1 NOVEMBER 1963, Page 22

Man of Letters

Essays on Literature and Ideas. By John Wain. (Macmillan, 30s.)

IF Mr. Wain could only be nastier or more pre- tentious, everyone might be more frightened of him: as it is he wears in his essays the persona of journeyman,. purveying his criticism as if it were bread and butter. And, indeed, this suits him; he has a lack of crankiness and a decency that put one in mind of Orwell or the pleasanter aspect of Wells; he can, in fact, afford this sort of anonymity because he writes out of a tradi- tion not of literature but of life. When he does overstretch himself he is at least never caught with his trousers down: his mistakes and pre- judices are permissible, and almost a relief.

These essays have their strong and weak places, but are seldom dull. Their worst aspect is a matter not of literary but of cultural diagnos- tics, when from time to time Mr. Wain, who is not really a historian, assumes too wide a licence. If he has too romantic and individualist a conception of writing and writers, this hardly does him harm among such chosen subjects as Byron and Hopkins, and is always chastened by a decent and serious socialism. His essays on Orwell are strong, intelligent and effective; his note on New Critics is a joy to read; even in India, where he admits to losing his bearings, he never quite loses his head.

These varying essays raise a formidable ques- tion of what an essay ought to be like, what (roughly) the form of an essay is all about. I suppose we have too many archetypes, and one can be sure Mr. Wain will have the feel of them all, from Macaulayan review to the reportage of a travelling journalist. The form seems to have expanded without intermission from Bacon's use of it to Auden's, so that it can now cover simply any set of qualities and any range of subjects which an individual is capable of holding in one piece of English. Except that whimsy is now permitted only to clergymen (who reads Alpha of the. Plough?) and that the dilemma of modern man has to present itself, at least some of the time, in political terms, there are not many rules. But there are many particular pages in this book, none of them injudicious, yet which might have been improved by a more stringent sense of form and of the history of forms. ,

. Yet the range of Mr. Wain's information and the human authority of his judgments, his ex-

pensive lucidity and his suspicious nose will in- fallibly be underestimated if only because he contrives to sound so ordinary. As a writer he is a force making for whatever in a culture can be thoroughly desirable: his scholarship is excellent, he sees important issues, and his cultural bill of health is clean. He may be too distrustful of advertisements and have blind spots about Gregory Corso or John Berger, but his praise is that he himself could reasonably be identified with what he supposes to, be the proper object of education, a lifetime of indi- vidual and developing thought. If a dead, school- boy's naivety has survived into this phrase, it is none the less moving, and beautiful, and in its way true.