Alvarez, A(lfred) 1929-
ALVAREZ, A(lfred) 1929-
PERSONAL: Born August 5, 1929, in London, England; son of Bertie and Katie (Levy) Alvarez; married Ursula Graham Barr, 1956 (divorced, 1961); married Audrey Anne Adams, 1966; children: (first marriage) Adam Richard; (second marriage) Luke Lyon, Kate. Education: Attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford, B.A., 1952, M.A., 1956. Hobbies and other interests: Rock climbing, poker, classical music.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Aitken and Stone Ltd., 29 Fernshaw Rd., London SW10 0TG, England. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Oxford University, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, England, senior research scholar, 1952-55, and tutor in English, 1954-55; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Procter visiting fellow, 1953-54; Rockefeller Foundation, New York, NY, visiting fellow, 1955-56, 1958; Observer, London, England, poetry editor and critic, 1956-66; freelance writer, 1956; Journal of Education, poetry critic and editor, London, 1957; Gauss Seminarian and visiting lecturer, Princeton University, 1957-58; D. H. Lawrence fellow, University of New Mexico, 1958; drama critic, New Statesman, London, England, 1958-60; visiting professor at Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 1960-61, and State University of New York—Buffalo, NY, 1966; Penguin Modern European Poets in Translation, advisory editor, 1965-75; Voices program, presenter, Channel 4 Television, 1982.
MEMBER: Climbers' Club, Alpine Club.
AWARDS, HONORS: Rockefeller fellowship, 1955-56; Vachel Lindsay Prize for Poetry (Chicago, IL), 1961.
(Poems), Fantasy Press (Oxford, England), 1952.
Stewards of Excellence: Studies in Modern English and American Poets, Scribner (New York, NY), 1958, published as The Shaping Spirit: Studies in Modern English and American Poets, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1958.
The End of It, privately printed, 1958.
The School of Donne, Chatto & Windus (London, England), 1961, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1962.
(Editor and author of introduction) The New Poetry, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1962, revised edition, 1966.
Under Pressure: The Writer in Society, Eastern Europe and the U.S.A., Penguin (Baltimore, MD), 1965, published as Under Pressure: The Artist and Society, Eastern Europe and the U.S.A., Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1965.
Lost (poems), Turret Books (London, England), 1968.
Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays, 1955-1967, Allen Lane (London, England), 1968, Random House (New York, NY), 1969.
(With Roy Fuller and Anthony Thwaite) Penguin Modern Poets 18 (poems), Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1970.
Apparition (poems), University of Queensland Press (St. Lucia, Australia), 1971.
The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1971, Random House (New York, NY), 1972.
The Legacy, Poem-of-the-Month Club (London, England), 1972.
Samuel Beckett, Viking (New York, NY), 1973, published as Beckett, Fontana (London, England), 1973.
Hers (novel), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1974, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Autumn to Autumn, and Selected Poems, 1953-1976, Macmillan (London, England), 1978.
(Editor, with David Skilton) Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Penguin (Harmondsworth, England), 1978.
Hunt (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1978.
Life after Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1982, published as Life after Marriage: Scenes from Divorce, Macmillan (London, England), 1982.
The Biggest Game in Town, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.
Offshore: A North Sea Journey, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.
(With Charles Blackman) Rainforest, Macmillan (Melbourne, Australia), 1988.
Feeding the Rat: Profile of a Climber, Bloomsbury (London, England), 1988, Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1989.
Day of Atonement (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 1991.
(Editor) The Faber Book of Modern European Poetry, Faber (London, England), 1992.
Night: An Exploration of Night Life, Night Language, Sleep and Dreams, Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
Where Did It All Go Right? (autobiography), Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Poker: Bets, Bluffs, and Bad Beats, edited by Kelly Duane, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
Feeding the Rat: A Climber's Life on the Edge, Thunder Mouth Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Biggest Game in Town, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
New and Selected Poems, Waywiser (London, England), 2002.
The Writer's Voice, Norton (New York, NY), 2005.
Also author of screenplay The Anarchist, 1969. Contributor to Observer, New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Daily Telegraph Magazine, Times, New York Review of Books, and other periodicals. Advisory editor, "Penguin Modern European Poets" series, 1966-75.
SIDELIGHTS: A. Alvarez first made a name for himself in literary circles with his work as critic, particularly with his meditation on suicide, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, but his career moved in a more creative direction in the late 1960s when, as he once explained, he "had grown weary of writing books about other people's books, so effectively [I] gave up criticism in order to concentrate on [my] own creative work." Since then, he has published several poetry collections and a handful of novels, in which, according to Carol Simpson Stern in Contemporary Novelists, "his passion for language and curiosity about the human condition find expression." Though she found some fault in these creative writings, she concluded that Alvarez "writes well and is always eminently readable."
Alvarez published his first poems in 1952, while still at Corpus Christi College at Oxford, and six years later, he privately published a collection called The End of It. Three years later, he won a poetry prize for a group of poems about the breakup of his first marriage, which, remarked John Ferns in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "are written in a style that combines natural and violent images to express states of alienation and separation . . . and attempts to capture almost suicidal states of isolation."
However, Alvarez did not fully embrace creative writing until the late 1960s. By the beginning of the next decade, he was established "as a recognized, if minor, contemporary British poet," Ferns related. Despite these early successes, Alvarez has never produced a large body of poetry. Stern wrote in Contemporary Poets that the "published poetry of A. Alvarez is slight indeed in volume, but it is rich in its economy." His body of work is consistent in its preoccupation with themes of love, separation, and death.
Alvarez's later poems often concern mates divided by fears. Noted Stern in Contemporary Poets, "They are poems of ephemera, in which an emotion is briefly isolated, felt, and wafted away, leaving the persona with a sense of perplexity and regret." The collection Autumn to Autumn, and Selected Poems, 1953-1976, contains one new, seven-sequence poem along with poems that had appeared over the previous two decades. Alvarez stated that Autumn to Autumn "contains all the poems I want to preserve." The new work, depicting a cycle of loss and renewal, is full of "delicate, lyric particularity and subtle rhythms," observed Ferns, "reminiscent in places of Lawrence and the Thomas Hardy of the 1912-1913 poems." Stern, in Contemporary Poets, also commented that some of the earlier poems in the collection "recall Plath's stridency and savage treatment of love's anger." Derek Sanford of Books and Bookmen further praised this work as "good, very good, strictly minor poetry, much of which poets with bigger names might justifiably be proud."
Alvarez first turned to fiction writing in the early 1970s with Hers, a novel about a middle-aged woman married to an older university professor, who has an affair with one of her husband's students. Stern, in Contemporary Novelists, found that Alvarez's "portrait of the professor Charles is both entertaining and honest." Hers, drawing upon some of Alvarez's personal experiences, also shares themes of his poetry in his characters' inability to forge meaningful communication; when Charles discovers his wife's affair, he cannot even speak his own words and instead quotes Shakespeare's Othello.
Alvarez's other novels, Hunt and Day of Atonement, are written in the thriller tradition. In Hunt he tells the story of Conrad Jessup, whose quest for excitement leads him to the discovery of a murdered body and a charge by the police that he is the killer. Jessup, once released, seeks the real killer and so becomes involved in a game of international intrigue. Stern, in her Contemporary Novelists essay, deemed the plot "slow and obvious." A Contemporary Review critic, though, declared of the book, "Taut, disturbing and expertly constructed, this is a novel not to be missed."
Day of Atonement finds a married couple, Joe and Judy Constantine, implicated after their friend Tommy Apple mysteriously dies. The Constantines are hounded by drug traffickers and the police alike, and Joe finds that a questionable favor he once did for Tommy now endangers his relationship to Judy. Stern, in Contemporary Novelists, looked on Day of Atonement in a far more favorable light than Hunt. "At one level," she remarked, "the book is a who-dunnit. . . . At another, it is a rich exploration of friendship, love, guilt, and reparation." She also found that the characters are "compelling" and that the dialogue "rings true." Stern also praised Alvarez's portrayal of the underworld: "His sense of detail, the excitement, and the people is unerring."
Where Did It All Go Right? is Alvarez's exploration of his life. He describes himself as "not quite an Englishman . . . a Jew with a Spanish surname disguised as a true Brit." His forebears had enjoyed success in business, and although this was followed by reverses of fortune, Alvarez grew up in a world of privilege; he was attended by servants and educated at elite schools. He still felt like an outsider, though, because of being Jewish. He writes of this feeling, of his sometimes difficult relationship with his family, of his happy second marriage, and of his literary career and friendships, especially his role in promoting the poetry of Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell. He also details his experiences in World War II and his penchant for dangerous hobbies—boxing, rock climbing, stunt flying—leading an Economist reviewer to call him "the Hemingway of poetry." The reviewer described Alvarez's autobiography as "a good read, with lots of page-turning anecdote."
Independent on Sunday contributor William Scammell deemed Where Did It All Go Right? an "engaging but exasperating memoir." Scammell remarked of Alvarez, "As a critic he deserves honor for championing the unhappy few, for his fighting spirit—and sometimes deserves flaying for his glibness and exhibitionism." Stephen Pile, writing in the New Statesman, found both faults and virtues in the book. "The greatest fault in this autobiography," Pile observed, "is that he gives us, for example, little sense of his life as a poet, novelist or a writer of rather good non-fiction books about divorce, poker and life on North Sea oil rigs. . . . He is also frustratingly silent on his bizarre first marriage," to D. H. Lawrence's granddaughter Ursula, whom Alvarez had known for only seven weeks before they wed. Pile continued, "The greatest virtue of this book lies in the vivid pen portraits he gives of the leading poets of the second half of the twentieth century." Similarly, Ian Sansom, critiquing for theLondon Review of Books, pointed out, "There are in fact more than enough highly polished little gems about family and friends and twentieth-century writers, artists and critics to merit the price of the book." Pile added, "What stops this being the club-room ramblings of a senior contributor is that they are expertly written with irony and humor." Michael Schmidt, writing in the daily Independent, praised Alvarez's "unostentatious rightness of style. . . . He believes in this world—its people and passions—and he brings it wonderfully alive."
After nearly twenty-five years since his last book of poems, Autumn to Autumn and Selected Poems 1953-1976, Alvarez followed up with New and Selected Poems. Maintaining the theme of love, which was mixed with death and separation in his last poetry collection, this time around Alvarez delves into the purity of love, not only between individuals, but between man and the world as a whole. "The new poems . . . lack the bustle and energy of the earlier . . . but the best make up for it with a Keatsian appreciation of the sensual possibilities of the world and of human love," commented Martin Crucefix of Poetry London. Christopher Levenson of World Literature Today commented that for Alvarez, the collection is "surprisingly traditional, even neoclassical." However, he continued, "The evidence of these later poems, which infuse his characteristic wit and imagery with greater colloquial ease, suggests there may be even better things to come."
Alvarez is still primarily known as a critic, but his literary contributions in other capacities are undeniable. As his criticism delves into topics of concern to both literary circles and to contemporary society, his creative work also explores relevant issues, such as suicide, religious prejudice, infidelity, divorce, and crime. In both his poetry and his fiction, Alvarez finds "his own colloquial, modern voice," observed Stern in Contemporary Poets. His novels, like his poetry, "offer lyrical descriptions of the urban wasteland or the mood of the day," she wrote. She also maintained in Contemporary Novelists that "Alvarez is a writer one wants to read."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alvarez, A., Where Did It All Go Right?, Morrow (New York, NY), 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 5, 1976, Volume 13, 1980.
Contemporary Novelists, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14: British Novelists since 1960, 1983, Volume 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland since 1960, 1985.
Fraser, G. S., The Modern Writer and His World, Deutsch (London, England), 1964.
Hamilton, Ian, The Modern Poet, Macdonald (London, England), 1968, Horizon Press (New York, NY), 1969.
Books and Bookmen, April, 1968; June, 1978.
Book World, August 10, 1969; April 25, 1972.
Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 1962; August 2, 1969.
Contemporary Review, July, 1978, review of Hunt.
Detroit News, February 14, 1982.
Economist (U.S.), November 13, 1999, "English Writers: Wish Him Well," p. 11.
Guardian, February 24, 1961.
Independent (London, England), September 18, 1999, Michael Schmidt, "Hearts Are Trumps in a Long-Winning Streak," p. 11.
Independent on Sunday (London, England), October 24, 1999, William Scammell, "Been There, Donne That," p. 13.
Insight on the News, April 24, 1995, p. 25.
Listener, February 29, 1968.
London Review of Books, August 24, 2000, Ian Sansom, "What's This?," pp. 19-20.
Los Angeles Times, February 3, 1982.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 20, 1986; April 30, 1989.
New Review (London, England), March, 1978.
New Statesman, March 22, 1968; November 19, 1971; April 14, 1978; June 2, 1978; September 27, 1999, Stephen Pile, review of Where Did It All Go Right?, p. 85.
New Statesman & Society, February 3, 1995, p. 38.
Newsweek, February 1, 1982.
New Yorker, March 31, 1974.
New York Times, July 5, 1969; April 7, 1972; March 19, 1975; January 30, 1979; January 25, 1982; March 1, 1982; May 6, 1983.
New York Times Book Review, July 20, 1969; August 17, 1969; April 16, 1972; March 30, 1975; June l, 1975; February 11, 1979; February 1, 1981; January 31, 1982; May 8, 1983; May 18, 1986.
Observer, March 3, 1968; December 20, 1970; May 7, 1978.
Poetry, November, 1959.
Poetry London, spring, 2003, Martin Crucefix, review of New and Selected Poems.
Saturday Review, August 2, 1969; April 5, 1975.
Spectator, December 18, 1971.
Sunday Times, July 7, 2002.
Time, February 8, 1982; May 30, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, May 9, 1958; March 3, 1961; February 29, 1968, November 26, 1971; November 8, 1974; April 21, 1978; June 2, 1978; July 2, 1982; October 10, 1986; July 22, 1988.
Washington Post, July 5, 1986.
Washington Post Book World, February 14, 1982; May 29, 1983; June 25, 1989.
World Literature Today, July-September, 2003, p. 100.*