Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Five Books of professors

(1.) Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925). Critics complain that the middle section, and the whole two-stories-in-one approach, does not work. Maybe so. But the first and last sections of the novel—a portrait of Godfrey St. Peter, author of an eight-volume history of the Spanish in America and professor at a small Midwestern university—is a study in the loneliness of scholarship and a spirited defense of the liberal arts, or what Cather calls “purely cultural studies.” She admired scholars deeply. Her earlier sketch of the classicist Gaston Cleric, whose lectures on Vergil’s Georgics supply Jim Burden with the exemplar and theme for My Ántonia, was a marvelous warmup for this more lingering and loving examination of the scholar’s life. The novel might have been called A Man of Fifty Looks at the World, Cather suggested—because she believed that a scholar has a unique way of looking.

(2.) May Sarton, Faithful Are the Wounds (1955). Based on the American literary scholar F. O. Matthiessen. A brilliant Harvard professor is abandoned by friends who break ranks with the radical Left. When his colleagues refuse to protest the firing elsewhere of a scholar who had campaigned publicly for a political liberal, Edward Cavan commits suicide. The effect upon his ex-friends, who must examine their consciences and reexamine their beliefs, is profound and lasting. So is Sarton’s prose. A better way to memorialize the book’s model than with the F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard.

(3.) Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957). His next novel after Lolita, and in my opinion, his second best. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, assistant professor of Russian at Waindell College (pronounced Vandal by Pnin), is a figure of ridicule in his tight tweed jacket and bright red socks, his wrestler’s torso balanced on spindly legs, butchering English with misapplied slang and laughing helplessly at private jokes. Beneath the absurdity, however, is the sad story of a political refugee from pre-Revolutionary Russia whose true love died in Buchenwald. That Nabokov resembles Pnin in crucial respects, as he did not resemble Humbert Humbert, only increases your admiration for the balance of lampoon and pathos that the novel successfully strikes.

(4.) John Williams, Stoner (1965). Based on the life of J. V. Cunningham and especially his disastrous marriage to Barbara Gibbs. Easily the best novel ever written about the determined renunciations and quiet joys of the scholarly life. Stoner suffers reversal after reversal—a bad marriage, persecution at the hands of his department chair, the forced breakup of a brief and fulfilling love affair with a younger scholar—but he endures because of two things: his love for his daughter, who wants nothing more than to spend time with her father while he writes his scholarship, and his work on the English Renaissance. His end is tragic, but Stoner does not experience it that way. A genuinely unforgettable reading experience.

(5.) John Cheever, Falconer (1977). A professor in the least likely of settings. Ezekiel Farragut, 48, has attained sufficient prestige to have been invited to a symposium at the White House. But he is also a heroin addict who has been sentenced to prison for the murder of his brother Eben, whom he bludgeoned to death with a fire iron. The prison is the Falconer of the title. Like his namesake, Farragut becomes the prophet of this punishing exile. His learning is small defense against the brutality he encounters, and yet, through it all, Cheever’s prose retains its quality of iridescence.

In preparing this list, I ran across a novel by Theodore Weesner, whose 1972 novel The Car Thief was named by Patrick Kurp and me as one of the best American works of fiction in the thirty-year period from 1968 to 1998. Weesner’s Novemberfest (1994), which I haven’t read, sounds enticing. It is the story of a German professor whose life is repeatedly influenced by events in German history, including the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. (That’s what the title refers to, incidentally.) At one point, Weesner explicitly invokes Death in Venice, suggesting that he is trying to do for the university what Mann did for that beautiful and storied city. I’ve got to read Novemberfest.


Kat at Thornfield Hall Redux said...

Let me recommend Pamela Hansford Johnson's Night and Silence Who Is Here? This hysterically funny comedy, unfortunately out-of-print, relates the adventures of an English society guy who is offered a fellowship at a small New England college after he writes a few articles on the slim ouevre of a pushy friend, Dorothy Merlin. He spends most of his time foraging for food, as the college town is miles from a grocery store and he is a non-driver. He has no intention of writing: he's very wily, though, and loves the prestige of his job.

Somebody should reissue this novel (and the rest of Johnson's books too).

R/T said...

Perhaps J. M. Coetzee's DISGRACE deserves at least an honorable mention; at a minimum, it is a cautionary morality tale about holding on to values (on and off campus) as David Lurie makes huge mistakes (on and off campus) and important discoveries (on and off campus).

zk said...

Stoner and Falconer are two of my favorites. I also thought Russo's Straight Man was quite good.

D. G. Myers said...

Re: Straight Man. See under Five Books of academe.

anonperson1 said...

I like Pnin, but I think it's Nabokov's fourth best, after Lolita, Pale Fire, and Invitation to a Beheading.

Invitation is a personal preference, but I think Pale Fire has to be in his top two.

Art Durkee said...

Glad to see Sarton on someone's radar than my own. I agree with your assessment of this novel of hers. I hope at some point her writing will be better appreciated; it's always been worthy of greater appreciation.