Thursday, March 23, 2023

The 100 best nonfiction books / No 31 / The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948)


The 100 best nonfiction books: No 31 – The Great Tradition by FR Leavis (1948)

The controversial critic’s statement on English literature is an entertaining, often shocking, dissection of the novel, the effects of which are still felt to this day

Robert McCrum

Monday 29 August 2016

For about half of the 20th century, the English literary tradition was arbitrated by a critic whose ideas transformed the intellectual landscape of his time, and whose influence lingers still. I write this from personal experience: as a student, I was lucky enough to see FR Leavis in action. It’s hard now to convey the peculiar fervour and excitement – the frisson – that surrounded this Cambridge don with his open white shirt and intense, bird-like demeanour, in front of his acolytes and disciples. And it’s perhaps even harder to recognise how completely Leavis, and the literary critical consensus associated with his name, has been swept aside since his death in 1978.

To understand the hold Leavis had over the minds of students who came of age in the 60s and 70s, I want to quote from an interview given to The Paris Review by the writer and psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, in which he describes the impact of Leavisite teaching on his adolescence:

“It was contagious and inspiring. My teacher had been taught by FR Leavis at Cambridge. Leavis was a literary critic who treated English literature as a secular religion, a kind of answer to what he thought was a post-Christian society. He had a fanatical assurance about literature… And my teacher at school felt something comparably zealous… It was conveyed to us that certain books really did matter and that you were involved in some rearguard action for the profound human values in these books. This was conveyed very powerfully – that the way to learn how to live and to live properly was to read English literature – and it worked for me. I was taught close, attentive reading, and to ironize the ambitions of grand theory.”

FR Leavis: ‘He offered, to the serious reader of fiction, a moment of exemplary clarity’. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/

As zealot-in-chief, FR (Frank Raymond) Leavis, born in Cambridge in 1895, was shaped by the non-conformism of an East Anglian upbringing. In his prime, his criticism was distinctive for its uncompromising association of literature and morality. Having served in the ambulance corps during the first world war, he went on to pioneer a new literary critical aesthetic from the early 1930s when, as a young don, he founded the quarterly review, Scrutiny. Leavis would edit this extraordinarily influential journal from 1932 to 1953. At the same time, he published the works that established his reputation, New Bearings in English Poetry (1932), Revaluation (1936), the immensely important essays from The Common Pursuit (1952) and, before that, perhaps his best-known critical statement, The Great Tradition.

In this polemical tour de force, Leavis expounded his belief in an inalienable connection between literature and morality, with special reference to the work of just five great novelists, his chosen representatives of “the great tradition” – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence.

Not everyone accepted the moral ferocity of Leavis’s judgement. To some in the academic critical establishment, Leavis was anathema. He, however, never wavered in his opposition to what he saw as the frivolous and dilettante ways of Bloomsbury, always insisting that “form” was the novelist’s first responsibility, and that novels that expressed an indifference to “form” would always be less important.

In the broader evaluation of the English literary tradition, Leavis never took prisoners. He pronounced Milton as “negligible”, dismissed “the Romantics”, and believed that, after John Donne, there is “no poet we need bother about except Hopkins and Eliot”.

And when it came to English fiction, Leavis believed that “some challenging discriminations are very much called for”. Nevertheless, he claimed it would be a misrepresentation of his views to suggest that, apart from Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad, “there are no novelists in English worth reading”.

The knockabout opening chapter of The Great Tradition is still an entertaining, sometimes shocking, read:

“Fielding hasn’t the kind of classical distinction we are invited to credit him with. He is important not because he leads to Mr JB Priestley but because he leads to Jane Austen, to appreciate whose distinction is to feel that life isn’t long enough to permit of one’s giving much time to Fielding or any to Mr Priestley.”

Having, so to speak, cleared his throat, Leavis goes on to swat Laurence Sterne as “irresponsible, nasty and trifling”, exclude Dickens (finally reprieved in a later chapter on Hard Times), declare Wuthering Heights to be “a kind of sport”, belatedly admit DH Lawrence (“the great genius of our time”) to his pantheon, and set the scene for the majestic essays (on Eliot, James and Conrad) that follow. These giants, says Leavis, “are distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverent openness before life, and a marked moral intensity”.

The impact of Leavis on the literary imaginations of some late 20th century writers is possibly exemplified by the response of his former student, the Man Booker prizewinning novelist Howard Jacobson, who confesses, in a self-lacerating account of his tutorials with Leavis, the agony he suffered at the feet of the master critic.

“The work that strained my capacity for reverence most,” writes Jacobson, “was The Great Tradition, especially the opening essay with its footnote dismissive of Laurence Sterne. Not because I admire Tristram Shandy; although I am what is sometimes called a comic novelist I never did find Tristram Shandy anything but as ‘trifling’ as Leavis found it, ditto the tradition of laborious jocosity it continues to spawn. But the other adjectives employed in Leavis’s dismissal – ‘irresponsible’ and ‘nasty’ – made me uncomfortable. ‘Irresponsible’ can point to virtues (think of Henry James’s praise for ‘irresponsible plasticity’) no less than vices. And ‘nasty’ is not a convincing critical term, just as ‘pornographer’ was never a convincing description of Kingsley Amis.”

Jacobson goes on: “That challenge had not been thrown when I first read The Great Tradition, but there was a less affronting version of it, cited approvingly by Leavis himself, in George Eliot’s lament for Casaubon. How terrible to ‘be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life… but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted’.

“I didn’t think there was anything there that should have given Leavis pause about himself. Were not timid scholarship and dim-sighted scrupulosity precisely the shortcomings he found in the Cambridge of which, in the early days, he was the scourge? But what about us, Johnny-come-latelies to the wars he’d fought in? ‘That great spectacle of life’, which it is Casaubon’s tragedy to miss out on: how possessed of it were we? And in the final count, how possessed of it was Leavis himself when again he shrank from the “nastiness” he found in The Golden Bowl, a novel which, he said, outraged our ‘moral sense’?

“The question has sometimes been asked of me whether I didn’t find Leavis’s teaching, and the whole atmosphere in which we were taught, discouraging – I hesitate to say of creativity, but I can at least say of productivity. I came late to the writing of novels, though it was the only thing I had ever wanted to do. But I don’t hold Leavis responsible for that. To be intimidated by the literature you have been taught to love is no bad thing: the proof of a good education is not the unembarrassed production of tosh.”

There are, in conclusion, many things to be said against Leavis: he exercised a kind of cultural tyranny; half his nominations for his “great tradition” weren’t English; he was a better critic of poetry than fiction, and so on. That’s all true, no doubt. But in the end, we must concede that he offered, to the serious reader of fiction, a moment of exemplary clarity – something that’s missing today. As Jacobson puts it, so well, at the end of his appreciation, “Leavis told a particular story about English literature. It’s not the only one. But we owe it to him to show that, so far, nobody has told a better one, or told it with a braver conviction of why it matters to tell it at all.”

A signature sentence

“What I think and judge I have stated as responsibly and clearly as I can; Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and DH Lawrence: the great tradition of the English novel is there.”

Three to Compare

QDLeavis: Fiction and the Reading Public (1932)

Raymond Williams: Culture & Society (1958)

Lionel Trilling: Sincerity and Authenticity(1972)



Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Forgotten Authors No.14 / Richard Bach Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition ...

Forgotten Authors 


Richard Bach

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 16 November 2008

Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach crashes plane ...
Richard Bach
There are certain books only college students have the patience to read. In the Seventies, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance were romping up the book charts in university towns. Each generation of wide-eyed freshers promotes one of these into the bestsellers, and at least it can be said that the standard is improving. For all I know, Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated could be wonderful beyond page 17.
Back in 1970, though, students were prepared to read a book exploring the life philosophy of a seagull. Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull smashed the bestseller records. The slender, square tome was to be found poking out of backpacks the world over. It concerns an anthropomorphic seagull that yearns to fly higher instead of just worrying about where its next whiting is coming from. Millions swallowed the inspirational Christian parable which, at 120 pages (heavily illustrated), took about 12 minutes to digest. It was so successful that it became a film consisting of shots of seagulls floating about to wiffly Neil Diamond songs, the overall effect of which was like lapsing into a coma caused by a getting a paper cut from a Hallmark card.
Bach followed this with Illusions and One, the message being that we transcend the gravity of our bodies and believe in ourselves, or something. Bach described The Bridge Across Forever as "a story about a knight who was dying, and the princess who saved his life," which, as it concerned the second lady in his life, must have felt like a smack in the face to his first and third partners.
Claiming to be a direct descendent of Johann Sebastian Bach, the former pilot-turned-novelist loved to explore the metaphysical aspects of flying. Bach's books are fictional versions of moments in his life that illustrate his philosophy. Call me a curmudgeon, but I like to think that his books fell from popularity because students became too sophisticated not to see through this kind of tendentious new-age sputum.

Forgotten Authors No 54 / Richmal Crompton

Richmal Crompton

Forgotten Authors 

No 54

Richmal Crompton

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 23 May 2010 00:00

Writers of children's books tread a fine line. They need their lead characters to be interesting and a little wayward, but if they are too wild, the wrath of parents and librarians will be incurred; too soft, and their target audience will lose interest.
Certain schoolboy heroes from the past have fallen from fashion, the victims of changing attitudes; the once hugely popular Billy Bunter books have been expunged from history, presumably for being calorifically challenged (I'd like to have covered Frank Richards' series, but couldn't find any copies). Happily, several of Crompton's Just William books are available in reprint, though they are now a minority taste that probably appeals to older fans with a sense of nostalgia.
Most readers thought Richmal Crompton Lamburn was a man. So shy was she that she did not disabuse them of the notion, even as her anarchic, disruptive schoolboy, shown with his cap askew and tie undone, graced nearly 40 volumes of exploits. Crompton wrote for adults too, but her lasting claim to fame is this William Brown, whose adventures were populated with a gang of rebels called the Outlaws, including Ginger, Henry, Douglas and the awful, frilly, lisping Violet Elizabeth (catchphrase; "'I'm going to thcream and thcream until I'm thick!"), who was appropriately played in a TV adaptation by Bonnie Langford.
Crompton was born in Lancashire in 1890. The first William story appeared in Home magazine in 1919, and she continued writing them throughout her life, the last being published in 1970 after her death; there is something touching about a writer who never married producing books beloved by children.
With a certain amount of boring inevitability, Crompton's books were later attacked by critics for being irrelevant and middle-class, as if being able to write well was itself a liability. One reader points out that nowadays the books aren't a very easy read for preteens because they are peppered with words such as "epicurean", "apoplectic" and "discoursing", to which I say, "Look it up."
And of course, William's rebelliousness – performing a conjuring trick with an egg that goes wrong, trying to arrange a marriage for his sister or planning to sell Ginger's brothers as slaves to raise money – are hopelessly mild compared with the minefield of dangers facing modern parents. But perhaps an updated version, "William and the Crack Dealers", featuring a schoolboy wielding a sharpened screwdriver instead of a catapult, might rob the books of their childhood charms.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Obituaries / Christopher Fowler


Christopher Fowler: Time Out called him ‘an award-winning novelist who would make a good serial killer’. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Christopher Fowler Obituary

Author of the Bryant & May detective novels, short stories and essays on forgotten writers – including himself

Steve Holland
20 March 2023

In a brief biographical sketch, the crime writer Christopher Fowler, who has died aged 69, claimed he had achieved several of his “pathetic schoolboy fantasies”: releasing an “appalling” Christmas pop single; working as a male model; posing as the villain in a Batman graphic novel; running a Soho night club; appearing in The Pan Book of Horror series; and standing in for James Bond. Rather than examples of Fowler’s wicked sense of humour, all these claims were true. Time Out, meanwhile, called him “an award-winning novelist who would make a good serial killer”.

Bryant & May author Christopher Fowler / ‘Writing the end was really emotional’

Christopher Fowler: ‘I get really lost in that world, I have to be dragged out.’ 

Bryant & May author Christopher Fowler: ‘Writing the end was really emotional’

After 20 outings, the unconventional detective duo of Arthur Bryant and John May have solved their last case. But their creator is not willing to let them go entirely …

Suzi Feay
Saturdady 10 July 2021

Christopher Fowler is picking at a healthy-looking bowl of protein and veggies. “I don’t have much appetite these days.” For the last two years he has been having cancer treatment, but remains upbeat. Lunch over, we move to the other end of his penthouse flat in London’s King’s Cross, where a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf houses a vast collection of London esoterica. Outside on the terrace, the large, shiny model of Marvel superhero the Silver Surfer that used to stand guard is gone. “He got frostbite and his fingers fell off. He couldn’t handle King’s Cross, let alone the depths of space.” A wide sweep of the skyline takes in the London Eye to the Shard, and far beyond.

Invisible Ink No 319 / Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler
Photo by Jill Mead

Invisible Ink

No 319 

Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 20 March 2016 14:25

A typical example of the late 20th-century midlist author, Christopher Fowler was born in the less attractive part of Greenwich in 1953, the son of a scientist and a legal secretary. He went to a London Guild school, Colfe’s, where, avoiding rugby by hiding in the school library, he was able to begin plagiarising in earnest. He published his first novel, Roofworld, described as “unclassifiable”, while working as an advertising copywriter, a job he described as “one level above sewer-toshing”. He left to form The Creative Partnership, a company that changed the face of film marketing, and spent many years working in film, creating movie posters, tag lines, trailers and documentaries, using his friendship with Jude Law to get into nightclubs.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Roger Waters threatens legal action over German concert cancellations


Roger Waters

Roger Waters threatens legal action over German concert cancellations

Waters was accused of being ‘a widely known antisemite’ in Frankfurt council instruction to cancel concert, with other German cities also proposing cancellations

Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Thursday 16 March 2023

Roger Waters has said he will take legal action against city authorities in Germany over the threatened cancellation of concerts there, after the former Pink Floyd frontman was accused of antisemitism, which he denies.

Pink Floyd's burning man / Aubrey Powell's best photograph


‘It’s dangerous for a man on fire to stand still’ … cover art for Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. 
Photograph: Aubrey Powell

Pink Floyd's burning man: Aubrey Powell's best photograph

‘A gust of wind blew the fire into the stuntman’s face. His team piled in with blankets to put him out – but he still lost an eyebrow and some of his moustache’

Interviews by Joobin Bekhrad
Wed 12 Aug 2020 14.34 BST

Storm Thorgerson and I had created most of the artwork for Pink Floyd’s albums, including Dark Side of the Moon. One day we were asked to Abbey Road Studios to listen to tracks from the band’s new record. The lyrics were mostly about absence, and the album’s title, Wish You Were Here, was a reference to Syd Barrett, who had left the band some years earlier due to issues with LSD. They were also making a statement about record company executives who regarded musicians as money-making machines, demanding one hit song after another – an absence of a different kind.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Italian Movie Star Claudia Cardinale Had a Thing for Brigitte Bardot’s Ponytail

Claudia Cardinale

Italian Movie Star Claudia Cardinale Had a Thing for Brigitte Bardot’s Ponytail

The acclaimed actress on the teen beauty contest she won and the pregnancy that changed everything. She is the subject of a film retrospective at New York’s MoMA.

Claudia Cardinale, 84, is an Italian actress who starred in more than 100 films, including “8½” and “The Pink Panther.” Twenty of her films will be screened by New York’s MoMA, with restorations by Italy’s Cinecittà, starting Feb. 3. She and her daughter, Claudia Squitieri, spoke with Marc Myers.