Risky Business, by Al Alvarez

A mixed bag of essays spanning the career of a literary iconoclast
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The Independent Culture

To the generations that started reading poetry after his days of pomp, in the 1960s, the air of glamour and authority that still clings to Al Alvarez in literary circles needs some explaining. This collection of his essays - the first, he notes, in 40 years - offers precisely that explanation; it doesn't quite give a convincing justification. Alvarez came to fame in 1961 through an anthology he edited, The New Poetry. The self-consciously iconoclastic introduction, "Beyond the Gentility Principle", is the earliest piece here. He wrote it "in the hope of stirring things up; and because the anthology was widely used in schools, it seemed to have succeeded - at least for a time."

The modesty is deceptive, given everything else that was stirring up poetry in the Sixties. Alvarez's introduction made a fuss about differences with "the Movement", the loose grouping of British poets that came to prominence in the mid-Fifties, but the anthology included several of them. It is hard to judge whether The New Poetry had any real influence; still, it did establish Alvarez as a talent-spotter, a gift he developed as poetry editor of The Observer.

His literary fame was magnified by his notoriety as "a wild man". "Admittedly," he says in "Risk", the opening piece, "this reputation only applied in the London literary world, where the standards... were not high." About half of Risky Business is devoted to his abiding preoccupations: rock-climbing, flying, gambling, poker and polar exploration. These pieces are enjoyable, but remain unmistakably journalism. And running through them is a dispiriting vein of contempt for writing - which, since Alvarez is a writer first, amounts to self-contempt. Reviewing the autobiography of the fighter pilot-turned-writer James Salter, he cites a dictum of Camus, that it is possible to spend a life of wild excitement without ever leaving your desk. Alvarez is sceptical: "The writer at his desk is more like a lighthouse keeper than an explorer, bored and isolated and pining for distraction."

It is in his pieces on books that Alvarez discovers real individuality - a "voice", to use his favoured term. The poet and editor Ian Hamilton complained that Alvarez was better at locating intensity than explaining its workings. It is a fair point; but even locating intensity is not a negligible talent, and Alvarez's fresh and confident literary judgements - scepticism about Heaney, unreserved acclaim for the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert - are the book's real selling-point.