"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Come Back Leavis All is Forgiven

Sorry, that was naughty of me, a catchpenny headline, for poor Frank L is no longer a force in the world of criticism. But the recent "Booker of Bookers" ballyhoo set me wondering about the perennial obsession with rankings and prizes and names excluded from or put in a canon which, supposedly, the last decade or two of High Literary Theory was meant to have put paid to, with everyone "equally valid". When it came to defining an exclusive canon the critic F.R. Leavis (who cast a long shadow over anyone "doing English" in the post-war school and university system) was up there with the best of them. My old Prof. of English at Liverpool University, Kenneth Allott, complained that Leavis wanted literature to be "like a well-swept room" that contained only a few exquisite pieces of furniture. Another word for this is English Puritanism which Leavis (of Huguenot stock actually) embodied - open neck shirts when collars and ties were the norm and a clean-limbed muscular approach to the business of literature. I used to have problems with my chums on the Left in my Bennite days because, as a dedicated hedonist, I found the puritan streak of the progressive classes got up my nose (especially when the latter was buried in a decent beaker of wine) but it's still with us. Leavis's famous "Great Tradition" published in the austerity year of 1948 was his triumph of lofty prescription. Moving some books the other day I found that I had it still, a second hand copy of the first 1962 Peregrine edition, which, as you see, has three of his superstars on the cover (and cost its first owner only nine bob!). There ought to be a word to define this accidental rediscovery of the contents of one's own library (biblioserendipity?) where one opens up at page one and reads: "The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad..." That's FRL for you, shooting from the hip. No prisoners, no argument, this was the Great Tradition. Then you notice something about this list of the great English: half of them are, er, not exactly English. An American and a Pole sit alongside Jane Austen and George Eliot. One doesn't normally think of Leavis as a multicultural kind of guy but, look, he also ticks the gender positive box with half of his Gang of Four women. And here's another thing you didn't know: old man Leavis ran a piano shop in Cambridge with the slogan: LEAVIS SPELLS PIANOS. It's a funny old world.


Andrew K said...

Not strong on geography, Leavis, was he? I've only read enough James to be bored once- Daisy Miller twas- & steering this in the perenially pleasing world of the list, I'd perhaps place John Cowper Powys as one of the great English novelists- notwithstanding his being Welsh, I think. I'd also have to include Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Camus. Dostoevsky of course spent a little time in London, during the journey that produced Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, while Tolstoy's aristocratic sense clearly marks him out as more than pseudo-English, and with a Christian name of Albert, who could argue with Camus' inclusion?

Mark Thwaite said...

Leavis passed my generation by completely but he's fun (fun, but very, very wrong!) to read now, I think.

His judgements are so often dead wrong (he hates Sterne!!) -- but his judgmentalism is kind of thrilling. Nobody writes with his kind of certainty any more. And with the papers full of so much puffing, his narrow vision feels almost like an antidote.

The Great Tradition is really about just 3 books -- that's some filtering mechanism he had!

Anonymous said...

The great tradition is a great read. The great man is never troubled by any doubts on literary matters. I am surprised to find I agree with most of what he says. If you include a Pole and an American in your list of English greats I should like to suggest you also include an Irishman, Joyce, and a Russian, Tolstoy. Now I am sure I haven't forgotten anyone