There is a story about the time Professor Carey was a member of a panel carrying out the final oral examination of an Oxford BA candidate (in the Latin that nostalgic Oxford is still fond of using the Viva, or Viva Voce exam). The student took his seat. The chairperson said "Professor Carey will open the questioning." The candidate promptly fainted.
Professor Carey's reputation as a critic and scholar is formidable. But this is not immediately obvious from the present work. The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books is in the main a relaxed and genial history of a lifetime of reading and writing, from his earliest days as a schoolboy up to his own most recent work, a life of William Golding. En route it includes autobiographical reminiscences, Oxford anecdote, home life and hobbies (gardening and bee-keeping), and tales of literary London.
His range of reading is phenomenal (well beyond literature alone), his absorptive capacity swift and apparently unlimited, his memory prodigious (from early on as student he exercised it assiduously: it would have been additionally interesting if he could have told us just how, exactly, his memory works), his analytic powers stiletto keen, his judgements memorable, and his own writing abundant (some dozen books, around a thousand reviews). His career as scholar and critic is about as successful as it could be in the upper reaches of British academe.
Carey's main appeal is his writing style. At the beginning of his career he rejected in disgust the conventions of academic literary writing, so often verbally constipated, pretentious and intellectually obscure, for a manner fully accessible to the ordinary reader: lucid, idiomatic, vigorous, concise and often very funny indeed for its cool, suave ironies. Reading Carey is gripping and exhilarating. It can also be painful, especially if you happen to be on the receiving end of his disapproval.
Literary criticism is warfare. Participants assume various combatant roles. There are, for example, the literary historians. They man the heavy artillery, setting out to dominate and control large swathes of territory with thunderous and unending barrages of heavy tomes. Then there are the theorists. They employ chemical weapons. Deadly clouds of verbal gas leave their opponents dizzy with long-term disorientation and incapacitated by mental confusion. There is also third type, of which Carey is an outstanding example: the sniper, the critic as reviewer. Alone, concealed, equipped with a mental rifle of amazing range and accuracy, the sniper picks off his chosen targets, one by one, with quiet and often merciless effect. Appropriately, Carey is candid about his love of rifles: he found firing his gun while doing his military service "beautiful and precise" (74). Earlier, learning Latin grammar and vocabulary was like acquiring "ammunition" (58). Thus armed, he is a deadly marksman.
What motivates him in his hunting? Pleasure in books and reading, certainly, and above all. But also less agreeable impulses. When he took his final undergraduate exams at Oxford, he was, he tells us, "desperate" to succeed. Competitiveness drives him forward. Nothing wrong with that, one might say. He is fulfilling his extraordinary intellectual gifts, in whose service such single-minded effort is admirable. Unless, however, the ethic of ambitious hard work precludes other more generous values. Such is Carey's sense of his own hard-one desert in the British educational system in which he succeeded-individualistic, competitive, exam based, highly selective-that he resents any lessening of standards for those who come after him, anything that might make life less strenuous for them than it was for him, anything that might however faintly call into question the necessity of his own tough experience. This boot-strip mentality has hard edges. The modern generation, we are intermittently reminded, is pampered. In comparing his own cold, lonely, and apprehensive teenage visit to Oxford to take his university entrance exam, he notes, derisively, that today's applicants are "greeted by swarms of friendly undergraduate assistants, and every kind of back-up, from male and female chaplains to paramedics, is in reserve in case of emergencies" (65). It gets worse: "There are even coloured placards saying `Welcome.'" And (I am not making this up) worse still: "and balloons (I am not making this up) strung over college entrances" (65). Those "balloons" really get to him: they trivialize the grim and austere solemnity of academic study. He came to Oxford "to learn, not to have fun" (116). His pride in having got a first (in US terms, a summa cum laude) in his undergraduate finals is parenthetically diminished, or increased, depending on how you read him, by the drop in standards since: "That were nine firsts that year (nowadays there are always about forty)." It is not enough to have succeeded: others must continue to fail.
He is further motivated by resentment at unearned privilege. Nowhere is such privilege more prominent in British life than in the advantages given to those who are educated at public schools (in a piece of eccentric English idiom the word "public" in this phrase means private, or fee-paying, what in the US are known as prep schools). Carey carries his contempt for "public school types" on his sleeve. To him they are public enemy number one. He had, he tells us, acquired an "early-warning system" that enabled him to spot them instantly and unerringly. As a don he did all he could to give places at Oxford to non-public school applicants (implying, somewhat implausibly, that he was the only one who did so). The problem is that he kept encountering public school types who were also very nice people. His idol George Orwell went to a public school, not just any but the the most famous/infamous public school, Eton. Carey himself can slip into public school jargon ("a bit thick," "extremely bucked"). He warms to the quasi-public school culture of formal, full dress company dinners while doing his military service. These are ironies he admits to, but they do not diminish his anger. In contrast to public schools, he deeply resents the demise of the meritorious, because meritocratic, British grammar school, the type that served him so well ("This book is, among other things, my tribute to a grammar school" xii). One wonders, however, whether he himself might not have been privately educated, even at a public school, had the prosperous business for which his successful father worked as an accountant not gone bust in the depression.
Other biases play a more central role in his criticism. The ideal literature for Carey is that which blends the sensory and the cerebral, in tight concert, preferably structured around paradox and contradiction. In his "Ode to Psyche" Keats talks of adorning a sanctuary "With the wreath'd trellis of a working brain." The phrase clinches that union of the cognitive and the sensory (even if the imagery is too soft for a Carey). Time and again Carey gets us to relish this fusion in the literature he appreciates. The tougher the intellection, the more unexpected the imagery, the better, hence his enthusiasm for Donne's work, which he relays with such effect. But the narrowness of his tastes inevitably leaves blindspots, and these can trigger reckless disparagement. He is delighted when a notable Oxford figure dismisses Plato's philosophy as "nonsense" (203). Though he likes Matthew Arnold's poetry, "As a thinker Arnold is at best useless and at worst malign" (222). As a stranger to nuances of indecision, doubt, reverie and melancholy nostalgia, Carey predictably trashes one of the most subtle and sustained embodiments of these themes, Tennyson's The Idyls of the King. In Carey's opinion they are simply "high Victorian bunkum" (212). Tennyson is a bit too close to the religious, another sphere of human experience for which he shows little patience. He recalls a Catholic secondary school that he briefly attended whose chapel was "ablaze with the usual religious kitsch" (38). Dostoyevsky is guilt of "sentimental religiosity" (171). By contrast, Zola's "lack of interest in spirituality was a great relief" (172).
If Carey shows little interest in the religious, the imaginatively nebulous, or abstract modes of thinking, so his own powers of generalization are limited. It is a price paid for a style of otherwise chiselled and concrete conciseness. It is not a style that lends itself to sustained exposition of complicated ideas. To fit in, ideas must be kept as simple as the syntax. The final chapter to the work, "So, in the End, Why Read?", exemplifies the problem. As the conclusion to a three-hundred page book the answer given flops limply. Carey less argues the multi-part answer than intones it. His reiterated phrasing, "Reading distrusts certainty. . . Reading punctures pomp . . . Reading is contemptuous of luxury . . ." is an echo of 1 Corinthians, chapter 13 on charity (in the King James version): "Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself up." If Carey were reviewing this book himself he would surely pounce on the irony that a religious text is being called in aid of a secular peroration.
If Carey cannot provide us with a good reason as to why we should read-it seems to be its own reward, with no guarantee it will really effect us for the better or help us lead more fulfilling lives-he can certainly show us how to read. This he does whenever he turns his interpretive powers onto literature (rather than fellow humans). For generosity of spirit go elsewhere, but for sharp edged surgery and illuminating dissection of words on the page, go to Carey. There are examples throughout this book (and all his other writing). Take, for example, his comment on two lines from Browning's poem "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St Praxed's Church." On his deathbed, imagining and planning the opulence of his magnificent renaissance tomb, the sensual and worldly Italian bishop tells his sons where they can find hidden a lump of lapis lazuli, which he wants as the centerpiece of the design. It is, the Bishop says, as "Big as a Jew's head cut off at the nape, / Blue as a vein o'er the Madonna's breast." Carey comments: "The suddenly shocking similes reveal-it seems inadvertently-the brutality and lust coiled within the bishop's aestheticism." Carey's wording is no less brilliant. In the single, metaphoric word "coiled" he captures the bishop's conflicted, writhing and snake-like morality. Another bull's-eye.