Friday, November 20, 2009


“And it was never but once a year that they were brought together anyway, and that was on the neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing, nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff—no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all. A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity, a moratorium on the three-thousand-year-old nostalgia of the Jews, a moratorium on Christ and the cross and the crucifixion for the Christians, when everyone in New Jersey and elsewhere can be more passive about their irrationalities than they are the rest of the year. A moratorium on all the grievances and resentments . . . for everyone in America who is suspicious of everyone else. It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.”

Philip Roth

A Commonplace Blog will be in sleep mode for the next ten days to celebrate Thanksgiving in California with the whole family.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things I will not be writing about

• Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, the index that Christopher Beam of Slate yucked up for it, or the reasons for the elite disdain toward her.

• Who really wrote Dreams from My Father, or whether it really is one of the top three books of the decade.

• Yuri Foreman’s super welterweight title, although it’s way cool.

• Whether Dmitri Nabokov was right to publish The Original of Laura, or what John Banville thinks of it.

• Yann Martel’s opinions on Canadian politics.

• The Bad-Sex-in-Fiction Award.

• The war between Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker.

• Gore Vidal’s receiving a nod for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation.

• Tuition hikes at the University of California, or the pampered students’ tantrum over them.

• My impatience for Martin Amis’s new novel The Pregnant Widow to hit the bookstores.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Every protest’s novel

All literature is protest,” Richard Wright shouted at James Baldwin. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” Maybe so, Baldwin countered weakly, but not all protest is literature. “Oh,” Wright said, “here you come again with all that art for art’s sake crap.”[1]

The joke here is that Wright was protesting the label protest novel, which Baldwin had affixed to the front cover of Native Son in his famous 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin lumps Wright’s novel about a black man who “had committed murder twice and had created a new world for himself” together with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wright’s violence, he suggests, is merely the reverse image of Stowe’s sentimentality, which betrays an “aversion to experience” and is therefore “the mask of cruelty.”[2] So sticky was the label that it would not come off Native Son for years and years. “Wright has come to seem to us a belated writer of the Thirties,” Leslie Fiedler wrote a decade and a half later; “his novels mere ‘protest literature,’ incapable of outliving the causes that occasioned his wrath.”[3]

Few literary critics have thrown up such a brick. Native Son is one of the greatest novels ever written by an American, and is all the greater for the confusion surrounding the “protest novel.” If a protest novel does what Baldwin says it does (safely assigning its “unsettling questions” to the “social arena” and leaving its readers with a “thrill of virtue from the fact that we are reading such a book at all”) then Wright is wrong in insisting that “all literature is protest.” But if a protest novel is aimed not at society but at “art for art’s sake crap” then a goodly portion of American prose fiction, if not quite all of it, is protest literature. And Native Son is the model of its inward greatness.

A better term might be discursive novel, the kind of long fiction (it usually requires some length to say everything it aims to say) that is more concerned with message than technique, more concerned with saying something than with shaping something—the kind of writing in which art is identified with exactitude of the sentences rather than the perfection of the whole. The greatest novelists, with the obvious exception of Nabokov, have all been discursive.

Even James, with his contempt for “such large loose baggy monsters” as The Three Musketeers and War and Peace, “with their queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary”—even James, who demanded to know what these monsters could “artistically mean”—liked to indulge the discursive compulsion.[4] Consider, for example, the “generalization” that Basil Ransom formulates upon meeting Olive Chancellor in The Bostonians: “[T]he simplest division it is possible to make of the human race is into the people who take things hard and the people who take them easy. He perceived very quickly that Miss Chancellor belonged to the former class.” In his later fiction, James is careful to leave the discourse up to his characters, as when he instructs Fanny in The Golden Bowl to observe that a “person can mostly feel but one passion—one tender passion, that is—at a time. Only, that doesn’t hold good for our primary and instinctive attachments, the ‘voice of blood,’ such as one’s feeling for a parent or a brother.” But the source of the generalization does not change the fact that it is a generalization, which asks to be judged as true or false.

The discursive novel is not distinguished by its “queer elements of the accidental and arbitrary,” but by its digressive willingness to follow the scent of a proposition. It hearkens after the adventure of conversation, which neither follows a script nor advances an argument. Consequently, it displays a certain insouciance toward consistency, a quality of the discursive novel that throws critics who have been trained to peer closely at the working of well wrought urns. Sometimes, in fact, it is the contradictions that make a discursive novel such a fascinating thing to read.

That is certainly the case with Native Son. Wright has two messages to deliver in the novel. On the one hand, Bigger Thomas murders the white heiress Mary Dalton to feel a “certain sense of power, a power born of a latent capacity to live. . . . The knowledge that he had killed a white girl they loved and regarded as a symbol of beauty made him feel the equal of [whites], like a man who had been created, but had now evened the score.”[5] Until Mary’s murder, Bigger had lived with choiceless choices.[6] He is given only what I have called elsewhere the monstrous illusion of choice. Living as a second-class citizen in a racially intolerant society, he is not a moral agent, choosing for himself among a range of options; he is the creature of the racist system that reduces his “choices” to two—whether to take a demeaning job or to starve, for instance (p. 12). The act of murder creates his moral autonomy: “It was something that was all his own, and it was the first time in his life he had had anything that others could not take from him” (p. 105). For the first time in his life he is a man and not a slave, for only he is a man who has choices he can freely make.

On the other hand, Wright offers a Marxist determinist account of Bigger’s experience. Like Dreiser in Sister Carrie, Wright goes to great lengths to establish that the crime was involuntary, unwilled, accidental. Bigger finds himself alone with Mary in her bedroom—the treatment of black men accused of improper advances toward white women from the Scottsboro Boys in 1931 to Emmett Till in 1955 suggests why the very situation was fraught with terror for him—and to escape detection, he quiets Mary with a pillow over her face, which ends up smothering her. Boris Max, the Communist Party lawyer who defends him, convinces Bigger that, even after killing to be quit of them, whites still rule him: “He was their property, heart and soul, body and blood; what they did claimed every atom of him, sleeping and waking; it colored life and dictated the terms of death” (pp. 331–32).

In his courtroom speech for the defense, Max argues that it is Bigger who is the real victim—of slavery, which “lasted for more than two hundred years,” and the racial oppression that succeeded it:

Injustice which lasts for three long centuries and which exists among millions of people over thousands of square miles of territory, is injustice no longer; it is an accomplished fact of life. Men adjust themselves to their land; they create their own laws of being; their notions of right and wrong. . . . Even their speech is colored and shaped by what they must undergo. Your Honor, injustice blots out one form of life, but another grows up in its place with its own rights, needs, and aspirations. (p. 391).And it is this new form of life—the lives of twelve million people, “stunted, stripped, and held captive within this nation, devoid of political, social, economic, and property rights” (p. 397)—which is to blame for the death of Mary Dalton and even for the death of Bessie Mears, Bigger’s own black girlfriend:Oh, yes; Mary Dalton is dead. Bigger Thomas smothered her to death. Bessie Mears is dead. Bigger Thomas battered her with a brick in an abandoned building. But did he murder? Did he kill? Listen: what Bigger did early that Sunday morning in the Dalton home and what he did that Sunday night in that empty building was but a tiny aspect of what he had been doing all his life long! He was living, only as he knew how, and as we have forced him to live. (p. 400)In short, Bigger was—in Dreiser’s phrase—merely a waif amid forces, powerless to control them. And in fact, the last section of the novel is entitled “Fate,” because the view it advances is a denial of Bigger’s free will.

The arguments are contradictory. Bigger Thomas cannot be both an autonomous moral agent and the plaything of social fate. In the end, he rejects Max’s determinism, saying, “[W]hat I killed for, I am!” (p. 429). He takes God’s name, in the form made familiar by the King James Version (Exod 3.14), because he will permit no other gods before him—no racist system of injustice will be permitted to have caused his actions. Bigger identifies himself with them; he is created by the murders he commits. He may have performed evil, but the evil was a voluntary performance, an act of will. And perhaps the worst thing to be said about the American political system in 1940, corrupted from top to bottom by racial intolerance and oppression, is that violence was the only freedom it granted its black citizens.

Until the end of the novel—until Bigger rejects Max’s defense of him—Native Son is strained by the tension between the two philosophies. As he struggles against Max’s explanations, he feels a “war raging in him,” Wright writes (p. 361). But the truth is that the war is raging within the novel. Native Son is written to settle the conflict between freedom and determinism, to work through the contradictions in Wright’s own thinking. The novel is the record of his inner philosophical torment. When he wrote it, Wright was still nominally a member of the Communist Party, but as he admitted later in the chapter that he contributed to The God That Failed (1950), he had already begun to harbor doubts. Native Son is not merely the transcript of his back-and-forth within himself over his future in the Party; it is an acting out, in public, of his ambivalence and inner division.

In writing his masterpiece, Richard Wright was not dedicated to the perfection of a self-consistent and perfectly balanced work of art. He was dedicated to discussion, to ironing out the vexing tangles of experience in words. And for that reason, Native Son may be the best example of a discursive novel—the best example of the human uses to which fictional discourse may be put—ever written.

[1] James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard” [1961], in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 257.

[2] James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in Collected Essays, p. 12.

[3] Leslie Fiedler, Waiting for the End (New York: Stein & Day, 1964), p. 107.

[4] Henry James, Preface to The Tragic Muse [1908], in The Art of the Novel, ed. R. P. Blackmur (New York: Scribner, 1934), p. 84.

[5] Richard Wright, Native Son: The Restored Text, ed. Arnold Rampersad [1940] (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p. 164. Subsequent references in parenthesis.

[6] The term choiceless choice was introduced by the literary scholar Lawrence L. Langer to characterize the moral circumstances of the Nazi death camps: see Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. 72.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The pursuits of peace

A former student at Texas A&M University—no one is called an alumnus there—wrote yesterday upon reading A Commonplace Blog’s name in the Wall Street Journal. After greetings and regards, he remarked upon the coincidence of having only just finished rereading Henry James’s American, which he remembered disliking intensely when I had assigned it to him in a course on the American novel several years ago.

A coincidence indeed: I too had been leafing through The American the other day. While compiling a list of veterans’ books, I had thought to include it, but James’s third novel lay too far afield of my subject—even though it may be the best novel ever written about an American combat veteran.

Everybody knows the story. Christopher Newman, thirty-six, is a “powerful specimen of an American.” He has made a “pile of money,” although he never says how—James, who lived on an inheritance from his grandfather, never lifts the veil on the sources of great American fortunes. Newman has come to Europe “to forget the confounded thing, to look about [him], to see the world, to have a good time, to improve [his] mind, and, if the fancy takes [him], to marry a wife.” In due course he meets the girl for him; he realizes that “he should like to have her always before him. . . .” She returns his feelings, but alas her family does not. They are an ancient French family, royalist in politics and related by blood to the Bourbons, and in the end they find it impossible to reconcile themselves to a “commercial person.”

Although his narrative sympathies were with the American, James preferred to dwell among those who looked down upon American commerce. He had decided to settle in Europe. “My work lies there,” he explained later in defending the decision—

and with this vast new world, je n’ai que faire. One can’t do both—one must choose. No European writer is called upon to assume that terrible burden, and it seems hard that I should be. The burden is necessarily greater for an American—for he must deal, more or less, even if only by implication, with Europe; whereas no European is obliged to deal in the least with America.[1]But a Europeanized American writer must also deal with America. Living in Paris near the Place Vendôme, James wrote The American as his farewell letter to the United States.

Christopher Newman embodies the moral qualities that James most admired in his countrymen. He understands that the Bellegardes don’t think he is as good as they, but he knows better: “[H]is sense of human equality was not an aggressive taste or an aesthetic theory, but something as natural and organic as a physical appetite which had never been put on a scanty allowance, and consequently was innocent of ungraceful eagerness.” The Europeans and even the Europeanized Americans believe that he is ignorant of the “social scale,” but he isn’t—he merely chooses to ignore it.

Valentin de Bellegarde, the family’s youngest son, recognizes what lies behind Newman’s social attitude: “Being an American, it was impossible you should remain what you were born. . . .” With his place on the social scale preassigned by birth, Valentin is not so fortunate: “What I envy you is your liberty,” he observes, “your wide range, your freedom to come and go, your not having a lot of people, who take themselves awfully seriously, expecting something of you.”

But Valentin has no idea where such freedom comes from. He thinks it has something to do with business success: “[Y]ou strike me, somehow, as a man who stands at his ease, who looks at things from a height. I fancy you going about the world like a man travelling on a railroad in which he owns a large amount of stock.” But though it is true that business is deeply ingrained into his personal habits—he is uncomfortable when he is idle—it is also true that a life of business has left Newman at loose ends:You think of me as a fellow who has had no idea in life but to make money and drive sharp bargains. That’s a fair description of me, but it is not the whole story. A man ought to care for something else, though I don’t know exactly what.The tour of Europe—the acquisition of culture and perhaps a European wife—is an attempt to answer the question what. If James was unclear about what an American businessman does at the office during working hours, he nevertheless understood the promise and limitations of a business life.

But he also understood that money-making and bargain-driving are the fruits of liberty, not its seed. Newman derives his “freedom to come and go” from a different category of experience. In the Louvre as the novel opens, he meets an old American acquaintance—Mr Tristram, now settled in Paris, who might as well have been speaking for James himself. Newman reminds him that they met eight or nine years before—that is, shortly after the American Civil War. “You were in the army,” he adds. “Oh no, not I,” Tristram replies: “But you were.” Newman admits that he was. “You came out all right?” Tristram asks. “I came out with my legs and arms,” Newman says—“and with satisfaction.”

The afterthought is ambiguous. Does he mean that he was gratified? That he had received the settlement of a debt, the redress of an insult? That he’d had enough? Newman is not given to talkative confession. James must supply his explanation, in narrative voice, a few pages later:Newman had come out of the war with a brevet of brigadier-general, an honour which in this case—without invidious comparisons—had lighted upon shoulders amply competent to bear it. But though he could manage a fight, when need was, Newman heartily disliked the business; his four years in the army had left him with an angry, bitter sense of the waste of precious things—life and time and money and “smartness” and the early freshness of purpose; and he had addressed himself to the pursuits of peace with passionate zest and energy.Everything that Newman has become can be traced back to his combat experience in the Civil War. He had received the satisfaction of knowing that the pursuits of peace are finer than those of war, but also of knowing that they are founded upon the readiness to pursue war. Although James himself never fought in the war—he was prevented by an old and “obscure hurt”—he was only three days away from his eighteenth birthday when Fort Sumter was bombarded by forces of the Confederacy. He came of age during the war; he saw that it had changed America, as it changed Christopher Newman, forever.

Among the pursuits of peace is literature. Although he relocated to Europe, James understood that it would be impossible to describe a “powerful specimen of an American” without describing the powerful impact of the Civil War. The American suggests that the veterans of the war would be the builders of the postwar American future, the proprietors of the American century to come. As Madame de Bellegarde says upon meeting Newman,What is that about your having founded a city some ten years ago in the great West, a city which contains to-day half a million of inhabitants? Isn’t it half a million, messieurs? You are exclusive proprietor of this flourishing settlement, and are consequently fabulously rich, and you would be richer still if you didn’t grant lands and houses free of rent to all new-comers who will pledge themselves never to smoke cigars. At this game, in three years, we are told, you are going to be made president of America.Well, perhaps not Newman—but several other veterans. James understood, as no other American novelist has, that the United States military is not merely one institution among many, but a constituent part of the American story. His third novel is a celebration of the men who serve, and who guard the pursuits of peace.

[1] Henry James, November 25th, 1881, The Notebooks, ed. F. O. Matthiessen and Kenneth B. Murdock (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 24.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Not that Myers

Cynthia Crossen’s generous mention of A Commonplace Blog in the Friday edition of the Wall Street Journal briefly drove my traffic above two thousand readers. Another thousand clicked over on Saturday, which never happens: regular readers know that nothing new is to be found here on the Jewish sabbath.

Responding to a question from a reader who asked about “the best blogs/bloggers who focus on books,” Crossen says that she first encountered my writing in a “blistering critique of the ‘self-conscious, writerly prose’ of ‘serious fiction’ in Atlantic magazine,” but this was actually written by another Myers altogether—B. R. Myers of Dongseo University. I see from his Wikipedia entry that that Myers is a “supporter of the Green Party (United States), animal rights, and veganism.” Nothing could be further from my own political sympathies. Pave Paradise, and pass the barbecued brisket.

Being mistaken for another Myers is something I’m used to. In 1992, Harper Collins reprinted my Commentary essay on college sports in The Writer’s Library. For the first time in my career, I received the full biographical treatment:

DAVID G. MYERS (1942– ) received a Ph.D. in religion from the University of Iowa in 1966 and began his teaching career as an assistant professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, where he is now a full professor. In addition to the 1978 Gordon Allport Prize from the American Psychological Association that he was for his research on group polarization, Myers has written several books: The Human Puzzle: Psychological Research and Christian Belief, 1978; The Inflated Self: Human Illusions and the Biblical Call to Hope, 1980; Social Psychology, 1983; and Psychology through the Eyes of Faith, 1984. Myers also has contributed articles to Psychology Today, Science Digest, Christianity Today, and Christian Century.I have always wondered whether any teacher ever encouraged her students to consider the essay, in which a 38-year-old Jew marveled that “universities continue to have anything to do with sports,” as the expression of a 48-year-old’s Christian belief. I don’t know why, since the contract I signed was mailed to me at Texas A&M University rather than Hope College, but the editors of the Harper Collins textbook assumed that this Myers wrote my essay.

It’s enough to make a man change his name to Mark Helpern.

At all events, a belated welcome to readers of the Journal. Please don’t be disappointed if my attitude toward “self-conscious fiction” is more ambivalent than B. R. Myers’s, although he and I may agree about seriousness.

Five Books of death at an early age

Ian Wolcott’s moving reflections on The Blood of the Lamb startled me into thinking about other novels in which the death of a child is an occasion for more than grief. Wolcott describes Peter De Vries’s unclassifiable 1961 novel, reprinted four years ago by the University of Chicago Press, as a “tragicomic (and more tragic for all its comedy) fictional re-creation of his own daughter’s death by leukemia.” As I remarked in my review of Rafael Yglesias’s Happy Marriage, “The terminal cancer patient has the relatively easy part. All she must do is to die. The spouse”—or, in De Vries’s case, the parent—“is left with her permanent absence.” The Blood of the Lamb examines the question of how it is possible to go on living with such absence.

Are there any other books that deserve its company? Toni Morrison’s Beloved might be fit into the same category, but I am already on record saying it belongs elsewhere. Ditto Cynthia Ozick’s pair of stories bound together as The Shawl, which is about a different magnitude of survival. Any others?

(2.) Gabriel Fielding, In the Time of Greenbloom (1957). Also reprinted in a Phoenix Fiction edition by the University of Chicago Press, although now out of print. When John Blaydon was twelve he fell in love with a year-older girl named Victoria. Their young romance, which is something like Humbert’s island of enchanted time with Annabel without the sniggering onlookers, comes to a violent end when Victoria is murdered. John lives the rest of his life with the consequences of her death.

(3.) Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1966). Suspecting that “the world catastrophe which everyone fears . . . has already happened,” Will Barrett accepts an invitation to join a family of fellow Southerners when the younger son Jamie is released from the hospital. They are taking Jamie back to Alabama to die. No sooner does he arrive than Will packs Jamie away on a trip to New Mexico in a Trav-L-Aire camper. On his deathbed, Jamie converts to the Church of Rome, and Will, having helped him to “die better,” sees “for the first time the possibility of a happy, useful life.” Maybe Percy’s best novel.

(4.) Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom (1985). A flock of dying children (“One case each of Gaucher’s disease, tetralogy of Fallot, osteosarcoma, cystic fibrosis, dysgerminoma, Chédiak-Higashi syndrome, progeria, and lymphoblastic leukemia”) travel from England to Disney World for a sort of Make-A-Wish come true. Elkin, who was himself living with a death sentence by this time—he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis thirteen years before—takes aim at the sentimentality surrounding children’s deaths. The truth may not seem them free, but at least it will prevent the dying from being prematurely smothered in syrup.

(5.) Francine Prose, Goldengrove (2008). When I reviewed this brilliant novel here last December, I abused the critics who naïvely assumed that it is about coping with grief. Nico’s older sister Margaret dies in a drowning accident shortly before graduating from high school, and what Nico is left with is not the need to cope but rather the necessity to reinvent personality in the collapse of a world. I have made my very deep admiration of Prose clear by now, but I remain perplexed by how little attention Goldengrove has received. It does not tug at the heart-strings nor go for the easy tears, but suggests far more profoundly that the presence of a loved one’s absence is the wellspring of either self-destruction or art.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Call It Sleep

Henry Roth’s classic 1934 novel Call It Sleep belongs as much to Jewish as to American literature. Although it dips liberally into modernist streams, it is not primarily a modernist text. Its next-to-last chapter, in which David Schearl “fools around” with the streetcar tracks and is knocked unconscious while his thoughts churn and a chorus jabbers, is routinely compared to the Nighttown episode of Ulysses, though it is probably closer to the pastiche method of U.S.A. The novel’s most striking innovation is its handling of Jewish bilingualism, which places Roth more comfortably in the company of Sholem Aleichem and S. Y. Agnon than Joyce and Dos Passos. And even though Walter Rideout enshrined it among his other examples of The Radical Novel in the United States, calling it “the most distinguished single proletarian novel,” Call It Sleep is not really anything like that either. David Schearl’s father is a member of the working class, first a printer and then a milkman, but his troubles on the job are caused entirely by his own psychological demons and not by exploitation at the hands of the bosses.

Roth is “mostly content with an implied criticism of capitalist society,” Rideout concedes.[1] And it is true that that Roth’s disdain for traditional halakhic Judaism has a quasi-Marxist clang to it. But Roth’s Marxism was never much more than quasi. His lack of political commitment left him unable to finish his next novel, about a one-armed Marxist labor organizer, and he did not write another for six decades. (I am among those who wish he had stopped himself from writing another.) His biography was more indebted to Jewish experience than to politics. His life fell into the basic pattern of the European maskilim, who were “weary and exhausted from studying the Talmud” and devoured secular enlight­en­ment “like the fruits of summer.” His too was the journey out from the Jewish religion to “something new that is rational.”[2] But his young protagonist’s progress is a reversal of the pattern, the rediscovery of a motif that reaches farther back into Jewish literature. David Schearl sets out on a religious search, compelled by a deep unsatisfied spiritual longing.

Several years ago, a literary scholar suggested that Roth’s David is a “hero-messiah” or “prophet-messiah” in quest of “God’s light.”[3] This is suggestive, but inexact. Far more accurate to call David what his mother calls him: the beloved only son. This is a figure who is more common in Jewish literature than the messiah. The book of Genesis might even be described as a genealogy of beloved sons from Isaac to Jacob to Joseph; God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son, his only son (yaḥid), whom he loves (Gen 22.2), fixes the image for all time; and indeed, the biblical David is a beloved son before he is anointed the second king of Israel, making him the meshiaḥ (the “anointed one”). The Jews have long understood their special relationship to God in these terms, since Israel itself is called the first-born son of God (Exod 4.22). According to the great biblical scholar Jon Levenson, the career of the yaḥid falls into a recurrent pattern, and gives shape to much of the Hebrew bible: “The story of the humiliation and exaltation of the beloved son reverberates throughout the Bible because it is the story of the people about whom and to whom it is told. It is the story of Israel the beloved son, the first-born of God.”[4]

Consider the scene in which Albert Schearl beats his son with a wooden clothes hanger, which “flayed his wrists, his hands, his back, his breast.” Genya hears his cries, and rushes in, flinging herself between them:

     “With that!” she screamed hoarsely, trying to snatch the clothes hanger from him. “With that to strike a child. Woe to you! Heart of stone! How could you!”
     “I haven’t struck him before!” The voice was strangled. “What I did he deserved! You’ve been protecting him from me long enough! It’s been coming to him for a long time!”
     “Your only son!” she wailed, pressing David convulsively to her. “Your only son!”
     “Don’t tell me that! I don’t want to hear it! He’s no son of mine! Would he were dead at my feet!”
     “Oh, David, David beloved!” In her anguish over her child, she seemed to forget everyone else, even her husband. “What has he done to you! Hush! Hush!” She brushed his tears away, sat down and rock him back and forth. “Hush, my beloved! My beautiful! Oh, look at his hand!”[5]
The binding of Isaac is reenacted as the beating of David. However, Albert is not acting upon God’s command. He flays his only son because he suspects that David is not really his son at all. He has heard the rumors that David may be the illegitimate offspring of Genya’s love affair with a Polish organist, with whom she dallied before she ever met Albert. David may be Ishmael rather than Isaac: not a beloved son at all, but a bękart (Polish, “bastard”).

The suspicions are groundless. Genya met Albert six months after breaking off the affair—and if she had been pregnant with another man’s child, she would not have been able to conceal her swelling from him. Nevertheless, questions about David’s paternity hang over the novel like a threat of violence. When asked his son’s age, Albert invariably adds a year—to magnify his misgivings. At the age of seven, David is enrolled in ḥeder, the one-room school in which Jewish boys are taught to read Hebrew by rote. He is responsive to his very first lesson:For awhile, David listened intently to the sound of the words. It was Hebrew, he knew, the same mysterious language his mother used before the candles, the same his father used when he read from a book during the holidays—and that time before drinking wine. Not Yiddish, Hebrew. God’s tongue, the rabbi said. If you knew it, then you could talk to God. Who was He? He would learn about Him now—    (p. 213).But the purpose of ḥeder is to introduce Jewish boys to Hebrew recitation—not to God. David quickly learns to “read Hebrew as fast as anyone,” although after two months he still does not understand what he reads. Even so, life at home levels out miraculously after he enters ḥeder, “and this he attributed to his increasing nearness to God” (p. 221). Not even the primitive methods of Eastern European rote learning can sour his spiritual hunger.

When he is finally introduced to the translation of the bible, David dislikes it (“And Moses said you mustn’t, and then you read some more abababa and then you say, mustn’t eat in the traife butcher store”), but when Rabbi Penkower breaks from lessons to tell the story of Isaiah 6, he is enthralled:“But when Isaiah saw the Almighty in His majesty and His terrible light—Woe me! he cried, What shall I do! I am lost!” The rabbi seized his skull-cap and crumpled it. “I, common man, have seen the Almighty, I, unclean one have seen him! Behold, my lips are unclean and I live in a land unclean—for the Jews at that time were sinful—”    (p. 227)David is convinced that he too has unclean lips, because he has said “dirty words” like “Shit, pee, fuckenbestit.” (Call It Sleep is one of the first American novels, by the way, openly to use such “dirty words.” The New York Times complained that it is “doggedly smeared with verbal filthiness.” Maybe David is right, then!) He goes in search of the “terrible light” that will cleanse his lips.

A mystical experience by the East River, where a “long slim lath of sunlight burned silver on the water” and David’s “spirit yielded, melted into the light”—the experience of merger with God known to kabbalists as devekut—leads to an even greater discovery. Three Irish boys, to whom David denies being a Jew to avoid getting his “lumps,” drag him to Tenth Street, where the streetcar tracks end at the docks, to show him “some magic.” Acting upon their instructions, he inserts a thin sword of zinc sheet-metal into the crack between the street and the rail:     Power!
     Like a paw ripping through all the stable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance. Blinded, stunned by the brunt of brilliance, David staggered back. A moment later, he was spurting madly toward Avenue D. (p. 253)
What he has done, of course, is to bring the zinc sword into contact with the underground conductor that supplies electrical power to the streetcars. Frightened and thrilled, David runs straight for the ḥeder, eager to tell Rabbi Penkower that he has witnessed God’s light. Finding the school closed, he breaks in through a window. The rabbi is furious when he finds David there, and accuses him of crawling in to steal the silver pointers used in Torah reading. “The book!” David stammers. “I came for the book!” He tries to explain that he wants to read the biblical story of Isaiah again, because he has seen a light “like Isaiah.” “Where?” the rabbi asks. “Where the car-tracks run I saw it,” David says. “On Tenth Street.” The rabbi starts laughing. “Fool,” he gasps at length. “Go beat your head on a wall. God’s light is not between car-tracks.” David falls silent: “The rabbi didn’t know as he knew what the light was, what it meant, what it had done to him. But he would reveal no more” (p. 257).

Still, he is the rabbi’s prize pupil—“a crown in among rubbish.” Several weeks later, Penkower has him recite from Isaiah for a school inspector. He starts to read in a droning voice, but then recognizes the book from its binding. The rabbi mistakenly thinks that David can understand the text:“Beshnas mos hamelech Uzuyahu vaereh es adonoi yoshaiv al kesai rom venesaw vehulav melayim es hahayhel Serafim omdim memal lo.” Not as a drone this time, like syllables pulled from a drab and tedious reel, but again as it was at first, a chant, a hymn, as though a soaring presence behind the words pulsed and stressed a meaning. A cadence like a flock of pigeons, vast, heaven-filling, swept and wheeled, glittered, darkened, kindled again, like wind over prairies. “Shaish kenawfayim shash kenawfayim leahod. Beshtyim yehase fanav uveshtayim.” The words, forms of immense grandeur behind a cloudy screen, overwhelmed him—“Yehase raglov uveshtayim yeofaif—”    (p. 367)The words are the first two verses of Isaiah 6 as they would be pronounced in Ashkenazi Hebrew. The school inspector is impressed: “Blessed is your mother, my son!” he says. At the sound of the word mother, David bursts into tears. How can he explain that his growing distance from Genya, created out of ḥeder and adventures on the New York streets, saddens him? David says instead that his mother is dead and his father was a Christian. “There’s truth in an old jest,” the school inspector says. Rabbi Penkower supplies the punch line: “That a bastard is wise?”

If his bastardy represents his humiliation, David must seek his exaltation—must prove himself to be a yaḥid instead of a bękart, must come into his inheritance as a beloved son—elsewhere. Running away from home to escape his father’s anger, he heads straight for Tenth Street, where he plunges a metal milk dipper into the crack, contacting the underground conductor. The surge of electricity “ripped through the earth and slammed against his body and shackled him where he stood.” Unable to release the dipper, “he writhed without motion in the clutch of a fatal glory,” and is knocked unconscious (p. 419). The power surge is so strong that streetcars on Avenue C are slowed as their lights flicker. Onlookers assume that David has been electrocuted, but he has only been delivered into a prophetic vision:David touched his lips. The soot came off on his hand. Unclean. Screaming, he turned to flee, seized a wagon wheel to climb upon it. There were no spokes—only cogs like a clock-wheel. He screamed again, beat the yellow disk with his fists (p. 427, italics in original)David experiences a confusing jumble of all the images that he has endowed with anagogical significance over the course of the novel. The homely and concrete details of lower-class immigrant life on the Lower East Side become the stuff that prophecies are made of.

Except that David does not see God. What he sees, when he comes to, is his father, “slack-mouthed, finger-clawing, stooped”—that is, visibly distraught—and David feels a “shrill, wild surge of triumph whip within him. . .” (p. 434). The novel ends with a reconciliation of sorts. Albert accepts the blame for what has happened; or at least he comes as close as it is possible for him to accepting the blame. He understands at last that Genya has been protecting their beloved only son from him, and in silent shame he goes for an ointment to treat David’s electrical burns. David hears him go:A vague, remote pity stirred within his breast like a wreathing, raveling smoke, tenuously dispersed within his being, a kind of torpid heart-break he had felt sometimes in winter awakened deep in the night and hearing that dull tread descend the stairs [as Albert went to work]. (p.440)Instead of the familiar progress from halakhah (Jewish law) to haskalah (secular enlightenment), David makes use of religious props to smack up against the reality of modern urban life in “this Golden Land,” the New World. He is not really Americanized; rather, the American scene is Judaized. In the end, David does not find religion, but he gets something almost as good—acceptance at last as his father’s son, as the David he is and could be.

[1] Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1956), pp. 186–88.

[2] The quoted phrases are from a classic of maskil literature, Moses Leib Lilienblum’s autobiography Hattot Neurim (1876), excerpted in The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, ed. Lucy S. Dawidowicz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 123.

[3] [August] Lynn Altenbernd, “An American Messiah: Myth in Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep,” Modern Fiction Studies 35 (Winter 1989): 673–87.

[4] Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), p. 67.

[5] Henry Roth, Call It Sleep [1934] (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1991), pp. 84–85. Subsequent references in parentheses.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans’ books

The literary attitude toward the military was fixed for all time by Rudyard Kipling’s famous line from “Tommy,” originally published in Barrack Room Ballads in 1892: “making mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep.” Gratitude was replaced by a sophisticated disdain long before a horse-faced candidate for the presidency, himself a veteran who had launched his career by slandering other veterans, warned that the alternative to doing well in school is getting stuck in a war zone. In Edward Dmytryk’s 1954 film The Caine Mutiny, the defense attorney Barney Greenwald (played memorably by José Ferrer) puts paid to this attitude of preening superiority:

When I was studying law, and Mr. Keefer here was writing his stories, and you, Willie, were tearing up the playing fields of dear old Princeton, who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours, eh? Not us. Oh, no! We knew you couldn’t make any money in the service. So who did the dirty work for us? Queeg did!To hear Ferrer sneer the word knew is to be shamed out of condescension toward career military men. Queeg is such a career man, one of “these birds we call regulars,” as Herman Wouk puts in the stage play, “these stuffy stupid Prussians. . . .” Of course, most of them were not as sad as Queeg—“a lot of them sharper boys than any of us, don’t kid yourself, you can’t be good in the Army or Navy unless you’re goddam good. Though maybe not up on Proust ’n’ Finnegans Wake, ’n’ all.”[1]

Barrack Room Ballads and The Caine Mutiny are specimens of midcult, however. The highbrow attitude has not been affected by them. And a good part of the problem is that several of the greatest novels from the ’twenties, the remarkable decade that redefined American writing, are veteran’ books—disillusioned veterans’ books. The locus classicus is The Sun Also Rises (1926), in which “that dirty war” has left Jake Barnes without the equipment to be a full man. The Great Gatsby was also a novel about a veteran. Nick Carraway explains that he “participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless,” he adds.

Between those two attitudes—a lifelong maiming and an uneasiness with civilian life—most American veterans’ books can be arrayed.

The veterans of the Second World War wrote principally about their combat experiences. Only rarely do the novelists who came of age during the war cast a veteran in the role of protagonist—Bellow’s Eugene Henderson, Styron’s Cass Kinsolving. Perhaps the best-known novel about the veterans of the postwar period is Sloan Wilson’s Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) in which a paratrooper who killed seventeen enemy soldiers in the European theater returns home to land a job as a P.R. man for a Fortune 500 company.

The other novels about returning vets have all been forgotten. The best of them were probably The Tom-Walker (1947) by Mari Sandoz, better known for her books about the Plains Indians, and That Winter (1948) by Merle Miller, better known for Plain Speaking (1974), his oral biography of President Truman. Sandoz tells the story of three veterans from the same family—veterans of the Civil War, the Great War, and World War II. When her veterans fail to readjust to civilian life, the failure is not theirs. The purpose of The Tom-Walker is to criticize a society that has forgotten the virtues implicit in military service—a surprising point of view for a writer from the Left.

Miller’s purpose is similar: to show that the home front was worse than the veterans had left it. Three veterans share a New York apartment during the winter of 1945–’46. Together they experience just about every problem faced by their generation of soldiers in returning to civilian life. One is a son of wealth who drinks himself to suicide; another is a Jew who struggles to pass as a Gentile before the encounter with antisemitism propels him back to his father’s faith; the third is a writer manqué who, over the course of the winter, discovers his literary purpose.

Although Miller may seem to have placed himself firmly in the Hemingway-sourced tradition of disillusioned veterans’ fiction, he belongs to a different mood. As the critic Malcolm Cowley astutely noticed, the novels to come out of the Second World War did not achieve the same historical effect as fiction written in the aftermath of the Great War. “They mark no such break with the standards of the generation that preceded them.” The veterans who produced them “are disillusioned,” Cowley wrote, “but not so much by the war itself as by our failure in victory to achieve our war aims. They complain about the lack of democracy in the Army, about the conduct of our occupying forces and about the general contrast between our ideals and our performance.”[2] The veterans of the Second World War who doubled as novelists were—with the notable exception of Gore Vidal—better men than the Great War novelists, but lesser writers.

There were a lot of them. But except for Oakley Hall’s Corpus of Joe Bailey (1953), which at least gave a start to the author of Warlock (1958), the other veterans’ novels at their best would provide material for an interesting literary history, if scholars were still interested in writing such things: James Warner Bellah, Ward 20 (1946), about wounded veterans in an army hospital; James Benson Noble, The Long November (1946), in which a private in the Canadian army, who longed for the smell of burning leaves while in combat, returns home to find it different than he remembered, but better perhaps than it was before the tyrants were defeated; Frank Fenton, What Way My Journey Lies (1946), about a veteran’s return to a Los Angeles that he can barely comprehend; Russell La Due, No More with Me (1947), winner of a Hopwood Award, about a Marine veteran whose girl jilts him, who goes on a bender, encounters social inequality and racial intolerance, but doesn’t abandon his ideals; Mitchell Wilson, The Kimballs (1947), in which a veteran returns to the town of his youth to battle a tyrant of a different kind; Monte Sohn, The Flesh and Mary Duncan (1948), in which a veteran must overcome his war-induced psychosis to live a normal civilian life; Fritz Peters, The World Next Door (1949), in which a veteran goes mad, believing that he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, and must be admitted to an insane asylum that makes the mental hospital in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seem like a resort hotel; and Frederick Boyden, The Hospital (1951), about the rehabilitation of wounded veterans who require plastic surgery.

By the time of the Vietnam War, military service was no longer a universal experience. The literary disdain had become the general attitude, at least among the sensitive young men of my generation. My own disdain is directed at myself: that I was a coward who burned his draft card, not out of idealistic conviction, but out of stark terror at the very thought of combat. As Dan Senor and Saul Singer document in their new book Start-Up Nation, the state of Israel draws upon the confidence, discipline, and expertise that is developed in young Israelis by compulsory service in the Israel Defense Forces. More and more, when friends ask where their children should go to college, I recommend that they enlist in the Armed Services instead. But the U.S. has not yet learned to tap the talent developed by the military in the same way that Israel has.

And one thing standing in the way is the literary disdain. The novels about Vietnam veterans are nearly unanimous in expressing it. The psychologically damaged Vietnam vet of, say, Richard Ford’s Ultimate Good Luck or Robert Olen Butler’s Alleys of Eden (both published in 1981), has become a stock figure in American fiction. He even shows up as the unhinged stalker in The Human Stain (2000); Roth need do little more than describe Faunia’s ex-husband Les as a Vietnam veteran (“One day he’s door gunning in Vietnam, seeing choppers explode, in midair seeing his buddies explode, down so low he smells skin cooking, hears the cries, sees whole villages going up in flames, and the next day he’s back in the Berkshires”) to establish that the man is dangerous and mad. The soldier who becomes an adult in the army—who learns the responsibilities of adulthood, defined by the U.S. Army as loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—has disappeared from American literature.

But not from American life. Today we Americans honor the men and women who have guarded us while we slept. We do not honor them often enough, especially if we spend our lives among American books.

[1] Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial: A Drama in Two Acts (New York: Samuel French, 1954), pp. 93–94. The screenplay for Dmytryk’s film was written by Hollywood veteran Stanley Roberts with unspecified “additional dialogue” by Michael Blankfort. Greenwald’s speech was heavily revised, and improved, for the film version.

[2] Malcolm Cowley, “Two Wars—and Two Generations,” New York Times Book Review (July 25, 1948): 1, 20.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A cat’s death

There are cat people and there are dog people. Men are not supposed to prefer cats, but I always have. In fact, I resent the implication that, as the subtitle of a self-congratulatory little book had it a few years ago, there is a mysterious connection between women and cats. Of course, men don’t have a mysterious connection to much of anything. The problem with dogs, to my mind, is that they esteem just everyone; you have to go far out of your way to earn a dog’s mistrust and fear. Besides, almost any dog is a better man than I—more loyal, more resolute, more fearless. But cats depend on no man. They go their catty way, utterly indifferent to your opinion of them; and to earn a cat’s regard, then, is to achieve something.

My patch tabby Isabel—named after the pretty and independent heroine of The Portrait of a Lady—died earlier today of kidney failure. She was eighteen years old. She first attracted my notice in a College Station pet store when she was a scrawny kitten, the runt of the litter. While her siblings clamored for attention, she hung back, aloof and self-contained. I immediately claimed her.

Although she never weighed much more than six pounds, she could be fierce when called upon. Late one night, during Christmas vacation, when the Texas A&M students had left College Station deserted, I awoke to the sound of Isabel’s snarling. I lived in a shotgun apartment in those days, and when I leaped out of bed, Isabel was backing up in the hallway outside my bedroom door, unwillingly yielding ground, inch by inch. “What the hell is going on?” I shouted, and slammed the door.

Feeling guilty about shutting her out and unable to fall back to sleep, I climbed out of bed and went looking for her in the living room. A draft of winter air chilled me, and I turned to find that my front window had been crowbarred open so violently that the latch was torn out of the frame. I had slept through a break-in. But Isabel hadn’t. And she had stood off the burglar, who was probably brandishing the crowbar, trying her fiercest to keep him at bay until I awoke and frightened him off. If I had stirred only a few seconds later I might have received the crowbar across my forehead.

In short, my life was saved by a cat. Over the next fifteen years Isabel could do little wrong. She approved my choice of a wife, and took to sleeping on Naomi’s pillow instead of mine. She decided that her favorite was three-year-old Isaac. He was infinitely tender with her from a very early age, and she responded with gratitude. My daughter Mimi, now a year-old toddler, never learned not to hit her, but Isabel never reacted with anger. She bent her head against the onslaught, and when she saw her chance, skittered away.

Cats have not inspired the amount of literature that dogs have. There is nothing like Albert Payson Terhune’s Lad (1919) or Eric Knight’s Lassie Come-Home (1940) for cats, and thank heaven there is nothing like J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip (1965). There is a flourishing subgenre of cat mysteries, but I doubt that I shall ever read one. The witty British poet D. J. Enright published a book called The Way of the Cat in 1992, a year after Isabel was born. I know nothing about it, but perhaps I will seek it out and read it in her memory. Requiescat in pace.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The beginning of die Wende

Twenty years ago today the Berlin Wall, the concrete symbol of the Cold War, began to come down. Günter Schabowski, a member of the politburo, announced that permission to leave East Germany would no longer be denied. “Thousands of Berliners clambered across the wall at the Brandenburg Gate,” the New York Times reported, “passing through the historic arch that for so long had been inaccessible to Berliners of either side.” President Reagan’s confident prediction of how the Cold War would end (“We win, they lose”) was gloriously fulfilled.

As far as I am aware, not a single American writer with pretensions to literary importance has touched the fall of the Wall, one of the central events in the history of political freedom. Since 1989, when American novelists have selected Berlin as a setting, theirs has been postwar occupied Berlin (Theodore Weesner, Novemberfest, 1994), the divided Cold War city (Charles McCarry, Christopher’s Ghosts, 2007), or the vibrant reunified city that only wants to forget the Communists, although it remains haunted by the Holocaust (Ward Just, The Weather in Berlin, 2002). Perhaps because I have always admired Crazy in Berlin (1958), his first novel, I expected Thomas Berger—a writer who has never shied away from his German-American background—to take Carlo Reinhart back to the city where, as a U.S. soldier after the war, he had resolved “to know the German actuality.” Like Updike, though, Berger was apparently satisfied with a tetralogy, and with leaving his four-time protagonist in middle age.

But this can’t be right. There must be some American writer I am forgetting, who has had the presumption to imagine what it must have been like in Berlin twenty years ago this week.

German writers have required no presumption to do so. The Goethe-Institut lists thirty-five works by twenty-nine German writers on the fall and die Wende, the reunification of the two Germanies. In the Guardian’s book blog, Suzanne Munshower compiles the top ten books about the Wall, including Peter Schneider’s Mauerspringer (translated as The Wall Jumper in 1983)—“what might be the best Wall fiction ever written,” she says. The best single historical and political volume is William F. Buckley’s Fall of the Berlin Wall (2004).

From twenty years ago today until September 11, 2001, Americans famously took a “holiday from history.” American writers apparently had begun their holiday some time before, and declined to interrupt it even for the collapse of the Wall that had divided the world.

Friday, November 06, 2009


Paul Auster, Invisible (New York: Henry Holt, 2009). 308 pp. $25.00.

Paul Auster has always been fascinated with the kinds of fiction that elbow storytelling ahead of every other motive for writing. Before publishing his first novel at the age of thirty-eight—City of Glass, in which a mystery writer impersonates a detective named Paul Auster, was short-listed for the 1985 Edgar Award—he had put in a long literary apprenticeship, conscientiously developing a prose style ideally suited to storytelling projects.

But Auster is interested in the thirst for story only to frustrate it. What is knowingly untold calls the rest of the tale into question. In his fifteenth novel, he takes the material for a thriller (“Don’t you just love that word,” his villain says) and revamps it into a shifting conundrum of texts that refer to other texts, which are hard-covered within a novel that says of its main character: “Adam Walker is not Adam Walker.” Auster offers another demonstration, if another demonstration is needed, that there is no identity between fictional worlds and the world of finite actuality. In his latest novel, the domain in which murder leads to actual death rather than another turn of the fictional screw, is entirely Invisible.

Adam Walker is a twenty-year-old sophomore at Columbia University—a young man from the North Jersey suburbs—in 1967. (That Auster was himself, in 1967, a twenty-year-old sophomore at Columbia University—a young man from the North Jersey suburbs—is merely a trap set out for the fatuous critic who assumes that all fiction is autobiographical.) A “know-nothing boy with an appetite for books” and the ambition to become a poet, he is smoking alone at a party when a visiting professor from France strikes up an acquaintance, introducing himself as Rudolf Born. Because he is not Auster, he immediately thinks of the medieval Provençal poet Bertran de Born. Any undergraduate poet would.

I had to look him up. There really was a medieval Provençal poet named Bertran de Born. And Adam’s description of him is on the historical mark:

De Born was a good poet, maybe even an excellent poet—but deeply disturbing. He wrote some charming love poems and a moving lament after the death of Prince Henry, but his real subject, the one thing he seemed to care about with any genuine passion, was war. He absolutely reveled in it.Not that the reality makes any difference. Auster’s Bertran de Born is not the historical Bertran de Born, regardless of the accuracy with which he is described. He is just as much an invention as is Adam Walker or Rudolf Born or Columbia University, for that matter.

The woman in Born’s life takes an immediate interest in Adam. According to Born, Margot is “extremely worried” about him. The truth, as he admits later, is that she thinks Adam is one of the best-looking boys she has ever seen—“as handsome as a movie star,” as he’s known on campus. (Proof positive the novel is not autobiographical.) Adam comes to dinner, and Margot cooks a navarin. Adam describes it as “probably the best meal I’ve had all year.” “In other words,” Born says, “you’re attracted to Margot’s food.” When Adam replies that he is, Born asks is he is attracted to Margot as well. Adam balks, but Born presses, and finally Adam acknowledges that—hypothetically speaking—he would be hypothetically attracted to Margot:     Good, Born said, rubbing his hands together and smiling. Now we’re getting somewhere. But attracted to what degree? Enough to want to kiss her? Enough to want to hold her naked body in your arms? Enough to want to lseep with her?
     I can’t answer those questions.
     You’re not telling me you’re a virgin, are you?
     No, I just don’t want to answer your questins, that’s all.
     Am I to understand that if Margot threw herself at you and asked you to fuck her, you wouldn’t be interested? Is that what you’re saying? Poor Margot. You have no idea how much you’ve hurt her feelings.
Seventy-two hours later, with Born called suddenly back to Paris, Adam returns for grilled sole and stays for five days and five nights, indulging in the “pleasure of eating and drinking, the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of taking part in a wordless animal dialogue that was conducted in a language of looking and touching, of biting, tasting, and stroking.”

When he returns from Paris, Born throws Margot out. He was testing her loyalty, he explains to Adam: “And the tramp fell for the bait.” Walking together along the edge of Riverside Park, they are confronted by a “black kid” with a gun. Rather than hand over his wallet, Born produces a switchblade and sinks it into the mugger’s stomach. Adam runs to phone for the police, but by the time he returns, Born and the wounded boy have disappeared. The next day, the papers report that “the body of eighteen-year-old Cedric Williams had been discovered in Riverside Park with over a dozen knife wounds gouged into his chest and stomach.” While he dithers, unsure what to do, Adam receives a note from Born: “Not a word, Walker. Remember: I still have the knife, and I’m not afraid to use it.” By the time he summons the courage to report the French professor to the police, Born has fled the country. Adam knows that he can never forgive himself.

Thus ends Part I. When Part II opens, a different narrator is speaking in the first person—someone who says that he and Walker had “entered Columbia together in 1965, two eighteen-year-old freshmen from New Jersey, and over the next four years we moved in the same circles, read the same books, shared the same ambitions.” They are not the same person, of course. Walker’s friend and classmate is the novelist James Freeman. And as he quickly explains, Part I of the book is a manuscript—a “still-not-finished draft of the first chapter” in Adam Walker’s own book, to be entitled 1967.

In a cover letter, Adam had said that he had hit a wall, and had come to him for professional advice from an old friend. Jim had replied that he’d had a similar problem with an earlier book—“also a memoir (of sorts), which had been divided into two parts.” Like Adam, he had found that he could not go on writing the same way as in Part I. He had realized that his approach had been wrong. “By writing about myself in the first person,” Jim had told Adam, “I had smothered myself and made myself invisible. . . .” Perhaps a shift in grammatical person might create the distance that would allow Adam to finish the book, he had suggested.

Lo and behold, the next chapter of Adam’s book is narrated obligingly in the second person. If I were a different critic—perhaps an old friend of mine, who is also an Orthodox Jew, teaching at Texas A&M and writing for Commentary—I would reveal the contents of Adam’s next chapter. But I won’t. And to save the severely limited from guessing wrongly at my reasons, let me hasten to explain that I do not find the chapter icky, nor am I worried about ruining its surprise. It is just not central to what, as far as I can tell, is going on in Invisible.

After finishing his second chapter, but before he can renew his friendship with the novelist, Walker dies of leukemia. He leaves an envelope with the notes to his third and final chapter. “As for the enclosed pages,” he tells Jim, “do with them what you will.” The novelist turns the notes into complete sentences. “Despite my editorial involvement with the text,” Jim swears, “in the deepest, truest sense of what it means to tell a story, every word . . . was written by Walker himself”—in the third person this time around.

Adam goes to Paris for his junior year abroad. Sees Margot again. Shares her bed again. Born hunts him down. Surprises him at an outdoor café. Claims he did nothing to the boy in the park after stabbing him the first time. Self-defense. Offers to bury the hatchet. A lousy metaphor from someone who has buried a knife in another person’s stomach. A French expression? Offers to introduce Adam to his fiancée’s daughter. Adam refuses.

Upon reflection, Adam decides to exact revenge upon Born, using the fiancée or her daughter as the cut-out:Walker is both thrilled and disgusted with himself. He has never been a vengeful person, has never actively sought to hurt anyone, but Born is in a different category. Born is a killer, Born deserves to be punished, and for the first time in his life Walker is out for blood.He will try to break up the marriage before it is consecrated. Margot warns him: “You don’t have a chance. He’ll slice you into little pieces.” Adam pooh-poohs her fears, saying that he does not think Born will come after him with the knife:     I’m not talking about the knife. Rudolf has connections, a hundred powerful connections, and before you start to mess with him, you should know who you’re dealing with. He’s not just anyone.
     With the police, with the military, with the government. I can’t prove anything, but I’ve always felt he’s something more than just a university professor.
     Such as?
     I don’t know. Secret intelligence, espionage, dirty work of some kind or another.
Sure enough, Adam’s plot ends badly. The police find drugs in his hotel room—planted there, surely, because Adam has a principled opposition to drugs—and he is tossed out of the country and banned from it for life. Walker’s manuscript ends there.

The novelist in Jim, though, is unsatisfied with such an ending. After a bit of snooping, he finds that a man named Rudolf Born had taught at Columbia during the 1966–67 academic year and that the stab-riddled corpse of eighteen-year-old Cedric Williams had been found in Riverside Park in May 1967. However, Adam’s sister does not believe that her brother’s book is true. She suggests that Jim revamp Adam’s memoir, changing the names of the people and the places, adding or subtracting material as he sees fit, and then publishing the book under the name James Freeman—as a novel. He does as she suggests, “and the reader can therefore be assured that Adam Walker is not Adam Walker.” But why stop there?Not even Born is Born. His real name was close to that of another Provençal poet, and I took the liberty to substitute the translation of that other poet by not-Walker with a translation of my own, which means that the remarks about Dante’s Inferno [in which Bertran de Born carries his severed head] on the first page of this book were not in not-Walker’s original manuscript. Last of all, I don’t suppose it is necessary for me to add that my name is not Jim.Jim (or, rather, not-Jim) travels to Paris to engage in some literary detective work and to learn how the story ends. Instead, he ends up with another text by another hand—a diary that provides a firsthand account of Rudolf Born in later years. Born hints at his involvement in secret intelligence or espionage, and suggests a collaboration on his memoirs—to be published as a thriller.

And, indeed, after three hundred pages in which the reality of people and places is smothered and made Invisible, it might have been nice to read a thriller. Auster enjoys playing the game of fiction. He belongs to the self-conscious school whose international masters are Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino. Where he has distinguished himself is in writing a direct and forward-moving prose, stripped of adornment, never straining for metaphor or effect, rarely employing a specialized vocabulary, avoiding recursiveness and allusion. A thriller written in such prose would be great fun to read. But that’s not the kind of book Auster has any desire to write. Not that he has anything against fiction that is thrilling. It’s just that Auster prefers to unmask the pretense of the world in which thrillers are set.

Life of Stanley Elkin

Very good news out of Illinois. An uncorrected advance proof of Shouting Down the Silence: A Biography of Stanley Elkin by David C. Dougherty, the most faithful scholar of his work, arrived yesterday. It is slated for publication next April by the University of Illinois Press.

Although my favorite Elkin novel remains The Dick Gibson Show—a novel that I wrote about for Dougherty, in fact—the fiction after 1972, after he was diagnosed in London with multiple sclerosis, is what every critic of Elkin must come to terms with. When I met him in 1976 he had just begun to use a cane, and he complained to me about how physically difficult it had become to write—the tingling in the fingers of his left hand made his skin crawl when he touched the keyboard. He described a cold metallic sensation. He tried wearing a glove, which helped only a little.

He was working on The Franchiser—the U.S. Postal Service lost my autographed first edition in a cross-country shipment—and he liked to read its latest pages during the sessions of my independent study with him. “Theory and Practice of Fiction” was our course title, if I remember correctly. In the original draft of The Franchiser, Ben Flesh describes the rooms of a Holiday Inn with closeup photographic fidelity. Farrar, Straus & Giroux instructed him to change the hotel’s name. Thus the Travel Inn of the published version. He gave me a final assignment: “What has Stanley lost [by having to change the name]?” Nothing, I argued. “I ought to flunk you,” he scribbled on my paper, but didn’t.

I learned my lesson and have never strayed from it since. Elkin was far better and more important than other novelists of his generation with bigger reputations—Updike, Barth, Doctorow, Pynchon, Stone, Oates. With any luck, Dougherty’s biography will ignite an Elkin boom. Get in your pre-order at Amazon. Don’t delay. Do it now.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Racial difference: the board game

Well, I was wrong. When I announced my turn to the Left three weeks ago, I was confident that never again would unstated views be attributed to me (because the Left only does that to its enemies on the Right).

Now, however, the assistant literary editor of the liberal Catholic weekly America accuses me of saying that, in her dedication to her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison “purposely, intentionally distorted figures of slavery casualties in order to minimize the significance of the Holocaust” (emphasis in original).

True, I never actually said that. Or, as the assistant literary editor puts it, “Myers never owns this statement.” Perhaps I never “owned” it because, well, I don’t believe it. But no matter. The statement is justifiably attributed to me because I am a “white male academic critiquing the masterwork of an African-American woman,” and apparently then I am without rights to my own explicit views.

What I actually said, in examining her dedication to “Sixty Million and more,” is that “Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested” in historical accuracy. To arrive there I cited historical studies, contemporaneous with the publication of Beloved, including one that was nearly twenty years old when Morrison came to write the novel, that put the figure between four million (“who lost their lives as a direct result of enslavement”) and twenty-one million (who were “captured in Africa” for the purpose of enslaving them). The figure of “Sixty Million and more,” I held, was a transparently obvious allusion to the six million, the number that has been advanced in Jewish discourse since 1945 of the Holocaust dead. “Sixty Million and more,” then, was not a historical reference but a literary one. Hence my conclusion that “Toni Morrison was demonstrably not interested” in historical accuracy.

But this must not be what I meant to say. True, it is what I intended to say. And as a pretty careful writer who has little trouble speaking bluntly and even harshly when the need arises, I could have said, if I had wanted to, that Toni Morrison “purposely, intentionally distorted figures of slavery casualties in order to minimize the significance of the Holocaust.” But I did not want to say that, because that was not my argument.

Whatever. My actual argument is simply an “intellectual, jargon-y way of avoiding the messy need to call Morrison what he believes she is: a nasty little deceiver.” (In the liberal Catholic weekly America, apparently, the words demonstrably not interested are unfamiliar terms, a little too highbrow for the common reader.) Secretly, in the privacy of my soul, I believe that Morrison is a liar. If I never actually say that, the reason must be that I am craven, perhaps even not much of a man (I won’t “sack up enough to say” it).

Of course, there is another possibility. Perhaps the reason I do not call Morrison a “nasty little deceiver”—I mean, apart from the fact that I don’t actually believe any such thing—is that, as a matter of principle, I do not call names in lieu of advancing arguments. The assistant literary editor of America might have put in the effort to read a little more of my writing on this Commonplace Blog to discover that hard kernel of fact, but so much easier to substitute preconceptions for knowledge.

I have warned that a demand for respect toward racial and ethnic “difference”—the very sort of attitude displayed by our assistant literary editor, who abuses me for wearing “Oblivious White Dude Bifocals”—will reduce all arguments to ad hominem attacks (the very sort she engages in), but the warning cannot be heeded if it is not read. However, what possible reason could there be to read it?

The assistant literary editor knows what she would mean if she criticized the expression “Sixty Million and more.” So, naturally, that must be what I mean. She is careful not to fall into the same cavity of error in discussing Morrison: “I cannot speak to her intentions and to do so would be an act of hubristic fuckery that even my considerable ego couldn’t tolerate.” But to my intentions she can speak with aplomb. Thus I am safely solipsized.

And this is what happens, I am afraid, all too often, when disagreements are turned into rival exhibitions of racial “difference.” Even simple reading becomes precarious, a badly potholed road.

So I calculate that Beloved is overrated because a “search of the MLA Bibliography turns up 647 items in whole or in large part about the novel” (more than on the entire life’s work of Alice Walker), and I quote Yvor Winters on the significance of such a huge pile of scholarship (“when a writer is supported by a sufficient body of such scholarship, a very little philosophical elucidation will suffice to establish him [or her] in the scholarly world as a writer whose greatness is self-evident”); and then, when someone suggests that I am weaving a conspiracy to explain why Morrison’s novel is overrated, I reply: “No conspiracy. To adapt something that Thoreau once said: the head monkey in Cambridge puts on his hat, and all the little monkeys follow suit.” The original questioner understands me: “Scholarly worthiness is a top-down manifestation, and rarely aligns with popular opinion. . . .”

But not the assistant literary editor. She reads the word monkey, and alarms go off. She falls into the tones of a schoolmarm: “ ‘monkey’ is a well-known racial slur for an African-American. Now, when a white male academic is strenuously criticizing an African-American author, you would think he would take care to avoid using the word ‘monkey.’ ” Irrelevant that the white male academic was referring to scholars, who follow the lead of better-known scholars rather than arriving at their own independent opinions. The word monkey must be a racial slur; it must not be anything else; because that is how the assistant literary editor would use the word (not that she, exquisitely sensitive as she is to racial “difference,” would ever use it).

The whole thing is enough to make someone despair, not merely of the literary contributions to America, but of literary disputation altogether. The positions have been staked out in advance, and all that remains is moving the disputants, like plastic board-game pieces, to the assigned squares. That there are few pieces and squares has the advantage of assuring that the game will only take a short while, and that there will be a clear winner and loser. And thus will the time be killed softly, with no cost to anything but the truth.

A good critic is hard to find

Over at Underbelly, Buce finds that Elsa Morante’s History: A Novel (1977), a “book about the rottenness of war,” does not really belong on any “list of the books that really define the last century,” although it is admirable in its way.

James Marcus reports on his “delightful conversation” with Lore Segal, the delightful novelist whose delightful Lucinella, about the New York literary world, has just been reissued in Melville House’s series The Contemporary Art of the Novella.

Patrick Kurp saunters in characteristic fashion from Josef Pieper’s Guide to Thomas Aquinas, which leads him to contemplate the concept of similarity, to an essay by Kay Ryan. “Ryan’s essay begins as an anecdote about walking along a country road, looking at litter, and turns into an essay in applied epistemology,” he observes. Thus Kurp describes his own working method.

Brandon Watson has also been thinking about Aquinas recently. In a repost from last year, he exposits St. Thomas on passionate love. “In this account, the experience of love consists in a series of changes induced in us,” he begins, and then explains further.

Miriam Burstein lays out the “anti-Ritualist novel” The Vicar of St. Margaret’s (1899–1900), winner of the Religious Tract Society’s contest to see who could write the best book about “the evils of sacerdotalism.” To read Burstein, who brings her sharp intelligence and light touch to everything she writes, is to be reminded that literary masterpieces emerge from a solid mass of lesser contemporaries, which have sunk without a trace. Burstein restores the trace.

Jennifer Lynn trails the fascinating history of Halloween pumpkin-carving, which seems to be date from no earlier than 1866, back to “the Irish harvest celebration of Samhain.” Just as rabbinical Judaism converted the harvest celebration into Sukkot, the Church of Rome converted feast days like Samhain into All Saints Eve and All Saints Day. The original legends, however, are worth recovering.

Over at Wuthering Expectations, the Amateur Reader has begun a serial reconsideration of the Scottish novelist John Galt (1779–1839). He starts with The Provost (1822), the self-portrait of a “genuine Machiavellian.”

Mark Athitakis reviews The Humbling, a novel in which I said Philip Roth takes the conception of art-as-magic to its logical conclusion. Athitakis has a different and challenging view: “The Humbling is about the attempt to fight back [against old age and death], about desperately making bargains in the hopes of avoiding that end.” Thus do critics dispute each other, indirectly but with conviction.

When I said recently that I could not think of a worse prose writer than Toni Morrison who is praised for her language, a commentator rejoined: “Bellow does come to mind.” Jake Seliger captures exactly why Bellow deserves his reputation as the best prose writer of his generation.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Elements of Style

Nearly every writer of my generation has been influenced by The Elements of Style, the Cornell philologist William Strunk’s “little book” revised by his student E. B. White and published by Macmillan fifty years ago. I recognize most of my idiosyncrasies in the seven Elementary Rules of Usage that open the book—anyone whose name ends in s is going to appreciate the rule “Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ’s”—but leafing through the book again after three decades I am struck by how small an impact the remainder of it has had.

In the section on Misused Words and Expressions, I see that I have heavily boxed the paragraph on “Relevant. Irrelevant.

Use these words to express a precise relationship, not a vague discontent. “My history course doesn’t seem relevant.” Relevant to what? A student who finds society out of joint, or himself out of joint, takes refuge in the word irrelevant, using it as a general term of disapprobation. He damns history and wipes out the past with a single stroke.Was this fit of pique included in the first edition? My copy is the second, released in 1972. And in 1972, relevance was a widespread student demand. The students were not disgusted, as Strunk and White would have it, with courses that were “curiously unrelated to the spectacle of the present.” The word had for them a political valence. What was irrelevant was without direct and immediate political effect. It was curiously disengaged from the needs of the hour.

In 1972 I may have been trying to distance myself, at least stylistically, from the student protestors, but a young man of twenty is not fully conscious, and therefore not fully in command, of his language. The misused words and expressions of his youth become fixed forever in his literary armature. In boggling at the persistent fame of Lionel Trilling, I wrote recently in Commentary: “After all, liberal anti-Communism, the cause Trilling was most closely identified with, is no longer relevant.”

Forgive me for indulging this stretch of literary autobiography. I include it to illustrate a point. The Elements of Style, fifty years on, can now be seen more clearly for what it is: namely, a historical document, a manifesto of literary prejudices, rather than a trustworthy handbook of grammar and composition.

Consider its sixteenth commandment of style: “Be clear.” Could there be anything less clear? Of what does clarity consist? How is it to be achieved? The explanation helps not at all:Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. There are occasions when obscurity serves a literary yearning, if not a literary purpose, and there are writers whose mien is more overcast than clear. But since writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.But it is not true that “writing is communication.” Some writing is communication, or something that is loosely designated as communication. (Diseases are communicated. In the kind of writing that Strunk and White appear to be thinking of, a claim is predicated about a subject, and then is defended and supported.) There are other kinds of writing. Some writing, for example, is performative; and then clarity is beside the question. “Clarity, clarity, clarity,” Struck and White demand, throwing up their hands. Whatever, whatever, whatever.

In reviewing a history of the book, Jennifer Balderama says that “critics who malign Elements miss the point,” at least when they describe it as “pedantic, limiting, hypocritical, repressive. . . . Think about it: a humorless man wouldn’t write about radiant pigs and talking spiders, and a strident prescriptivist wouldn’t declare language ‘perpetually in flux . . . a living stream.’ ”

But this misses the point. The larger criticism is not that Strunk and White are prigs, but that they mistake a distinct and peculiar style, suited to a distinct and peculiar kind of writing, for the universal good. And this accounts for their book’s small impact, despite its perennial popularity. In writing, there is no universal good. There is only the distinct and peculiar. Anyone who depends upon The Elements of Style will be at best a disciple who has been taught whimsy in the name of authority, but he will never be a good writer until he removes Strunk and White from his reference shelves and consigns the “little book” to literary history.