Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Last Romantic: Laurie Clancy's Nabokov

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

The Last Romantic: Laurie Clancy's Nabokov

Article excerpt

I. TOWARDS NABOKOV

Laurie Clancy's literary critical books appear for the most part traditional for his context. There is from 1981 a short study of Christina Stead in the Essays in Australian Literature series, and in the same year a book on Xavier Herbert in the widely-read American Twayne's series. Another act of professional generosity to readers and his country was Laurie's full and closely considered Reader's Guide to Australian Fiction of 1992.

The book that appears, from a synoptic distance, not to fit in is The Novels of Vladimir Nabokov, published by Macmillan, London, in 1984. An exotic internationalist figure of high cultural standing, definitely uninterested in history and politics of any reformist or even social kind, seeming aloof, elitist, even arrogant, Nabokov does not seem likely to have fitted in alongside Laurie whether in bar, seminar-room or on the cricket-field (though he was a good tennis-player).

There are two ways of understanding the contact between Nabokov and Laurie Clancy, separate explanations which ultimately (like the varied but eventually harmonious Nabokovian discourses in what Laurie reads as his finest novels) productively merge. The first explanation is to note that intelligent and open-minded Melburnian post-Leavis critics were interested in the most complex of the high modernists. Sam Goldberg, who tutored Laurie at Melbourne before setting offon a professorial career that never matched his very substantial gifts, was from an early age very interested in Joyce. When he headed offon the great overseas journey of self-establishment, he wanted to do a B. Litt. on Joyce at Oxford but the local authorities, still wedded to the idea that criticism is a body of knowledge and all that is needed is a bit of honest spade-work, rejected the idea because someone had just 'done' Joyce, so Sam found a topic so insignificant that the university was content. But Sam was persistent: after returning to Melbourne he wrote The Classical Temper (1961), seen by some Leavisites as trahison d'un clerc, but in fact the book relocates and updates their system of very careful reading and studying the forces of the text for personal and moral meanings-and in title links Joyce back in a striking way to the worlds that modernism was alleged to have abandoned.

In a similar spirit Laurie set himself early in his career as an English lecturer at La Trobe in an MA, submitted in late 1973, to sort out the issues in another very complex, textually difficult, attitudinally mystifying author-whom interestingly Goldberg had also admired-and applied to Nabokov the same approach of very careful reading and evaluations focused on the human and moral issues central to the text's construction. In that serious, text-focused respect Laurie was a sort of Leavisite, though his social and political interests would tend to link him with the leftLeavisites (not company he would have objected to, like Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton). And as it is easy for people looking backwards to misinterpret both critics and commentary on critics, and see the Leavis-Clancy connection as negative, let me comment on the importance of Leavis in about 1960, when I too encountered his influence. Students have for some years just not believed me when I tell them that the novel as a genre was a newcomer to English studies then. I never studied a novel at a British school in the 1950s, and there were very few on the curriculum at Oxford. Mind you, it stopped at 1820-one very good reason, but by no means the only one. By about 1965 a 'modern option' was established, including George Eliot. You can see why students don't believe all this.

The Eng. Lit. curriculum, when it first emerged, was in fact only poetry, and the mostly poetical plays of Shakespeare. There was also all that largely medieval 'language' stuff, whereby English dons could claim a sort of parity in suffering with classics and French and German. Actually I rather enjoyed that, and it also had a numinous hinterland-my older brother was lectured to by Tolkien himself. …

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