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April 24, 2008

David Womersley asks, is Stefan Collini Britain's most ecological critic? Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics - Stefan Collini

Posted by David Womersley

Common Reading: Critics, Historians, Publics
by Stefan Collini
Pp. x + 368. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008
Hardback, 25

Is Stefan Collini our most ecological critic? It would be hard to think of anyone else who has taken so much to heart in their academic lives the urgency of the need to recycle. Common Reading, like English Pasts and (to a lesser degree) Public Moralists, is a collection of previously-published essays loosely grouped around, not so much a theme as a set of recurrent preoccupations. Of the twenty four chapters in Common Reading, twenty one have already been published (nine as reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and nine as reviews in the London Review of Books). Only three are new.

As with Collini's most recent book, the witty and acute Absent Intellectuals [see my review, Why are English intellectuals so obsessed with the absence of English intellectuals? ], the general subject of these essays is British intellectual life in the twentieth century. The range of figures and subjects covered is impressive, from Cyril Connolly to Perry Anderson, from autodidacticism to contemporary Higher Education.

And yet, as was also to some extent the case with Absent Intellectuals, and as is perhaps inevitable given the piecemeal composition of these articles, Collini mounts no large arguments. This is both a strength and a limitation. Insofar as Absent Intellectuals did nail its colours to the mast of a large argument, it was a large argument about the misleadingness of large arguments (in this case, the widespread contention that the British were a peculiarly un-intellectual nation, and that their characteristic strengths entailed a suspicion of - normally French - intellectualism).

Common Reading once again puts before us a series of sharp, witty, wry observations, often provoked by indolent and widely-accepted generalisations. Collini is a master at the pitiless yet not vindictive or persecuting dissection of a departed second-rater, such as A. L. Rowse (of the writers considered in this collection, perhaps only Empson possessed a really original and outstanding mind). The effect of this gentle, almost affectionate, flaying is often delightful (only in the essay on Roger Scruton is Collini betrayed into overt aggression); and there aren't many critics writing today who can make at least this reviewer laugh out loud.

But the reader begins to notice within himself a growing desire for something more substantial. Common Reading is rather like a meal consisting of a choice of amuse-bouches, a series of palate-cleansing sorbets, and an espresso. All perfect in their way, of course; but your hopes, as you tucked in your napkin and grasped your cutlery, had been framed along more ample lines.

"Probably no writer wishes to be remembered primarily as a reviewer", Collini observes propos Rebecca West (p. 43). In the course of several of these chapters he writes with feeling of the reviewer's habitual discontents the drudgery of the daily task, the pernicious need to stimulate in yourself responses to books to which naturally you have no response at all, the dictated quality of the work. The reviewer is a jellyfish on the sea of literature, blown by the winds and drawn by the tides, an involuntary (and therefore oddly innocent) stinger of the unchosen victims who come within reach of his tentacles.

One such was Philip Waller, whose massive historical study of literary culture in Britain at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, Writers, Readers, and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 (Oxford, 2006) landed on Collini's desk. Collini is, I think rightly, exasperated by the book's shapelessness, by the prodigality with which Waller simply heaped up a rich pile of materials and then could not be bothered seriously to investigate them (p. 238):

It is not easy to say what this book is about, other than by amplifying its subtitle. It is not held together by a single argument; indeed, there is practically no analysis of any kind in it. . . . there is scarcely a breath of argument, no hint as to which elements might be most significant, complete silence on whether some things may have been the cause of others. Although the book's bibliography includes various items of secondary scholarship on the topics he treats, there is no explicit engagement with their claims, no sense of whether he is extending or revising historiographical orthodoxies.
Fair comment, I think. And yet the whispering voice of equity murmurs that at least Waller did put his head well above the parapet and tried, albeit imperfectly, to write something on a large scale, intellectually speaking (even if in the end all he may have achieved was to write a book with many pages).

There is a recurrent shape to Collini's reviews. They begin with the hook: a small joke which engages the reader on Collini's side (some of these have now become a characteristic patter: compare the wording of the gag which opens the essay devoted to Cyril Connolly on p. 9 and the joke on p. 92 about Stephen Spender eyeing up Connolly in the bath). The meat of the review comes next, in which description and judgement are well blended. A final joke dismisses the congregation, who depart amused and sustained.

Perhaps Collini is now becoming too comfortable in this form. He could extend himself in two directions. Notwithstanding his wise misgivings about them, he could construct more ambitious arguments. And he could write about figures with whom he found it less easy to feel superior. Reviewing Nicola Lacey's biography of H. L. A. Hart, Collini notes that the material she has collected would serve the needs of "a more analytical and less biographical account" (p. 293). Collini might redress the balance of his own writing in a similar direction.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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