Peter McDonald

Before the Beard

William Empson: Among the Mandarins

By

Oxford University Press 696pp £30 order from our bookshop

In the Bill Brandt portrait which adorns this first volume of a two-part life, William Empson reclines, smoking his pipe and reading a newspaper, looking presentable but somehow unfamiliar. What is missing, of course, is the beard – that great outgrowth from under the jaw-line that seemed to separate the sage’s head from his body, and made its wearer resemble nothing so much as the kind of exotic hermit who might bask half-way up a sacred mountain. Among the Mandarins is Empson before the beard (he was successfully bribed out of an early beard-attempt by his horrified mother); even so, following its subject up to the grand age of thirty-two, the book is a portrait of Empson the sage, the object of admiration and awe for his own generation of literary intellectuals in England.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'It would be nice to think that women will achieve equal pay in my lifetime, rather than to watch gloomily as stati… ,
    • In 1660, two of the signatories of King Charles I's death warrant fled across the Atlantic to New England. But were… ,
    • Howard Jacobson's sixteenth novel is 'a love story of sorts, one characterised not by physical desire or even conta… ,
    • 'The sudden immersion in the new and unfamiliar can lead people to write with a rare lack of self-consciousness' P… ,
    • 'Pools bend the rules. Clothes slip off, skin glistens, consciousness heightens. A dreamlike scenario unfolds' Jam… ,
    • 'Although he surely didn’t know W H Auden’s theory that every high C proclaims human freedom and our capacity to tr… ,
    • RT : With beginning tomorrow, we've uncovered a 1997 article from the archive reviewing 'Golf Dream… ,