It is odd that Pater is not better known nowadays and that no biography of him has been attempted for 70 years, because...

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THE CASE OF WALTER PATER

It is odd that Pater is not better known nowadays and that no biography of him has been attempted for 70 years, because ""the very things for which Pater had pre-eminently stood,"" as Michael Levey says, belong thoroughly to the modernist temper: ""the cult of beauty in everything, the pursuit of pleasure, a taste for the bizarre."" Levey, the director of London's National Gallery, intends his slim biography to redress this neglect--which followed earlier reproach--by presenting ""the case for Pater."" This case develops through a critical narrative of Pater's lonely and fearful childhood; his school years, which brought intellectual companionship, the loss of religion, an intensifying ""lust of the eye,"" and the discovery of art for art's sake; and his maturity, which saw him become a quiet Oxford don who roused controversy with writings prizing intensity of feeling and sensation and detachment of mind (Victorian earnestness was his enemy, 18th-century levity his friend), all phrased in a sensuous, even seductive prose perfectly suited to the ideas. The fruit of this career was a new kind of criticism, uniting psychological insights into both artists and observers, exemplified by the remarkable essays on the Renaissance that gained Pater notoriety and denunciation in the 1870s--although Pater's true if ephemeral fame came only in the 1890s with the cultural efflorescence of aestheticism. Levey's graceful narrative makes no pretense to full critical evaluation or historical inclusiveness; yet it gives us a finely drawn portrait of a man whose unconventional spirit ""cut away the nineteenth-century, notably Ruskinian, moral ground for enjoying art,"" while never being allowed, in Pater's most famous phrase, ""to burn with that hard gem-like flame"" in Pater's outward life. Within its economy of scale, Levey's book successfully makes Pater's case and should encourage more comprehensive revaluations.

Pub Date: Aug. 28, 1978

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: -

Publisher: Thames & Hudson--dist. by Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1978