Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Recent Reads – June 2018

Who Do I Think I Am – A Memoir by Homan Potterton


It’s hard to believe that Homan Potterton is a country boy from Trim. He comes across in this  gossipy memoir as not just a West Brit but as a Brit manqué.  For the most part it’s a tedious round of all the important people he knew and all the wonderful soirées he attended – dinner at Castletown with Desmond Guinness, lunch in the Kildare Street Club with Diane Tomlinson etc. - ad nauseum. Nice work if you can get it. He was clearly a precociously knowledgeable expert on art – especially 17th century Italian art but not perhaps robust enough as Director of the National Gallery to deal with an obdurate civil service and a philistine government. His tenure there was not perceived as successful although he should be given credit for his role in acquiring some of the Beit collection. While he’s frank with his opinions of the ignorant creatures he had to contend with (including Haughey quoted as saying “fuck his National Gallery, it’s not Irish anyhow and nor is he”) in his time as director,  he’s noticeably coy about his personal relationships and his homosexuality. We are given no insights into the life of a closeted gay man in the Dublin of those days and only the odd carefully phrased sentence even suggests that he may have had a gay relationship or two. A very selective memoir then that quickly runs out of steam. One is left at the end with a strong smell of prig.

The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien edited by Maebh Long


These are for dipping into obviously and very many of them are quite tedious as he deals with banks and publishers about mounting debts and missed deadlines. However, here and there we come upon gems of invective that make the whole book worth while. Early on he interposes himself hilariously between Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and their literary feud in the letters pages of the Irish Times. On page 107 he defends Patrick Kavanagh against charges that he, a mere writer, shouldn’t be reviewing the RHA Annual Show:  “anybody who has a bob or the social brilliantine to get a buckshee invitation is entitled to laugh, jibe, praise, deride or get downright sick on the floor”. The personal rarely gets through but most of the letters are from his later declining years and reading between the lines we detect the ravages of drink. He seems constantly to be sick or injured and unable to meet a deadline or a bank debt because of it. Some of the letters to banks show that the spirit is still intact. “Your Sub-Manager says that this £100 allowance is generous. That I regard as impudence. It should be explained to your Sub-Manager by some person in authority that people who deal with banks are CUSTOMERS, not necessarily spivs.”

Why Write – Collected Nonfiction by Philip Roth


This was Roth’s last publication issued in the estimable Library of America series. It’s full of gems like his open letter to Wikipedia regarding its error about the source of the main character in The Human Stain – the one where a professor gets into trouble because he used the term “spook” meaning ghost but the PC brigade chose to interpret it as a slur on his black students. It’s mostly interviews and conversations and there’s one entertaining one with Edna O’Brien which certainly raises her in my estimation. A classic to be consumed in small slowly masticated bites.

Evelyn Waugh – A Life Revisited by Philip Eade


If you think Homan Potterton is a prig, and I do, he’s a long way behind Evelyn Waugh in this regard. Waugh came from a modest middle-class background but made it his life’s work to cleave to the great and the good and was quick to adopt the associated life style. If you like literary gossip and a lively turn of phrase, this is for you. It touches, of course, on his literary career and on the relationship between the life and the work but it’s written for entertainment rather then education. Waugh started life as a homosexual it seems before becoming a galloping heterosexual. I suspect the English public school system and the Oxford of those times meant a highly-sexed young man took his pleasure where he could find it. It’s replete with scabrous anecdotes including the one where Alec Waugh’s unconsummated first marriage was ascribed to his wife having “a hymen like a concrete portcullis”. Follow that.

The Uncommon Reader – A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith


Unlike the Waugh biography referred top above, this focuses on the work rather than the life. The life indeed seemed fairly uneventful apart from an interlude where Garnett’s wife became besotted with a Russian writer who taught her Russian and then saved the day (and the marriage) by dying.  It is a good academic biography where we are introduced to one of the great mid-wives of 20th Century English literature. In his role as publishers’ reader, Garnett helped the young Joseph Conrad to discover his literary voice and was even allowed into the creative process of the great Henry James.  He also worked with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Green. If all that wasn’t enough, his wife Constance Garnett was the translator who introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. A formidable duo done real service in this fascinating book.