Been there, Donne that

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The Independent Culture

Where Did It All Go Right? by A Alvarez (Richard Cohen £20)

Where Did It All Go Right? by A Alvarez (Richard Cohen £20)

'I am a Londoner, heart and soul, but not quite an Englishman," says Al Alvarez early in his autobiography. Later he becomes "a Jew with a Spanish name disguised as a true Brit", one who likes to think of himself as "an outsider ... at odds with the ruling pieties despite Oundle and Oxford", where he was educated. Sometimes, indeed, when "my adrenalin addiction was running very high", he was "a wild man, not to be tangled with". This was chiefly Al the rock climber, "feeding the rat" or "pushing the envelope", or Al the poker player, driver of fast cars and fast women, in love with the "brutal swagger" of Las Vegas, or with Stirling Moss testing a new model, "the matador saluting a brave bull".

The outsider began life in a nursery in Hampstead with a nanny, a cook, a chauffeur and two parlourmaids. Father was a sad, ineffectual man in the rag trade, happy only in the evenings when he sat down in front of the gramophone with his record collection. Mother was from the rich and vulgar Levys, who made and lost a fortune in three generations. Both families were assimilated, pillars of Anglo-Jewry but not snobbish except when it came to other Jews, especially recent immigrants. Al says he didn't have much to do with them until he was about 10, when the war threw them all into helpless proximity.

Soon he was off to boarding school. There was a running sore on his leg, like that of Philoctetes, and a series of operations. "Perhaps because my bad leg inured me to pain, I had almost no physical fear at all. As a schoolboy in the boxing ring I just kept coming ... and on the rugger field, where I was invariably the smallest player, I used to hurl myself into tackles like a kamikaze pilot ... A sense of danger was an essential part of the thrill." In short order Al becomes an "addict" in search of "adrenalin paradise", one who "had to take risks" in order to convince himself that he was "an active, upright, paid-up member of the human race". These risks could be actual - learning to walk again after his operations, boxing, rugger, diving from the high board - or vicarious, as when the sound of incoming bombers during the Blitz became "my nightly fix", and the Battle of Britain an aesthetic-cum-medical delight: "It wasn't just a battle, it was a battle in three dimensions. I ... never really got over that eerie combination of beauty and risk ... it hooked me forever on the adrenalin high." In a school boxing match he takes on a bigger and heavier boy, like the hero he is, and suffers a broken nose no one notices, so that it sets itself askew.

Adolescence finds Al falling in love with poetry but wary of its "pretensions". John Donne seems just the ticket, a poet who makes life seem more "urgent" and "messy" than other practitioners. Art was cissy, evidently, unless it could be seen to be linked with some sort of danger. "As always, I wanted the best of both worlds and I had John Donne to prove that it was possible to write poetry without being self-consciously poetic, to write and still be one of the boys."

To this end Al clambers up to the high board, takes up rock climbing, gets taken stunt-flying in old planes, and later tests his endurance on the squash court. "I went on playing squash two or three times a week for 40 straight years, until I was 55, and my back gave out." Tough or what?

The climbing began on a school trip to Wales. He hated long slogs up to the top but loved the "isolated moment" and "inner silence" of the hard move. On his first attempt he "strolled up" the Idwal Slabs "without any effort, as easily as if it had been flat", which makes one wonder a little about the "surge of pure elation ... that old adrenalin magic" when he reaches the top. If it was that easy, whence the thrill? From danger, of course, "like sex seems dangerous to a kid with no experience. You would make a fool of yourself with a girl if you made the wrong moves and if I made the wrong ones on the climb I'd fall and be hurt." Ah yes, you have to watch the handholds when you're out with girls.

Al's macho vocabulary is an easy target for jokes, and so is the contradiction between outsiderdom and the unbroken run of success at school (head of house, prefect, and Regimental Sergeant Major of the OTC), not to mention the Oxford First, which sits happily alongside his loathing of dons and all things academic. For all his brainpower, Al is more of an instinct man than one who murders to dissect. This takes him off to New Mexico in Lawrence's footsteps, after his New Critical period (Leavis, Richards, Empson, Blackmur, and Kenneth Burke all flash by, giving off the "sexual charge" that comes from "arguing flat out" with clever men), and a disastrous first marriage to Lawrence's granddaughter. At much the same time he throws up a promising academic career and goes freelance, living and writing "beyond the gentility principle", and taking up residence as the Observer's influential poetry critic. Soon his anthology The New Poetry was in the bookshops with its "fighting introduction", introducing timid Brits to the hard men (and women) feeling their way up the unforgiving rocks of mental breakdown, such as Lowell, Berryman and Plath.

Alvarez undoubtedly had a good nose for what was new and exciting in American and East European poetry - and has been dining out on the Plath connection for 35 years - but his explanations of what made it worthwhile are at best dubious, at worst a journalistic mish-mash of Freud and aspirational pathology, as though depression and alcoholism were inexorably linked to "totalitarianism, genocide, concentration camps and nuclear warfare". This despite the fact that most of the breakdownees had led lives of unparalleled intellectual and material comfort, cosseted by every American convenience. The argument wouldn't have cut much ice, I suspect, with Donne, Hopkins or Tennyson, let alone Coleridge and Dr Johnson.

As a critic he deserves honour for championing his unhappy few, for his fighting spirit - and sometimes deserves flaying for his glibness and exhibitionism. He misquotes Henry James, gets Eliot's doctrine of impersonality hopelessly wrong (and his allegedly "modest" aspirations, as though he was an avatar of Larkin), misconstrues Hughes's "Famous Poet" and "pseudo black magic", and praises the sanity of Plath's "urban" world for exactly the same reasons that he condemns it in the Movement.

He also elaborates a little on his famous account of Plath's last months in The Savage God, and exults in his book's success in America and Europe, where it was a best-seller. "Finally, in my forties, I had become what I had always wanted to be: someone who wrote books rather than someone who wrote about them." Since much of the book is about other writers, that judgement has to be taken with a pinch of salt. As for its final chapter, in which Al offers up his own suicide attempt as a parallel to Sylvia's (we were both "members of the club", he is fond of saying), one can't help hearing Brando's "I could've been a contender".

Part two of this engaging but exasperating memoir takes us through his friendships with various writers and Australian painters, his poker-playing, his New Yorker commissions (overseen by the "implacable timidity" of William Shawn), his climbing exploits ("After that night on the bare mountain I no longer felt I had continuously to justify myself, apologise and explain"), his brushes with Jean Rhys, Beckett, Roth, and rapport with Alfred Brendel.

A final chapter celebrates a second happy marriage to his wife Anne, and circles back to his difficult relationship with his dying mother. This moving passage intensifies his lifelong brooding on the dichotomy between thinking and doing. "Privately I agreed with her about the vanity of writing ... I didn't just want to be a spectator writing from the sidelines; I wanted to be a player." Perhaps this accounts for the contradictions in his life - the school-hating prefect and captain of house, the don-hating collector of fellowships and academic awards, the poetry-hating arbiter of who was in and who was out, the media-hating star of intellectual broadsheets and TV studios, the beyond-all-this-fiddle existentialist who out-fiddled every other fiddler in town. Chutzpah pure and simple, or a genius for getting the best of all worlds?