of the early stories. Anyway, I have given up on Larkin for the moment. The rest of you: stick to the poems.

As nobody noticed, probably, I was barred from the Believer again last month, this time for quoting from one of Philip Larkin’s letters, more or less accurately—what’s a second-person pronoun between friends?—at an editorial meeting. The Polysyllabic Spree, the seventy-eight repellently evangelical young men and women who run the magazine, “couldn’t hear the quotation marks,” apparently, and anyway, as they pointed out (somewhat unnecessarily, I felt), I’m no Larkin. So I have a lot of ground to cover here—I have had several Major Reading Experiences over the last couple of months, and I’ve got to cram them all into a couple of measly pages, all because of those teenage white-robed prudes. Oh, it’s not your problem. I’ll just get on with it. I know I won’t need to tell you anything about Zadie Smith’s warm, moving, smart, and thoroughly enjoyable On Beauty; Hanan Al-Shaykh was one of the authors I met on a recent trip to Reykjavik, and her lovely novel Only in London was a perfect reflection of the woman: surprising, fun, thoughtful.

A disgruntled Barnesandnoble.com punter slams Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men: “Oh well,” says our critic in his one-star review. “At least it was better than the Odyssey.” This means, presumably, that the Odyssey is a no-star book; you have to admire someone prepared to flout conventional literary wisdom so publicly. I personally don’t agree, and for me the Odyssey still has the edge, but Warren’s novel seems to have held up pretty well. It’s overwritten, here and there—Warren can’t see a sunny day without comparing it to a freckly girl wearing a polka-dot dress and new shoes, sitting on a fence clutching a strawberry lollipop and whistling—and at one point, apropos of almost nothing, there’s a thirty-page story set during the Civil War which seems to belong to another book altogether. You could be for-given for thinking that All the King’s Men could have done with a little more editing, rather than a little less; but the edition I read is a new “restored” edition of the novel, containing a whole bunch of stuff—a hundred pages, apparently—that were omitted from the version originally published. A hundred pages! Oh, dear God. Those of us still prepared to pick up sixty-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winners should be rewarded, not horribly and unfairly punished.

You may well already have read All the King’s Men; you will, therefore, be familiar with Willie Stark, Penn’s central character, a demagogic Southern politician whose rise and demise deliberately recalls that of Huey Long. Me, I’ve just read a book about someone called Willie Talos—the name Warren originally wanted until he was talked out of it by his editor. I think the editor was right; as Joyce Carol Oates said in her NYRB piece about the restored edition, “‘Talos’ is a showy, pretentious, rather silly name in the ‘Stephen Dedalus’ tradition, while ‘Willie Stark’ is effective without being an outright nudge in the ribs.” But even that, I don’t think, is the point; the point is that Willie Stark is now the character’s name, whatever the author intended all those years ago, and whichever name is better is a moot point. I feel as though I’ve just read a book about David Copperbottom or Holden Calderwood or Jay Gatsbergen. You can’t mess around with that stuff, surely? These people exist independently of the books, now—I have, I now realize, seen countless references to Willie Stark in reviews and magazine articles, but as the book isn’t widely known or read here in the UK, I had no idea that was who I was reading about until after I’d finished.

Talos was, apparently, the Guardian of Crete, who threw boulders at people attempting to land on the island; he was also a mechanical man attendant on the Knight of Justice in Spenser’s “Faerie Queene.” These are both very good reasons why Talos is a very bad name for a Southern American politician, I would have thought, and I can imagine that a good editor would have made the same arguments. Noel Polk, who put this new edition together, is of the opinion that Warren was badly served by the editing process; in a reply to Joyce Carol Oates’s piece, he claims that “many of us are interested in more than a good read,” and that he knows, and Oates doesn’t, “how often well-intentioned commercial editors have altered novels for the worse.” If I were Robert Penn Warren’s editor, I’d point to a Pulitzer Prize and sixty years in print as all the vindication I needed; we will never know whether Polk’s version would ever have endured any-where near as well. There is even the possibility, of course, that if Warren had had his way in 1947, there would have been no interest in any kind of edition in the twenty-first century. I can see that scholars might want to compare and contrast, but I notice on Amazon that the long ’un I read now has a movie tie-in cover. Caveat emptor.

I reread John Lukacs’s little book on what turned out to be the biggest decision of the twentieth century—namely, Churchill’s decision not to seek terms with Hitler in May 1940—because I found it on my bookshelf and realized that the only thing I could remember was Churchill deciding not to seek terms with Hitler in 1940.And I kind of knew that bit before I read it. So this time, I’m going to make a few notes that help make it all stick—it’s great, having this column, because I keep the magazines, but I’d probably lose a notebook. Excuse me a moment. Norway defeat brings down Chamberlain; C becomes PM 5/10/1940. Early unpopularity of C in his own party—“blood, sweat, toil, and tears” speech didn’t go down well— “gangsters” + “rogue elephant.” Churchill v HALIFAX. Churchill and Lloyd George—wanted him in the Cabinet because LG admired Hitler, who might appoint him if and when… Dunkirk: feared max 50,000 evacuated—in the end over 338,000.

Thanks. That’ll really help.

Lukacs’s book is completely gripping, clear, and informative, and corroborates a theory I’ve been developing recently: the less there is to say about something, the more opaque the writing tends to be. In other words, you hardly ever come across an unreadable book on World War II, but pick up a book on, I don’t know, the films of Russ Meyer, and you’ll be rereading the same impossible sentence about poststructuralist auteurism three hundred times. People have to over-compensate, you see. And Five Days in London also helped give a context for Philip Larkin’s early letters, too. Here’s Larkin, in 1942: “If there is any new life in the world today, it is in Germany.” “Germany will win this war like a dose of salts” (1940). “And I agree we don’t deserve to win” (1942). Lukacs points out that there was a grudging admiration for Hitler’s Germany in Britain: we were clapped-out, the old order, whereas Germany was thrusting, energetic, modern. And he also notes that it was the intellectuals—and I suppose Larkin must be categorized thus, despite the farting—who were most prone to defeatism. Ha! That’s the Spree, right there. They’re very brave when it comes to suspending innocent columnists. But you wait until some-one (and my money is on the French) lands on the West Coast. You won’t see them for dust.

And the coveted “Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Stuff That Stayed Read” award for the nonfiction book of 2005 goes to… John Carey, for What Good Are the Arts? It’s rare, I think, for a writer, maybe for anyone, to feel that he’s just read a book that absolutely expresses who he or she is, and what he or she believes, while at the same time recognizing that he or she could not have written any of it. But Carey’s book—which in its first two chapters answers the questions “What is a work of art?” and “Is high art superior?”—is my new bible, replacing my previous bible, Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses. I couldn’t have written it because I—and I’m not alone, by any means—do not have Carey’s breadth of reading, nor his calm, wry logic, which enables him to demolish the arguments of just about everyone who has ever talked tosh about objective aesthetic principles. And this group, it turns out, includes anyone who has ever talked about objective aesthetic principles, from Kant onwards. What Good Are the Arts? is a very wise book, and a very funny book, but beyond even these virtues, it’s a very humane, inclusive, and empathetic book: as we all know, it’s impossible to talk about “high” art without insulting the poor, or the young, or those without a university degree, or those who have no taste for, or interest in, Western culture. Carey’s approach to the whole sorry mess is the only one that makes any sense. Indeed, while reading it, you become increasingly amazed at the muddle that apparently intelligent people have got themselves into when they attempt to define the importance of—and the superiority of— “high” culture.

Just after I’d finished it, and I was looking at the world through Carey’s eyes, the winner of the 2005 Booker Prize claimed that at least his was a “proper” book—as if Green Eggs and Ham or Bridget Jones’s Diary weren’t proper books. And then, a few days later, the Guardian’s art correspondent launched an astonishing attack on the popular British artist Jack Vettriano: “Vettriano is not even an artist.” (No, he’s just someone who paints pictures and sells them. What do you call those people again?) “He just happens to be popular, with ‘ordinary people’…. I’m not arguing with you, I’m telling you…. Some things about art are true, and some are false—all of which was easier to explain before we decided popularity was the litmus test of aesthetic achievement….”

Oh, man. That’s got it all. This is not the time or the place to unravel the snobbery and the unexamined assumptions contained in those few lines; it’s easier just to say that nothing about art is true, and nothing is false. And if that’s scary, then I’m sorry, but you have to get over it and move on.

I read G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday because (a) I’d never read a word by Chesterton and (b) because I’d decided that from now on I’d only read stuff that John Carey recommends (in his useful little book Pure Pleasure). And it was pretty good, although I think that younger readers might get a little frustrated with the plotting. I don’t want to give too much away. But say you were an x, and you believed that a group of seven people were all not xs but ys. And then you discovered that the first of these seven was actually an x, too. And then you found out the same thing about the second, and then the third. Wouldn’t you start to get the idea? Yes, well. Anyway, I can’t say anything else about it now other than that it’s a novel that fundamentally believes in the decency and the wisdom of us all, and you don’t find too many of those. John Carey has now made me buy a book by Kipling, and I didn’t think anyone would ever manage that.

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