Magazine article The Spectator

'Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic', by Brigid Allen - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic', by Brigid Allen - Review

Article excerpt

Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic Brigid Allen

Signal Books,, pp.452, £19.99, ISBN: 9781903493989

Hilaire Belloc was once being discussed on some television programme. One of the panellists was Peter Levi. The other critics expressed their doubts about the old boy. Levi leaned forward in his chair to say, with passionate intensity, 'But Belloc is worth discussing... because he was... very nearly a poet.'

At the time, I thought this judgment a trifle snooty. Could the words 'very nearly a poet' not be applied to Levi himself? In the years since he died, however, revisitations of Levi's work have convinced me that, uneven and florid as his poetry is, he was very definitely a poet. True, you can hear echoes of his masters in his verse - Valéry, George Seferis, Wallace Stevens. But he was what the title of this book claims -- an Oxford Romantic, unafraid of being heroically pretentious, who stood out against the blokeishness of 'The Movement' .

You could not overpraise this book. It is so punctiliously researched, and so well written. It describes a loveable, fascinating character whose life was consecrated to art; and the consecration took fascinating twists and turns. Brigid Allen has unearthed the details with prodigious skill. The father, Bert Levi, had Sephardic forebears who sold carpets in Istanbul. The fervently Catholic mother, Mollie, persuaded Bert (who had been married before) to convert. Their three children all became members of religious orders -- the daughter a nun, the two boys, Anthony and Peter, Jesuits. Peter was excited by the heroism of the Elizabethan martyrs and this, combined with his admiration for his teachers at Beaumont, was what led him to join the Society of Jesus.

How could such a funny, creative, accident-prone young man fit into the Ignatian straitjacket? He would eventually leave the order and marry the widow of Cyril Connolly, so you would think his belief in a priestly vocation was a mistake. Actually, both Levi and the Jesuits emerge well from this book. Though his superiors were sometimes exasperated by his behaviour, and delayed his ordination because they worried about his suitability for the priesthood, they gave him a pretty cushy ride. He was allowed to keep literary earnings, so he had cases of Berry Brothers claret delivered to Campion Hall in Oxford and ate out regularly in restaurants. He flew off to Greece whenever he liked, and wrote some very good books, because his superiors did not overburden him with teaching or parochial duties.

On the other side of the coin, Levi, who sidestepped the more trivial rules such as a ban on priests going to the theatre, was a chaste, obedient and serious priest who did what was required of him and who shared his mother's faith quite sincerely -- indeed fervently. …

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