Book review: Hearts are trumps in a long winning streak

Where Did It All Go Right? An autobiography by A Alvarez Richard Cohen Books, pounds 20, 344pp
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The Independent Culture
WHEN A Alvarez published his bestselling book on suicide, The Savage God, Isaiah Berlin is reported to have said "There's gold in them thar pills". In his autobiography, its upbeat title suggested by his friend Zero Mostel, Alvarez describes The Savage God as "my first real book, written in my own voice on my own terms, and it changed my life". He sets out to tell the story of the life it changed, but what interests him are the people and places that changed it. He is a modern Theophrastus: a host of characters comes alive before us. In the space of three pages we keep company with R P Blackmur, I A Richards, Joan Baez, Ezra Pound. Alvarez isn't name dropping: it's how an American fortnight could be in the 1950s.

Growing up in increasingly shabby gentility meant getting to know his unreliable parents and their families. He felt his Jewishness defined by an England of ingrained snobberies, its face averted from impending war, then redefined by the Blitz and its aftermath. He outgrew early disabilities, discovered London ("I am a Londoner, heart and soul, but not quite an Englishman"), and literature.

Literature, especially Lawrence and the secular Donne, distorted his early adulthood, impelling him along treacherous paths. The process of entangling and then disentangling life from literature is beautifully recounted.

Books are his durable love affair, pursued in Oxford, in the liberating American air, then in an altering England. The move from imitative infatuation to self-creation, to the risk of going freelance, provides a plot. He is in search of the fixes that give him "the adrenalin high": poetry, rock-climbing, gambling, velocity, love.

The book is magic for 240 pages. But Part Two is disjointed. People he has left out are rounded up into miscellaneous chapters. But in the last chapter the book rights itself again. Alvarez's mother, hitherto an irritating, unfathomable presence, is at last understood during her difficult, dignified dying. Alvarez figures out his mother in the nick of time: a victim, a woman who at last learns how to show love. His farewell is made fonder by the fact that another woman, his second wife Anne, made reconciliation possible.

When I read the introduction to his anthology The New Poetry in the 1960s, I disagreed with Alvarez. Here he repeats his now-stale argument by rote: Movement poets did not come to terms with Modernism (Gunn? Davie?); Larkin remains "mired in drabness" and "generosity was not his style". I still disagree: on the Movement, on the 1960s, on the Beats, on East European poetry, on Berryman and Plath.

His emphases can be wilful. He warms to the often monstrous characters he met. He can respond to the teller more emphatically than to the tale, or be less keen on justice than on stirring it. "The vanity of the Establishment is terrible to behold, but the vanity of Establishment writers is worse." Know thyself, one is tempted to reply.

He admits that he accepted certain writing jobs when he was under terrible stress. While it sharpens, stress also distorts perspective. His most influential essay - that introduction to The New Poetry where he enunciates "the gentility principle" and deals a blow to a large and not dishonourable part of English literature - was written at such a time. One day it may fruitfully be read for the light it casts on the pathology of the anthologist. Ironically, a decade on, advocating poems by East European poets, Alvarez praises them in terms that apply to Larkin, Amis, Davie: "a poetry based on clarity, irony and a distaste for whatever was exaggerated or ornate".

Though he despises F R Leavis's strategy of "placing" writers, Alvarez practices it himself, but in a largely positive spirit. His stars all shine in this book: Plath and Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub, Berryman and Lowell, Beckett, favourite teachers and publishers. But many of those with whom he engaged contentiously are omitted. Apart from a few savage sketches - Kingsley Amis as a sexual machine, John Wain as fading prima donna - he errs on the side of generosity. He tells little about his disastrous first marriage.

What is he trying to do? To tell the story of how he negotiated his strange career, crossing from academia, for which he had a genuine aptitude, into the "real" world? If so, this is not the whole truth in the way we would expect it from an admirer of Lawrence, Lowell and Plath. It is a truth told with measured self-irony, the beguiling - yes - gentility of a man writing in the grateful spirit of Ben Jonson's ode "To Penshurst".

Here is a gambler who breaks even; bigger gamblers whom he admired have lost, and their losses are instructive. He evokes R P Blackmur powerfully: "the loneliness tightened around him". His two meetings with Ezra Pound are brilliantly juxtaposed. Literature and politics: "He himself seemed bemused by it all, like a bigamist henpecked by both his wives". Alvarez doesn't linger over Pound's anti-Semitism, or Eliot's. Both men mean something more to him.

His is an unostentatious rightness of style. His landscapes breathe, in particular Lawrence's New Mexico. His mother's friend Doris comes alive through "her ill-tempered, tubular pet Sealyham terrier". He is attuned in memory to the natural and human worlds. They interests him more than he interests himself.

Alvarez claims to be temperamentally a classicist and an atheist. This is a classical book. Atheist? Well, he believes in this world - its people and passions - and he brings it wonderfully alive.

Michael Schmidt is the editor of "P N Review" and the publisher of Carcanet Press