What good are the artists? Or, for that matter, the critics?

Here’s a recent review I wrote  for the Irish Examiner

Oxford Life in BooksThe Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books

John Carey

Faber; £18.99

Review: Val Nolan

It is no surprise to find that this memoir by Britain’s leading literary critic is full of symbols: A shallow-bottomed canoe which goes to places other boats dare not; a Bakelite radio that picks up nothing but static from the universe beyond the written word; the Crystal Palace in flames as the era of empires draws to a close. Yet John Carey’s earliest memory is the oddest of all: an elephant on a London street. Of the many totems in The Unexpected Professor, this great beast – mighty in reputation but charming in person – is perhaps the one which most resembles the author.

An academic, biographer, and a longstanding presence in the British press, (particularly in the Sunday Times, for which he has written since 1975), the eighty year old Carey is now an emeritus professor at Oxford where he taught English literature for four decades. He has chaired the Booker prize, authored volumes about Donne, Thackeray, and William Golding, and, famously, has proven to be an uncompromising critic. It is therefore a revelation to meet him as a child reading the kind of Biggles adventures which taught that “courage matters more than understanding poetry”.

No doubt it does, depending on the courage required or the poetry in question, however the double-take such a comment elicits is typical of Carey’s irreverent and entertaining journey to the top of the ivory tower. At no point is he beyond mining the streak of the ridiculous which runs through mid-century British life and, indeed, once he undertakes his National Service he discovers that, far from Biggles, the army “turned out to consist, to an unexpectedly large extent, of dressing and undressing very quickly and often”.

The armed forces also exhibited a slavish devotion to the English class system and, in that way at least, the pantomime of soldiery suitably prepared Carey for the “infectious snobbishness” of Oxford. The undergraduate years he describes were an unreal life of book-littered rooms, servants (or “scouts” in the local parlance), and luxurious meals even as the rest of Britain struggled with post-war austerity. Carey, the proud but then self-conscious product of a grammar school education, learned to pretend “to be like any other St. John’s freshman”. Nowadays he supposes that “a lot of them were pretending too”.

Servants aside, the opulence might leave some contemporary students jealous, but Carey himself wisely refused to buy into Oxford’s elitism and social division. His move from St. John’s to the leftist and tolerant Balliol College, a “civilised place where disagreement could resolve itself in laughter, not anger,” suited him well. Within its walls he found his ideal Oxford, an institution “full of brilliant minds” where class distinctions “counted for nothing”.

It is here too that the real meat of The Unexpected Professor reveals itself. The book is a time capsule from a just-past age when universities regarded their Humanities departments as engines of intellectual and creative energy, not a hindrance to league table mobility or national economic goals. The shift from then to now is all the more remarkable when one considers the titanic, if idiosyncratic, talent to emerge from the system Carey encountered: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden… none of whom could have functioned within the pharaonic third level culture of today, a maze of branding, quotas, bloated bureaucracy, and strategic visions.

“I heard,” Carey writes, “that one of my ex-students, when he was appointed to a lectureship at a provincial university, innocently proposed that they should give the same amount of time to teaching as I had. He was laughed at, on the grounds that their staff-to-student ratio made it impossible. All the same, I think he had a point, and the current abandonment of regular tutor-student contact in many English universities seems to me a disgrace”.

Not that the author claims all was ideal in his day. For one thing “women were segregated in five heavily fortified colleges on the outskirts of town”. For another, “the Oxford English syllabus in the 1950s was a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour. Its cut-off point was 1832 – that is, it omitted all Victorian and twentieth century literature”. Equally, the glimpse into the Bodleian Library’s catalogue room, “virtually the same as it had been throughout the nineteenth century,” is delightfully kooky in a Harry Potter fashion, but today’s option of searching its holdings online instead is unquestionably a positive achievement of the Internet Age.

Of course, part of the pleasure of The Unexpected Professor is being allowed to peruse Carey’s own lifelong library. “Literature,” he says, “trains you in ways of thought outside your own place and time”. Here he offers asides on great books from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, “the world’s first science-fiction novel,” to how the treatment of Sancho Panza in Don Quixote “reeked of injustice and class discrimination”. George Eliot “is great because she is serious and rational. Dickens is great because he is not. He is an anarchic comic genius, and critics who treated him as a moralist seemed to me way off course”.

A keen eye and a sharp wit eventually brought Carey out of the academy’s cloistered halls and into the realm of mainstream book reviewing. For one of his first assignments he was sent Seamus Heaney’s early pamphlet Eleven Poems (1965) which he devoured with “mounting astonishment” and decided that, if this was the kind of work available, then writing for the papers was a “job to hang on to”.

Reviewers, he says, “can make enemies,” which is true if you are doing it right, but he nonetheless believes in the value and vitality of broadsheet criticism while also admitting that, though it is guided by knowledge and experience, such work is always subjective. Anyone who has read his infamous What Good Are the Arts? (2005) knows that Carey believes some readers will just like a book and some readers won’t. Which is about as accurate a description of reviewing as this critic has come across, and a salve, perhaps, for those writers who feel slighted.

Certainly Carey himself has been attacked in the past however this new volume is unlikely to provoke the same ire as, for instance, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992). A minor but enjoyable work by a major figure, The Unexpected Professor is accessible, welcoming, and lively. Or, if you prefer, the exact opposite of most academic writing. Whether he be dining with Robert Graves or feeling “shamed by the nobility” of Ted Hughes, John Carey’s palpable joy at literature and learning jumps off the page. If he is immodest at times (and he is), well, he has earned that right. This warm and engaging record of books read and book written only proves as much.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches literature at NUI Galway. His story ‘The Irish Astronaut’ has been selected for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year (Volume Eight) to be published by Solaris in May.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 5 April 2014 (Weekend, pp.34-35).

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One Response to What good are the artists? Or, for that matter, the critics?

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