Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Single-minded devotion to literature

Transcribing J. V. Cunningham’s lecture notes on the history of criticism, principally on form and style, reminded me of something that Orwell wrote in 1948 after the Soviet Union had consolidated the Eastern Bloc. The events of the past decade had made a “purely aesthetic attitude towards life impossible. No one, now, could devote himself to literature as single-mindedly as Joyce or Henry James,” he said. The modern literary intellectual simply could no longer refuse to accept “political responsibility,” even if doing so meant “yielding oneself over to orthodoxies and ‘party lines,’ with all the timidity and dishonesty that that implies.”

In America, this was the age of the New York intellectuals. Criticism was politically engaged. When Alfred Kazin said in the preface to On Native Grounds (1942) that he had “never been able to understand why the study of literature in relation to society should be divorced from a full devotion to what literature is in itself,” he was taking aim at V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927), a Progressive history, and Granville Hicks’s Great Tradition (1933), a Marxist interpretation of American literature, even though Hicks himself had already resigned from the Communist Party by then. Kazin took it for granted that a modern literary intellectual would want to study literature “in relation to society”; his innovation, if it can be called that, was to propose marriage with “literature in itself.”

By then, of course, a school of Anglo-American criticism had arisen that wished “literature in itself” to remain single and unattached. John Crowe Ransom named the school in 1941 with his book The New Criticism. And if he, T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, William Empson, and Yvor Winters—the critics discussed in the book—along with such later-comers as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, R. P. Blackmur, and Allen Tate did not enjoy a “purely aesthetic attitude towards life,” they certainly tried as hard as Joyce or Henry James to devote themselves single-mindedly to literature. Later that would be called their politics—a decision as political as any other—but the punch would not land. If everything is political, what is the force of calling anything political?

The New Critics were Cunningham’s chief opponents, because he was as single-minded as any of them in his pursuit of “literature in itself.” Indeed, he spoke repeatedly of “the tradition”—in the singular—as when, naming the poetic genres that were handed down from the Renaissance, he observed that “some texts disappear from the tradition,” and are thus without consequence. Of all his literary opponents (with the exception of Winters, whom he refrained from criticizing publicly out of gratitude and loyalty, despite the bitter enmity that had grown up on both sides), Cunningham was hardest on Cleanth Brooks:

Here lies New Critic who would fox us
With his poetic paradoxes.
Though he lies rigid and quiet,
If he could speak he would deny it.
And yet Brooks’s first major book was Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939), in which he used the singular term in exactly Cunningham’s sense. With the passage of years and the deaths of both men, it is now obvious that they had more in common than either would acknowledge.

The current day resembles Orwell’s more than Cunningham’s and the New Critics’. It is impossible to avoid talking about politics with increasing heat and voice. The modern literary intellectual is once again obliged to accept political responsibility, even if he promises not to write about politics. So, for example, Daniel E. Pritchard criticizes Gov. Bobby Jindal (R–La.), but mangles the argument in his partisan eagerness to score points, and I feel compelled to correct his error—all the more because I respect Pritchard apart from his politics. My arrière-pensée, my belated embarrassment, is not enough to remove my fingers from the keyboard.

Only part of the problem is political, however. The other part—to my mind, the larger part of the problem—is literary. And the fault does not lie with the poets and critics of Cleanth Brooks’s and J. V. Cunningham’s generation. They lived for literature, and they lived a full life. They have neither descendants nor successors. No one lives for literature any longer, because no longer is it a full life, the commitment of every working hour to reading and writing, wherever—to whatever abandoned genre and ruined reputation—it leads. Now literature is, as Daniel Green once memorably put it, “everything written in the forms of fiction, poetry, or drama . . . if the author intends it to be taken as literature.” Literature is writing, that is, of a certain kind, which is literary. Green is fully representative of the new single-minded devotion, which preserves “literature in itself” by reducing it (in advance) to irrelevance. But he is not alone. This is also the institutional mission of creative writing. And “literary” fiction. And contemporary poetry. All of it so pure that an idea has never violated it. A good many “literary” writers live in a circle drawn by their own ambition to be taken as literary. By comparison, even hyper-partisanship seems as alive as a young panther.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Cunningham’s history of criticism

Note: In the spring of 1976, I took a seminar on the history of literary criticism with J. V. Cunningham, who was the Hurst Visiting Professor at Washington University that semester. The course text was Allan H. Gilbert’s Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden, originally published in 1940, an anthology that was particularly good for its selection of Italian Renaissance critics—Tasso, Castelvetro, Minturno—and for its extensive topical index. I have already shared an anecdote from this class, concerning an assignment, and told how the enrollment sheet, misprinting the course’s name as the “History of Literacy Criticism,” amused him. (Now that I have taught graduate students, and seen for myself what passes for literacy among recent college graduates, I understand why he was amused.) Although there were fewer than a dozen students in the class, Cunningham lectured for the full two hours, without notes, leaning forward, his legs crossed tightly at the knee, speaking in a soft but audible voice that encouraged the student to lean forward also.

Only recently, to my great joy, did I turn up my class notes. And since today is the twenty-fourth anniversary of his death, I thought it fitting to honor Cunningham by distributing some of these notes. I have included about a third of the whole. His admirers, of whom there are many, will be grateful for his remarks on the history of criticism—the first new publication of Cunningham material in several years—even in the fragmentary form in which I offer them here. As he said, in the final note that I have from the class, “Our feeling for fragment as form is an explanation of free verse.”

Meter. Poets must learn, young, to speak and hear it.

Writing aims at being unalterable and permanent. Thus records and tape recordings are forms of writing.

Form precedes its realization, even in the first instance.

A literary work is a convergence of forms.

The assumption of translation is that things can be said in several ways and that the ways can be compared.

Dialogue. People aiming at a sort of change through oral interchange. An elementary form of it is the catechism, a question-and-answer dialogue. Modern forms, unknown to antiquity, include psychotherapy, labor negotiations, a roundtable discussion. These are Socratic dialogues in well-furnished rooms.

Background information is often imparted (or learned through study) merely for the sake of believing in the foreground. Thus, when Laertes warns Ophelia against marrying Hamlet, he is speaking plain truth, for he is speaking in the foreground and must be believed. The background was this. All mixed marriages between a royal personage and a commoner ended with the commoner in prison, in exile, or dead.

Dialectic. It is a conversation held under certain rules: (1) The answerer is required to reply in as few words as possible. (2) He is required to answer the question exactly as put. (3) He is not allowed to ask new questions. (4) Or to boggle at the form of the question as put to him.

The “old” meaning of the word art. A field in which things can be accomplished by certain steps and procedures. If the steps are not general then they don’t belong to an art. If a procedure is not applicable to every poet then poetry is not an art.

Divine inspiration. The man becomes completely engrossed. The inspired becomes not himself. He is narrowed to relevance. He becomes pure style.

Tolerance is almost identical to indifference.

You won’t last long unless you know how to lie. Including the reputation for not doing so.

Unity is an invention of the New Critics, developed to enable them to replace the writer’s style. If you just read the thing—and didn’t have to write an introduction to it—it would never occur to you that there is a problem of unity. In Shakespeare the unifying element is the plot. There is no paper in that, but there was a play.

Worrying about unity in a literary work comes about because of posing unity as a problem in the first place.

In Plato, paradox is employed to make the worse appear to be the better course.

Sacred text. (1) Allusion to it carries prestige. (2) The text is inseparable from its commentary.

A text has a value in its society that may reflect an inaccurate interpretation of it.

One can see the art of tragedy working through Sophocles to produce Oedipus.

An artist must follow a model. That is the meaning of mimesis.

If it is not done by art, in the old sense of the word, then a man cannot give a coherent explanation of the step-by-step process of creation.

The world of poetry used to be defined by who wrote in what meter. Poets were known by their methods, meters, and style.

“So much depends/ upon a red wheelbarrow. . . .” That so much depends upon who is King of Denmark is another matter.

Character in tragedy. What a man does to seek or to avoid something displays his moral choices.

For Aristotle, character is the subtle habits of a man that lead him to make moral choices. In this sense character is distinguished from pathos, the strong feelings that may arise suddenly in a man but are separate from his steadfastness.

Modern critics tend to “vague-ify” and psychologize—that is, they turn the externals inward. The obvious is repellent for some reason to the literary sensibility.

A complex plot—containing sharp reversals, exposing character and motive—is for Aristotle the completest form of tragedy’s art.

Thought. In Aristotelian terms, it is what a speaker would ideally say in arguing for or against something. Defects of speech, then, are defects of thought.

Improbabilities may exist in the antecedents of the story but not in the tragedy as it takes place from line one to the end.

Ciceronian style. It must be free from lowness and have elements of what is unusual. “People like what strikes them and are struck by the out-of-the-way,” Cicero said.

The middle style is clear, clear, clear.

The first question to be asked of a style is this. What is its vice? How does it go bad?

The Attic style. It is plain and ordinary, yet more elegant than most uses of the language. At first reading, however, everyone is sure he can write that way.

Appropriateness is the end of the plain style. Also: a dry wit.

The purpose of the plain style is to persuade, of the pretty style to charm, of the grand style to move or bend.

The quiet, plain style. It is noticeably unnoticeable. Two examples from Stevens: “The room was quiet and the world was calm.” And: “junipers shagged with ice.”

Romantic rhetoric. Its elements: classical allusion, little big words, a cosmic subject-matter.

The abstract simile: “As familiar as a bad mistake.”

The neighboring word. Surrounding the first word that comes to mind with approximations. It can be an elegant variation. Or a way of saying both words. An example from Hart Crane: “blue wink of eternity.”

The easiest way to make a usually eight-syllable line pentameter is to add a single two-beat adjective. This is the major defect of Gray’s style.

The unhappy epithet: “more happy, happy love” (Keats).

The style must be chronic to be recognizable.

An accumulation of bad habits marks the colloquial style.

Style is a means of differentiating experiences, of cutting experience apart from the generalities that modern psychology has left us with.

Style is not an attitude toward experience. An attitude is but striking a pose before experience. Style is a means of transforming experience.

There is no such thing as no style. The no-style is impossible.

(Cunningham asks the students for their definitions of style.) One says, “It’s the way a writer uses words.” “You might think of style as the way words use a writer,” Cunningham replies.

The writer seeks the unique in the common language.

Impropriety is the new standard in literature.

The finder of his theme will be at no loss for words.

Writing must be accurate (that is, objectively right), but it also must have something that takes the reader in.

Longinus. Criticism as a great mind responding to great literature and recording its response.

The transmission of the tradition has almost been an accident.

When style is overpowering it takes us over. We think we have said what we have heard.

A striking style depends first of all upon its thoughts. Pathos helps thoughts become striking by disrupting the form of an old idea.

It would be indecorous to ascribe a fault to Jane Austen.

The legend of the poet as poet: biographical criticism, sometimes without biographical detail.

“Yes, but. . . .” It is the current critical rubric. By its means, critics dispose of the obvious.

The progress of Shakespearean tragedy is from first intimation of disorder to order’s return. The fortunes of one house have gone to wreck; another house succeeds it. Tragedy must be written in the high style; it must be stately written, fit for kings, containing not common things.

The violent death of great men is the end of tragedy. When enough of it happens, you know the play is almost over.

The great tragedians did not write to fulfill Aristotle’s analysis. Shakespeare’s tragedies are written in line with the stipulations: they provide the conception, the realization of it, and its principle of order. One of the author’s decisions is the perception that his material is suited for an established literary form. You have to mean the form. You cannot fall into it by accident.

Dante’s definition of a poem: a rhetorical fiction, written metrically.

Fiction is a gimmick, a device. Not an idea; that blurs it.

Medieval commentary: making the structure, though obvious, explicit. “The poem is divided into three parts.”

A work of literature should not only stick to the point; it should stray. It should have, so to speak, something extra here and there.

Behind the work of literature is unsolicited and almost overpowering experience. It could be made up, but more likely seen.

In modern literature we witness a widespread need for anti-formality which often takes the form of vandalism. It goes by the rubric Make It New.

Variety is good. It is also distracting.

Verse has lines in addition to grammar. This is its distinguishing mark. And a line is formed by systematic phonetic repetition, the most obvious of which is rhyme. For the lines must be heard.

Rhyme is a sufficient principle because it determines the line.

We have been told that meaning lies in irregularity. Is regularity—1, 2, 3, 4—then meaningless?

The principle of the ghost text. No one has read a poem who has not constructed and rejected as he read some of the alternative poems whose nonexistence gives timbre and resonance to the text. These nonexistent alternative poems are ghost texts.

A poem’s stanzaic form controls the outline. Thought either corresponds to the outline or it doesn’t.

The notion that tragedy involves the tragic flaw is no longer associated with a single critic. It is, so to speak, the dictionary meaning.

An Elizabethan plot is but a large sheet listing entrances and exits and props needed. It was drawn up for the prop-keep. It is a digest of the scenes.

How difficult it is to write in praise!

The writer asks himself, “Can I think of a plot that will parallel this? Can I take this work of literature as an example of something I might produce?” Let us, then, consider literature as a productive science.

We look for continuities. We want plausibilities. There are no blinding flashes in modern literature. We have excluded from fiction and from life—that is to say, from our views of life—the essentially interesting, the extraordinary, the sudden.

Gildersleeve on verse and prose

Basil Gildersleeve, the great and irritable classicist who became Johns Hopkins University’s first professor of Greek, said at the very beginning of his career—in 1854, when he was only twenty-three—that academic verse-making “stands, in a pedagogical point of view, far behind the exercise of writing prose, not so much on account of the disproportion in numbers between those who possess the faculty divine and those who do not, as because vapidity and inanity cannot conceal themselves so well on the plain ground of the pedestris oratio [pedestrian speech] as in the flight of an anser inter olores [goose among swans], nor loose syntax and careless construction shelter themselves behind the convenient plea of poetic license.”

This is no longer the case. For one thing, no one makes verses in English departments any longer. For another, creative writing has now made it possible for any kind of writing, both prose and the broken lines called “free verse,” both fiction and “creative non-fiction,” to conceal a writer’s inanity.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Introduction to Flashman

After stalling for many unconscionable years, I have finally begun to read the late George MacDonald Fraser’s twelve-volume Flashman Papers, starting with the eponymous first book. A veteran of the British and Indian armies and an ex-newspaperman, Fraser (1925–2008) disguised Flashman: From the Flashman Papers, 1839–1842 as a genuine literary find, the unpublished manuscript of a British officer’s autobiography “discovered during a sale of household furniture at Ashby, Leicestershire, in 1965.”

Such things do exist. By coincidence, Roger K. Miller reviewed last Tuesday what appears to be the long-lost memoir of an early nineteenth-century American sea captain named Charles Tyng—“a captivating memoir that was completed in 1878, a year before Tyng’s death,“ according to Miller, “and had been in his family ever since. His great-great-granddaughter, Susan Fels, brought it to the attention of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., which led to its publication with her as its editor.” That the provenance of Tyng’s memoir sounds so similar to Flashman’s is a testament to the success of Fraser’s pretense. The other evidence of its success is that I don’t believe for a moment that Tyng’s memoir is genuine.

When it was first published in 1969, Flashman gulled several reviewers. One said that, in historical value, the Flashman Papers “rank with Samuel Pepys’s Diary and the Boswell papers”; a classicist at Fairleigh Dickinson University swore they “bear the stamp of authenticity”; an English professor in Pennsylvania described them as “the rarest of all manuscript-in-an-old-trunk discoveries.” The reviewers must have been taken in by the period flavor of Fraser’s style, a perfect mimicry of the “bluff and hearty” officer in Queen Victoria’s army, because many of the incidents are far-fetched. Worse, as Fraser said of Kipling, “He is not, admittedly, a comfortable writer to consider in an age when so many of the themes and values of which he wrote are being called into question.”

Here, for example, is the young Harry Flashman, having been expelled from Rugby for drunkenness and turned down for a second romp between the sheets with his father’s “tart,” Judy Parsons. When he refuses to leave her room, she chucks a dish at him, causing him to lose control of himself:

“You bitch!” I shouted, and hit her across the face as hard as I could. She staggered, and I hit her again, and she went clean over the bed and on to the floor on the other side. I looked round for something to go after her with, a cane or a whip, for I was in a frenzy and would have cut her to bits if I could. But there wasn’t one handy, and by the time I had got round the bed to her it had flashed across my mind that the house was full of servants and my full reckoning with Miss Judy had better be postponed to another time.Although the Flashman Papers have earned widespread praise and a cult following, more recent readers have been less impressed. An Amazon reviewer declared, “I do not find the beating of women humorous or entertaining.” Now, this will be recognized as a familiar reaction. Fraser once said that the “most fatuous aberration of criticism” is what “allows appreciation of a man’s literary genius to be clouded by consideration of his political beliefs.” The second most fatuous is the insistence that a writer from an earlier age fall into step with current themes and values. And yet the beating of Judy is admittedly extreme, perhaps even verging upon the obscene. What is Fraser up to?

To begin with, Fraser sets out to rewrite a Victorian literary classic from the other end of the moral bar. The original Flashman was the bully in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the pioneer of the English school novel and a sermon in fictional form that preaches the character and virtues that will, as Tom’s father says, “turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian.” Flashman represents their opposite in every way. An upperclassman, big and strong for a seventeen-year-old, he gets his kicks out of hurting and tyrannizing the smaller boys, even “roasting” Tom over an open fire. “[B]y dint of his command of money, and the constant supply of good things which he kept up, and his adroit toadyism,” Hughes writes, “he had managed to make himself not only tolerated, but rather popular among his contemporaries.” One night, though, he becomes “beastly drunk,” and Thomas Arnold, Rugby’s headmaster and the poet’s father, “who had long had his eye on Flashman, arranged for his withdrawal next morning.”

Candidly describing himself as a “bully and poltroon, cad and turncoat, lecher and toady,” Flashman sets out his own purpose in writing a multivolume autobiography, saying early in the first book that he intends “to show how the Flashman of Tom Brown became the glorious Flashman with four inches in Who’s Who and grew markedly worse in the process. . . .” Fraser’s conceit, that is, is that Rugby’s failure turns out to be England’s success, while “Arnold’s sturdy fools, manly little chaps, of course, and full of virtue,” come to untimely and ignominious ends, dying in the dust on distant battlefields; and that was all their “gallant goodness” did for them.

Even the best critics have been misled by Flashman’s bluff. Brian Glanville, the author of nineteen novels, explained that Flashman is an “antihero” who is “back-projected into an age in which the concept of heroes, maudlin and simpleminded though it might be, was still vigorously alive.” Thomas Flanagan, author of the well-regarded historical novel The Year of the French, characterized Fraser as a “revisionist,” holding that the Flashman Papers present “the cad’s-eye view of war and conduct.”

Neither opinion is anywhere near the target. That Fraser was hardly a revisionist, and that he did not find the concept of heroes maudlin and simpleminded, was made clear when he reviewed a biography of David Livingstone in 1971:The game of “get the Victorians” becomes more popular all the time; one by one our grandparents’ heroes and heroines are going down before the debunkers. It isn’t very difficult, of course; any society which clothed itself in such smug self-righteousness, and made such a parade of its own virtue, is easy meat to a modern generation which seems to take a particular delight in destroying all legends except its own. The Victorians are especially vulnerable because, while they were as human as anyone else, they pretended to impossibly high standards.Fraser does not march alongside the debunkers. While Flashman himself may seem to derive a certain pleasure from debunking finer reputations, Fraser is playing an altogether different game. He hopes to rebuild those reputations.

In the Flashman Papers, Fraser seeks to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction, but he knows that he cannot do so unironically, because moderns prefer debunking heroes to building them up. His ingenious strategy is to reestablish it by inversion and misdirection, proving some men and women to be the opposite of an “antihero,” contrasting their heroism to the scoundrel, liar, cheat, thief, and coward who thinks only of tearing them down. By puncturing their smug self-righteousness and their pretense to impossibly high standards, Flashman shows them as genuinely great men and women, not the panegyrical statuary of Victorian literature—and he shows them as such by describing their response to him.

Consider, for example, how Judy behaves after Flashman thrashes her:She was crying—not sobbing, but with tears on her cheeks. She went over to her chair by the mirror, pretty unsteady, and sat down and looked at herself. I cursed her again, calling her the choicest names I could think of, but she worked at her cheek, which was red and bruised, with a hare’s foot, and paid no heed. She did not speak at all.As he leaves her room at last, he consoles himself with the reflection that “she would not forget Harry Flashman in a hurry.” My guess, though, is that anyone who reads the scene is less likely to forget Judy’s dignity, her deep wells of reserve in which she conceals the heart that Harry can never reach to break, than the brute who beats her.

So far in my reading—I could end up being wrong, mind you, but I am pretty confident that I have learned Fraser’s secret—every person whom Flashman believes he has got the better of is ennobled and even made heroic by comparison. Fraser may have believed in heroism, Victorian virtue, and gallant goodness, but he also knew his own age, and knew that it would never accept a sermon on their behalf. And so he asked the devil to write it instead, and in the form of gripping adventure.

Update: It is interesting to set George MacDonald Fraser and Patrick O’Brian side by side. The Aubrey-Maturin series was inaugurated the very same year as the Flashman Papers; Master and Commander was also published in 1969. (O’Brian’s multivolume project eventually outstripped Fraser’s, reaching twenty books plus the The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.) Both Fraser and O’Brian were scrupulous historical researchers, who cinched their stories with exact and telling period details. And both were dedicated to a restoration of the heroic. O’Brian sought to do so directly, however, making Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin admirable and exemplary figures. And he gathered an extensive audience, but I was unable to finish the second volume in the series, Post Captain (1972). Fraser’s strategy is, at least for my money, the more appealing and successful.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The problem of Bellow’s masterpiece

Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a great novel—one of the ten best English-language novels since the death of George Eliot—but it presents the generous undecided reader with two immediate problems. First, what exactly is it about? The Saul Bellow Society conveniently summarizes the novel, but their précis misses entirely its central quality—the articulate and provocative opinions of its title character. Artur Sammler is “just a mass of intelligent views,” to which he gives voice “at all times.” His “screwy visions” are the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, but they raise a second problem. How seriously are these opinions to be taken?

The novel reads at times like Victor Davis Hanson’s self-acknowledged rant last Friday about the moral and cultural depression into which America is sinking. Living in the late ’sixties, a “frightful moment” in history, Sammler finds himself thinking about “the collapse of civilization, about Sodom and Gomorrah, the end of the world.” Although they may not be “the worst of all times”—for all we know, we may be living in those times—the ’sixties created the sensation that “things are falling apart.” Now in his seventies, Sammler comes to his forebodings honestly, through firsthand experience. He survived Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, although his wife did not. “Like many people who had seen the world collapse once, Mr. Sammler entertained the possibility that it might collapse twice.”

Sammler has suffered what the Austrian essayist Jean Améry calls losing trust in the world:

He had learned in Poland, in the war, in forests, cellars, passageways, cemeteries. Things he had passed through once which had abolished a certain margin or leeway ordinarily taken for granted. Taking for granted that one will not be shot stepping into the street, nor clubbed to death as one stoops to relieve oneself, nor hunted in an alley like a rat. This civil margin once removed, Mr. Sammler would never trust the restoration totally.Having already been blinded in one eye after being struck by an SS officer’s rifle butt, he and sixty or seventy other Jews were ordered to dig their own mass grave, strip naked, and then were fired upon, and fell in. Much later he struggled out from under the weight of the corpses, crawling out of the loose soil. But he declines to be called a Holocaust survivor, “since so much of the earlier person had disappeared. It wasn’t surviving, it was only lasting.”

Nearly thirty years later, having emigrated to America, Sammler is now “hors d’usage, not a man of the times.” To stand apart is a conscious decision, almost a vocation. “A person’s views are either necessary or superfluous,” he says—and Sammler has made himself into the kind of man whose views are as necessary as death. The first great commandment of American culture is “don’t contradict your time. Just don’t contradict it, that’s all.” If the times call for rage, then rage; if sex, then sex. “Unless you happened to be a Sammler and felt that the place of honor was outside.” Because he refuses to march in the parade of self-congratulation, he feels “separated from the rest of his species, if not in some fashion severed—severed not so much by age as by preoccupations too different and remote.”

His preoccupations are bookish. He has been “trained by the best writers to divert himself with perceptions.” And so the learned references fly at a dizzying pace: Charles Lamb, St. Augustine, Alfred North Whitehead, Kierkegaard, Aristotle, Hobbes, Vico, Hume, Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Krafft-Ebing, Max Weber, Schopenhauer (after whom Sammler is named), Tolstoy, Malraux, Sartre, Orwell, Meister Eckhardt, Trollope, Walter Bagehot, Toynbee, Freud, Burckhardt, Spengler, Max Scheler, Franz Oppenheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, Ortega y Gasset, Paul Valéry, Ulysses, Bakunin, Oscar Wilde.

Since he is a double outsider—the one-eyed king in the realm of the blind—Sammler is suited by training and position to take the temperature of the times. Mr. Sammler’s Planet impressed its first critics with the accuracy of its reading, which nearly forty years have not distorted. The ’sixties “opened a jeweled door into degradation,” starting the descent “from hypercivilized Byzantine luxury straight into the state of nature.” What it amounts to, he says, is “limitless demand,” “the Baudelaire desire to get out—get out of human circumstances,” “a peculiar longing for nonbeing,” the “human being at the point where he attempted to obtain his release from being human.”

So far so good—so powerful and convincing, in fact. I can’t read too much Bellow without getting the garlic of his style on my breath; my prose begins to smell like his. Three years ago, at the Ready Steady Blog, Mark Thwaite reacted similarly to Mr. Sammler’s Planet:After reading that astonishing voice, I’m in no mood to read anything else. So much else is so wooden, so lifeless. . . . [I]t is his viscous, crowded, Yiddish-inspired, slang-rhythmed, rolling, greedy sentences . . . that make him such a great writer.Nobody else writes like Bellow, and nowhere else does Bellow write so well, with that “long Jewish mental discipline, hereditary training in lawful control,” and the easy familiarity with European literature, classical philosophy, political history, scattering ideas as if his mind were a bursting piñata.

Yet just here is the toughest nut to crack. I am surprised that Thwaite, who rarely misses an opportunity to declare his progressive sympathies, missed this one. Sammler’s views may be necessary to his moral and mental balance, they may be crowded and inspired and rolling, but they can also be as ugly as a segregationist’s. In developing his view that “a sexual madness was overwhelming the Western world,” Sammler explains:Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone.Just in case you think the racial slur is a one-time thing, the novel’s plot is bracketed by an encounter with a Negro pickpocket who fascinates Sammler. When he sees the old man watching him, the thief corners Sammler and hauls out his penis, his “metaphysical warrant,” as our hero later describes it:It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing—a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand, suggesting the fleshy mobility of an elephant’s trunk, though the skin was somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough.Diverted by perceptions, indeed! At the end of the novel, Sammler’s son-in-law Eisen, an Israeli, knocks the pickpocket off his feet, at Sammler’s request to “do something,” intervening in a fight and preventing the Negro from choking a college student who snapped a picture of him in the act of riffling a purse. Sammler fears that Eisen has crushed the man’s face. “What have I done!” he thinks. “This is the worst thing yet.”

Depends upon how you look at it. For Sammler is also given to expressions of another anti-social disease. He had, he observes, been “trained in the ancient mode of politeness” just as, once upon a time, “women had been brought up to chastity.” He heaps scorn upon Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” which infuriated the American Jewish community when the idea was introduced in reports on the Eichmann trial first published in the New Yorker in 1963. Sammler’s comment: “Everybody (except certain bluestockings) knows what murder is.” He does not have a high opinion of intelligent women. The late husband of his niece Margotte taught at Hunter College, a women’s college until 1964. Now and then, among his students, Ussher Arkin would encounter “a powerful female intelligence, but very angry, very complaining, too much sex-ideology, poor things.”

And again the views are inscribed within the plot. Angela Gruner, his niece, is one of several characters in the novel who obliges Sammler to listen to her problems, confessions, details of her sex life. Her father Elya Gruner, who had saved Sammler and his daughter by finding their names on a DP list and bringing them to America in 1947, is dying; Angela has alienated and angered him by her sexual antics; but rather than pursuing a reconciliation, she is consumed with worry about her boyfriend Wharton Horricker, who has rejected her after she, in response to an offhand suggestion from him, had engaged in group sex in his presence. Sammler is disgusted: “Diversions, group intercourse, fellatio with strangers—one can do that but not come to terms with one’s father at the last opportunity.”

What is to be done about these toxic assets in the economy of the novel’s meaning? Friendly critics, following the lead of an early essay by Allen Guttmann, have sought to insert an “ironic distance” between Sammler and his author. Guttmann makes a hash of the differences, though:Both men are secular Jews, but Sammler has a stronger attachment to the State of Israel than Bellow has demonstrated. Both men are immigrants, but the novelist came to America as a child and was formed more by Chicago than by his Canadian childhood. Sammler, on the other hand, arrives after the Second World War, which he barely survives.[1]Bellow had already demonstrated his attachment to the Jewish State, covering the Six-Day War for Newsday with partisan fervor. Nor was he an immigrant. He was born on this continent, not quite two years after his parents and three older siblings had emigrated from Saint Petersburg to Canada, and the family moved on to Chicago when he was nine.

Even if Guttmann had had his facts straight, it is not clear how an “ironic distance” between Sammler and his author redeems a novel dedicated to the airing of his views from the charges of racism and misogyny. And it will not do to say that his faults merely reflect the times, because Sammler has gone out of his way to insist that he is not a man of the times.

The only possible defense, it seems to me, is the attitude of Anne Elliot:She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others. Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.Sammler acknowledges that “he had taken positions, he had said things he hadn’t meant, meant things he hadn’t said.” He is not a good man—the good man of the novel is Elya Gruner, Angela’s dying father and the man who rescued Sammler from homelessness—not because he is a bad man, but because he has devoted his life to something else than moral perfection: speaking his mind, and reducing his views to necessity. If an idea turns out to be careless or hasty—or even, God forbid, racist or misogynist—this may only indicate that it is not a necessary view, and that Sammler, a “registrar of madness,” is in the process of rendering it superfluous.

Update: In my original post, I confused Margotte Arkin and Angela Gruner. (I have silently corrected the blunder above.) Both women are Sammler’s nieces, but otherwise they are quite different. Margotte is his landlady, having invited Sammler to share her apartment after the death of her husband Ussher Arkin three years prior in an airplane crash. Margotte is a German Jew, living on a small reparation payment from the West German government for the loss of her family’s property in Frankfurt, and is a minor-league “bluestocking,” a parody of Hannah Arendt. “She was sweet but on the theoretical side very tedious,” Sammler reflects, wishing to avoid a conversation with her about the black pickpocket, “and when she settled down to an earnest theme, one was lost.”

Angela Gruner is the granddaughter of Orthodox Jews who has embraced “paganism.” She is “corrupt.” Her own father, watching her approach “with all her flesh in motion—thighs, hips, bosom displayed with a certain fake innocence”—would mutter “Bitch” or “Cow” or “Sloppy cunt!” She stands for the age’s “liberation” from all sexual bonds, taboos.

[1] Allen Guttmann, “Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler,” Contemporary Literature 14 (Spring 1973): 157–68.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A book’s material condition

Nige follows up my followup to his reflections on the future of the book by making a strong case for reading on the page instead of reading off the screen. “I believe the sight of print on paper,” he says—“in the case of a well printed book in a decent typeface and on decent paper—is not only pleasant to see but literally easy on the eye, in a way that no on-screen image can be.”

I could not agree more, and there is more to it even than that. In his just-released book of essays Worlds Made by Words, the brilliant Princeton historian Anthony Grafton points out that “The form in which you encounter a text can make a huge impact on how you use it.” His example is the letters from Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, critical of George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the 1970’s. The contents were damning, but the material condition of the letters, especially the typeface, which could not possibly have been used by a National Guard typewriter in the 1970’s, established them as forgeries.

The physical properties of books also betray clues that contribute to knowledge, if a scholar knows how to follow them. Grafton’s example is a historian who “systematically sniffed 250-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled on letters from towns struck by cholera in the eighteenth century, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks.”

Here is an example from my library, which is not so pithy. I own a first edition of Nabokov’s Conclusive Evidence (1951), the autobiography that was revised and reissued as Speak, Memory in 1966. (In England the book was originally published under that title, and in the U.S., the second edition, with text unchanged, was published under the new title in 1960.) The revised edition contains an index and illustrations; it is reset in Baskerville or Caslon (my untrained eye can’t quite tell which), two faces that emphasize clarity. Conclusive Evidence is set in Bodoni, a far more modern-looking and striking type. The rest of the book is conservative, however. The black spine is stamped with the title in a gold fourteen-point type and the author’s last name in all caps in twelve point.

The book is well-made, sewn firmly in eight signatures, bound in blue cloth, with tight tucks and corners, and printed on high-quality paper that has neither yellowed nor chipped in nearly sixty years. But the dust jacket is a different story. Nabokov was not yet famous. Except for an author’s photo on the verso—he looks tightlipped, impatient—and a freehand inch-tall drawing of the tsar’s crown beneath the title on the recto, the only art is a dark blue top-to-bottom drapery that serves as the background to title, author, and publisher’s description (“A brilliantly written memoir of youth in a bright and vanished era”). Harper & Brothers solicited blurbs from Eudora Welty (“Intimate and spirited, delightful entertainment”), S. N. Behrman (“one of the most rarely exquisite books I know about”), and children’s author Anne Parrish (“An absorbing book; at times beautiful and moving, at times illuminating, and always a book to be grateful for”). His public standing can be estimated from the sources of these recommendations.

The jacket is dingy, and gives the book a stuffy and old-worldish look. Yet the quality of the binding is first-rate. What this suggests is an ambivalence on the part of the publisher; indeed, Harper never published another book by Nabokov. On the one hand, the binding suggests that the house thought more highly of him than the blurbs would lead anyone to believe; on the other hand, the jacket suggests that Harper had small confidence in the book’s commercial appeal. To its credit, the publisher did not hype it, but by giving the jacket all the bright cheerfulness of an old woman’s curtain-drawn livingroom, Harper did the book no favors either. The material condition of the book says to me: if Nabokov had not gone on to write Lolita, he would have remained forever in the company of S.N. Behrman and Anne Parrish—forgotten and unread, even in a Google book.

To hold the first edition is to be carried back to a moment before Nabokov was a recognized master, but even though he had been in the U.S. only a decade and had written only two English-language novels, he was respected as a “serious” writer—too “serious” perhaps to be hyped. This is the reason for owning first editions: they are time machines for removing you to the year of the book’s original publication. Their physical properties serve as aids to their historical interpretation. They dispel the illusion that the book belongs to the moment at which you are reading it, and remind you that it comes as news from an earlier time.

Any edition of any book will offer telling details. I remember sitting in the coffee house at Washington University with my girlfriend, who was reading the Dell paperback edition of The Gospel Singer, Harry Crews’s first novel. On the cover, as I recall, was a girl en déshabillé. Across from my girlfriend, a young man nudged his friend, gestured at the book, and smirked. He had already interpreted the novel on the basis of its material condition.

Update: Following Nige’s lead,Sebastian Mary reexamines his reading habits in light of what he calls the “ipod for ebooks” (h/t: E. J. Van Lanen at Three Percent). He points out that the ipod has reduced music to the “micro unit,” the song lasting three to four minutes, and expects that ebook readers would have the same effect. “Long-form writing” will always require paper and binding, he concludes, but will the reading public always require long-form writing?

Update, II: Missed this too when it was first posted: ten reasons to hate the Kindles.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Future of the book

Still skeptical that the digital book will replace the codex, Nige wonders whether, unlike musical selections, there is “something special about books that will preserve them far longer than other media as ‘something you own.’ I’m fairly sure there is,” he suggests, “but it’s hard to say—especially in the light of such innovations as Kindle—quite what it is. Is it just their satisfying tactile qualities? The fact that you can use a physical book in a three-dimensional way—up, down and through—that can’t really be reproduced?”

Although I appear to be more excited than Nige about the digitizing of books (as the new motto has it, “Search Is Everything,” and digital texts are more easily searched than print), I am also skeptical that the codex will disappear entirely. Elsewhere in this Commonplace Blog, I have posited a distinction between books that are “needed for practical activities,” and for which a wireless reading device like the Kindle is perfect, and books that are “collected, treasured, preserved from destruction”; and in light of this distinction, I argued that ereaders “will not entirely replace ‘paper-and-binding’ books, because not all books are meant only to be used.” Even later I held that the irreplaceable tactile qualities of some children’s books make them unlikely candidates for digitization.

Nige obliged me to go back and examine my reading habits, though. And two things immediately struck me. First, the availability of digital texts has not only made it far easier to acquire them, but increases the chances that you will do so. Last Sunday, a dinner guest told me that he had found the title of a dissertation that was smack on the subject of his son’s senior-year high-school research paper. I flew to the computer, accessed my university library database, and obtained a .pdf copy of it for him. The whole transaction took maybe five minutes. Similarly, while researching my Commentary piece on Charles McCarry, I learned that Henry Cabot Lodge’s father had been a poet—George Cabot Lodge. Within minutes I found a Google-books copy of his Poems, 1899–1902 and downloaded it. I never would have invested in Lodge’s Poems otherwise, and probably would not even have taken the trouble to hunt them down.

But then there is the other side of the story. The months that I spent in research on The Elephants Teach were among the most enjoyable and memorable of my life. I remember sitting cross-legged between the stacks, doggedly reading my way through the entire print runs of the Educational Review, the English Journal, the School Review, the Bookman, and other old journals. Not only did I find things that I otherwise would not have, were I to have relied on a computerized search algorithm. But because I found my “search terms” by reading them in context, they were not isolated ideas, which formed a sort of universal Oversoul quite independent of how their authors used them. In reviewing The Elephants Teach, Grudin commented on this quality of the book:

Many of these people and their writings are trailing into oblivion—ploughed under, in effect, by the very machinery that they set in motion. Thanks to Myers’s considerate presentation, these almost-forgotten people speak to us with a renewed eloquence, providing insightful responses to issues that will not die.I do not quote this to congratulate myself. (Well, not only to congratulate myself.) I have always been grateful to Grudin for noticing this quality of my book, which was the direct result of my research methods—methods, alas, which few scholars will imitate in a dictatorship of etexts.

The future of the book, though, may be out of writers’ and readers’ hands. Michael Malone, a prominent journalist who covers Silicon Valley, believes that the war over digital books will be one of the engines of the economy after its recovery. He argues that Google and Amazon have already divided the universe of print between them. Google snaps up every book when its copyright lapses, while Amazon aims to offer every newly published book in a Kindle-friendly format. “This means that, essentially, Amazon now controls the world’s new ideas,” Malone writes, “while Sony [which has entered into a deal to make Google’s books available on its Reader e-Book] owns Mankind’s memory.”

I remain skeptical, because I am old enough to remember the enthusiasm for other new technologies that were going to replace print—surely you remember microfiche—but then I don’t even own an iPod or a smart phone.

Orange Prize long list

The long list for the Orange Prize, awarded annually since 1993 to the best full-length novel in English by a woman during the previous year, has been released. I cannot imagine—get my finely balanced mind around—a more outrageous—or disgusting, maybe even obscene—abuse of a literary prize than to advance—to pervert, really—the political cause—the extraliterary ideological conspiracy—of women, who should probably prefer to be called “womyn” or “wopersons” to avoid any taint of the word men altogether. Whatever happened to gender-blind, objective considerations of rose-gray pure literary merit? I’d organize a boycott if the long list did not include so many good novelists (with the notable exceptions of Toni Morrison and Curtis Sittenfeld).

Will that suffice? I didn’t want to disappoint my good friends at Blog of a Bookslut. Besides, I couldn’t pass up the chance to establish myself as a “literary notable.”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One-book authors

In the Times of London, Luke Leitch compiles a list of literary one-hit wonders (h/t: Mark Sarvas):

• Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.
• Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind.
• Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights.
• J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye.
• Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
• John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.
• Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar.
• Anna Sewell, Black Beauty.
• Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago.
• Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things.

Commentators suggested Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Leopard, and Ken Kesey. (Wrong. Kesey published Sometimes a Great Notion two years after One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and then published two more novels back to back in the nineties: Sailor Song and Last Go Round.)

The obvious name missing from the list is Ralph Ellison, who was never able to follow up Invisible Man. Despite his late-in-life conquering of writer’s block, Henry Roth was really a one-book author. Call It Sleep was written by a different man from whatever garrulous old bachelor uncle wrote Mercy of a Rude Stream six decades later.

Cyril Connolly’s satirical novel about the literary intelligentsia, The Rock Pool (1936), was not merely the sole novel of his career, but at just over one hundred and fifty pages it was barely long enough to be considered a novel at all.

The Fathers (1938) was Allen Tate’s only novel.

Milton Steinberg wrote a novel about the Amoraic age, As a Driven Leaf (1939), but though he wrote a great deal of non-fiction on Jewish subjects, he did not live long enough to write a second novel.

Isaac Rosenfeld had time to write only one novel, Passage from Home (1946), about a young Jewish intellectual’s growing up, before he died at thirty-eight. He also wrote a remarkable short novel called The Colony, however.

Lionel Trilling never managed to finish a second novel after The Middle of the Journey (1947).

Randall Jarrell’s brilliant Pictures from an Institution (1954), easily the greatest (and far and away the funniest) novel ever written about academe, was followed by two more books of poetry, but no more fiction before Jarrell committed suicide in 1965. His friend John Berryman likewise wrote a single novel, Recovery (1973), which was published posthumously.

John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) is the best novel about the Japanese-American experience, but it is the only book Okada ever wrote.

Norman Fruchter published a fine novel about aging, Coat upon a Stick (1962), and then never wrote another.

Robert Granat wrote a thoughtful novel of the religious life, Regenesis (1972), described by Anatole Broyard as a novel that should “satisfy even those whose taste runs to the secular,” and then disappeared from the Republic of Letters.

Daniel James wrote a novel about an East L.A. graffiti artist under the name Danny Santiago, but when he was unmasked a year later as an “Anglo” rather than the author of the most authentic Chicano novel yet published, Famous All Over Town (1983) became the work of a one-book author.

Five best of Irish fiction

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, Stefan Beck has offered, over at the New Criterion’s Arma Virumque blog, a “Five Best of Irish Lit” (no Angela’s Ashes, he promises) in the style of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best” format:

(1) James Joyce, Dubliners.
(2) Flann O‘Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds.
(3) Frank O‘Connor’s 1952 story “First Confession.”
(4) J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man.
(5) Roddy Doyle, The Commitments—by which he really means Alan Parker’s wonderful 1991 film based on the novel.

Assuming that such native Irish writers as Swift, Wilde, Shaw, and Beckett do not qualify, because they turned their backs on Ireland, here are my five (taking for granted the place of Joyce and O’Brien on any such list):

• Sean O’Faolain, Bird Alone (1936). Banned as obscene by the Irish Censorship Board, this novel tells the story of a staunch Fenian, looking back over his participation in the Troubles, now ostracized and living alone.

• Elizabeth Bowen, A World of Love (1954). Bowen was born in Dublin in 1899. Her best novel is The Death of the Heart (1938), but it is set in England; her best book about Ireland is her history of the family estate, Bowen’s Court (1942). This late novel, about the discovery of love letters from an unknown woman to a soldier who died in the First World War, is carefully plotted but simply told.

• J. G. Farrell, Troubles (1970). If Beck can include one ringer, so can I. Farrell was born in Liverpool, but his family was Irish. And this novel is set in a hotel on the South Wexford Coast. The Irish War of Independence looms in the background.

• Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance (1979). Moore was beaten to the punch by John Irving’s World According to Garp (1978), a novel on a similar subject, but this is the better book. A failed poet, descended from the famous Irish poet James Clarence Mangan, is left a fortune by his wife, dead in a car accident, making it possible for him to set off in quest of his bizarre family history.

• William Trevor, The Story of Lucy Gault (2002). There is not much by Trevor that is not worth reading, but this novel is truly haunting. In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Gault family decides to leave Cork after the father shoots an arsonist, but nine-year-old Lucy does not want to leave—and then, through an astonishing chain of entirely credible incidents, she gets left behind.

Speaking of the Wall Street Journal’s “Five Best” series, by the way, Shelley‘s Heart (see below) was named one of the five best political novels, second only to The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope, a novelist who spent eighteen formative years in Ireland.

Charles McCarry

Just finished a piece for Commentary on Shelley’s Heart, the seventh of Charles McCarry’s novels to be reissued by the Overlook Press. (It is due out next month.) Originally published in 1995, it is one of the best novels ever written about the American left. His next novel was Lucky Bastard (1998), the account of a charismatic and winning young American, a sociopath, liar, and rapist, who is groomed for the presidency by Soviet agents. And together these two novels place McCarry in the small group of Americans who have written with distinction about what Irving Howe called “politics as a milieu or mode of life.”

McCarry is customarily described as a spy novelist, although his novels more closely resemble The Secret Agent than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. A field agent under deep cover for the CIA from 1958 through 1967—he never held a desk assignment—McCarry began his career as a novelist with The Miernek Dossier (1973), a variation on the epistolary novel (it includes dispatches, memoranda, intelligence reports, transcripts of phone taps, intercepted Soviet wire traffic, the documents that make up a CIA dossier on a foreign agent). He originally began to write about espionage, he told the Australian national paper The Age, to “summarize my experience in the field as an intelligence officer and write what would be more authentic than some of the things I had read about the business.” From the beginning, though, his intentions were more literary than journalistic. Although he never returned to the documentary mode, he signaled in his first novel that he was more interested in fiction than in espionage.

The Miernik Dossier was followed by five more novels about Paul Christopher, a lapsed poet who practices journalism as a cover for “tradecraft.” The Tears of Autumn (1975), his second novel and the best of the Christopher books, introduced his technique of the historical “what if,” retelling the known facts as if they were produced by scheming and covert operations. President Kennedy is assassinated in retaliation for the American-led overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem.

The Secret Lovers (1977) suggests the importance of literature in what McCarry called “the life-and-death struggle between East and West for the soul of our generation.” American agents smuggle the only copy of an anti-Communist novel out of the Soviet Union. Couriers die to get the novel to safety, and when it is broadcast into the Soviet Union on Radio Free Europe, its author is a doomed man.

The Better Angels (1979) established McCarry’s reputation as something of a prophet. The novel foretells suicide bombing and the destruction of passenger jets as tactics in Islamic terrorism. It also explains why McCarry prefers clandestine agents to ideological purists. The latter believe that “some men did good in the world and others did evil,“ and that they have “joined the right side.” The former, who do not believe in a cause but a country,

perceived that nothing ran unmixed in men or causes or nations. Evil was permanent and it was everywhere. What mattered was that it should be channeled, tricked into working for your side. That was what an intelligence service was for.The Last Supper (1983) is one half a historical novel, tracing the beginnings of modern American espionage to the Second World War and the creation of a group called the Outfit. The other half of the novel involves the slow unmasking of a double agent, in which a famous TV reporter with “progressive” sympathies, a cross between Geraldo Rivera and Dan Rather, plays an unwitting role. With this novel, McCarry begins to acknowledge his fear and loathing of the post-sixties journalists, whom he sees as the worst—because the most divorced from reality—of the ideological purists.

Second Sight (1991), a long complex novel that takes Paul Christopher from childhood in pre-Nazi Germany and to retirement in partisan Washington, was his most explicitly political—but only in isolated passages. He compared the Sixties counterculture to the Hitlerjugend, speculated that U.S. news media “exercised many of the functions belonging to the secret police in totalitarian countries,” and described a “politics of self-congratulation” whose partisans had merely to hear Richard Nixon speak to want to kill him.

McCarry had served as the chief speechwriter for vice presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge during the election of 1960. Although he says little about Lodge’s running mate—he came to admire Lodge himself greatly, describing him as one of the most down-to-earth men that he had ever met—McCarry understands the part that Nixon plays for the American left. At a Washington dinner party in Second Sight, a journalist finds himself, for the first time in his life, “in the same room with someone who was willing to defend Richard Nixon.” The defense is shocking, offends him deeply: “They have made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him.”

But McCarry was merely polishing his knife-sharp critique of the left. Shelley’s Heart takes it to its logical ends. The novel is not only his best, but also his most ambitious—a 600-page thriller about a leftist plot to take over the government. For many readers, the chief obstacle to admiration of the novel will be its genre. But no other kind of writing is so well suited to McCarry’s purposes. The political thriller, which depends upon a plot in the old sense of diabolical secretive intrigues leading to catastrophe, is the only literary form that gives readers the chance to suspect, or at least to entertain the notion, that a conspiracy to take down the government might be possible. True lovers of literature have more in common with conspiracy nuts than either is prepared to admit. Only in the labyrinthine twists of a conspiracy, not usually in real life and certainly not in “literary fiction,” can the insatiable reader’s hunger for plot be satisfied.

The problem is that anyone who suggests such a thing in connection with the American left is liable to be slapped with the accusation of engaging in the “paranoid style.” McCarry solves the problem by placing his novel’s premise in the mouth of a conservative politician, who is hated to the verge of derangement by his enemies. The American left, he warns, is “a vanguard elite with a secret agenda,” which “stopped being a popular movement a long time ago” and has “survived for half a century by lying to the people.” McCarry avoids loading more weight onto his donnée than it can bear by risking (and not caring overmuch) how it may be received. That it may be dismissed in some quarters as a paranoid rant does not mean that it is not true.

Few novels rival Shelley’s Heart as a group portrait of the American left—Mr Sammler’s Planet, perhaps The Bonfire of the Vanities. I try to explain why, with greater detail, in my Commentary piece.

The Overlook Press has yet to reprint The Bride of the Wilderness, a seventeenth-century “prequel” to the Christopher saga, which I didn’t much like, although John Gardner and Orson Scott Card praised it highly. Lucky Bastard will follow, capping Peter Mayer’s campaign since 2005 to bring all of McCarry’s novels back into print (along with publishing two new Paul Christopher novels, Old Boys and Christopher’s Ghosts). McCarry also coauthored three political memoirs, two with Alexander M. Haig and one with Donald T. Regan (which revealed to the world Nancy Reagan’s consultation with astrologers), but these are unlikely to be reprinted in Mayer’s uniform edition of his work.

Born in June 1930 in the western Massachusetts city of Pittsfield, where Melville did his best writing eighty years before, McCarry joined the U.S. Army upon reaching the age of eighteen instead of enrolling at Harvard, where he had been accepted. For three years he reported for Stars and Stripes, then continued as a reporter for four years in Ohio after his discharge. He met his wife Nancy there, marrying her in September 1953. Three years later he moved to Washington, D.C., to become the speechwriter for James P. Mitchell, a Democrat from New Jersey who served as secretary of labor under President Eisenhower. After a year on the job he was ready to move on. McCarry had begun writing short stories at night, and on the strength of half a dozen sales had decided to transplant himself to Europe. Not wanting to lose his talents, Mitchell contacted Allen Dulles, who recruited McCarry for the CIA. He was twenty-eight. Ten years later he retired to Washington and his first intent—writing novels.

Although Christopher Hitchens sneered in the pages of the New York Review of Books that his fiction is written out of “the self-pity of the American right,” McCarry is not himself a conservative. He describes himself, in fact, as a “bleeding heart.” The difference is, as he told the Los Angeles Times, “I’ve been on this planet for more than three quarters of a century, and all my life I've associated decency with my country.” He has more in common with Hitchens than either would be comfortable in acknowledging. After September 11th, Hitchens bitterly criticized those in the “mainstream left” who seek to “rationalize” Islamic terrorism by pointing to American evils. “No political coalition is possible with such people,” he has written, “and, I’m thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.” McCarry differs in having developed his critique of the left several years before September 11th, and in abandoning any hope for a political coalition with such people even earlier.

Charles McCarry may be the best political novelist that the United States has ever produced.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

No other book has the same effect

Over at the Blog of a Bookslut, Nina MacLaughlin has a remarkable look back at Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel Endless Love. MacLaughlin captures the experience of reading it: “[I]t’s the type of book that if your roommate—or boyfriend or girlfriend or dog—walks in while you’re reading it, you will feel as though you’ve just been caught with someone’s hand down your pants. It is mesmerizing, graphic, completely engrossing.” MacLaughlin recalls her first encounter with the novel as “one of the most memorable reading experiences of my life.”

Me too. Endless Love is not a particularly good novel, but to read it is to revisit those obsessive infatuations that, like a bout of insanity, utterly routed your life at various times when you were younger. I have found that I cannot go back to the novel—any more than I can reread old aching and embarrassingly prolix come-back-to-me love letters. In that sense, Endless Love is the kind of novel that belongs to a season of youth, rather like You Can’t Go Home Again. If you are past the age of thirty and if you have not read it, you will never be able to. (Same for Wolfe.) But if you are still young, and if you have ever been so obsessed with a girl that she occupies your every waking moment, then Endless Love will prove to be an unforgettable reading experience. Merely to pick up the novel will cause you to remember the sofa upon which you sprawled with it in your hand thirty years ago; you will remember the December chill outside your window; you will remember the slapdash sandwiches you made yourself when you unwillingly broke away from the book to eat; you will remember the girl you were aching for at that very moment. There is something profoundly unliterary about the whole experience, and it is a little bit creepy, but no other book will have the same effect upon you. Ever.

Miles Franklin long list

The long list for the 2009 Miles Franklin Award, the most prestigious literary award in Australia, has been released (h/t: Matilda).

When Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, complained that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” American book bloggers spun into a frenzy of refutation and abuse. The fact is, though, that Europe and the U.S. are too isolated and insular where Australian writing is concerned.

Of the ten finalists for the Miles Franklin Award, I have read only Tim Winton, whose Dirt Music won the award in 2002. (I taught it the next year in a course on contemporary literature in which I teach the previous year’s award winners from around the English-speaking world.) Those who take self-righteous resolutions not to read any books by white American males would do better to resolve to read more interesting fiction from Australia (and New Zealand too), where there is an entire literature unknown to Americans who dislike thinking of themselves as isolated and insular.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pull out his eyes, Apologize, Apologize

In commenting upon my interpretation of Lolita as an act of repentance, R. J. Keefe is “heartened by [my] students’ insistence upon apology as a principle that perhaps clouded their literary perceptiveness. In a thousand cases out of a thousand-and-one, saying ‘I’m sorry’ is a moral act that’s both difficult and necessary.” I believe that it is neither, but rather that saying “I’m sorry” now serves as a substitute for genuine repentance.

More and more I have been struck by the rise of the conditional apology. “I am sorry if you are upset,” a person says—leaving the clear implication that you should not be upset, and that he is apologizing merely to placate you. The onus shifts onto you. A particularly sorry example of such a conditional apology was delivered to a friend. After twenty years of working for a company, he suffered misfortune—his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Neither the president of the company nor even the vice president of his division contacted him, offered any help or condolence, sent a card or flowers, visited his wife in the hospital. A few months later, a coworker’s wife was diagnosed with lung cancer. Knowing that this coworker was in better favor with the president and vice president, my friend wrote to them, urging them not to do to his coworker what they had done to him. The president wrote back: “I am sorry if you felt ignored by me.” The vice president wrote to protest. He knew for a fact that the president was concerned about my friend’s wife. Why, the president had said as much to the vice president!

Jane Austen was not impressed by the power of saying “I’m sorry.” Here are three passages from Emma in which the phrase is insufficient to effect repentance, and in fact stands in its way.

After quarreling with Knightley over whether Harriet ought to have turned down Mr. Martin’s marriage proposal, Emma reflects to open Chapter 9:

Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself. He was so much displeased, that it was longer than usual before he came to Hartfield again; and when they did meet, his grave looks shewed that she was not forgiven. She was sorry, but could not repent.Austen carefully distinguishes between feeling sorry and repentance. Knightley, of course, is the novel’s moral compass—the “true north of virtue,” as Stanley Elkin once put it in class. Much later, in Chapter 43, on a trip to Box Hill, he must reprove Emma for an unkind remark to Miss Bates, an old friend. Frank Churchill asks to hear one funny story, or three dull ones, from each member of the party. Miss Bates jokes at her own expense that finding three dull stories should be easy for her. “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty,” Emma says. “Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.” Miss Bates is deeply hurt, but blames herself. When they are alone, Knightley lets Emma have it:Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.Harsh words, and well-deserved. Her reaction? “Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.” Once again, feeling story prevents the correction of course that repentance would demand. Feeling sorry and laughing off the hurt, in fact, go hand in hand.

Two chapters later, as the novel begins its slow descent toward a conclusion, Emma seeks at last to repair her relationship with Jane Fairfax, a beautiful and accomplished young woman—a natural candidate for friendship—whom she dislikes for no reason that she can say. Jane, however, rebuffs Emma’s attempts at reconciliation. For her part, Emma is filled with remorse:She was sorry, very sorry. Her heart was grieved for a state which seemed but the more pitiable from this sort of irritation of spirits, inconsistency of action, and inequality of powers; and it mortified her that she was given so little credit for proper feeling, or esteemed so little worthy as a friend: but she had the consolation of knowing that her intentions were good. . . .Small wonder Jane is resolved to receive no kindness from Emma. She is still laboring under the moral error of believing that feeling sorry, very sorry, is enough to undo the damage she has caused.

It is not. It never is.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The enactment of moral experience

Lolita is the greatest novel ever written in English, because alone among English-language novels it is the enactment of a moral experience. Of the next five novels on my top-fifty list, only Ulysses has a similar ambition. Joyce sought to reproduce an entire day and an entire city—not to clock the day and map the city, but to raise them out of prose—while Nabokov’s intention (or, rather, Humbert Humbert’s) is what Abraham Joshua Heschel called the creation of time backwards:

The most unnoticed of all miracles is the miracle of repentance. It is not the same as rebirth; it is transformation, creation. In the dimension of time there is no going back. But the power of repentance causes time to be created backward and allows re-creation of the past to take place. Through the forgiving hand of God, harm and blemish which we have committed against the world and against ourselves will be extinguished, transformed into salvation.[1]Nabokov did everything in his power to dissemble his moral purpose. As Chrees pointed out in commenting on the Lasalle-Horner case which must have planted the seed of the novel, Nabokov claimed otherwise, saying that the “first little throb of Lolita” was prompted by a newspaper story about the “first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Pure fiction, of course. Everything that Nabokov wrote was pure fiction—a fluent hushing-up of his true motives in writing. All art is deception, he told BBC interviewers in 1962, but deception “is only part of the game; it’s part of the combination, part of the delightful possibilities, illusions, vistas of thought, which can be false vistas, perhaps. I think a good combination should always contain a certain element of deception.”[2]

Thus when he says later in the same interview that he has “no social purpose, no moral message,” that he merely enjoys “composing riddles with elegant solutions,” he does not mean that Lolita is devoid of moral intention. He means that the moral experience enacted in the novel cannot be abbreviated in a neat-and-tidy maxim to be inscribed upon the walls of a Japanese sentimentalist’s mind. There is no “message” that can be extracted from the novel without damaging it beyond repair. The novel is identical with its morality.

Here is the riddle that Nabokov set himself to solving in Lolita. How does a moral monster obtain repentance for the most unspeakable of moral evils? The son of a liberal anti-Communist, a fugitive from Berlin where his father was gunned down by right-wing extremists in 1922, Nabokov was acquainted with the worst crimes of the twentieth century. The first moral problem he faced in writing his novel was to restore unspeakability to evil. After the Great Terror and the Holocaust, he saw that evil had become a propaganda tool. Only one crime aroused an instinctive horror in the human breast:[D]epending on the condition of my glands and ganglia, I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to the other—from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated—to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l’âge; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a viellard encore vert—or was it green rot?—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.[3]It is difficult to imagine a more monstrous passage. Indeed, when other moral monsters set out to explain themselves they take pains to emphasize their essential goodness. Think, for instance, of the memoir that Rudolf Höss wrote in the six months before being hanged in April 1947 just a few steps away from the first crematorium at Auschwitz. Höss insists that he was given to “inner doubts and depressions,” that he suffered “deep human emotion.” Those who witnessed him at the time testified to his coldness and heartlessness, but this was merely a pose, an appearance. The outward calm that he affected “during these events which tear the heart apart in anyone who had any kind of human feelings,” was the result of a “tremendous effort” to strike a proper military bearing to his men. The question of how, away from his men, he could have possibly endured the “inner doubts and depressions,” if he really experienced them and was not merely spinning lies, is never even raised.[4]

Not so Humbert. He is remarkably open about “this horror that I cannot shake off” (p. 135). After satisfying his lust upon Lolita, an “ashen sense of awfulness” would creep over him (p. 137). Every day, as she climbed back into the car alongside him and they headed west, Humbert would be overcome with “an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed” (p. 140).

Why does he not stop? Although he claims that years of concealing his yearning for little girls had taught him “superhuman self-control,” the opposite is very nearly the case. He is helpless before Lolita. Never once, though, does he try to excuse his behavior. Earlier on he had sought to dismiss the moral qualms by learned allusions to cultural relativism (in East India, “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds”) and literary history (Dante with nine-year-old Beatrice, Petrarch with twelve-year-old Laura, Poe with thirteen-year-old Virginia). But not even he is convinced. As he looks back upon their flight, Humbert catches himself thinking thatour long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep. (pp. 175–76)All art is deception, but art is not all deception. And these slips of the mask, these wincing revelations of Lolita’s suffering and Humbert’s own devastation, point to the novel’s real purpose. In a word, Humbert writes Lolita to atone for his evil. (Not his crime: his crime is murdering Quilty, for which he is unrepentant.) The novel is his effort to recreate time backwards, to restore Lolita to the life he stole from her. Nabokov’s intention is slightly different—not to write a moral treatise on repentance, but to body forth its perfectly realized performance; to represent it, not as a moral formula, but as a self-understood action.

Jewish tradition, especially as advanced by Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, holds that true repentance (or teshuvah, “return,” in Hebrew) consists of five steps: (1) recognition of sin, (2) remorse, (3) giving up the sin, (4) restitution or repair, and (5) public confession. I am not saying that Nabokov was familiar with Jewish tradition, but rather that Jewish tradition has clarified a certain “logic” to repentance. Christian ideas of repentance differ only slightly, but the primary difference is this. Judaism teaches that sacramental efforts are adequate to atone only for sins between man and God. For sins between man and man, these distinct and reparative steps must be taken. And Humbert carries out each of them.

First, he recognizes the horror of what he is doing to Lolita even as he remains helpless to stop doing it. And as I wrote here a little over two weeks ago, Humbert finally acknowledges, in his last few moments as a free man, the sin he has committed against her—the sin of removing her voice from the chorus of children at play (p. 308). He does not try to dress it up as something it is not. He ceases to speak of “nymphet love,” stops holding that it is the “patrimonies of poets” and “not crime’s proving ground” (p. 131). Even the unvoiced question that he puts in the mouth of a Ramsdale neighbor (“Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle . . . had done to Sally Horner in 1948?”) is an indirect admission that, yes, he had (p. 289).

The second step—remorse—is the most difficult to reduce to an obvious discernible action. Although regret suffuses the narrative, it would violate Nabokov’s stylistic prohibition on direct statement for Humbert to babble how sorry he is. The closest is when he is able to say what his lust dispelled:I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever—for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)—and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again—and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure—all would be shattered. (p. 285)The tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, but the physical presence of Lolita, whom he was helpless to resist, quickly converted the remorse back into desire, atonement’s dross. It is only after losing her at last, and for good, that Humbert is able to deepen his tenderness for Lolita (“this Lolita, my Lolita,” as he repeatedly says) into remorse for the sin of “safely solipsizing” her—the sin of using her, borrowing “her brown limbs in the seculsion of the five-dollar room,” to satisfy his passion.

Third (and rarely remarked upon), Humbert gives up the sin:I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not change. . . . On playgrounds and beaches, my sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a nymphet’s limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita’s handmaids and rosegirls. But one essential vision in me had withered: never did I dwell now on possibilities of bliss with a little maiden, specific or synthetic, in some out-of-the-way place; never did my fancy sink its fangs into Lolita’s sisters, far far away, in the coves of evoked islands. That was all over, for the time being at least. (p. 257)Do not let the final qualification throw you. Humbert is “reformed,” but he is neither so crude nor so superficial to believe he is cured. His very recognition that abandoning “the possibilities of bliss with a little maiden” is a merely temporary surcease from hell is a testament to the profound moral correction which he has negotiated. Moreover, in the next chapter, Humbert undertakes his first adult love affair—with a young woman who was “twice Lolita’s age.” He marvels that he mentions Rita at all: “There is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this sinister memoir. . .” (p. 259). But there is every reason. His tenderness and fond memories for her (“she was the most soothing, the most comprehending companion that I ever had”) are proof that he has indeed given up the sin.

Fourth, Humbert tries to make restitution. After he receives a begging letter from Lolita, now seventeen, married, pregnant, and broke, he hunts her down where she is living in a cardboard shack in a coal-mining town and hands her an envelope containing four thousand dollars. He asks her to come away with him. “[Y]ou mean that you will give us that money only if I go with you to a motel,” Lolita says warily. But, no, there are no conditions. Humbert wants her to live with him, die with him, and everything with him; if she refuses she will still get her “trousseau.” Lolita refuses. It is out of the question, she says. She would sooner go back to Quilty, whom she loved and who wanted her only for a sex slave. She gropes for words of explanation. Humbert supplies them mentally: “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life” (p. 279).

Because he has broken her life, and because she will not join him in an effort to repair it, Humbert must do the next best thing. He insists that the world know how much he loved her, “this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child”—no longer a nymphet, but a flesh-and-blood woman—and “even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn,” even if the young virgin become an aging mother, “even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita” (p. 278). His emphasis upon Lolita’s thisness, what Joyce called haecceity, is the unshakable foundation of his effort to restore her individuality, to break the spell of her “nymphage,” to see her as the unique woman he has uniquely damaged. It is the necessary prelude to his final restorative act.

And so the entire purpose of his book is to make a full and public confession—repentance’s fifth and final step. Originally, upon beginning it, he had thought to use the manuscript at his trial, to save his soul if not his head. “In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could not parade living Lolita,” he says (p. 308). To do so would be to use her all over again as a means to his own solipsistic ends. His intention alters as the novel progresses and his shame deepens. He no longer seeks “to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets” (p. 134). Lolita is not a token. She is not the sample of a “great rosegray never-to-be-had” (p. 264). She is a person, this Lolita, and he has forced her to dwell “in a world of total evil” (p. 284). When Janet Lewis writes a short novel about a man who introduces a beloved woman into a world of evil, she imagines him saying, when he realizes at last what he has done, “I can but die by way of atonement.”[5] Humbert does not offer to die, because he seeks an atonement that is stronger than death. Since he has broken her life, since he has removed Lolita’s voice from the concord of children, he seeks now to “make you live in the minds of later generations.” Nabokov lends him the full armature of his art so that Humbert might recreate the time he has stolen from her and return her to the life he has broken. Repentance is but the ancilla of art, as he might have put it elsewhere (p. 259). It is the handmaiden to the superhuman effort to grant her literary immortality by way of atonement.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Meaning of Repentance” (1936), in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1996), pp. 68–70.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 9–19.

[3] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955) (New York: Vintage, 1989), p. 174. Subsequent references will be inserted between parentheses.

[4] Rudolf Höss, Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz, ed. Steven Paskuly, trans. Andrew Pollinger (New York: Da Capo, 1992), p. 165.

[5] Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941), p. 108.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Beware of writers’ politics

Haruki Murakami may be a great novelist, but he is also a political buffoon. Most writers are. As the German novelist Daniel Kehlman said at the University of Göttingen not quite three years ago,

My god, Hölderlin and Kleist embraced patriotism and the German Nation, Kipling the English Empire; Claudel and Yeats were half-fascists; Pound and Benn whole ones; Céline and Jünger I don't even want to talk about, and Aragon, Eluard, Brecht, Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger and many dozens of Europe’s premier intellectuals wrote letter or reverential submission to and hymns about Josef Stalin. Writers have two main traits: they dislike pragmatics and they are often opportunists.Murakami is the latter variety. Invited to Israel to accept the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, he seizes the opportunity to stand with those who seek to destroy the Jewish State. Inscribed on the wall of his mind, he sighs, is the slogan: “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.” He goes on, as if addressing schoolchildren:Yes, no matter how right the wall may be, how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?I dunno. Maybe the value of truth? What value the works of a novelist who candidly prefers to be morally muddled? Murakami presses on:What is the meaning of this metaphor, of the wall and the egg? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high wall. The eggs are unarmed civilians who are crushed, burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of this metaphor that is true.Now, Murakami began his school lesson by warning that he had come to Jerusalem as a “professional spinner of lies,” but even an admitted liar might think twice about uncritically passing on discredited Hamas propaganda about the Israeli use of “white phosphorous shells.” Even more telling is the refusal to make moral distinctions. Only the “unarmed civilians” of one side—the side of the infinitely fragile egg—earn the novelist’s tender mercies. True, terrorists launch rockets at unarmed civilians on the other side of “the wall,” and then courageously hide themselves among their own unarmed countrymen. Despite their rockets and their ambitions to murder as many Jews as possible, however, they are mere eggs. We must mourn the breaking of such precious eggs as Nizar Rayan and Abu Zakaria al-Jemal and Said Siam. It is equally imperative not to show any concern for residents of the wall, even if their schools are hit by the eggs’ rockets. They are only eggs, after all, and unarmed Israeli children—well, they belong to the wall.

The officials of the Jerusalem International Book Fair, who awarded their prize to Murakami, ought to have rushed the stage, wrestled the trophy out of his hands, and presented it to the nearest anonymous bystander, who could not possibly have been a bigger moral idiot than the Japanese novelist.