Pandora's Handbag: Adventures in the Book World
by Elizabeth Young
Published by Serpent's Tail, 366 pp. £14
The first time I talked to Liz Young, we argued about poetry: the last time, we talked, it was about a book review. There are friends of your heart and friends of your brain, and Liz was, in my life, far more the latter - yet that does not mean that she was not important to me or that I don't resent her death as much as that of any of my other dead friends.
Instead of her, we have Pandora's Handbag, the book she spent her last months assembling, not just a stack of old reviews, but that stack interleaved with enough commentary and hindsight to almost be an intellectual autobiography. It is a good book, full of her precise intelligent tone, but it makes me miss her living voice more than ever.
Liz was highly sceptical, as am I, of that pose of decorum which keeps much reviewing superficially as impersonal as an inter-departmental memorandum. I cannot pretend to separate my considered critical opinion of these pieces out from my memory of Liz whispering chunks of them down the phone in a voice that grew frailer with the years, but never less forceful or intense.
At some point in late 1973, a friend took me to the basement flat Liz shared with her then boyfriend because he thought I needed setting straight about poetry. The Liz of that period was passionately committed to the Black Mountain school - to Charles Olsen and Ed Dorn- and I was far too caught up in writing bad verse that drew on late McNiece and early Gunn. Neither of us was right, but we instantly realized that we liked shouting at each other; Liz valued passionate opinion for its own sake. And she was right enough that I soon stopped writing verse for good.
Once we had met, we never seemed to escape bumping into each other. Our Leeds was a place where the poets dined with the feminists and the feminists went drinking with the Trots and the Trots hung out with the drag queens, where your landlady and your secretary were part of the same CR group. Both of us were friends of the slightly regimented anarchist commune where everyone signed up for duty on the rota-making rota before realizing it was a hoax; Liz always denied it was her that did it, but it was the sort of mischief she loved.
The Liz I met then was also, as she remained, spectacularly beautiful, dark haunted eyes surrounded by elaborate calligraphies peering out from a hennaed fringe. In one of the witty elegiac pieces here, she regrets the loss of that beauty, but for once she was wrong. She lost litheness and youth and health. And yet, it was important to Liz that loss of looks be part of the myth she lived through; she needed that sense of having paid something for wisdom and experience. She was fond of quoting Edith Wharton - 'Take what you want and pay for it.'
It ought not to need saying, but does, that Liz, without ever being any sort of joiner, was always a feminist critic and was always a woman of the Left. She was always too concerned with, well, righteousness, to only be the Goth dandy bad girl that was also a significant part of who she was. When Private Eye's anonymous book people attacked her as a mere groupie of the depraved for defending Dennis Cooper and A.M.Homes' The End of Alice, it was their accusation of lack of seriousness that made her write the indignant rebuttal reprinted here along with the Homes' review. Liz retained enough of the strict Free Presbyterianism of her parents that she insisted on finding lyrical moralism in some of the darkest writing of our time.
That essential seriousness was part of what kept her working during the wild years of her late twenties, when she combined avant-garde bookselling at the much-missed Compendium in Camden Town with her time as a punk groupie and heroin user, and during the last decade of her slow death from cirrhosis. She was that rare thing, a critic who knows life outside the rut and gossip of the literary world; she cared so much about books and the life of the mind because she knew and cared about other things as well.
In many of the pieces here, she talks about self-development through books. It was American literature that kept her sane during the bullying Leavisite miserabilism of the pre-Swinging Sixties "the opportunity enjoyed by adults, shielded by a thin veneer of apparent respectability for indulging in unlimited brutality, knowing there would be no comeback'. It was from books, chosen by herself and hidden from authority that would burn them that she learned to take those things she needed to assemble her adolescent and adult identities; the point though was not to stay with books alone.
Myths are for living with and through; it is not enough to read Huysmans 'A rebours'. You must create your own artificial paradise, scented with Sobranie smoke and patchouli oil, cluttered with books, magazines and glittery tchotchkes. If you are not, in the end, a poet, you can at least be a critic, a critic maudite.
Liz was as good at being a potentially doomed razzle-dazzle party girl as she was at being a critic; her profile of Pamela des Barres, friend and sexual associate of Sixties rock stars, is all the better a piece of writing for its empathy. "She was like flowers or a ribbon or sweeties or a cute cuddly toy; she was for giggles and gossip and fun...' Liz had enough dangerous fun in her time that she had no side to her, no sense of being better than other people.
Liz was enough of a proto-punk, a proto-Goth, that even in the early Seventies, she was fascinated by the darker side of dandyism. She wrote well about contemporary horror - one of the ways we met again after a period of estrangement was that our interest in genre fiction overlapped somewhere around the early career of Poppy Z Brite - and was fascinated by the literature of true crime. Part of that honesty in which her seriousness was rooted even at its most game-playing was her preparedness to own up; she wrote as well about 'low' genres as she did about 'respectable' literature.
Part of what she liked about horror and true crime was that, at their best, they are forms which avoid sentimentality - Poppy Z Brite's rentboys and vampires dance around foggy New Orleans a deal less lugubriously than Anne Rice's. Liz was not overfond of writing the killer review, but, if mawkish emotion and crudely moralistic plotting set her teeth on edge, she could be very rude indeed. 'Turtle Moon ...is a novel for those who dot their 'i's with flowers, who communicate by greeting-card...and cherish their inner child'
More usually, though, she avoided as much as she could writing about books she did not respect; though the wealth of material here is less than half of her journalistic output, she was not a reviewer to whom all literary editors automatically turned. Her critical sympathies were broad but unpredictable; though very far from being a professional Scot, she was keen on the younger Scots novelists. Given his subject matter, Irvine Welsh might have been expected, but she was equally fond of Alan Warner -'No male writer has ever mastered the rituals of makeup in the way Warner has'- and Alasdair Gray. She combined fondness for gloomy writers like Will Self with high praise of the technical mastery of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. She was a complete critic because she was a broad-minded one.
Some of the best pieces here, though, are not reviews - they are essays about cats, or fragments of memoir, or authoritative accounts of the state of the short story. Liz simply wrote well - her handful of short stories were excellent and there are years worth of journals sitting in a box somewhere.
As Will Self points out in his excellent memoir/introduction, Liz had strong views about the things that were killing her - the medical profession's neglect of the Hepatitis C epidemic from which her cirrhosis derived and the folly of a War on Drugs that was always mostly a war on drug users. Her articles, from her last years, on these topics show us a different Liz, one less concerned with elegant dandyism and distinctly out of love with Amerika; she did fancy better than anyone, but she could also write plain, clean and angry.
The thing that distressed Liz most about her last illness was the fear that her mind might go and she would not get it back, even if the last minute reprieve of a transplant came in time, as, in the event, it did not. 'Oh,' I was able to say to her on the phone.' Inga Clendinnen has a new book about getting her mind back after the surgery' (I had reviewed it in the NS, interested in it partly because of Liz) and send her my copy to read. What consoles at the end, what remains of us, is sometimes just books, and chatter about books.