Lately, I’ve been reading an English version of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (c.1308–21). The translation is by Sean O’Brien and the annotations to my copy are by Eric Griffiths, its original owner and an old tutor of mine. He’d been reviewing it for the Guardian (9 December 2006). For the most part, Eric’s notes are marginal comments and quibbles, with some longer phrases at the head or foot of a page. Each word, leaning gently leftward, has been set down with a medium-hard pencil; the marks look swift, there are few crossings-out, and the words are cramped tightly enough to be, quite often, hard to read.
Eric went, as he once said of Dante, ‘we know not where’, at the end of September 2018. Enough has been said about him; the obituaries have covered his 30-year teaching career at Cambridge, his treatment of those who were lazy or arrogant or vague, his penchant for Armani and gin and things more illicit still. (In 2010, he said he couldn’t remember the 1980s.) His sense of humour was brutally democratic. He told a contemporary that her essay was ‘like Iraq: I had to get out as quickly as I could’; he told A.S. Byatt that Possession (1990) was ‘the sort of novel I’d write if I didn’t know that I can’t write novels’. One of the sharpest marginal quips in O’Brien’s Dante – unused in the Guardian review – appears next to Canto XXIV, line 45: ‘I sat down where I was’. Tartly, in pencil: ‘where else cd he have sat down’.
When he taught me one-on-one, Eric said several times that he aimed to instil ‘a little Eric on your shoulder’, so that nothing could be written without his corrosive application of doubt. He wasn’t hypocritical, in this or much else: his own sentences were formidable things. He created rhythmic patterns that sounded, in your mind or on his voice, both adamantine and feline at once. I still have a dissertation draft that he marked, the only such one before his 2011 stroke deprived him of his speech and ended his career. The piece ran to twelve sides of A4 and 6,000 words; Eric found three things worth keeping. (One of them became the basis of a new dissertation, which eventually became my PhD.) Back in 2010, ‘don’t write like a dead lawyer’ was a comment I often received. He was never wrong, only cruel. He had a way of saying ‘Oh, really?’ – head dipped, eyebrows arched, vicious smile. (That phrase is pencilled on the draft more than once.)
Among Eric’s annotations to O’Brien’s Dante are several corrections that may look minor, but point out all the difference in the world. In Canto IX, when the angel descends to open the gate of Dis, O’Brien renders its opening address – O cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta – as ‘Expelled from Heaven, despised by God’. With the pithy ‘not in D’, two understrokes and a raggy star, Eric marks the theological absurdity that O’Brien invents – not ‘by God’, since He is literally Love – while noting, with a slender ‘cacciati’ beside ‘Expelled’, how a false equation has been made between this and being ‘despised by God’, as if these poor figures were doubly abused. In fact, Dante’s ‘del ciel’ wraps theological time and space into one preposition, describing the figures both as ‘expelled from Heaven’ and ‘outcasts of Heaven’, currently lost but still belonging – and apt for redemption in God’s own good time.
Or, I may be wrong. To read someone’s handwritten notes is to attempt the retrieval, uncertain and patchy, of a lost human voice. If Eric taught you, his voice tends to haunt your thoughts: funny, cajoling and sharp. It exists around your shoulder, audible when you open not only his slender print oeuvre but, occasionally, in a smaller, sweeter pleasure: a text he marked up. As he wrote in his only book-length study, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (1989): ‘Print does not give conclusive evidence of a voice; this raises doubts about what we hear in writing but also gives an essential pleasure of reading, for as we meet the demands a text makes on us for our voices, we are engaged in an activity of imagination which is delicately and thoroughly reciprocal.’
Eric had no time for those who lacked imagination; they could hear but wouldn’t listen. This was an ethical matter. Reading Dante, he said: ‘You have to respond to what people do to each other, how they move around one another, how they listen or fail to listen to one another, as well as to what they say. Just like Shakespeare, really.’ Or, really, life.
Two years ago, I was finishing that PhD at Cambridge and teaching students myself, when I went to a college meeting in which someone suggested that we keep our marginalia on students’ essays to ‘positive things’, in order to ‘avoid humiliating them’. I couldn’t have lasted longer in such a world; that’s no special loss, but nor, I think, could Eric. He was a superlative teacher for whom attrition was central to education and (besides) something he just found interesting – although ‘interesting’ was a word he did not. (He happens to you in the middle of sentences.)
A friend of mine, chasing a post-doc despite himself, believes that ‘the most interesting work in the humanities over the next 20 years won’t come out of the universities’. I also think that may be true: not because many new scholars are off in pursuit of abstract grievances, but because what they practise isn’t reading so much as self-confirmation. Criticism is a matter of uncertainty, double-mindedness and futile manoeuvres, and those are becoming harder to package and sell. They are also the things that should, that have to matter most. ‘Predictability,’ Eric once wrote, ‘is not the only desideratum, either in poetry or the world.’ I owe an enthusiasm for writing, and its difficulties, to him.
First published in Issue 200