fri 12/08/2022

Al Alvarez: 'If I drop dead this minute, I’ve had a ter­rific time' | reviews, news & interviews

Al Alvarez: 'If I drop dead this minute, I’ve had a ter­rific time'

Al Alvarez: 'If I drop dead this minute, I’ve had a ter­rific time'

An encounter with the literary daredevil and critic who published Sylvia Plath

Al Alvarez, poet, critic, poker player, rock climber, old-school literary mensch

We like to think of ourselves as a nation of eccentrics, but some take their patriotic duties more seriously than others. Al Alvarez – poet, critic, poker player, rock climber, old-school literary mensch, who has died at the age of 90 – took his first dip in the ponds on Hampstead Heath at 11.

Sixty-five years later, he was still at it. Here’s a standard journal entry – for 31 January 2004: “The water was just above freezing, the wind howled, the rain stung my face when I swam on my back. I came out feeling wonderful.”

Alvarez swam as he lived and wrote, on the assumption that there’s no tomorrow, so life had better be grabbed by the lapels. When the stock of tomorrows had almost run dry he published his swimming diary and called it Pondlife. It felt very much like his final word. But what a way to bow out. Both beautiful and savagely angry, this elegy to the self came from the pen of an author who, having once made an attempt on his own life, now loved it with fierce tenacity – and loathed his body’s decision not to co-operate.

Al­varez was Eey­or­ish on the writer’s life, even a lit­tle dis­gusted. “For five or six days each week I sit at my desk and try to get the sen­tences right. If I make a mis­take, I can re­write it the fol­low­ing day or the next, or catch it in proof. And if I fail to do so, who cares? Who even no­tices?”

He wrote th­ese words – and pre­sum­ably checked them for mis­takes – for GQ mag­a­zine in 1992. It marked a rare ap­pear­ance in the lo­cal prints for an es­say­ist whose out­put for three decades was mostly gen­er­ated for New York publi­ca­tions with the funds to sup­port large-scale prose pieces. Many of them were col­lected in Risky Busi­ness. When it was published in 2007, I interviewed him at his home in Hampstead. The ti­tle referred chiefly to the tightrope walk that is earn­ing by writ­ing, but also to the sub­jects of his pen por­traits.

Al­varez was an avid vis­i­tor to the rock face deep into mid­dle age. The egal­i­tar­i­an­ism of it ap­pealed, as did the chance, as he put it, to “work things out with the body”. “The thing about me,” he says, “was I was phys­i­cally very strong, and be­cause I was an adren­a­lin junkie I re­ally, truly didn’t get fright­ened. And so I was a very use­ful guy to have as num­ber two on the rope.”

There were three nov­els, and vol­umes of po­etry – mus­cu­lar, full-on per­for­mances in keep­ing with the credo laid out in his in­tro­duc­tion to The New Po­etry, the an­thol­ogy he com­piled in 1962. There were books on poker play­ers, oil­rig­gers, climbers, di­vorcees and sui­cides. There were es­says on pi­lots, ex­plor­ers, gam­blers, and a lovely one on Al­fred Brendel, a Hamp­stead neigh­bour. But sup­port­ing other writ­ers – be­ing the sec­ond man on the rope – is what Al­varez did bet­ter than any­one.

From 1956 he was the po­etry ed­i­tor of the Ob­server. He was the gate­keeper who in­tro­duced Bri­tish read­ers to John Ber­ry­man, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath from Amer­ica; Zbig­niew Her­bert and Miroslav Holub from East­ern Europe. “At that point,” he said, “it was the place to pub­lish. Oc­ca­sion­ally we used to do a whole page. Can you imag­ine that in a Sun­day?” Af­ter a decade, he gave in his no­tice “be­cause if a new Sylvia Plath work thumped through my let­ter box I wouldn’t be able to hear what was ter­rific about it. If you want to know what the young are do­ing, you’ve got to be young. What I see at the mo­ment is pretty bor­ing.”

A stocky pachy­derm of a man with a raff­ishly thin mous­tache, he was in­tel­lec­tu­ally spry, en­gag­ing, funny and gen­er­ous – just so long as you keep him off the sub­ject of his first mar­riage, when he was a bril­liant stu­dent in his twen­ties.

“I ap­prove of young mar­riages greatly, be­cause they are a nec­es­sary pre­lim­i­nary to di­vorce, and ev­ery­body’s go­ing to have one of them in their life.” He was ac­tu­ally talk­ing about Plath and Ted Hughes, but the bon mot ap­plies equally to his own first mar­riage, which ended with him at­tempt­ing sui­cide. The bar­bi­tu­rates failed to do their worst, which the 30-year-old Al­varez took as per­mis­sion to pro­ceed. But his brush with death re­mained a piv­otal in­flu­ence on his lit­er­ary tastes. The writ­ers to whom he was drawn all made a fu­ri­ous hash of their lives. Sev­eral of them – Vladimir Mayakovsky, Ber­ry­man, Mal­colm Lowry – ended up do­ing them­selves in. Many times in his essays, Al­varez won­dered whether the risks that yield great writ­ing are re­ally worth the can­dle.

His study of sui­cide, The Sav­age God (1972), asked just this ques­tion of Plath, who wrote the po­ems that made up her post­hu­mous col­lec­tion Ariel af­ter Hughes aban­doned the mar­riage. Hughes, he said, took ter­ri­ble of­fence at the book “for no rea­son at all. I just said they were tem­po­rar­ily apart. He took that as an in­dict­ment. I did not men­tion the other wo­man or any of that stuff.”

Nonetheless, there was a pe­riod when Al­varez sensed that he was be­ing in­vited by Plath to step into the breach. “I only saw her as it were when she was on her best be­hav­iour, and she and I got on ter­rif­i­cally. She wasn’t the sort of girl that I find wildly at­trac­tive but she had a glow about her and she was so fuck­ing smart. But there was no way that I was in love with her. I was be­tween mar­riages and was hav­ing a very pro­mis­cu­ous bout. But with Sylvia you could feel if you were go­ing to get in­volved you’d have to get in­volved. All or noth­ing. And I was not ready for an all or noth­ing. The poor bitch was on her own. Above all, she needed some­one to read the po­etry to, be­cause that’s what she and Ted did. She was really go­ing places peo­ple hadn’t been, re­ally dan­ger­ous stuff. It was high-risk art.”

Around that time Al­varez met his sec­ond wife. It is at this happy junc­ture that his mem­oir, Where Did It All Go Right? (1999), hit the fast-for­ward but­ton. He grew up in a Jewish mid­dle-class house­hold in north Lon­don. His fa­ther was “a ter­ri­bly bad and thwarted and un­happy busi­ness man in the schmut­ter trade”, his mother was “from a re­ally rather rich fam­ily. He loved the idea of the son who was in the arts. But she could never get it. I think I was a ter­ri­ble dis­ap­point­ment to her.” It was only when he got to Prince­ton on a visit­ing fel­low­ship, af­ter Oun­dle and Ox­ford and a DPhil on the Meta­phys­i­cals, that he stopped notic­ing his own Jewish­ness. “In Eng­land, it’s al­ways slightly com­pli­cated be­ing Jewish. You’d come up with some smart-arse re­mark and they’d say, ‘Oh he’s just a clever Jew.’”

This was one at­trac­tion of poker play­ers, in whose com­pany he started to move and then to write about when William Shawn of The New Yorker com­mis­sioned the piece that be­came the cult book The Big­gest Game in Town (1983). “No­body gives a shit who you are as long as you sit down with enough money in front of you.” The other fas­ci­na­tion of the Ve­gas elite is their be­havioural con­gru­ence with writ­ers. They are both cold-blooded au­di­tors of hu­man weak­ness.

This was the li­cence Al­varez needed to stop writ­ing ex­clu­sively about writ­ing and mi­grate into mi­lieux in which real men dice with death and (in the case of poker) debt. One of the charms of his ex­tra­mu­ral stud­ies of ma­cho pur­suits is that they have none of the misog­y­nis­tic pos­tur­ing found in Norman Mailer.

“My the­ory about why I soft-ped­alled the ma­cho stuff is I was lucky enough to climb with some se­ri­ously good climbers. Class is class and you can recog­nise it, so there is no point in pos­tur­ing when there are peo­ple who can read your cards. I adore what you can do with lan­guage. But I’ve al­ways worked on the sup­po­si­tion that I’m only go­ing to have one go at this planet and I just want to try what’s on of­fer. I’ve used writ­ing as a way of fi­nanc­ing do­ing stuff. Ef­fec­tively I’m broke, but if I drop dead this minute I’ve had a ter­rific time. That seems to me more im­por­tant than any­thing else. I ac­tu­ally do be­lieve that it’s more im­por­tant to live de­cently.”

Al Alvarez, 5 August 1929 - 23 September 2019

With Sylvia you could feel if you were go­ing to get in­volved you’d have to get in­volved. All or noth­ing

Share this article


He was also a terrific teacher. Not many of us know that

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters