Wednesday, January 12, 2011

John Gross, Consummate Man of Letters


My dear friend John Gross died two days ago and his loss will be felt deeply by many throughout the world. Many of the best writers in the English language will have something to share about John, but I feel I must honour his memory in some way, however poorly I may articulate my thoughts in comparison to writers such as A.N. Wilson.

Here is his Obituary from the Telegraph:

John Gross, the former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who died yesterday aged 75, was for more than 40 years one of Britain’s shrewdest and most fair-minded literary critics and men of letters.

Once described as 'the best-read man in Britain', Gross was probably best known among his literary peers for his first book, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life since 1800 (1969), a racily entertaining romp through the history of literary criticism and its practitioners which won the Duff Cooper Prize and established its author’s reputation as a man whose huge erudition was matched by a well-developed sense of humour.

In this, as in other works, what distinguished Gross’s approach was his sympathy for the more obscure and often faintly ridiculous toilers at the literary coal face — men such as the Scottish dissenting minister George Gilfillan (1813-78), a 'McGonagall of criticism' known for his eccentric flowery style and erratic judgments. AN Wilson declared that the book, which he first read as a teenager, had 'undoubtedly determined for me the direction I wanted my life to take... It became my Bible.'

Few could match Gross’s easy familiarity with the highways and byways of the English literary canon or his acute sensitivity to all its nuances. But he was generous with his omniscience. In an article in The Spectator (one of the numerous journals to which Gross contributed) Bevis Hillier recalled an occasion when, stumped for examples (other than Hamlet and Little Lord Fauntleroy) of the 'disputed succession' in literature, he decided to ask Gross for advice: “On the telephone, without recourse to any reference book, he came up with Wilkie Collins’s The Dead Secret (1861); Ibsen’s play The Pretenders (1864); and Trollope’s Is He Popenjoy? (1878). Beat that!”

So in the early 1980s, when Oxford University Press was looking for someone to marshal a new series of literary anthologies, Gross was the obvious choice. He went on to edit several critically acclaimed collections for the imprint, including After Shakespeare (2002), a superb anthology of writings about and inspired by Shakespeare, from Ben Jonson to Ben Okri; and 'Oxford' books of Aphorisms (1983); Comic Verse (1996); English Prose (1998); Essays (2002) and Literary Anecdotes (2006). His last book, The Oxford Book of Parodies (2010), will have provided entertainment for many households over Christmas and the New Year.

Gross proved equally inspired as editor of the TLS, where he was appointed to replace Arthur Crook in 1974. At the time the supplement could still be described by one magazine editor as 'a purely academic periodical, run by Oxford dons and written by anonymous writers analysing learned books'’. Gross set out to broaden its appeal to the general reader by expanding its coverage, increasing the number of poems and pictures and recruiting younger, less established writers to contribute.

Perhaps his most controversial decision was to insist on ending the practice of anonymity and giving his reviewers bylines, on the grounds that the cloak of anonymity had allowed 'the worst critics, Mr Puff and Mr Sneer, to sound like impersonal oracles'. It was not an easy decision. While some contributors, including Lawrence Durrell, were supportive, Nikolaus Pevsner objected that it would make life difficult when his friends wrote bad books. While admitting the balance sheet was complicated, Gross felt it healthier for reviewers to take full responsibility for what they wrote.

When he relinquished the editorship in 1981 after seven years in the chair, a tribute to Gross’s achievements there by Victoria Glendinning appeared in The Sunday Times under the heading 'The high style of an English man of letters'. This seemed a fitting tag for someone quintessentially English and literary, as Gross was; yet in A Double Thread (2001), his memoir of childhood, he revealed that his literary interests – and his sense of what it meant to be English — had developed out of a very different cultural heritage.

Born in the East End of London on March 12 1935, John Jacob Gross was the child and grandchild of Orthodox Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, all of whom had come to England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

'Being Jewish', Gross wrote, was 'one of the central facts' of his existence, but his Jewishness was almost entirely secular. His father was a GP in Mile End and so came into professional contact with numerous non-Jews; it was thus hard for him to stick to all the rules he had grown up with in eastern Europe. 'Orthodox in principle' but 'semi-orthodox in practice', his parents brought up their son to be responsive to tradition but not constrained by its more rigid disciplines, and thus open to wider influences.

Gross’s retreat from Jewishness was further encouraged by the security and happiness he experienced as he grew up in wartime England. Before the bombs began to fall on the East End, his father sent John, his mother and baby brother to Sussex, and then Egham in Surrey, where he attended Mrs Gittins’s private school, then Egham Grammar School, and imbibed 'a certain idea of England' which included fair play, the King’s English, trial by jury, the Magna Carta – and virtues that would lead South American traders 'to seal their bargains on the word of an Englishman'.

Neither a hearty nor a swot, John happily devoured The Dandy and The Beano, collected stamps and cigarette cards, laughed at his more eccentric teachers, joined the Scouts and had fun with his friends. The war barely impinged, and if there was anti-Semitism in suburban Surrey it seems to have passed him by. 'I never suffered on account of being Jewish,' he recalled, 'never felt that my future was hemmed in, never endured either literal or metaphorical blows.'

Early on Gross made a conscious decision neither to ignore nor overemphasise the anti-Semitism he found in literature, but to consider it in context and to reserve the right to turn a blind eye. It was only later on that he would learn, from books, how lucky he had been as a Jew living in England during the 1930s and 1940s, but the fact of the Holocaust did not alter his fundamentally temperate approach. He felt that historians of the period had skewed the picture, not by inventing anti-Semitism but by playing down its widespread absence. 'The history of non-anti-Semitism remains an unwritten subject,' he reflected.

Gross’s eclectic schooling – after Egham Grammar School, he studied at the Perse School in Cambridge and finally City of London School – seems to have contributed to the development of broad cultural interests which also extended to 1940s cinema, radio programmes and popular songs, to contemporary poetry, to music hall culture and the lore of cricket. But he was equally knowledgeable about politics and current affairs. From the outset, a consistent strand in his writing was his distaste for what he regarded as the hypocrisies and damaging policies of the bien pensant Left.

From City of London School, Gross won a scholarship, aged 17, to read English Literature at Wadham College, Oxford. After graduation he spent a year on a visiting fellowship at Princeton University and worked for two years as an editor for Victor Gollancz before returning to academia as an assistant lecturer in English Literature at Queen Mary College, London University, then at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was a fellow from 1962 to 1965.

Having become dissatisfied with the narrowness of academic life he became, in the 1960s, a regular contributor on cultural and literary topics to various newspapers and journals. After a year as literary editor of the New Statesman and seven years with the TLS, Gross spent a year as an editorial consultant with Weidenfeld. He then served as senior book editor and book critic on the staff of The New York Times from 1983 to 1989. He also became a regular contributor to other American magazines, including the New York Review of Books, Commentary and The New Criterion.

From 1989 to 2005 he was theatre critic for The Sunday Telegraph. Though always mild and generous in his reviews, he did not hesitate to condemn the superficial trendiness of many contemporary plays and productions.

Gross’s other publications include a study of James Joyce in the Modern Masters series (1970) and Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend (1993), which won high praise from John Gielgud, who wrote that he had read it “straight through twice and enjoyed it more than I can say”.

As well as his literary work, Gross served as a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery from 1977 to 1984; was a member of the English Heritage advisory committee on blue plaques; and served on the Arts and Media Committee advising the British government on the award of public honours. He also served as chairman of the judges of the Booker Prize and was a non-executive independent director of Times Newspaper holdings.

John Gross married, in 1965 (dissolved 1988), Miriam May who, as Miriam Gross, also had a long and distinguished career as a literary editor. They had a son, the journalist and international affairs commentator Tom Gross, and a daughter, Susanna, who is books editor of The Mail.


It was when I lived in Manhattan that John Gross became a close friend of mine. He told me shortly after we first met that he believed we were 'cut from the same cloth'. We shared a love of a certain vision of English life, fine (but often obscure) literature and the finer things of life in general. John loved words, art and food. He loved gossip about high society as well and I think he always was a little disappointed by my utter indifference to this pursuit. Now that I look back on those years, I realise that the love we shared for social satire in literature in him fostered a keen delight in real social gossip. I know that he always wished to write a social satire himself but was resigned to the idea that he would remain more of a critic and essayist than a novelist. (As a matter of fact, John felt that the essay deserved far more popularity than it received in contemporary culture!) Furthermore, it is a pity that I was not more conscious of my good fortune in being able to meet some of the most famous 'luminaries' of the literary and social world through John.

John grew up in the East End of London and although it was not 'my London', he was delighted to discover that I actually had lived in Tredegar Square for a year or so when I worked in book publishing. Although he loved New York, he never felt entirely at home there and was happy to move back to England ultimately.

Although I had not known John in his youth and more than one generation separated us, he shared some of his earlier history and memories by taking me to Princeton and Yale to see old friends. The United States had a certain glamour for John and through his eyes, I was able to appreciate it far more than I did before I met him. Frequent dinners at the Plaza, the Westbury and the Carlyle Hotels enriched my own experience of Manhattan. We often met for afternoon tea at one of the better hotels and indeed, when I saw John in London, one of the first things we did together was to meet for tea at Brown's. There was something consciously old-fashioned about John that touched a chord in my own heart and soul. That is not to say that he was 'stuffy' in the least. Humour was a vital element in his personality but he somewhat disliked anything that smacked of coarseness or 'lavatory humour'. (He could appreciate silliness, however and we watched 'Fawlty Towers' together more than once.)

John was a person who enjoyed a very 'rich life of the interior'. His existence was multi-faceted and he confessed that he would have been at home in Victorian society with its repressions and excesses. I think he sometimes viewed himself as a character in an ever-unfolding adventure peppered with literary footnotes. We both shared a love of mystery novels and it was he who introduced me to Donald Westlake, a favourite of mine.

As the literary critic for the New York Times, he would receive huge boxes of books at his flat each week for review and he would be amused by my obvious delight in being allowed to open the boxes for him and then choose whatever books took my fancy.
We spoke often of our delight in first opening a new book... not merely the thrill of embarking upon a new journey in literature but the engagement of all the senses, from the feel of the crisp paper to the faint scent of ink and pulp or whatever makes up the perfume of the printed word when bound. John and I both loved a rather old-fashioned elegance in life... deckled writing paper, for example. (Churston Deckle from University days, not something many students had or even wished to use!)

Oddly enough, I was thinking about John over the weekend, remembering a trip we took to the races at Saratoga Springs. Where do people go after they die? Curiously, in one sense, I feel very close to John at this moment in time, as though the physical distance that separated us in the last decade now no longer signifies.

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