Goodnight and good luck to Karl Miller, who passed away last week. The calling of literature, the love of writing and ideas, the encouragement and improvement of writers – none of these could have wished for a better friend than Miller.
In an obituary for the Guardian John Sutherland – who succeeded Miller as Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London – hailed him as ‘the greatest literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever.’ Leo Robson in the New Statesman paid tribute to ‘the most influential British literary editor since the Second World War.’ For the Herald Alan Taylor made special and close reference to Scotland’s hold on Miller’s imagination and affection. Miller’s great friend Andrew O’Hagan told the Guardian’s Alison Flood that he was ‘perhaps the last of the great Bloomsbury men … Of course, there are brilliant writers and editors now, but they live in a world where the squeeze on literary values and on books programmes, on high culture and carefulness, is fearsome and degrading. Karl Miller worked in spite of the market, and he enriched the intellectual life of the country in a thousand ways.’
All of the obits trace Miller’s journey from Ayrshire to Downing College, Cambridge, where he was taught by Leavis, and proceeded to a luminous succession of literary editorships: the Spectator, the New Statesman, the Listener, then – concurrent with his time at UCL – the co-founding of the London Review of Books. The high esteem and affection given to Miller by so many who were taught by him or edited by him is an irreducible mark of a life well spent.
For your correspondent, meanwhile, to have known Miller on the page was quite sufficient to venerate him. Though his published works come second in remembrances of him, I must say that my own case of Miller fandom derives from having discovered his Doubles: Studies in Literary History in paperback during the 1980s and fallen upon it with the particular swoon of one who feels that a book has been written for him and him alone.
Doubles is now offered, we are proud to say, as a Faber Find. Likewise Cockburn’s Millennium (1975), Miller’s great study of the Scottish judge, orator, historian and Whig, winner of the James Tait Black memorial prize. We also offer Miller’s two volumes of memoir, Rebecca’s Vest and Dark Horses; and the essay collection he edited entitled Memoirs of a Modern Scotland, with contributors including Tom Nairn, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney and Stuart Hood.
You can see Karl Miller’s influence in the Finds list without having to look too far. As Leo Robson notes, two of his favoured contributors at the New Statesman were Brigid Brophy, a dozen of whose titles we now offer, and the jazz critic ‘Francis Newton’ (Eric Hobsbawm), whose collected works are forthcoming. Emma Tennant’s Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde is also a Find, and is dedicated to Miller. The last time I was in Miller’s company was when he kindly attended a little reissue drinks that we threw for Emma in Notting Hill. Emma, though born in London, was the eldest daughter of the second Baron Glenconner and spent much of her childhood at the family seat of Glen House, a neo-Gothic baronial castle in Peeblesshire. When I asked Emma why she dedicated her novel to Karl she told me this:
Karl very kindly gave me huge encouragement from the beginning and had a tremendous input into everything I did, particularly to do with Scotland and ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, which is the Scottish thing to be suffering from. I think Karl’s work and his obsession with the double completely set me off – because it was so much what you wanted to read about, and you felt that no-one had quite talked about before. The theme felt very Scottish, and Karl kept on saying to me that that was what I must remember I was…
Ah, that ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ – what G. Gregory Smith, in his Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), calls ‘a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability.’ Shall we remember Miller, then, as a great Scot as well as a grand panjandrum of literary London? Seems fair enough, as he could be both things simultaneously. One of the nicest moments in Leo Robson’s obituary is when Mark Lawson recalls his experience as a UCL undergraduate of attending Miller’s lectures and routinely hearing ‘what we assumed was a running gag that all writers were really Scots. After hearing him lecture on the influence of Burns on Robert Lowell, we got him the next week on Chekhov and he began: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it may not surprise you that my theme today is Chekhov as a fundamentally’ (long pause) ‘Caledonian writer…’’