October 7, 2001
“Reviewing is not really a respectable occupation,” W. H. Auden remarks in this volume. Fortunately, that did not deter Auden or Jacques Barzun and Lionel Trilling, his collaborators in the Readers’ Subscription (later the Mid-Century Book Society). This was a small operation, organized and managed by a former student of Trilling’s and aimed several niches above its middlebrow competitors. The three editors met every two weeks, divvied up the newly-arrived galleys, reported on the ones just read, agreed on main and alternate choices, and assigned one of their number to write the lead review in the monthly readers’ newsletter. According to Jacques Barzun’s foreword, there was perfect accord, never even a split decision. In this comradely atmosphere, Auden and Barzun occasionally traded clerihews, while Trilling cooked up a parody history of English literature. One wishes one had been there.
A Company of Readers collects roughly a quarter of those lead reviews, some fifteen by each author. “Eclecticism” was the watchword, as Arthur Krystal points out in his introduction; he quotes Auden’s statement of the reviewers’ goal: “to turn our members not into highbrows, but into intellectual dandies” (a species Auden defines in his review of Edmund Wilson’s Apologies for the Iroquois). Their range was extraordinary: American, English, and European literature, of course, but also plenty of history, biography, memoir, anthropology, sociology, music, and art, with a smattering of philosophy, politics, and science. Auden writes about Colette’s short novels, Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, Faulkner, Valery, Stravinsky, and T. S. Eliot, among others; Barzun about Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, Henry James’s autobiography, Proust’s Jean Santeuil, Montaigne, Lawrence, Shaw, Japan, and etymology; Trilling about Augie March, The Alexandria Quartet, Cavafy, Jane Jacobs, Bergman’s screenplays, and Kenneth Clark’s The Nude. These are my favorites, but the rest are nearly as scintillating.
Krystal quotes Auden again: “Criticism should be casual conversation.” That is very much the tone of these reviews: authoritative yet informed, earnest yet relaxed, frequently personal, regularly wry, once – Trilling on Eliot’s recording of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – memorably whimsical. Auden’s is perhaps the most distinctive voice, varying the general urbanity now and then with puckishness or crotchet. “Shakespeare, as every schoolboy knows, is Top Bard,” one piece begins. Another: The House of the Dead is not Dostoevsky’s greatest work, but it is perhaps his least irritating.” Trilling is the most serious, the most willing to go beyond the book at hand to formulate a problem or try out a hypothesis. Barzun is dependably enjoyable: smooth but never bland, deftly and learnedly sketching the history of a subject in a few paragraphs, proffering piquant but always reasonable judgments.
There is much insight and information here about many good books, but the best things in A Company of Readers are the asides, digressions, and leisurely commencements. Pausing in his discussion of Wilson and the Iroquois, who had become “hopelessly addicted to the radio,” Auden gripes: “I find it immensely depressing that when unmechanized societies, whether Indians or Greek peasants, come into contact with ours, the one aspect of ours which none of them, but none, can resist is that which, to me, is the most intolerable: its hatred of silence – noise-makers have replaced liquor as our most potent agent of corruption.” Thank God he was spared cell phones, car alarms, and those ubiquitous airport-lounge televisions. Trilling begins several pieces with lengthy, not entirely facetious confidences: his inability to finish contemporary novels, his continual bewilderment at and aversion to contemporary theater, his “general alienation from the cinema.” Before recommending a recording of Eliot’s Four Quartets, he worries that the vogue for recorded poetry is a symptom of “the modern feeling for eye-mindedness, ear-mindedness, hand-mindedness, as against the mind-mindedness that print implies” and mocks the writer-in-residence phenomenon:
Of all audio-visual aids for the teaching of literature, the best is thought to be an actual writer; universities are at great pains to provide occasions on which the student can have the direct, unmediated experience of a practitioner of literature. The student sees the writer, hears the writer, feeds the writer, pokes the writer by asking the questions which the writer has contracted to answer or to wittily evade; he thus comes to believe that the writer is actually actual, is human, is contemporary, and in consequence understands that literature is real, a living force, not a mere abstraction as he had supposed from having experienced writers only in print.
There is an elegiac feel to A Company of Readers. Few people write criticism like this anymore: confident, unselfconscious, affable, expansive, elegant. Perhaps it had to do with the epoch – the innocent, untheoretical Fifties, America’s Golden Age. It’s something for Auden, Barzun, and Trilling’s unrespectable successors to ponder.