A Week in Books: After the Raine storm, a little donnish calm

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The Independent Culture
GRANTA USED to run an ad campaign aimed at convincing would-be subscribers that the gritty quarterly had nothing in common with a traditional "literary magazine". Shrewdly enough, the editors had twigged that most readers tempted to sign up for good new fiction, reportage and so on would be aghast at the horrid vista of donnish malice and sociopathic snobbery that the phrase brings to mind.

Well, let's hear it for a bit of donnish malice and sociopathic snobbery. Last month, the poet and critic Craig Raine reaped a rich harvest of tabloid prurience when he published - in Tina Brown's talk - his tender, funny, touching, virtuosic (and only faintly obscene) 700-line elegy for his former lover, Kitty Mrosovsky. The press reaction was a wonder to behold. Even at the end of 1999, a Fellow of New College, Oxford only has to mention nipple-hairs (nine, to be precise) and the excited organs of Middle England will shower him in a froth of outrage.

True, Raine's opus did look a little stranded in a mag that opens with a list of the decade's hottest parties and investigates adoption rackets in a piece with the charming headline "White babies don't come cheap". Yet his excuse for an outing in such tacky company was that the poem functioned as curtain-raiser for his new (yes) literary magazine. Arete (the Greek term for controlled vigour of body or mind) has now hit my desk, and Raine's poem is the best thing in it by a street.

The editors of Granta would not care for Arete; nor would they lose sleep over it. Cast by Raine, as editor, in the austere mould of T S Eliot's lofty Criterion, it opens its account with a scoop. Five unpublished Eliot letters to the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf have been released by his widow Valerie (who has conspicuously refused for a generation to expedite a proper edition of her husband's correspondence). Some small fragments by big names follow: an Ian McEwan story, a Patrick Marber sketch, a Harold Pinter prose-poem. Nicholas Shrimpton sneers in finest Oxonian vein at Seamus Heaney's far-too-readable stab at Beowulf. Academic spite thrives in a fools' gallery of critical blunders archly entitled "Our Bold", and a selection of fatuous book blurbs.

All in all, it's exactly that cocktail of the portentous and the petty that the classic literary journal has always mixed so well. You may admire it, or detest it, rather a lot (Arete costs pounds 21 for three issues from P&G Wells Ltd, 11 College Street, Winchester SO23 9LZ; or via wells.books@virgin.net).