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Nicholas Lezard’s Choice: ‘If Not Critical’ by Eric Griffiths, ed. Freya Johnston

  • Published at 06:35 pm January 12th, 2019

Book review

In 1958, William Empson said, of TS Eliot: “I do not know for certain how much of my own mind he invented, let alone how much of it is a reaction against him or indeed a consequence of misreading him. He is a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike the east wind.”  I do not want to suggest I have anything like Empson’s brilliant, also penetrating intelligence, but I can certainly borrow his words when I think of the author of this book. 

Eric Griffiths was a Cambridge don, a Doctor in the English faculty from the 1980s; and Cambridge has, itself, a famously unnerving east wind. Unsparing of imbecilities, articulate to a degree unusual even in a milieu which valued an educated articulacy above almost all other qualities, and with a breadth of reference which could draw on anything from the most obscure corners of the Oxford English Dictionary to the latest TV show or pop song, Griffiths was able to fill the largest lecture halls with students from disciplines which had nothing whatsoever to do with English Literature. Every week, fortified by what looked very much like a large whisky-and-water, even at nine in the morning, he would dazzle hundreds of undergraduates with free-flowing but penetrating (that word again) analyses of ... well, almost anything, really, taking notes was impossible, but concentrating on the Canon of literature: and not just English literature, but also French, German, and Italian, for he could read and speak these languages, and was most enamored of Proust, Kafka and (in particular) Dante. He was also my teacher, and if one’s English teachers at school are the ones who awaken a love of the subject, it is one’s teachers at university who are meant to instill rigor; to turn the softness of vague appreciation into something harder, more muscled, and more useful; and one of his methods in the intimacy of the seminar or tutorial was, it must be admitted, withering scorn. He was, even by Cambridge standards, a controversial figure; I once saw him reduce the otherwise formidable don Norman Stone to tears. I do not have to worry, though, that he will subject this review to his scrutiny. He died last year, after having been silenced since 2011 by a stroke, a fate partly Dantescan, partly Beckettian, in its personalized cruelty, a fact which would not have escaped him for a second. 

Here are ten of his lectures; and if you think it odd or hopeful of me to recommend something that might seem, on the surface, or considered in abstract to be somewhat niche, let me remind you of the size and scope of his lecture audiences. And also consider the fact that the students he was explicitly addressing were first-year students: people who, like me, had turned up thinking they knew quite a bit but suddenly discovering that they knew virtually nothing. This is crucial, and one reason this book deserves a wide audience. He assumed no prior knowledge, because he already knew more than you could hope to— except, perhaps, that by the end of one of his lectures, you would be considerably better equipped to think for yourself than you had been at the beginning. Intellectual sloppiness, received or half-digested opinion were his enemies. The worst crime of all, in his book, would be an anachronistic reading of texts, of holding works to standards which did not then apply; because that means forgetting that one day we, too, will be found deficient by later generations. Yet he was always keen on putting things in a way that were—to use a word he would have hated—relatable. Take, for instance, his analogy for the bizarre language— the abundant lexical neologisms—that Shakespeare employed in Troilus and Cressida: “He may have taken for granted that his audience could recognize and quickly understand new words, but we should also realize that lexical far-fetchedness was itself something of a production-value in Shakespeare’s theatre, something equivalent to the dry ice and hydraulic sets of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber or the fact that Nicole Kidman gets her kit off in Act 2.” 

This kind of thing enraged some crustier commentators or colleagues, and the fact that he was cleverer than them, and often a more diligent scholar, and more knowledgeable than them, didn’t help. He was unafraid of making enemies (the title comes from Iago’s words in Othello: “I am nothing if not critical”), and his masterly take on Hamlet (“A Rehearsal of Hamlet”) contains passages deliberately calculated to upset pretty much every other Shakespearean commentator on earth, and when he announces “there are no tragic heroes in Shakespeare” you can practically hear the gasps, even from oneself. (He was given to saying things like this; the last time I spoke to him properly he told me he was on a crusade to demonstrate that there was actually no such thing as the iambic pentameter. I am not sure whether he was teasing me or not.) But, as I said, the scholarship was impeccable, and went hand-in-hand with a fine sense of an author’s mind: he could tell you why an author said such-and-such, what effect that author was striving for, and, just as importantly, what we should not be reading into a text. Do not go haring after moon-imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, or: why did Swift use the adjectives, in A Modest Proposal, “innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual” in that order? He tells us, and he tells us many other things besides: there is nothing he says that is not eye-opening, that sends us back to the texts, or to them in the first place if we have not read them. That is the best kind of criticism: to pick up what we might have missed. Also: those lectures were fun to listen to, and are fun to read. This is important. 

I must take issue with one aspect of the book: that there is no way, beyond internal reference (latest date of works cited; popular cultural or political references, etc.), of dating these lectures; and much graver issue with another aspect: the book’s brevity. At a very rough estimate, I would say it represents somewhere between two and three per cent of his output. (Which makes it all the odder that the first two lectures chosen here repeat the same point about Swift’s A Modest Proposal.) I cannot imagine that this is the editor’s decision; I presume it is down to publisher. Ten of these scintillating, thought-provoking pieces are simply not enough. 

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and columnist for the New Statesman in London. He was a judge for the 2018 Goldsmiths Prize for Fiction and his column, Nicholas Lezard's Choice, ran in the Guardian newspaper for twenty years.