I have recently discovered a bizarre, and rather entertaining, book. It is a work of literary criticism entitled flatly: Ms Symington’s Literary Criticism. It is a compendium of Mavis Symington’s work from 1947 to 2006. Included in this edition was a foreword by Jessie Turnpike in which Turnpike says “Mavis can say in a few words, what takes many authors a lifetime. It is for this reason she is immensely important and deeply unpopular.”
The book then delivers a lifetime of these words. From the essay she wrote at school in the late 40s on Nicholas Turberry’s ‘Pages of our Era’, itself a work of literary criticism, to the last piece she wrote on the writings of the controversial taxidermist and literary critic Earnest Templeton.
As someone unfamiliar with Mavis Symington it was startling to discover that her entire career consisted of critiquing other literary critics. The following gives you a flavour of Symington’s distinctive style:
“He compares her work to that of ‘a sinewy octopus, languorously extending his tendrils, absentmindedly and yet with great vigour.’ The only languorous tendrils are those of Mr Coates himself, who displays a distasteful and decidedly unchristian preoccupation with the idiosyncrasies of elasticated waistbands.”
“What strikes you about Herman is how little he strikes you. It doesn’t matter how much he describes ‘striking prose’ all he manages himself is a prod or perhaps the concerned nudge of a constipated vicar in a cable car, far above his parish, and indeed his sensibilities.”
“Moira is a close and trusted friend. She writes about the work of a close and trusted friend of hers, namely Lindsay Brown. I am not a close or trusted friend of Ms Brown’s. I think overfamiliarity with the author clouds her criticism. But then I love Moira dearly and perhaps it is my overfamiliarity with her that is clouding my judgement of her criticism. Ms Brown always struck me as a sycophantic and lazily undefined sea creature, listlessly wheezing and lurching from one seabed to another. And yet that metaphor seems terribly indecent now I read it back. I fear I have been reading too much of Mr Coates.”
Symington is an oddly selfconscious character who seems often to be critiquing her own critiques of other critics. It can be a stifling experience. At worst knowing, arch and conceited, at best hilarious, knowing, arch and conceited.
The collection’s penultimate piece is a work of literary criticism about one of her contemporaries Claude MacDonald, specifically a work of MacDonald’s literary criticism entitled “Ms Symington: with fear and trembling and no small amount of loathing”. Symington critiques MacDonald’s critique of her critiques of other writer’s critiques. The following is an excerpt:
“The meaning of the original piece, an allegory about a group of literary critics critiquing God, is apparently lost on me, the critic Mr Hardie and the original author him or herself (the authorship of this piece is one of the great literary mysteries, although some scurrilous souls have suggested it is I). This is obviously a pile of shit.”
It’s hard to say if I would recommend this book. It requires a stern outlook from the unsuspecting reader. The book jacket accosts you as the reader, critiquing your approach to the book. In a few short lines she has assaulted your posture, demeanor and character. Her writing was well ahead of its time, and may yet be still too far ahead. From what I have gathered online she is a notoriously hard writer to review, laying traps for the ungainly critic. Anticipating every twist and turn.
And so it is to my mind, that the most interesting piece is the afterword where she critiques this blog post.
“Tiresome, and languid, sets itself up to be literary criticism and fails massively. Like an octopus self immolating, but underwater, so pathetically as well as tragically…”