A who?

Where Did It All Go Right?: An autobiography

A Alvarez<em> Richard Cohen Books, 344pp, £20</em>

It seems incredible now that I once interviewed A Alvarez for the glamourpuss Atticus column at Harold Evans' Sunday Times; and no one raised an eyebrow. Nowadays editors would look blankly ("A who?") because he is the last of a breed. He is a man of letters. Not quite a scholar and not quite a journalist, his place in the pantheon of public esteem has been taken by minor TV celebrities. Today I would be interviewing Tania Bryer instead.

Pipe-smoking, but somehow on the edge, Alvarez was the poetry critic at the Observer with off-duty Hemingway tendencies to poker, mountaineering and fast cars. A bit of a poet and a bit less of a novelist, he is best known for trying to commit suicide and writing The Savage God, a celebrated study of that whole dark subject. Perhaps surprisingly, he has now reached the grand old age of 70 and written an autobiography describing his long road to utter contentment, which explains the seemingly complacent title of the book and why it falls away badly in the second half.

After 30 years The Savage God is still in print and Alvarez writes his memoirs as if everybody still knows who he is. In 338 pages he tells us about his Jewish family, hopeless parents, life at Oundle, transformation from weakling to dangerous sports enthusiast, Oxford days, impecunious reviewing career and assorted love affairs. What stops this being the club-room ramblings of a senior contributor is that they are expertly written with irony and humour.

This is the self-deprecating story of a man who turned down a safe job in the family firm to earn a precarious living by the pen. In part one, everything turns to ashes. Seafaring in the manner of Conrad ended after one voyage amid serious seasickness. He arrived at the boat in tweed jacket and spotless, cream-coloured corduroys. "The stoker was a tiny, muscular Scot, shirtless, sweating and black with dust. He squinted at me through the gloom and said 'Fuck me!' But by then I was getting used to the effect I had on strangers."

At Oxford he discovered that the world of learning was sham. After ten years as a poetry critic he conceived "a contempt for the whole critical enterprise" and set out to be a proper writer of books.

He is a particularly skilled anecdotalist. Referring to somebody's grandfather, who had married a 22-year-old woman, Alvarez writes: "He was 86 at the time and his memory was not good. He used to confide to his son - also an admiral - that he simply couldn't imagine who this beautiful young woman was who climbed into bed with him every night. But he didn't like to ask in case she went away." This is perfectly told and wholly characteristic.

The greatest fault in this autobiography 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. Surprisingly his own suicide attempt is dealt with in a single sentence, explaining that he has already written about it in The Savage God. He is either too modest or too mellow to repeat it, but this book cries out for a description, not a cross-reference. Instead he launches into a lengthy account of his controversial introduction to The New Poetry anthology, which became a set book in schools.

He is also frustratingly silent on his bizarre first marriage. When younger he was so horribly influenced by D H Lawrence that he went to New Mexico to live the life Lawrencian. There he met and married Lawrence's granddaughter after only seven weeks' acquaintance. He deals with the meeting, their son and the collapse of their four-year marriage in just two paragraphs.

The greatest virtue of this book lies in the vivid pen portraits he gives of the leading poets of the second half of the 20th century. He draws together a few disparate details to conjure a full sense of the person. Into this he weaves trenchant and trustworthy judgements on their writing and character. The poet John Wain, for example, was "a man without much modesty who sincerely believed he was a great genius and would tolerate no one he couldn't patronise".

He recounts two fascinating visits to Ezra Pound in a hospital for the criminally insane. In the first Pound conversed wittily upon modern poetry. In the second he was holding a secret and deranged political meeting to warn other inmates about the communist practice of filling the air with hysteria-inducing drugs.

Alvarez is particularly good on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He had a ringside seat because Hughes fled to our man's spare room when he left Sylvia. She herself was a close friend who read her last despairing poems to him at their final meeting, which is powerfully described here.

In part two this often entertaining book fizzles out as he becomes contented. He works for William Shawn's New Yorker, where he finds writing pleasurable for the first time. He gets happily married and delights in his family. He describes his many friends, his poker and his mountaineering. Repetition starts to appear and the narrative peters out with the rather flat conclusion that happiness has stopped him writing as much as he should.

This volume is published by Richard Cohen Books. Cohen is one of the last old-style editors and actually reads the books he publishes. This whole thing is like visiting a rare breeds farm.