Sunday, June 21, 2009

On being a father

To recognize the day I wanted to reel off the Five Books of fatherhood, but I came up nearly empty. There just are not five books—at least not five books about good fathers. If I’d wanted to canonize the twentieth-century literature of bad fathers, ranging loosely from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to “Daddy” (1962), Sylvia Plath’s appalling triumph of self-pity and self-aggrandizement, I could have kept banging away at it all day and still not have compiled an exhaustive list.

But books about good fathers? Far less common, and almost unheard of when written from a father’s perspective. The book everyone thinks of is To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel’s last words offer a strong and memorable image of the good father. After Bob Ewell injures Jem in an assault, Atticus Finch puts his son to bed: “He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” So important are these words to finishing the portrait of Atticus that Robert Mulligan also ends his 1962 film with them, spoken in voiceover by ten-year-old Mary Badham, who played Scout. Challenged to name a father in literature to rival Atticus Finch, though, most people can’t. At least my wife couldn’t. And the best I could come up with was The Chosen, in which the critical scholar David Malter and the Hasidic rabbi Isaac Saunders are both good fathers in their own ways. Indeed, The Chosen popularized the cultural practice among the Modern Orthodox, now widespread, of children’s calling their father “Abba” (Hebrew for Daddy).

Neither of these books is written from a father’s perspective, however. Scout is Harper Lee’s narrator, and her father is recollected in tranquility. Chaim Potok’s focus is on the sons. Don’t get me wrong. Most fathers would prefer to be known through their children. But the experience of fatherhood almost never makes it into the pages of literature. A notable exception is John Williams’s classic Stoner (1965), which I listed among the Five Books of professors. Williams explicitly connects his experience as a father to Stoner’s literary scholarship, suggesting that the two activities demand the same moral qualities—patience, concentration, responsibility, self-effacement, renunciation, authority, and a willingness to let someone else (a child, the author of a literary text) speak for himself.

The best novel ever written about fatherhood, though, is not even written about a father. Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is probably the least read of George Orwell’s books. It was not even published in the U.S. until twenty years after the English edition, and then only because of the huge popular success achieved by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Orwell began his third novel when he was thirty-two and finished it almost exactly a year before he traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War and gather material for his first “major” work, Homage to Catalonia (1938). Critics have consistently misread and undervalued the earlier novel. They describe it as a thematic preview of the conformist ’fifties, a warning about the threat posed by middle-class respectability to individual freedom, a confession of the inner turmoils and obsessive fears of a young novelist struggling to support himself by literature.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is none of these. It is a satire of the literary life, or at least the romantic conception of that life secretly banked up in every sad young literary man’s heart. Gordon Comstock is twenty-nine and “rather moth-eaten already.” On the strength of his first book of poetry (TLS said that Mice “showed exceptional promise”), he has chucked over a post as a copywriter for an advertising agency and signed on as a clerk in a used bookshop. The plan was to give himself the time and freedom to write London Pleasures, “two thousand lines or so, in rhyme royal, describing a day in London.” But what Gordon had not counted upon—what most young writers, dreaming of poetic glory, do not count upon—was money:

Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club. With the same instinct that makes a child waggle a loose tooth, he took out [from the shelves of McKechnie’s bookshop, where he works] a snooty-looking volume—Some Aspects of the Italian Baroque—opened it, read a paragraph and shoved it back with mingled loathing and envy. That devastating omniscience! That noxious, horn-spectacled refinement! And the money that such refinement means! For after all, what is there behind it, except money? Money for the right kind of education, money for influential friends, money for leisure and peace of mind, money for trips to Italy. Money writes books, money sells them. Give me not righteousness, O Lord, give me money, only money.This bitterness makes up his mind and determines his actions, even toward Rosemary Waterlow, “his girl, who loved him—adored him, so she said.” Gordon has declared war on “the money-god and all his swinish priesthood.” For behind the desolation, emptiness, and secret despair of the modern world stands the worship of money. Gordon will not consider anything that smacks of entering the money-god’s service, including anything that might provide the secure economic foundation of a future with Rosemary. The fault lies with money, not with him: “because he had no money Rosemary wouldn’t sleep with him. Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure—they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.” The lack of money, Gordon is convinced, has even “robbed him of the power to ‘write.’ ”

Gordon struggles to stay afloat financially, but only sinks deeper into the “slime of poverty.” He behaves atrociously and alienates most of his friends, but Rosemary stands by him for some reason that he cannot fathom. The sale of a poem to the Californian Review for fifty dollars bankrolls a night on the town, which ends with Gordon, drunk on chianti, shoving Rosemary back against a wall and thrusting his hand down the front of her dress. “You’re going to bed with me,” he commands her, but she flees from him instead. He fancies that he is a “damned soul in hell.” He latches on to a prostitute, who steals the last of his money after he blacks out. He awakens the next morning in a police cell. He loses his job, his lodgings, and what little is left of his dignity.

When she learns what has befallen him, Rosemary returns to Gordon—with some advice. Why not go back to the advertising firm, where he has a standing job offer? Gordon is aghast: “Go back to the New Albion! It had been the sole significant action of his life, leaving the New Albion. It was his religion, you might say, to keep out of that filthy money-world.” Rosemary does not understand his scruples, but accepts them because they are his. “You’re letting yourself go to pieces,” she says. “You don’t seem to want to make any effort. You want to sink—just sink!” “I don’t know,” Gordon replies—“perhaps. I’d sooner sink than rise.” He longs to sink “down, down into quiet worlds where money and effort and moral obligation did not exist.” There at least he would enjoy freedom: “No more blackmail to the gods of decency!”

Perhaps because she pities him, perhaps because she is finally prepared to admit that their romance is doomed, Rosemary goes to bed with Gordon at last. And a most awful thing happens (the words are hers). She gets pregnant. When the news is delivered, Gordon feels nothing except dismay: “He did not think of the baby as a living creature; it was a disaster pure and simple.” He is resigned to marrying her; there is no alternative, he says. But of course there is, and Rosemary reminds him what it is. She could have an abortion:That pulled him up. For the first time he grasped, with the only kind of knowledge that matters, what they were really talking about. The words “a baby” took on a new significance. They did not mean any longer a mere abstract disaster, they meant a bud of flesh, a bit of himself, down there in her belly, alive and growing. His eyes met hers. They had a strange moment of sympathy such as they had never had before. For a moment he did feel in some mysterious way they were one flesh. Though they were feet apart he felt as though they were joined together—as though some invisible living cord stretched from her entrails to his. He knew then that it was a dreadful thing they were contemplating—a blasphemy, if that word had any meaning.That pulled him up. Gordon marries the mother-to-be of his child, takes the job at the New Albion, where he creates a successful ad campaign for foot deodorant, and even buys an aspidistra, the symbol he had long derided of “mingy lower-middle class decency,” installing it in the front window of their apartment for all the world to see. Although he tells himself wryly that his “long and lonely war [against the money-god] had ended in ignominious defeat,” he ends the novel on his knees, his head pressed against the softness of Rosemary’s belly, listening for the sounds of their child. The posture is significant, because Gordon has been converted to a new religion, and as the Christians say, he is a new man.

Becoming a father pulls a man up, up into the noisy world where money-earning and effort and moral obligation make him a man. No one has recorded the miracle better than Orwell in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. It should be on every man’s reading list for Father’s Day—to remind him, if nothing else, of what his own father had to become to become his father.

I love you, Dad.

10 comments:

Jonathan said...

I could only think of two others - both from the father's perspective.

Although I have mixed feelings about McCarthy's The Road, the father could easily be judged a good one.

I think, however, that if there was to be a rival to Atticus, it might just be John Ames. The only hesitation I have in making such a claim is the possibility I am confusing my estimation of John Ames as a man with his abilities as a father. I also wonder how, if at all, such an age difference might affect the quality of parenting.

R. T. said...

Just to add a bit of provocation to the challenge of naming five fathers in literature, I would offer the following for consideration:
Three from Shakespeare (each for all sorts of reasons):
Hamlet's ghost
King Lear
Prospero
One from Austen:
Sir Walter Elliot (because he is so delightfully dense but lovable in spite of his density)
One from the Torah:
Abraham (because I cannot help but feel tremendous compassion for and bewilderment over the profoundly spiritual man who chose to follow divine orders even though it most sorely tested his commitment to his son)

Lincoln said...

I too tried to think of a novel with a father theme that was positive. I excluded books for young people, such as The Yearling (although Rawlings might heartily disagree).
Then I thought of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It met the contract but I lost my nerve.
Poetry seemed a better source, and there I found Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden.
Happy Father's Day.

Amateur Reader said...

I'll submit Tevye the Dairyman.

I haven't read the Orwell novel, but the movie version, for some reason titled "A Merry War" (1997), includes every detail you mentioned, suggesting a certain fidelity.

D. G. Myers said...

You know, I’ve seen A Merry War. I distinctly remember renting it. But I have no memory of the film at all. The novel, by contrast, has never left me.

Those Winter Sundays” is a brilliant poem. The last line gets it exactly right. My best friend Paul Hedeen introduced me to Hayden’s poem not too long ago. I can’t believe I was stupid enough to forget it.

The same goes for Ames, Jonathan. He is not only a good father, but the form of Gilead—an address to a son—suggests how seriously he takes his role. Thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite novels!

Buce said...

[Apologies if this is a repeat; didn't seem to register the first time. Anyway--]

Would you count Peter deVries, Blood of the Lamb, about the death of a daughter? Or Mayor of Casterbridge?

Chrees said...

What an interesting point on literary fathers, and thanks for recommending the Orwell book. Sometimes a father is portrayed as an admirable person, only to have that image marred by having a troublesome or feckless child (Pedro da Maia in The Maias comes to mind, although he has additional ‘faults’ as well). Other cases would fit the bill of a good father if the character were either more central or their role as father was expanded (someone like Dobbin at the end of Vanity Fair).

More amusing is when portrayals of fatherly impotence still yield a sympathetic character, especially when the father’s illiteracy/simplemindedness/etc. is highlighted.

D. G. Myers said...

More amusing is when portrayals of fatherly impotence still yield a sympathetic character, especially when the father’s illiteracy/simplemindedness/etc. is highlighted.

Austen relied upon such fathers. Think of Sir Walter Elliot, whose dull-witted snobbishness throws into relief Anne’s wide-awake morality, or Mr Woodhouse in Emma.

NigelBeale said...

I've always been partial to Mr. Bennet.

D. G. Myers said...

But you must admit, Nigel, that he “highlights” the greater maturity and level-headedness of Elizabeth.

As for DeVries’s terrible (in the original sense of the word) Blood of the Lamb. It belongs on another list: Five Books of death at a young age. A grim subject, but some great novels have been written about it.