Friday, December 31, 2010

Bye, bye, literature

As the year coughs to a stop, I find myself thinking more and more about the disappearance of a literary culture in America where books are valued, if only by a minority, for their intrinsic qualities—their intelligence, their depth and breadth, the care they take with sentences. Even if it has begun to pick up speed recently, the decline has been going on for long decades. I realize that. “A literary craftsman in America,” Mencken said ninety some years ago, “is never judged by his work alone.” Now, however, he is rarely judged by his work at all.

“The universal reaction to book lists,” I wrote a few days ago, “is annoyance over what has been left out.” I should have added: followed immediately by an accusation of bias. If you don’t happen to think very highly of a writer—and if, because space limitations make explanation impossible, you are silent about the writer—you will be said to hold a grudge against the class to which the writer belongs. Worse yet, if you fail to mention a sufficient number of members of the writer’s class, although the required proportion remains vague and undefined, you will be dismissed as irredeemably intolerant if not bigoted toward the entire class.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to figure out what was going on. The accusation of bias has been leveled against me so often that I no longer take it seriously. Only recently, though, did it strike me that the accusation is more than simply a moral fashion. It is a learned response, an intellectual commonplace, picked up in school and college like mono or herpes. It is the voice of the academic literary guild, stripped of any theoretical sophistication, coming from the mouths of latter-day undergraduates who still hope for their professors’ approval.

Race, class, and gender (and their substitutes and equivalents, adopted by outsiders eager to get in on the game) have finally completed the tendency that Mencken observed so long ago. Their invocation no longer makes it hard to talk about a book’s intrinsic qualities. They have made it so that such talk, when it occasionally occurs, sounds like a dead language. Nobody understands what is being said, and assumes the worse. For any critical discussion that refuses to cloth itself in the vocabulary of race, class, and gender is nothing else—can be nothing else—than an expression of naked bias.

So much for literature.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Denis Dutton, 1944–2010

My old friend, mentor, and collaborator Denis Dutton has died in Christchurch, New Zealand, of prostate cancer. He was sixty-six.

Dutton, a Southern California native who earned his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, founded the journal Philosophy and Literature, the listserve discussion group PHIL-LIT (which I moderated for him from its inception in 1994 until its demise in 2003), and the first of the great “web aggregators” Arts & Letters Daily. Perhaps he was better known, though, as the animating spirit behind the annual Bad Writing Contest. (My own account of the contest is here.) He also took great delight in publishing Alan Sokal’s postscript to the famous hoax. As he saw it, the two events were deeply related.

Denis was a lifelong opponent of fashionable gibberish served up in the name of postmodern profundity. Philosophy and Literature, one of the few academic literary journals to hold the line against “theory,” became the warm refuge of those who believed that the philosophical tradition offered a better framework and vocabulary for literary reflection. Dutton actively sought out articles to knock down the modish concepts of “theory,” one by one, as they rose to graduate students’ cheers. The best Festschrift that could possibly be published in his honor is a complete run of Philosophy and Literature under his editorship from 1977 until today.

Despite his abiding skepticism (“Skepticism is a good policy for any editor,” he said, “because it’s generally a good idea for any scholar”), Denis in person was good-humored, always smiling and finding reasons to smile. Generous and self-effacing, he was quick to give credit to someone else for his own ideas. We shared a short week together several years ago in College Station and Houston. He taught me how to “see” Van Gogh, and how to detect fraudulent “primitive art.” (He was a great collector of native art from New Guinea.)

Denis was first diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer two years ago. Since I had been diagnosed with the same disease a year earlier, we exchanged notes and phone calls on the subject, although he was “super-insistent,” as he put it, about keeping his own cancer secret. He reacted badly to hormone treatments, with a high fever for several days, and was not encouraged by his prognosis. The news of breakthroughs in treatment, though, gave him some hope. “[W]e may live long enough for some of these new treatments to start working for us,” he said. Alas, it was not to be.

Perhaps more of an academic entrepreneur than an original philosopher, he was nevertheless an unfailingly provocative writer. He influenced the academic culture with his irreverence, his impatience for trendy posturing, his commitment to argument and plain language, his love of beauty, and his encouragement of younger writers who shared his crochets. Denis liked to say that he “discovered” me as a writer. If that is true then I owe him an apology for not being a better one and bringing to him even more of the honor that he deserved.

I will miss him.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Deliberate omissions

The universal reaction to book lists is annoyance over what has been left out. Everyone remembers the uproar at this time last year when Publishers Weekly named the Top Ten Books of 2009, and not one by a woman. It was assumed that women had been intentionally excluded, even though the list’s compilers said their intention was to “ignore[] gender and genre and who had the buzz.” If someone has offended you, though, you are entitled to dismiss his explanations. “[W]hen PW’s editors tell us they’re not worried about ‘political correctness,’ ” said the poet Erin Belieu, “that’s code for ‘your concerns as a feminist aren’t legitimate.’ ”

Naturally, then, my roster of the year’s best Jewish books provoked two local variations of the universal reaction. One commentator, noting the absence of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (a novel that was originally published in 2008), assumed the only possible explanation is that I am an American Jew who doesn’t like Israeli books. Another commentator, noting the absence of “Jewish books that are marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community,” asked why the Orthodox are “always omitted by the non-Orthodox.”

Since I myself am an Orthodox Jew, that could hardly have been my intention. And in fact, my list contained at least two volumes by Orthodox Jews—Shaul Stampfer’s Families, Rabbis, and Education and Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies. But neither of these belong to the special class of books that, as my commentator put it, are “marketed to the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Jeremy Stolow’s scholarly study Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution examines this market. Published in April by the University of California Press, Stolow’s book might easily have been included in my list of the year’s best Jewish books, except that I am suspicious of its subtle hostility to Orthodox publishing. (Here is a deliberate omission that correctly fingers my ideology!) But it is also true that I don’t exactly read the titles published by ArtScroll, the imprint of Mesorah Publications in Brooklyn.

All of my liturgical editions—my prayerbooks, my mahzorim, my Passover haggadot—are ArtScroll books. But novels like Yael Mermelstein’s Second Chances, published by the Shaar Press in November, about “an ‘older single’ who longs to be married yet can hardly remember the name of her latest shidduch date,” or memoirs like Abraham Twerski’s Gevurah: My Life, Our World, and the Adventure of Reaching 80, which is “[m]ore than an autobiography” and “offers Rabbi Dr. Twerski’s wide-ranging perspective on our own concerns,” frankly do not occur to me.

But then neither do Jewish mysteries nor Jewish science fiction. I couldn’t name two figures in those publishing markets. Now, I am ready to admit that these are blindspots, huge omissions in my literary education and experience. The reason for the omission, however, is not that I disdain niche markets, but that I am not particularly interested in them as markets. My only concern is literature, by which I mean good writing. The simple fact that a book is written by a women or an Israeli or an Orthodox Jew is insufficient reason to recommend it. Nor is it enough to demand books by women or Israelis or Orthodox Jews if none is any good.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Year’s best American novel

’Tis the season, as Christopher Benson says, for best-book lists. At First Things, Benson compiles his own list, which has a distinctly Christian flavor. Marilynne Robinson’s zinging Absence of Mind did not nose into his top twelve, but earned a mention as a “notable book.” It was, I think, better than that. Outside this disagreement, though, I am grateful to Benson for recommending books that I mostly had not heard of.

Tomorrow on Jewish Ideas Daily I give an accounting of the year in Jewish books, which aims to achieve much the same effect. Yesterday Juliet Linderman of Jewcy beat me out of the gate, reeling off the titles of Jewish hipsters’ favorite novels of 2010. Not one title makes both of our lists, although Linderman describes Joshua Cohen’s Witz as “also of note” while I enroll it among the year’s best.

The best American novel of the year, Jewish or otherwise, was Steve Stern’s gut-busting and surprisingly truthful fourth novel The Frozen Rabbi. I was unable to review it when it first came out, although Mark Athitakis had time before his wife gave birth to their first child to praise it.

As so often the case with contemporary novels, The Frozen Rabbi is told in alternating chapters. In one set of chapters, starting in 1889, the Hasidic tsaddik Eliezer ben Zephyr tumbles into a pond, where he is suspended in a state of frozen animation while he is bundled, in a series of plausibly improbable adventures, across Europe and into the New World. In the second set of chapters, set at the present time, a teenager named Bernie Karp, “[o]verweight and unadventurous,” finds Rabbi Eliezer in the basement freezer of his Memphis home, where an electrical storm knocks out the power and thaws the Boibiczer Prodigy, jarring him out of his ice-cold time machine and into a spiritually hungry age, sputtering Yiddish. Before long, Rabbi Eliezer learns English, after a fashion, and proves more than happy to feed the local hunger. He sets up as a shopping mall kabbalist, a more authentic Michael Berg. The patter is more authentic too, and twice as funny as anything Madonna thinks she believes.

When Bernie, who is startled into Jewish seriousness by Rabbi Eliezer’s defrosting, confesses that he has begun to experience mystical visions, the rabbi replies:

     “Sweetheart . . . visions I dispense here [at the kabbalah center] like shalachmones at Purim; it ain’t so special, the visions.” Then sotto voce, “But I don’t tell to my congregation this.”
     The note of confidentiality heartened the boy enough to ask the first of his laundry list of questions: Did the rabbi’s “congregants” ever bring back any, um, like gifts from their meditative flights?
     “What are you kidding?” The rabbi was incredulous, or anyway pretended to be. “What you think, dveykuss, which you call conscious, is a cruise ship to the Bahama? Conscious . . . ness? is the end of the line; you get yours and you’re a satisfy customer, end of shtory.”
And so it goes. Bernie’s faith deepens along with his Jewish literacy, while Rabbi Eliezer becomes alienated from the Orthodox Judaism of his first, fresh life. “If this ain’t Gan Eydn”—if postmodern America is not Paradise, he asks—“what is?”

The rabbi is the most unforgettable evangelist ever drawn up in American literature. (I want to hear no more references to Elmer Gantry.) But what is so surprising about The Frozen Rabbi is that, while Stern plays the part for laughs, he also has something arresting to say about the Jewish religious experience in the abundant consumer culture of the American present. Although not himself (apparently) a religious Jew, Stern understands just how countercultural, just what a dissent from the “Gan Eydn” of the shopping mall, religious Judaism is. He also notices what is happening in the actual world around him, where a younger generation returns to the Jewish seriousness discarded so carelessly by an older generation.

Bernie is a genuine mystic, trapped (as the rabbi puts it) “between this side and the other.” Naturally, then, things end badly for both of them, although not tragically. No one grieves over their ends. The family is embarrassed, while Bernie’s girlfriend feels only a lingering fatigue. “When’s the tragedy begin?” she asks herself, speaking perhaps for the reader. The tsaddik tries to explain: “There ain’t no world but this one and it’s already half in the crapper.” Neither of the two available options—being too much in the world and not in it enough—will redeem the soul that is restless for liberty.

The Frozen Rabbi is funny and pointed from first to last, because Stern is such an accomplished mimic. He knows the languages of Hasidism and hucksterism like a native speaker, but he also recognizes the phrases of the struggling mystic, who cannot fully credit his own experiences: he is able to write straightforwardly in a religious language, without parody or excess. The war between those languages, which I have argued elsewhere is perhaps the natural form of modern Jewish fiction, is what raises The Frozen Rabbi above any other American novel of the past year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Against “net neutrality”

In a comment to an earlier post, Shelley Shaver warns that today the Federal Communications Commission will begin the long process of regulating the internet through the badly misnamed principle of “net neutrality.” As my friend and editor John Podhoretz said earlier in the month, net neutrality is an “anti-sticky” idea. “No matter what you do,” he said, “you can’t remember what the hell it is.”

Nevertheless, everyone who depends upon the internet—which is, basically, every American with an active social, intellectual, or commercial life—should care about the principle. Under its name, the federal government is joining forces with companies that provide web content to control the ebb and flow of information and services on the internet. Net neutrality hides behind the abstract (and entirely relativistic) conception of fairness, but in truth it is a classic example of rent seeking. The web companies behind it want the aid of government power to obtain a share of net usage that they might not otherwise be able to obtain in an open and unregulated marketplace.

The first beneficiary of the new regulatory régime will be trial lawyers, which explains the Obama administration’s support of net neutrality. As FCC commissioner Robert M. McDowell wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, “The FCC’s action will spark a billable-hours bonanza as lawyers litigate the meaning of ‘reasonable’ network management for years to come.” [NOTE: Broken link fixed.]

And once the legal decisions begin to be handed down, the internet may start looking suspiciously like a contemporary American university campus, where “underrepresented voices” demand inclusion, where some phrases and ideas must not be uttered, and where certain voices are shut out altogether so that the “underrepresented” might be heard. The last thing the federal government should be regulating, because the thing it is least qualified to regulate, is intellectual content. On a university campus, the limited number of classrooms and classroom hours lends a glossy sheen of plausibility to the claim that content must be meted out according to some exalted notion of “fairness.”

But the internet is an infinity of human discourse. There is no end to the ways in which voices can make themselves heard. “Fairness” here is another word for privilege, which the internet exists to undermine and call into question.

Update: The best account of “net neutrality” that I have found belongs to the pseudonymous IT consultant who blogs for ZDNet under the name of Paul Murphy. He writes: “Net neutrality is not, of course, about neutrality—it’s about having government control and monitor what carriers are allowed to transmit, to whom, and at what rates with specific and immediate benefits to bandwidth hogs like [Y]outube and specific and immediate limitations on premium services contracts like those Apple put in place with AT&T to give their iPhone a performance advantage.” Read the whole thing.

Update, II: Meredith Attwell Baker is the other FCC commissioner (along with Robert M. McDowell) to cast her vote in a losing cause against net neutrality. In an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, she explains her opposition, saying that the regulations adopted today are already outdated. They aim to regulate the internet as it was constituted ten to fifteen minutes ago, not the internet that must now struggle against the new regulations to develop and evolve.

Update, III: In the Denver Post, David Harsanyi goes beyond opposing net neutrality to call for abolition of the FCC, which has an “almost irresistible urge to protect the powerful instead” of consumers and innovative startups. In the Wall Street Journal, John Fund reveals who is behind the push for net neutrality.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Shark-Infested Custard

After registering my dissent on Kurt Vonnegut’s canonization by the Library of America, I guess that I have to come up with a better novelist—especially for those, like one commentator, who are “looking for wit, charm, and invention.”

They can do no better than Vonnegut’s four-years-older contemporary Charles Willeford (1919–1988). The two had much in common. Willeford too wrote paperback originals and he too found himself held captive in a “genre” (more accurately, a niche market). In Willeford’s case, the niche was detective and crime fiction. Late in his career, Willeford finally landed a multi-volume contract with a publisher of hardcover books. St. Martin’s Press released three of his four “Hoke Moseley” mysteries, the books for which he is best known, between 1984 and 1987. (The fourth title in the series was published posthumously by Random House.)

Unlike Vonnegut, though, there is little “naive” or sentimental and less that is moralistic about Willeford. His tendency, in fact, is in the opposite direction. Where Vonnegut’s mock resignation barely covers a conventional liberal outrage over man’s capacity for evil (“So it goes,” he says repeatedly in Slaughterhouse-Five), Willeford’s attitude is a derisive despair. “Oh, shit,” laughs a character in The Shark-Infested Custard, his best novel. “Here we go again!”

Originally written in 1975, The Shark-Infested Custard was considered “too depressing” by publishers at the time. It was finally published—by a small Bay Area house specializing in science fiction—in 1993, five years after the author’s death at sixty-nine. To call the novel “depressing” is to miss the joke, although it is true that “one needs to be a member of the family to appreciate the joke,” as Willeford once said in a critical essay.

The book’s title is the answer to an “old Miami riddle,” which doubles as the epigraph: “What is very sweet, bright yellow, and extremely dangerous?” A newspaper reviewer speculates that the riddle’s answer is an obvious metaphor for Miami, but Willeford sets his sights higher (or lower, depending on your anthropology). The Shark-Infested Custard is his image of man.

Not that I want to dismiss the novel’s detailed and fascinating portrait of Miami. Willeford is the best writer the city has ever produced—at least the Anglo half of the Miami model. He is one of the few postwar American novelists who is attentive to the fine and subtle distinctions that make one part of the country different from another.

About two-thirds of the way through The Shark-Infested Custard, however, much of the action shifts to Chicago, “cold freezing, miserable Chicago.” And yet nothing changes in the characters’ behavior. Their amorality does not belong to a city, but to them.

Four unattached men in their early thirties become friends when they settle in a “singles only” apartment complex, where all of the units are one bedroom, the “rents are on the high side,” and a man “could get all of the women he wanted simply by hanging around the pool.” Larry (an ex-cop who works for a security agency), Hank (a drug salesman), Eddie (an airline pilot), and Don (the Florida rep for a British silverware firm) are “charter members” of Dade Towers, the “first four tenants” to take possession. After a year there, they are close.

One night, on a bet, Hank picks up a girl at a drive-in movie:

She was about thirteen or fourteen, barefooted, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, and tight raggedy-cuffed blue jeans with a dozen or more different patches sewn onto them. On her crotch, right over the pudenda, there was a patch with a comic rooster flexing muscled wings. The embroidered letters, in white, below the chicken read: I’M A MEAN FIGHTING COCK. Her brownish hair fell down her back, well past her shoulders, straight but slightly tangled, and her pale face was smudged with dirt. She gave us a tentative smile, and tried to take us all in at once, but she had trouble focusing her eyes. She closed her eyes, and her head bobbled on her skinny neck.Within a few minutes, she has died of a drug overdose in Hank’s front seat. Her death is the error that determines the rest of the tragedy. For the four buddies, the girl ceases to exist, ceases to be a person, the moment she dies. From then on, she becomes a mere body (“The girl had voided, and the smell of ammonia and feces was strong”), and a practical problem (how to dispose of her without attracting suspicion). Not once do any of the men express remorse or grief or dread at early death. The closest they come is wondering whether to call the cops. Larry brings them up short:     “What’s your flying schedule?” [he asked Eddie].
     “I go to New York Saturday. Why?”
     “How’d you like to be grounded, on suspension without pay for about three months? Pending an investigation into the dope fiend death of a teenaged girl?”
     “We didn’t do anything,” Eddie said.
     “That’s right,” [Larry] said. “But that wouldn’t keep your name out of the papers, or some pretty nasty interrogations at the station. And Hank’s in a more sensitive position than you are with the airline, what with his access to drug samples and all. If—or when—he’s investigated, and his company’s name gets into the papers, as soon as he’s cleared, the best he can hope for is a transfer to Yuma, Arizona.”
The men are exquisitely sensitive to their positions throughout the rest of the novel. They are given neither to introspection nor confession nor moral calculus. When Larry invites his friends to “talk about it now” and then “forget about it forever,” another of men says that he is “sorry about getting you guys into this mess.” “We’re all sorry,” Larry replies. “But what’s done is done.”

They are sorry about the “mess,” the complication and the plotting and the stains that are left behind, but they are not sorry for what they have done, because they do not see themselves as the agents of their actions. Indeed, they are not. “What’s done,” and cannot be undone, is the inevitable and tragic result of their amorality—their innocence of their own capacity for evil—which substitutes for any other code to live by. Two murders follow, and then grand theft, and then another inadvertent violent death, leaving the friends with the problem, once again, of carrying away a corpse. It’s at this point that one of the friends laughs, “Here we go again!”

But the joke is not on them. Larry, who narrates the first and last part of the four-part novel, thinks of himself as a good man, who is willing to do what it takes to protect his friends: “A man who is willing to accept responsibility is always loaded down with more and more of it,” he says, trying to account for the series of misfortunes in which his friends become entangled, “because there aren’t that many men around who will accept responsibility.” The joke is that his responsibility is not moored to anything. Larry and his three friends drift on the warm sunny breezes of moral fashion, congratulating themselves on the lives they have made for themselves.

Perhaps no more terrifying vision of the human experience, an inviting dish of happiness and self-fulfillment infested by the amoral predator called man, has ever been written, in a more bizarrely charming and witty prose.

Update: In a defense of the liberal arts, the classicist and military historian Victor Davis Hanson warns that business and finance can never be the “core elements in general-education requirements,” no matter how popular they become as undergraduate majors. “[T]he liberal arts train students to write, think, and argue inductively, while drawing upon evidence from a shared body of knowledge,” Hanson writes. “Without that foundation, it is harder to make—or demand from others—logical, informed decisions about managing our supercharged society as it speeds on by.”

As much as I admire Hanson, I do not find this defense particularly persuasive. It adopts the instrumentalist reasoning of business and finance, at which the liberal arts will always prove to be mediocre. The Shark-Infested Custard offers a far more forceful defense. Without the liberal arts, which lead homo sapiens to become human beings, men become the amoral drifters of Willeford’s novel, sensitive to their position—their needs, their careers, their comforts—but to little else. Without that foundation, they are perfectly capable of making informed management decisions; Willeford’s men are skilled and successful. They are not capable of moral agency, however.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

No on Vonnegut

The Library of America has made the weird and unpardonable decision to release an omnibus volume of fiction by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. The volume covers ten years of writing from 1963 to 1973, the period during which the novels Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Breakfast of Champions and the story collection Welcome to the Monkey House were published. Although I have been unable to confirm the exact contents, Vonnegut’s books are short enough that the Library of America volume is likely to include all five.

There is no possible justification for Vonnegut’s enshrinement in the Library of America, which exists “to preserve the nation's cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions. . . .” Even one of his champions—James Lundquist, in a 1977 single-author study—classifies his fiction as “ ‘naive’ literature because [Vonnegut] makes so much use of expected associations and conventions for the purpose of rapid communication with its readers.”

Which is simply the academic acknowledgment that Vonnegut was a purveyor of “midcult.” At least two other members of the league, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, have already been canonized by the Library of America. Perhaps I should not have been knocked off balance by news of his inclusion, then, especially since all three engaged in what another Vonnegut fan describes as a “career-long critique of America.” “I’m paranoid as an act of good citizenship,” Vonnegut explained, “concerned about what the powerful people are up to.” A midcultist whose psychological reaction to this country was healthier—Herman Wouk, for example, or John P. Marquand—would never be considered for the Library of America.

What sets Vonnegut apart from other writers whose fiction “critiques” the U.S. is his good nature and a sense of broad popular humor that never stoops to rancor and is as likely to deprecate the author as the country’s power elite. “I can’t stand to read what I write,” Vonnegut said. “I make my wife do that, then ask her to keep her opinions to herself.” These qualities are not nearly enough to establish Vonnegut’s “significance” as an American novelist, though. Nor are his self-consciously midwestern values nor his parasitical attachment to science fiction. (It is writers like Vonnegut, who try to introduce it into the mainstream by poaching it for writing that is little more than social realism in disguise, who give science fiction a bad name.) What is worse, the disguise is adopted to conceal Vonnegut’s sentimental moralism. Christ is replaced by pacifism and being nice, but the message is finally very little different from that of E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner. It is a message of spiritual uplift.

Until 1969, his most famous book was Cat’s Cradle, a silly fable that college students all over the country seemed to be reading in unison. Then came Slaughterhouse-Five, his novel about the Allied firebombing of Dresden during the last year of the Second World War. As in all his books, Vonnegut was careful to spell out the Message: “I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.” It is difficult to understand how anyone could experience the rush of moral knowledge while reading that sentence, but perhaps a certain kind of young reader feels something like personal unification—a delirious sense that his rebellion against the adult world is finally taking the firm shape of settled conviction—when swallowing Vonnegut’s books.

A recent critic calls Vonnegut, who lived through the firebombing of Dresden as a POW, “the war’s second most famous survivor,” after Elie Wiesel. (Francine Prose based an entire novel on the empty posturing behind such a claim.) Perhaps, though, this remark provides the key to his fiction, if not a reason to reprint it in an authoritative edition. The survivors of massacres and holocausts are indemnified against ordinary criticism, but also against the ordinary expectations—of subtlety, memorable characterization, layered prose—that readers bring to a work of literature.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Anthony Powell

This month the University of Chicago Press is republishing, in ebook format, a landmark of twentieth-century English fiction—Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time. As a teaser, Chicago is offering the first book in the series, A Question of Upbringing, for free. (The remaining volumes sell for eight bucks a throw.) One of the great custodians of neglected fiction, Chicago has kept Powell’s large canvas of English society, inspired by Nicolas Poussin’s 1640 painting (see right), in print for several years in the four large volumes originally published in this country by Little, Brown. However, Powell patiently released his novel in twelve separate books about every other year, and that is how Chicago is marketing the ebooks.

Born in December 1905, the son of an army officer, Powell was educated at Eton, where he ran with the self-conscious aesthetes Harold Acton and Henry Green, and then at Balliol College, Oxford, where his older classmates included Cyril Connolly and Graham Greene. He began his literary career in the ’thirties with five satirical novels. They were duly praised, but next to the two-years-older Evelyn Waugh, who had already satirized the generation of the “bright young things” in two brilliant novels before he had got off his first shot, Powell was a slight figure. After publishing What Became of Waring? in 1939, he did not write another novel for a dozen years.

During the long silence between his last prewar novel and A Question of Upbringing (1951), Powell devised and perfected the unique narrative style of A Dance to the Music of Time. The clue to that style lies in the one book that he published during this period. John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) is a biography of the man who invented the art of biography in English. The Aubrey book prepared him to write in the voice of the biographer, which Powell uses to great effect (and with unbelievable consistency) in his long masterpiece. Although told in the first person by a character named Nick Jenkins, the narrative is remarkably impersonal. Jenkins never tells stories to settle scores.

Although he later wrote a four-volume autobiography and two late-in-life novels that showed enduring keenness of mind and observation, Powell is best known for A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel, which took him nearly two-and-a-half decades to finish, concluded with Hearing Secret Harmonies in 1975. The last installment of the long Dance ends with the death of Kenneth Widmerpool, one of the great villains in English fiction. Although the novel’s ending echoes its beginning so many years earlier, Powell did not spend much time tying up loose ends. “I found I didn’t want an ‘end’ of that sort,” he said. “I was very anxious that one should not be absolutely washed out at the end. It was very important that the reader should not feel there was not a single other word to be said”—an odd statement about a twelve-volume novel of a million words, but one that reveals a great deal about his philosophy of literature and life. Powell was remarkably curious about human personality in all its forms, and did not believe that a comprehensive portrait could ever be drawn. “You can form the basis of perhaps half a dozen people from one human model,” he once said, explaining his methods, but also the degree of his success at illuminating the mysteries of character.

Powell conceived of himself as a satirical novelist first and foremost. Asked by the New York Times Book Review in 1981 to name the book he wished that he had written, Powell replied memorably:

Books you would like to have written are not the same as favorite books. In the second category comes Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, not quite neatly enough put together for the first. I paused long over Dostoyevsky’s The Devils . . . finally settling for the Satyricon of Petronius, although written 2,000 years ago and only half the length of a detective story, remains of what was probably a third as long as Proust. . . . Petronius had the first version of the modern novel, but my version would have emphasized girls more than boys.Citing In Search of Lost Time instead of A Dance to the Music of Time is characteristic of Powell, who was never grandiose despite the grand scale of his great novel. For most American readers, in fact—especially those who associate English satire with Evelyn Waugh—Powell is likely to seem too gentle and generous to qualify for the satirist’s mantle. If Waugh overplays the absurd, as V. S. Pritchett once said, Powell underplays it: he is “moved by sense rather than by outraged sensibility.”

What is more, Powell does not seem nearly so anomalous, wacky, and inimitable as Waugh. While there are no “sons of Evelyn,” Powell has several distinguished literary descendants. Without A Dance to the Music of Time, it is impossible to conceive of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels or George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series. Indeed, Fraser was quite open about the influence, writing a masters thesis on Powell which was one of the first scholarly studies of the great novelist.

Powell died in March 2000 at the age of ninety-four, having lived long enough to see A Dance to the Music of Time turned into a four-part television movie. (Oddly, it was not directed by his son Tristram Powell, who directed TV versions of Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer and Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils.) “Writing a book,” Powell said, “is a question of instinct balanced against contrivance.” Few twentieth-century novelists have shown more exquisite balance for so long.

Thursday, December 02, 2010


Among my pet peeves is the common American greeting, “Happy holidays!” The intent is to offend no one—which, at this season of the year, means the Jews. But the expression reveals an abysmal stupidity about those who are to be spared any offense.

For the Jews, the “holidays” occur in the fall, at the beginning of the Jewish year: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. During that season, religious Jews greet one another by saying “Hag sameyah!”—that is, “Happy holiday.”

Hanukkah, which began last night, is not a hag, it is not a holiday, in the same sense of the word. It certainly does not measure up to Christmas. It might be described as a second-rate Sukkot, an eight-day celebration inserted into the calendar by Jews who were not always permitted to observe their highest holidays at the proper time of year.

The word hanukkah means “rededication,” and the holiday commemorates the rededication of the Temple upon the retaking of Jerusalem by Judah the Maccabee in 165 BCE. Yesterday, during the Hanukkah program at my son’s preschool, a teacher tried to explain the significance of the rededication by comparing it to the rebuilding of a synagogue. Perhaps the comparison serves to instruct preschoolers, but it is all wrong.

In Jewish life today, the Temple has been moved to the home. The Sabbath dinner table is explicitly compared to the altar, and the Sabbath bread, the hallah, is treated as if it were a Temple sacrifice. Hanukkah, then, might more appropriately lead to a rededication of the home, although no one I know celebrates it in this fashion.

In Israel, the military aspects of the holiday are emphasized. Hanukkah represents the underdog’s triumph over a hostile alien force that would desecrate the Temple site, looting it for alien worship and seeking to obliterate all traces of Jewish history there. At this season, Israelis rededicate themselves to a defense of Jerusalem at all costs. This is a meaning that I can enter into as eagerly as any other Zionist, but it is not the American meaning of the holiday.

In America, Hanukkah has become the Jewish answer to Christmas. Among religious Jews, this is harmless enough. The secular practice of gift-giving has enough to recommend it without an additional religious dimension. Among non-religious Jews, though, Hanukkah becomes one of the few remaining Jewish rites. And then its secular qualities are redolent of the abandonment of the Jewish religion.

But the holiday has another spiritual dimension, among religious and secular Jews alike, which lifts Hanukkah above its relatively ordinary status in Judaism. Precisely because it is the Jewish Christmas, it is the holiday that enables American Jews to participate in the American civic religion. It is, from this angle, a celebration of American Jews’ extraordinary religious freedom.

Not just “Happy Hanukkah,” then, but “Happy holidays” indeed—the glittering American holiday that stretches from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. During this season, Jews are greeted warmly with the reminder that they are home in America. Only a self-important prig could be peeved at such a greeting.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Let Franzen ring

“Let Franzen Ring,” my sour review of Freedom, appears in the December issue of Commentary. In it, I try to assign Franzen a place in the ranks to which he belongs, among maestros of “midcult” like John Steinbeck, John Hersey, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, MacKinlay Kantor, Allen Drury, Harper Lee, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Irving, Elizabeth Kostova, and David Wroblewski.

Yesterday I happened to be reading Alfred Chester’s bloodcurdling critique of J. D. Salinger (also published in Commentary), and I stumbled upon a passage that makes the point that I was trying to make against Franzen, and does so far more sharply:

[T]he intense charm of [Salinger’s first two] books came from the fact that his characters were responding to our world which also happened to be theirs. Their world will go as soon as our world goes . . . because it was never trasmuted; it were merely depicted. What once was the most moving scene in The Catcher—when Holden tries to explain his anguish over American civilization to the absurd girl he’s with at Rockefeller Center—has now become flat and insufficient. The time for disgust over Cadillacs has passed and Holden’s suffering does not seem interesting or real enough itself, to make us separate it from its object, thereby turning the object into symbol and the suffering into our own. All his lament makes us want to do is to prod him gently, wake him up, and say: nobody cares about Cadillacs any more.[1]Nobody cares about the Bushes any more, Franzen; or not enough, at least, to blame them for his suffering. Wake up! It takes something more than encouraging readers to share your disgusts to make great literature.

[1] Alfred Chester, “J. D. Salinger,” in Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews, ed. Edward Field (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow, 1992), p. 79. Originally published as “Salinger: How to Love without Love” in Commentary (June 1963).