The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
by John Carey
2014/ 384 pages
rating: 8.25 / biography-lit crit
* This is not available in the US except in Kindle format or from 3rd parties
Carey is a highly acclaimed English literary critic, professor and writer in London. This is a memoir of his going from a fairly normal middle class child to all he is.
Really mixed reaction to this book – in some places it is so fine and I was so excited reading it. In other places I was bored almost to skimming – but then check out my rating. lol
And in some places the Britishness of it all was a wee tad over my head.
The first couple chapters were semi-fascinating but in Chapter 3 I got bored – this is the life of a normal kid in England circa mid-20th century. Fortunately in Chapter 5 the whole sense of the book changed when Carey started to get into analyzing literature – that’s what I wanted.
Starting with the stuff of the Oxford Syllabus from the 1950s (25%) Carey begins his criticism of elitist literature – the idea being promulgated there at that time was that only the old standard canon and books which emulate it can be considered worthy reading. He then moves into Chaucer and the Elizabethans and Faerie Queene – here he’d been expecting to be thrilled by these works and what he was was bored and a bit angry.
In Chapter 6 there’s a lot of nostalgia for Oxford and its professors but he touches on John Donne and others as well as the snobbishness of Christ Church.
But in Chapter 7, “Kemper” (a school at Oxford), Carey starts really discussing literature of the 19th century starting with imagery and going on through his translating of Milton’s Christian Doctrine and the New English Bible – very funny section, actually.
Chapter 8 continues with Milton and the Reformation era changes and then works the reader through a few Victorian writers like Tennyson, Browning and Arnold. He sees the “escapism” inherent in Victorian literature and moves on to a couple of novels like the novels of Bronte, Eliot and Dickens. Through all this critiquing Carey includes his own life story including his personal life as well as his interactions between himself and other members of the British literary establishment from Oxford associations to publishers.
In Chapter 9 Carey and his wife and sons move to and repair a very old and dilapidated house in Lyneham where he and his wife still live. This is when he got interested in bees and beekeeping. It’s also the time of job changes and student protests. He starts reviewing and ended up writing about 1,000 reviews including some biographies and several autobiographies from funny to depressing and some veer off into other subjects like anthropology. And Carey picked his own books to review so he looked for things he was interested in – like food and humor. A look at Philip Larkin the reclusive style poet.
And in Chapter 10 he talks of reviewing good and bad, his and others,
Chapter 11 is about his own writing of books which further established him as a pre-eminent man of letters even if his reviews by others weren’t always the greatest. Meanwhile he got very ill – then went on to edit some excellent anthologies and write a horrible (according to reviewers) book. He wrote other books, though – of course – and he was accused of being a leftist. He touches on his What Good Are the Arts? and emphasizes the personal and subjective nature of art –
I knew that my evaluations were subjective and personal (as, incidentally, all the judgements in this book are), reflecting the kind of person I was and the kind of upbringing I’d had. I didn’t think they were absolute or eternal or equivalent to divine wisdom.
And goes into a trip he made to Israel as an example for his book on Utopias and he traveled other places he wrote about, too. Then on to the Golding biography, his latest book (prior to this one) and only biography. The man is thorough, I’ll say that. And he’s humble (although I think he sometimes wants to be otherwise) and he can be quite funny.
And the last chapter, 12, So, in the End, Why Read? – is actually an ode to reading – very short but absolutely perfect as an ending.
Carey’s page including a blog: http://www.johncarey.org/index.html
Bio including short bibliography: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Carey_(critic)
Review of The Unexpected Professor: