- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 23, 2003

TWENTIETH-CENTURY ATTITUDES: LITERARY POWERS IN UNCERTAIN TIMES

By Brooke Allen

Ivan R. Dee, $26, 256 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

In the June issue of “The New Criterion”— where most of the reviews in this book first appeared—Brooke Allen defended the activity of literary criticism. “Critics have always been regarded … as a species of cultural parasite, and are sometimes obliged to justify their activities to a public that deifies the creative imagination at the expense of what they see as arid intellectualism,” she wrote. Criticism is important she noted because “a culture amounts to a sort of extended conversation, and conversation demands response and commentary as well as declarative statements.”

Well, yes. But a more practical function of reviewers is to provide the reader with enough information to answer the question: “Do I want to buy this book?” Ms. Allen admirably performs this task in her review of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries, one of the 18 essays collected in “Twentieth-Century Attitudes.” When she tells readers that at least half the diaries consist of “repetitious and uninteresting material,” that the book is 900 pages long and that this is only volume one, I know that this is a tome I will never buy.

Why oh why when busy people have less and less time for reading, does the publishing industry continue to issue whole forests of biographies, diaries, journals and correspondence weighing in at 600 pages or more when 300-400 pages would do the job as well if not better? (At 300 or so pages, V.S. Pritchett’s biography of Anton Chekhov remains a model of brevity and scholarship.) Ms. Allen makes the point that “yet another Waugh biography, this time more than 600 pages, would not seem to be a strict necessity” and she’s right, especially as the one under review, by Selena Hastings, came hard on the heels of Martin Stannard’s well-received two-volume biography.

Most of the biographies Ms. Allen reviewed here are too long for my taste. Just the thought of carrying one around makes me feel tired: Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (760 pages), Margaret Drabble’s biography of Angus Wilson (714 pages), James Atlas on Saul Bellow (688 pages), and Judith Thurman on Colette (592 pages). Ms. Allen has dutifully plowed through them all (and related works besides), saving us the trouble of doing so. And her diligence pays off. One of the delicious nuggets she has extracted from the Hastings biography is a remark by Waugh’s father about Evelyn’s enigmatic wife Laura (a puzzle not only to scholars but to everyone who knew her):

“I don’t know whether she has a very strong character, & is able to keep all her feelings to herself; or whether she is a case of arrested development, soothed by Papal dope.”

The lead essay on Colette sets the tone for the entire collection: an agreeable mix of biographical background and astute literary judgment with a dash of gossip. Naturellement Colette’s scandalous goings-on made her a subject of gossip all her life. A string of lesbian lovers, a stint in vaudeville, and an affair with her teenage stepson when she was nearly 50 were merely the highlights of a distinctly checkered career, catalogued with relish by Ms. Allen.

Strangely, after her death Colette, like Virginia Woolf, became an icon of late twentieth century feminism, though neither was a feminist. “Suffragettes, [Colette] memorably declared, deserved the whip and the harem,” notes Ms. Allen, exercising a nice talent for the juicy quote. She notes also that the publication of Colette’s first novel, “Claudine at School,” was accompanied by the kind of marketing spin-off that is common today but unheard of a century ago. There were Claudine hats, collars, perfume, cigarettes, even candies and ice cream, plus a special French twist: every brothel in Paris had a resident Claudine.

Like Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford, Ms. Allen thinks gossip is too serious to be treated lightly. “Great gossip is as rare as great literature—rarer,” begins her piece on Mitford, a world-class gossip whose lively novels and witty letters masked a dark, bitter side. “As an art form it requires a fine balance between delicacy and vulgarity and a naked joy in the foibles of others that is not always given to the most exquisite literary minds.”

That is well said and so is this, of Edith Wharton, one of her heroes: “Edith Wharton counted her friendship with Henry James as the crown jewel of her career, but it just might have been a curse …”

When she sees fit, Ms. Allen is not afraid to take down established writers. Her comments on John Barth (“a self-indulgent windbag”) and James Baldwin (she finds the later novels “fatuous, meandering, unedited rehashes of his earlier themes”) are no surprise. But her assessment of Saul Bellow, former Young Turk now become Grand Old Man of letters, does not convince. Mr. Bellow, she writes in her largely favorable review of James Atlas’ carping biography, “will not, perhaps, prove the great writer he has aspired to be.” Perhaps; but if the critic’s job is to evaluate the artist’s work without being unduly influenced by the life, both Ms. Allen and Mr. Atlas have fallen short.

On the other hand, she enjoys buffing the image of little known or out-of-print writers such as Angus Wilson, who died almost destitute in 1991 despite the critical success of his savagely funny post-war novels. From Margaret Drabble’s fat biography Ms. Allen plucks a choice description of Wilson as deputy superintendent of the British Museum reading room: “a colorful bird in a vast circular cage, bow-tied, blue-rinsed, chattering loudly to readers and staff and friends on the telephone … He never ever said ‘Shh!’” One can only hope with Ms. Allen that the Drabble biography — or her review of it — will attract new readers to Wilson’s “eccentric, intelligent fiction”.

In “Twentieth-Century Attitudes” Brooke Allen offers wide-ranging, frequently provocative reflections on literature and the art of writing in its 229 pages. You may not agree with some of its judgments but it may encourage you to read a book by a neglected writer like Henry Green or Sylvia Townsend Warner or Rohinton Mistry (“not a household name, but it should be”). I recommend it.

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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