IN HIS opening essay, Ian Hamilton refers to Holden Caulfield's definition of a good writer as someone who makes you feel you could call them up on the telephone. I haven't tried, but it's a definition apt for Hamilton himself, who writes in the frank, witty, engaging and intelligent manner of the finest essayists. The book is a collection of writings loosely held together by themes: literary biography (Hamilton wrote one on Robert Lowell, and had a go at Salinger), poets and writers including Sylvia Plath, Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Robert Graves and Seamus Heaney, and essays on sports, sex and journalism.
Hamilton is at his best on writers and poets, and what he says about Robert Graves's love life could be said of much of the collection: 'It offers us high minds refusing to recognise low deeds, the bungling humourless theatricality of intellectuals-at-play.' A poet himself, Hamilton writes about the foibles of the great with a mixture of compassion, irritation and irony. He is aware of their narcissism and childishness, and is ruthless in identifying self-pity and false confessions. Reviewing Kingsley Amis's memoirs, he locates the root of their bitchiness in wounded pride, suggesting that 'both Enoch Powell and Roald Dahl might have been rendered more benignly if, when given the chance, they had evinced a surer grasp of Kingsley's stature'.
Hamilton has fun pointing out Stephen Spender's life-long attempt to seem the friendly, loveable poet, always ready to say his poetry is not very good before anyone else dares - even though 'more than once the benign mask is allowed to slip, revealing a useful-looking, if rather dainty, pair of fangs'. People are fond of Spender, Hamilton suggests, because 'his diffidence persuades them that it doesn't matter much if they don't read his work'. He pokes similar fun at Robert Frost's attempts to seem the common man: 'The message seems to be that you can always trust a man who lets you catch him thinking aloud.' And he understands beautifully Larkin's particular form of modesty and arrogance: 'Larkin knew himself to be a champ but he also knew that he was a small-time, local sort of champ.'
Hamilton is no less strict with biographers. He admits to the 'necessary element of sleaze' involved in any biography, but at the same time picks up Jean Stafford's biographer, David Roberts, for the crudity with which he 'stops speculating about Stafford's sexual attitudes as soon as she begins to lose her looks'. He is acutely aware of the pitfalls of writing another's life: discussing the failure of all Plath biographies to date, he wonders whether 'we will ever see a biography of Plath that is not dictated either by feminist dogmatism or private rage?' He looks at his desk and imagines what a future biographer would make of the role in his life of a certain Priscilla, who had written him a postcard ending with the hope that they might 'do it again very soon', the 'it' referring only to a drink in a pub but sure to be misinterpreted by a prurient biographer: 'He would probably spend months trying to establish her identity, and the harder it was to do this, the more interesting she would become.'
What Hamilton says about Julian Barnes's prose is true of his own, namely that it displays a mastery of a 'fractionally elevated version of real speech'. He tells us that the attraction of reading Larkin's letters is in 'finding out who has been dumped on, and how badly', while Aldous Huxley is 'the first of the acid heads'.
This style loses its edge when Hamilton strays into territory where real speech is more common, namely the essays on football, sport and Cynthia Payne's brothel. The tension between the elevated and the ridiculous is what makes the literary essays successful, and once this tension is lost, Hamilton's wit and intelligence feel under-employed. But it's a small gripe about an otherwise highly recommended collection.
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