A(lfred) Alvarez

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Alvarez, A(lfred) 1929–

Alvarez is an influential British literary critic, poet, essayist, editor, and novelist. Throughout his vigorous, idiosyncratic, and firmly subjective criticism, Alvarez examines and endorses the "extremist" artists, those like Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell who will pursue their insights to the edge of breakdown—and beyond. He is best known for his highly subjective study of suicide, The Savage God. Hunt is his most recent work, a psychological thriller that has been compared to the early works of Graham Greene. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Stuart Sutherland

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A. Alvarez is best known as a successful literary critic and poet and as a failed suicide. He has protested against the gentlemanly tradition in English letters: he derides its bland and superficial emotional response and has called for confrontation with the darker forces within ourselves and within society. Unusually for someone adopting this standpoint, his writing has always been lucid, spare and witty.

A psychologist who set out to discover what internal evil most worried the ordinary man found that people worry most about inner emptiness and their inability to match the exigencies of life with appropriately deep emotions. [Hunt] is the story of just such a man. Conrad's feelings have been blunted by his stale marriage, his tedious children, his monotonous office job and the obligatory blue jokes made by his colleagues in the pub: the greyness of his life is reflected in the grey light of London….

[The] emptiness lies within and is not to be filled by the bizarre external events into which Conrad is thrown. He is so dead to feeling that he cannot even feel deeply about not feeling deeply….

Hunt is a very good novel, fast-moving and compulsive. The different scenes—the dreary terrace household, the office with the blowzy but kind-hearted secretary, the police station, Hampstead Heath and the recurrent poker games—are convincingly described. The prosaic is used to offset the sinister. The dialogue is accurate and witty. There is only one caveat to be made. Although Alvarez navigates his reader with skill through the shoals of psychology and conducts him to enthralling ports of call, we have surely visited these shores before. The terse sentences, the laconic presentation without comment from the author, the hollow heart of the ordinary man, his embroilment with mysterious forces of evil, and his redemption through an unexpected touch of sentimentality—what have we here but a whiff of Graham Greene. Indeed, it is more than a whiff: Alvarez achieves his effects with more economy and precision than Greene himself. Had Hunt been written in the 1930s, it would have been a superb novel in an original genre: as it is, it remains a splendid entertainment in the best sense of the word.

Stuart Sutherland, "Going through the Emotions," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), April 21, 1978, p. 433.

John Naughton

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[It seems as if we in Britain are acquiring a] taste for grey heroes in our fiction. A. Alvarez's thriller [Hunt ] echoes this trend, by concerning itself with the affairs of one Conrad Hunt, sales manager unextraordinary, who tries to mix a boring business and family life with a bit of painting and a lot of gambling…. Conrad is harassed, assaulted, intimidated. So is the reader, who finally begins to suspect that there is Something Really Big behind all the gloomy paranoia. But there isn't really, and Mr Alvarez has the last laugh in a well-written, atmospheric and sophisticated thriller which demonstrates that even conspiracies these days are neither black nor...

(This entire section contains 133 words.)

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white, but that inevitable intermediate shade. (p. 651)

John Naughton, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of John Naughton), May 18, 1978.

Derek Stanford

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Hunt [is] a psychological thriller of a completely riveting nature and with some undertones of a deeper nature.

Among other things, it is a tale of addiction, and here Dostoyevsky (himself a convulsive, sometimes self-destructive player) has the edge on [A Alvarez] in The Gambler. Mr Alvarez's professionalism as a poker player is at war with his professionalism as an artist. The games he describes are mostly dramatic, but they sometimes fail in communicating, being too full of the terminology which only the long-hardened card player knows. This apart, I find no flaw in a brilliantly succinct story (the author gauges perfectly the length of each chapter—some long, some very short—according to the episode to be highlighted). It is also a splendidly evocative portrait of Dante's narrator in the person of Conrad Hunt, half-way through his life and with his sense of direction confused. (p. 44)

The novel ends with … Conrad going off on his own—to squander his last remaining thousands, we imagine. One thing only he has learnt: there is no such thing as luck—only skill or lack of it and the web of circumstances we do not understand.

In this sense, it is a disillusioning book (if we grant the author's conclusion which I myself do not); but its pace, its weird verve and its tough cynical relish give it an obsessive compulsive quality. Shades of the early Graham Greene (It's a Battlefield and A Gun for Sale), a touch of Dashiel Hammett (whom Mr Alvarez much admires), plus just the minutest sprinkling of Kafka (feeling persecuted by forces unknown) might serve as an approximate formula for a novel which has its own special flavour, its own elegant, independent economic life.

Our author, who is not the most modest of men … is said to have told Atticus of The Sunday Times that while Hunt was a 'good novel', his poems were 'bloody good'. I certainly have deeply enjoyed most of the thirty seven pieces which make up his volume of verse Autumn to Autumn and Selected Poems 1953–1976…. It has the same elegiac near-nihilistic tone which the later poetry of MacNeice evinced, though without the latter's variety and range. Age, autumn, love's sickness and decay, the poignant (pointless?) beauty of nature—quite a touch of Gottfried Benn about these poems—and the sense, the scent of death upon the air—these are the impressions we draw from his poetry. 'Timor mortis conturbat me' (the fear of death disturbs and shakes me): this is what Mr Alvarez seems to say—William Dunbar in a minor key. (pp. 44-5)

There is a mortal sadness about many of these urban pastoral poems with Hampstead Heath playing the role of Stoke Poges in Gray's Elegy—an elegy without the didactic note; an elegy strained, so to speak, through The Waste Land: good, very good, strictly minor poetry, much of which poets with bigger names might justifiably be proud of…. (p. 45)

Derek Stanford, "Poetry and Poker," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Derek Stanford 1978; reprinted with permission), June, 1978, pp. 44-5.

Francis Landy

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From the painful, meticulous 1950s efforts to the brilliant shimmer of the eponymous sequence, Alfred Alvarez's poems are always interesting, subtle and wonderfully sensuous. In other words, he is fun, and free of the ghastly inhibitions or smalltype garrulity that British poets have made their own…. Yet it is only in the latest cycle of poems, Autumn to Autumn, that his voice sounds clear and no longer afraid of what others may think or guess. These are poems that one can, and I did, read over and over. At last a poet is willing to repeat words for the sheer pleasure of hearing them twice, to allow himself luxury and richness. So once again poetry can be beautiful.

The difference between these and the earlier poems is not in the texture of the language, always skilful and pliable. It is thematic inadequacy that dates them. The familiar subjects of the sixties—madness, savagery, Lawrentian landscapes—so safe to hide behind. Genuine poems interspersed, like the anxious Waking, at dawn (1959) …

   The birds began    Before the humans the birds were harshly twittering,    Crying on all sides, rustling and peopling the air    With outcry, like a river suddenly heard,    A heavy, persistent down-calling. So the birds    Were shaking their song out, wrenching and spilling it    Out of the roots of the heart painfully singing.

But in Autumn to Autumn the themes vanish. What could they be about? Weather, landscape, dreams, people separate and wishing, harrowing and simple. A wistful middle age, the nostalgia of autumn, of a total recall of the scents and surprise of childhood and love. So that through dream and reminiscence all seasons come together in the autumn. It works partly through penetrating observation, precise and patient, partly through the fullness of the music accepted without self-consciousness…. The poems are fully personal—family poems with the sharp tremor of listening to children, matrimonial poems where the accumulated hurts and longings are too inextricable for resolution—yet the lyrical energy, the regret and anticipation, is carried by the seasons, the rain hissing under cars, the dead whiteness of snow, brilliant promise of Christmas, heavy heads of summer, and so to another autumn, the trees, "the last big spenders". (pp. 119-20)

[Hunt is] a strange novel, in that it breaks the rules and refuses to answer questions; it is also very very funny….

The hunt takes us through London, familiar and cosy as a nursery, and as full of obscure terrors. As a cry against the oppression and waste of life in offices, clubs and suburbs, impersonal even in love, deceptive and drab even in adventure, the novel works, surprisingly, partly because of its acute and witty observation; partly because of a foil, its only truly trusting, three-dimensional character, Conrad's sheepdog, Kim. Kim, inevitably, is the only one to die, because of his loyalty. But equally the novel is destructive of Conrad's search through or for himself. In the end, all he can think of to say is "Fuck you". For the real fear is that there is nothing to discover, nowhere to escape, that the hunt is a terrible farce. For this reason all the people in the novel are flattened, whether caught in the trap, like Conrad and Olivia, or cops and robbers, playing the game. In his critical work on Beckett, Mr. Alvarez defines two forms of the Absurd: outrageous farce, the theatre of Ionesco; and the empty, appalled vision of Beckett and Ecclesiastes. At the end of Hunt this is what we are left with. Instead of the little boy of Beckett, a large sheepdog. (p. 121)

Francis Landy, "A Poet's Harvest," in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1979), Autumn-Winter, 1978–79, pp. 119-21.

Richard Freedman

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Walking his dog in Hampstead Heath late one hot summer night, Conrad Jessup [name given to protagonist Conrad Hunt in the U.S. edition of "Hunt"]—failed artist, husband, father and gambler—comes upon the nearly dead body of a spiffily turned-out young lady.

He makes the mistake of phoning the police without volunteering his name. From there on his life is made a paranoid nightmare in this grimly absorbing novel by the English poet and critic A. Alvarez….

Mr. Alvarez [in "Hunt"] is ambitiously out to make a statement about the dismal state of contemporary English society through a loser hero….

But as a parable of England's decline, "Hunt" is rather too murky, schematic and arbitrary. The harder Mr. Alvarez tries to compare sagging London with Kafka's Prague, the less convincing he is to an American reader, who is likely to feel the novelist is jolly lucky to be living in what may be the last relatively civilized country on earth.

The police who give Jessup a hard time are model detectives by American standards. His disaffected wife, who sits all day glued to the telly, at least has the option of watching the BBC. The Big Statement the novel is laboring to make turns out to be little more than the self-pitying whine of a not very likable hero whose best trait is his love for his dog.

Yet on the less exalted level of psychological suspense thriller, "Hunt" is reasonably successful. Mr. Alvarez is every bit as adept as Greene and Theroux in evoking private angst against a seedy background of failed marriages, posh gambling halls, grungy Soho digs and trendy Knights-bridge boutiques….

"Hunt" vertiginously keeps crossing the border between genuine paranoia and justified terror.

The only trouble is that in his efforts to come up with an anti-hero sufficiently mediocre and doomed to be symptomatic of our time, Mr. Alvarez has failed to give him enough redeeming qualities for us to get very worked up about his fate. We don't want a James Bond, particularly, but through three-quarters of "Hunt" Conrad Jessup is so spineless and formless that he can barely carry the narrative and symbolic weight that Mr. Alvarez has placed on his drooping shoulders.

Richard Freedman, "England as a Loser Hero," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 11, 1979, p. 14.

Roger Sale

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[Hunt bears a] kind of eerie connection to Graham Greene's Brighton Rock…. It is not an imitation in the usual sense yet never seems able to stop imitating and be itself. Alvarez … assembles a cast of disagreeable characters and then traps them in a strong plot. Isn't that what Graham Greene does? But it isn't that simple…. Jessup is facing middle age, he is destroying himself, and he spends a lot of this long novel not taking things in…. The only being he can care for is his dog, and the only activity that brings him to life is playing poker—and it is not surprising that the moments with the dog and the poker scenes are much the best things in the book….

Alvarez wants Jessup himself to be a drifting, unlikable man bent on something; he surrounds him with shadowy and unlikable characters out of whose actions he can construct a plot. But he seems not to see that the stronger he makes the plot the more Jessup is dragged into it and the less clear he becomes. Or to see that the plot itself is unworkable, strong enough to dominate the novel, but pointless at every turn…. In the final maneuvers to capture the villains, Jessup's dog is killed, and this allows him to storm off into the night, claiming some kind of disgust or superiority that is unearned. But we see all too clearly that the dog must be killed; for if he weren't, Alvarez would be trapped, his novel having reached its climax and gotten absolutely nowhere. Which is a way of saying that for a novel that is somber and pretentious, Hunt is too full of the unlikely, the unexplained, and the unimportant to come even close to justifying itself. (p. 19)

Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), February 22, 1979.

["Hunt"] is a fiercely contemporary thriller. That is to say, much of the action is arbitrary or irrelevant, the motivations are muted, the characters are assemblages of mannerisms, and there is an aura of calculated squalor…. (p. 128)

The New Yorker (© 1979 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 5, 1979.


Alvarez, A(lfred) (Vol. 5)