Philip Davis professor of English literature at Liverpool University, author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, and editor of The Reader is back with another fascinating blog post. This post originally appeared on Moreover.
It was 30 years ago in the bookish front-room of a house off the Chesterton Road in Cambridge, England.
It was the home of Muriel Bradbrook, a Shakespearian scholar, and I was the most junior lunch guest, literally sitting in the corner on a stool, chewing and chewing away on a piece of home-made liver-pate, with muscle. (In the end I found a flower pot, or else I might still be there, chewing and chewing.) I was among some of Cambridge’s finest golden-oldies of the literary-critical world.
“I believe it could be said of me that I am a modest man”, announced L.C. Knights, another Shakespearian. To which Bradbrook, in that squeaky rodent voice of hers, at once responded, “Oh yes, Lionel, indeed you are!” I was glad to be occupied with her liver-pate.
I never had much luck with L.C.Knights, who, for all his saying so, was actually a very decent person who had done good and serious work. Two years earlier, I attended some public evening lecture of his. I should have realised that even at this stage he had become a man sick of the sound of his own public voice. It wasn’t just modesty. But I was an aggressively unhappy, insecurely awkward and unembarrassably rude young man, willing to take out on anyone my late-adolescent hatred of Cambridge. So when Knights said for the umpteenth time in his career that “King Lear” was “life-affirming”, I shouted out from the audience, sticking to my text: “Never, never, never, never, never.” I specialised in these kamikaze interventions. What surprised me, however, was that it was not Knights who responded but the large and aged woman sitting next to me.
“What you mean,” she said loudly, “is that the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike.”
“No, that is not at all what I mean,” I replied.
For the next few minutes we sat audibly bickering at each other, while Knights himself looked on, lonely and aghast, from the dais above and in front of us. Later, someone informed me that the lady was his wife.
“Life-enhancing” was a key Leavisite phrase, F.R.Leavis being one of the founders of the great Cambridge English movement of the 1930s. These were the days when, with I.A. Richards and William Empson, literary criticism over here was at the cutting-edge of new thinking (days long, long since gone of course). But I much admired Leavis when I read him at school, in particular a great essay on Dickens’s “Little Dorrit”: he made you think that literature mattered greatly. When I got to Cambridge in 1972, I wrote Leavis a desperately unhappy letter, asking him whether I could pay him a visit and ask for advice. By then he was in his late 70s, a visiting professor at York, but still living in Bulstrode Gardens in Cambridge, never having been given a professorship in his own university, and always feeling rejected by the establishment.
He opened the door of his house, with his shirt open almost to his navel. I remember the thick white and grey chest-hair. It was said he kept his shirt open like that, beneath his thick blue jacket, because he had been gassed in the first world war. A conscientious objector, he had nevertheless served as a stretcher-bearer. He told me himself that he had not been able to speak when he got back from the front because of all he had seen there. In fact he seemed to tell me everything about himself, during the half hour he gave me, while he paused from his writing.
Leavis never asked me why I had come to see him or what my problems were. Perhaps he had already recognised them. Instead, our visit ended badly, when he said he was expecting a visit from an Indian academic in connection with the poetry of Montale. He then said that he didn’t normally have to do with Indians, but in this case . . .
I was a 19-year-old idealist and horribly shocked. This was the man who insisted on the moral relation of literature to life. One of the Leavisites to whom I had confided this a year or so later told me not to worry: Leavis was not an anti-Semite. But that, of course, was not the point and hardly a comfort. At the time I excused myself. Leavis said he must not let his writing go cool and would show me out, but I told him not to bother. As I was leaving his study, I saw he was writing, in large flowing black ink, about Thomas Hardy’s poem “After a Journey”–a subject he was revisiting after some 20 years.
Leavis died in 1978. In his last few months, I was told, he ran round Bulstrode Gardens in the nude, like King Lear. I don’t believe he was a racist. It was a foolish Cambridge remark made by a man who had stopped listening. I’ve just re-read his essay on “Little Dorrit” and his piece on that Hardy poem, and am still moved by both. “Trust me”, writes Hardy to the ghost of his dead wife:
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours
The bringing me here; nay bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.
It is all rather life-affirming, 30 years later.