Mr. Alvarez, who sometimes wrote under the name A. Alvarez, cultivated a reputation as a swashbuckling adrenaline seeker as well as an accomplished poet, novelist and literary critic. Finding writing to be “a solitary, joyless occupation,” he sought escape through mountaineering, boxing, poker and aviation, then drew on his hobbies for articles in the New Yorker and several books of nonfiction.
Initially, he was known for his adventurous taste in poetry and his literary attacks on the “genteel” style that dominated British poetry in the years after World War II.
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In books, translations and pieces for the Observer — where he served as poetry editor from 1956 to 1966 — Mr. Alvarez introduced readers to bold new writers such as the husband-and-wife duo of Plath and Hughes, American poets John Berryman and Robert Lowell, and Eastern European poets Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub.
His 1962 Penguin anthology “The New Poetry” was a landmark work that featured poetry with a “violent impending presence,” as he put it, shadowed by the Holocaust, the threat of nuclear war and personal trauma. Along with Robert Conquest’s collection “New Lines” (1956), it became “the most discussed poetry anthology of the postwar era,” according to literary critic William Wootten’s book “The Alvarez Generation.”
Mr. Alvarez had intended to limit his anthology to British authors before deciding to begin the book with a pair of American poets, Lowell and Berryman, “in order to shame and instruct those who came after,” Wootten wrote. The anthology’s second edition included two more Americans: Anne Sexton and Plath.
Both died by suicide; Mr. Alvarez had been a friend of Plath before she killed herself in 1963, at 30. Her death led him to reflect on his own suicide attempt, in 1960, when he swallowed 45 sleeping pills as his first marriage unraveled.
Mr. Alvarez chronicled that episode in his 1971 book “The Savage God: A Study of Suicide,” which linked suicide to creativity and included one of the first substantive overviews of Plath’s life. Speculating on the reasons behind her suicide, Mr. Alvarez wrote that it was, in part, “a ‘cry for help,’ which fatally misfired.”
The book fueled public interest in Plath’s work, was attacked by Hughes (who rejected Mr. Alvarez’s analysis of his wife’s death) and marked a turn away from literary criticism for Mr. Alvarez. He later explained that he had “been down the salt mine of intellectualism, and decided it’s an excuse, really, for not being in touch with living people.”
In books such as “Feeding the Rat: A Climber’s Life on the Edge” (1988) and “Where Did It All Go Right?” (1999), Mr. Alvarez recounted his days working on “an ancient steam drifter” and a harrowing climbing expedition in which he and a companion found themselves stranded overnight, at risk of freezing to death before daybreak.
Following his curiosity to the North Sea, he spent time on oil rigs as large as the Eiffel Tower, buffeted by 100-foot waves and winds gusting 160 knots. Life on the rig, one roughneck told him for the book “Offshore” (1986), was “like going through one of those black holes from one universe to another.”
Mr. Alvarez also wrote about divorce (including his own) in the book “Life After Marriage” (1982) and published one of the first major literary works on professional poker, “The Biggest Game in Town” (1983). The book was widely credited with helping the game grow — and with spawning a wave of poker literature — and was hailed by the London Evening Standard as “probably the best book on poker ever written.”
Adapted from a New Yorker story commissioned by editor William Shawn, it chronicled the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and introduced players such as Doyle Brunson, Mickey Appleman and Stu “The Kid” Ungar. “The chip is like a conjurer’s sleight of hand that turns an egg into a billiard ball, a necessity of life into a plaything, reality into illusion,” Mr. Alvarez wrote.
“If they had wanted you to hold on to money,” poker player Jack “Treetop” Straus told him, “they’d have made it with handles on.”
Alfred Alvarez was born in London on Aug. 5, 1929, to a family with Sephardic Jewish roots that led him to never feel “altogether English.” His mother was a homemaker, and Mr. Alvarez described his father as “a terribly bad and thwarted and unhappy business man in the schmutter trade,” or garment business.
A growth on his ankle required major surgery when he was a boy, contributing to an early sense of alienation and a determination to challenge himself outdoors. He studied at a pair of preparatory schools, the Hall in London and Oundle in Northamptonshire, before entering the University of Oxford, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and a master’s in 1956.
That same year, amid an infatuation with the work of D.H. Lawrence, he married Ursula Barr, a granddaughter of the writer’s widow, Frieda. They had met just seven weeks earlier, and as their marriage unraveled, he began playing poker, developing a decades-long habit of playing once or twice a week.
In 1966, he married Anne Adams, a Canadian child psychotherapist. In addition to his wife, survivors include their two children, Luke and Kate Alvarez; and four grandchildren. A son from his first marriage, Adam Alvarez, died in 2016.
Mr. Alvarez wrote two thrillers and the novel “Hers” (1974), about a woman married to a professor at an “ancient and famous” British university, where she has an affair with one of his students. He also wrote several short volumes of poetry, in which he addressed dreams, love and loneliness in an unadorned style.
His other books included “Poker: Bets, Bluffs and Bad Beats” (2001), the essay collection “Risky Business” (2007) and “Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal” (2013), about his daily swimming routine in the Hampstead Heath ponds of London, where he was accompanied in the (often bone-chilling) water by cormorants and sea gulls.
“There isn’t one word of a piece of Al Alvarez’s nonfiction that loses its voice or makes you say, ‘Wait a minute, Al, move over,’ ” New Yorker journalist Jane Kramer wrote in the introduction to “Feeding the Rat.” “On the other hand, there isn’t a word that doesn’t sound like Al talking.”
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