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I had never
heard of A. Alvarez about ten years ago when he participated in a panel
discussion in New York City about Sylvia Plath. He was the least famous person among the distinguished poets and
critics on the panel, and yet he claimed that Sylvia had made a pass at him
shortly before she died. Alvarez is no
Ted Hughes, physically or literarily, and I wondered if he were making the
whole thing up.
If so, he
is quite adept at making up stories about his relationships with the literary
stars of the twentieth century. More
likely, though, he is an honest man whose talent for writing is enough to
secure him a position as spear-carrier to the scholars and scribblers but not
quite enough to make him a household name in his own right.
Alvarezs new memoir, Where Did It All Go Right? is an amalgam
of these stories about his relations with the more famous. When, as a young man, he wins a Fulbright to
go to Princeton University and give lectures, he shares a suite with V.S.
Pritchett and drinks with W.H. Auden.
He is invited to parties at which Kingsley Amis misbehaves; he visits
Ezra Pound in prison; he discusses criticism with Frank Kermode. He admires Frieda Lawrence so much that he
journeys to Taos, New Mexico to meet her and ends up marrying (temporarily,
unhappily) her granddaughter.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of
the book occur as Alvarez discovers America.
Like Alistair Cooke, he brings the fresh and often fascinating
perspective of a well-educated outsider to the society we often take for granted. With obvious delight, Alvarez describes his
first New York City cab driver, who careens through the city, honking and
shouting and making vulgar comments about passersby, and then drops him off at
Penn Station with Have a nice day! I
had never heard the expression before, says Alvarez. Have a what? It had
never crossed my British mind that a nice day could possibly be an
option. And here is his pleasure at
returning to New York on subsequent visits: . . . each time I arrived at
Immigration a weight lifted from my spirit.
I felt more energetic, smarter, more interested than I ever felt in
England. He even enjoys traveling
through the industrial swamps between Princeton, NJ and New York City: The
ugliness was the flip side of the American dream and it had a beauty all its
own. I told myself that this was what
the true modern world was likepower without excuses, energy without frills,
grimy and unrelenting . . .
editor of The New Poetry, an
influential anthology published in 1962, and the long-time poetry critic and
editor for the Observer, Alvarez has
wielded a fair amount of power in literary circles. He has also lived through the London blitz of World War II; taken
a first at Oxford; written articles for the New Yorker; produced books about John Donne, suicide, divorce,
rock-climbing, and gambling, among other things; married twice; helped raise
three children; learned, late in life, to love his mother; and, somehow, turned
some unhappy beginnings into a comfortable and successful life. Where
Did It All Go Right? is not quite a celebrity autobiography; neither is it
a memoir of everyman. It is the
well-written story of one mans struggles and successes, at the edges of fame,
interwoven with a sort of personal history of the serious literary figures of
the last half-century. In this age of
memoirs, many of which are laced with scandal and sensation, Alvarezs stands
out for its evocation of the joys of the quiet life.
© 2002 Heather C. Liston
C. Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters
degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the
Director of Development for The Santa Fe Children's Museum, and writes
extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have
appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly,
Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.
Buy the book from BN.com:
Where Did It All Go Right?