Monday Books: Treasure for Those with Ink in the Blood; Critical Times the History of the Times Literary Supplement by Derwent May 606pp. HarperCollins Pounds 25

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), February 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

Monday Books: Treasure for Those with Ink in the Blood; Critical Times the History of the Times Literary Supplement by Derwent May 606pp. HarperCollins Pounds 25


Byline: Ciaran McKeown

THIS is really a book for people with ink in the blood, so to speak - everybody from journalists even to literary critics of the kind who appear long since to have sacrificed the love of writing in favour of contentious bickering.

It has clearly been a massive undertaking to trawl through 100 years of the Times Literary Supplement, as well as into its archives, its management records, and like documents of the Times itself.

When one reflects that the author of such an enterprise must also be familiar at a scholarly level with most of the literature of the period covered (and not merely in English), one imagines a person so steeped in books that he or she must have had time for little else, and might be ignorant of all the petty management struggles and office politics that going into the making of a great newspaper, let alone one of its supplements, and might also be a tedious 'lit-crit' pedant.

In fact, Derwent May writes for The Times on books and bird life, has written four novels himself, as well as books on Marcel Proust and Hannah Arendt.

So an author's sympathetic disposition is there from the start, and I found myself carried along through the entire 556 pages of main text, regretting having to interrupt the experience to work, sleep or eat.

This "history of the Times Literary Supplement" is much more than that. It operates as a lens on the history of the 20th century itself.

Better still, by reflecting on the criticisms of the books which themselves were, in some measure, reflective expressions of the period, it plumbs a level of understanding that a conventional 'history' could not.

Dotted throughout, there are sidelong views of some of the great authors of the time, either as subjects of review or as reviewers.

By poking through the payment records in the Times, May noted such gems as those paid to Miss Adeline Virginia Stephen, soon to be known universally as Virginia Woolf; and of course, Virginia Woolf's analyses of other writers' work give an insight into how her own genius worked.

So, for book lovers alone, this is a richly rewarding tome.

It also brought home to me the degree to which 'English departments' in universities are so much a 20th-century phenomenon, proliferating to match the ubiquitous Classics departments, and sadly, in many cases, to eclipse the latter.

These engines of criticism, often dessicating the life and work of real writers, multiplied in the second half of the outgoing century, and their influence is reflected in the increasing presence of the literary critic, instead of author, as reviewer, in the Literary Supplement itself.

While May's pace, enthusiasm and objectivity seem never to falter, one senses that he favoured the former ethos: perhaps that is subjective; I was and am, generally speaking, much more interested in writers writing about writing than in the views of any of the schools about writing. …

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