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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford life in books

Nick Spencer

John Carey
Faber and Faber, 384pp

Now, be honest. When this month's Third Way dropped on your doorstep and you turned to the reviews section, did you scan the reviewers' names? Did you cheer inwardly that so-and-so was there, and then sigh sadly that such-and-such was still writing? And then, judgement duly passed, did you turn straight to so-and-so and only, finally, reluctantly to this review, there being nothing else in the magazine left to read, including the adverts?

Some people, like me, do that. We are the strange, obsessive creatures who always turn first to the book reviews irrespective of what we are reading, and prefer the Literary Review to the Spectator. We know our reviewers. But, then, we are an odd breed, believing that reality is best encountered at reading arm's length. For most normal human beings, it is the book under the lens, not the eye looking through it, that matters.

There are exceptions. Some reviewers are known, respected and sought out beyond the coterie of literary groupies, and John Carey is supreme among them. The Sunday Times' lead book reviewer for nearly 40 years, he has written around a thousand reviews while holding down a day job as a fellow and then professor of English Literature at Oxford. Twenty or so are regurgitated in this engaging autobiography.

The Unexpected Professor is the alternative to a history of English literature that a friend suggested Carey write. In the book's first paragraph he explains how he abandoned the idea because 'it would mean a lot of donkey work' and because 'most of the facts would already be available on the internet'. The first reason is understandable; the second is bizarre. No-one would read a history of English literature by John Carey (or, I daresay anyone else) to find out when Andrew Marvell was born and Abraham Cowley died. They would read it to learn why Marvell survived and Cowley didn't - for literary judgements and not facts.

The absence of John Carey's History of English Literature is, then, to be regretted but only slightly, as The Unexpected Professor offers many literary judgements in its stead. It is, he explains, 'something more personal - a history of English literature and me, how we met, how we got on, what came of it.' It is structured as a straightforward autobiography, beginning with parents and childhood in pre-war Barnes, moving through education, undergraduate degree, National Service, doctoral studies, fellowship, and professorship, and culminating in the world books and reviews. However, because of the changes in the Oxford syllabus, Carey manages to drape a loose history of English literature over his own life, spending time in the 16th and 17th centuries in the early stages of his career, before the syllabus opened up to the Victorians and the moderns, which he covers in later chapters.

English literature is incomprehensible without the Christianity that haunts certain passages of the book. Carey's own faith 'petered out' in his teenage years, partly because he became convinced that humans had invented God to protect them from the fear of cosmic insignificance, and partly because he never had anything approaching an experience of the transcendent, except once when he saw Father Christmas walking up his garden path as a small child (a withering aside). His agnosticism notwithstanding, he seems to retain a genuine respect for Christian thought, because he has spent so much time in the company of Milton and Donne, and for Christianity, especially its ethic of self-denial and deep equality. 'I was really a Christian who just did not happen to believe in God,' he remarks at one point.

This is particularly evident in some of the sharper edges of the book. Carey laments the domination of Oxbridge by public-school students and, as a grammar school boy himself, is clearly very angry about the 'vindictive extermination of grammar schools'. More generally, he is lean and frugal in his tastes, loathing wealth, luxury and privilege with a passion that would pride Orwell, one of his literary heroes. He speaks highly of the Magnificat: 'this was right… the mighty and the rich deserved to be humbled and to go hungry'.

Carey's fame as a critic lies not only in his erudition and lucidity but in his insistent championing of the ordinary over the elite. His most famous, indeed notorious, book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, argues that modernism's roots lie in revulsion towards the 'semi-literate' masses. This seemed to me when I first read it, and still seems, an incontestable claim, though that did not stop many critics contesting it, sometimes very angrily. The book got 'absolutely terrible reviews' he remarks.

Better received but to my mind weaker is his attendant argument, made in What Good are the Arts?, that there are no objective standards in art or literature. 'I find it very hard to believe that you can say that Milton is better than Keith Richards', he told Third Way in 2011. For all I admire Carey, I find this claim highly unpersuasive.

Of course, all judgements are in the first instance subjective but that doesn't mean they are only subjective. Carey writes that he is prepared 'to defend what I value and explain why', which he does in the book's concluding chapter, 'Why read?'. You should read, he writes, because, it 'encourages doubt', 'distrusts certainty', 'punctuates pomp', 'is contemptuous of luxury', and 'makes you see that ordinary things are not ordinary'. But presumably these are reasons rather than just opinions? And presumably a book which does this is a good book, and not simply an enjoyable one? Carey may respond that punctured pomp and distrusted certainly just happen to be his values and aren't objective. But what he says about the Magnificat makes that seem unconvincing. He doesn't hate pomposity and privilege on whim. He hates them because he thinks them wrong. Literature can do more than entertain. In spite of himself, Carey is the man to explain why.