There is no ism in review

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, a review by Arnold Bennett of Laura Riding’s book:

Spanish literary reviews, like the landscape, tend to be somewhat flat. Worthy, serious, detailed they may be, they are also a bit dull. In this week’s literary supplement in El Pais, Babelia, there are five pages on the Spanish literary exiles of the Civil War, a dissection of Picasso’s genius, an Italian writer called Luigi Pintor, an interview with Yasmin Reza, two pages on Edward Hopper, reviews of books about the vanguardista Maruja Mallo, translations of Danish poetry, Spinoza and his century, an anthology of ultraist poetry and two books on slavery; there’s also an article on the novel and masturbation. Take a look at the Saturday Review of The Guardian and there’s an article entitled Amis – national treasure or national embarrassment. The Spanish equivalent would be an article entitled Antonio Muñoz Molina – he’s a bit mental isn’t he?

It’s not going to happen and I think it’s not going to happen because the Spanish literary world, apart from being from being small, is a comfortable one with frequent conferences for the successful writers and respectful reviews for the newcomers. Nobody wants to rock the boat. British literary culture, on the other hand, sometimes appears to be built on the premise of not just rocking the boat but sinking it with heavy naval gunfire. From Wordsworth’s dismissal of Coleridge as a drunkard, Thackeray’s accusations of Dicken’s infidelity to Zadie Smith’s spat with the critic James Wood about contemporary literary theory, the British literary world has been characterised by snide, bitchy, funny and untrue comments. But as Orson Welles pointed out in The Third Man, centuries of peace in Switzerland had led to the invention of the cuckoo clock, whereas thirty years of the Borgias had led to murder, warfare, terror and, of course, Michaelangelo. You can see where that metaphor is leading to, can’t you?

Our man Bennett had his fair share of literary feuds, the one with Virginia Woolf being possibly the most famous and the one with his neighbour’s cat that shat in his beetroot being less well-known (the beetroot was in the jar, not in the garden). Considering that he had a regular review column in the The Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 and was one of Britain’s most influential book critics (if not the most influential critic) it is surprising that he did not have more. I think he largely escaped the backbiting gossip because his reviews drew on his love of reading and he wrote without rancor. They are in a word disarming, Consider this from the first of March, 1928. Reviewing Laura Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs (Cape, 7s 6d), he wrote:

…Miss Riding possesses intellectual power; also some intelligence. Also various defects. I shall not attempt to state her theory of modernist poetry. In order to do so, I should have to read the book again, and I would not read it again for £100. The book is metaphysics. I think it would interest Mr. Bertrand Russell, who probably alone in England is capable of grappling with it effectively.

I am sure Miss Riding gained extra readers from this review, probably declaring “What is good for Mr. Russell is good enough for me.”

I could read a book of these reviews, which is what I am doing. Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, edited by Andrew Mylett (Chatto and Windus, ). Long out of print, it is well worth tracking down on Alibris or Abebooks. The voice of the intelligent middlebrow, Bennett is never less than chatty in tone and engaging in content. He is a raconteur of literary anecdotes which are at odd with the stammer he suffered from. The gods, being Greek, have, if nothing else, a keen sense of irony.

The cat, I’m afraid, is an invention. But in the alternative universe which skips behind our own, that cat marvels at his ability to open a jar of beetroot and shit in it.

Laura Riding was, on the other hand, very real. Poet (although she later renounced her poetry), critic, partner of Robert Graves, she lived until the ripe old age of 90, dying in Florida in 1991.

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2 Comments

  1. Kate

     /  July 3, 2012

    One of your best, old boy! I have to find that book …

    Reply
  2. Thanks Kate. I realise that with every blog I turn even more into my dad: flippant, a taste for the ephemeral, well-read and a strong desire to entertain rather than inform (some of those statements are true).
    The Bennett book is a joy. Having read a couple of reviews I see I could have based the whole blog on it.

    Reply

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