The Written World Kevin Power Lilliput, €15
In the introduction to The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis – subject of perhaps the most dazzlingly brilliant essay in Kevin Power’s new collection of essays and reviews – recalls what he thinks of as the Age of Literary Criticism: “I always had about me my Edmund Wilson – or my William Empson. I took it seriously. We all did. We hung around the place talking about literary criticism.”
Amis remembers Clive James – another touchstone for Power – formulating the view that “while literary criticism is not essential to literature, both are essential to civilization”.
Literary criticism is certainly essential to Power, a gifted novelist and TCD lecturer. In ‘A Perishable Art’ – a sideways review of Megan Nolan’s debut novel, Acts of Desperation – he doesn’t so much explain why, as explore the condition of contemporary book reviewing. He offers: “A metareview: a review of reviews. A review of reviewing itself.”
What results is delightfully multiple: a close analysis of the novel itself and of the attention it received, framed by perceptive and insightful notes around the art (and craft) of book reviewing.
Power’s five-point catechism for reviewers – an awareness of technical considerations; a sense of literary history; some knowledge of changing and evolving taste; a high degree of emotional sophistication; wide-ranging general knowledge – raises the game from a thumbs up, thumbs down “festival of heavily adjectival raves” (or pans) to “an opportunity to talk about questions of value”.
Not everyone takes this opportunity, but we “honour the ones who do take it by calling them critics”.
One of the writers so honoured here is Zadie Smith, who has “a mind superlatively well suited to our present moment, precisely because it eschews settled positions and embraces flux”.
Reading Intimations, her collection of lockdown essays, we enter “the country of the provisional, the personal, the pointedly unassuming”. Power notes perceptively that Smith’s signature move as an essayist is to repudiate herself, and that this is also true of her fiction: “NW rejects the cartoonish realism of the first three novels; Swing Time cancels the modernist experimentation of NW.”
The equivocal, the ironic, the personal: these are Power’s household gods. In ‘Pretentiously Opaque’, he casts a withering eye across the etiolated intellectual culture that Literary Theory helped create: “In teaching us to see the politics in every text, Theory has left us unable to see anything but the politics in every text.”
The Written World culminates with a full-throated tribute to Clive James and to his belief that “the literary essay was not just where culture happened, but where art could happen too”.
Just as James modelled himself on Edmund Wilson, celebrating an urbane, metropolitan intelligence at an angle to the academy, with a duty not to theory but to literature, so Power reveres and mourns James.
His death “feels like the death of the old liberal-humanist idea that a sane individual equipped with talent and taste could make sense of the world for us, and make us laugh while they were doing it, and that this was what mattered, over and above the dreams of crazed despots or the distractions of mass-produced schlock”.
Here too Power captures adroitly the lineaments of James’ voice: “The big square paragraphs (solid blocks of thought, with every corner sealed up tight); every rift loaded with ore; the sentences that hinged on neat reversals, or reversed themselves neatly on hinges smoothly oiled by extended metaphors.”
Of the short reviews I especially enjoyed a demolition of Will Self’s Umbrella – “Self has hauled out every rusted old spanner and blunted chisel in the modernist toolbox and put them, wearily, to use” – and a thoughtful, measured engagement with Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You.
There is an incisively bracing and very funny piece on class in Ireland as refracted through Paul Howard’s Ross O’Carroll-Kelly universe. Power recounts his astonished discovery at UCD of the hitherto secret world of upper middle-class south county Dublin: “But Gonzaga, evidently, was not like my school. For one thing, it came with you, when you went to college.”
The centrepiece essay for me is Power’s bravura exposition of the influence of Oscar Wilde on Martin Amis. The English writer’s worship of the beautiful sentence above all other novelistic considerations (plot, story, characterisation, psychological insight), and the centrality of the epigram throughout his work, all point to a deep-seated Wildean aesthetic.
Power makes an ingenious and overwhelming case; it is by far the best thing I’ve ever read on Amis.
Prefaced by an unsettlingly frank account of artistic and personal breakdown after the success of his first novel, this glorious collection follows the triumphant publication last year of his second. It marks Power as one of the best, a writer to depend upon. I will read every word he writes.