Only once in his life, John Carey tells us in this memoir, has he “felt the presence of something otherworldly”. It was at Christmas 1938, when he was four years old, and Santa Claus himself appeared in the Carey drawing room, handing out presents. “I was numb with shock.” But that was the last time.
Carey is indeed the opposite of otherworldly. He consistently prefers the tangible to the mysterious, hard evidence to sublime dreaming. His best critical writing has been on authors who stay close to the rough, unpredictable texture of direct experience, like George Orwell or the “richly physical” John Donne. At school, Carey recalls, he could only get to grips with Latin grammar by imagining it fitting together like Meccano, and with Latin vocabulary by attaching sensory qualities to the words: hiems, winter, is “thin like a bare twig”. Later in life, he discovers an admiration for the Dutch painters because they “took ordinary life seriously”.
So does Carey: he describes in detail his non-bookish activities — beekeeping, gardening, eating. He sticks up for “ordinary life” against its enemies, as he has before. The Intellectuals and the Masses suggested that if you wanted to find the very model of a modernist-era intellectual — with his rigorously highbrow tastes, his contempt for materialistic values, his quasi-religious veneration of the artist, his fear of mass culture — you could scarcely do better than Adolf Hitler.
Like much of Carey’s writing, it was driven by a genuine anger at self-appointed aristocracies. Modernism, Carey convincingly argued, created one such aristocracy — of those who could see the point of Ulysses and The Waste Land, as opposed to the common reader, who should know their place. The Unexpected Professor indicates some of the roots of Carey’s egalitarianism. His family, once well-off, fell on harder times in the Thirties and seem to have been haunted by status anxiety. At Oxford, Carey witnessed some unedifying snobbery, and as a college fellow did his bit against it, encouraging applications from those who, like him, had been well but not expensively educated.
Carey, like his hero Orwell, has a taste for awkward facts. What Good Are The Arts? asked whether there was any actual evidence that opera-goers and art-lovers have more refined feelings, or are nicer to their neighbours, than other people, and if not, whether the arts deserved such reverence. It also showed the limitations of his arms-folded, no-nonsense style. At one point he quotes Seamus Heaney saying that poetry invites us to “credit promptings of our intuitive being”, and scoffs: “as opposed, presumably, to logic, reason and science”. At such moments, Carey just seems oblivious to a whole side of, well, ordinary life, which after all includes such intuitive promptings; and he is at his least incisive when he confronts works such as The Brothers Karamazov or Brave New World which try to get at the reality behind the visible.
Unsurprisingly, he remembers that he disliked Plato from the first, thinking that
his belief in absolute truth, beauty and goodness, and his notion that some kind of ideal perfection exists, which humanity always falls short of, were not only groundless but also dangerous and damaging to human life.
He is justifiably “worried” by his antipathy to this “great philosopher”. Then one day he is walking down Broad Street in Oxford and bumps into Sir Maurice Bowra, who offers his opinion that Plato is “wonderful stuff . . . Of course, the philosophy’s nonsense.” Some of us might reserve judgment on this flippancy until we had discovered Plato’s opinion of Sir Maurice Bowra, but Carey just feels “greatly relieved” and carries on contentedly down Broad Street.
Say what you like about the pursuit of absolute truth, beauty, and goodness, it can make for rather exciting autobiography. Carey’s memoir, by contrast, lacks the urgency of his polemical and critical books; it ticks off the landmarks of a deservedly successful literary-academic career, and then sort-of climaxes with his winning the Biography award for William Golding at the 2009 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Carey confesses, with endearing and characteristic honesty, that given his opinion of literary prizes as “meaningless” and arbitrary, he cannot say why he is so moved when the chairman of the judges reads out his name.
Carey does not quite have the rare gift for anecdote, though he pays a fine tribute to W.H. Auden. You didn’t feel “awestruck” in Auden’s presence, Carey writes, “because he made things easy by being so unaffected.” In general, Carey’s reminiscences of writers are less enjoyable than his reminiscences of reading.
The book comes alive in its lengthy and frequent literary-critical digressions. It is hard to think of a contemporary critic so good at the essential task of communicating enthusiasm-of making you see the brilliance of this novel, or this simile. He pins down, for instance, how some of Wordsworth’s most affecting lines are those which admit he can’t describe what he is talking about (“I should need / Colours and words that are unknown to man”): “He is the only poet who can point so unerringly to the aching gulfs in ourselves that lie beyond poetry, beyond expression, beyond help.”
Which rather supports Carey’s point, made in the book’s coda, that “Reading takes you into other minds and makes them part of your own. Reading releases you from the limits of yourself.” If reading Wordsworth can make even John Carey sound, for a moment, almost otherworldly, it must be true.