Criticism and feuds

28th July 1995 at 01:00
F R Leavis: A Life in Criticism, By Ian MacKillop, Allen Lane Pounds 25 0 713 99062 7

Christopher Hawtree assesses the stormy life of F R Leavis.

Few books last. Most wither before a year is out. Others might spring back from obscurity, but it is a rare work that is known a century on. A critic, whatever his role in the process, can hardly hope to escape it himself. Almost 20 years have gone by since the death of F R Leavis, and one's impression is that he is no longer a force.

Adherents have produced tributes of various hue in this time, but, whatever his incidental merit, these never quash the suspicion that his vehemence sprang from the guilty knowledge that, as much as the Sitwells, he belonged "to the history of publicity rather than poetry". Not for him flowing gowns, large rings and the declaiming of work through a megaphone, but his penchant for keeping open several buttons of a shirt - the Leavis baggy fit - and that preposterous sense of grievance and feud were as gratingly colourful as any of Dame Edith's escapades.

As such, he awaits a full biography, should anybody care to devote time to it. In the meanwhile, there comes a curious volume by Ian MacKillop. The subtitle, "A Life in Criticism", suggests what can be inferred from the clumsy prose of a confused and repetitive narrative: whatever the intentions with which Professor MacKillop began his work, the result is less a biography than a study which leaves the reader to disinter some events of Leavis's life from the morass of detail which certainly succeeds in recreating the tedium of all the committee meetings which his life entailed. Perhaps the most startling detail of the book's wayward organisation is a photograph of Morris Shapira and the caption "shortly before his murder in 1981" - nowhere else is this mentioned, let alone the circumstances (one might almost suspect by this point that a hit-man was despatched from Downing College).

As was the case with Denys Thompson's 1984 collection of reminiscences, MacKillop's book comes rather more alive when college matters are set aside and Leavis is pictured at home, where, by all accounts, he could display a wit and charm - and taste for port - which one might not have inferred from so much of his increasingly obsessional writing. A critic is scarcely disinterested, no writer is, and it is becoming clearer that Leavis's combative stance owes much to his own circumstances.

Not the least of these were his Great War experiences, of which he rarely spoke and which delayed a start to his life's work. Retirement was on the horizon when his fame hit a peak in the Fifties, that decade in which the immediate demands of Scrutiny were over: like most literary magazines, its circulation was never more than 1,200 but in itself and in the books it spawned, the influence was certainly great. He had been approaching 40 when his first book appeared, in 1932, the same year as his wife's Fiction and the Reading Public. Decades went by before her name appeared upon another, that collaboration in which they deigned to find more to Dickens than Hard Times.

From MacKillop's pages, as with Thompson's collection, one can see that she was the cause of so many a dust-up over matters whose triviality beggars belief. So many friends were violently dropped. Her sense of persecution was perhaps not helped by illness; even so, MacKillop leaves one to guess at the details of such matters as the terrible break with her gifted son (his childhood meeting with T S Eliot is a hoot) and exactly what was in the one-line reply sent at her behest to I A Richards when, after years of enforced silence, he graciously wrote to congratulate Leavis on the Companion of Honour.

For a critic who so often spoke of "life", Leavis was singularly maladroit at organising his own. To read this account of their early years together, one might imagine that no author had ever been obliged to battle against the odds and been hard up; this should be a spur to production rather than breed the costive sourness indulged by Leavis's wife. (When funds did accrue, he, like Forster, left them in a current account - some Pounds 17,000 in the Seventies. ) How different a course his spirit might have taken had Queenie allowed him a dog (as it was, towards the end, she made the bizarre suggestion that a tortoise would provide a new interest).

Much continues to be made of his close reading of a text, a technique which often led to his slapping down a large stretch of text in his work (only at the last minute did his publisher find that no permission had been sought for the use of copious copyright material in D H Lawrence: Novelist and accommodation was made in the nick of time). All good critics immerse themselves in a work under discussion, but the skill in giving a sedulous account of it is that the effort should not show.

Claims that Leavis was in the vanguard of appreciation are also misplaced. All his contemporary enthusiasms, such as Eliot, Hopkins and Lawrence, were anticipated by those obliged to toil in his scorned metropolis. New Bearings in English Poetry, for example, is said to have alerted the world to Hopkins, but more than a decade earlier Virginia Woolf had said in a letter, "I liked them better than any poetry for ever so long; partly because they're so different, but also because instead of writing mere rhythms and sense as most poets do, he makes a strange jumble; so that what is apparently pure nonsense is at the same time very beautiful, and not nonsense at all."

Leavis in his dogmatism does not offer continual stimulation. One does not return to his criticism and find fresh horizons, as one does with his exact contemporary Edmund Wilson (who also served in the ambulance units). Where Leavis dwelt on a few authors, Wilson was always in search of more, and not content to limit himself to English. When Leavis lectured on Anna Karenina, he announced that he had no Russian, but this was one of the many languages which Wilson learnt in order to get close to a text - at the end, in his seventies, he had embarked on Hungarian. It is a similar quality that one finds in Saintsbury. For all Leavis's reiterated talk of the university - and English in particular - as a bulwark against the forces of technological malevolence, he had less of the open-minded quest for knowledge which one finds in those excellent autodidacts, Virginia Woolf and V S Pritchett. An irony of which MacKillop is unaware is that Leavis's loyal publisher, Ian Parsons, also published Woolf and Pritchett and many of his Bloomsbury derisions, among them Lytton Strachey, F L Lucas and David Garnett. One can only wonder at Parsons's reaction had Leavis, when asked for an autobiography, come up with the novel which he mooted instead. This is perhaps MacKillop's most startling revelation. Alas, however, he offers nothing about a novel that did get written and was published within Leavis's lifetime. Tom Sharpe not only amalgamated the titles of two of Leavis's best-known works to form The Great Pursuit but also depicted him therein as the female author of a preposterous novel. Despite the tangled animosities chronicled by MacKillop, there are glimpses now and then of a man who might have laughed at Sharpe's pages - if his wife was out of earshot.

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