RISKY BUSINESS Al Alvarez
Al Alvarez is, famously, the person who befriended Sylvia Plath during her last days, going on to write The Savage God, a study of suicide. Of course, there’s a lot more to the man than that: he’s a poet, champion of other poets, poker player, amateur climber and more – as these essays demonstrate.
Many have appeared earlier in the NYRB, among other publications. And though each one is singularly well-crafted and written, to collect all together is to make the whole a mixed bag that flirts with the theme of "risk taking". Profiles of pianist Alfred Grendel, entrepreneur Torquil Norman and Philip Roth sit side-by-side with Alvarez’s views on Andrew Marvell, and John Berryman (among others) which rub shoulders with thoughts on poker and other risk-taking activities.
A hunt and peck approach, then, is called for to locate pieces of interest – some of which are the profile/interview of Philip Roth, meditations on the genteel state of British poetry, an assessment of Alice Munro and his thoughts on Plath’s biographers. It ends with a rather sweet piece on the Grateful Dead – which, ironically, smacks of the same gentility that Alvarez so abhors in poetry.
Worth your while? Find a bookshop with a comfortable place to sit and you ought to be able to read the pieces of interest without having to buy the whole thing.