Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The game of fiction

After finishing my review of Goldengrove, I came across an interesting passage by Martin Amis on Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short, who are so good that even grandmasters do not understand them, and the spectacle of high-level chess on TV:

Chess-promoters shouldn’t try to meddle with or minimize the near-infinite difficulty of the game: they are absolutely stuck with it. It is what surrounds the board with holy dread—the exponential, the astronomical. So what are [Kasparov and Short] up to out there, approximately? Because no one really knows. It would seem that comparatively little time is spent doing what you and I do at the chess board: hectically responding to local and immediate emergencies (all these bolts out of the blue). We are tactical, at best; they are deeply strategic. They are trying to hold on to, to brighten and to bring to blossom, a coherent vision which the arrangement of the pieces may or may not contain.The passage is interesting, not merely because it was written by a good writer, but because so many good writers have also played chess. Nabokov, of course. Also Borges, Beckett, Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, J. V. Cunningham, Salman Rushdie, and Thomas Gavin, whose 1977 novel Kingkill was about Maezel’s mechanical chess player and Poe’s exposure of the hoax. Since I do not play, my guess is that Amis’s passage is closer to the truth about writing than about chess. The “near-infinite difficulty of the game,” the “holy dread” that “surrounds the board” (i.e. the page), the “coherent vision” that may or may not emerge from the “arrangement of the pieces”—this exactly describes the life of writing. To the degree that it also describes chess, Amis’s account explains why so many writers play the game.

Whether Francine Prose plays chess I do not know. In the “exclusive extras” appended to the paperback edition of A Changed Man, she confesses to playing a lot of computer solitaire. “You know what?” she adds. “I could, without thinking for half a second, tell you about a half dozen writers I know who are completely addicted. Computer solitaire—it’s the dirty little secret of the literary world.”

Solitaire is not always dignified as a game; it is often dismissed as a “puzzle.” When it comes to writing, though, this is a distinction without a difference. Wittgenstein ought to have banished for all time the search for an all-embracing definition of “game.” In the Philosophical Investigations, he famously said that you will find nothing that is common to all games; what you will find instead are “similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.” He called these “family resemblances.” Games resemble one another in much the same way that two brothers and a sister resemble one another.

A certain kind of fiction belongs to the same extended family as chess and solitaire (or what the British call “patience”). I prefer the phrase game of fiction to the more familiar genre-labels “metafiction,” “self-conscious fiction,” “postmodern fiction,” “parody fiction.” Writing is played solitaire (despite clever attempts to make it seem otherwise, it is not, in Amis’s phrase, “savagely and remorselessly interactive,” like chess), but it can still be played as a game. Like chess, a literary text is set off from the practical, workaday world; it is experienced as a wholly different realm; it has an opening gambit and an endgame; and nothing depends on the outcome. Unlike chess, it is not governed by preexisting rules (a text develops its own set of rules, which is part of the fictional game), although both depend upon traditions, conventions, and “classic moves” while also seeking to unveil originality. The game of fiction is not competitive, because there is no opponent. A literary text may be written against another text. According to Charles Simmons, its style is a record of every style not selected for it. But this belongs to the text’s discursive element, not its gaming. Simmons has not defined a text’s style, but its argument for a certain specific way of writing. A literary text just seems competitive sometimes because writing is so difficult.

In the genre of fiction-as-game, Francine Prose is rare in not calling attention, with loud snorts of self-congratulation, to the endless deferral of reference in which, in place of the physical world, her characters must necessarily live. For her, the game consists of masquerading the game. (She makes it seem as if she is satirizing the actual world, but she is conning her critics.) She takes full advantage of the weariness that many readers feel upon opening the pages of latter-day “metafictionists” like Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Gass, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, Robert Stone, David Foster Wallace or, God forbid, Toni Morrison or Joyce Carol Oates. Great work has been done in the mode, but after Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino, enough is enough.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Francine Prose, Goldengrove (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). 275 pp. $24.95.

It has been a good year for Gerard Manley Hopkins. First came Ron Hansen’s Exiles, which braided together the December 1875 shipwreck of the SS Deutschland off England’s coast with the story of how a 31-year-old Jesuit priest studying in Wales came to write one of the greatest English poems on the theme. Now Francine Prose has taken the inspiration for her twelfth novel from Hopkins’s next best poem, the famous twisting octosyllabic sonnet-plus-one “Spring and Fall.” She likes it so well that she quotes it, twice, in full—once as the epigraph to the novel, another time in a pivotal scene smack in the middle of the book.

Hansen is interested in reconstructing the past and filling the gaps in the historical record with a novelist’s sympathetic imagination. To read Exiles is to meet Hopkins as he might have been. And that involves getting to know Hopkins’s own sympathetic imagination. A Catholic novelist whose Mariette in Ecstasy (1991) convincingly penetrates the experience of religious passion, Hansen thus seeks to bring back to life not only the young priest-poet but also the five Franciscan nuns from Westphalia who died in the wreck of the Deutschland.

Prose is less interested in the resurrection of the dead—by art or other means—than in the reliable longing to surpass the limits of human life. A Jewish novelist who began her career with Judah the Pious (1973), the tale of a wonder-working eighteenth-century rabbi, she has always been drawn to men and women who seek freedom from ordinary reason, familiar ties, and even the constraints of physical reality. She has been equally attuned to their defeat by necessity.

Hopkins’s spirit does not animate Prose’s novel as it does Hansen’s. In plain fact, only the opening and concluding lines of “Spring and Fall” are directly relevant: “Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleaving?” No, indeed not; as it turns out: “It is Margaret you mourn for.” Margaret is the name of the older sister in Goldengrove, a wry, stylish, and smoky seventeen-year-old who gives her school a “collective orgasm” by singing Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” at a year-end talent show. A few weeks later she is dead; she drowns in Mirror Lake, on the shore of which she lives with her parents and thirteen-year-old sister Nico. They spend the rest of the novel mourning her.

Her father retreats into the book he is writing “about how people in different cultures and eras imagined the end of the world. He planned to call it Eschatology for Dummies.” Her mother takes refuge in prescription painkillers, which she extorts from the family pediatrician by threatening to sue him for failing to diagnose Margaret’s heart condition. Nico does little more than lie on the couch and sigh until her parents suggest that she clerk in Goldengrove, her father’s bookstore. “Here’s the choice,” her mother says. “Bookstore or we medicate you.” “Medicate me, please,” Nico says. “Turn me into a zombie.” “That’s it,” her mother says. “The new choice is bookstore or bookstore.”

Nico sits at the front counter while her father writes in the back room. Waiting for customers, she trawls books for information—about heart disease, surviving loss, the dead, sex—until one day she happens upon a thick anthology of poems from around the world. On a hunch, she looks up “Margaret” in the index of first lines and finds Hopkins’s poem. It infuriates her. Maybe her parents had “caused her death by naming her Margaret.” The effort of getting rid of the thought, and putting the book back on the shelf, floors her. Her father finds her passed out in the poetry section. “So are going to change the name of the store now, or what?” she asks her parents at dinner.

The name stays Goldengrove, and Nico stays at the front counter. Everything else changes the next day when Margaret’s boyfriend Aaron enters the store. Looking wasted by grief, but more attractive than when his girlfriend was still alive, Aaron proposes that Nico and he try doing things together they can no longer do alone: “Things we used to do with Margaret. We could do it together. An experiment.” Nico likes the “idea of experimenting with our grief and fears.” And soon she finds herself spending afternoons with her sister’s boyfriend, eating ice cream, watching old movies, visiting old haunts.

What follows is something like Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer or Lolita, told from the other side. As Nico puts it, she falls in love with Aaron, who tries to bring Margaret back to life by turning Nico into her. “God, Nico,” says an older friend. “You’ve be Judy-ed.” When Nico fails to understand, she explains that she is alluding to Vertigo and what Jimmy Stewart does to Kim Novak after Madeleine’s death. The incident ends the family’s mourning period. Her parents whisk Nico off to Italy, and all that remains is a one-chapter epilogue.

More than most novels, Goldengrove when summarized seems something it is not. By and large reviewers missed the point. They made two mistakes. First, they assumed the novel is about coping with grief. Some of them recalled Judith Guest’s 1976 bestseller Ordinary People, and one was even reminded of Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones. In the New York Times Book Review, Leah Hager Cohen was typical of the critical error, and accordingly disappointed: “By weaving Hopkins’s poem so prominently into the fabric of her story, Prose raises the expectation that she’ll approach the subject of grief in a way that might move us, or at least move her characters.” What if grief is not her subject, however?

The second mistake was that Goldengrove was somehow a departure from the “satirical fiction such as A Changed Man” (as Harper Barnes phrased it in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch) that Prose usually writes—a “gentler” book, as Janet Maslin said in the New York Times. Consequently, some reviewers worried whether it were a Young Adult novel. Prose has written two earlier YA novels. The difference in prose style is immediately apparent. Where the first-person male narrators of After (2003) and Bullyville (2007) are abrupt and slangy as a revolt against the official adult language, Nico is able to linger over her sentences and indulge occasional verbal exactitude, despite her reputation as Miss One-Thing-After-the-Next. She is not estranged from the world of grownups, but from the world altogether. “Fans of Francine Prose’s satire will need a few moments to reorient themselves,” Ron Charles warned in the Washington Post. If satire is Prose’s usual mode then Goldengrove represents a break. But satire is not Prose’s usual mode.

The critical error points to the worst possible misreading. It not only gets Prose’s intention wrong; it places her in the wrong literary company. (Judith Guest? Alice Sebold?) Take her earlier Blue Angel (2000), for example. Greeted and praised as a satire on political correctness, the novel is not that. It is a tale of thralldom to art. Prose does not write “message-driven literature,” because she does not write satire, the message-driven genre. Critics would do well to memorize a famous distinction: “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.”[1]

Prose does not write parody either, at least not in its sense of a grotesque imitation, but she does arrange literary games. Reviewers overlooked the fact that the novel’s title refers not merely to a poem but also to a bookstore whose owner is hell-bent on transforming into a scriptorium. Goldengrove is a literary dimension, a world made of books, where it is not the trees whose “unleaving” is the occasion for grief. Prose successfully dissembles what she is up to by making her narrator a thirteen-year-old girl who has never heard of Hopkins, has never watched Vertigo, and is more absorbed with global warming than art. When she was a kid, her favorite reading was C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books, because she “longed to enter another dimension through a wardrobe or a snow globe.” After her sister’s death, she pretty much gets her wish. Nico’s emotions are thoroughly mediated by art—songs, films, her mother’s piano pieces, Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint Nicholas of Tolentino Saving a Shipwreck, which she finds in a “volume on Sienese painting so large that I had to spread it across the counter.” And of course she becomes her sister’s boyfriend’s Galatea. The name of Mirror Lake in which Margaret drowns, and to which Nico returns every time she returns home, is appropriate. Human experience mirrors books, which mirror other books, which mirror other books, which mirror other books. . . . There is no original experience “out there”—not adolescent grief, not first love, not being Judy-ed—which the novel sets out to capture with perfect fidelity. There is only the illusion, the images, of experience and fidelity.

Consider the source of Prose’s title. Hopkins first drafted “Spring and Fall” in September 1880 while out walking. The irony is that the poem was not, unlike Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” inspired by the death of a young girl or any other real incident. Hopkins was responding instead to The Mill on the Floss, which he had recently read and couldn’t stop thinking about, and Eliot’s Maggie Tulliver becomes his Margaret. Prose makes it evident that she knows the historical background to Hopkins’s poem, because she places an overt allusion to The Mill on the Floss at the center of her novel.

One morning, a few days before Nico is to start working at Goldengrove, her mother recommends a haircut. Margaret had always cut her hair, dancing around her in a bathing suit, but with her sister dead and buried Nico no longer cares if she is dragged to the “butcher” at the mall. “Don’t make it too short,” she pleads, but naturally she is ignored. The hairdresser lops off sheets of hair, sprays on a coat of shellac, and hardens it under a dryer. When he is finished, he steps back to admire his miracle. “Bellissima, no?”

Bellissima,” I said, fighting tears. I told myself, It’s only hair. It grows back. But I didn’t believe it. Because like everything else in those days, my hair was itself and something else. The bad haircut didn’t bother me half so much as the feeling that Margaret had withdrawn her protection.Prose alludes here to the famous hair-cutting scene in chapter seven of The Mill on the Floss, when Tom withdraws his protection from Maggie for the first time in their lives:One delicious grinding snip, and then another and another, and the hinder-locks fell heavily on the floor, and Maggie stood cropped in a jagged, uneven manner, but with a sense of clearness and freedom, as if she had emerged from a wood into the open plain. . . . She had thought beforehand chiefly at her own deliverance from her teasing hair and teasing remarks about it, and something also of the triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this very decided course of action; she didn't want her hair to look pretty—that was out of the question—she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl, and not to find fault with her.When Tom laughs at her, everything changes. Maggie takes one look at herself in the mirror and bursts into tears. Everyone will laugh at her, she reflects, wishing she could do things over again. The foolish impulse to cut off her hair so as not to think about it any more means that she will have to think about it more than ever. Those who are tempted to dismiss such sorrows as trivial in comparison with the real troubles in life are merely strangers to childhood, Eliot writes:Is there any one who can recover the experience of his childhood, not merely with a memory of what he did and what happened to him, of what he liked and disliked when he was in frock and trousers, but with an intimate penetration, a revived consciousness of what he felt then, when it was so long from one Midsummer to another. . . ? Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children.[2]At first glance it may appear that Prose is alluding to Eliot because, like her, she aspires to write a masterpiece in which childhood is recovered. The truth, however, is that childhood is never recovered; it is created. We learn what we were like as children from such books as The Mill on the Floss, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and Goldengrove. Behind Prose’s Margaret stands Hopkins’s, and behind her stands Maggie Tulliver, and behind her (as a British scholar has recently shown) is an even earlier fictional character in an even earlier novel until there is no “ultimate real child.”[3] There is only a literary original, which is probably indebted to a previous book.

Francine Prose belongs in the company of Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, and the far less talented practitioners of “self-conscious” fiction. With this significant difference. In the best of them, the effect is defamiliarization, a chagrined awareness that even the least literary of worlds are made of words. The intention is freedom—freedom from the crushing reality of death and loss. In Prose, intention and effect are the opposite. Her worlds are made of words, but we are persuaded that they are utterly real. The intention to serve as a reminder of necessity—the necessity that, although other dimensions do exist, they will eventually pass. That in her nimble hands necessity is more alluring than most novelists’ freedom proves the case that Francine Prose is an illusionist with few peers.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 75. Originally published in Alfred Appel Jr., “An Interview with Vladimir Nabokov,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 8 (Spring 1967): 138.

[2] The Mill on the Floss (1860), ch. VII, “Enter the Aunts and Uncles.”

[3] Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, “Holiday House: Grist to The Mill on the Floss, or Childhood as Text,” Yearbook of English Studies 32 (2002): 77–94.

Recalibrating the best American fiction

Patrick Kurp links to my list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, and then gets out his chisel and his trowel. He urges the removal of “Dick, Doctorow, Sorrentino, Toole, Auster, Carver and Johnson,” and makes several recommendations for inclusion.

First the removals. Except for Charles Johnson, whose Middle Passage is the best work of African-American literature since Invisible Man, I am not particularly loyal to any of the writers ixnayed by Kurp. At least not as writers. I have a well-rehearsed personal loyalty to Raymond Carver of course, but my appreciation for his fiction is real, and has grown steadily over the years. He belongs on any list of the Best American Fiction, 1968–1998, and for two reasons. First, he is representative of the “minimalist” school of American writing since the seventies. Richard Ford is perhaps the preferred example these days, but Ford is self-satisfied, self-indulgent, and dull. Even when his people are dull, Carver never is. To be honest, Carver is much better when his prose is not “minimalist”—when he is not writing under the influence or being edited by Gordon Lish. His instinct for a gratifying thickness of detail was checked and disabled by Lish. But this leads to the second reason for his inclusion. Carver is not to be enjoyed for his “minimalist” prose and plots, but for his concrete and perspicacious details. No one surpasses him at capturing a certain kind of man and a certain kind of life, confined to the here and now with little promise of transcendence or escape.

I am willing to be talked out of Sorrentino. In one of my last visits to his home in Sudbury, J. V. Cunningham told me that Sorrentino was “vulgar guck.” And in a post coming later today (I hope), I make a case for a better novelist whose fiction is “self-conscious.” Mulligan Stew avoids the longueurs of most specimens of the “parody novel,” however. It is self-conscious without being self-important. It is genuinely enjoyable. And with all his admitted vulgarity, Sorrentino writes a clear and brisk hand.

E. L. Doctorow is an overblown novelist whom I gave up on reading years ago and return to every now and again just to make sure he hasn’t improved. He hasn’t. The March (2005) is an anti-Iraq War novel in the guise of a Civil War novel. William Tecumseh Sherman makes an unlikely and singularly ineffective spokesman for Doctorow’s over-the-counter anti-war views. The best thing about the novel is that it leaves you wanting to reread Sherman’s Memoirs for a historical corrective (and a more manly prose). Despite his descent into bathos, Doctorow wrote a wonderful novel in The Book of Daniel. As an experiment in “self-conscious” fiction—the book might best be described as a disorganized drawer for Daniel Lewin’s notes and observations—it is surprisingly successful. Daniel is the only surviving son of American Communists who are executed for stealing atomic secrets and giving them to the Soviets. Of course the novel permits Doctorow to parade his leftism without fear of contradiction. The Rosenberg File would not be published for a decade, and even when it was no longer possible to deny that they had been traitors, the Left stood by them. In the novel this contentment is justified. It contributes to Daniel’s unreliability as a narrator, his limitations as a human being. Really a first-rate portrait of the Old and New Lefts from the inside.

Now for Kurp’s recommendations. Thomas Berger—yes. I like Neighbors (1980) better than Vital Parts and The Feud. Never has a novel raised more serious doubts about the wisdom or even the advisability of the Second Great Commandment. John Cheever? I have my doubts, but shall withhold judgment until publication of the two forthcoming Library of America volumes, which will give me occasion to reexamine him. Guy Davenport is a great critic; I have not read the stories in DaVinci’s Bicycle. Other writers on Kurp’s list I’ve yet to read: Thomas Rogers, Mark Smith, and Theodore Weesner. Peter Taylor is a wonderful storywriter (see especially “Dean of Men,” which opens the Collected Stories), but he is a minor writer who must be reserved for those who successfully wade through the major titles on the list. Same holds for Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. John Huston’s film is better than the novel. (Carver introduced me to the book, by the way. When it came to Gardners, he rightly preferred Leonard to John.)

Cynthia Ozick is the glaring omission from my list. Stupid of me. How could I forget her? Kurp suggests The Puttermusser Papers. I like The Cannibal Galaxy or even Heir to the Glimmering World, although I worry that non-Jews, or Jews without much of a Jewish education, won’t really get either book.

Only one other major writer, inadvertently left off my original list, deserves to be added. The name will be revealed shortly.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

The moral law and the rendered world

Between books, and a desultory Shabbes. Sometimes, though, even while you are reading a little here and a little there, without paying close attention to anything much, you stumble upon an uncanny accidental connection. So. A box of used books arrived on Friday. Among other things it contained a collection of Martin Amis’s essays and reviews entitled The War against Cliché; the 1989 reissue of Frederick Crews’s Sins of the Fathers; and a reprint of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.

At least that’s the order in which the connected passages struggled to consciousness, one by one, like school-aged brothers on a weekend morning. In a 1976 New Statesman review of John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces, a book very like the collection in which this review appeared, Amis concludes,

Updike, who likes fiction to believe in “improvement” and “a better world,” crucially asserts that “by a novel we understand an imitation of reality rather than a spurning of it,” and grades them accordingly. But what’s the difficulty? Life goes on regardless, and reality won’t mind if a novel spurns it. The confusion is age-old, answering as it does to an authentic pang. If Updike granted art the same reverent autonomy he grants life, some “improvement” would indeed take place; he would become a better critic.Ouch. But also: exactly right. The effect is such that, later, when he says that Nabokov and Bellow are his only serious rivals in writing “prose works which address the American century,” I don’t believe him. Amis has punctured Updike with an iron stake through the temple. It is impossible now to read him without being aware of “that vein of folksy uplift which underlies his novels as well as his criticism.”

The exact nature of Updike’s confusion only became clear to me the next morning, when I was reading Crews’s afterword to the new edition of his psychoanalytic study of Hawthorne. Crews of course is famous among English professors for turning volubly and persuasively against the Freudian approach that he himself once championed. He is the Elia Kazan of American literary scholarship. His very name will provoke boos in an academic audience. Needless to say, he is one of my intellectual heroes.

Crews has become convinced that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience, and he never tires of producing the evidence that knocks the legs from under its scientific claims. The howls of outrage are deafening. Nevertheless, Crews believes that he has gained more friends than enemies by renouncing a “sectarian brand of criticism that binds its practitioners in defensive solidarity. . . .” He explains why:The split in our currently polarized academy, I believe, falls not between “theorists” and “antitheorists” but between apriorists of various kinds and what I would insist on calling empiricists.It is in light of this belief that The Sins of the Fathers continues to have any value. The a priori and deductive parts of the book, which treat Hawthorne’s fiction as the confirmation of Freudian theory, are worthless. But Crews turned to Freud in the first place because of a problem in Hawthorne that was going unsolved—was going unaddressed, even unnoticed—by critics of the 1950’s and 60’s. As Crews says, the dominant critical mode in 1966, when the first edition of his book came out, was a “combination of moralism and formalism,” which had reached an “intellectual dead end.” It was not simply that a new fashion was needed. An empirical fact was escaping the attention of Hawthorne’s critics—namely, “how little of his rendered fictional world is encapsulated in the ‘morals’ of his works.”

Which brings me to Hartley. Against all expectation, I had very much enjoyed Eustace and Hilda, his nearly 800-page trilogy about a brother and sister’s lifelong relation. Hartley’s prose is fine in its discriminations without becoming fussy or clotted. As William Maxwell says of argumentative writing, it has the “forward movement of prose that is bent only on saying what the writer has to say,” but what Hartley has to say is so involved that it would seem to demand a back-and-forth instead of the forward movement it pursues:[T]hey didn’t give him much help. Their demeanour showed that the idea of Eustace wanting to resume his studies at Oxford was new to them; they had their own situation to consider, and naturally couldn’t spare much thought for other people’s. Barbara said at once, as he guessed she would, ‘Of course you must go back to Oxford, Eustace. Leave Hilda to us; we’ll look after her all right, won’t we, Jimmy?’ But Jimmy hesitated. The aspect of the problem that dominated Eustace—his moral obligation to stay at Hilda’s side—didn’t seem to weigh with Jimmy at all; at any rate, he made no reference to it, and he entirely agreed that it was a pity for Eustace to interrupt or abandon his work at Oxford. Indeed, he seemed to attach more importance to a degree than Eustace did. “But who’s to carry her, that’s the thing?” he said.That is my kind of writing. Interpersonal complexity clearly rendered. No vein of uplift here.

Imagine my surprise then to find Hartley saying, in the “author’s introduction” to The Go-Between, that he agrees with F. R. Leavis that a “novel should be concerned with moral issues, and from moral issues it is only a short step to moral judgments.” Leavis makes Updike look like an aesthete. As Amis says elsewhere in The War against Cliché, Leavis “sought to reduce literature to a moral audit, an elaborate way of determining whether individual readers were or were not mature and wholesome human beings.” Amis doesn’t much like Leavis.

Not so Hartley. Despite being named for Leslie Stephen, Hartley had little else in common with the Bloomsbury group. He was Leavis’s exact contemporary; perhaps his morality was a rationalization of his well-known social snobbery; perhaps he came about it honestly. He said that Henry James “would never have written a novel which seemed to mitigate the sin of adultery.” And apparently he set out to write The Go-Between with the same uncompromising attitude toward the adulteress in his own novel. “Altogether she ruined at least half-a-dozen lives,” and deserved not to “get off lightly herself.” But a strange thing happened as he worked on the novel. He found himself softening toward her; he no longer had it in him to paint her in “such dark colours.” Although it was obvious that he disapproved of her, readers told Hartley they liked her or at least they found her attractive. He was not unhappy with the reaction:Of course any novelist would rather have it said that he had drawn an attractive woman than that he had upheld the Moral Law.So much for Leavis. Hartley casts his lot with the rendering of a fictional world, compared to which everything else is of secondary importance. As Amis might say, the law won’t mind if fictional characters don’t uphold it. Or, more accurately, fiction dispenses with the Moral Law, because in a rendered world there is one law for morality and nature. Flora, fauna, and physical objects as well as people are governed by the same set of principles. It doesn’t really matter that the principles belong to that world, not this one; nor that every novelist is a moral relativist (while he is writing his novel). Moralizing about fiction gets its arms around only a portion of a writer’s achievement, and only a small portion at that, because a fictional world is rendered by an autonomous and self-consistent law which must be grasped in its entirety if the world is to be inhabited at all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best American fiction, 1968–1998

Haven‘t posted since Xmas Eve because I‘ve been working on a longish review of Francine Prose’s Goldengrove, which I liked a lot. None of the reviewers so far has got it.

To take a break, I whipped up one of those Amazon lists. In my case, a list of the best American fiction, 1968–1998. Perhaps you’d be interested. At all events, here it is.

It’s a good rule not to read a novel before ten years have passed and the novelty has worn off. Here are the best American books of fiction from the post-Vietnam period, excluding “meta-fictionists” like Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo, and displaying a clear preference for novels (in Larkin’s phrase) about ordinary people doing ordinary things. In order of publication.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

The list author says:
“[T]he novel that inaugurates a new period in American fiction.”

2. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

The list author says:
“After Portnoy, the deluge (of sex). Still the funniest and most daring American novel on the theme.”

3. Mr. Sammler’s Planet by Saul Bellow

The list author says:
“A Holocaust survivor versus the counterculture. Bellow’s best. Or second best.”

4. The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow

The list author says:
“Doctorow’s best, before he became mannered. The new Left comes to grips with the old Left. Perhaps the best fictional treatment of the sixties.”

5. The Dick Gibson Show by Stanley Elkin

The list author says:
“Elkin’s best, perfectly suited to his talents. A marvelously comic anticipation of the talk radio craze.”

6. The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor

“The best storywriter of the past six decades.”

7. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

The list author says:
“A historical novel of Gettysburg. Clears away the ‘fog of war’ and leaves a striking image of the battle in under 350 pages.”

8. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

The list author says:
“Or maybe this is Bellow’s best. The definitive treatment of the postwar literary scene, the poets, the writers, the critics, the hangers-on, the New York intellectuals.”

9. The Balloonist by MacDonald Harris

The list author says:
“Out of print. Where are the New York Review Classics when you need them? Why hasn’t Michael Chabon pitched his ex-teacher? The astonishing tale of an attempt to reach the North Pole via balloon ca. 1897.”

10. The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

The list author says:
“Yates’s second superb novel after Revolutionary Road (1961), and after everyone had written him off. A short novel that follows two sisters through life; unbearably sad, masterfully wise.”

11. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino

The list author says:
“A concession to fans of self-conscious fiction. This is the best of the type. A novel in progress is taken over by its characters.”

12. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

The list author says:
“Posthumous novel by a New Orleans writer who died unknown. Title derives from Swift. So does the narrative method.”

13. Godric by Frederick Buechner

The list author says:
“A historical novel based on the life of the twelfth-century St. Godric after he has returned from his Holy Land pilgrimages to live as a hermit at Finchale. Told in his voice--a rollicking and crisp de-Latinized English.”

14. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

The list author says:
“A wonderful late short novel. Two boys survive the deaths of parents--one by murder--in rural Illinois of the twenties.”

15. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty

The list author says:
“One of the four great storywriters of the second half of the American century. Never repeats herself; never fails to delight.”

16. Black Robe by Brian Moore

The list author says:
“Moore may not qualify for this list. A native of Belfast, he lived in Malibu for 25 years prior to his death in 1999. Black Robe is a novel unconcerned with political correctness on a P.C. theme—the effort by Jesuits to convert the Algonkins.”

17. The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The list author says:
“The most successful American novelist to adapt the detective story to different and ‘more serious’ ends. You won't be able to decide whether you are in actuality or an alternative world.”

18. Wheat that Springeth Green by J.F. Powers

The list author says:
“The great chronicler of American priests on baffled efforts to separate Church and drek.”

19. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver

The list author says:
“Full disclosure: Carver was my teacher. Still, is there anyone better at the details of the lower-middle-class dead-end life?”

20. Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

The list author says:
“Only partly a novel about the slave trade. Also a philosophical novel raising questions about identity, existence, and God. All in an articulate, yakkety, fast-moving style.”

21. Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen

The list author says:
“In 1906, in upstate New York, a young nun develops stigmata. A novel about the mystery (and possibility) of religious passion.”

22. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The list author says:
“In recent years, the question of sexual identity has been thrown wide open. No one is better than Eugenides at exploring that frontier. A novel told in the first person plural!”

23. Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley

The list author says:
“A satire on Washington lobbyists—in this case, a lobbyist for the tobacco industry—by a writer than whom no one knows Washington better. (Yes, he is William F.’s son.)”

24. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser

The list author says:
“A late 19th-century entrepreneur—a hotel developer—who comes to believe that ‘his only error was to have dreamed the wrong dream.’ Not an anti-business novel at all. Rather, it is about the ambivalence of artistic fulfillment.”

25. The Complete Stories by Bernard Malamud

The list author says:
“Better remembered for The Natural and The Assistant. His best stories are far better. He takes up a stance at the edge of suffering, where it begins to shade over into fantasy. Or hallucination.”

26. American Pastoral by Philip Roth

The list author says:
“The greatest novel on this entire list. Both a technical achievement, fully justifying the Nathan Zuckerman persona, and a furious unsparing moral examination of American values and compromises since the sixties.”

27. Waiting by Ha Jin

The list author says:
“Odd how many excellent novels from this period are about something else. A novel about Communist China from the sixties to the eighties. Not a sweeping pageant, however, but ordinary people doing ordinary things—in a completely alien culture. Only in America!”

Understanding this for what it is—a list of recommendations in an online bookstore and not a mini-canon of American fiction for the period—I’d still bleg for additions and subtractions if I thought it would do any good.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On Christmas Eve

What does an Orthodox Jew do on Christmas Eve? The tradition in the Myers household is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Yesterday, in a Newsweek “web exclusive,” University of Chicago law professor Andrew M. Rosenfeld offered some “mortgage lessons” from Capra’s film. His conclusion? The film is “a reminder of a simpler time, and simultaneously a stark reflection of what went wrong in the current crisis.” Oh, boy.

Needless to say, that’s not the lesson that Capra and his script writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett intend to hammer home. They are quite explicit about it. (Goodrich and Hackett, by the way, are the ones who turned Anne Frank’s dagboek into The Diary of Anne Frank. More on that in a moment.) You will recall that, in the film’s last scene, after he is rescued from scandal, prison, and financial ruin by his friends in Bedford Falls, George Bailey finds the angel Clarence’s copy of Huckleberry Finn among the many small contributions of those who rushed to his aid. The book is inscribed with Capra’s message: “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

According to the financially astute and hard-edged Henry Potter, that is precisely what places the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan at financial risk. “You take this loan here to Ernie Bishop. You know, the fellow who sits around all day on his brains in his taxi.” The bank turned him down, but Bailey Brothers loaned him $5,000 for a home. “I handled that,” George volunteers. “I can personally vouch for his character.” “Friend of yours?” “Yes, sir.” “You see,” Potter concludes, “if you shoot pool with some employee here you can come and borrow money.” Sounds like Sen. Christopher Dodd and Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo, except that a taxi driver is no senator.

Pace Rosenfeld, there are no mortgage lessons to derive from It’s a Wonderful Life. In his defense, he is not the only one trying to yank an inappropriate economic message from a classic film this Christmas season. At the Dissent site, Nicolaus Mills of Sarah Lawrence College crows that George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street is a “Christmas story that we [at Dissent] can’t get enough of,” because in it “the Christmas spirit triumphs over commercialism and doubt.” No, the film is about sophisticated modern efforts, through professional psychiatry or the snobbery of those who know better, to translate faith into psychosis or a fairy tale. Commercialism has nothing to do with it, unless you are on the lookout for every opportunity you can find to bash capitalism.

There is a deeper problem with both It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, and it’s the same reason they can be watched on Christmas Eve by Orthodox Jews and celebrated in Dissent by graying socialists. The films have been almost entirely de-Christianized. As far as I can tell, Christ’s name sounds only in a carol at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. And Fred Gailey succeeds in proving that Kris Kringle actually is Santa Claus only because he does not undertake the more difficult case of proving that God was once incarnated in a flesh-and-blood man who is no longer around to be prodded, examined, questioned, and smiled at.

I don’t know much about Valentine Davies, the author of Seaton’s script. His biography suggests an accomplished Hollywood hack who was able competently to handle ’most any assignment from baseball fantasy (It Happens Every Spring) to bio-pic (The Glenn Miller Story). The de-Christianizing of It’s a Wonderful Life really should come as no surprise, though, once you learn that Goodrich and Hackett wrote the script. Eight years later their stage play The Diary of Anne Frank would invent an almost entirely de-Judaized Anne. She delivers the playwrights’ message in her third-to-last speech:

I know it’s terrible, trying to have any faith . . . when people are doing such horrible . . . But you know what I sometimes think? I think the world may be going through a phase, the way I was with Mother. It’ll pass, maybe not for hundreds of years, but some day . . . I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.1In the original dagboek, however, the passage was strikingly different. In the entry of Saturday, July 15, 1944, reviewing a book with “the challenging title What Do You Think of the Modern Young Girl?” she writes,It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.But she does not stop there, as she does in the play. She goes on:It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death. I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions.2Her belief in the goodness of people—her faith that “this cruelty too shall end”—is not some vague, abstract, universal sentiment. It is an act of Jewish defiance in the face of a state-sponsored campaign to destroy the Jews.

Imagine a Christmas film as firmly sunk in the local circumstances of an actual Christian’s life. Almost as many Jews and socialists would not see it as did not see The Passion of the Christ.

1. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, The Diary of Anne Frank (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 168. Ellipses in the original.

2. Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, definitive ed., trans. Susan Massotty (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 332.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Introduction to structuralism

A historical document from some time in August 1979. I was thinking of returning to graduate school; I asked a friend who had recently finished his PhD at a good program in the Northeast (and who has since earned a reputation for himself in Victorian studies) for an introductory list of titles on structuralism, which is what literary theory was called at the time. Here is what he jotted down, in his own handwriting, in the commonplace book that I was keeping at the time. Abbreviations are his:

• Barthes, S/Z
• F. Jameson, Prison House of Language
• Foucault, The Order of Things
• Derrida, “Structure, Sign, & Play . . .” in The Structuralist Controversy
• Bataille, Death & Sensuality
• Edward Said, “Abecedarian Culturae” (Last Chapter of Beginnings)

Bataille was a personal eccentricity; Barthes has since been demoted to a literary journalist; Said’s Orientalism, published the year before, had yet to make its splash. Otherwise, though, the necessary pieces were in place.

Five definitions of style

(1.) The extra in the writing.

(2.) The record of an author’s decisions—what to include, what to leave out, when to occupy a seat, when to move on.

(3.) “The way words use the writer.” (J. V. Cunningham’s joking inversion of a student’s inanely obvious definition.)

(4.) If form is what remains the same when everything else has been changed (Cunningham) then style is everything that can be changed.

(5.) If form is what satisfies expectations raised in the reader (Kenneth Burke) then style is what raises expectations.

The Lolita Man

Bill James, The Lolita Man (New York: Foul Play Press, 1998). 158 pp. $10.00.

Last Saturday the British writer and editor Mary Jackson put up a disturbing little essay at Pajamas Media, arguing that it has become suspicious and even dangerous for men to show concern for children not their own—they risk being treated as perverts. She quotes Boris Johnson, now the mayor of London, who complained two years ago in the Telegraph about a “system of presuming guilt in the entire male population just because of the tendencies of a tiny minority.”

This system, which one of Jackson’s commentators describes as Every Man a Perv, has had terrible effects, not just upon men who must check their normal impulse to help children, but upon children who need other men in their lives beside their fathers. When I was a high-school sophomore, hired as a “stringer” by the local paper to cover sporting events that a reporter couldn’t get to, I was befriended and tutored in the art of sports writing by a bachelor columnist who lived alone, in a beautiful stone cottage, around the corner from me. I spent hours in his company, going over my copy, debating the merits of baseball versus football, discussing the books he had put into my hands (he introduced me to A. J. Liebling). Now of course such a relationship would be impossible. Any parent who allowed it would be called negligent.

The denigration of normal men is not the only consequence of the general dirty-mindedness. When all men are potential perverts, actual perverts disappear into the crowd, losing their special brand of evil. They can no longer be distinguished from other men. Reading Jackson’s little essay, I couldn’t help thinking of Bill James’s novel The Lolita Man, probably the best portrait of a pedophile in the English language.

Originally published in 1986, The Lolita Man was the second of James’s long-running series of “Harper & Iles mysteries” which now numbers twenty-five titles. A 79-year-old Welshman and former newspaperman whose real name is James Tucker (under which name he published a study of Anthony Powell), James is nothing like his contemporaries P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. He is not absorbed with motive nor does he have a young girl’s murder serve as a pretext for an investigation of something more interesting. His prose is not elegant but angular and unadorned, and his Britain has less in common with Adam Dalgliesh’s than with Theodore Dalrymple’s. Crime is not an isolated incident there, but a rising tide that the police are nearly powerless to hold back. “The detective is dead,” Iles explains in the novel by that title. “Which detective?” Harpur replies. “I hadn’t heard.”

Jerk. The detective as species. . . . Courts won’t hear confessions, they throw out informant cases, still give every career villain the right to silence, disbelieve police evidence as a matter of course. Judges disallow material recorded in trap situations—alleging we’re provocateurs. Juries are threatened and bribed. Villains keep special insurance funds for nobbling them. Where’s detection?The best the police can hope for is gunplay, so they can shoot too; they plant evidence where necessary; they do whatever they can to avoid going to trial. Not likely to please the civil libertarians, as Iles acknowledges, but there is something more important than approved procedure. Quoting Halifax’s Character of a Trimmer, he insists that the law must be “in good hands”—his and Harpur’s, not the lawyers’. The point is not, as cliché has it, that a thin line separates law enforcement from “crookedness”; but rather that the line separating them is not procedural.

James’s best novel is Roses, Roses, the tenth in the Harpur & Iles series, which opens with the murder of Harpur’s wife and then in alternating chapters leads her up to the stabbing, at least as Harpur imagines it must have gone, and then shows him in a race to solve the crime. In The Lolita Man, James was still experimenting, still searching for the right approach. The technique of alternating chapters is already in place—Harpur’s investigation alternates with diary entries by a fourteen-year-old girl who is being stalked by the Lolita Man—but he also tries something daring. Starting with the fifth chapter, he lets the pedophile speak for himself. Commences then a complex and suspenseful three-way dance in which the Lolita Man stalks the girl, who knows she is being watched by the man she calls Mr Dark Eyes, but who is also (unbeknownst to her) being watched by Harpur, who suspects that she may be the next victim, and who is known and watched by the Lolita Man, whom Harpur does not know.

The story begins when Detective Chief Superintendent Colin Harpur is summoned to the King Richard Hotel where a thirteen-year-old girl has been raped and strangled. She is the fifth girl to die in the same way. Even in the presence of the corpse, Harpur is elated that the murderer might have been seen in the busy hotel. “Christ,” he reflects, “the Lolita Man had started acting like that first Lolita man in the book, visiting hotels with his little bird.” It will not be, alas, that easy. When Assistant Chief Constable Desmond Iles arrives, he too is elated, but for a different reason. He says,
This guy is unique, isn’t he? All the sexologists tell us rapists hardly even kill. Oh, I know there’s the Boston Strangler and that joker who got among the Chicago nurses, but it’s rare and especially in the rapists of kids. We’ll be in the textbooks.Thus James gets his two disclaimers out of the way early on. His pedophile is no Humbert Humbert, who was an “artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy.” Nor is he a typical child-abuser, who is statistically more likely to be a woman or (if a man) then a family member.

James’s Lolita Man is a patient watchful stranger in need of love, not help (“love, only love, love from a girl, a girl not too old, a girl really young, a gentle and kind girl from a nice private school with high class navy and red uniform, a girl who has not been playing around with boys, letting them close to her, using foul language”). He lives in a “tomb alone” until he finds the “right girl,” but when he does he is properly thankful:Tonight in my prayers I gave thanks that I have been able to find her among so many. Please God let it be that I do not lose her. Do not send me back to that black pit. Prayer is such a help in my life.The voice is much creepier than “that first Lolita man.” Humbert Humbert is aware of the “cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” A part of him knows in advance that “nothing but pain and horror would result from the expected rapture” with his Lolita. Nor is he totally cut off from the human nexus. “Imagine me,” he beseeches his readers; “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me. . . .” Nabokov’s Lolita, as I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog, is dedicated to the proposition that imagination might be redemptive, recreating time backwards, transfiguring a monster, giving a dead girl eternal life in a book bearing her name.

James’s vision is entirely different. In his world, imagination cannot make the monstrous wonderful again; to believe otherwise is, as Iles puts it, “eyewash”; the truth about human society—the “dark pressures” of experience—are stronger and more lasting.

And James’s Lolita Man is the greater monster, because he does not think of himself as a monster. He believes, in fact, that he is “the only one who can save [the girl he is stalking].” He finally moves to snatch her when he reflects that “I haven’t done enough for her, only watching.” He must protect her from Harpur, whom he suspects—faithful to the system of Every Man a Perv—of wanting “dirty sex” with her. He breaks into her room, thrilling her (“I could smell some strong tobacco in my room like they use in those French cigarettes”) but leaving himself distraught at not finding her there.

At this point the alternating chapters suddenly stop and Harpur is left alone with the sound of his own voice, unable to locate the girl he has been tailing. For some thirty-five pages, nothing is heard from either of them—the girl or Mr Dark Eyes. The effect is chilling. How will it end? Not in any way calculated to satisfy expectations. James’s novels never do. But the ending does establish something worth knowing. The impulse to protect a child does not unmask a normal man as a Lolita man, and to worry that it might is to give up on a far more troubling problem. Namely: how much to redeem with imagination, and how much to let the truth have.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Matthew Arnold is to blame. He is the one who concocted “high seriousness” as the ultimate standard of greatness in English poetry.1 And by now, “serious” has almost become the name of a subgenre. There is “serious fiction,” and there is everything else. Practically everybody understands that “serious” is not the opposite of “humorous,” but rather of “frivolous.” What, however, does the word itself mean?

It comes from the Latin serius for “grave”; and at first it seems to have meant just that—sorrowful, sad, fretful. (Dickens three hundred years after it began to appear widely in English speech contrasted serious to smirking.) Since then it seems to have diverged into two different traditions of meaning. One is headed by St. Thomas More, for whom “serious” was a synonym of “earnest.” The other is headed by Sir Thomas Elyot, who spoke in The Governour of Socrates’ “serious disciples.” In this tradition—by far the ascendant one today—“serious” became a term of rather vague approbation. The disciple, for instance, is praised for his seriousness because he has nothing else worth praising.

The term is vague because it has no natural opposite. What is unserious? In fact, serious is opposed, in any plain man’s vocabulary, to humorous, to pleasurable; the serious employments of man are on one side, wearing dark colors and a frown; the light and trifling amusements are on the other side. When a plain man says, “Are you serious?” he means, “You’re not joking, are you?” He doesn’t mean: “Is what you are saying of lasting importance; is it weighty; does it require considerable thought; is it spoken with fervent intent?”

In the first chapter of Book V of Tom Jones, Fielding equates seriousness with dullness. The English pantomime, he writes,

consisted of two parts, which the inventor distinguished by the names of the serious and the comic. The serious exhibited a certain number of heathen gods and heroes, who were certainly the worst and dullest company into which an audience was ever introduced; and (which was a secret known to few) were actually intended so to be, in order to contrast the comic part of the entertainment, and to display the tricks of the harlequin to better advantage.
     This was, perhaps, no very civil use of such personages; but the contrivance was, nevertheless, ingenious enough, and had its effect. And this will now plainly appear, if, instead of serious and comic, we supply the words duller and dullest; for the comic was certainly duller than anything before shown on stage, and could be set off only by the superlative degree of dullness which composed the serious.
This passage also describes what has happened to so-called “serious fiction.” It is so dull that in comparison to it even teenaged girls who love vampires, forensic pathologists pursuing criminals through cyberspace, or boys being raised in graveyards by ghosts seem fascinating company.

1. “[T]he superiority of poetry over history consists in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness. . .” (“The Study of Poetry” [1880] in Selections from the Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, ed. William Savage Johnson [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913], p. 88).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Truth in “error”

Rohan Maitzen laughs at her students. Whatever gets her through the hard slog of reading exams, I suppose. She quotes a few bloopers, misspellings, and historical scramblings, but then exposits, with straight-faced irony, her students’ literary theory: “Night is a non-fiction novel, realism is when you decide to write realistically about reality, and unreliable narration is when you don't believe what you are saying.”

I dunno. All three of those propositions sound pretty good to me. Night is no more an autobiography than is The Education of Henry Adams; both are what Perry Miller called “artificial constructions.” The infinite regressiveness of the definition of realism unerringly identifies the central problem with trying to define it at all. And who is the very best unreliable narrator ever? Huck Finn, right? Does he believe what he is saying when he describes Jim as “white inside”?

Update: Been thinking about this. Upon reflection, it stikes me that the real error lies not with their propositions above, but rather with students’ inability to write the next sentence. Undergraduates rarely have the training or inclination to use the word because. They don’t even try to argue for their views. To mock the obvious incorrectness of the answers is to miss the point that they are “wrong” only in light of a contrary view (i.e., the teacher’s), the correctness of which is assumed and no more defended than is the students’.

There are, it seems to me, two cures for this ill. Either drill the students in the correct answers, perhaps with the use of classroom chants accompanied by calisthenics, or place the correct answers—the propositions that the teacher wants the students to recall—firmly within the context of an argument (or narrative); and make that argument (or narrative) coherent, persuasive, and memorable. The goal is not to get students to parrot your opinions, but to grasp where literary and historical facts fit into a larger whole, which will give them whatever meaning and value they have.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Raven and the Whale

Perry Miller, The Raven and the Whale: The War of Words and Wits in the Era of Poe and Melville (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1956).

The Neglected Books Page is one of my favorites. When I am stuck for something to read, I turn there first. But of all the recommendations by all the different writers collected there, my all-time favorite is Robert Conquest’s. Originally writing in the Los Angeles Times nine Christmases ago, Conquest said:

It’s hard to think of a really fine book that is totally neglected. Still, I seldom come across anyone who has read Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium doubtless because its theme is chiliastic sects of 500 years ago. But (especially in its expanded later edition), it is uniquely wise and informative about the nature, recruitment and delusions of such movements–then and now.The phrase “neglected books” usually summons up novels that are forgotten once they are no longer novelties. Conquest’s words serve as a reminder of another class: books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.

Such a book is Perry Miller’s Raven and the Whale. The title is a misleading advertisement, a ploy to excite interest by disguising his real theme. Miller sets the record straight on the first page: “The present book, let me say once and for all, is only incidentally concerned with Moby-Dick or even with Herman Melville: it is preoccupied with Melville’s America. . . .” Or, more exactly, it is preoccupied with the literary culture and publishing world, specifically in New York City, where Melville developed into a great artist. (And where Poe “dreamed of becoming a literary power.”)

At the center is a competition of journalistic critics who were the lions of mid-nineteenth century—the age’s equivalent of James Wood and Michael Dirda—“who survive today hardly as names, even to antiquarians.” On the near side were the Whigs grouped around Lewis Gaylord Clark’s Knickerbocker Magazine; on the other side of the field was Young America, the party of “literary nationalism,” Democratic in its politics, led by Evert Augustus Duyckinck and Cornelius Mathews.

Out of these unpromising materials, Miller carefully builds up one of the most distinguished contributions to American intellectual history, and probably its best read. His account of the culture war between “Young America” and the Knickerbocker regiment has much of enduring value to say about the tactics, weapons, and collateral damage in such wars—then and now. Book reviewers, for example, served as a kind of press gang, signing up new recruits, and the decision not to review a new book was no less tactical and partisan. Miller is good at tracing the influence of this “war of words and wits” on Melville and Poe (suddenly Book XVII of Pierre, “Young America in Literature,” makes a lot more sense, and the biting reviews by Poe, to say nothing of his contemporaries’ opinion of him, come into clearer focus).

He is even better at showing that the war’s worst casualties were those writers whose development was stunted and whose talents were shrunk. Among these, for example, was Charles Frederick Briggs, “the first in our literature to make use, by comic indirection, of the brutality of New York life—prostitution, murder, crime, competition, filth. . . .” Now almost entirely forgotten, Briggs is an unacknowledged forerunner of New York novels of slum life, poverty, and the underworld starting with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods in 1902 and including such books as Call It Sleep, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Victim, The Real Cool Killers, and V.

What comes across more strikingly than any other quality is Miller’s respect for the obscure and unimportant figures in his book. The Raven and the Whale takes them seriously, even though most of them are third- and fourth-rate writers. The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.

The seventh and last book published during his lifetime was Miller’s first venture into the nineteenth century, although he had edited the definitive anthology of The Transcendentalists six years earlier. A Chicago native and Harvard man for thirty-two years prior to his death in 1965, Miller was far better known as the intellectual historian of The New England Mind (two volumes, 1939 and 1953). He may even have been the first to use the phrase intellectual history to refer to a new genre of history.[1]

What is even more important is that Miller created a new way to write intellectual history. At a time when historians are being hectored to get with the theoretical program of the last thirty years, to abandon specialization, to stop tracing concepts and arguments in order to make history comprehensible only in reference to itself, and to reintegrate intellectual figures into the social and political milieu, Miller had already done all that, and more—by not being hectoring about it. Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club (2001) is a later book in the same tradition of combining analysis and biography into a readable narrative of intellectual history. Miller was the first, however. And remains the best.

[1] Felix Gilbert, “Intellectual History: Its Aims and Methods,” Daedalus 100 (Winter 1971): 80.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The politics of the politics of literature

Politics is one of those words, like “race” or “love” or “satisfaction guaranteed,” that has a stable instability of meaning. Everyone thinks he knows what he is talking about when he talks about politics, but I’m not so sure. It would be nice if the word could be restricted to discussions of practical arrangements, proposals to innovate or preserve, institutional mission statements, bureaucratic policies, the charters of social associations. The likelihood, however, is small. Michael Oakeshott explains why:

The language of politics is the language of desire and aversion, of preference and choice, of approval and disapproval, of praise and blame, of persuasion, injunction, accusation and threat. It is the language in which we make promises, ask for support, recommend beliefs and actions, devise and commend administrative expedients and organize the beliefs and opinions of others in such a manner that policy may be effectively and economically executed; in short, it is the language of every-day, practical life. But men engaged in political activity . . . in order to make their opinions and actions more attractive, are apt to recommend them in the idiom of general ideas; and in order to make the opinions and actions of others less attractive are apt to denigrate them in terms of general ideas.[1]The reverse is also true, especially among intellectuals. You abridge the conceptual experience of agreeing with another man’s argument by speaking as if he belongs to your party. To place a man in the opposite camp is to refute him.

Here politics serves as a sheet of pregummed stamps for identifying allies and enemies. But the politics of literature is far more complicated. One small example. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the late twentieth century, in my opinion. On September 11, 2001, its stature grew. Unlike Don DeLillo (“There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists”) or Paul Auster (“if these two-bit explosions forced people to rethink their positions about life, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all”), Roth demonstrates that terrorism is a “crime [that] could never be made right.”[2]

The novel was celebrated by writers publicly identified as conservative. Carol Iannone, for example, whose nomination to the National Endowment for the Humanities by the first President Bush had provoked a tantrum on the academic Left six years earlier, praised the novel in Commentary. The father of a beloved daughter who sets off a bomb that kills a local doctor, Roth’s hero Swede Levovbegins to grasp that America is [his daughter’s] stand-in not only for the hard reality of her own family and its experience but for the inherent, flawed limitedness of the human condition, ‘for everything that was imperfect in life.’ And in his agony the Swede also begins to apprehend something else: that behind the righteous indignation and ‘idealism’ of the radical movement that snatched away his daughter lies a kind of counter-truth to decency—namely, the sheer, malicious joy of violent wasting. . . .[3]Edward Alexander, once described to me by an academic Leftist who had studied at the University of Washington as “beyond the pale,” wrote that Roth’s novel delivers a powerful rebuke to Leftist clichés (“Everything is political. Brushing your teeth is political”), but not by putting up an opposing rhetoric:[T]he truly potent critic of sixties radicalism in American Pastoral is neither Roth’s narrator Zuckerman nor . . . Swede Levov, nor any other character sickened by the arrogant ignorance of the kamikaze radicals; rather it is the counter-image of productive labor in the glove factory that the Swede . . . takes over from his father. . . . Work is real; idealistic sloganeering about exploitation of workers by profit-hungry bosses is idle wind.[4]When it came time to face the public reaction to The Plot against America seven years later, however, Roth was prepared. Writing in the New York Times Book Review prior to publication, he declared that President George W. Bush, “a man unfit to run a hardware store let alone a nation like this one,” had affirmed his book’s moral: “all the assurances are provisional, even here in a 200-year-old democracy.” The public isn’t always so docile, though. Ruth R. Wisse dismissed Roth’s Book Review article as a “preemptive strike.” The politics of the novel itself is “irrelevant,” Wisse continued—“except perhaps inadvertently.” For if Roth intended The Plot against America as a warning about the possibility of antisemitism, even in a country that has never been host to a pogrom, the danger lies not with Bush, but in the potentiality for ahomegrown anti-Semitic coalition, combining elements of the isolationist Buchananite Right . . . with the much more energetic and influential forces of the anti-Israel and anti-American Left.[5]Even when it contains injunctions, accusations, and threats, a literary language may not have any practical effect—or not the effect its writer intended. That’s because literary persuasion is of a different order from political persuasion. In a public speech or a newspaper column, I am trying to win adherents to a cause. Once my relation to the cause becomes mediated by style, however—a concern to write well—I am no longer trying to win adherents but readers, and to persuade them of the reality (not the social justice) of what I have to say.

The political commitment of the literary Left, then, is extraliterary. It rarely serves any purpose in literary texts, or not the purpose originally hoped for. Depending upon the institution in which he operates, the Leftist may even be a conservative, opposing such innovations as, for example, hiring political conservatives for the sake of ideological diversity. Even then, many activities which are advertised as political are anything but. Signing petitions, publicly expressing “support” or “opposition,” marching in public demonstrations, affixing a bumpersticker on the car—these are cards of identity. They are neither persuasive nor effective. They are, in truth, an affirmation of one’s self-esteem, a means of establishing one’s purity of heart, a reassurance (to oneself) that one stands with the angels.

This is not politics, however, but confession.
[1] Michael Oakeshott, “The Study of ‘Politics’ in a University” (1962), in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), p. 206.

[2] Don DeLillo, Mao II (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991), p. 41; Paul Auster, Leviathan (New York: Viking Penguin, 1992), p. 244; Philip Roth, American Pastoral (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), p. 69.

[3] Carol Iannone, “An American Tragedy,” Commentary 104 (August 1997): 55.

[4] Edward Alexander, “Philip Roth at Century‘s End,” New England Review (Spring 1999): 183–90. Alexander is author of Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[5] Ruth R. Wisse, “In Nazi Newark,” Commentary 118 (December 2004): 65–70.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Pulling out a quotation from Cunningham

In his amused nod at my post on theory, which I discuss below, Mark Thwaite does say that he enjoyed the quotation that I “pull[ed] out” from J. V. Cunningham.

Two confessions. First, Cunningham was my teacher. When he was a visiting professor at Washington University in 1976, he gave a seminar on the history of literary criticism. On the first day of class, he was delighted to find that, on the student roster, the course was listed as “History of Literacy Criticism.” For what it is worth, Cunningham set my feet upon the career path that I continue to stalk. Only much later, though, did I realize how deeply he had penetrated all of my thinking about literature and literary scholarship. At the time, I believed that he had given me his blessing as a writer. One day in class he gave the assignment to fill the blank in this epigram by Sir Henry Wotton:

He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, _________, and died.
My classmates twisted themselves into elegant polysyllabic knots. Stumped, I wrote simply: “went to bed.”He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, went to bed, and died.
The correct answer, of course, is somewhat more distinguished:He first deceased; she for a little tried
To live without him, liked it not, and died.
Still, “that is the best wrong answer I have ever received,” Cunningham said. And in some respects, I have been trying to supply him with good wrong answers ever since. My firm conviction that it is just as important to write well in scholarship as in fiction, and infinitely more needed, is straight Cunningham.

Second, I didn’t just pull the quotation out of a hat. From the beginning of my PhD studies in English, his words have served as my program. Cunningham defined an ideal that I measure myself against in every professional thing I do. I mention this, and I quoted his words in my theses on the history of literary theory, because that ideal has disappeared from graduate training in English. It is undeniable that the traditional disciplines of literary scholarship, which Cunningham lays out with such memorable exactitude and brevity, have been replaced by the need to acquire a theoretical “approach.”

The last time I taught a graduate seminar at Texas A&M—I won’t teach one again—I was contacted in advance by a student who wanted to know what my approach would be. “How do I decide?” I asked him. He did not enroll in the course. Another student, who did enroll, complained on the course evaluation that my approach was “atheoretical,” even though, in a seminar on Evil in the American Novel since 1940, we had read a pretty healthy dose of recent philosophical writing on the problem of evil. I can guess what the student meant. I had not located my ideas in relation to some currently dominant figure of thought. I had started over again, as if from scratch, with each novel on our syllabus. I was entirely unsuspicious in my hermeneutics. I actually believed that the novelists had something to say, and I was interested what it might be. Silly of me, I know.

A silly pop at theory

Over at the Ready Steady Blog, Mark Thwaite mistakes my seven theses about the history of literary theory for a “silly pop at Theory” (the capital-T is his). They are silly, he explains, because “attacking Theory (which is so capacious) in such a bluff way always strikes as fatuous.” Ah, yes, the capaciousness of theory. Just about as capacious as the soft-drink aisle in a supermarket, and just about as varied.

Oops. That was an attack, and despite Thwaite’s assertion to the contrary, my intention in the earlier post was historical rather than polemical.

To propose, for example, that literary theory was neither a school nor a style nor a movement is not to attack it, but to notice a historical problem. Theory was understood by some people to form something distinct and distinguishable in the past, but if I am to narrate its history, I must be able to say what distinguished it from other similar things. Capacious or not, theory was treated as a unity; and if—like Thwaite—I speak of Theory rather than theories, and if I see it as an intellectual event or grouping of intellectual events, I ought to be able to define its conceptual unity. If there is nothing unique to theory capable of accounting for the popular description of it as a genuine departure in literary criticism then there is small reason to speak of it at all. To accept its adepts’ account of it is not to write as a historian, but as a publicist. And to reject that account is not to polemicize against the adepts. Their account will have a place in the story too—just not pride of place as a necessary and sufficient condition.

If I were going to “pop” anyone it would not be theory’s adepts, but its historians. Look, the problem that confronts any historian of criticism is how to proceed. Given a capacious miscellany of writings, should the historian emphasize individual critics or collective ideas? How, in short, do you organize the story? The usual solution is to adopt the school-and-movements approach with separate chapters (or sections) on structuralism, deconstruction, reader response, feminism, New Historicism, queer theory, etc. You might as well write a textbook: an admission of failure, that is, a submission to the miscellaneousness of the subject.

Another possibility would be to write something like Wimsatt and Brooks’s Short History of criticism (1957). At least then you wouldn’t be a bore. In their Introduction, the authors acknowledge that their book “could be called ‘polemic’ or ‘argumentative.’ Call it An Argumentative History of Literary Argument in the West.” In fact, it was a retelling of criticism’s history from the New Criticism’s point of view.

Such an attitude strikes me as profoundly unhistorical. Approval or disapproval of his subject entails a fundamental error on the historian’s part. “My concern,” as I wrote in The Elephants Teach, my first attempt to write a history of criticism, “is not that of the debater, who argues the status quo ante must be altered or preserved, but that of the historian, for whom the present situation arouses a curiosity to know how things got to be this way.” I read someone like Thwaite, and I wonder how something can be both capacious and unified by a capital-T at the same time. If I end up concluding that the thing is neither I have not joined the debate, but sought to translate the question into a different idiom altogether.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Writing about the certainty of death

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness (New York: Ballantine, 1993). 156 pp. $15.00.

Patrick Kurp has a long satisfying post up this morning about the poet L.E. Sissman, who died of Hodgkins’s disease in 1976 just about a decade after first being diagnosed with the disease. “No one,” Patrick comments, “has written so unromantically and with such wit about the certainty of a foreshortened life. . . .”

The lack of romance is the keynote of Sissman’s poetry, but it is also the key to writing about the certainty of death. Sentimentality or self-pity mars most such writing, and renders it useless for anyone who looks for help in how to think about his fast-approaching death. There are not many writers who are both clear- and tough-minded in the face of death.

One other is Anatole Broyard. A longtime book critic for the New York Times, Broyard is remembered now largely because he was an African-American who “passed” for white in an age when “passing” had long since ceased to provide any advantages. In his biographical essay “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” Henry Louis Gates mentions Broyard’s prostate cancer (although he mangles the diagnosis somewhat) and also the critic’s characteristic reaction to it:

Broyard spent much of the time before his death, fourteen months later, making a study of the literature of illness and death, and publishing a number of essays on the subject. Despite the occasion, they were imbued with an almost dandyish, even jokey sense of incongruity: “My urologist, who is quite famous, wanted to cut off my testicles. . . . Speaking as a surgeon, he said that it was the surest, quickest, neatest solution. Too neat, I said, picturing myself with no balls. I knew that such a solution would depress me, and I was sure that depression is bad medicine.” He had attracted notice in 1954 with the account of his father’s death from a similar cancer; now he recharged his writing career as a chronicler of his own progress toward death. He thought about calling his collection of writings on the subject Critically Ill. It was a pun he delighted in.And that’s it. One expects more basic (and accurate) information from a critic of Gates’s standing.

The collection of writing on Broyard’s “progress toward death” was published posthumously as Intoxicated by My Illness. It concluded with the brilliant story “What the Cystoscope Said,” first published in the Pocket Book collection Discovery #4 edited by Vance Bourjaily and reprinted in Fiction of the Fifties (1959) edited by Herbert Gold. The narrator never identifies the cancer that kills his father. (Broyard’s own father died from cancer of the bladder.) The cystoscopy that unmans him, the “little surprise” that Peter Romain receives from his doctor “to get the inside story on you,” is a test to measure the health of the urethra and bladder. It is commonly administered to differentiate bladder from prostate cancer.

Gates mimics the euphemistic language of the story’s doctor, who describes Romain’s cancer as “incurable” (Broyard’s was “inoperable,” Gates primly says). It would be more direct and accurate to say that both men had a cancer that had similarly metastasized. As Dr. Windelband says to Romain’s son, “The cancer has reached his bones.” Despite advances in medicine, Broyard was no more fortunate forty years later. When it is localized, prostate cancer is one of the most curable cancers; according to the American Cancer Society, the relative five-year survival rate for men with localized prostate cancer is 100%. When it “spreads” to the bones or lymph nodes, however, average survival time is one to three years.

Broyard got fourteen months. During that time he wrote a number of short essays, delivered a talk at the University of Chicago Medical School, and sporadically kept a journal. From this material his widow extracted four essays and not quite ten pages of notes and reflections.

The tone is established at the outset. “I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate,” Broyard writes. Gates describes this as “dandyish, even jokey,” but Broyard is neither striking a pose nor cracking wise. “When you learn that your life is threatened,” he explains, ”you can turn toward this knowledge or away from it.” What follows is an object lesson in turning toward the knowledge of one’s near death.

It is more than a matter of intellectual honesty. A sentence of death can be a gift—deliverence from the unknown into the cause of urgency. One is narrowed to the immediately relevant and no longer responsible for social expectations or graces:
I can’t help thinking there’s something comical about my friends’ behavior—all these witty men suddenly saying pious, inspirational things. They are not intoxicated as I am by my illness, but sobered. Since I refuse to, they’ve taken on the responsibility of being serious.Perhaps Gates cannot tell the difference between jocularity and wit. Jokes are appreciated by academics, but not an assemblage of Ideas put together with quickness and variety. Wit is Broyard’s weapon against despair, but also the preservation of his identity. He is defined, not by his cancer, but by his thought and words.

The best thing in the book is the long essay “The Patient Examines the Doctor.” Although he does not abandon his epigrammatic and allusive approach (his talent for developing a scene or argument was damaged by nineteen years of writing a regular book column for the New York Times), Broyard circles around and around a sharp and significant point. From his side, the patient and his doctor are a couple (“what the French call un couple malade, a marriage of doctor and patient”), which the doctor would do well to understand. Instead, the relationship between doctor and patient is too often like a marriage in which husband and wife no longer talk to each other. Broyard’s doctor was a famous urologist:
He knows all there is to know about the prostate, but I cannot sit down and have a talk with him about it, which I find a very great deprivation. . . . What a curious organ. What can God have been thinking when he designed it this way? I would like to have a meditation, a rumination, a lucubration, a bombination, about the prostate. I can’t do it. I’m forced to stop people on the street and talk to them about it.Okay, the last line is a joke. Until then, though, Broyard is making a serious point. A patient’s feelings toward his doctor are like the love that a wife feels for the husband who has fallen out of love with her. The problem is that most doctors cannot locate a middle ground between brutal directness, in medicine’s technical vocabulary, and pious, inspirational banalities.

If only for reprinting “What the Cystoscope Said” in a collection of Anatole Broyard’s own writing, Intoxicated by My Illness would deserve praise. It is better than that, however. It is capable of teaching physicians—teaching all of us—a different language for terminal disease.