Australian politics, society & culture

The Life Not Lived

Reflections on Scholarship

Caravaggio's Saint Jerome, the patron saint of scholars. Wikimedia Commons

Peter Robb

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In a large white space below a Sydney artist’s newest work, I’d just realised who I was speaking to. “Not the Ian Donaldson?” I’d never imagined we’d meet. I asked about his part in editing Ben Jonson’s Works in seven volumes and 5400 pages in its short hard-copy version, about to roll off the Cambridge University Press. His own Ben Jonson: A Life, from the rival press of Oxford University, already has.

Donaldson’s eyes narrowed when I mentioned Oxford’s own great edition of Jonson. Eleven thick octavo volumes printed magnificently and bound in apple-green canvas over the first half of last century. He relaxed when I praised not so much the scholarship of his predecessors Herford and Simpson as the craft of the Oxford printer John Johnson.

Ben Jonson was a friend of Shakespeare’s and one of the great poets and dramatists in the English language. Ian Donaldson has taught Renaissance literature at Britain’s most august universities – Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh – as well as ANU in Canberra, for most of his working life. He’s a survivor of a nearly vanished kind, those antipodean graduates who went on to Oxford or Cambridge and became the old country’s most distinguished scholars. Some were titans – Australia’s biologist Howard Florey and New Zealand’s physicist Ernest Rutherford. Ronald Syme, the historian of ancient Rome, came from Taranaki and ranks with Gibbon.

We talked about the literary scholars, among the milling contemporary art crowd, and we were talking about the dead, for the most part. “It’s all gone,” Donaldson said. “All gone.” His colleague DF McKenzie, Professor of Bibliography and Textual Criticism at Oxford, was overseeing a monumental history of the printed book in English when in 1999 his heart failed in the Bodleian Library. After delivering the Panizzi Lectures at the British Library in 1985, McKenzie was considered a revolutionary in his field.

Nearly half a century before I met Ian Donaldson, Don McKenzie had been for me a teacher and a friend. He taught me how to set type, on an eighteenth-century hand press he had brought out to New Zealand from Cambridge. Don showed me, reverently or ironically, a letter from the critic moralist FR Leavis announcing his Hiroshima and about some Cambridge lectures. We worked late into the night, printing pamphlets of poetry mainly. In my first year at university we founded a magazine with Paul Hoffmann, who held the chair of German and had lately received a doctorate from the University of Vienna. Paul’s original doctoral thesis for Vienna having been sunk at sea on its way to New Zealand in 1940, he’d written another on a different subject after the war.

The first issue of Words contained a long piece drawn from the Cambridge doctoral thesis of a man who became famous over the years for never publishing anything. Roger Savage’s study of the idea of mimesis in the eighteenth century remains unknown and unpublished, except in part by us. Why wasn’t I surprised to discover that its author, whom I’d last seen setting off for the blue mosque of Isfahan in 1965, had been a colleague, friend and neighbour of Ian Donaldson’s in Edinburgh?

Roger Savage played four-handed Bach with Keith Walker for hours on end. It was K, when we met again in London at the end of 1999, who told me Don had died that year, and described how he fell from a high ladder in the Bodleian. Ian Donaldson disputed the details of the fall, as we were pushed against the high white wall by art lovers holding glasses of rosé.

I hadn’t seen K for years, and when he rang me at the Groucho Club on a freezing London morning, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He seemed drunk or drugged at breakfast time. We met for lunch and I realised it was a creeping system failure. K’s mind was fine as ever, but he found it hard to physically produce the words, in the air or on paper. He swept a newly opened bottle of wine onto the marble where it smashed. The waitress’s face when she saw the red tide spreading across the floor said it wasn’t the first time.

K was a great textual editor. He’d edited Marvell and Dryden and had produced a maybe definitive edition of the incomparable seventeenth-century poet Rochester. Germaine Greer praised K’s as the best – he deferred to Harold Love’s – and he mumbled that he’d sent her a note of thanks. “You’ll be able to thank her in person tonight,” I said. “She’s coming to the Groucho.” K’s eyes widened in alarm and he didn’t even try to speak. He wobbled off on his bike into the traffic of Charing Cross.

The last time I saw K was a year later, when I gave a talk in London in 2001. Among the dark suits he wore a hand-knitted jumper of many colours in horizontal stripes and sat in the front row a few places along from David Hockney, who wore carpet slippers. Before he died three years later, K sent me a mightily thumbed copy of his Rochester edition, marked up with his own later annotations.

Frank Kermode gave the first of K’s memorial lectures, which later transmuted into events, and two years later Christopher Ricks delivered the second. The most recent event was from the gay novelist Alan Hollinghurst. It was all, somehow, very K, and a lot more metropolitan and raffish than Oxford’s resolutely high-minded annual DF McKenzie Lecture. It took me back to the summer of 1971 when my life unravelled.

*

I arrived in London that spring and went to find K in Frank Kermode’s English department at University College London. We went to lunch at the petit club français, its English plumbing an amazing novelty, like the tiny overcooked lamb chops and the petit pot de chocolat.

I was invited to Blakeshall in Worcestershire. Blaggers was enormous, white and vaguely neoclassical, built in the early nineteenth century, when my host’s family had consolidated the fortune made from ironmongery in nearby Birmingham. Led Zeppelin’s lead singer had an even bigger estate adjoining.

Everyone was a Cambridge graduate or fellow or tutor. There was a Wittgensteinian philosopher and a Jamesian literary critic. Perhaps several of each. The ethos was jittery, understated, riven with unspoken jealousies and desires. Oh, there were currents! Everyone was the former or aspiring lover of someone else. It was tricky for an outsider. The talked-about absent were in many ways more intensely a part of the milieu than the physically present.

I pruned back elements of the wooded estate that were encroaching on the kitchen garden, enjoying the leaves, branches, fronds. The garden was a decrepit delight of fruit trees espaliered against old brick, and Ben Jonson’s Penshurst and Marvell’s Appleton House floated into my head with the smoke from burning leaves. Dinner was my first decent food in England, and a meal such as I hadn’t eaten since leaving home. Roast eye fillet with green string beans from the garden, claret, raspberries and cream, whisky. Circumambient quiverings were briefly stilled.

Next day the sun came out and we played croquet. Everyone assembled on the lawn except K, who retired to a quiet upper room to review the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature: Volume II, 1660–1800. Anonymously, for the Times Literary Supplement.

The day grew hot and sticky. Every player held a tall glass full of gin and a splash of tonic. The damp heat, the gin and the perfidious game of croquet itself combined to tauten and fray the invisible network of yearnings and animosities. Faces reddened, voices were raised, mallets flung down, tears shed.

The pane of an upper window caught the sinking sun. K’s face appeared. “Peter,” he called. “You’re in the Cambridge Bibliography.” It was an unpleasant little article I’d written in my teens, when I thought that was what critics did. It was a response to the long piece on mimesis we’d printed in the very first issue of Words. The long piece itself was not listed.

Later I went north to York for the seminars of FR Leavis. The inventor of life enhancement was by now in an advanced state of paranoia, surrounded by enemies. By night I worked as a nightclub bouncer. I returned to London, where Simon Gray’s Butley was playing to full houses in the West End.
Simon Gray was a friend of K’s and K said Butley was about him. Maybe it was. Alan Bates played a sexually polymorphous English lecturer holed up in his room at London University while his life fell to pieces around him. It finished with some lines from Four Quartets which K found very moving.

From the unending rain of the early English summer I went to Italy. Rome was a lot better than London and would have been better still if I’d had money to eat. I hitched north and fainted in the street in Paris. A Jewish family gave me a bed for the night. When I got back to England, I stayed one night in Cambridge with Howard Jacobson, who ran a handbag stall at Cambridge market.

Howard was trying to find his place in the world after lecturing in his youth at the University of Sydney in the years when the English department was riven between followers of FR Leavis and everyone else. He later found it as a comic novelist, and won the Booker Prize. By then neither FR nor QD Leavis was around to express an opinion.

*

That autumn I took up my first and last academic appointment, a senior lectureship in English literature at the University of Oulu in Finland. It was almost on the Arctic Circle and the northernmost university in the world. It was the last thing in the world I wanted, this job, and the only one I was able to do.

An ancient Finno–Swedish aristocrat and titular head of the faculty introduced me to the sauna in Helsinki and invited me to thrash him with birch twigs. I flew north into darkness as the birds flew south. Oulu had once belonged to Russia and its railway station looked like the one Tolstoy died in. Nazi trenches were still cut into the surrounding countryside.

Christmas was in Amsterdam and Paris and the Cambridge home of a friend who worked at Oulu. His uncle was librarian at Magdalene, and I went through Eliot’s early typescripts for Four Quartets. I dined with an editor of the neo-Leavisite Cambridge Quarterly. There were later festivities in the Hampstead home of the secretary of PEN, a retired opera singer who’d been a wartime aide to the Duke of Windsor in the Bahamas. Then I flew back to the Arctic Circle.

All was not well on the Arctic Circle. Students had confided their disquiet about the department’s casual and arbitrary ways, and when I raised their concerns I was slapped down. I did not take well to this. The University of Melbourne’s English department, united in nominal allegiance to the values of FR Leavis, uncontaminated by scholarship, narrow in its reading and brightened by the odd mystical or charismatic tinge, had been very well run. It was all I knew.

Students signed a petition. We devised a new course with a new way of examining, and prescribed different books. The seniors hit back. It culminated in an ugly scuffle between me and the head of the department, each gripping a rival list of set books. I wrote a long letter of resignation and denunciation to the ancient aristocrat, the rector and the minister, none of whom replied. It appeared as a centrespread in Finnish in the student paper. A colleague transported my trunks of books to the Tolstoyan railway station in his pea-green Saab and I was free.

The train went north to Tornio, and crossed into Sweden over a river tumultuous with ice floes crashing down from Lapland. My second-class ticket to Stockholm bought me a place in a magnificent old sleeping car, high, wide and stately, finished in polished wood and brass and fitted with a great bed and a white eiderdown. I began a long slow train journey across Northern Europe to Paris and eventually to Rome. My academic life was over.

*

Or sort of. You can throw in a job – the only secure, dignified and decently paid job I’ve ever had in my life – but changing a life takes time. Some Australian friends arrived in Rome in the company of Morris Shapira. Morris was FR Leavis’s heir apparent. He was also the worst driver I have ever known. Passengers trembled for days after crossing the Alps with counterintuitive Morris.

In England we visited his luxurious home in Canterbury, stocked with frozen baguettes he’d brought over from France. K knew Morris too, whose only published book was a collection of literary criticism written by Henry James and introduced by FR Leavis. Doctor Leavis’s followers were almost as restrained as textual scholars when it came to not rushing into print.

I worked in Paris for a while, but failed to get a carte de séjour. I lived in the street where Ho Chi Minh had lived as a penniless revolutionary. I met a Trotskyist and joined the street fight with neofascists that got the Ligue Communiste outlawed. K came over for a wild and disreputable day and night that began with many kinds of red wine and many kinds of charcuterie at the tabac Henri IV on the Pont Neuf.

Later, with K and some others, I went to an early summer garden party in Kent given by a Shakespeare scholar we knew. It was amazingly pleasant – the Shakespearean was not English, neither did it rain – with strawberries and cream, and white wine.

Morris came with a dancer from New York. He arrived looking quite perky. The dancer was weeping hysterically. Morris had tried to overtake an articulated truck on the wrong side. His car had been caught between truck and kerb, had flipped and rolled several times. Neither was injured, the car hardly damaged, and Morris had no idea why the tubby dancer from Brooklyn was carrying on so.

It was nearly a decade later, returning to Italy from Brazil in 1981, when I met K in Paris and he told me Morris had recently been murdered by a rent boy. In a sense I wasn’t surprised. He was a deeply irritating person. He’d read little and knew less. Like many of Dr Leavis’s followers, he parlayed ignorance into intransigence. But I was greatly surprised that he hadn’t died in a car crash.

*

Literature ruined the lives of many young people. Not literature, but the study of literature. Like a fool, when I was young I thought the university was where to take a love of art in words. My life has been full of mistakes, and this was the greatest.

There’s a kind of timidity in the scholarly vocation. Slashing originals like the eighteenth-century editor Richard Bentley were always rare. In the best textual scholars the timidity comes from humility in the face of the writing they study. The sense has now vanished that it’s a life’s work, and well spent, to understand the greatest words.

Today’s scholars are academic bureaucrats. Don McKenzie was a pivotal figure in that change. He had a feeling for Shakespeare’s plays and poems almost inconceivable today, yet his caution took him to the far periphery of art, as a pioneer of the new sociology of textual studies.

I called on Ian Donaldson, who has returned from below sea level in Cambridge to a building with the highest roof in Australia in his home town of Melbourne, and was reminded that some things survive. He gave me a copy of his Ben Jonson – the fruit, really, of his life’s work – and within minutes I was tactlessly expounding my theory that a play published in 1582 by the philosopher and polemicist Giordano Bruno was the source of Jonson’s greatest drama.

It was an idea that Donaldson candidly admitted he hadn’t thought of. He was delighted to hear it, and soon as excited as I was. He is a scholar and a gentleman, maybe one of the last.

Peter Robb

Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.
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Published in The Monthly, December 2011 - January 2012, No. 74