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.
But if graft is one part of genius, inky despair may easily be another. Alvarez admires graft, but he has come to wonder, in spite of his deep attraction to it, whether the other stuff, "in which artists deliberately push their perceptions to the very edge of tolerable," is ever worth the cost. So while he somewhat grudgingly acknowledges Lowry's "infinite tolerance for the boredom of hard work," he does not see why boozing should also be part of the deal; and while he thinks Jean Rhys has no peer as a novelist ("such emotional penetration and formal artistry"), she is otherwise a wasteful monster: "sodden, violent, mindless."
Throughout all of these profiles, the same question occurs, over and over: why would anyone want to be a writer? It is a question that Alvarez never quite manages to answer. Vocation, it seems to him, is so often "intolerable," an "unnatural strain." No wonder people need to escape from it now and again. As for literary life, that stinks, too. In a great essay on John Berryman, he writes, lip elegantly curled, that the poet was "jagged, ambitious, as touchy about other men's success as his own, and passionately absorbed in all that shabby gang warfare that makes the literary life peculiarly unspeakable." Hardly surprising that, for himself, Alvarez preferred Kinder Scout to warm wine and small talk.
Alvarez's conflicted feelings about his own status in the literary world — at once both insider and outsider — mean that he has always been generous to other writers (and never more so than when he was the poetry editor of the Observer newspaper in London in the 1950s); his criticism is equally kind. Reviewing Anne Sexton's biography of Sylvia Plath, famously, a kind of horrible co-production with Olwyn Hughes, sister of Ted, he lets quotation do his work for him, only rarely interjecting to point out the savage unfairness of this take on a woman whom he knew and liked. His mildness and his refusal to take sides do him great credit.
Bloomsbury, the publisher of Risky Business, has been buying up authors like there's no tomorrow; drunk on Harry Potter profits, until recently it seemed to worry less than some about sales. I'm glad if Alvarez has been one beneficiary of this. Literary criticism is not exactly where it's at in 21st-century publishing; no one cares for expertise or close reading. But these essays, so quietly revealing, deserve to lie between soft covers. And if lots of copies also happen to get shifted, so much the better. It would be nice to prove to their author that someone, somewhere, does notice the trouble he takes.
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