Between books, and a desultory Shabbes. Sometimes, though, even while you are reading a little here and a little there, without paying close attention to anything much, you stumble upon an uncanny accidental connection. So. A box of used books arrived on Friday. Among other things it contained a collection of Martin Amis’s essays and reviews entitled The War against Cliché; the 1989 reissue of Frederick Crews’s Sins of the Fathers; and a reprint of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.
At least that’s the order in which the connected passages struggled to consciousness, one by one, like school-aged brothers on a weekend morning. In a 1976 New Statesman review of John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces, a book very like the collection in which this review appeared, Amis concludes,
The exact nature of Updike’s confusion only became clear to me the next morning, when I was reading Crews’s afterword to the new edition of his psychoanalytic study of Hawthorne. Crews of course is famous among English professors for turning volubly and persuasively against the Freudian approach that he himself once championed. He is the Elia Kazan of American literary scholarship. His very name will provoke boos in an academic audience. Needless to say, he is one of my intellectual heroes.
Crews has become convinced that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, and he never tires of producing the evidence that knocks the legs from under its scientific claims. The howls of outrage are deafening. Nevertheless, Crews believes that he has gained more friends than enemies by renouncing a “sectarian brand of criticism that binds its practitioners in defensive solidarity. . . .” He explains why:
Which brings me to Hartley. Against all expectation, I had very much enjoyed Eustace and Hilda, his nearly 800-page trilogy about a brother and sister’s lifelong relation. Hartley’s prose is fine in its discriminations without becoming fussy or clotted. As William Maxwell says of argumentative writing, it has the “forward movement of prose that is bent only on saying what the writer has to say,” but what Hartley has to say is so involved that it would seem to demand a back-and-forth instead of the forward movement it pursues:
Imagine my surprise then to find Hartley saying, in the “author’s introduction” to The Go-Between, that he agrees with F. R. Leavis that a “novel should be concerned with moral issues, and from moral issues it is only a short step to moral judgments.” Leavis makes Updike look like an aesthete. As Amis says elsewhere in The War against Cliché, Leavis “sought to reduce literature to a moral audit, an elaborate way of determining whether individual readers were or were not mature and wholesome human beings.” Amis doesn’t much like Leavis.
Not so Hartley. Despite being named for Leslie Stephen, Hartley had little else in common with the Bloomsbury group. He was Leavis’s exact contemporary; perhaps his morality was a rationalization of his well-known social snobbery; perhaps he came about it honestly. He said that Henry James “would never have written a novel which seemed to mitigate the sin of adultery.” And apparently he set out to write The Go-Between with the same uncompromising attitude toward the adulteress in his own novel. “Altogether she ruined at least half-a-dozen lives,” and deserved not to “get off lightly herself.” But a strange thing happened as he worked on the novel. He found himself softening toward her; he no longer had it in him to paint her in “such dark colours.” Although it was obvious that he disapproved of her, readers told Hartley they liked her or at least they found her attractive. He was not unhappy with the reaction: