Book review: Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns by Allan Massie

Allan Massie (right) looking at the Scott Collection in the National Library. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Allan Massie (right) looking at the Scott Collection in the National Library. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ALLAN Massie, this paper’s chief fiction reviewer for more than 30 years, is a member of an endangered species.

Life & Letters: The Spectator Columns

By Allan Massie

Quartet, 200pp, £12

It is not just that he is an intelligent and articulate Scottish conservative – from Malcolm Rifkind to Niall Ferguson Scotland does still have some thinkers on the right – but that he is what used to be called “a man of letters”. The author of 23 novels – ranging from historical fiction about the Caesars, to police procedurals set during the Vichy regime, to works such as The Death of Men, A Question of Loyalties and The Sins of the Father which rank amongst the very highest of literary achievements – he has also written histories, anthologies, critical studies, biographies and on topics as diverse as Scottish rugby and Edinburgh murders, as well as producing a prodigious amount of journalism for this paper and other publications.

Life & Letters collects Massie’s contribution to the column in The Spectator of that name. It is a consistently engaging anthology, full of wry wisdom, insightful comment and displaying a remarkably wide range of reference. Towards the beginning of the collection, Massie turns his attention to the business of reviewing.

He describes the purpose of the review as providing information, entertainment and enlightenment: “a good reviewer is a craftsman, each review a little essay intended to give pleasure by the manner in which it is written as well as by the interest of the book under review”. This is well put. With typical self-deprecation Massie says of “enlightenment” that “this may seem to be claiming too much for mere book reviews”. But when he lists the canon of writers whose regular reviewing helped develop his own taste – Cyril Connolly, John Davenport, Philip Toynbee, V S Pritchett, Anthony Powell, Rebecca West – it also serves as an overview of the type of “man of letters” to which Massie himself belongs. The “man of letters” is not a dilettante, but nor is he or she an academic. The criticism must be more than the Amazon standard complaint of “not liking the characters” but need not be burdened with polysyllabic French theory. The literary reviewer is not impartial, but makes their partialities known. This comes full circle in the final piece, “In Praise of the Literary Journalist”, where Massie maintains “the best literary journalists write from a well-stored mind. Some of them may even be worth reading, in small doses, long after they are dead”.

And what a profoundly well-stored mind Massie has! The joy of this collection is how easily he flits from the classics – there are pieces on Shakespeare, Kipling and Alain-Fournier – to genre writing (including a very fine appraisal of Simenon, Christie and Chandler) – to authors who have now fallen into semi-oblivion such as Simon Raven, R S Surtees and Alfred Duggan. The idea of literary celebrity is examined in a number of essays. Massie is wonderfully sane about how fleeting bookish fame can be. It can alter even in one’s own lifetime: “You remember the books you read and enjoyed and learned from when you were young, and you wonder who reads them now. Maybe nobody does. Maybe they linger only in the memory of the “Happy Few”, the number diminishing each year. Maybe it would be a mistake to read some of them again: Nigel Dennis’s Cards Of Identity for instance. It was exhilarating to read it at 18. Now, apart from the memory of the enjoyment I got from it, I recall only one line: ‘All trees are oaks to Presidents’.” Curiously enough, it’s a novel I read and very much enjoyed at maybe 28 (found in a charity shop in Hawick, with a review of it by the eminent French theoretician Helene Cixous stuck inside). I remember all the characters were named after kinds of goldfish. Time and again one senses that the anecdote, or quote, or example, is recalled from memory. This seems to me a far more human approach to how books change us and live in us than earnestly noting down the bibliographical reference in approved academic style. It’s hard not to be charmed when Massie writes, for example: “There was a brilliant little novel, a tale of corruption, called Ask Agamemnon. The author’s name was, I think, Hall. Did she? – yes, surely she – write anything else?” (Yes: it was Jenni Hall and the novel was made into a film, Goodbye Gemini; she subsequently wrote Mr Capon and Diamond Trip. I’ll keep my eyes peeled in those Borders charity shops).

Of course, there is a subtle insistence on Scottish writing, from Scott to Stevenson to Buchan. Massie has been a vociferous opponent of the idea that Scottish writing was somehow in the doldrums up until 1982, and the essays here on writers such as Compton Mackenzie, James Kennaway and Eric Linklater all do their part in reclaiming a significant part of our literary heritage.

Although it is perhaps slightly beyond the book’s remit, it would have been a pleasant diversion in tone to have some of Massie’s more trenchant reviews of his contemporaries. (His review of Craig Raine’s recent novel was quite rightly shortlisted for the Hatchet Job of the Year, and I confess I haven’t laughed as much at a book review for a while).

There is humour here though, especially in an ingenious piece entitled “Author! Author!”, where Massie tries to decide which great novelist might have made best use of the story of George Osborne, Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild and the Russian oligarch. Massie tries both Raven and Anthony Trollope before lighting on Disraeli as the man for the job. Indeed, many of the pieces explore how writers “use” the raw material of life in fiction.

When Massie writes about writing, rather than reading, he has a healthy distrust of the sweeping statement or the theoretical dictum. He writes very well on the idea of characters being “uncontrolled” – pitting Nabokov, who detested the idea that the Author was not in supreme charge of his creations, with Nabokov’s own beloved Pushkin (who said “Do you know my Tatiana has rejected my Eugene? I never expected it of her”). It takes a kind of hard-won humility to write, as Massie does, that he has “learned only two things: that there are certain kinds of novel I can’t write and that I really don’t know any more about how to write a novel than I did when I embarked on the first one to be published. Indeed I sometimes think I know less”. Life & Letters shouldn’t be read as an elegy to the man of letters. It shows that urbane, considered, wide-ranging and expert writing about books is more necessary than ever.