Bloom is America’s best-read man. Now nearing 71, he is still the country’s
leading literary critic and, in his 46th year of teaching at Yale University,
it seems as if he has the entire Western canon committed to memory.
is considered the world’s chief authority on Shakespeare; he can quote
from any Shakespeare play, and frequently does. He can also riff on Raskolnikov,
Rousseau or Ralph Ellison. However, as he sits in his classroom clutching
a copy of the day’s subject, As You Like It, he cannot for the life
of him give me directions to his house, just two miles from the sunny New
Haven campus, where we are to have tea later this afternoon.
the street?” he mutters, rolling his huge racoon eyes, hidden under the
blackest of brows. He shrugs: “My child, it’s no good, I cannot remember.”
Street?” prompts a helpful student.
yes, Church Street,” cries Bloom. “There you will park in front of my house,
which is . . . oh, what colour is my house? Is it grey or brown?
I forget. Oh yes, it’s shingle. Shingle! Well anyway, forgive me for not
rising but I cannot. I have pulled every muscle in my back and I am in
some hell. I am loaded with painkillers but my love for Rosalind will carry
me through this afternoon. My child, I have a very great passion for Rosalind.”
what fun to be transported back to college on this late autumn afternoon,
to have the privilege of listening to Bloom as he dissects the Shakespeare
comedy. His students think so, too. Such is his reputation, both as a first-class
teacher and celebrity academic, that Bloom can handpick his students from
a long list of supplicants. Each Wednesday afternoon, the chosen few arrive,
at least 30 minutes early, to ensure a seat at “the table”.
is the rush that those who arrive merely on time find themselves sitting
on the floor.
had every literary ability but he could not make up plots,” Bloom begins,
and then he’s off. Antony and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, King
Lear. What follows is less a discussion of one play than an intellectual
romp through Shakespeareland, where Bloom appears personally acquainted
with every single character. Back pain or no, his enthusiasm intoxicates,
as he moves from Rosalind to Falstaff to Hamlet as others might mention
remember sitting and brooding one day, when I suddenly realised — could
it be — that Edmund and Lear never address a word to each other? Not a
single word! A startling ellipsis on the author’s part, as I am sure you
girl sitting next to me reaches for her pen. “Startling ellipsis!” she
writes and underlines it twice.
is tempted to say that Bloom is wasted on his students. Heads bowed, they
sit frantically jotting notes and quaking whenever he asks a question.
I’ve never seen an intelligent discussion on this, why is there no dramatic
irony in this play?” No one answers. “Perhaps the question is too difficult,”
he eventually pants into the silence, until one brave man offers a reply.
are talking wisely but it is not what I am asking,” cries Bloom, snatching
back the intellectual baton once more. Half an hour later he tries again,
with a question about Rosalind’s wit. This time a female student gropes
toward an answer. “Beautiful,” he shouts, beaming. “Beautiful, go on, go
on.” The girl blushes with pleasure.
the two-hour seminar, we set off to the house Bloom has lived in for more
than 40 years. With his huge Falstaffian belly framed by red braces, he
does not appear to walk, and he refuses to drive, so his research assistants
have organised a daily car-pool to ferry him to and from campus. He used
to drive, he says, but stopped after he went shopping one day and returned
without the car. When his wife asked where it was, he realised he had forgotten
it. He found it later, where he had parked it: “But I had left the door
open and the engine was running.”
the lift has not turned up, so we all drive back together, and as we draw
up outside the unmistakably brown house, Bloom peers at it as if for the
first time. It is here, among his 30,000 books, that he has produced his
own considerable canon, including The Anxiety of Influence, The
Western Canon and the more recent Shakespeare: The Invention of
funny,” he says, stumbling out of the front seat. “I could have sworn my
house was grey. Now lock the car tight, my dears, for this is a lawless
Bloom — or “Jeanie bear” as her husband calls her — greets us with sherry
and, anticipating the photographer, a large comb, which she waves in the
direction of Harold’s fluffy crown. “What a huge comb,” he exclaims. “But
be warned Madam Bloom, I have already been photographed in the classroom.”
attempts to untangle his fringe until he fends her off: “Thank you, wife,
thank you, wife . . . ” And, clasping his back, he releases a long, low
are here to discuss his latest book, How to Read and Why. To the
exasperation of several prominent critics, who panned it as no more than
a guide to literature’s greatest hits, the book has proved massively popular
with the public, shooting up the bestseller lists. On his publicity tour
around the country Bloom became a hero, mobbed by fans thanking him for
making reading fun again. Appalled by the political correctness that has
claimed the American campus over the past 40 years, Bloom remains a defiant,
if lonely, Romantic, railing at those who have redefined English Lit as
“cultural studies”. His curriculum is unfashionably traditional: Shakespeare,
Shelley, Dickens, Hemingway. “I am not a proponent of Eskimo lesbian fiction,”
lays out his literary catechism in the book’s introduction: “Reading is
the most healing of pleasures. We read not only because we cannot know
enough people, but because friendship is so vulnerable, so likely to diminish
or disappear, overcome by space, time, imperfect sympathies and all the
sorrows of familial and passional life.”
sounds as if he is recommending reading as a substitute for life, I suggest.
“Ahh,” he says, nursing his sherry and sinking deep into the sofa, which
is already crowded with teddy bears. “There was a time when Western society
had conceptual modes that hadn’t worn themselves out. Religion, philosophy,
politics — as back in Hellenistic Alexandria, what I would call the first
literary culture. Well, I think we are in Alexandria again. The question
then becomes, what heals violence in a society such as ours?
you can look at the best that has been written and the best that has been
thought, then I think, potentially, violence can be healed.” He takes a
gulp of sherry. “I will give you an instance of a book that is going to
be as healing as any to America, with its current gun madness: Blood
Meridian [by Cormac McCarthy]. It’s the authentic apocalyptic novel;
it is the ultimate western, not to be surpassed.” (As a measure of Bloom’s
influence, after he recommended the book on television last summer, sales
promptly increased fivefold.)
to Read and Why was published in Britain this autumn to wildly mixed
reviews. The novelists John Banville and Peter Ackroyd wrote favourably,
but rival academics were less enthusiastic. Several remarked that Bloom
had lost his bloom. “Oh, there were some very vicious reviews,” he mutters.
I suspect this is a reference to Terry Eagleton, Oxford’s celebrated Marxist
critic, who sneered that “Bloom may idolise Shakespeare with all the sticky
sentiment of a teenage groupie but his own language can be as cheap and
threadbare as Jimmy Swaggart’s”.
wretched Eagleton,” snaps Bloom. “The man can’t read or write, he is nothing
but a pompom. He is wretched, he is not even to be pitied, but to be held
in total contempt.” The ferocity of this comment hangs in the air, and
we both reach for our glasses. “I loathe what I call his school of resentment
or, as I once called them, the rabblement of lemmings, rushing down to
the sea. Marxists? Ha! They are a very strange blend of pseudo Frenchy
British critics do not currently impress him, then what about contemporary
British writers, I ask? He pauses and shakes his frill of white hair slowly,
as if unable to think of any.
best living English poet now permanently lives in the Boston area — Geoffrey
Hill. He is a very rugged and powerful writer. But he has put himself in
exile from Great Britain.”
about novelists, I try? He shrugs. “Since the death of Iris Murdoch, there
doesn’t seem to me to be a first-class English novelist.” There is another
pause, before I offer up the obvious suspects: Martin Amis, Julian Barnes,
get very little from them, very little. They’re not . . . Well, I have
great trouble remembering any of their books after I have read them.” There
must be somebody, I persist. He peers into his sherry, which is empty,
and then volunteers: “Antonia Byatt, she’s not bad, she’s not quite Murdoch
but she’s always interesting. And I rather like what I’ve read by Will
pause, while he holds out his glass for a top-up. What about Salman Rushdie,
I suggest? “I have read all his books, I didn’t like The Moor’s Last
Sigh. I like Midnight’s Children, but that was a long time ago.
Satanic Verses had some good passages but much of it was kitsch. No,
I am not persuaded by Rushdie.”
Atwood, this year’s Booker winner? “I’m glad you’ve brought her up. Some
of her work is very good. But there is a very good poet in Canada, Anne
Carson; she is the largest manifestation of a radically original poet of
great value that has come along in a very long time.”
who grew up in New York’s Bronx and taught himself to read Yiddish at the
age of three, Hebrew at four and English aged five, is known for rereading
texts obsessively. He once remarked that he read The Pickwick Papers
at least twice a year, “wearing out several copies in the process”. Who
among today’s American writers will be re-read in 100 years time?
don’t know if I would vote for Cormac McCarthy as the greatest living American
writer, I don’t think his total achievement matches Thomas Pynchon or Philip
Roth or Don DeLillo. But Blood Meridian is like Moby Dick,
you know, lightning strikes only once in a lifetime. What these writers
keep revealing is that this is an extraordinary country.
dark thing to say is that America is morally very confused, hedonistic,
selfish and perhaps depraved. On the other hand, each time you go to New
York (Bloom also teaches at New York University on alternate weeks) there
is still an extraordinary vitality.
alive in a way that London or Rome or Paris or Madrid are not. There is
a kind of energy with an idealistic edge to it. The American dream may
be over but there is still some sense of goodwill, an inchoate longing
that absolutely everyone, no matter what their background, has as much
right as anyone else to every educational opportunity, and to make everything
they can out of themselves without anyone interfering.”
sounds almost like a stump speech, and I wonder what he makes of the current
political brouhaha and the presidential candidates? “Al Gore has destroyed
himself, he’s a plastic man, always changing identities,” he says.
as for George W., the great executioner! He has never pardoned anyone,
you know. But he’s not unique. We are a very violent country, guns are
so accessible, I mean, all these nuts walking into schools . . .
far as I can tell, George W. is a functional illiterate. He said he hasn’t
finished a book since leaving Yale and he didn’t remember finishing any
there. That’s the next President of the United States for you! But people
aren’t commended for their learning any more. We survived the first George
Bush, we can survive another, but it’s all very sad. Another sherry?”
afternoon light is fading and Jeanie bear is hovering to remind Bloom that
he has a dinner to attend, in honour of Seamus Heaney. “Ah, famous Seamus,”
we leave the warm sitting room, with its bookshelves and harpsichord and
stuffed penguin sitting on top of the piano, he clutches his back again
and lets out another moan. Does he think much about getting older, about
— dare I whisper it — retiring?
I have been here half a century, ever since my undergraduate days,” he
roars cheerfully. “They shall have to carry me out of my classroom in a
great big body bag.”
to Read and Why, by Harold Bloom is published by Fourth Estate, £15.99.