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The complicated life of the rejected scholar.

By STEPHEN MOSS [Guardian] – Doubts about the authenticity of the Dickens-Dostoevsky meeting spread, retractions were made, the Dickensian had egg on its face. But only recently did the full story of the deception emerge when Eric Naiman, a professor in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an immensely detailed six-page article in the TLS (“three days’ work”, says Harvey dismissively when I praise Naiman for his industry) establishing Harvey’s academic avatars – not just Stephanie Harvey, but Graham Headley, Trevor McGovern, John Schellenberger, Leo Bellingham (author of Oxford: The Novel), Michael Lindsay and Ludovico Parra. Naiman traced the way in which, over the past 30 years, this group had been commenting on one another’s work in scholarly journals and little magazines, sometimes praising one ano ther but occasionally finding fault too. “How comforting,” Naiman commented drily, “to construct a community of scholars who can analyse, supplement and occasionally even ruthlessly criticise each other’s work.”

AD Harvey doesn’t deny he is the creator of that community…

Harvey, who is 65, was born in Colchester just after the second world war. His mother was a Jew from Hungary who had fled from the Nazis; his father was a lumberjack – the Essex, rather than Canadian, variety. Perversely, as with everything with Harvey, he reckons his father was the clever one. His parents separated when he was one. He was a bright, inquisitive boy, went to what he calls a cheap fee-paying school on some special deal, won a scholarship to St John’s, Oxford, and then did a PhD at Cambridge on Lord Grenville, briefly prime minister during the Napoleonic war.

He had intended to be a novelist and was already in negotiation to publish Oxford: The Novel, the first draft of which had been taken up by a literary agent, but says he fell in love with research, knocked off his PhD in less than three years, and in 1978 published a monograph – Britain in the Early 19th Century. He appeared to be on the fast track to academic stardom, but reckons these early triumphs sowed the seeds of his downfall. “Naturally enough, I thought the sooner I finished the PhD, the sooner I’d get an academic job,” he says, “but the opposite is the case.” He says the ease with which he had gained his doctorate was held against him, and that the universities to which he was applying in his 20s were suspicious that he was already published.

There may be a degree of paranoia in all this. It could be that Harvey was just unlucky. Also, he started writing to the Times Higher Education Supplement complaining about being frozen out, so was starting to be seen as a troublemaker. He was also restless. He briefly had a junior lecturer post at North East London Polytechnic in the early 80s, but gave it up after a couple of years to teach in Italy. By the time he came back in 1986, he was almost 40 and seen as too old to start again; the academic door had slammed shut.

In a 40-year writing life, he has been salaried for seven and a half years; he calculates that his books have earned him £45,000; he lived in a squat in Swiss Cottage in his 20s; he has sometimes had to rely on income support and housing benefit to get by. He rapidly disabuses me of my romantic notion of the independent scholar. “I’m not an independent scholar,” he says, “I’m a scholar who couldn’t get a job, a rejected scholar. I didn’t choose to be independent. The fact that I was producing books and by 1979 had had half a dozen scholarly articles published, half of them in English literature, half of them in history, to anyone else that would look interesting, but to an academic it looks ‘Why can’t we do this? There’s something wrong with this man.’ What makes it look interesting to other people makes it look appalling to academics.” Harvey reckons he made 700 unsuccessful applications for academic posts.

So is his web of academic avatars and his invention of a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky a revenge against the world that shunned him?

Continued at The Guardian | More Chronicle & Notices.


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