Writer As Liar – My Debt To Guido Almansi

I had a shock a few months ago in a discussion with a poetry tutor. She told me that in her time at university as an undergraduate, what was taught was in strict adherence to the classic post-Leavis canon of English literature. As she is a bit younger than me, it was an eye-opener to hear such a tale of enforced orthodoxy, but it did ring true when I cast my mind to life back then in the 1970s.

In my final year of study, I frequently visited my then girlfriend (now wife) at her university. She was at Edinburgh studying German and I was at the UEA in Norwich studying Comparative Literature with German, and in that area where our studies overlapped, the two curricula were quite different.

The Edinburgh course was soundly anchored on the foundation of Mittelhochdeutsch and classical German literature. The UEA course, on the other hand, had offered the gateways of genre and literary/aesthetic movements into the German literary canon: in my case leading to finals papers in Tragedy and Modernism respectively: so these offered not only Goethe and Lessing, but also Brecht, Wedekind and Peter Weiß, and Musil, Rilke, Grass and Kafka. So it is and was hard to judge between the two – but they were certainly different.

The UEA also offered a German faculty that included W.G. Sebald, at that time not a published novelist (I knew him slightly as “Max” and he recommended several good Bavarian beers to me).  Indeed, in each area of my studies, the UEA had appeared to have gone out of its way to attract new voices into its faculty, with the other part of Comparative Literature in English and American Studies including Malcolm Bradbury. It was known that lots of his colleagues tried to identify themselves as Howard “History Man” Kirk, although to me, it seems like he was a composite: one man’s SWP politics mixed with another’s womanising and so on…

But for me the academic personality who summed up the spirit of the Comp Lit Sector (pointedly, not a department) was the new Professor who joined as my second year started, announced by one of the tutors as “an amazing character” (which indeed he was) – Guido Almansi, previously of Glasgow, Kent and Dublin Universities, rotund, full of joie de vivre, expansive, unorthodox and indeed iconoclastic.

I took several of his courses.  His subjects included the erotic novel and nonsense literature. Set books included Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, Edward Lear, Nabokov, Christian Morgenstern, Phillip Roth, Raymond Queneau, James Joyce, Leonard Cohen and Samuel Beckett.  He railed against the humourlessness of D.H. Lawrence and challenged his students: “I am teaching you about literature that literally sets out to mean nothing – this goes against everything you have been taught in high school.”

The lesson for us was that in literature no subject is out of bounds, from literally nonsense right through to the obscene and transgressive. Here is what he has to say on that subject in one of his remaining critical works:

“Havelock Ellis…always mainitained … that great literary masterpieces deal openly and objectively with sexual issues. Probably he has a different list of literary master pieces than I do, for mine would include….” [Guido then goes on to list a string of what he accurately describes as “the most unusual and remarkable sexual excesses.”}

For what Guido really hated, and he makes it clear in the same critical work, and is the difference between the erotic and the pornographic, was writing that was boring.

Writing on Boccaccio, he says: “Fortunately, Boccaccio is not monotonous, for when he is obscene, he has the courage of his own obscenity.”

The name of the work on Boccaccio is also a great signal to Guido’s aesthetic:  The Writer As Liar. It is a remarkable book, which takes on centuries of Boccaccio studies head on, starting with references to Dante and rapidly bringing us to Winnie The Pooh and conventions of narrative voices.

The message is to use words to create what you want, to defy the truth, to defy convention and decency –  but don’t be dull whatever you do. For Almansi, Henry Miller at his best had passed the test, while D.H. Lawrence had failed and betrayed what he had set out to champion.

To me as a willing but naïve undergraduate from a very unliterary background, he was generous and helpful. He praised my translation of a poem by Morgenstern and said he would credit me if he used it in a book (I never knew if he did.) He stopped me in the Comp Lit Sector corridor one day and told me how interested he had been in the ideas in my essay. He never marked me down for references to beat poets, popular culture or rock and roll lyrics – as long as they were relevant and interesting.

He was just as generous with his social life. As a genuine bon viveur, he held great parties for all his students, where he served huge bowls of pasta and lots of good Italian wine. He also made a big deal of real Parmesan cheese, in two ways: he insisted that he had to bring it back in his suitcase every time he came back from Italy, this being Norwich in 1975; and he always invited the prettiest female students to the kitchen to help him by grating it. It was dodgy, but in character.

After the UEA, Guido went back to Italy, and became the Literary Editor of La Repubblica and in that capacity I saw him pop up on the old Late Review show, I think explaining his preference for Jay MacInerney over Brett Easton Ellis. Some of his articles are now online, notably an a review of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and an interview with Edward Said on his seminal Orientalism in the Literary Review  (paywall)

Guido Almansi died in 2001, aged 70, in Ticino, the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland. His literary interests were vast, his intellectual curiosity was even bigger, and his appetite for life was bigger still. He made me the reader I am today, for which I will always be in his debt. If I can write something he would have liked, so much the better. And I will try not to be boring.

Thanks Guido. And that’s not a word of a lie.

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