Things I didn't know

By Robert Hughes

Harvill Secker, 416pp, 25

THE FINAL CHAPTER IN ROBERT Hughes's memoir sees him hiding out in his lair in London, inhaling all the hash and necking all the Scotch he can afford. It's 1969 and he is 31. His marriage - to a promiscuous, bisexual, acid-gobbling headcase - is a sink full of dirty dishes, most of them broken. He's done some television and written a couple of books on art, but the ambition that galvanised him into emigrating from Australia five years earlier has been thoroughly dissipated. And then, out of nowhere, he gets a call on a neighbour's phone (his own having been disconnected) asking if he'd like to have a bash at being the art critic for Time magazine in New York.

Bash is the operative word. The great venerators, Nietzsche reminds us, are also great despisers, and Hughes's reverence for great art is counterbalanced by limitless scorn for the bloated reputations of artists like Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons, who came into their own during his watch. By the 1980s, inflation in the art market had made a nonsense of the kind of values Hughes espoused. "The idea of a present with continuous roots in history, where an artist's every action is judged by the unwearying tribunal of the dead," as he put it in his 1987 collection Nothing if Not Critical, was so wan that it fell to the critic to take up the cudgels on the dead's behalf. Expressing his loves and loathings with an Australian flair for articulate demotic, Hughes carved out a distinctive niche as a passionate reactionary, a radical conservative or, as he puts it here (charmingly embellished with obscenities), an "elitist". Naturally this makes for a belligerently seductive on-screen persona, particularly in the two outstanding television series on art he wrote and presented, The Shock of the New and American Visions. His literary range, meanwhile, has extended to stirring books about Barcelona and the settlement of Australia as a penal colony.

Things, in other words, were looking pretty good, until they suddenly got very bad when he wrecked his car in a remote part of Australia in 1999. Hughes's memoir begins here, where everything nearly ended. Hughes smashes practically every bone in his body and gets prosecuted and sued to boot. From there we drift back to his early life in a prominent Australian family, his education at a Jesuit school, and a gradually emerging sense of potential vocation. Hughes soon discards what he considers the daft trappings of Catholicism, but they leave in their wake a void that will eventually be filled by art. Writing from Australia, DH Lawrence expressed irritation with the way that every man considered himself "a little pope of perfection". Invert this phrase - pope of imperfection - and you have an alternative title for this entertaining, if ultimately unsatisfying, memoir.

Hughes is contemptuous of the cult of unbridled "self-revelation" which, having been worked up into a pseudo-science by Freud, blossomed in the London underground of the 1960s. The template for this "secular parody" of the Catholic sacrament is provided by Rousseau's Confessions, in which all the morally vile things the author had done were somehow redeemed by being admitted and described. What, then, is the purpose of this volume? Not so different, it turns out, from that of confession and analysis: "to excavate and bring into the light things I had forgotten or repressed". Since this involves a lot of mum, dad and childhood stuff, the near-fatal momentum of the book's opening is soon lost.

THINGS PICK UP WITH THE MOVE FROM Sydney to Europe, post-university. Encouraged and helped by his mentor, the journalist Alan Moorehead, Hughes gets some freelance writing work in London but is happier in Italy - and, later, Spain - where he has epiphanic art experiences. These excursions enable Hughes to shift into the more familiar register of his art writing, but the unfolding personal narrative adds nothing to the discursive passages on Giovanni Pisano and others. John Berger (whom Hughes mentions as an influence) has often used experiences from his life to illuminate the paintings he is examining. Here, the interrogatory tension of Hughes's critical writing is reduced by being fed through a filter of autobiography. The mistake is generic. "Writing art criticism is never easy," Hughes insists. Writing a memoir is ostensibly easier: you are automatically the leading authority in the field. And, for this reason, it's infinitely more difficult. Falling into the memoirist's basic trap, Hughes reminisces about his discoveries; we do not experience them - as we would if the same material were to be successfully deployed in fiction - as they happen.

One gets the impression that, for Hughes, writing of this kind is like playing a game of squash without a back wall. He's got nothing to hit against. Not until the 1960s, at least. He can carp on about Australia being parochial and philistine, but it's not until Jimi Hendrix gives him the clap (via his wife) and he encounters some of the prime movers of the acid underground (ditto) that he finds a surplus of irritations to kick against. Timothy Leary strikes him as "a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest", while Jerry Rubin is "a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego". Whether discussing Bernini ("that megaphone of 17th-century papal dogma") or Andy Warhol ("the white mole of Union Square"), Hughes has always had a knack for the higher forms of name-calling. But there's a weary quality, here, even to this signature skill. In the case of Rubin, it's as if Hughes can't muster up the energy to personalise the final part of the triptych of jibes and makes do with that one-size-fits-all dig, "disgustingly inflated ego". And while it's easy to accuse someone - Picasso, in this instance - of "rhetorical poppycock", an ironic feature of this convenient weapon of rhetorical assault means that you cannot aim it at anyone without contemplating a bleeding hole in your own foot.

Here's the rub. It's fine being an elitist, but the credentials for occupying such a privileged seat have constantly to be justified and renewed. And this can't be done if you write flabby prose. Back in the early 1960s, Hughes concedes, he was "not a fully functioning writer". And now that he's in his late sixties? The answer, I fear, is found in the same paragraph: "Living for beauty was all very well, but it wasn't going to put any spinach on the plate, let alone any butter on the spinach. In two years I had laid up a lot of honey in my comb."

One comes back, inevitably, to the car crash, for it is there that the doubts about the author's prose first appear, doubts that mount when the raw material is not spectacular enough to compel attention more or less unaided. In the course of seven pages three people are referred to, respectively, as a "dear friend," a "dear, benign friend" and "my dear friend". Under the circumstances, having so many dear friends in not so many pages is perhaps fair enough. But consider this: On page 4, Hughes admits that he can recollect nothing about the crash itself. "The slate is wiped clean, as by a damp rag." On page 23 he tells us that he can recollect nothing about the accident: "The slate is wiped clean, as by a damp rag." There is no Memento-style point to be gained from the repetition. Memory of the first usage has simply been wiped clean, as by a damp rag. In Britain there is a specific crime called driving without due care and attention. Whether lapses like these - symptoms of a care-and-attention deficit that runs throughout the book - constitute a literary equivalent of this offence is open to debate. It depends, I suppose, on how much of an elitist you want to be.

• Geoff Dyer's most recent book is The Ongoing Moment, a history of photography.


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