While Griffiths’s lectures can be chatty, they are also uncompromisingly erudite. Moving between European languages was one of his specialities; like T.S. Eliot, whom he often quotes admiringly, he assumes all European literature of the last seven centuries is accessible to his audience. This makes the lectures challenging, but it also flattered the intellect of his listeners. Five of the ten lectures collected here are concerned with non-English writers (Rabelais, Dante, Racine, Kafka and Levi), each of them quoted extensively in their original language (though Griffiths provided his own translations). He does close readings of lines from Racine and Corneille, and confidently analyses Proust’s diction. In a conventional academic book, this might feel presumptuous. In a lecture, where everything is about holding one example up to the light, and flitting to the next example, it feels generous and exhilarating. The undergraduate audience is prodded and teased as well as flattered. Griffiths loves parodying ‘modern’ views of the past, including, implicitly, the assumptions of some of his own listeners.
Eric Griffiths used to deliver his lectures quickly, but I suggest you read them slowly. The 10 collected here in If Not Critical about some of the writers closest to his heart – Dante, Shakespeare, Racine, Primo Levi, Samuel Beckett – are richly textured, crammed with insight and often very funny. For anyone interested in how literature works, and why it matters, they are vital reading... What distinguished him was his adherence to two principles. First, literature can teach us how to lead better lives, or at least point out where we are going wrong. Second, getting things right really matters. Game-playing insouciance is common at Oxbridge, but he cared deeply about what he was saying... He kept a sign in his rooms for students who asked stupid questions: "How the f---should I know?" But if you asked a simple question – what should I read on x, who should I listen to performing y – he was always ready with a response. These lectures show that generous spirit in full flow. We can only hope there are more volumes to come.
Johnston, a former student, has gathered a fittingly eclectic selection of ten of his lectures, ranging from Dante to Rabelais and Eliot (T. S.) to Swift. Perhaps the best of them is “A rehearsal of Hamlet”, in which Griffiths reminds his audience that Hamlet has the stage to himself “for fewer than 200 of the play’s 3,900 lines”. His account is finely tuned to dialogue and audience, grounded in the moment, aware of how the play is “crowded, maybe overcrowded, with individuals in pitilessly nervy relation to each other, entangled in backchat, constantly looking out of the corners of their eyes at those around them”...From a purely scholarly point of view, some of the lectures suffer from having been written in the pre-internet age. Thus a quick search of Early English Books Online vitiates the claim that Macbeth was making up the names of the dogs in his list of shoughs, water-rugs and demi-wolves, while a lecturer today would not find himself saying “I haven’t been able to find out who Herlitzka was” (Amedeo Herlitzka, a Turin physiologist who influenced Primo Levi’s father). Nor is Griffiths exactly a writer for the #MeToo age: his analysis of Theseus and Hippolyta’s marriage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is astute but unfortunately phrased: “The ‘illocutionary force’ of his opening lines is, I would say, that of a hand placed invitingly on a knee”. So too, “pert” feels wrong as a descriptor for an essay by Barbara Everett. It did, however, make me think that “tart” would be the right descriptor for the lecturing style of Eric Griffiths. And I mean that as a compliment.