The Critic in Novels: Cultured or Caustic?

Critics have a bad rap.  We picture them as cruel little men (somehow not women) who savage the books and movies we love.  “I never agree with the critics,” my mother used to say.  I seldom do myself, but I read reviews and discover good books by reading between the lines.  Personally, I have never known a critic.  I have known book reviewers, who are a milder bunch. But suddenly, last month, critics kept cropping up as minor characters in the twentieth-century novels I was reading.

In general, they were an unpleasant bunch.  I chortled over a scene in Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, set at a literary society meeting.   Jane, a middle-aged minister’s wife and writer of a collection of essays, attends the meeting to “absent herself from parish duties.”  Her old college friend, Barbara Bird, a novelist, chats about the good reviews of her latest novel.  She is pleased by the turn-out for the meeting.

“Better gathering than usual,” said Miss Bird; “quite a few critics.”

“Such mild-looking men,” said Jane, seeing one of them taking his seat near the front.  “Perhaps they compensate themselves for their gentle appearance by dipping their pens in vitriol.”

Later, Jane has an accidental encounter with a critic while conversing with Miss Bird.   “Oh, yes,’ agreed Jane enthusiastically, stepping backwards into a critic and causing him to upset his coffee over himself.”

Pym getting back at the critics?  But did Pym ever receive a bad reviews?


Critics are useful to writers, as we see in Some Do Not…, the first volume in Ford Madox Ford’s stunning tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Mrs. Wannop, a brilliant novelist and freelance writer, arrives unannounced at a brunch and immediately corners a critic.    “…Mrs. Wannop was a woman of business. If she heard of a reviewer within driving distance she called on him with eggs as a present.”  Ford is very comical about her, but, believe me, she needs the press, because she and her suffragette daughter are almost starving.

I am a great fan of Pamela Hansford Johnson, and recently reread the second in her Dorothy Merlin trilogy,  Night and Silence, Who Is Here?  Dorothy’s friend Matthew, an aristocratic playboy, is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”

In A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell’s 12-novel masterpiece, the critics are difficult people, sometimes not quite of the writer/narrator Nick’s class.  He went to Oxford with Mark Members, a savvy social-climbing poet and critic.  In the fifth novel in the series, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, we meet Maclintick, a bad-tempered music critic. He is not entirely unsympathetic, but comes to a bad end.  Nick describes him as follows:

…Maclintick belonged to the solidly built musical type, a physical heaviness already threatening obesity in early middle age.  Broad-shouldered, yet somehow narrowing toward his lower extremities, his frontal elevation gave the impression of a large rectangular kite about to float away into the sky on the fumes of Irish whiskey, which, even above the endemic odors of the Mortimer and the superimposed insistence of Mr. Deacon’s eucalyptus, freely emanated from the quarter where he sat.  Maclintick’s calculatedly humdrum appearance seemed aimed at concealing bohemian affiliations.  The minute circular lenses of his gold-rimmed spectacles, set across the nose of a pug dog, made one think of caricatures of Thackeray or President Thiers, imposing on him the air of a bad-tempered doctor.

What is the source of these satiric portrayals of critics?  Why do we recognize them?  Perhaps I first read about a critic  in one of the novels of Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point, or a satire by Evelyn Waugh?

I do remember a critic in Sebastian Faulk’s relatively recent novel, A Week In December, published in  2009.  I loved the large ensemble cast, and wrote in my book journal:

My favorite character is the terrible but funny Tranter, a book reviewer who lives to eviscerate novelists. He seems to be right out of the pages of Anthony Powell….   He lives off a number of freelance review assignments, combined with gigs running an upscale women’s book group and editing teachers’ comments on reports at a fancy private (or public, as they say in England) school.  Reading the newspaper, he focuses on the book review pages.

So do you know of any critics in novels? Who are your favorites? And why do they have such a bad reputation?

When We Like Unlikable Characters: Audrey Maclintick in Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant

Perhaps on a first reading, we read a novel as the writer intends.   Well, not quite, but we tend to like the genial characters and to be less sympathetic to the unpleasant characters. Then, if we love a book and reread it, we may grow fond of the less engaging characters.

I am a fan of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. I had no idea what a treat I was in for when I bought the paperbacks at a used bookstore in my twenties. (I bought them for the covers.)  Although Powell’s 12-book masterpiece is often compared to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, I see it more as Evelyn Waughish–a very long Brideshead Revisited combined with the Sword of Honour trilogy.  Nick Jenkins, the charming, witty narrator-writer,  satirically sketches the colorful people in his life: Waughish aristocrats, night club goers, artists, writers, musicians, soldiers, wealthy businessmen, and charming, dissatisfied women.  But he also examines the vicissitudes of English society from the end of World War I through the 1960s–a high society I would  not aspire to, even if I understood British culture  well enough.

On a recent rereading of Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, the fifth book in Dance, Audrey Maclintick, the unhappy, cranky wife of an unsuccessful music critic, surprisingly became my favorite character.

Must I defend Audrey?  I think I must.  If you lived in her cold, horrible house with a moody, misogynist music critic, you would be uncharming, too.  Dicey surroundings improve no one’s temperament.  When Nick’s friend Hugh Moreland, a successful  musician/composer, takes him to visit the Maclinticks, he is not prepared for the neighborhood:  “The house, when we reached it, turned out to be a small, infinitely decayed two-storey dwelling that had seen better days; now threatened by a row of mean shops advancing from one end of the street and a fearful slum crowding up from the other.”

Nick does not like the house, nor does he have a good impression of Audrey.  “’Find somewhere to sit,’ said Mrs. Maclintick, speaking as if the day, bad enough before, had been finally ruined by our arrival. ‘He will be down soon.'”

When Maclintick comes down in his slippers, Mrs. Maclintic is querulous.  “I thought you were going to get the man to see after the gas fire.  You haven’t moved from the house all day.  I wish you’d stick to what you say.  I could have got hold of him myself, if you weren’t going to do it.”

Now it’s not that Nick/Powell is entirely unsympathetic to Audrey. She isn’t a heroine, but she isn’t a fishwife, either. She is a comic character, and yet he captures her unhappiness, and certainly shows Maclintick as being far worse.   And as wives, we  must sympathize with Audrey. There are moments for all of us when the “gas fire” hasn’t been seen to, but if our husband isn’t a music critic, it is probably because he thought he could fix it himself.

There is also a ruckus over the lodger, Carolo, a composer. Like his wife, Maclintick  doesn’t wait for his friends to leave before complaining.  He doesn’t like Carolo’s writing in the corner while they are eating.  And poor Audrey is honest.  She says, “I like Carolo here….  He gives us little trouble.  I don’t want to die of melancholia, never seeing a soul.”

Poor Audrey!  Maclintick is inattentive and unkind.

And later, at a party, Audrey is charmed by Stringham, Nick’s old school friend, who is now an alcoholic, unwelcome at his mother’s house.  Audrey is ready to go out on the town with Stringham to escape the boring snobbish musical party, given in honor of Moreland.  Stringham and Audrey are both mavericks, but their attempt to escape is squelched.

The Maclinticks’ marriage does not end well.  In fact, it is tragic.  But can one blame Audrey for running off with Carolo?  I cannot.  Maclintick really does seem like a horrible man, though we have much sympathy for him at the end when he loses  his wife and his job and then…  But the consequences of that bad marriage temporarily save Moreland’s marriage to Matilda, an actress, to whom Audrey turns out to be linked in a surprising way.

Does anyone else like Audrey?   I never read Powell the same way twice.

Who are your favorite unlikable characters?  More on this anon from me.

Paul Rhys (Stringham), James Purfoy (NIck), and Zoë Wanamaker (Audrey) in “A Dance to the Music of Time”

A Catch-Up Post: Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman & Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring

odd woman godwinOddI’m behind on writing about my reading, so this is a two-in-one. I recently reread Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman, a brilliant novel about an English professor with an untenured job at a midwestern university,  and a first read of Anthony Powell’s What’s Become of Waring, a satire of the publishing industry.

1.  Gail Godwin, a Southern-born writer who won the Award from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981, has been nominated three times for the National Book Award.  She should have won for her brilliant novel, A Mother and Two Daughters, a women’s classic which has never quite gotten its dues.

The Odd Woman, published in 1974, in many ways lays the groundwork  for A Mother and Two Daughters. The Odd Woman explores a woman’s academic and personal life: Godwin, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa and taught at Vassar and Columbia before becoming a full-time writer, knows about balance.  Her sympathetic portrayal of a bookish heroine, Jane Clifford, a visiting English professor whose teaching contract is soon to expire, is utterly realistic. But what can Jane do?  Hers is the plight of thousands of instructors with Ph.Ds.

Born in the South, Jane is an odd woman at the midwestern college, single and in her thirties. Her married friend Sonia, a tenured professor, is in her corner, but there are no openings at the college.   And the rest of her close relationships are long-distance.  Her flamboyant best friend, Gerda, who publishes a radical feminist newspaper in her basement in Chicago, is impatient with Jane’s reserve and loneliness.  And Jane’s married lover Gabriel, an  ineffectual art history professor who lives in the next state and does endless research  (he is like Casaubon in Middlemarch, Jane eventually realizes) but never completes his book about the Pre-Raphaelites, is so timid that he insists she have a separate hotel room on a trip to  New York in case one of his colleagues figures out he is having an affair . And Gerda says that is typical of Jane, to fall in love with a guy with his head in the clouds who hides even in huge New York City.

Jane is in a state of stasis.    Can Jane change? She is terrified of change.  Reading is her life. She was happiest while holed up one winter 12 hours a day in a university library writing her dissertation on George Eliot.  Everything seemed white that winter, everything seemed pure.   What does that say about her? Jane wonders.  Even her relationship with Gabriel started with a  letter. Then her grandmother’s death and a visit to her mother, who has for years been happily married to an unintellectual construction contractor, forces her to examine the shape of her life and that of her mother and grandmother, wh0 raised her to be strong. Preparing to teach George Gissing’s novel about single women, The Odd Women, for a women’s studies class, also puts her life in context.  One of the reasons I enjoy this novel is that I love Gissing.   Every word Godwin writes is brilliant, even Jane’s notes on this classic.

Slowly and thoughtfully, she underscored “COMPROMISE-REBELLION AGAINST ONE’S OWN COMPROMISE-DEATH.”  Then she wrote quickly in the margin, beside Monica’s fate:  “Theme of literally dozens of 19th century novels–the ‘Emma Bovary’ syndrome.  Literature’s graveyard positively choked with women who chose–rather, let themselves be chosen by–this syndrome; also with their ‘cousins’–who ‘get in trouble’ (commit adultery, have sex without marriage, think of committing adultery, or having sex without marriage) and thus, according to the literary convention of the time, must die.

This is a great book, especially for fans of 19th century novels.

What's Become of Waring powell 51v7mwyiol-_sy344_bo1204203200_2  As a teacher at a prep school in the 1980s in a city I didn’t know, I divided my free time between running 10K races (there went Saturday morning) and browsing at bookstores (often on the same day, in the same clothes).  I’d never heard of Anthony Powell when I found a 12-volume paperback set of A Dance to the Music of Time at a used bookstore in Maryland.  I bought it for the charming covers, and read the whole thing addictively over the course of a week, laughing aloud at Powell’s wit.  I’ve gone back to it many times.

Although I had never come across Powell’s other novels, I recently added  What’s Become of Waring to my never-ending TBR list when it was mentioned in D.J. Taylor’s brilliant history of English literary culture, The Prose Factory:  Literary Life in England Since 1918 (which I wrote about here).  Waring is  a satire of the publishing industry, from the point of view of a detached narrator who works as an editor for a small publishing firm.

I started chortling on the first page of Waring.  It opens at a wedding.

As the parson was approaching the end of his discourse something flicked through the air and landed in my hat resting brim upwards on the pew beside me.  On examination the object turned out to be a page torn from the service paper, folded several times and inscribed in pencil: Put all your money under the seat or I’ll drill a hole through you. It was signed, Red-Handed Mike above a skull-and-crossbones.

It turns out to be his old friend Eustace Bromwich, back from traveling in the Near East.   We learn that the narrator used to work in advertising but is now at the publisher Judkins & Judkins.  The witty repartee never stops.

“Whom do you prefer?  Judkins? Or Judkins?”

“Judkins, emphatically.”

The best-known writer at Judkins & Judkins is T. T. Waring, a best-selling travel writer whose addictive style and thrilling adventures keep the firm afloat.  The amusing Eustace, who has also traveled in the Far East, tells the narrator he despises Waring’s books,  but whether or not Waring is literary, his absent person  is the catalyst for the ensuing comedy of errors.   When it is reported that Waring has died, Judkins & Judkins is up a creek, because they don’t have his last manuscript in hand and were depending on it. They also want to publish a biography of Waring, but have never met Waring and don’t even know where he lived.   Then bold Roberta, a freelance writer who hopes to hustle the publication of a book of her journalism at Judkins & Judkins, admits she was briefly engaged to him in France. (And she does get her book.) Another friend of the narrator, Captain Hudson, who is a fan of Waring, is assigned to write Waring’s biography. The book proceeds at a rapidfire pace, as Powell explores problems of identity, spirtutalism, seances, plagiarism, selling out, romance, and travel.

The books is very, very witty and comical, and I like the Waughish aloofness of the narrator.  There’s something about books about books.

I thought of giving it away, but I’ll probably want to reread it.

A fun novel!