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John Carey

The Unexpected Professor

Category: Biography | Published: 2014 | Review Added: 08-10-2017

Rating: 4 - A top read

John Carey is a literary polemicist, a grammar school-educated Oxford don whose bête noires are academic and intellectual elistism. In his career as an English Professor at various Oxford colleges, he put his money where his mouth was, actively soliciting undergraduate applications from state schools, fighting to get the English curriculum updated to include more modern literature, and (as chair of a pan-University board) attempting to bring in line colleagues who refused to lecture on anything but their pet subjects.

As a literary journalist, Carey wrote iconoclastic reviews, and the provocative books What Good are the Arts? and The Intellectuals and the Masses. The latter gained him notoriety, arguing that there are no objective criteria for a work of art, and decrying the contempt of Modernist writers such as TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf for the working classes and democratic principles.

The Unexpected Professor is a selective autobiography. Only 350 pages long, it focusses on its author's professional life and on his responses to the books he has read, but also encompasses an engaging account of his childhood and youth. His father was an accountant, once quite well-off but reduced to straitened circumstances when his French employer went bankrupt in the 1930s. Carey was the youngest of four children, and his upbringing was stable and mostly happy, in spite of the outside turmoil of the financial crisis and the Second World War. His father had a library of books, and it was Carey's furtive perusal of them that ignited the love of words, and the world of the imagination, that would determine his career.

Quite to whom Carey's professorship was "unexpected" isn't clear. It can't have been Carey himself. The pugnacious self-confidence evident from his literary criticism was there from the start. He was always determined to succeed, at school, as an undergraduate, and as an academic. Unlike many intellectuals, he enjoyed his National Service. Any kind of challenge, physical, practical or mental, seems to have fired him up.

That same self-confidence sometimes spills over into cockiness. He rejects some works (by Dostoyevsky and Forster) less on grounds of their aesthetic weakness than from a distaste for their mystical "hogwash". Like many politically-minded intellectuals, Carey doesn't have much time for psychological literature that focusses on private worlds or metaphysical ideas. He lauds George Eliot as "the most intelligent" author ever to come out of England, but his sociological interpretation of Daniel Deronda reduces the novel to a critique of the empty world of upper-middle-class luxury that the heroine Gwendolyn marries into, while ignoring its compelling psychological drama.

He can be glib, too. Defending DH Lawrence's "outrageousness", he maintains that Lawrence "hated cruelty" on the basis of a compassionate description of a bullfight. Yet Lawrence also fantasised about a gas chamber "as big as the Crystal Palace" into which all "the sick, the halt and the maimed" would be dragged. (The fact that Lawrence was, himself, sick for most of his life, suggests interesting things about his subconscious self-image.) It's a mistake to try to make out of Lawrence a consistent character, when it's his inconsistency, his allowing the emotion of the moment to lead his thought, that makes him so interesting.

What about Carey's style? Well, it's readable and pointed, but his commitment to plain language makes it something of a blunt instrument that can hardly be described as virtuosic. Carey is a big admirer of George Orwell, whose credo "say everything in the shortest way possible" he follows diligently, but his style is more casual than Orwell's, and the odd hackneyed phrase like "my personal gods" made me think he wasn't trying as hard as he might to distinguish his prose.

But Carey is never boring, even when he irritates and provokes. He passionately believes in literature as a force for good because "reading opens your mind to alternative ways of thinking and feeling". This hits the nail on the head, and any Oxford Professor who says as much has my vote. Tempering Carey's combative egotism, there always is a humane and idealistic streak that I warm to.

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