Sun, Jul 17, 2005 - Page 18 News List

You can enjoy yourself 'Among the Mandarins'

John Haffenden has created a biography that even Empson himself would have found an entertaining read

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

William Empson Volume One: Among the Mandarins
By John Haffenden
695 pages
Oxford

William Empson was one of the UK's leading 20th century literary critics, and he spent much of his early teaching career at universities in Japan and China. If this sounds surprising, the reason today sounds even more so. It was that a conventional academic career in his home country was closed to him after a servant found an unused condom in his room at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His name was removed from the college books, making it impossible for him to proceed to graduate work.

This fine new biography follows Empson -- author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Some Versions of Pastoral, The Structure of Complex Words and Milton's God -- from his birth in 1906 to his arrival back in London from China in 1939. Myopic, alcoholic and bisexual, he emerges from these pages as an eccentric yet stoical loner, a sometimes frisky but usually owlish figure with glasses held together by sticking tape, who was nevertheless adored by his students, and in many ways laid the foundations of the study of English literature in East Asia.

His four famous books are paradoxical, clever, coat-trailing and in essence deeply subversive. He was anti-militaristic, anti-

Communist, and provocatively anti-Christian. In Milton's God, for instance, he argued that John Milton's portrait of God in Paradise Lost was of a bad-tempered tyrant, and what's more Milton knew it. He thought Buddhism more humane than Christianity (and Buddha's image as ambiguous as the best poetry). In a famous passage in Pastoral he pointed out that the equanimity of Thomas Gray's famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard served to hide the fact that the wasted lives it commemorated need not have been wasted if there had been a more equitable educational system.

All the UK's progressive young devoured Empson's early books, and eventually, in 1953, he was given a professorship at Sheffield University. John Haffenden now occupies his subject's former post there, and as a young man worked alongside him prior to Empson's retirement from Sheffield in 1971 (he died in 1984). He describes him as off-handedly agreeing to the biography project. What now appears is the first volume. It's appropriately subtitled Among the Mandarins.

The era Empson was in the Far East was marked by heightened Japanese nationalism and the invasions of Manchuria and, later, much of the rest of China. Empson respected both cultures, nonetheless. Conditions were especially hard in China between 1937 and 1939. Days after his arrival in Bei-jing, the university staff and students decamped by road for the remote southwest, finally setting up at Nan-yueh on the slopes of a sacred mountain in Hunan Province, with Empson teaching English classic poems from memory because there were no books. Former students have claimed he knew the whole of Shakespeare's Othello by heart, but Haffenden has discovered there was a copy of the plays in one of the cockroach-infested huts where living and teaching had to take place. Later everyone moved again, first to near the Vietnam border, then to Kunming.

Extraordinarily, one of Empson's colleagues in Hunan was I.A. Richards, in the 1920s one of the pioneers of the ground-breaking English Department at Cambridge. Why Richards took the job, originally at the National Peking University, isn't clear, but the 1930s was a period when many British litterateurs looked on China as the place to be. Aesthete Harold Acton found a job there, as did Virginia Woolf's nephew Julian Bell, and W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood visited. These names alone make an impressive roll call.

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