Books

The Extraordinary Robert Conquest

Penultimata
by Robert Conquest
The Waywiser Press, 2009, £8.99

robert conquestIn the late 1970s, during the rule of the last Labour government and the resulting last financial crisis, I was working in Bayswater close to the Parks, and after work I used sometimes to nip down to the Public Library at Royal Oak, a fine Victorian building full of fine Victorian books like the complete works of Dickens and Capital by Karl Marx in an early translation. Of course cuts meant that the library closed and I bought for a couple of shillings a book called The Abomination of Moab by Robert Conquest.

Of course I knew about Robert Conquest. He had edited a poetry anthology with Larkin at its centre and the marvellous D.J. Enright at its periphery, an anthology attacked by Al Alvarez, so I knew it must be good. He had also written a novel with Kingsley Amis and edited a series of anthologies of science fiction (also with Amis). And he was a poet. I had a book of his poems.

What I didn’t know was that Conquest was … well, what? A historian? A controversialist? He had written the truth about the Gulags when we didn’t want to know anything about that, and was accordingly ignored by what Frank Johnson of the Spectator christened “the Chattering Classes”, people like me in those days, for I took the New Statesman and even won their crossword competition a few times. However, at bottom I was a decent man and The Abomination of Moab opened eyes that were perhaps ready to be opened.

How so? It is not a book of history. It is not a book of literary criticism, not the kind of professional literary criticism I, as a graduate in English Literature of the Second Class, had found myself reading for three years. It was more like Samuel Johnson or perhaps Chesterton—a man talking to men—than the Professor This or Doctor That I was used to. Conquest explains on the back cover that it is not Arnold’s Philistines he is against, but “the Moabites, who from their capital at Shittim … set the children of light whoring after strange doctrine … not Alderman Dagon but Doctor Chemosh”. And, if you haven’t got it yet, he goes on, “despotic or dogmatic attitudes to literature”.

I didn’t read the back cover until I had read a good deal of what was inside, a “Note on Kipling’s Verse” (why he is so good), the defining (for me) article on the limerick as an art form and (quite brilliant), “Done into English” a series of increasingly absurd attempts to render Rimbaud’s two lines:

O saisons, ô chateaux,
Quelle âme est sans défauts?

which demonstrate the impossibility of translation, its continuing attraction for a certain kind of mind, and the merit of Norman Cameron’s attempt:

O seasons! O palaces!
What soul’s transgressionless?

which you might have supposed clumsy before Conquest had so brilliantly laid out the difficulties. There is plenty more there, including some sideswipes at Eliot (pretty well untouchable in those days) and—for me at least—the total destruction of the ridiculous Ezra Pound as a serious poet and … well anything really. As I have said, this book was seminal for me. It is up on my shelves and taken down quite often, more often than any other book of criticism except perhaps Samuel Johnson.

Of course what “this extraordinary man” (the phrase is Kingsley Amis’s) is best known for is his indefatigable opposition to the USSR and all its (abominable) works, at length in a series of books, and succinctly in this limerick (slightly misquoted by Charles Moore in an otherwise very sound article in the Daily Telegraph). Conquest is the greatest master of the limerick (except perhaps for Anon) that I have ever come across.

There was an old Marxist called Lenin
Did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in,
But where he did one in,
That Grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Conquest’s seminal work, The Great Terror, was regularly dismissed by “brittle intellectuals” (the phrase is Kipling’s but Conquest concurred absolutely) until, after the fall of the Wall, he was proved right in every particular and his publisher reissued the book, asking Conquest if he would mind suggesting a new title. “What about ‘I told you so, you fucking fools’?” he is alleged (by Amis) to have replied.

A historian. A critic and a controversialist. Also a poet, as you have already seen if you count a good limerick (as you should) as a poem. Before I move on to his “serious” poetry I cannot resist another limerick much admired by Philip Larkin, who said, “A sure sign of genius. I knew it by heart after one reading”:

Seven ages: first puking and mewling;
Then very pissed off with his schooling;
Then fucks; and then fights;
Then judging men’s rights;

Then sitting in slippers; then drooling.

The book of Conquest’s earlier poems I thought I had on my shelves, now I come to look for it, I find has wandered away or been lent. I think I like Penultimata better. It comes already garlanded (how do you do that?) with praise from Clive James (well worth having), Alan Jenkins, the estimable Poetry Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and Professor Zachary Leader, who wrote the authorised biography of Kingsley Amis. And now Mr Conquest can add me. Here, in “serious” mode, is the last of a set of triplets about a sunset, called “Last Hours”. You cannot write better than this, nor more seriously:

Dead in the water, the day is done
There’s nothing new under the sun,
Still less when it’s gone down.

And (of course I’m sure I don’t have to say) it is not just about a sunset. “The Idea of Virginia”, a long (well, long-ish, thank God) poem about the early history of America and which resists quotation is a fine thing. And from among the light, and characteristically exuberant, pieces here is a complete poem. If you like it, you will find others just as good.

I met her one day on the ferry
That runs to the Isle of Wight,
A girl who appeared to be very
In fact you might almost say quite.
But as it turned out she was barely
In fact you might almost say not:
She left me one day most unfairly
For a wealthy young man with a yacht.
But as a result I was highly
As I saw their wake streaking the sea
But I said to myself rather wryly
“There’ll be more on the mainland for me!”

Is it the journalist in him makes Conquest so good at grabbing your attention? A couple of starts:

Her fucking fool of a father
Was waiting when we got home …

and

You live at your ballad-studying aunt’s.
She sneezes and wears men’s underpants.
The damned witch! How we hate her …

Often the verse has all the qualities of good prose, which may sound odd praise, but I might say the same of Samuel Johnson. There is always solid sense in Conquest, surely something we don’t want to be short of. But this is poetry, not prose, so what about Stevie Smith’s “foot off the ground” as well? I think Conquest does often get his foot off the ground, but, for my money, most often in the Light Verse I confessed I preferred.

That being so, where are the comic masterpieces you find in Amis’s The New Oxford Book of Light Verse over the pseudonyms Ted Pauker and Stuart Howard-Jones, the last the supposed author of a verse about the Irish so rude that Amis said he thought it politic to kill Howard-Jones off in 1974? And where are the limericks, some, but not all, obscene, which are attributed, without much disguise, to Victor Gray, anagram of G.R.A. Victory, not a million miles from George Robert Ackworth Conquest?

Where? I may possibly have the answer. When Conquest was good enough to speak to me at some length at the Traveller’s Club in Pall Mall (not really the sort of address I generally frequent) in June this year at the party to celebrate this book’s launch, he told me that Penultimata would be followed by another book (Ultimata?) which would include “that stuff”.

I do hope so and soon. Conquest was born in 1917, which makes him ninety-two. He is a fine ninety-two, softly spoken but not yet “tamed” as you might say. In the middle of our conversation a short dialogue took place which I hesitate to repeat, but it showed, in little, that he continued to speak his mind and to have no respect at all for reputation. If a man is a “fucking fool” then, however celebrated he may be, that is just what he is.

If you want to know more about this “extraordinary man” then you can read a very full biography on the internet. Or you can read his entry in Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs. I am told—my spies are everywhere—that the best story about him is there all right, but affixed to another person, now safely dead.

I cannot resist here to append, as a kind of sign-off, another limerick of Conquest’s. More can be found on the internet by the truly industrious. This one is easier. It is at the end of the essay on the limerick I alluded to previously, though on the article’s first appearance in the TLS, it was, perhaps not surprisingly, cut. Probably Conquest knew it would be but he never could resist some judicious prodding. The rhyming here has a positively Byronic ingenuity and intricacy.

He was reading the Literary Supplement
When I asked what his “Oh, stuff it up!” plea meant.
            He said, “Two lousy bits
By prejudiced nits!”

But they all are. So who knows which couple he meant?

John Whitworth’s tenth book of poetry, Being the Bad Guy, was published by Peterloo Poets in 2007.

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