Friday, September 24, 2021

A Delighful Read for Book Lovers: Allan Massie's "Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns"

 "Where have all the book columns gone?"  I asked after J.C. (James Campbell) wrote his last N.B. column for The Times Literary Supplement.  The competent M.C. has taken over the column and avails himself/herself of the same tropes, though. We Americans still have Michael Dirda at The Washington Post, thank God, but if other book columnists exist they must be behind a paywall.

And then I remembered Allan Massie, a former book columnist for The Spectator. (He is a historical novelist, a book reviewer for The Scotsman, and a journalist.)  I learned at The Scotsman that Massie's columns have been collected in a book, Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns. 

You will read this marvelous book in one sitting.  Most of the pieces are new to me, but I recalled Massie's excellent column about George Meredith, "What Price George Meredith?"  He compares Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, wondering why there are so many biographies of Hardy and so few of Meredith.  He considers Meredith the better writer by far, and believes Beauchamp's Career is "arguably the best Victorian political novel." He dislikes my favorite, The Egoist, but is a great fan of The Adventures of Harry Richmond:  "...if permitted to keep only half a dozen novels from the Victorian age, Harry Richmond would be one of my selections, which wouldn't, however, include any of Hardy's."

Massie is eminently readable and surreptitiously scholarly.  In "The Fate of the Running Man" (May 20, 2006), he explores the career of Widmerpool in Anthony Powell's 12-book masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time. First, he humorously explains the vast gap between Widmerpool's fans and detractors:  Evelyn Waugh was disappointed that there were only three pages of Widmerpool in Casanova's Chinese Restaurant, while Massie's classics master said, "I don't like this chap Widmerpool." And Massie wonders if Powell knew how Widmerpool would die (ridiculously, alas) when he wrote the first novel in 1950.  The last was published in 1975.

Massie writes,

One of the problems of Dance, read as a coherent work, is that Powell started writing it years before the time in which the last two books are set. Accordingly, though Jenkins is in a sense remembering the story, he starts telling it long before it is completed. In writing a novel over a period of 25 years, Powell responded to changes in what was acceptable, being aware also that, unavoidably, he himself changed too. ... This suggests that had Powell published a novel every year rather than biennially, bringing out the last volume in 1963 rather than 1975, Widmerpool’s end would have been different, perhaps less awful. His disintegration, recorded with appalling zest in the last two books, could not have taken just the same form before the Sixties.

A brief digression on Dance:  I love it uncritically.  Other  readers compare Powell to Proust, but I am surprised: so much of it seems to be satire to me. The first time, I read it as satire and chortled at Widmerpool. On a second reading, I pitied Widmerpool, a public school misfit still mocked by those horrible grown-up schoolboys after he  surpasses them in his professional life.  The third time, I begged the question, disliking Widmerpool but feeling compassionate. And now, having read Massie, will I read it through his glasses?  My bifocals will tell.

Massie is an eclectic critic:  he writes about the literary world in a broader context.  In "The Art of the Irrelevant" (July 1, 2006), he explains the limited selling power of book reviews.

Certainly publishers remain eager to secure reviews, though not, I suspect, half as anxious as the author, for whom a review may be the only evidence that anyone has actually read his book. But what difference does it make? More than 20 years ago, when Auberon Waugh wrote a full-page weekly review in the Evening Standard, he modestly suggested to me that his recommendation might be worth at most 200 additional sales. Given that the paper must then have had more than a million readers, this is not an impressive figure; but I doubt if any other reviewer could honestly have claimed to have had even that much influence. I have reviewed new novels in The Scotsman for 30 years now, and in that time not more than a dozen readers have ever thanked me for introducing them to the work of a particular writer.

These essays are short and perfect: if you like Anne Fadiman's essays on books, you will enjoy Massie's Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns. 


  1. wow! i've danced around reading "Dance" for years and have never done it... 3 times!: extraordinary! Massie seems well worth reading. i think Meredith is a lot better than Hardy also; i also think he's better than H. James... i liked Egoist a lot... i'm prejudiced against James i fear; i just don't think there's much of an excuse for writing unreadable sentences... it's overly pretentious, imo anyhow...

  2. "Dance" is a very easy read, and the 12 books are very short. I say, go for it. Hardy, Meredith, and James: I love them all.