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Party on Parnassus

John Walsh discovers who's in and who's out at the literary gathering of the century; The Reader's Companion to Twentieth-Century Writers ed. Peter Parker Fourth Estate, pounds 25
"An attempt to reflect a century of literary taste," is how Peter Parker describes this 825-page compilation of mini-biographies of 1,000 writers, from Lascelles Abercrombie to Louis Zukofsky. In fact the time- scale stretches impressively beyond a century: Thomas Hardy (b 1840) is allowed to be a 20th-century writer (though he stopped writing novels in 1898, his career as a poet was only starting) and Simon Armitage (b 1963) is deemed worthy to be included alongside him, despite having been published since only 1989. Poets and dramatists are included, but not historians, essayists or biographers (no Leavis, Schama or Lytton Strachey, therefore). American writers figure largely, most of them drinking ferociously and dying young, but the Companion's grasp on colonial literature is less sure (no sign of Tim Winton for instance). Genre writers are included, but not children's authors (Agatha Christie, yes, Enid Blyton, no). Parker's introduction offers no guidelines about the criteria used to include or omit certain writers, so we can only guess why, say, Jay McInerney is included but not Bret Easton Ellis; why Will Self is in, but not Sebastian Faulks. One could, however, spend the rest of this review arguing about the guests at this "lively literary gathering" (Parker's words).

Students, and those looking for brisk summings-up of why a writer or his work is important may feel a little short-changed by the Companion. Beckett? "Much of the prose from the 1950s and 1960s is almost unreadable". Finnegans Wake? "A salmagundi of linguistic fragments and borrowings" (it's actually a salmagundi of puns and portmanteaux). Patrick Hamilton? His novels "are major monuments of the fiction of their time" (would this be of the mid-Twenties, the mid-30s, the late-40s or the mid-50s, or all of them?). These tentative, O-level judgements are the weakest part of the book; but perhaps you shouldn't be looking here for serious evaluations. Parker and his crew of contributors did their bit for Lit Crit in their Reader's Companion to the Twentieth-Century Novel. The current book is a far more ad hominem affair.

It faithfully records where each writer went to school, whether their parents were married or divorced, who brought them up, how they first got published, why and when they turned to drink, how this or that scandal broke, what was said about them by whom, what prizes they won, what marriages were made or broken, how successful or how unread they were or remain... But the structure is not, thank goodness, formulaic. Some entries gallop breathlessly through the facts, some languidly quote the judgements of the writer's peer group, some get obsessive and shrill about one detail, by no means necessarily a literary one. Thus the entry for A.N. Wilson bangs on for a paragraph about his fogeyism and the "misconduct" for which he was sacked from the Spectator, before noting "He had also published 14 novels by the mid-1990s". We learn of the "decadent" poet Jeremy Reed's performances, where "holding aloft one gloved hand he recites his poems in a curious sing-song manner, occasionally through a human skull. There are those who think that his delivery does very little for his work...".

This tone of educated bitchiness sounds constantly when dealing with women writers. Anita Brookner's entry (rather like her oeuvre) starts with sprightly formality, shades off into gloom and ends, tartly, "She is unmarried". Angela Carter's "personal manner", we learn, "had become very grand by the time of her death" (which is untrue). Jeanette Winterson "is perhaps unique in choosing one of her own novels as her Book of the Year in a newspaper round-up". Just as beguiling are the thousand or so sidelong details that enliven the entries. I was happy to learn that James Kirkup is a crowned ollave of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and that his recreation is given in Who's Who as "standing in shafts of moonlight" (formerly "standing in shafts of sunlight"). How nice to learn that Arthur Ransome, of Swallows and Amazons fame, married Trotsky's former secretary; that the novelist Justin Cartwright played polo for Oxford, that Forrest Reid dedicated his book The Garden God to Henry James, and James, upon noting the book's homosexual content, demanded the dedication be removed. How did I not know that Angus Wilson was at Bletchley?

The word "companion" can connote several things: the sidekick-for-life, the shadowy helpmeet who enjoys the sole meuniere in restaurant reviews, the paid-up spinster who travels to Monte Carlo with the fur-draped dowager. Peter Parker's compilation of brief lives is far more amusing than any of these images might suggest. This "companion" is a gossipy, slightly rackety, age- and prize-obsessed androgyne of middle years, with a jealous streak and a decidedly camp habit of sudden, urgent digression.