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Reviewed by Rob Spence

John Carey has had a long and distinguished career in academia, and this autobiography records his journey from childhood in the war to his current position as an avuncular éminence grise in the world of literary criticism. The subtitle – “An Oxford Life in Books” is an accurate one. This is not a minutely detailed account of the personal life of the writer so much as a record of intellectual development, marked by generous and detailed recollections of the books that have remained bright in the memory. And what a lot of books there are! The six-page index is devoted not to events in the life, but to the authors and texts mentioned by Carey on his journey from Biggles-loving schoolboy to Booker Prize jury chairman and media don.

We do, of course, learn the details of Carey’s life: an upbringing in a comfortable London family home, interrupted by the war and a move to rural Nottinghamshire to escape the Blitz, followed by grammar school, national service and a scholarship to Oxford, leading to a long career as a prominent academic. As an undergraduate, Carey writes, he “spent as little time as I could in the world outside books” and this seems to have set the tone for the rest of his life, and for this volume, which charts the writer’s progress through his reading.

For those of a certain age, such as mine, Carey is a familiar figure, whether offering a lucid guide through the thickets of Paradise Lost in his handy guide to Milton, or crisply outlining the major points of interest of seventeenth-century prose in the old Sphere Guides to Literature. His style, though always learned, was never anything less than accessible, a very valuable attribute in literary criticism, and one which earned him the gratitude of my generation of Eng Lit undergraduates, and many generations that followed.

That clarity of thought, and precision of expression is certainly a feature of this book, and Carey handles his material engagingly. He has a fascinating tale to tell, and the reader gets full value. Aside from the insights into the books that made him what he is is today, we are treated to a series of memorable vignettes concerning the often bizarre customs and characters of Oxford life from the late fifties to today. Carey’s career serves as a framework for these encounters with remarkable men and women, who seem to exemplify everyone’s idea of dotty donnishness in their eccentricities, described in a deadpan style which heightens the strangeness. HW Garrod, for example, the Keats scholar, retired but still ensconced in his rooms Merton at the age of 79. Carey describes visiting the near-blind don, who set visitors tasks to earn their afternoon tea- identifying the places on the picture postcards which decorated the walls, winding up dozens of clockwork toys that littered the room, and de-fleaing his ancient dog, Chips. This dog was trained, apparently, to disturb the table and overturn the pieces when Garrod was losing at chess. If that ploy did not work, Garrod would make his opponent drunk on endless glasses of port.

Carey (left) seems to have encountered most of the legendary names of twentieth century Oxford. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Auden, J.I.M. Stewart, Dame Helen Gardner, George Steiner, J.B. Leishman, are amongst a host of names familiar to students of literature. Major figures in world literature also cross his path, amongst them Graves, Larkin, Hughes and Golding. Carey’s spat with Ted Hughes about Hughes’s extraordinarily eccentric book on Shakespeare is given a good airing, but perhaps the most illuminating episode of this sort concerns Carey’s most controversial book, The Intellectuals and the Masses. This book exposed the snobbery and fascism of the Bloomsberries and anatomised the crazy racist theories of several leading early twentieth century authors. It is a brilliant piece of committed criticism, and Carey writes with obvious delight about the storm of abuse his work engendered. That sense of engagement, the relish with which he pursues his arguments, is present throughout The Unexpected Professor, and is nowhere more present than in the extended discussions he offers of some of the texts that have meant most to him over the years. These books, ranging from the childhood favourites such as Biggles to the great canonical texts of British and European literature, are read with a freshness and insight that make this reader at least want to go back to those I’ve read, and search out those I haven’t.

Carey emerges as a humane, lively, funny and down-to-earth character. The love of reading permeates every page, and the enthusiasm is infectious. I wish he’d taught me.

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Rob blogs here – Dr Rob Spence and is @spencro on twitter

John Carey, The Unexpected Professor (Faber, 2014), Hardback.

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