Friday, May 15, 2015

`Spontaneity, Eager Curiosity, the Anticipation of Pleasure'

Any sensitive plants in the audience, moved by their own daintiness of sensibility, might have been offended. Larkin’s “Wants” (The Less Deceived, 1955) is pretty grim, even by his mordant standards; almost provocatively grim, as if he were tempting readers to argue him away from the edge of the cliff. Or as if he were stylizing his well-known crankiness, almost caricaturing it. Larkin is never one thing. John Gross, the polymathic man of letters, died Jan. 10, 2011, at the age of seventy-five, and a memorial service for him was held the following March. It must have been a wonderful occasion. The music included Schubert and Ella Fitzgerald. Friends read poems by Blake, Tennyson, Swinburne, Hardy, Frost, Auden and Stevie Smith. Gross’ daughter Susanna read “Wants”:

“Beyond all this, the wish to be alone
However the sky grows dark with invitation cards
However we follow the printed directions of sex
However the family is photographed under the flagstaff
Beyond all this, the wish to be alone.

“Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs:
Despite the artful tensions of the calendar,
The life insurance, the tabled fertility rites
The costly aversion of the eyes from death—
Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.”

One suspects Gross never harbored such sentiments. He seems to have been too good-hearted and generous of spirit. But he was likewise too acute a reader and critic not to appreciate Larkin’s artfully comic meditation on solitude, the obligations of sociability and death. Read Gross’ collected works and get the education you probably missed in school. Read A Double Thread (2003), his memoir of growing up Jewish in London’s East End, and, on a related theme, Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1993). His anthologies make for excellent bedtime reading, in particular The New Oxford Book of English Prose (1998) and After Shakespeare: Writing Inspired by the World’s Greatest Author (2002). His masterwork is The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1991; rev. ed. 1991), in which he writes a love song to literature:

“Isn’t there a certain basic antagonism between the very nature of a university and the very spirit of literature? The academic mind is cautious, tightly organized, fault-finding, competitive – and above all aware of other academic minds…Think of the whole idea of regarding literature as a discipline. Literature can be strenuous or difficult or deeply disturbing; it can be a hundred things – but a discipline is not one of them. Discipline means compulsion, and an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure; it is unlikely that a reader who comes to a book under duress, or weighed down with a sense of duty, will ever really read it at all, however much he may learn about it. Even the most intensely serious literature needs to be approached with a certain lightness of heart, if it is to yield its full intensity.”

Today, such words might as well be written in Linear B: “an interest in literature thrives on spontaneity, eager curiosity, the anticipation of pleasure.”

[Here, the writer’s son, Tom Gross, has collected numerous tributes to his father, including videos of the poems read at the memorial service. Here, Larkin reads “Wants” as he walks away from the camera, along the river bank, at the conclusion of the 1964 Monitor television program with John Betjeman.]


Subbuteo said...

Gross's comments on the University approach to literature surely extend to teaching younger students too. Here the trick is to ensure that formal literary education does not put youngsters off literature, making it seem a kind of punishment inflicted on the young for unknown transgressions. Enormous numbers are spoiled for life when it comes to Shakespeare, for instance.

Subbuteo said...

Poor Larkin! You have to condole or, perhaps, commiserate, with the man.