I once walked into a branch of Waterstone’s in search of a copy of The Savage God, Al Alvarez’s book on suicide. I was directed to the self-help section. Maybe the sales assistant genuinely thought I would find it there, maybe she thought I needed the sort of help that only a copy of The Dark Side of the Light Chasers: Reclaiming Your Power, Creativity, Brilliance and Dreams can provide. Either way, I left the shop empty-handed. But this incident sums Alvarez up both as a writer and as a man – he’s hard to place. His collected essays illustrate this quality perfectly. He’s as happy writing about poker or polar exploration as he is about poetry – it is risk, of any kind, that interests him, and this is the thread that binds together his new collection. As Alvarez puts it, ‘Risk concentrates the mind, sharpens the senses and, in every way, makes life sweeter by putting it, however briefly, in doubt.’ His essays on poker-players and explorers tend to bear this out, the essays on writers less so.
Alvarez is particularly good at writing about writing. He doesn’t romanticise it overly, seeing it as ‘another sedentary, middle-class profession, like psychoanalysis but far more lonely’. And, as befits the author of a book about suicide, he has an affinity with those writers who fall by the wayside. When he