Do I have a ‘favourite author’? It’s a professional hazard of being a lecturer in English literature that ‘favourite author’ becomes an unwieldy implement, an unusable tool. I’ve no problem with the idea of value or with admitting that I like some authors more than others, but to single out just one is impossible. That’s partly because I like them for different reasons and in different modes and moods. Professionally, I enjoy giving tutorials on some, enjoy giving lectures on others; enjoy researching some, and enjoy writing about others. Personally, poetry and narrative treat me differently; linguistically innovative poetry touches different parts of the self from conventional lyric. Some works I enjoyed reading when I was a student, and so I cherish the memory, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to. (New category: Favourite author you could happily never read again.) And working professionally with literature means makes it harder to have an author who exists in some way privately for me as an irrational and unanalysed preference.
Michael Roberts, Val D’Isère, 1935
Michael Roberts (1902-1948) is a favourite, not least because I felt for a while that I was the only person in the world who had read him, and because meeting Janet Adam Smith, his widow, around 1992, was a rare moment of being able to connect with a lost world of modernist literature. In his case, the least favourite book selects itself quite easily: The Recovery of the West (1941). I like him for his poems, and like his essays and reviews for their lucidity and their wit. He was a schoolteacher by profession, and I get the feeling he would have been wittily entertaining at the same time as being intellectually questioning and rigorous. His letters are more exuberant (depending on who he’s writing to), but witty and passionate too: you can glimpse that side of him in the prose fantasy ‘Non-Stop Variety’, in the Hogarth Press New Signatures. But by 1941 Europe had become a darker place, and his mood was more sombre. The blurb — it’s a Faber book, so it’s probably a T. S. Eliot blurb — gives a measure of its tone:
I read it in 1992 when my interests really lay in how Roberts’s poetry related to his education as a scientist: he had studied chemistry at King’s College, London, and mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, before embarking on his career as a schoolteacher and, in his spare time, poet and critic. The poems in These Our Matins (1930) show his first efforts in this direction, alongside some juvenilia, and Poems (1936) continues the exploration; his criticism, both in Critique of Poetry (1934) and uncollected essays, frequently invokes science and mathematics as a point of comparison for poetry and the difficulty of poetry. By the time of his 1941 writings, his agenda and mine had parted company: The Recovery of the West wasn’t speaking to my interests. Also, by 1941 he had also become a Christian, and there was something off-putting to me about chapter titles like ‘The Reality of Evil’ and ‘The Need for Christian Doctrine.’ In fact I nearly didn’t select this book, and hence this author, because I feel I know it so little that it doesn’t properly achieve the status of least favourite.
I feel bad saying this; I should give it another try, and try to understand it on its own terms rather than mine, even though those terms are very much wrapped up in the contingencies of its historical moment. I’m touched and intrigued by an inscription in a copy that was sent to me out of the blue a few years ago (thank you, Dr H. of Exeter). Roberts and the whole of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, had been evacuated to Penrith for the war.