The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life by John Carey
Half way through The Unlikely Professor I was deciding which friends and relations I would give copies to. It was such an enjoyable read: there was Carey's wartime childhood in Barnes; some hilarious stories of army service in Egypt; the eccentricities of Oxford in the fifties and sixties; and Carey's pithy judgements on English literature. Plus a little gentle romance, in the ditching of his childhood sweetheart for a fellow undergrad glimpsed in profile during an Oxford lecture.
I had bought the book expecting Oxford, but the tales of my home patch in South West London were a bonus. Barnes has gone upmarket since the 1940's. Hammersmith, pre-flyover, sounds like a charming place. And Mortlake, well I guffawed at the description of it as some kind of no-go area, "a slum, dark and threatening ...I didn't linger on the way back". Carey knows what Mortlake is like now and sounds more shocked at its current prosperity than he did at its earlier roughness.
From school to Oxford was an awkward transition. Carey makes a point about how today's students have it easy, psychologically at least, arriving for interviews to find Welcome placards and balloons. So different from his day, when he turned up for his interview at St John's college and the porter "handed me a key, told me the number of my room, and bade me goodnight." It wasn't designed to reassure a grammar school boy: "as I stumbled off across the dark quadrangle it occurred to me that I probably did not belong in Oxford".
I loved Carey's hero worship of his brilliant but taciturn English tutor, whose slightest response to an undergraduate's essay was savoured as much as the most articulate commentary. When a student read him an essay, "after an expressive silence, he would allude to some passage in Shakespeare or Virgil or Dante that seemed to him apposite, and that he assumed we knew, and follow it with a string of interrogative bleats - 'Eh? Eh? Eh?' - that invited us to comment on it."
As he begins to make his mark as a critic, we see just how much hard graft it takes - whether it's having to read all of D.H.Lawrence's novels, the voluminous writings of John Donne, or, later, having been picked as William Golding's biographer, the two and a half million words of Golding's private journal, which took six months in itself.
Now here's where my disappointment started. There was no insight into how Carey copes with all this. Does he read fast or slow, late at night or early in the morning? How does he keep notes of what he's read? How does he negotiate dull sermons, letters and tracts but make sure he's not missing anything?
And when he's finished reading, how does he decide what line to take on a writer or a book? How different does it have to be from the orthodoxy? He remarks about Paradise Lost that Satan is the most interesting character. That was about the one idea that I remember from studying the poem at A level. So is that something Carey came up with and which has been hugely influential? Or was it conventional wisdom, in which case I'm surprised Carey thinks it's worth including.
But I'm afraid that's not the end of my complaints. In its final stretches, the clever parallel tracks, of intellectual and real life, seem to separate. We don't hear about his domestic arrangements for ages. I thought he must have got divorced from Gill and didn't want to mention it, but no, she pops up again as if nothing has happened. And there's an uncomfortable roundup of favourite books he's reviewed. There are interesting details - like how Frank Muir was buried along with a copy of Carey's very favourable review of his autobiography (laminated, I hope). But it becomes a bit like a leaving speech - a cheery roundup of achievements under an appropriately self-deprecating sheen.
And then there's the final chapter, 'So, in the End, Why Read?'. It's about two pages long, and almost half of that is quotations. It feels dashed off. The final words in the book are: "reading releases you from the limits of yourself. Reading is freedom. Now read on."
I couldn't get out of my mind a vision of an over-committed Carey being hounded by his publisher to finish the book to a deadline, and of Carey deciding that he'd just finish it even if there was only an hour left. That may be unfair, but after so enjoying the first parts of the book, I couldn't have been more predisposed to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It's still a great read, and points you to his enthusiasms: I'm already enjoying 'Coming Up for Air' thanks to Carey's praise for Orwell. And I'll probably read more Lawrence, and maybe even have another look at Milton. Then there's Heaney and Larkin. In fact, there's a comprehensive, undergrad-style English Lit reading list in the book if you want to take advantage of it. But I won't be buying extras copies to give away.
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