Literary critics get stereotyped as uninteresting people. Probably the nature of the work wears off on the public image. Put a stop motion camera on a critic at work for a few hours, and you’ll wind up with a lot of page-shuffling and head-scratching, punctuated by occasional bursts of wild excitement as he lights up a cigarette, makes another cup of coffee, or writes something down on a slip of scrap paper that is promptly misplaced. Sometimes he stares out the window with undisguised envy at a dog scratching itself in the sun. OK, maybe this is getting a little too autobiographical. Pretty dull stuff, no question, just like the books and articles (and blog posts) that somehow get written that way.

Even the greats, like William Empson, are relegated to the near-absolute obscurity of being remembered only by the driest and dustiest of boobyish antiquarians, like myself. But the sense that these guys are all chips off the old Casaubon block makes “Lunching on Olympus”, about meeting several famous writers and critics for lunch, so absorbing. These guys were cards, to a man. In the following passage, the author visits William Empson in the company of Christopher Ricks:

We were met at the door by Empson himself, unkempt white hair and beard prominent. His shirt and pants were a faded gray and looked to have been worn unwashed for several days. The sitting room itself was strewn with newspapers and was visibly dusty; it looked as unkempt as Empson. Almost at once I could tell I was going to have a very hard time understanding him. I had to listen for key words. He said his wife was away, so we would have to put up with him.

In honor of “our American guest,” he would make bloody marys. He was a skinny man whose clothes hung on him, and as he walked about he continually hooked his thumbs in the front of his pants, and stretched them forward. Ricks and I had to avoid one another’s eyes.

Empson picked out of the kitchen sink three large glasses that may have been washed within the week. On the counter was a large open can of tomato juice with a rusted top. He poured juice into each glass and, after that, generous amounts of something that could have been either gin or vodka—I couldn’t see. Then he sprinkled on something that might have been Worcestershire sauce and from a bin dredged up browned celery stalks. And then he stood back to admire his work and repeatedly stretched and fanned his pants.

He bade us to keep our seats and served his magic drink, which I knew I was meant to praise as thoroughly authentic, if not hygienic. The real challenge was to drink some of this warm slop—no ice cube ever was evident—without spluttering. We toasted Empson and set to work. It had to be done in slow sips; every chance for him to offer a second one had to be eliminated.

Ricks and Empson had a few things to talk about, and they laughed together. I was concentrating on getting enough of the drink down to be neither insulting nor sick. By now, Ricks and I were having a harder time with the drinks and pants stretching—it was just so outrageously funny, but we contained ourselves. I tell my classes that I believe America has weird and idiosyncratic people, but only England has naturally, fully formed eccentrics. Empson is the paradigm. (Recently Ricks remarked of Auden, Forster, Empson, and Larkin that because they were centric in so many ways, their eccentricities were all the more interesting.)

I told him about meeting Auden and being astonished by his wrinkled face. “It was all those sailors,” said Empson, who had written of Auden and Dylan Thomas that they were the only contemporaries “you could call poets of genius.”

After a time, Empson said he wanted to make us lunch, and we would eat in the garden as it was such a fine day. Glancing again at the kitchen, I almost pleaded that he let us take him out to the closest place he enjoyed. Ricks added his solicitation. Empson wouldn’t hear of it.

He went into the kitchen. I asked if I could help. He said I could set the table outside. I began a search for silverware, plates, and glasses. We were to switch to beer, warm of course. He provided no direction, so I had to look in cabinets and drawers. It gave me the chance to rinse and towel everything as unobtrusively as possible. He said we needed soup bowls and spoons and knives for cheese. I found three rolls, butter, and cheese. The rolls had seen a better day, but I hoped they could be buttered into edibility.

Ricks was ordered to stay seated, and then the soup making began. First, Empson produced a large, dirty pot, which I had no chance to rinse. He ran water into it and set it to boil. From strange corners he found an onion, leeks, parsley, and some of the browned celery. He threw in some other things, but by then I couldn’t look. At least it was all floating in hot water.

After a time Empson told me to bring the bowls to him, and he ladled out full portions for each of us, stopping between scoops to make pants adjustments. We sat outside in the lovely air and quiet garden, which did not have much beyond grass and some shrubbery. We were at a wooden table, with Empson at its head. He was obviously proud of his culinary work. There was no choice but to get it all down.
I tasted it and was shocked to find it was good. I didn’t know what it was, but I was so relieved that I would be able to eat it at all that I blurted out my compliments.

“My boy,” Empson said, “it is just like a symphony. You get the right instruments together—here, the ingredients—and the conductor then blends it all together.” We laughed at his delight.

Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral are both still good books. As are Ricks’s on Milton, poetry, and so on. I haven’t read Ricks on Dylan, though. What, a folk singer with a career only a few decades old at this point? And still ongoing? Is there anything in the entire catalogue that even needs a footnote yet? Give it a century and then we’ll talk. Until then it’s all lunch anecdotes, which, don’t get me wrong, is good times, but maybe better suited to articles and not monographs.

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