Sunday, 20 May 2012

A Passage from the Norfolk Broads

First edition published 4 June 1924.
In their lifetimes books pass through many hands.  Sometimes it is possible, and also interesting, to trace their passage.  For example some years ago I bought a beaten up hardcover copy of E M Forster's A Passage to India.  I bought it mostly because I needed it for writing Alexandria: City of Memory.  I could have had a copy for less had I bought the paperback, but this happened to be a first edition, so I splurged and paid the £8.

I did what I usually do with books and signed my name inside, though not on the title page this time, instead on the front flyleaf immediately below the signature of a previous owner, L H G Greenwood of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  I cannot say that his name rang a bell.

Greenwood signed his name in the book sometime during June 1924.
I had read A Passage to India before and now I read it again.  And when I got to the end and read that final passage of broken friendship and loss - '"No, not yet", and the sky said, "No, not there"' - I noticed that Mr Greenwood had been scribbling in my book again. 

A passage on the Norfolk Broads.
'Read on the Broads aloud', Greenwood had written, 'to Frank and Ralph Leavis 29 June-4 July 1924'. So this was F R Leavis and his younger brother Ralph who were spending a week floating about the Norfolk Broads having A Passage of India read to them by F R Leavis' moral tutor (rather than his academic supervisor) who was a classicist, the translator of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and who would later translate the whole of Cicero.

Leavis had got his BA at Cambridge three years before; at the moment of this idyll on the Broads he was completing his PhD and would eventually become one of the foremost literary critics in the English-speaking world.  He admired A Passage to India and would praise it for its 'qualities of intelligence and civilisation'.  This was all the more important as after the Great War, in his view, the world had been going to pot, sinking into degeneracy.  

The Norfolk Broads.
After the further horrors of the Second World War Leavis wrote his most famous and controversial book, The Great Tradition, published in 1948. 'Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, Conrad, and D H Lawrence: the great tradition of the English novel is there'. He was not entirely happy about Lawrence but came round to him more as he wrote the book; as for writers like Dickens, they were not in the tradition, though he did allow that Hard Times was 'a completely serious work of art'.  Moral intensity, in Leavis' view, was the necessary criterion for inclusion in any list of the finest novelists.

Oddly Leavis found the time in The Great Tradition to dismiss a novelist who was almost entirely unknown in 1948, Lawrence Durrell.  Also dismissed for lowering the tone of Western civilisation was Henry Miller, who likewise was unknown except to a few.  It is strange that Leavis bothered to waste his breath, but then he was something of a finely-tuned paranoic and saw coming what others might have missed. 

Doing dirt on life: The Durrell-Miller Letters published by 
Michael Haag and Faber and Faber London 1988.

In certain writers, Leavis wrote, 'a regrettable (if minor) strain of Mr Eliot's influence seems to me to join with that of Joyce', producing 'in so far as we have anything significant, the wrong kind of reaction against liberal idealism. I have in mind writers in whom Mr Eliot has expressed an interest in strongly favourable terms: Djuna Barnes of Nightwood, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell of The Black Book. In these writers - at any rate in the last two (and the first seems to me insignificant) - the spirit of what we are offered affects me as being essentially a desire, in Laurentian phrase, to "do dirt" on life'. 

Leavis has it wrong about the dirt.  D H Lawrence was talking about pornography when he wrote of doing dirt.  ‘Pornography is the attempt to insult sex, to do dirt on it', Lawrence wrote in Pornography and Obscenity in 1929.  But neither Durrell nor Miller insult sex or life; quite the opposite.  But that is what Frank Leavis of the Broads has to say, and I mention it more in illustration of the conversation that opens up between present and past when you discover that someone has been scribbling in your book.