Sunday, May 31, 2009

The literary shlimil

Illustrated by the Bard paperback cover of Pnin and starting with Lucky Jim, Mark Sarvas’s list at commends eight “literary losers” (h/t: Books, Inq.). “Today, we call them antiheroes (it’s more polite),” Sarvas says, “but to me, they will always be literature’s losers—tormented, feckless, sometimes lovable, sometimes not, but almost always heartbreaking.”

Another word for such a person, at least when he is a Jew, is shlimil. In her brilliant first book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971)—written before the YIVO standard of transliteration was widely adopted—Ruth R. Wisse shows how the character emerges from Jewish folklore to invade modern prose fiction by Jews, creating a multilingual literary tradition. The shlimil, she says, is the loser who becomes a victor, “the model of endurance, his innocence a shield against corruption, his absolute defenselessness the only guaranteed defense against the brutalizing potential of might.”

For such a turnabout to occur, fiction must take place, as I have argued elsewhere, summarizing the views of David Lewis, in two worlds. In actuality, where success is valued above all else, the shlimil is a loser. In the moral realm of fiction, however, he inverts these values and rises above them. Fiction is thus morally indispensable, in creating a realm where innocence and defenselessness overcome might. As Wisse says, “The schlemiel’s naïve substitution of his illusory world for the real one resembles the mystic’s supernaturalism”—and the novelist’s methods.

Wisse locates “the genesis of the literary schlemiel within the context of Yiddish literature” in a tale circa 1805 by Nahman of Breslov, the Hasidic rabbi who was a contemporary of Jane Austen. Then she traces the typology through Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Aleichem (Menahem Mendl, “an epistolary novel written between 1892 and 1913”), and then into modern literature.

Perhaps her most daring claim is that “the icy beginnings of the schlemiel in American fiction” can be found in The Sun Also Rises. Robert Cohn is the “foil,” or the fool, who “betrays all the book’s standards, especially the aesthetic.” He is anything but hardboiled. Because Hemingway was not merely an outsider to it but also an antagonist to Jewish tradition, Cohn “remains a schlemiel-manqué,” Wisse argues. Hemingway is unable to see either the humor or the irony in his condition. Cohn is, for Hemingway, merely a sniveler among tough guys.

The shlimil à succès arrives in Dangling Man (1944). Bellow explicitly reverses Hemingway’s aesthetic: “Most serious matters are closed to the hardboiled. They are unpracticed in introspection, and therefore badly equipped to deal with opponents whom they cannot shoot like big game or outdo in daring.” Or, as Wisse puts it (and it is a testament to her abilities as a critic that her prose might be quoted as an alternative to Bellow’s), “The new spokesman for an altered America would be more like Cohn than like Jake Barnes. . . .” Instead of the bullfighter’s “purity of line” there is the “spreading circumference of a pot belly.”

Wisse then follows the career of the literary shlimil as he stumbles through Malamud’s New Life, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, and Bellow’s Herzog. Not until Norman Podhoretz’s autobiography Making It (1967), which eagerly embraces the notion that “it is better to be a success than a failure,” does Jewish literature in American hands undertake “the unmaking of a schlemiel.”

Since the publication of Wisse’s study, successes have outnumbered failures. Not even characters like Roth’s Swede Levov or Coleman Silk could be described as fools or foils, although they do not ring the gong of success in the end. Here are some novels whose main characters are closer to the classic type of the literary shlimil:

• Steven Millhauser, Edwin Mullhouse (1972). How else would you describe a great writer who contrives to die at the age of eleven?

• Adele Wiseman, Crackpot (1976). An obese prostitute finds favor in the eyes of God, if no one else.

• Stanley Elkin, The Franchiser (1976). My second-favorite Elkin. Ben Flesh is a reverse shlimil: a man who thinks he is a success when in reality he is not.

• Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool (1993). Can an Italian-American Catholic write about the type? Sully may be nobody’s fool, but he is the world’s shlimil. His belief in personal autonomy bites him in the ass.

• Robert Cohen, The Here and Now (1996). Sam Karnish, a self-described “half-Jew,” finds himself drawn to Judaism by his fascination for a Hasidic couple. The last section of the novel is entitled, in an ironic tip of the cap to Podhoretz, “Making It.”

• Francine Prose, Blue Angel (2000). Swenson, a novelist and creative writing teacher, falls in love with one of his students, although she is not particularly sexy, and destroys his career and family as a consequence. Art turns out to be more powerful than responsibility—the moral choice of a true shlimil.

• Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002). Explicitly compared by some reviewers to the title character of Lucky Jim, Vladimir Girshkin is a Russian immigrant who relies upon his ignorance of American culture to surmount it.

• Alan Lelchuk, Ziff: A Life? (2003). A mock literary biography makes a Philip Roth figure into a shlimil, who fails in his most important endeavor: namely, preventing a biography of him from being written.

• Richard Price, Samaritan (2003). A thoughtful 400-page police novel on the theme No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. Ray Mitchell, an ex-high school teacher, falls victim to his own foolishness.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The critic takes aim

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot starts this evening, which will keep me from recording more commonplaces but not from finishing Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows and Tim Winton’s Breath, just out this week in paperback. Watch this blog for reviews of both next week.

In the mean time, here is some good criticism by better critics. R.T.’s autobiographical exploration of Wise Blood, a book that he described here as having changed his life, has grown to six parts. Each one is worth reading. Indeed, R.T.’s series is so good that Nige was provoked to start reading O’Connor.

The Mookse and the Gripes calls for a wider appreciation of the Northern Irish novelist David Parks’s Swallowing the Sun.

Genevieve Tucker recommends an Australian story writer who will be unfamiliar to most Americans—Tom Cho, the historian of patchy employment.

Daniel Green concludes that Paul Griffiths’s short novel Let Me Tell You, an account of Ophelia’s life before Hamlet, “has very little claim on our attention” apart from its Shakespearean source.

Philip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag is the first entry in the Princeton University Press series Writers on Writing, and Ron Slate dissects it carefully, saying that his “persistent if respectful antagonism” affords Lopate the “entertaining and profitable opportunity” to consider Sontag’s postmodernist agenda.

At the University of Rochester’s Three Percent, Emily Shannon warns that the Turkish novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s Mind at Peace puts in question what you believe about humanism.

Jake Seliger gives a thumb down to George Johnson’s Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics. The analysis is flat or inadequate, and the research is thin. Thus Seliger’s conclusion.

Georges Simenon’s Rules of the Game is the latest book to be rescued from neglect by Brad Bigelow’s irreplaceable Neglected Books Page: “it has something of the attractive bitterness of a glass of Campari,” Bigelow concludes.

Rebecca O’Neal, back from a sixteen-day absence, promises good things to come about Revolutionary Road and Wilfrid Sheed’s Max Jamison, one of the few interesting novels about a critic.

Best of all, of course, is Patrick Kurp, whose delightful account of the Field Guide to the Sedges of the Pacific Northwest published last year by Oregon State University Press is a reminder that criticism can (and should) be written as well as fiction.

Making identity large

Like many others, I was disturbed by the comments of Sonia Sotomayor, the new Associate Justice-designate of the U.S. Supreme Court, in a speech at Berkeley eight years ago:

Justice [Sandra Day] O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor [Judith] Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow [sic] has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.Sotomayor was right to be unsure of the source, although she bungles the correction. Mary Jeanne Coyne (not Coyle), an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, told students in a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota Law School she disagreed that women justices bring a “woman’s perspective” to the bench, adding: “A wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same conclusion. In the vast majority of cases, it [the judge’s sex] will have no impact whatever” (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1991). Justice O’Connor quoted Coyne eight months later in the annual James Madison Lecture at the New York University Law School, giving rise to the incorrect citation (Washington Post, Nov. 23, 1991).

Of her two objections, Sotomayor’s first is irrelevant, since the wisdom required to decide a case, regardless how universal its definition, will be narrowed to the particulars of the case and the specific law that applies to it. It is her second objection that causes some readers to boggle. The remark is not taken out of context. An attention to sex and ethnicity is swirled through the speech like chocolate in ice cream. Nine years since Ruth Bader Ginsburg was named, “we are waiting for a third appointment of a woman”; ten years since Clarence Thomas, and still no “second minority, male or female, preferably Hispanic, to the Supreme Court.” Sotomayor spends a great deal of time reviewing the percentages of women and Hispanics:As of September 1, 2001, the federal judiciary consisting of Supreme, Circuit and District Court Judges was about 22% women. In 1992, nearly ten years ago, when I was first appointed a District Court Judge, the percentage of women in the total federal judiciary was only 13%. Now, the growth of Latino representation is somewhat less favorable. As of today we have, as I noted earlier, no Supreme Court justices, and we have only 10 out of 147 active Circuit Court judges and 30 out of 587 active district court judges. Those numbers are grossly below our proportion of the population. As recently as 1965, however, the federal bench had only three women serving and only one Latino judge. So changes are happening, although in some areas, very slowly. These figures and appointments are heartwarming. Nevertheless, much still remains to happen.“Less favorable,” “heartwarming”—on what grounds? What is astonishing is that Sotomayor treats the statistical categorization of judges by sex and ethnicity as self-evidently appropriate. And why? Because she conceives of the judiciary as a representative institution.

It must fall to others to explain why (in the words of Brooks Adams) “nothing is so fatal to the principle of order as inequality in the dispensation of justice.” My concern is only with the hypertrophy of identity, of which Sotomayor is herself merely representative.

In his brilliant short essay “Keep Your Identity Small,” the programming language designer Paul Graham holds that “people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity. By definition they’re partisan.” To insist upon determining questions as a “Latina woman” is inevitably to adopt an axiological language (“better conclusion,” “preferably Hispanic”), because it moves personal and social associations and interests ahead of any rational methodology. It may even be true, as Sotomayor quotes Minow (see above) as saying, that “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives—no neutrality, no escape from choice in judging.” But it is quite another thing to make a self-conscious virtue out of what may be an inescapable vice attaching to the human condition. Because all human beings put on weight and go soft around the middle as they grow old, I should celebrate fat?

In plain fact, every person faces a decision—whether to exaggerate his identity or (in Graham’s words) to keep it small. As Graham explains, “If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.” Clear thought in all disciplines, not just the law, requires the shrinkage and not the expansion of self—and the abandonment of partisanship.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Life-changing books

The Guardian asked twenty-eight British writers to name the book that changed their life. Given my new-found admiration for her, I was badly disappointed by Zoë Heller’s reply: “[T]he only book I can think of that effected a large and immediately felt change was My Secret Life, the Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman (author unknown).” The other answers range from the predictable (Catcher in the Rye) to the dubious (example withheld to protect the pretentious).

The book that changed my life was Allen Drury’s Preserve and Protect (1968), the fourth title in a series of political novels that began with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Advise and Consent (1959). I devoured Advise and Consent and then read my way frantically through its two sequels; I did not admit to myself till much later how terrible they were. Preserve and Protect was the worst of the bunch; each title was a falling off from the one before. It was, however, the first new-release hardback that I ever rushed to a bookstore to purchase for myself—a bad habit that I have indulged ever since.

Firearms, expandable batons, flick knives

Elberry is planning his first visit to America, and has listed Houston as one of his destinations. He wants to see my “arsenal of firearms, expandable batons, flick knives, coshes, brass knuckles, dobermanns, claymore mines, armed vehicles, sharks, etc.” Nobody gets his hands on my weaponry, though. Nobody.

One of the unexpected pleasures of rereading Thomas Williams (see below) was the enjoyment of male things—motorcycles (including an old prewar Indian Pony), hunting rifles, handguns (including a Nambu pistol), and power tools. Why is it that such things enforce solitude rather than “male bonding” or (God forbid) homosociality?

Equally interesting, as I reflect on how to prepare for Elberry’s visit, is how little American novelists say about the guns their characters use on one another. Humbert Humbert, who names everything else, refers to the automatic pistol that kills Quilty as “Chum.” Gatsby’s chauffeur hears the shots that kill his boss, and “a little way off in the grass” the body of the murderer—George Wilson—is found. Nothing is said about the gun, though, until several months later when Nick runs into Tom Buchanan on Fifth Avenue. Tom won’t say what he told Wilson, but explains to Nick: “His hand was on a revolver in his pocket. . . .” What kind of revolver? Are there different kinds? The only time that I can recall a gun’s being differentiated is when Ron Hansen observed, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, that James carried two guns (“a .44 caliber Smith and Wesson and a Colt .45 in crossed holsters”). Otherwise weapons are largely a blur to American writers.

The Hair of Harold Roux

When Robert Stone’s bring-the-war-home novel Dog Soldiers was awarded half a National Book Award in 1975, the New York Times reported that “Joseph Heller had been expected to cop the fiction award” for Something Happened, but “there wasn’t much grumbling” when Stone won instead. The surprise was that “he had to split it with The Hair of Harold Roux,” a novel that “nobody had read. Nobody.” (Emphasis in the original.) Three decades later the surprise has not abated. Time lists Stone’s as one of the hundred best novels since 1923. Literary scholars treat Dog Soldiers as a canonical work, while a search of the MLA Bibliography for any mention of The Hair of Harold Roux concludes with an error message: “No results were found.”

Yet Williams’s is not only the better novel in every respect (better prose, better plot, better people). It is also less captive to received ideas, and consequently it creates a dimension of moral independence, a ground for determining the right thing to do, that is missing from Stone’s book. The two novels share a common theme. As Williams phrases it in his opening pages, the “world, with perhaps a temporary remission now and then, is departing upon a long slide away from any sort of rational middle, like a psychotic plunging toward his bleak end.” Or, as Stone says early on, “the world of things transformed itself into a single overwhelming act of murder.”

The two books have little else in common. Dog Soldiers is a genuinely apocalyptic novel. Stone holds out little hope for a world that is “capable of composing itself, at any time and without notice, into a massive instrument of agonizing death.” A chase involving heroin smuggled into the U.S. from Vietnam, the novel ends with its only good man trudging through a salt desert, endlessly following a railroad (“In the end, there was only the tracks”), and the final victory of the corrupt drug agent who is after him. “If you stuck with something, faced down every kind of pressure, refused to fold when the going got tough, outplayed all adversaries, and relied on your own determination and fortitude,” the drug agent reflects when he finds the heroin on the corpse of the man he has been chasing, “then the bag of beans at the end of the rainbow might be yours after all.” Thus Stone’s ironic inversion of the work ethic. There is neither God nor intrinsic value to affirm; only the self and its struggle for triumph over others.

The Hair of Harold Roux, by contrast, suggests that fiction might offer a refuge from the apocalypse. Published the same year as My Life As a Man and five years before The Ghost Writer, Williams’s novel anticipates the Zuckerman books in relying upon a novelist-within-a-novel to provide the still center of a revolving circus. At an apocalyptic moment in history, as R. V. Cassill said in his Washington Post review of Williams’s book, the novelist “becomes the conservator of the self-destructing community in which he finds himself.” The novelist puts the world in order—by arranging it into streets and plots of land and people living on them; “people who are not classified, utilized, disposable counters in a game of allegory, political comments, social criticisms, theology, or existential puzzles,” as Williams said in his speech accepting the National Book Award. When the world transforms itself into a single overwhelming act of murder, women and men are reduced to fear and desperation. The novelist’s job is to reexpand them.

The novel’s novelist is Aaron Benham, a middle-aged journeyman who teaches at a New England university. A “professor of sweet reason,” he is on leave, ostensibly to finish a book, but in reality because he is “sick of reason, sick of convincing. The professor is sick to death of explaining.” His best student has disappeared on a drug bender; his best friend, who has put off his doctoral dissertation while lovingly restoring an eighteenth-century farmhouse to a condition in which it has “become important far beyond material considerations,” is on the verge of dismissal; his family has driven south to Boston for his in-laws’ anniversary, which he stupidly forgot. Stranded, unable to help those around him, Aaron retreats into the autobiographical novel he is writing, entitled The Hair of Harold Roux.

Although he worries that it is “all incestuous and even narcissistic,” for “who wants to write about or read about a professor who is a writer who is writing about writing,” the novel-within-a-novel is not merely a verbal matryoshka doll. It is a profound meditation on the place and value of fiction in human life. On a planet that is “the repository of all the pain it has ever been host to,” the novelist believes that “if he might find his way back even a few years, then the volume is by an infinitesimal fraction smaller, a little more manageable perhaps.” So the novelist “must manipulate against the movement of time”—he “must make and dominate”—but in the end he is powerless to prevent the pain from recurring. To revisit the past is to reawaken the pain. What is worse, Aaron learns that his actual life is unintentionally replicating his autobiographical fiction. That in fact may be his motive for writing: he might make and dominate fiction, but not actuality. “He ha[s] no way to repair anything that had been done,” Williams concludes. Not as long as he acknowledges that fiction is distinct from falsity.

In the novel-within-a-novel, Allard Benson is an undergraduate attending a New England college on the GI Bill. A lapsed Protestant with all the convictions of a believing Protestant (“[y]ou did not mindlessly repeat what had been previously said because that was rote, a kind of cheating, the death of reality which was life”), he is engaged to be married to Mary, a devout Catholic girl from a small nearby town, but he is also bedding down with Naomi, a Jewish radical from New York. Rarely has a menage à trois, or more accurately a young man’s brazen attempt to juggle two different lovers, been described so well. Although he and Naomi have only to look at each other for strange things to happen in their middles, Allard prefers Mary. The reason is simple: “What he really wanted to do was to create in Mary Tolliver the perfect receptor of himself.” His self-importance blinds Allard to the harm he is causing, especially to his classmate Harold Roux, who worships Mary. Harold’s efforts to protect her from Allard bring about the catastrophe, in which Allard accidentally tears off Harold’s toupee—his “false hair,” as Mary calls it—the source of the novel’s title and its central image of falsity. Even though Allard did not intend it, his action destroys Harold, the engagement to Mary, the affair with Naomi, and much else besides. Falsehood, the ability to lie to oneself and one’s friends, turns out to be essential to social life, perhaps even to ordinary human life, and fiction is its sworn enemy.

Except: every world contains worlds, in which ancient hurts may be revisited and reawakened, but also contained. Fiction does not repair any worlds, but provides an emergency exit to other worlds, where the pain at least is not actual. The other fiction-within-a-fiction in The Hair of Harold Roux, then, is the remarkable bedtime story that Aaron tells his two children—so remarkable, in fact, that Williams developed it at ful length in Tsuga’s Children (1977), his next novel. “I want to hear about what happens!” his son protests when Aaron breaks off the story for bed. Fiction relieves the human thirst for truth, even at the cost of additional pain.

The Hair of Harold Roux is available in paperback from the University Press of New England.

Monday, May 18, 2009

On plagiarism

The meaning of plagiarism has been narrowed to a quasi-legal charge. “A false accusation of plagiarism,” you will be informed, if you used the word, “is defamatory.” And thus another weapon is removed from criticism’s arsenal.

Perhaps I am the last person in the world who should be complaining. I too have experienced the ambivalent kiss of plagiarism. The first chapter of my doctoral dissertation was plundered by a professor (not on my thesis committee) to whom I had made the mistake of showing it. In it I had treated the Ars Poetica as a “creative writing textbook”—the first scholar ever to do so, as I observed proudly—and the translations from Horace were my own. A couple of years later I received a packet of books for review. Imagine my surprise when I opened one to find an essay, by that same professor to whom I had shown my chapter, on the Ars Poetica as a creative writing textbook. The translations from Horace were my own, word for word, although they were attributed to Walter Jackson Bate.

Now, I happened to have an earlier draft of my professor’s essay; we had traded work-in-progress for comment and criticism, you see; and his draft included not a word about Horace. Believing I had him dead to rights, I wrote to his publisher, who disclaimed all responsibility, saying that I should have objected when the essay first appeared as a magazine article. I wrote to the professor, who replied by saying that he regarded a false accusation of plagiarism as defamatory. My position was precarious; I was a “new hire,” without tenure or status; he was a full professor at a prestigious university. In my cowardice, I let the matter drop.

I have also been obliged to deal with plagiarism in the classroom. The first time was when a former student wrote to me, several years after graduation, to confess a bad conscience: he had plagiarized the final paper in a course on modern literature. He did not seek absolution; he left his punishment to my judgment. After much advice and reflection, I asked him to contribute a series of scholarly publications in Jewish studies to the Evans Library at Texas A&M, whose holdings in the area were pathetically thin. Although some of my advisers derided me for it, this is a decision that I have never regretted.

About a decade later, I received four papers which contained an identical paragraph. In the mean time, the World Wide Web had become available, and a quick search of some of the odder phrases turned up the source—an undergraduate paper at a college in Florida. One of my students had copied the original verbatim; the other three had made more or less “selective” use of it. Again I decided upon leniency; the students were put on academic probation; they were given F’s on the paper and were required to write another in its place; the F’s were included in the final calculation of their grades; none earned higher than a C. And since then, all papers in all my classes must be passed through a plagiarism detector.

And yet these three cases have little or nothing to do with literature. They are examples of “academic misconduct.” They are the foreseeable consequences of a university system, which demands intensive writing from students and frequent publication from professors without any recognition of the difficulties involved or any concern for the sacrifice of quality to quantity. To write even minimally well is time-consuming and requires long bouts of seemingly unproductive concentration, to say nothing of the blank solitude and undisturbed quiet that most students—even some professors—want only to escape.

Plagiarism ought to be returned to literary criticism. I am thinking, for example, of Harold Ogden White’s Plagiarism and Imitation during the English Renaissance (1935). Outside academic hearings in which someone’s integrity is being questioned, the distinction between plagiarism and imitation is invaluable. It is the distinction between servility and admiration, between submitting to a writer’s cultural authority and adapting a writer’s ideas and phrases to fresh effect. Even in scholarship the distinction has disappeared; imitation is now called “creative imitation” to scrub it clean. But the disappearance merely testifies to the loss of faith in imitation as an aid to discovery.

Imitation is translation: something distinguished or striking is recast in different words, or left in pretty much its original condition and put to an entirely different use. As when Francine Prose rewrites The Mill on the Floss as Goldengrove. Plagiarism is when this is done badly—not to say something of the writer’s own, but to join a chorus already in progress.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The hat trick

If Mookse and the Gripes’ review of her Orange Prize-shortlisted Burnt Shadows is accurate, Kamila Shamsie scores the hat trick with an image that is at once plagiaristic, ludicrous, and politically correct: “Hiroko survives the [Hiroshima] atomic blast, but the image of some cranes from a kimono she was wearing at the explosion were forever burned onto her back.”


Reading books and reflecting on them have been slowed by the onerous professional duty of grading. Aside from the hopeless boredom of poring over examination papers, which are universally written in a style that repels attention, there is also the problem of criteria. Most schoolroom grading is ad hoc. Not only are there no criteria upon which teachers of the same subject have agreed; there is no institutional mechanism or opportunity, and even less will, for reaching an agreement. Unlike the sorting of apples or eggs, schoolroom grading is not a cooperative activity. Teachers sit alone with their examination papers, drumming their fingers in annoyance within the halo of a desk lamp at three in the morning. They are obliged to grade against a historical criterion, but over time they find themselves closing their eyes to errors and blemishes that they would have lowrated earlier in their careers. A student who earns an A from them after they have been teaching for two decades might have earned a C twenty years before.

The thing I hate most, though, is the uses to which my grades are put. Would-be employers demand a college transcript, or students pin a grade-point average to the top of their resumés, and my grade is read in comparison to other grades in other classes—even though, in the absence of agreed-upon criteria, such comparisons are vacuous. Against my will, I am forced to grade a student’s general academic promise. The pressure on professors to inflate grades, accordingly, is enormous. My C could keep a kid from getting into medical school. But isn’t it just possible that someone might have a genius for medicine and yet founder helplessly in literature or philosophy or history? What sense does it make to assume that the best candidates take home A’s in every subject? That is the widespread assumption, however. And should I then award an A to an otherwise intelligent and hardworking student who just doesn’t “get” literature?

Every semester I tell my students that my grading of them should be no different from a doctor’s diagnosis or a lawyer’s advice. It should be confidential. In the absence of public and cooperative standards, it can only be an assessment of our mutual success—mine in teaching them, theirs in learning what I have to teach. Because it is not that, however, they are discouraged from taking intellectual risks, trying their minds against an unfamiliar way of thinking. What is encouraged is sameness—straight A’s, students who confine themselves to the tried-and-true methods for earning A’s. As a consequence, there is no—repeat, no—intellectual distinction to be encountered in schoolrooms. There is only the continual repetition of familiar performances.

Is it any wonder that examination papers are so boring?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Prophet of nature’s loss

John Pipkin, Woodsburner (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2009). 367 pp. $28.95.

When I was younger and vulnerable to enthusiasm, I revered Henry David Thoreau. Driving from California to St. Louis in the summer of 1976, I took a detour through Massachusetts to visit Thoreau’s grave. In those days, the simple squat headstone engraved with the name HENRY was bare. I was among the first, I believe, to leave a stone—a European Jewish custom for this most American and least Hebraic of writers. I was drawn to him by two qualities: his wild-apple independence and hand-milled prose. As far as it is possible for any writer to be, Thoreau was not a man of his time. His famous decision to withdraw from “civilized life” and to dwell “alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor,” was really little more than a practical demonstration of his place in history.

Consider this passage from his Journal (January 9, 1855):

What a strong & hearty—but reckless, hit-or-miss style had some of the early writers of New England—like [John] Josselyn—& Wm Wood—and others elsewhere in those days— As if they spoke with a relish making their lips—like a coach whip—caring more to speak heartily than scientifically true. They are not to be caught napping by the wonders of nature in a new country & perhaps are often more ready to appreciate them than she is to exhibit them. They give you one piece of nature at any rate, & that is themselves. They use a strong homely coarse speech which cannot always be found in the dictionary—nor sometimes be heard in polite society—but which brings you very near to the thing itself described. The strong new soil speaks thro’ them. (I have just been reading some in Woods “New England’s Prospect” [1634].) He speaks a good word for NE—indeed will come very near lying for her—& when he doubts the truth of his praise he brings it out not the less soundly—as who cares if it is not so—we love her not the less for all that. Certainly that generation stood nearer to nature, nearer to the facts than this, and hence their books have more life in them.This passage, by the way, can be found in the Thoreau Edition, a scholarly project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, which has transcribed and posted online Volumes 18–33 of the Journal so far. I quote it not merely to feel the slip and grit of his style between my fingers, but also to suggest that Thoreau’s approach to nature, despite coming nearer to fact than his contemporaries’, was still more literary than naturalistic. Although he preferred scientific truth to hearty speech, Thoreau was fully aware of the literary tradition into which he was insinuating himself, and his wakefulness to the wonders of nature was filtered through books. References to his reading are scattered across his pages like skater insects on the surface of Walden Pond. First and last, Thoreau (who pronounced his name thorough, by the way) was a writer. He contributed to the country’s development just as much as the railroad builders; he improved the landscape with words. His subject is not nature, “infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us,” but our relation to nature. Some men wanted to open it to new channels of highly lucrative trade; he wanted to open it to new channels of highly verbal thought.

In more recent years, alas, Thoreau has been seen as something else—“the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism,” as a Boston University philosopher called him. The image at left, copied from Greg Perry’s Thoreau blog, is emblematic. The Thoreau Centers for Sustainability, “green nonprofit centers” in New York and San Francisco, naturally take his name. Champions of “green living” credit Thoreau for creating the basic concept. Even John Pipkin, in his new novel based on the embarrassing incident when Thoreau burned down some one hundred acres of the Concord Woods, has the not-yet-thirty writer reflect on the accident: “As towns and cities expand across the continent, woods like these, vaster tracts by far, will disappear beneath ax and saw and the other engines that men will devise to quicken the clearing of what brought them here.”

It is difficult, as you can tell from this sentence, to write a novel about Thoreau. Even if his voice were not so distinctive, or if he had not developed it by April 30, 1844, when he set the fire, the problem is that every reader of him has a scratchy recording of Thoreau playing in the ear. Pipkin tries to solve the problem by splitting the narrative among several Massachusetts residents who are affected by the fire—a Norwegian farmhand, the farmer’s wife he adores, an unchurched Protestant preacher, a Boston bookseller in Concord to open a second shop, two Czech lesbians—and also by casting the reflections of “Henry David” in free indirect discourse. Only once does Pipkin essay a passage in Thoreau’s voice. Running to Concord for help in battling the fire, Thoreau composes a journal entry in his head:Having passed the greater part of my life in indecision, I have decided at last how I intend to pass the balance of my days. The Dial is finished, and so is that corner of my being. There will be no other magazine to publish my simple poems and wandering thoughts. The world before me is of too much consequence to be merely observed. I must spread roots in it and become a man of practical concerns. Henceforth I shall sign my name Henry David Thoreau—Civil Engineer. The world does not want for another self-assured scribbler, possessed of a surfeit of words and little of necessity to say. . . . I have decided! I shall make pencils, still. I shall make their manufacture and perfection my work. The drill, the saw, the lathe—these shall be my tools. Plumbago and Bavarian clay [the secret to the superiority of Thoreau pencils], minerals from earth, galvanic batteries, baked pencil leads—these shall be my trade. Far better than the ungrounded ideas and airy pursuits that frustrate those men who would call themselves my contemporaries.Although some scholars have dated his decision to become a writer as early as 1840, Pipkin’s conceit is that the woods-burning incident alters the course of Thoreau’s life from practical to literary concerns. Guilt-ridden over his responsibility for the destruction of nature and unable to live among men who will go on pointing the finger of blame at him, Henry David realizes that he must atone: “There are wildernesses still, and what was lost at Concord might yet return, if it knows that its return will be safeguarded.” And so he decides to take up the pen again in service of nature. He becomes a prophet of its loss:America is not so stalwart a place as it may seem. The bountiful stores of plumbago and lumber and coal and fish and fur and all the other incomprehensible riches of the continent, riches waiting for industrious men to come along and scoop them up—these things are not endless. Once gone, they are gone for good. . . . Man’s inability to conceive of the world’s limits does not render the world limitless. And there is no longer a new world for the empty-handed to flee to from here.Well, every novelist must be granted his donnée, I suppose. It is significant, though, that in dividing up his chapters, Pipkin allocates more of the narrative to Oddmund Hus, the Norwegian farmhand who lives alone in the woods in a single-room cabin of his own making. Working alongside him, throwing shovelfuls of dirt at the advancing fire, Henry David marvels that “this man has already accomplished what he has only dreamed.” Apparently ignorant of the term’s provenance in nineteenth-century America, Pipkin has Henry David refer his new friend as Young America. Both men set fires earlier in the day, but Oddmund knew what he was doing and was able to contain his, while Henry David, who as yet has only visited nature on holiday and does not know as many natural facts as he thinks he does, quickly lost control of his fire. The implication is obvious. Although he supplies the Norwegian derivation of his name, Oddmund has the correct name by more than an “accident of language.” He is the odd man of his time and place. By comparison, Henry David Thoreau is a callow pretender.

Oddmund is rather interesting, especially in his unrequited love for the heavy-fleshed wife of the farmer who employs him, but he is not nearly enough to salvage Pipkin’s first novel. A Ph.D. in English from Rice University and former executive director of the Texas Writers’ League, Pipkin writes with a professional lack of urgency. Because fire-fighting is more dramatic to watch than to describe, he must find other things to write about if his novel is to move forward. The progress of the fire is narrated in the present tense. You know his characters’ minds have wandered when they switch over to the perfect.

After a while Pipkin falls into an easy working rhythm: a moment of action dissolves into paragraphs of flashback or digressive meditation. He resorts to the pathetic fallacy to animate the fire in the Concord Woods (“The pine needles, though quick to ignite, are easily spent, hardly fuel enough to sustain the flames for more than a few seconds at a time. And the fire knows this; it behaves in accordance with its own set of a priori truths. It must keep moving and consuming to survive”). When he slips and says that Oddmund “has not a clue” the farmer’s wife might fancy him, you figure he has simply neglected the beeping of his anachronism detector. But then, at novel’s end, the Boston bookseller, having been scorned by Henry David for his “fine clothes” and “expensive-looking boots and the watch chain at his waistcoat pocket,” decides against opening a branch store in Concord after all. He returns to Boston and founds Starbuck’s. I mean, he opens a coffeehouse instead. And you realize that Woodsburner is not a historical novel at all. It is a moral allegory in which the spiritual forefather of modern-day environmentalism learns painfully that, to safeguard nature against loss, he must cease being a holiday visitor and fashion himself into an odd man.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Critics’ pay

Roger K. Miller reconsiders Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, comparing it favorably to Revolutionary Road. He also challenges the view of Jonathan Franzen, advanced in an introduction to the 2002 Da Capo paperback edition, that the first half of the book is the better half. Miller concludes with some interesting background to the novel. Never before have I wanted to read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.

It is Golem Week at Wuthering Expectations. Read the Amateur Reader in toto before attempting The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, where the legend of the golem is given a strong, perhaps even brutal, misreading.

Alfred Appel Jr., professor of English at Northwestern and coauthor (with Vladimir Nabokov) of The Annotated Lolita, died of heart failure last Sunday. He was seventy-five. Although I never took a course with Appel, he was among those who made Northwestern’s English department, now sadly depleted, a lively place in the ’eighties. He was a nonbelligerent in the theory wars, and though you might think that you could guess where his sympathies lay, it was always a mistake to assume that you had taken the measure of Appel. He was Nabokov’s student at Cornell before becoming one of Nabokov’s best critics, and was among the first to call for the master’s canonization. In his review of Ada for the New York Times Book Review (May 4, 1969)—he characterized it as a “culminating work”—Appel described Nabokov as a “peer of Kafka, Proust and Joyce, those earlier masters of totally unique universes of fiction.”

If you are convinced that the current recession is “Great Depression II,” Levi Stahl recommends The American Earthquake, a collection of Edmund Wilson’s social criticism from the ’twenties and ’thirties. “The pessimist in me comes away from The American Earthquake fretting,” Stahl says, “about the many lessons of the 1930s that we’ve obviously willfully forgotten; the optimist in me looks to the lasting institutions our grandparents built from the catastrophe—Social Security, unemployment, and Keynesian economics among them—and hopes that they'll help us get through this mess more quickly than we did the first time around.” I sure hope he means unemployment insurance, and I am sure glad that he is not an economist, but Stahl is a good critic, who always makes valuable out-of-the-way recommendations.

Everyone in the literary blogscape wishes a quick conclusion to Litlove’s home renovations. We don’t merely want to hear that she is distracting herself with “the gardening writer Katherine Swift,” but want to hear more about Swift’s “amazing book The Morville Hours,” which Litlove describes as telling “the story of making a garden, but also the intertwined stories of landscape, land, house in which it is created, and also her own life story in a journey through the liturgical calendar and the natural year, written in truly sumptuous and soothing prose.” It is just such a description that leaves us wanting to hear more.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

How to pick a Nobel winner

Over at the A Pair of Ragged Claws, the Australian Literary Review blog hosted by the Sydney Australian, Stephen Romei asks whether Peter Carey will win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Describing him as “well decorated,” Romei points out that Carey is the only novelist beside J. M. Coetzee to win two Man Booker Prizes (in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and again in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang).

Oddly enough, however, when Romei listed the ten best Australian novels, as selected in 2003 in a readers’ poll conducted by the country’s public broadcaster, Carey was not named:

A. B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (1981)
George Johnston, My Brother Jack (1964)
Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding (1918, a children’s book)
John Marsden, Tomorrow, When the War Began (1993, a teen novel)
Sally Morgan, My Place (1987)
Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1930)
Ethel Turner, Seven Little Australians (1894, a children’s book)
Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955)
Tim Winton, Cloudstreet (1991)
————, Dirt Music (2001)

Still, Romei observes that Australia is “due,” and advances Carey as the most likely choice (he is sixty-six, while Patrick White, the country’s first winner, was sixty-one when he was awarded the prize). The poet Les Murray, he adds, is the “bookies’ favorite.”

Intrigued by Romei’s speculations, I did some quick calculations. Since the literature prize returned from a three-year wartime hiatus in 1944, when the Danish novelist Johannes Vilhelm Jensen took home the prize, the winner’s mean age has been 66.6 years. He or she—overwhelmingly more likely he than she—is probably a writer of prose fiction rather than a poet (forty of the former versus eighteen of the latter, with five playwrights and four nonfiction writers added to the mix).

There have been eighteen English-language winners, which means that the Anglophone world has been “decorated” every 3.6 years on average. Tied for second are writers in French and Spanish, who have been awarded the prize eight times apiece—an average of every eight years or so. Five German-language writers have been honored; the average number of years between their awards is just about eleven. Four Russian writers; average, 16.25 years. Twelve writers in other European languages (Hungarian, Portugese, Czech, Yiddish, etc.); average between awards, five and a half. And five winners who wrote in a non-European tongue; average, thirteen even.

Let’s have a look at the last five years. The French novelist Le Clézio won last year; the English-language novelist Doris Lessing in 2007; Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006; the British playwright Harold Pinter in 2005; and Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian playwright and novelist, one of the most undeserving winners in the history of the prize, in 2004. Although poets are “due” to win every 3.6 years, the last time a poet was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature was thirteen years ago when Wislawa Szymborska was recognized. (Seamus Heaney had won the previous year.) The last writer of Spanish to win was Octavio Paz in 1990—nineteen years ago.

Romei is right, then, to speak in the language of a schedule, since the prize is apparently awarded by much the same method that the chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission is determined—on a rotating basis, as long as Israel and (increasingly) the United States are excluded. Whether Australia is “due” is another question. The most glaring omissions from the roll of recent winners are poets, Spanish-language writers, and women. (Women have won only twice in the past decade.)

The obvious choice, in order to correct these oversights, is the Peruvian poet Carmen Ollé. At sixty-two she is younger than the mean, but within the usual range of the winners. In Poets of Contemporary Latin America (Oxford, 2000), the critic William Rowe says that she is “very much the spokesperson of her generation.” Four of her poems, in the original Spanish, are here. Her Noches de adrenalina (1982) is described by one critic as having “initiated the blossoming of women's poetry in Peru in the last few decades with a boisterous feminism and an unapologetic lewdness expressed both thematically and verbally.” Sounds like just the thing to appeal to the Nobel committee.

Of course, if a poet is wanted the best choice is Murray—perhaps the only true “national” poet remaining. Or if a Spanish-language writer is wanted the better choice would be Ollé’s countryman Mario Vargas Llosa. But Ollé belongs to the Left, while Vargas Llosa is a man of the Right. Chalk up another mark on her side of the ledger.

Anyhow, that is my prediction and I am sticking to it. In October the Nobel Prize in Literature will be presented to Carmen Ollé. You heard it here first.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On irony and narrative disinterest

I continue to marvel at the difference between Ron Slate’s reading of Zoë Heller’s novel The Believers and my own. To repeat, while I hold that the novel affirms belief (although not “true belief” in Eric Hoffer’s sense of clinging to a source of ultimate meaning), Slate reads the novel as ironic:

Regarding the intention of irony in The Believers, Heller wants it both ways. If, as [R. Jay] Magill says [in Chic Ironic Bitterness, cited at the beginning of the review], the heart of irony is its buried moral commitment, then the novel treats conscious despair leading to a personally acceptable (if compromised) mode of action as moral behavior. But the novel’s title puts the moral commitments of its characters on its hit list.Here indeed is the heart of the matter, and not merely in arriving at a valid interpretation of Heller’s wonderful novel. For this passage raises serious questions about the morality of the ironic mode itself.

Unless you or I are going to follow Northrop Frye into the dead end of believing that “literary structure is ironic”—literary structure as such—“because ‘what it says’ is always different in kind or degree from ’what it means,’ ” we must be prepared to distinguish irony from other modes of speech and writing. As the philosopher Berel Lang observes, irony stands out among the figures of speech in its “combination of contradiction and then subordination of what is first literally ‘affirmed.’ ”[1] Irony, in short, derives from a hierarchy of values. Or, to use the phrase that Slate quotes from Magill, it depends upon a “buried moral commitment.”

Consider the most famous example of literary irony in the language. Swift’s Modest Proposal succeeds, not only because “what it says” is different from “what it means,” but also because what it literally affirms (eating Irish children to prevent them from “being a burthen to their parents or country”) is contradicted by the horror aroused by the proposal, which suggests that all projects for dealing with society’s poor are similarly flawed. If the poor are regarded as commodities, their children might as well be consumed. Thus the sport or gambit of the proposal is subordinated to something more important to Swift—an attack upon abstract and rationalist social projects. The outcome he hoped for was an end to discussions of the poor in any such terms. (Instead, we ended up with social science.)

Swift adopted the style and methods of the social projects he sought to abuse. As George Wittkowsky pointed out in a seminal article on the pamphlet, the very title Modest Proposal was common in the contemporary literature on poverty.[2] But what about fiction that seeks to abuse the style and methods of its own characters? Do a novelist’s characters experience what is happening to them as irony? The very fact that such a question can be asked implies a God-like vantage point that is available to writers and their readers, but not to the characters within a fiction. (And if the writer is God are her readers then angels?) The characters in an ironic drama are torn asunder between appearance and reality, which exposes their appearances—their literal affirmations—as delusions. Writer and reader, however, as Lang observes, remain undivided. They are, in Kierkegaard’s words, “free and above it [irony].”[3] For not only is irony distinguished by the subordination of appearance to reality, but also by a commitment to that subordination, a true belief in reality’s necessary superiority. The ironist has a stake in the outcome; she wants her side to win; her irony represents her interests.

From this angle, an ironic novel is a demonstration of personal smugness. And worse. It is the creation of human beings to serve as commodities in the pursuit of a vested interest. It is little different from a lobbyist’s testimony before a congressional panel.

But what if, instead, a novelist were not dedicated to ideological victory? What if she gave up any stake in their outcomes and permitted her characters to fashion or discover their own moral commitments? What if she had learned, perhaps from her own inclination to irony, that a moral commitment is buried in everyone’s backyard? What if she became fascinated by the different ways in which men and women, under the pressure of a crisis, go about unearthing their commitments? And like her, in good faith? What if she were to break, once and for all, with the Jamesian “centre of consciousness,” which serves to dissemble the author’s favor—what if she were to dispense with the ancient heresy of “point of view” altogether—and to conceive the novelist’s role as offering articulate speech to men and women who are not she? Would she call this a method of narrative disinterest? Would she write something like The Believers?

[1] Berel Lang, “The Limits of Irony,” New Literary History 27 (Summer 1996): 571–88. Emphasis in the original.

[2] See George Wittkowsky, “Swift’s Modest Proposal: The Biography of an Early Georgian Pamphlet,” Journal of the History of Ideas (January 1943): 75–104.

[3] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 253. Quoted in Lang.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I want to take a look at Pocho by José Antonio Villarreal, perhaps the earliest Mexican-American novel—it was published by Doubleday in 1959—and yet one that is rarely recommended, not even on a list of novels about “growing up Mexican-American,” Villarreal’s subject. Pocho is of considerable historical interest, anticipating La Raza and the politicized terms (“illegal aliens,” “undocumented workers”) in which the question of Mexican immigration is currently discussed. And since all literary evaluation is staked on the grounds of a book’s external relationships, that is also the novel’s literary value.

The son of a migrant worker, Villarreal was born in Los Angeles in July 1924 and wrote the book in his early thirties between graduation from Berkeley and a technical editor’s job with Lockheed. Pocho is an autobiographical novel, following two generations of Mexican immigrants to the U.S. Juan Rubio, a cavalry officer in Pancho Villa’s army, joins “the great exodus that came of the Mexican Revolution” after gunning down a rich Spaniard, crossing the border between Juárez and El Paso. His story may be more dramatic, but he is one of many:

The ever-increasing army of people swarmed across while the border remained open, fleeing from squalor and oppression. But they could not flee reality, and the Texans, who welcomed them as a blessing because there were miles of cotton to be harvested, had never really forgotten the Alamo [circa eighty-five years earlier]. The certain degree of dignity the Mexicans yet retained made some of them turn around and walk back into the hell they had left. Others huddled close to the international bridge and established a colony on the American side of the river, in the city of El Paso, because they could gaze at their homeland a few yards away whenever the impulse struck them. The bewildered people came on—insensitive to the fact that even though they were not stopped, they were not really wanted.Rubio is pursued by agents of the Mexican government, and presently escapes to California (“I suppose it is as good a place as any at this time”). His son Richard is born while he is working on a melon farm near Brawley, in the Imperial Valley:The emigrants were scattered throughout the valley, and it was a hardship to visit each other, yet they somehow formed a unit of society, and they kept its secrets well—so well, in fact, that when a witch was murdered (for there were witches in those days, as there are today), she was committed to the earth, and the English-speaking population knew nothing of her death, if, indeed, they had known of her existence.The family migrates among Salinas (lettuce harvests), Parlier (grapes), Ontario (oranges), Firebaugh (cotton), and finally Santa Clara (prunes), where Juan Rubio and his wife settle at last to raise Richard and his sisters. Rubio continually reassures himself that Next year we will have enough money and we will return to our country, although the return is deferred again and again while “the chant increased in volume and rate until it became a staccato NEXT YEAR! NEXT YEAR!”—like the Jews ending their Yom Kippur fasts with the annual cry “Next year in Jerusalem!”

Richard grows up in the Spanish-speaking diaspora where the Mexican families “held small Mexican fiestas and sang Mexican songs, so that there, in the center of Santa Clara, a small piece of México” is established. But he catches the bug of learning (“Already I can see that books are your life,” his mother tells him), and inevitably he begins to pull away from his family and their subculture. His mother hopes that formal education will bestow respectability upon her son, but Richard wants something more. When his mother speaks superstition, his thoughts switch into English, and he examines the truth; and when he drifts back into memory, his thoughts switch back to Spanish. This bilingualism serves not merely to demarcate generations and classes of Mexican-Americans, but gives the younger and better educated access to two different modes of discourse.

The remainder of the novel, a small Bildungsroman, traces Richard’s progress toward understanding and respectability. Richard figures out early that “the teachers teach us all kinds of things, and sometimes they’re not really honest about it.” All of the adult authorities in his life—“the teachers and the sisters and the priest—they all lie to us sometimes. I don’t know why, but they do, and it makes me feel real dumb.” English becomes the language in which he pursues intelligence, while Spanish is the language which keeps him connected to his family.

Villarreal’s account of his autobiographical hero’s Americanization would probably not pass muster in the current climate of literary opinion. Pocho more closely resembles Yiddish novels, like Esther Singer Kreitman’s remarkable Sheydim Tants, just reissued by the Feminist Press under the title Dance of the Demons, in which a Jew from a narrow traditional background is pitted against the modern emancipated Westerner she might have been. As he grows older, Richard watches with a newly formed skeptical knowledge as his father objects to his wife’s thinking of herself as “an American woman,” which would mean—as Richard comes to understand—sitting to dinner with her family instead of waiting on them until they were finished, rightfully protesting her husband’s adultery, being protected by the law from his beatings. Richard sees “the demands of tradition, of culture, of the social structure on an individual,” and he does not like them. He prefers the American promise of freedom from the “primitive way” of México.

He rejects, equally, the “white” assumption that his fate as a Mexican is to wind up with a menial job and the Mexican assumption that he must join a gang and adhere to a code of honor. “Everything had another way to it, if only you looked hard enough,” Richard reflects, applying the lesson of bilingualism, “and he would never be ashamed again for doing something against the unwritten code of honor.” He encounters antisemitism for the first time, discovers masturbation, spurns the Church. Standard stuff perhaps. Pocho may be little more than an exploration of Du Bois’s “double consciousness,” from a Mexican-American perspective. The historical context, rendered entirely unfamiliar by the later politicization of Mexican immigration, gives the novel a flavor and importance it might not otherwise have.

But one thing more. Villarreal’s novel is extraordinary in being set at almost the exact moment at which Mexican-American political consciousness began to dawn. As the Second World War draws near—the novel ends with his induction into the U.S. Navy after Pearl Harbor—Richard, not yet eighteen, begins wandering out of his familiar surroundings into the larger neighboring city of San Jose. There “he began to see more of what he called ‘the race’ ”:They had a burning contempt for people of different ancestry, whom they called Americans, and a marked hauteur toward México and toward their parents for their old-country ways. . . . They needed to feel superior to something, which is a natural thing. The result was that they attempted to segregate themselves from both their cultures, and became truly a lost race. In their frantic desire to become different, they adopted a new mode of dress, a new manner, and even a new language. They used a polyglot speech made up of English and Spanish syllables, words, and sounds.Richard is fascinated by them, and partly sympathizes, but even though they taunt him for being a “traitor to his ‘race,’ ” because he refuses to adopt their broken language and hostility toward “whites,” he only joins them part-way. “I can be a part of everything,” Richard thinks, “because I am the only one capable of controlling my destiny. . . . Never—no, never—will I allow myself to become a part of a group—to become classified, to lose my individuality. . .” (ellipses in the original).

There are those who will attribute Richard’s decision, not to his control over his own destiny, but to the unexamined individualist ideology of the day. Yet perhaps that is the point. Richard rejects La Raza, because he embraces America. In the end, he is “quite sure he did not really believe there was a Mexican cause. . . .” He is, he concludes proudly, a pocho, who “make[s] Castilian words out of English words.” And an American, who contributes in precisely this bilingual way to the further development of American culture.

Orange Prize short list

The Orange Prize short list has been announced, and once again Marilynne Robinson’s Home is a finalist.

It is the only title on the list that I am familiar with. Ellen Feldman’s Scottsboro (USA), a historical novel about the famous trial of nine black men accused of gang rape, sounds unpromisingly tendentious. Samantha Harvey’s Wilderness (UK) is an effort to imagine Alzheimer’s from within. Whether the deterioration of a narrator’s memory is more than a narrative device might just make Harvey’s novel worth looking into. Samantha Hunt’s Invention of Everything Else (USA) is a biographical novel about Nikola Tesla, focusing on the inventor’s last years. Deirdre Madden’s Molly Fox’s Birthday (Ireland) is a meditative or philosophical novel—can’t tell which without reading it—about how the past informs the present in ways we might never have imagined (in the Prize site’s synopsis). This could either be tripe, or the kind of book with which you work out some of your own ideas. Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows (Pakistan) is a post-9/11 novel about the intertwined lives of victims of Hiroshima, Guantánamo Bay, and blah blah blah. Is there any chance at all that this novel contains no expressions of smug political superiority?

In the Guardian’s book blog, Robert McCrum reminisces about the progress of the Orange Prize. I will not essay to be ironical, since my wit is not sufficiently nimble to tease Leftist assumptions about conservatives’ attitude toward a women-only literary award. As McCrum says, “The chauvinist troglodyte naysayers retired to their caves to growl angrily to themselves about gender politics”—although he does not actually name any of those hideous troglodytes. (Hint: they are just as real as Bigfoot.) The only naysayer he quotes is the English novelist A. S. Byatt, who “declared it was ‘a sexist prize,’ one she would have nothing to do with.” But then Byatt has always been a chauvinist.

McCrum is right, though, when he says that the Orange Prize has been a success, and not because of gender politics. “The prize prospered,” he says, “because it selected, and promoted, a remarkable sequence of new fiction by unknowns, from [Canadian] Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces) to [Australian] Kate Grenville (The Idea of Perfection) to [Nigerian] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun).” He also points out that, unlike the Man Booker Prize, the Orange is a genuinely Anglophone literary award, not excluding Americans. As such, it is the only genuinely Anglophone literary award with any credibility. After all, the 2009 prize jury properly cold-shouldered Toni Morrison and Curtis Sittenfeld.

Indeed, the roll of past winners is distinguished. The Prize accomplishes what any good literary award should—it promotes the work of first-rate writers who might otherwise be overlooked. What’s to growl about?

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Believers

Zoë Heller, The Believers (New York: Harper, 2009). $25.99. 335 pp.

The shoving match between Jewish socialists and Jewish religionists may have been settled two generations ago, but Zoë Heller reignites the hostilities to fine effect in her third novel. The religionists did not win the historical fight so much as the socialists lost. Audrey Litvinoff, the matriarch at the center of The Believers, discloses why. “If it was living honestly and decently you wanted,” she snarls at her daughter, who has abandoned three generations of the family’s militant atheism to become Orthodox, “you could have stayed a socialist.” Setting aside the question whether she and her husband—the novel’s model socialists—have lived like that, the truth is that each of their children must find some other way if they are to live honestly and decently. Although each chooses a different path, none chooses the radical Left.

In the novel’s opening pages, Audrey is an eighteen-year-old British Jew (she has a “distinctly beaky, Hebrew look about her”) who meets Joel Litvinoff, a American civil rights lawyer fourteen years her senior, at a London party in 1962. Forty years later, as The Believers turns to the dramatic present, they are married, living in Greenwich Village, with two grown daughters and an adopted, drug-addicted son. Joel is a radical lawyer in the mold of William Kunstler who has earned a reputation for defending terrorists and political murderers. He congratulates himself upon being, in words quoted from Gramsci, a “pessimist because of intelligence and an optimist by will.” On the morning he is to offer the defense’s opening argument in the case of an Arab American who is accused of having been involved with al-Qaeda, he suffers a minor stroke in the courtroom and then a more massive stroke at the hospital, which leaves him unconscious.

He remains comatose for the rest of the novel, leaving a sudden hole in the family that had once revolved around him. His younger daughter Rosa

had been expecting the largeness of her father’s personality to have survived this physical catastrophe. She had pictured him sitting up, making jokes, imposing himself on a new environment with all his usual commanding ebullience. But whatever remained of that man in this frail, speckled creature had gone into hiding. In the frayed, faded blue of hospital issue, her father had become just another enlistee in the vast army of the sick and dying.And yet Joel dominates the Litvinoffs nearly as much by his absence—and by the secrets of his life, which come out while he slowly disappears beneath a “welter of life-preserving gadgetry”—as he had previously dominated them by force of personality. As long as he remains alive, no matter how unresponsive, the women in his life find themselves in a purgatory of uncertainty.

Especially Audrey. Even before the family catastrophe, she had become, according to Rosa, “like one of those paranoid despots who see in every minor disobedience the seeds of a full-scale insurgency.” Her husband’s stroke brings out the worst in her. She is particularly bitter toward his doctors. “Another thing about that girl doctor,” she says of the young Chinese-American attending Joel at Long Island Hospital. “She’s got this horrible little mouth on her. It looks just like an arsehole.” Her opinions do not improve when Joel is transferred to a rehab center at NYU. “I hate that pigeon-chested, flat-arsed, albino bastard,” she says of the white male doctor attending him there. “He gives me the creeps! There’s something not clean about him. He looks like he’s got genital herpes, I swear to God.”

A self-described harridan, Audrey is perhaps the most memorable and perfectly realized bitch in fiction since Margaret Peel in Lucky Jim. Her “brash manner” had begun as a “mere posture—a convenient and amusing way for an insecure teenage bride, newly arrived in America, to disguise her crippling shyness.” Soon enough vituperation had become her public role. “Get Audrey in here,” her friends would cry when someone was acting self-important. “Audrey’ll take him down a peg or two.” She was known as “the cute little English girl with the chutzpah and the longshoreman’s mouth.” In time, though, what had begun as a “beguiling party act” had started to “express authentic resentments: boredom with motherhood, fury at her husband’s philandering, despair at the pettiness of her domestic fate.” As she entered middle age, she was no longer charming. People began scowling behind her back, but by then it was too late: “Her anger had become a part of her. It was a knotted thicket in her gut, too dense to be cut down and too deeply entrenched in the loamy soil of her disappointments to be uprooted.”

Except for Rosa, her family enjoys Audrey’s “ugly view of the world,” even if they do not share it. And though Rosa is probably correct that what raises a laugh in her audience is “not the truth of her observations” but rather “their unfairness, their surreal cruelty,” the fact is that her verbal ugliness and relentless cruelty is shamefully delightful. Audrey belongs to the regiment of acid-tongued women that includes Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy, and it is to Heller’s credit that she recognizes the cruelty of wit as an accomplishment, almost a life’s work. Other than that Audrey has had no life’s work:[S]he had often spoken of the accomplishments that might have been hers had she not dedicated her life to Joel. But she had never really believed what she was saying. Deep down, she had always known these aggrieved remarks for what they were—self-flattering delusions, face-saving fantasies. The truth was, Joel had held her back from nothing. He had saved her.This is one of the few times Heller refers directly to her title, and the reference is significant. For though Audrey replies to a friend’s encouragement by saying that she is “done,” the truth is that Joel’s “physical catastrophe” has freed her to begin again—by abandoning the false belief of independent self-fulfillment and deciding to become the keeper of her husband’s flame.

That the public occasion on which she unveils her decision is a pathetic imitation of a socialist rally—that her announcement is melodramatic, that Joel’s flame has been dimmed by exposure of his secret life—are finally irrelevant. The pattern is set. Each of the Litvinoff women becomes a “believer” by turning away from self-flattering delusion toward the embarrassing truth.

Karla’s change is the most subtle and affecting. The older daughter, Karla is a social worker married to a union organizer. Theirs is a sterile marriage—almost literally. Her incuriosity about sex is resolute; coitus occurs according to a universal formula. If possible, her husband Mike “perform[s] his connubial duties with as little—perhaps less—relish than she did.” Diagnosed with stage-two endometriosis, Karla has been unable to conceive a child. She is not really surprised. She has always known thather body was, in some mysterious and profound way, against her. She had always been fat. She had never been able to dance or catch a ball. Her hair fell the wrong way, and her skin was the troublesome “combination” sort. When she saw a photograph in a book of what advanced endometriosis looked like . . . she found herself nodding, as if in recognition. Of course, she thought to herself, of course: I am as ugly inside as I am out.Until, that is, she meets a man for whom she is not ugly at all. He is an Egyptian who owns the newspaper stand in her office building, and despite the increasing volume of questions about Arabs and Arab terrorism in the wake of September 11, 2001, he is blissfully apolitical. He is as different from her husband Mike as humanly possible:Khaled loved to buy treats for himself. Whenever Karla saw him, he seemed to be eating, or preparing to eat, something delicious: a doughnut covered in soft, white icing; a fat Chinese dumpling shaped like a miniature sack of burglars’ jag; a juicy clementine, rattling in its baggy, pocketed jacket. She was slightly shocked by his guiltless public gorging. She had been surrounded all her life by people who were either indifferent or actively hostile to food, and eating was for her a solitary vice. . . . Mike drank protein shakes for lunch and wouldn’t let anything pass his lips after six o’clock, for fear that he wouldn’t metabolize it before he slept. (“Some people live to eat; I eat to live,” he was always saying, as if his rejection of pleasure were a personal badge of honor.)So it comes as small surprise when Karla permits herself at last to toss away her honor and to accept pleasure with someone who is willing to share it with her.

The best thing in the book, however, is the younger daughter’s conversion from Marxism to Orthodox Judaism. Before starting the novel, after reading the jacket copy about Rosa’s being “drawn into the world of Orthodox Judaism”—not the religion, mind you, but the world—I had meager hopes. As Wendy Shalit observed five years ago in the New York Times Book Review, “Authors who have renounced Orthodox Judaism—or those who were never really exposed to it to begin with—have often portrayed deeply observant Jews in an unflattering or ridiculous light.” She names Jonathan Rosen, Nathan Englander, Tova Mirvis, and other writers who purport to represent “the world of Orthodox Judaism” from an insider’s perspective: “Ostensibly about ultra-Orthodox Jews, this kind of ‘insider’ fiction actually reveals the authors’ estrangement from the traditional Orthodox community, and sometimes from Judaism itself.” Frankly, I expected The Believers to be another undistinguished contribution to an undistinguished tradition.

It is anything but. Not only does Heller nail the experience of the baalei teshuvah—those who “return” to observing the commandments—but she is also the only writer I know who has done so. She gets it right in every tone and detail. She is not interested in striking an attitude toward the experience. She neither celebrates nor satirizes it. Rosa herself is caught off guard by her “return.” On a whim (“a mild, touristic curiosity rather than any spiritual longing”), she enters an Orthodox shul and plops herself down in the men’s section, momentarily satisfied to have caused a “kerfluffle,” but when she is removed to the women’s section, she finds herself lingering and then, against all expectation, the “austere melody” of ets hayim hi (“It is a tree of life”) as the Torah scroll is restored to the ark makes her hairs stand on end: “A thought came to her, as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song.” Rosa is hesitant to follow the thought where it leads. She tries to escape into meaningless sex, feminist contempt for the laws of niddah, and her do-good work as a counselor at the East Harlem GirlPower Center. But she finds a rabbi who talks quiet good sense, and she discovers that she has a taste and a talent for Torah study:Rosa loved the methodical process of unwrapping the layers of meaning in the Torah. She loved the modesty that the process demanded. Above all, she loved the atmosphere of scholarly comradeship—of shared commitment to deciphering a complex, intricate text. It seemed to her that in excavating the wisdom of the rabbinical sages, she was discovering something distinctly Jewish about the way her mind worked.Heller understands that a little of this goes a long way, and when Rosa makes the decision to become religious, she does not become obviously pious. The effect, in a literary genre that is not customarily sympathetic to orthodox belief of any stripe, is devastating.

The critics banded together to miss the point of The Believers, almost uniformly describing it as a “family drama” (Robin Vidimos, Denver Post) or “domestic drama” (Donna Freydkin, USA Today) about parents and children “breathtakingly miserable and dysfunctional” (Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times). While she did not mistake the novel for the latest installment of Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy in Its Own Way, Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also missed the rim, declaring thatNearly all the characters in Zoë Heller's ambitious new novel, The Believers, are true believers. . . [T]hey are all in thrall to their own certainty, self-righteous about their own beliefs and contemptuous of anyone dimwitted enough to disagree. They are also believers in their own mythologies: the roles in which they have been cast by their parents or children or followers, the personas they have had thrust upon them and have, over the years, internalized as their own. Zeal is their default setting; sanctimony, their favorite defense.Kakutani must have been thinking of some other novel. The definitive fictional treatment of sanctimony is The Human Stain. Misled by the resemblance of Heller’s title to that of Eric Hoffer’s 1951 classic The True Believer, she gets the tone and meaning of the novel entirely wrong.

Hoffer’s true believer seeks in dedication to a mass movement the meaning that eludes him in the emptiness of his “futile, spoiled life.” The bass note of his belief is desperation. Consider Hoffer’s explanation of the impulse to fish for converts. Intensity of conviction is not the motive:The missionary zeal seems rather an expression of some deep misgiving, some pressing feeling of insufficiency at the center. Proselytizing is more a passionate search for something not yet found than a desire to bestow upon the world something we already have.[1]The emptiness at the core of the Litvinoffs’ lives, however, is Joel, abruptly removed by stroke. They are not “true believers” in Hoffer’s sense of marchers in a parade. As Rosa reflects about her mother,For all her alleged dedication to collectivist principles, Audrey had never much enjoyed collective action. Her political opinions functioned for her much as arcane tastes in alternative music had once functioned for Rosa’s eighth-grade friends: they were a badge of specialness; they served her temperamental need to be a member of a glamorous embattled minority.Heller’s women are believers in a deeper and more elemental sense. In order to live honestly and decently, they require belief in something more than badges and group membership.

I don’t know what Heller’s own politics are. This is the first of her books that I have read. What I do know is that Heller is fluent in the language of the Left but not the Right. Her made-up quotation from the New York Post, calling Joel a “rent-a-radical with a long history of un-Americanism” and a “man whose knee-jerk leftism is thankfully now all but extinct in today’s political climate,” is one of the very few things she gets wrong in this novel, because the Post would never had said any such thing, leftism being extinct neither in 2002 nor today. And “un-Americanism” is a term used exclusively on the Left to pound away at the Right for imaginary sins.[2]

Almost unheard of among contemporary novelists, especially those who have soaked in the ideology of the Left, Heller is able to refer to President George W. Bush, and even to quote a passage from his speech at the Labor Day picnic in Pittsburgh, without irony or carping. By the same token, she is obviously skeptical of the Left with its “unwieldy burden of a priori convictions” and its paradisiacal righteousness, while not being estranged from Judaism—not even from Orthodoxy. She also demonstrates what Rebecca West called the “flash of phrase” without ever being a flashy writer. It has been a long time since I have read a novel that is both so biting and yet so tender toward the various commitments of its various characters. Zoë Heller believes in her believers, and also in the steady undercurrent of belief.

Update: When I wrote the above, I had not yet read Ron Slate’s challenging review of The Believers. Astonishing—how two critics, both with a long experience of literature, can read the same novel to diametrically opposite conclusions. Slate asks, “Is this novel a send-up of liberal New Yorkers, a satire that ‘preserves the ideals of sincerity, honesty, and authenticity’—or does this story fluently pander to our taste for fashionable cynicism?” Slate comes down on the side of the latter view. “Shrewdly aware of its audience, winking its chic eyelashes at us,” he says, “The Believers is ironic, then cynical, then ironic again.”

I come down on the other side, of course. Slate misreads the tone of the novel, in my opinion. He says, for example, that Heller’s “unnamed narrator is apt to see things from the caustic viewpoint of Audrey,” giving as an example this sentence from her consultation with Joel’s doctor: “Audrey was sitting quite still, gazing at a vicious little bouquet of sharpened pencils on Dr. Krauss’ desk.” His comment: “But Dr. Krauss isn’t insensitive; he’s simply rational. Heller keeps us teetering, in other words, and frequently we slide completely into Audrey’s cynicism.” Heller’s narrative effect, however, is more careful and balanced than this. For the simple fact is that the novel has no “unnamed narrator.” Each chapter is narrated in the style of free indirect discourse, while always withholding something, never fully immersing the narrative in any character’s perspective or thoughts. In hearing of the “vicious little bouquet of pencils on Dr. Krauss’ desk,” we immediately recognize both what is being described and Audrey’s “caustic” twist on the reality; we are able to distinguish the one from the other. As a result, we remain outsiders to the characters’ viewpoints. We understand the Litvinoff women; we partly sympathize and partly demur; but we are forever aware that their viewpoints are theirs.

Heller’s literary problem, as I see it, was how to affirm what I call above the steady undercurrent of belief in an age of fashionable cynicism. “[T]he novel’s title puts the moral commitments of its characters on its hit list,” Slate writes, agreeing with Michiko Kakutani (while reasoning far more clearly and writing a far more striking hand). The more uncomfortable truth is that we live in an age that is immediately suspicious of moral commitments; we are ironic about our own and cynical about others’. We live, after all, in an age in which public intellectuals and the well-known representatives of the official literary culture, almost universally, are unbelievers. Like George MacDonald Fraser, who was confronted with the problem of how to rehabilitate the heroic mode in English fiction in an age that no longer believes in heroism, Heller seeks to affirm belief in an age that scoffs at it. Her narrative solution is “ironic” only in avoiding the puddle of sincerity. She has found a way in which her readers can admire the moral commitments of her characters while not sharing them or even entering into them fully, because they themselves remain divided and unsure, while undertaking them anyway.

Slate’s review is a marvelous account of irony, but Heller’s novel is even better than he makes it out to be.

[1] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements [1951], 2nd Perennial ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), p. 110.

[2] Thus Barbara Ehrenreich: men who came of age in the 1950’s “were encouraged to equate effeminacy with un-Americanism and to use their leisure to escape—into sports, hunting or simply the basement—from women and all things feminine” (New York Times, May 20, 1984). In a Washington Post reporter’s fantasy of what would happen if Sen. Jesse Helms were to take over CBS, “[Dan] Rather would refuse to knuckle under to thought control and would walk off the job the first day. Helms would call a news conference and announce that he had fired Rather for ‘un-Americanism’ ” (Judy Mann, “Helms’ Plan for CBS,” March 6, 1985). When Vice President George Bush called Governor Michael Dukakis a “card-carrying member of the ACLU” during the 1988 presidential election, R. W. Apple wondered whether the charge carried “implication of ‘un-Americanism’ ” (New York Times, Sept. 18, 1988), while Richard Cohen said it “likened Dukakis’ membership to a loathsome un-Americanism” (Washington Post, Sept. 22, 1988). Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed (April 13, 2003) that “It was not until the cold war that Americanism became the exclusive property of the right, particularly when the House Committee on Un-American Activities made ‘un-Americanism’ a synonym for every sort of left-wing activity”—even though the only uses of the term, as this summary of a Nexis search of the last three decades reveals, was on the Left.