John Carey has been, among other things, a professor of English at Oxford, a prominent reviewer and book-prize judge, and an ardent bee-keeper. He tells us that he considered writing a history of English literature but decided instead to write “something more personal – a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it”. This, then, is his autobiography, but one in which books – books he read, books he wrote, books he admired, books he reviewed – play an unusually large part.
At times it feels like a series of free-standing disquisitions on individual books tied together with a fetching thread of reminiscence. He doesn’t just mention them: he quotes long sections, he discusses aspects of their language or imagery, he explores why they move or appeal to him. It is for the most part very skilfully done. We follow him into what we think is going to be the secret garden of personal revelation, only to find we are given a brisk tutorial on Browning’s dramatic monologues or the sound of Milton’s verse. As with a lot of teaching, we attend through the less exciting bits because we’re drawn to our teacher, curious to know what it all means for him.
The melding of the books and the life works particularly well when recalling the kinds of author who opened his mind when young – Chesterton, Shaw, Daudet, Horace (the whole book is a conscious tribute to a particular kind of 1950s grammar-school education, as these names suggest). But it starts to feel more contrived in later sections, above all when he remorselessly summarises the reviews he wrote of some 20 assorted books, mostly non-fiction. Perhaps this was meant to illustrate something of the randomness of the reviewer’s life, or Carey’s omnivorousness as a reader, but in practice it engenders much the same feeling as it does when someone gets you in a corner and starts telling you, at length, about books you haven’t read or films you haven’t seen.
The best bits, as so often in autobiographies, come when he writes with real affection – whether about playing as a child during the second world war, or about his happy marriage, or about gardening at his cottage in the Cotswolds that “seems deep in the country”. Or about his bees. These hardworking creatures prompt him not just to admiration – “almost everything about bees is amazing” – but to some of his most winningly poetic touches, as when he recalls “the sight of bees on the landing board waddling up into the darkness of the hives, the orange pollen-packs on their back legs shining like brake lights”. These are moments of pastoral when the groundedness of a more rural existence is invoked to show up the shallowness of literary London or the futility of academic politics; after all, he has found a better class of buzz.
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