Sun, Feb 04, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Never before has art seemed to involve so much ... muscle

Literary criticism is not exactly where it's at in 21st-century publishing, but Al Alvarez's profiles of people who go to extremes deserves a close read

By Rachel Cooke  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Risky Business: Books, Poker, Pastimes, People

By Al Alvarez
416 pages

They might have ranch-sized egos, but a lot of writers also feel sick at heart about what they do, especially, it often seems, the men. They find it agony, this business of being all alone, nothing but a white page for company, and ache at the thought of it. "A solitary, joyless occupation," is how poet and critic Al Alvarez describes it. "For five or six days each week, I sit at my desk and try to get the sentences right. If I make a mistake, I can rewrite it the following day or the next or catch it in proof. And if I fail to do so, who cares? Who even notices?" Worse yet is the sense that, as Frederic Raphael once put it: "Real men do things. They don't just write about them."

How to justify this endless fiddling with syntax, this precarious piling up of paragraphs? It is not even as if it pays the bills. Risky Business, a new collection of Alvarez's journalism, is so called not just because it includes pieces about gambling, but by way of a nod to the freelance life: parlous, fickle and so terribly wearying.

Alvarez's solution to the "real men" problem, at least in the past (he is in his seventies now), was to do things and then write about them: climb, play poker, generally shoot adrenalin around his body. He didn't do these things only to write about them (he loved his rock faces and his playing cards anyway) but the two — companionable action, followed by solitary confinement once again — came to have an enjoyably symbiotic relationship. The trouble is that a writer can't spend all his days dangling on a rope or in the din of a Vegas casino and none at all once he is a certain age.

So it was back to the book reviews and the literary profiles. In Risky Business, you will find pieces about Alfred Brendel, Malcolm Lowry, John Berryman, James Salter, Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and Sylvia Plath: artists who, to varying degrees and in different ways, pushed (or are still pushing) themselves to their physical, as well as intellectual, limits. They are a pretty extreme bunch, and this, inescapably, is why Alvarez was moved to write about them. Never before has art seemed to involve so much ... muscle.

Alvarez's profile of Brendel is a case in point. Literally. He makes you so aware of the physicality of the pianist's playing, of his need to pay attention — every minute — to his body. So we hear about the pianist's massages, and his fear of draughts and his twice-daily swims. Brendel is a neighbor of Alvarez's and a close friend; when this profile was written (in 1996, for the New Yorker), Alvarez still used to sit in on rehearsals in Brendel's studio, his sole spectator). Ordinarily, I object to writers profiling their pals, but in this case, I'll have to make an exception. It's a marvelous piece: clear, unpretentious, insightful. Forget the mystery of creation. This is a writer who knows about graft and understands that without it, nothing much will happen, even for a genius.

"Those private sessions with Brendel made it clear to me how much a performance cost him," he writes. "After one of them, when he was soaked with sweat and looked more than usually drained, I asked how he remembered it all. He answered, 'Memory is not a problem. What matters is the musculature.'" Then there is routine. As a writer might use only yellow paper and green ink, Brendel likes the fringes on his rugs to be just so and for the room in which he plays never to smell of cooking. A lesser writer wouldn't bother listing these "finicky" habits; they would simply try to say the unsayable and drone limply on about Beethoven's sonatas.

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