Goodbye, Mr Chippy: As Craig Raine prepares for retirement the fiction critics are sharpening their knives

The opinionated and divisive poet-critic Craig Raine is retiring from his teaching post at Oxford University. But as the dusty halls breathe a sigh of relief, the fiction critics are sharpening their knives...
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The Independent Culture

About 40 minutes after I meet Craig Raine to discuss his first novel, Heartbreak, the poet-critic-teacher-literary entrepreneur suddenly begins to cry. Unsure how to react, I decide to cover any awkwardness by pointing out a possible typographical error in the Ezra Pound poem Raine quotes in his book's final pages.

Raine is clearly too distracted to worry about a stray comma. "It's quite sad," he says with a choke and a stare into the distance. "I'm quite surprised how moved I was."

The "it" in question is the last chapter of Heartbreak itself, a chapter which is effectively a short story about simultaneous disappointment and revelation. Raine apologises, as is often his way, by dropping a name (Christopher Logue) and telling a pertinent anecdote: "We gave a poetry reading in Warsaw. Christopher read a poem about the last meeting with his father and burst into tears. I said, 'That was incredible.' He replied, 'That was totally unprofessional.' He was really cross."

For some, the idea of Craig Raine being transported by the power of his own creative imagination will be confirmation of his generous human sympathy; for others, a signal of a gigantic ego inflated by a sense of its own self-worth. Raine embraces the second charge with cheerful good humour. "One way to present this is, 'This man is deranged with vanity. He has created this mediocre novel and he's bursting into tears over it. Who the fuck does he think he is? George Eliot?'"

Who indeed. Raine divides opinion like few other figures on the literary scene. His poetry has been widely praised for its originality and visual flair: his first verse collection, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, even encouraged a new, if short-lived movement in British poetry – "martianism". His criticism is equally striking: he was a (fairly) lone voice defending TS Eliot against accusations of anti-Semitism in the 1990s, and comparably seul contre tous when tearing gleefully into the reputations of Joseph Brodsky and Samuel Beckett. (During our conversation, he restricts himself to: "What is all the fuss about Margaret Atwood?")

Raine is perhaps rather better known for championing bright young things such as Adam Thirlwell, Adam Foulds and Charlotte Mendelson, and bright older ones including Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. Over the past decade, most of the above have appeared in Areté, Raine's "impish and mischievous" literary journal, earning him frequent charges of nepotism. (Or envy, depending on your point of view.) The latest edition features a collaboration by two of Raine's four children, Nina and Moses, as well as three pieces by Raine himself.

We talk in his office at New College, Oxford, where he has taught for the past two decades, since quitting as poetry editor at Faber & Faber. It turns out that I have chosen something of a watershed day in Raine's life: later that afternoon, he will teach his final class before retirement. It is a prospect that he accepts ruefully. "It feels like a joke that I am retiring. I could go on for another 10 years."

I ask whether he will miss teaching. "I love it. Meeting young people keeps you young. I had 10 years in publishing, which was great – full of gossip, piracy and bad behaviour. When I came back to teaching, I still got up at 6am to do lots of reading, only now I was reading Dickens. It was a big relief to get back to reading literature that wasn't wasting your time."

Teaching certainly seems to have worked some age-defying magic. Dressed in tight black jeans and a pale shirt, with a cravat tied loosely around his neck, Raine looks considerably younger than his 65 years. McEwan, for one, has spoken enviously of Raine's plentiful head of hair.

Surrounded on all sides by books, papers and yet more books, Raine settles into a chair that is less a burnished throne than a saggy cloth-sack of faded garish colours. For those keen to find examples of his deranged vanity, there is a portrait on the wall of a younger, bushier Raine sitting in a younger, sprightlier version of the same chair. It gives the odd impression that the man himself is a slightly aged trompe d'oeil effect. Either that or there is some serious Dorian Gray action going on.

In conversation, Raine is a rather winning combination of gossip and erudition, fizzy self-confidence and humorous self-deprecation. When he gets especially excited, his refined accent is tinged with Geordie tones, and his pronunciation of words such as "fantasy", "writer" and "daughter" remind you that he was born in Bishop Auckland, County Durham – to a father who mixed boxing with spiritualism and an ambitious mother whom Raine himself has described as "Lawrentian".

Raine's wandering mind makes it difficult to stick to any subject for long. Heartbreak may be our reason for meeting, but Raine the novelist constantly gives way to other Raines. There is Raine the imminent OAP: "It is pretty depressing. I am wondering whether there will be a second recession and how will this affect my pension. I used to be this gay person. Now I am this worrying little gerbil in a small cage of localised anxiety." There is Raine the football pundit: "Emile Heskey must be the worst player in the world! Does he ever score a goal?" And, most frequently, Raine the name-dropper. "Brodsky once said to me in a lift, 'Craig, what is your rhyme for Irish?'" Or, "I read Bill Boyd's Ordinary Thunderstorms the other day..." Or this amused recollection of his father's appearance in Julian Barnes' oeuvre: "He turned up in one of Barnes's 'Dan Kavanagh' novels. It was such a caricature that I thought, 'Get off my pa. You only met him twice – fuck off.'"

These restless digressions are also evident in Heartbreak, which is less a novel and more a collection of interlinked short stories that explore a central question: what does heartbreak actually mean? Raine begins to answer the question with a meander through the realist novel, before getting lost in the vicinity of Madame Bovary. "Where am I going with this?" he asks me rhetorically. "Heartbreak doesn't have to be dramatic. I wanted to think about people whose hearts are actually damaged but who don't show it. It's like love. We all talk about love as if it wasn't a word you can open like a fan, that doesn't mean completely different things to different people."

So, tall tales of lesbian affairs mingle with lengthy critical exegesis of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra. One section, about the parents of a child with Down's syndrome, finds echoes in another about the life and loves of an actress called Milly. A prologue featuring Dickens' Miss Havisham melts into the story of Carmen Frazer, a lonely pensioner remembering lost love in Montevideo.

Raine admits that his own heart remains utterly intact: it was his son, Moses, who suggested the theme. Whether this will be the case after Heartbreak is reviewed is another matter. Having noted the torrid time given to Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow ("Masses of publicity, but very little about the actual novel") and Ian McEwan's Solar ("It bombed in the States, apparently. I thought it was brilliant"), Raine is aware that Heartbreak might attract its share of bad reviews. "I know I have a lot of enemies. If Tom Paulin gets hold of it, I'm not going to get a good review. No point whingeing about it." (As it happens, a few days after our interview, noted critic Terry Eagleton wrote in the London Review of Books: "the publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers".)

The mention of Paulin, a fellow poet and teacher at Oxford, reminds me of the recent election of Geoffrey Hill as Oxford Professor of Poetry. Raine didn't vote – he hasn't voted for anyone since James Fenton – but he remains unconvinced that Hill is the man for the job. "I think he has a real problem with clarity. People say the poetry is difficult. Listen, the prose is difficult. I read about six of his collected essays, and was none the wiser as to what they were about. I'd like to go to some of the lectures to see how the audience reacts."

Raine believes the field should be widened to include prose writers (he says Tom Stoppard would be excellent), because decent poet-critics are hard to find. Sensing a cue, I ask whether Raine has considered standing himself. The answer, most definitely, is no. "Christ, I wouldn't want to do it. It's a hell of a lot of work – 16 new lectures. [The outgoing professor, Christopher] Ricks probably had a few of those in the drawer. It's a really difficult job to do well."

Instead, Raine has already completed a second novel, The Divine Comedy, and has a new collection of verse due out before the end of the year. "They are about difficult things. By which I mean interesting things." Such as? "Skiing. It's really fucking difficult to write a good poem about skiing."

With Areté to edit, Raine looks set to be busier than ever. Which is just how he likes it. "Work is one of life's great pleasures," he says, before asking another rhetorical question. "What is hell like? Hell is being on a beach, rubbing sand and Ambre Solaire into your legs, and not being able to read."

The extract

Heartbreak, By Craig Raine (Atlantic £12.99)

'...We learn that heartbreak is hyperbolic – an exaggerated claim to an impossible condition. Those who claim it make exaggerated claims for it. You can hear them raising their voices – so they can shout down the idea of recovery. So others will know what they are suffering. Misery is being acted out.

Finality is being acted out.

But what about the ones who aren't shouting? Who aren't acting the role like Miss Havisham?

People more like Catherine Sloper in "Washington Square"? People whose hearts are invisible.

What is heartbreak, really?

Is it really only rhetoric?'