- Gebundene Ausgabe: 384 Seiten
- Verlag: Faber & Faber; Auflage: 1st Edition (20. März 2014)
- Sprache: Englisch
- ISBN-10: 0571310923
- ISBN-13: 978-0571310920
- Größe und/oder Gewicht: 14,3 x 3,1 x 22,2 cm
- Durchschnittliche Kundenbewertung: Schreiben Sie die erste Bewertung
- Amazon Bestseller-Rang: Nr. 379.320 in Fremdsprachige Bücher (Siehe Top 100 in Fremdsprachige Bücher)
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe – 20. März 2014
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Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende
John Carey is an Emeritus Professor at Oxford University. His books include studies of Donne, Dickens and Thackeray, The Intellectuals and the Masses, What Good Are the Arts? and a life of William Golding.
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The book begins with Carey’s early life in London, interrupted by the war and the blitz. As a young boy, after a night of bombing, Carey apparently asked his father whether they were “dead yet”? The innocent question prompted his parents to relocate to the countryside for the duration of the war. In Radcliffe-on-Trent, the author started school and began a love of reading; consuming comics and Biggles, among other treasures. Returning to London, the author started grammar school – a system he obviously believes in passionately (and with which I agree wholeheartedly). For this book is, among other things, wonderfully opinionated. Carey is an unapologetic socialist and a man who did his utmost at Oxford to help break down barriers of privilege and wealth and help admit students who did not come from public school. Himself a grammar schoolboy, Carey won an Oxford scholarship; beginning his many years at the prestigious university after an interlude of national service (partly in Egypt).
During his time at Oxford, the author muses on his studies and recalls attending lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien, among others. Tolkien’s lectures were apparently mostly inaudible and, if audible, incomprehensible. Green mildew grew on his gown, as though he has stepped out of a wood... As well as commenting that he often did not enjoy his reading as an undergraduate; reading to learn, rather than for pleasure, he also makes the interesting observation that people who spend much of their time reading may find that they actually prefer reading about things rather than actually experiencing them. He gives an example of Wordsworth, finding a visit to Mont Blanc a disappointment when he finally saw it and suggests that reading can deaden the world as well as enliven it.
However, there is much for readers to enjoy in this book. Carey enthuses about his love of poets and authors. There is the visit by Robert Graves, among others, and digressions into what almost become short essays on authors such as D H Lawrence and George Orwell. He discusses book reviewing, writing, book prizes and everything in between. I found this an extremely enjoyable read, written by an utterly charming and intelligent author. Of course, he is aware that almost none of his readers will have his knowledge, but he is so enthusiastic that you feel ready to try some of the writers he has mentioned. As John Carey himself says, we should all Read On.
I received a copy of this book, from the publishers, for review.
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.
Carey is down-to-earth, contemptuous of elitism and staggeringly well-read. Despite his opposition to elitism, Carey never allows his personal prejudices to prevent him from appreciating literature evincing a worldview complete opposite to his own. This is, in Carey's view, the principal reason why reading is worthwhile; few things are as adept in placing you in the shoes of another person than a reading a well-realized novel.
If you are interested in the life of a mind, or just love literature, I would give this book a fair shake. I wouldn't treat it as a primer on what academic life is nowadays, but it is still worth reading.
The book is a memoir of Oxford but also of reading, and the importance books have played in Carey's life. It is also, as he states from the outset, a tribute to the grammar school system, long since destroyed by the kind of socialist that enjoys leaving smoking holes in his own feet. That preface is also a warning to the reader. I've quoted these words from one of Carey's earlier books before, but they're just as truthful now:
'The reader has a right to know what sort of person will be laying down the law in the rest of the book - what his quirks and prejudices are, and what sort of background has formed him [...] This would save the reader a lot of time, since he would know from the start how much of the book's contents he could automatically discount.'
Carey makes it clear what sort of background formed him. He was an accountant's son (incidentally, something he and I have in common), an occupation the Bloomsbury set loved to despise as 'clerks', as if further consideration were somehow unnecessary. As with Larkin, post-war austerity and deprivation seem to have entered his soul. Seemingly innocent objects - a mangle, a cucumber frame - stand for rare glimpses of luxury. He reads the magazines of the time -Chums, Biggles and, though not mentioned in this book, The Wide World - but never forgets the writers he discovered at Grammar school, the vivid clarity of their images.
After arriving at Oxford on a scholarship, he recalls the peculiar rituals. One involves being thought a rather spiffing sort for smashing more panes of glass than your Daddy did when he was there; another involves being carried out in a coffin in a mock funeral procession after getting expelled. The calculated rudeness, too, and what it tells you about an entire world of thought:
'One night I was sitting opposite him at dinner when he had a guest, for whose benefit he was identifying the various notables seated round the table. I heard his guest ask who I was, and [Sir Roy] Harrod replied, quite audibly, "Oh, that's nobody".'
Call this score-settling, if you like. I call it reportage, and I'd like to point out that no attempt at improving things that ignores or excuses away exchanges like this is likely to go far. The same might be said for Carey's warnings about watching more green fields vanish under concrete and sewage pipes.
From here, additional work finds his way. He tutors with 'military' robustness, determined to update and improve the syllabus. Additional work - editing Milton, moonlighting in Grub Street, judging prizes - seem to arrive almost out of the blue. A cottage is bought and renovated in the Cotsworlds; bees are lovingly kept. He writes books of his own, edits anthologies. He also meets living writers that he admires - Larkin, Graves, Heaney. Thankfully, these pieces are kept fresh, and free of hero-worship, especially the parts on Graves' rather dotty assertions.
I enjoyed the book for its outsider's take on Oxford and for Carey's punchy, vivid style. Not all of the material is fresh - some comes almost verbatim from earlier essays - but if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Throwing crusts of bread from the Hammersmith Bridge results in a 'swooping, screaming tornado of beaks and feathers'. During an exam, the sheets of paper 'flared up at you like arc lamps'; a house damaged by bombing 'lost its entire wall on the street side, exposing all its rooms with their furniture still in place, like a doll's house with the front lifted off'. Bees land in the darkness of their hive, the orange pollen on their back legs 'shining like brake lights.'
He can surprise you, too. Although Carey owns up that book awards are well-meaning lotteries, not infallible exercises in recognising merit, he is honest enough to share his feelings on being awarded the James Tait Black Prize for Biography, and this touching bit of self-depreciation: 'Academic matters apart, I had not won anything since the Richmond and East Sheen Grammar School for Boys cross-country run some fifty-eight years before.' Curiously, his favourites among the thousand or so books he has reviewed for the Sunday Times are largely non-fiction. Among those are John Osborne's virulently angry autobiographies, rather than Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, or Clive James' Unreliable Memoirs.
Now the flaws. They're few, in truth. Attractive as Carey's anti-luxury stance can be, I like to think I'm not the only one who finds it a bit much when he savages aftershave as 'foppish', as if not stinking is an affront to basic human decency. When mentioning the work of the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Carey gets his name wrong. When complaining about the reviews for The Intellectuals and the Masses, I recall more sympathetic reviews than he seems to, including Ian Hamilton's. While I've described Joyce's Ulysses as a handful of diamonds sprinkled over a slag heap, I haven't forgotten that Orwell couldn't read it without feeling 'an inferiority complex', nor that he aped its multiple-style approach in his second novel.
These minor gripes aside, if reading punctures 'pomp' and 'certainty' and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary', Carey has excelled at both here. I sincerely hope this will not be his last book.