And yes, it’s exactly what I expected it to be, too.
I admit, I had a similar project in mind, on that far-off distant day when I discovered myself at last well-read: I’d write a great compendium of world literature in the c20th (for these are Seymour-Smith’s limits: 1900 to about 1980 or so (it was first published in 1973, but has clearly been updated) – even the cut-off doesn’t really matter, since very little of quality was published in the last 20 years of the c20th) – but my idea was slightly different: where Seymour-Smith wishes to be comprehensive; I was only going to include writers I thought worthy of mention – meaning that my work would be without bad reviews, whereas Seymour-Smith’s is full of them. – Perhaps, after all, Seymour-Smith had the more enjoyable idea.
On a first idling flick-through, Seymour-Smith’s opinions annoyed me, for I was looking in it for the opinions I knew would annoy me. I looked up Lawrence Durrell (whom I already know I appreciate against the world’s opinion) and he has this to say:
[The Alexandria Quartet] has been an enormous popular success, hailed by modish critics; it amounts, however, to little more than what Leslie Fiedler has called “warmed-through Proust”. The French see the same profundities in it as they once saw in Charles Morgan. The clue to its lack of real quality is contained in Durrell’s pretentious prefatory note … The vulgarity of “soup-mix” is characteristic. How could the coffee-table public fail to fall for something that was not only as “deep” as this pompous statement implies, but also sexy and overwritten (“beautiful” or “poetic” writing)? … The quartet is muddled, and the self-consciously lush writing is an indication of its essential meretriciousness … the entire conception is robbed of whatever atmospheric power it might have had by its author’s ambitious, polymathic vulgarity: his adolescent obsession with decadence, his preoccupation with occultism, his fatal penchant for potted wisdom. This is the kind of thing naturists read aloud to one another after sunset and before exchanging sensual essences (or whatever) …. Nietzsche-and-water … By 2000 his quartet will be as dead as Sparkenbroke is today – and orgasms will still be non-philosophical.
Seymour-Smith’s main problem (our main point of disagreement) is that he doesn’t like “overwriting”, as we can see also with the Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier. I can’t be bothered to type out this whole section, so here are a few of Seymour-Smith’s favourite pejorative words and phrases culled from it instead: lush, baroque, perfectly middlebrow, vulgar, specious, “deep”, middlebrow public, meaningless but high-sounding, “purple prose”, magniloquent, “a kind of prose which can be praised by critics only to their shame”, pretentious, meretricious, the depths of pretentiousness, loathsome portentousness, neo-Baroque prose, foolish symbolic writing, a perfect middlebrow “deep” read, insulting the people of whom he writes, patronizing “philosophy”, his over-written oeuvre. “His work does not deserve to last, and it is unlikely that it will”.
I think, though, your attitude to Seymour-Smith is entirely dependent, as so often with this kind of “literary criticism” on whether your opinions coincide with his. He really likes, for instance, Juan Carlos Onetti; and he has this to say about Michel Tournier’s Gemini:
Gemini …, a convoluted exercise on the theme of two twins and their homosexual uncle, is a book of ideas using people as counters to express these ideas. This, the homosexuality of Uncle Alexandre is based on a delight in sameness. But Tournier says absolutely nothing about narcissism; it is as though that ‘idea’ did not contain any psychological reality. Novels are not built out of ideas, and people do no function simply through ideas; there is something peculiarly frigid about Tournier’s attempts thus to dehumanize life and at the same time obtain a gratifyingly large audience. It is even more disheartening to find a literary columnist comparing him to Flaubert to the latter’s disadvantage. Abstractionism is repulsive and heartless, and the self-satisfied Tournier embodies these characteristics. Successive fiction and criticism has grown more obviously jejune, dealing with such matters as fetishism.
Now, just replace the word “Tournier” with the phrase “Tom McCarthy”, and the word “Gemini” with the letter “C”.
As you may have noticed, and like a lot of fashionable “modernist” “literary critics”, there’s no word he loves more than “middlebrow”, as in:
Middlebrow material is never wholly junk – junk is Cartland, Danielle Steele, Mills and Boon – but neither can it be wholly literature. Furthermore, as we have seen, some true literature has middlebrow appeal. Middlebrowism is ubiquitous because a part of ourselves is intent upon suppressing energy, which is disturbing and threatens inertia … Thus readers (and books) are either more or less middlebrow – never simply middlebrow or not-middlebrow.
So yes, it’s a fine book, if you want one man’s opinion about twentieth-century literature – in which he argues for and against books by the simple usage of pejorative and non-pejorative language (a familiar enough tactic, and one it’s difficult to better in the science of rhetoric literary criticism). It’s nicely divided into sections, which are mostly countries, but occasionally (like Latin America) continents, and occasionally odd conglomerations of things, like African and Caribbean literature amalgamated (though curiously Carpentier above appears in the Latin American section) and Irish literature oddly subsumed into British literature. Of course, there’s far too much attention paid to literature written in English (the U.S. gets 165 pages, which is more than the whole of Africa, the Caribbean, India and Pakistan, China, Russia and Eastern Europe (excl Poland) put together. How about that for cherry-picking an argument!), but on the other hand, I haven’t yet come across any serious omissions. So yes, I’m sure, aside from its many faults, it will become well-thumbed (though at other times, it will stand forgotten at the bottom of my bookshelf).