Friday, November 30, 2012

“Doctors don’t do hope”

“Doctors don’t do hope anymore,” my wife, herself a doctor, said to me the other day as I was leaving my oncologist’s office. I was complaining about his reluctance to discuss my prognosis. For him, the only real question is what drug I am on and what drug I might be on next. And for him the effectiveness of cancer drugs, at least at this stage of my illness, is measured in months. He would not talk about a time any longer. Pretty much the same was true for my stepfather’s oncologist. (My stepfather has a complicated form of multiple myeloma.) My wife, accompanying him on his last doctor’s appointment, asked about survival rates. She was told—doctor to doctor, no less—that she could google the question.

What seems to be happening is an ethical narrowing of the doctor’s relationship to his patient. Medicine is self-divided. On the one hand, the doctor’s responsibility to relieve a patient’s physical suffering is an ethical role. Relieving her suffering, the doctor responds to his patient as a Thou. But on the other hand, medicine’s pursuit of a certain kind of relief—an effective treatment—demands hard scientific knowledge. And when a doctor acts knowledgeably, he is pulled away from the patient as a whole person; he must treat her as an It, an objective set of symptoms and physical reactions to be grasped if she is to be treated at all.

The conclusion seems inescapable. To be fully ethical toward a patient the doctor cannot treat her partially. Medical ethics, if they are anything more than a classroom exercise and a pretext for scholarly publication, would seem to demand something more than medicine. A good doctor is more than a practitioner of medical science—he is an ethical person, that is, a person with ethical demands upon him. And perhaps what this means is that there are occasions on which he must not behave objectively and medically, but personally and subjectively—as I to Thou. But even this is not quite right. As the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues, to respond to another fully is to put the I, the requirements of the self, in question. It is to risk the loss of self. But, ironically, this is also the experience of physical suffering, as described by Babette Deutsch in a poem I have quoted here before now. It was originally published in the old Commentary in 1949:

                The eyes, huger in the wasted face,
Wandered like wild things dulled by narrow pacing.
The hand was tethered to a pain, that fed
On a spreading horror.
The living are helpless to do much more than to share the dying’s look:The living stood beside the bed and waited
For nothing in the nowhere of appall,
And smiled at her, as if there were no wall
Between them and the dying. Her fate
Stood near them with eyes larger than her own,
That would not close, not even when she slept.
Its look followed after as they lightly crept
Off, waving, leaving her alone.
It seems there must be times when the ethical responsibility to relieve suffering entails an utter passivity—when you finally abandon the efforts to treat a patient, and simply respond to her. But if this is true it follows that medicine, to be fully ethical, must be founded not upon the activity of relieving suffering, but rather upon the passivity of suffering and responding to suffering. The doctor must look into her patient’s face before he takes her into her hands.

I can understand why doctors might be reluctant to do so. There are no protocols, no clear hospital directives that can be written down in black and white, to regulate and direct the doctor’s look. And doctors don’t do passivity any better than they do hope. My wife and I fired my first oncologist in Columbus because he could not look past the clinical data to the person in front of him. When my cancer returned, he gave me a year to eighteen months. (That was nineteen months ago.) “I was hoping to dance at my [three-year-old] daughter’s wedding,” I said. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but that won’t happen.” (My wife started weeping.) I can understand the impossible position in which my remark had put my doctor, but the alternative of silence—and perhaps a touch on the arm or shoulder—the possibility of anything other than a data-driven pronouncement, never occurred to him.

Because they don’t want to give the patient false hope, doctors don’t do hope anymore. What they do instead, though—ordering a treatment meted out in months—is lonelier and more frightening than no hope at all.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hitler was an optimist

Shalom Auslander, Hope: A Tragedy (New York: Riverhead, 2012). 304 pages. $26.95.

Is it possible to be a Jew through literature? Every other alternative to the Jewish religion and the Jewish state has failed to sustain Jewish identity, but for more than a century modern Jewish literature has spun out rich and surprising answers to the question of what it means to be a Jew. The best Jewish fiction, in fact, is often a voluble discussion of the answers. That may be the biggest knock against it. Novelists like Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler, Leon de Winter, Cynthia Ozick, Zoë Heller, and Howard Jacobson have so much to say, so digressively, on such a diversity of topics, that talk can crowd out story. They are more concerned with message than drama, more concerned with following the scent of an argument than with the detailing the practical adventures of people’s lives. To read Jewish fiction, much like studying Talmud, is to insert oneself into a multi-layered conversation over Jewish ideas.

Just recently a special subvariety of the Jewish talking novel has arisen. This is less a novel of ideas than a novel with an idea, a premise that sounds good in paraphrase. In this kind of fiction, an improbable or even supernatural event disrupts the usual world, which otherwise goes about its business as usual. Franz Kafka invented the genre in “The Metamorphosis” when Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed after uneasy dreams to find himself transformed into a gigantic beetle. Steve Stern came close to perfecting it in The Frozen Rabbi (2010), his tale of a 19th-century Polish Hasidic rebbe who tumbles into a pond at winter and is frozen solid, only to be thawed out in a basement in Memphis a century and a half later. John J. Clayton’s Mitzvah Man (2011), in which a middle-aged widower becomes maybe a wonder-working superhero, made itself into an unexpectedly nimble vehicle for discussing Jewish ideas. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Joseph Skibell, and Nicole Krauss among others have tried their hands at the premise novel with varying degrees of success.

In his debut novel, Shalom Auslander bids to outdo all of his Jewish predecessors. Approaching 40, Solomon Kugel moves his wife and three-year-old son to the country, buying an old farmhouse in upstate New York. He has found the perfect escape from Jewish Brooklyn, he thinks—until he discovers Anne Frank hiding in his attic. His mother is dying; his marriage is teetering; his job is in jeopardy; his tenant is causing trouble. “There’s never a good time to find Anne Frank in your attic,” he admits. Kugel hesitates to call the police. What if the old woman in the attic, with numbers tattooed on her forearm, really is Anne Frank? “He would forever be known,” he reflects, “as the person—the Jewish person—that reported Anne Frank to the authorities.” Besides, Anne Frank just wants to be left alone to finish her novel. She doesn’t want to be remembered as the author of The Diary of a Young Girl. “I am not a child!” she shouts at Kugel. “I’m not some goddamned memoirist!”

Auslander mines the premise, not just for laughs (which are many), but for occasions to express a bitter contrarianism toward Holocaust piety and the conventional wisdom on nearly everything else. Raised and schooled in the ultra-Orthodox town of Monsey, New York, Auslander fled it and Orthodoxy as soon as he could, wanting nothing more to do with the Jews except to keep writing about them. Beware of God, a collection of stories, and Foreskin’s Lament, a memoir filled with comic hostility toward Judaism, followed. Normally he would be called a self-hating Jew, except that he’d probably welcome the accusation. “We’d have far fewer problems in this world if more people had the courage to be self-hating,” he observes in Hope: A Tragedy.

The story is straightforward. Kugel slowly sinks to his destruction as he tries to make Anne Frank comfortable—he buys her Streit’s matzot, printer paper, a pillow-top queen-sized mattress—while also trying to mollify his wife Bree, who only wants Anne Frank out of their attic. Meanwhile, he must watch out for an arsonist who is burning down farmhouses in the area, hold onto his job as a salesman for a green company that sells products made of recycled materials, and care for his mother, who pretends to be a Holocaust survivor. (She holds a lamp shade. “This,” she says, “is my aunt.” It says Made in Taiwan, Kubel notes. “Well, they’re not going to write ‘Made in Buchenwald’ on it, are they?”)

The story is little more than an inoffensive gelatin shaped to hold jokes, wisecracks, and mutterings of dissent. The death of poetry, Auslander says, is one death you couldn’t pin on the Nazis. Everyone talks about Auschwitz, he notices; why do you never hear anything about Chelmno? For people who believe there is a reason for everything, the reason is always to teach a positive lesson. “The reason was never because life’s a bummer,” he points out, “or because whoever or whatever the Reason for Everything is, it finds our misery kind of funny.”

Auslander is very funny, but he has a serious message to deliver. Hope is a tragedy, he is convinced—hence his title. Hope is the cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death. Hitler was an optimist. Auslander says this repeatedly. “Have you ever heard of anything so outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution?” he writes. “Not just that there could be a solution—to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold—but a final one, no less!” In its irreverence and impiety, Auslander’s novel is not such a strange contribution to the torrent of Jewish ideas, but in suffusing bitterness with irresistible humor, it is a distressingly effective one. I so wanted to hate it, but sad to say, Hope: A Tragedy is one of the funniest comic novels in several years—perhaps the funniest ever by a non-Jewish Jew.

Addendum: Originally written to run in Commentary last January, this review was spiked. It appears here for the first time. A paperback edition of the novel will be released next month.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fairy tales from my father

On Thanksgiving morning, my 82-year-old father and I sat together to watch NFL football. Men love sports because we can lose ourselves in them as in nothing else. That’s why we become fanatic apostles of one specific team—we submerge ourselves in it, preferring its fortunes and misfortunes and even its style of dress to our own. No surprise, then, that I had fled the demands of my wife and children on Thanksgiving morning to concentrate my entire being, in an easy chair in my father’s living room, on my beloved Houston Texans.

But my father had demands of his own. A coal miner’s son, he grew up in rural Greene County, Indiana, and became the first in his family to go off to college, taking his 17-year-old bride forty miles away to Terre Haute and Indiana State Teachers College, as it was known then. After graduation, he accepted a teaching post in a rural high school outside Crawfordsville (where I was born), and then tried a larger school in the Gary metropolitan area (where my brother was born). Still dissatisfied, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin to earn an advanced degree in microbiology. There he was recruited by the chairman of the biology department at Riverside City College. Southern California was booming: the city of Riverside nearly doubled in population between 1950 and 1960. My family arrived in 1957, one year before the Dodgers.

Dad was a teacher—that was all he ever wanted to be. I remember him at the dining room table, a stack of blue books at his right hand, grading straight through until the stack had disappeared. He was quick to explain scientific concepts to his children, and he excelled at illustrating what he was saying with common objects—fruit, string, masking tape—from the kitchen and garage. Although he earned enough credits for a PhD in microbiology at the University of California at Riverside, he did not have the research interests of a scholar. He never finished his dissertation. He may not even have begun it. Instead, my father taught at full load of large classes at RCC for more than four decades. For years, whenever I returned to Riverside for a visit, he and I would run into his grateful and admiring ex-students when we went shopping or out to eat. (One of the strippers at my brother-in-law’s bachelor party had even been one of his students. I never mentioned her to Dad, figuring he would not be nearly as proud of the connection as I was.)

My father did not lack ambition, but he did not have what is conventionally thought of as ambition. He did not itch for career advancement. He avoided academic politics, stayed as silent as Clarence Thomas during faculty meetings, never sought an administrative appointment, and did not waste his time cozying up with the comers and climbers who could have taken him with them up the ladder. He remained loyal to the chairman who had first recruited him. They became friends and bowling teammates, but the chairman was no more hungry for career advancement than Dad. They stayed where they were, in the classroom, on the RCC campus, earning small annual raises, for their entire professional lives. My father demonstrated his loyalty to the man who had hired him, and to the institution that had given him a place, by teaching as well as he could—as imaginatively, as faithfully—for as long as he could.

Talking to him about his teaching career as the Texans ground out an overtime win against the Detroit Lions, I realized that my father had passed along his values to me without really trying. Somewhere along the line I acquired the idee fixe that if only I wrote well—if only I was honest and thorough, having original things to say on important subjects, in prose that was not entirely undistinguished—success would come. When I was about to enter graduate school at Northwestern (I took off a decade to work as a reporter), a leftist friend who had preceded me to a doctorate warned that I would be marginalized in English. I ignored him, because I was convinced that if only I wrote well, etc. After two decades at Texas A&M University, I was the lowest paid associate professor by almost $10,000 a year, although I had written some things I was proud of. The year Paul Hedeen and I published Unrelenting Readers, our large anthology of post-Vietnam poet-critics—the first of its kind, with a historical introduction by me—I was told by the review and evaluation committee that I was “not meeting departmental expectations.”

My experience at Commentary was different only in institutional setting and political orientation. In my fifteen short months as the magazine’s fiction critic and literary blogger, I wrote 139,000 words—a book the size of Lord Jim—and reviewed or wrote reconsiderations of thirty-eight different books. Some of what I wrote wasn’t bad either. I was convinced that if only I wrote well, etc., but in the end, even at a magazine with a long intellectual tradition, different criteria were in force.

Only now, late in life, do I realize that my father’s career was a fairy tale. Dad reached his intellectual maturity at exactly the right time—an expanding postwar economy, a massive population shift to the West, a sky-high confidence in education and a rising demand for scientific training. He could afford to neglect his professional image, to avoid the avoidance of risk, to fulfill his responsibilities and expect to be rewarded for nothing else. Although my father never served in the military—he is blind in one eye—his values are what used to be honored as martial virtues: “Selflessness, devotion to duty, and the courage to challenge difficult and controversial problems,” as an Air Force officer described them. But that description dates from the early ’eighties, the officer was retired, and even then “the military [was] moving away from an institutional orientation where the job is viewed as a ‘calling’ toward a civilian job outlook which emphasizes self-interest.” The martial virtues, in other words, were just as hollow and naïve as my father’s values—propaganda on behalf of institutions that fostered loyalty in an era of labor shortages.

What I believe in is untrue. The alternative of self-interest and seeking career advancement before all else, including personal integrity, is nothing I can believe in. What then do I teach my children?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Open letter to Philip Roth

On what he has meant to his readers, especially his Jewish readers: the daily feature this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A literary prize for Erdrich—at last

Louise Erdrich has won the National Book Award in fiction for The Round House, her thirteenth novel. (My Commentary review of it is here.)

Based on the contentious case of William Janklow, two-time Republican governor of South Dakota who was accused of raping his children’s babysitter at gunpoint in 1967, The Round House starts off promisingly as a thriller. The narrator is the twelve-year-old son of an Ojibwe woman who is raped at the tribe’s round house. Joe (called Oops in the novel’s opening pages and then rarely again) sets himself to finding the rapist. But the reader figures out his identity before Joe does, and the legal issue bogs down in a question of jurisdiction.

Erdrich is outraged that jurisdictional issues prevent the rapists of Indian women from being prosecuted. “This is a book about a huge case of injustice ongoing on reservations,” she told the audience at the awards ceremony, held at the swank Cipriani restaurant in New York last night. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that no sense of outrage sneaks into the novel. The narrative voice prefers the dulcet to the angry, the familiar routines of literary modernism to the harder work of keeping outrage in check while blasting injustice.

The characters in The Round House first appeared in Erdrich’s Plague of Doves, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that went instead to Elizabeth Strout for Olive Kitteridge. One of the two narrators of the 2008 novel, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts (appearing in the sequel without his first name), is Joe’s father and the husband of Geraldine, the tribal enrollment specialist who is raped by a man with a racist grudge against Indians. This habit of recycling characters and returning to story lines is characteristic of Erdrich. And in fact, Joe reveals in the closing pages of The Round House that, now an adult, he has married the daughter of the family in Love Medicine, Erdrich’s famous first novel from 1984.

After a career of nearly thirty years, Louise Erdrich deserved to win a major literary prize at last. Just not this year. Not for this unremarkable book.

On the strict separation of literature and politics

The dream of “pure poetry” has beguiled those who would remove literature from the blaring disorderly world, and those who would emasculate it, for nearly a century. The term was first introduced by Paul Valéry, who meant simply that poetry should not try to do what history and philosophy can do better, but it fell to the critic Henri Bremond to popularize the concept. In a controversial address to the Académie Française in October 1925, Bremond called for a poésie pure, which would dutifully renounce any baser motive and reduce itself exclusively to poésie. There is, you see, something ineffable about poetry that distinguishes it from prose, and this ineffable quality is what Bremond venerated as its pureté. The pure poem sends its reader into a state not unlike that of religious ecstasy.

In Soviet Russia, meanwhile, the critics who described themselves as Formalists were looking for something similiar—“the specific peculiarities of literary material,” “the autonomy of the aesthetic function” in literature. They called what they were looking for literariness. They would not settle for saying that the distinctive quality of literature, what separates it from all other kinds of human discourse, was ineffable. They wanted to effing name it.

They failed. Every effort to define the unique property of literature has failed, and is doomed to fail. Literature is mimesis! No, it is the sublime! No, it is “that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching”! No, it is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”! No, it is the deconstruction of the hierarchies and binary oppositions of Western ideology! No, it is whatever.

The mind of man hankers after a purity and a perfection that are not numbered within its powers. The truth is that literature is an unholy mess, its borders characterized by dispute rather than international agreement. What some writers and critics plant as a garden, other writers and critics yank up as an overgrowth of weeds. E. D. Hirsch Jr. said it best. Replying to a critic who laughed at him for calling Darwin’s Origin of Species a literary masterpiece, Hirsch pointed to Stanley Edgar Hyman, who had classified Darwin as literature in The Tangled Bank, and to the many editors who had included Darwin in anthologies of Victorian literature. He concluded:

Either literature is defined by traits that someone stipulates, in which case literature can be defined as one pleases; or literature is what the authorities call “literature,” in which case The Origin of Species is literature.It may be insubordination not to yield to the authorities’ view of literature, but the unpleasant reality is that any effort to demarcate a small yard for literature, especially by erecting a wall of separation between it and politics, is arbitrary and hostile to literature. As T. S. Eliot quipped, the demand that poetry be pure is the demand that poetry must be something other than itself to gain respect.

My own definition of literature tries to capture its paradoxical condition: Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition. From this angle, though, there is nothing whatever to prevent literary works and reflections from running into politics, precisely like colors, and especially since politics admits nearly as much variety as literature. Some literary genres—satire, epigram, the realistic novel—are impure by choice and wantonly susceptible to politics, but even literary “purists” make a political commitment in retreating to the study from the street. There are also those who, in the name of preserving literature (or themselves) from contamination, would not blink at its forced purification.

Politics is merely advocacy for an arrangement of life, and if the advocacy is well-written—or if the advocate is selected and admired for his good writing—then it is literary too. In calling himself a liberal and entitling his most famous book The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling said much the same thing. He acknowledged the word liberal was “primarily of political import, but its political meaning,” he went on, “defines itself by the quality of life it envisages.” Like any other human being, the writer or critic envisages a life of a certain quality. The writer, who can’t set out to write literature without fishtailing into pretense instead, is concerned with getting the vision down in the right words, or as close to right as humanly possible. The critic is more concerned with the quality of the vision. But writer and critic can no more divorce themselves from questions about the arrangement of life—from political questions, that is—than Jewish men and woman can remain apart forever, even if they are strictly separated for a few hours every week at prayer.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Best fiction of 2012

Amazon has released its choices for best books of the year (h/t: Jenny Che at Page Views). Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, which I reviewed lukewarmly for Commentary in October, grabbed the top spot. Kevin Powers’s Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds, quoted here to verify its god-awfulness, was second.

The conspicuous conclusion is that literary pretension is regularly confused with literary merit, especially among those for whom “literary fiction” is a status symbol. For my money, indisputably the best English-language novel of the year, nominated for not a single literary prize so far, is Christopher R. Beha’s unforgettable What Happened to Sophie Wilder (Tin House). I don’t know anyone who has read Beha’s novel and has not wanted to talk about it immediately.

After a slow start, 2012 turned out to be a rather good year for fiction. Here is my list of the year’s best (in alphabetical order by author, since a ranking of books is almost as pointless as a ranking of college football teams):

• Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (Twelve). A hilarious political satire about America’s anxious relationship with China.

• Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue (Harper). A “used vinyl” store in Oakland, straddling “the ragged fault where the urban plates of Berkeley and Oakland subducted,” is about to go under, and the question is whether it will take its two owners with it. This is the Chabon—not the Chabon of the splashier and shallower Jewish fiction—the Chabon who is fulfilling his early promise.

• Junot Díaz, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead). The favorite for the National Book Award. A collection of nine stories.

• Hillel Halkin, Melisande! What Are Dreams? (Granta). A unique and moving study of marriage, a love letter to conjugal love, by a writer who, writing his first novel at 72, has discovered the secret to great fiction—the creation of characters who are so interesting and complex, so full of life, they do not remain subservient to the plot

• Joshua Henkin, The World Without You (Pantheon). Winner of the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. A family divided between left-wing politics and Orthodox Judaism gathers to memoralize a son killed in Iraq. No one now writing is better than Henkin at drawing character.

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (Henry Holt). Booker Prize-winning historical novel which (in Mantel’s words) “mak[es] the reader a proposal, an offer,” about Anne Boleyn. The second of her absorbing novels about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

• Alice Munro, Dear Life (Knopf). The fifteenth book of fiction by the Canadian who is perhaps the greatest story writer now at work. Ten stories, including two that are as good as anything she has ever written, and four autobiographical narratives she calls a “finale.”

• Francesca Segal, The Innocents (Hyperion Voice). Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is transplanted to North West London, where the New York rich become British Jews. If you know Wharton’s novel, Sigal’s rewriting will delight you—her use of the source to illuminate the lives of secularized 21st-century Jews is pitch perfect. If you don’t know Wharton’s novel—as my wife didn’t when she read Sigal’s novel—you’ll still love this story of divided and honorable love.

• Pauls Toutonghi, Evel Knievel Days (Crown). A half-Egyptian obsessive compulsive travels to Cairo to find his father; adventures ensue.

• Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (Harper). Hollywood descends upon a desolate Italian port town in 1962. I haven’t read it yet, but I trust Mark Athitakis, who praises “the comedy in the marrow of its sentences.”

• Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood (Little, Brown). A guided tour of the ethnic rivalries in Miami. Wolfe’s best novel yet.

• Hilma Wolitzer, An Available Man (Ballantine). In Commentary I described it as a “refreshing comedy of regeneration after grief.” A widower tries to reenter the dating scene. You’ll never guess whom he ends up with.

• Marly Youmans, A Death at the White Camellia Orphange (Mercer University Press). In the middle of the Depression, an eleven-year-old orphan—Pip Tattnal, who seems to be mildly autistic—hops a freight train after his brother is murdered. A Southern picaresque in the garden of good and evil.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Historical novels

W. D. Howells, too, disliked them. “[I]t is asking a good deal of people in these busy, practical times,” he said, “to go back with you for half a dozen or more generations, and to lose themselves among strange customs and among strange people in a strange land.” As not unusual for Howells, he may have got it exactly backward. Maybe people prefer historical novels precisely because they are a break with business and practicality.

Historical novels are treated like a “tramp in the parlor of letters,” said A. B. Guthrie Jr., himself a historical novelist who won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for The Way West. Indeed, the popular appeal of historical novels has long been a scandal for serious writers. And so the attempt has been made and made and made again to endow them with what Lion Feuchtwanger (another historical novelist) called a “higher purpose” than seeking merely to “relate historical facts just as brightly and excitingly as possible.” (Though that might seem purpose enough to you and me.) So what, according to Feuchtwanger, is the higher purpose of historical novels? To “express [a writer’s] own concept of the world.”

You might wonder how such a purpose differentiates the historical novel from any other kind of literature, but the expression of higher banality seems habitual to those who would mount a serious defense of historical fiction. The champions of the lesbian novelist Sarah Waters—a writer who deserves better champions—suggest that her neo-Victorian novels express a queer historiography, “which destabilize[s] the idea that studies of differences and similarities across time must exist in tension and opposition to each other.” Thus Waters’s work “demonstrates that historical fiction may use the past to comment on issues of contemporary concern. . . .”[1] So many words to say so little that is surprising!

Historical novels are “the most consistently political” genre of fiction, Perry Anderson said in the London Review of Books last year. The basis of his claim, of course, is the 1937 study of The Historical Novel by the Marxist critic György Lukács, who argued that the sole aim of the historical novel is to show how class divisions operate in a period of the past—what Anderson calls the “tragic contest between declining and ascending forms of social life.” From this angle, the model of the historical novel was fashioned by Sir Walter Scott, because no one is better at dramatizing the forces of class.

But this reductive Marxism is as specious and unlikely as the claim by another Lukacs—the historian John Lukacs—who told an absorbing 1992 symposium conducted by American Heritage magazine that “Every novel is a historical novel.” Yes, and every brush is made with bristles; except for those that aren’t.

If the historical novel is about class tensions, though, and if every novel is a historical novel, then it follows that every new novel must be written about class tensions. Monism leads to imperative. If the solution to writing historical fiction has been found, it would be irresponsible not to chase after it. Michael Oakeshott dispatches the fallacy when he discusses historical novelists’ older sibling, the historian:

[D]on’t you believe it. Nobody has solved the problem of how history should be written, and for the same reason that nobody has solved the problem of how poetry should be written, or how chess should be played or how houses should be built—because there is no such problem. We have been told, so often as to be nearly persuaded, that history must be scientific, or it must be imaginative, or it must be impartial, or it must be impersonal. But why all this “must”? Why should there be only one kind of history? And we are particularly puzzled because, as far as we know, there are a great many different kinds of history, and we find it very difficult to say one kind is really so much better than any other that it is the only kind we can allow the name to.[2]The mistake lies in talking about the historical novel as if there were just one way to go, as if there were classical unities every historical novel must obey. (Lukács and Lukacs channel Aristotle!) The truth is that there are only historical novels—novels, plural—with as many different approaches to historiography, and to making up stories about the past, as there are historical novelists. Alessandro Manzoni saw further than twentieth-century theorists when he said the historical novel’s aim is to “give a faithful representation of history.” The historical novel, he concluded, is “the most refined and ingenuous effort” yet devised to “mix history and invention, whatever their form.”

The question is whether a historical novel owes its best effects, its keenest pleasures, to being set in a historical past—whether its historical trappings are necessary or mere bubkes. Confining myself to novels in English, and to one novel per author (in alphabetical order), here are twenty-five historical novels which, if not the best of their genre, make good use of their historical settings, for instruction and delight. The list is not exhaustive, because my reading is not exhaustive:

• John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor (1960). Barth is in eclipse, but deserves to be remembered for this novel: the story of a seventeenth-century poet who is commissioned to write an epic poem, The Marylandiad. Like many of the very best historical novels, it not only asks its readers to “lose themselves among strange customs,” but also in a strange language—a curious and authentic seventeenth-century English.

• Frederick Buechner, Godric (1980). The life of a twelfth-century saint, from Britain to Jerusalem and back, whose talk is spicy and impious at times, wholly realistic at all times.

• Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The first-person confession of the bushranger and outlaw who became a folk hero to Australians and was hanged by the British in 1880.

• Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927). Perhaps the best example of a subvariety that I’ve called the historical novel of faith—the story of Jean Baptiste Lamy of Santa Fe and his vicar Joseph Machebeuf.

• J. G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). Indian Muslims besiege a British imperial outpost during the “Great Rebellion” of 1857.

• Esther Forbes, A Mirror for Witches (1928). The chronicle, written in contemporary idiom, of a seventeenth-century girl accused of being a witch.

• George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman (1969). The multivolume autobiography of a Victorian “bully and poltroon, cad and turncoat, lecher and toady,” begins in the first Anglo-Afghan War.

• Thomas Gavin, King Kill (1977). The incredible hoax of the automated nineteenth-century chess player, which was exposed by Edgar Allan Poe.

• Linda Grant, When I Lived in Modern Times (2000). A British hairdresser transplants herself to Mandate Palestine, becomes involved with the Irgun.

• Robert Graves, Sergeant Lamb’s America (1940). Better known for his Claudius novels, Graves is at his best in this story of a Dublin man in the service of His Majesty’s Army in the American Revolution.

• MacDonald Harris, The Balloonist (1976). In 1897, a Swedish scientist tries to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon.

• Charles Johnson, Middle Passage (1990). A powerful philosophical novel about the U.S. slave trade in the early nineteenth century.

• Thomas Keneally, Confederates (1979). In the American Heritage symposium, Garry Wills called it the best novel about the Civil War. I can’t disagree. Stonewall Jackson’s invasion of the North as experienced by Virginia soldiers in the ranks.

• Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). In a sixteenth-century village in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, a woman discovers that the man she passionately loves is an imposter.

• Bernard Malamud, The Fixer (1967). Blood libel in Czarist Russia—a retelling of the Beilis case.

• Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Even better than her first Booker Prize-winning historical novel, Wolf Hall (2009)—the story of Anne Boleyn told from the slant of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s chief minister.

• Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985). There are other contenders (Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Eugene Manlove Rhodes’s The Proud Sheriff, Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain), but McMurtry’s may be the best novel ever written about the American West. One of my fondest memories is trying to read it, all 843 pages of it, in a single sitting.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004). Three generations of Iowa preachers, from the Civil War to the 1950’s. An American classic.

• Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels (1974). The battle of Gettysburg is reconstructed from multiple perspectives—nearly all of them officers’.

• Jane Smiley, The Greenlanders (1988). The final years of Gardar, the Norwegian bishopric in Greenland, and the people who live there in the fourteenth century.

• Allen Tate, The Fathers (1938). The rise and fall of old Virginia from the last antebellum days to the first months of the War between the States.

• Jane Urquhart, The Underpainter (1997). A first-hand account of the birth of modern art narrated by an American painter who studied under Robert Henri and palled around with Rockwell Kent.

• Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002). An orphan girl serves a Victorian collector of erotica in a variety of capacities.

• John Williams, Augustus (1972). An epistolary historical novel about the nineteen-year-old who finds himself, upon the death of his great-uncle Julius, the new Caesar of the Roman Empire.

• Marly Youmans, Catherwood (1996). In seventeenth-century New York (near “Albanie”), a young mother and her baby girl become lost in the woods for seven months—and survive.

The source for everything you need to know about historical novels is Margaret Donsbach’s astounding one-woman site, which categorizes over five thousand titles. To the making and reading of historical novels, as Donsbach convincingly shows, there is no possible end.

Update: Readers have suggested Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (about Novalis, the German Romantic poet who lived from 1772 to 1801), Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (about, well, the Alamo), Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire (the battle of Thermopylae as told by the only Greek survivor, and also Joseph Epstein’s favorite historical novel), Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French (about an Irish insurgency, aided by the French, in 1798), Gore Vidal’s Creation (about Persia in the fifth century before the Common Era), Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series of novels about the British Navy (although it is a private theory of mine that you either like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, as I do, or O’Brian’s naval novels), George Garrett’s The Death of the Fox (about Sir Walter Ralegh), and Ernest Haycox’s The Border Trumpet or Trouble Shooter (two Western novels).

[1] Mandy Koolen, “Historical Fiction and the Revaluing of Historical Continuity in Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet,” Contemporary Literature 51 (2010): 371–72.

[2] Michael Oakeshott, “What Do We Look for in an Historian?” (1928), in What Is History? and Other Essays, ed. Luke O’Sullivan (Charlottesville, Va.: Imprint Academic, 2004), p. 135.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Statement on my firing

On Thursday afternoon I was fired from my position as literary blogger and book critic for Commentary magazine. The facts are these. At about 4:20 p.m. I posted the piece directly below, entitled “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” The original post contained two sentences at the end of the first paragraph that I deleted, for obvious reasons, when publishing it here instead:

My post yesterday [“The GOP Can’t Be the Party of Old White Men”] was only the opinion of this author, who also happens to write for COMMENTARY and speaks for no one else; my post did not reflect an editorial shift on the part of the magazine. It is, in fact, a testament to his editorship that John Podhoretz encourages a diversity and even a clash of opinions here at COMMENTARY.A little more than an hour later I received an email from John Podhoretz, telling me that I had been terminated. I removed the offending post almost immediately.

Whether I was fired for the substance of what I wrote or for violating the magazine’s procedures is unclear even to me, especially since my followup emails have gone unanswered. Since I do not have the right to quote the message in which Mr Podhoretz terminated me—he never called—I can only summarize his objections. If I understand him correctly, he considered my defense of gay marriage to be political, and thus inappropriate for a literary blog, and he could not understand why I did not seek prior approval for it.

Now, I did not conceive of my post as political; it was, to my mind, a literary and philosophical defense of gay marriage, derived from my reading, utterly silent on questions of public policy. Moreover, I had written explicitly political posts in the past, most notably my attack on, without objection—except from the likes of Salman Rushdie, who tweeted his disgust. And in the sixteen months I wrote Commentary’s literary blog, I was never once required or reminded to get prior approval before posting. I was given, and I assumed that I had, complete editorial independence.

All of this was naïve of me—gobsmackingly, blindingly naïve. My wife says that I have “never learned how to play the game.” The argument is the only thing that matters to me—and too often I have pursued it in heedless disregard of any other consideration. What’s more, as an academic for more than twenty years, I have become too comfortable with intellectual autonomy; I clearly and admittedly did not show the proper deference to Mr Podhoretz’s authority. On the other hand, he had approved a post by me the day before—Wednesday, the day after the election—calling upon Republicans to “drop their opposition to gay marriage.” It never dawned on me that a followup to that earlier post, developing one of its premises, would be wrong.

Was I fired for writing in defense of gay marriage? Well, I think it’s equally naïve to think that I would have been sacked if I had used any other political topic as an occasion for literary and philosophical reflections—the topic of illegal immigration, for example. I’m the last one who could say for sure.

Addendum: I remain grateful to John Podhoretz for giving me the opportunity to write Commentary’s literary blog and fiction chronicle, and I wish him and the magazine nothing but the best.

Update: John Podhoretz gives his side of the story here. Over at the New York Daily News blog Page Views, Alexander Nazaryan offers a balanced account of the mess. I consider the matter closed and shall have nothing further to say about it publicly.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The conservative case for gay marriage

My post at Commentary’s Contentions blog on Wednesday, calling upon Republicans to “drop their opposition to same-sex marriage,” occasioned a lot of commentary, much of it quite angry. For the record, I have publicly supported gay marriage for three years now, and privately for longer than that.

The post was not written out of political expedience or disingenuousness. Over at the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle explains what the GOP would look like if it simply threw in the towel:

Gay marriage is going away as an issue, because the advocates have won. (And in the legislature, not in the courts, as they should). Not all the dominos have fallen yet, but they're lined up the right way; it's just a matter of time. Young evangelicals either don't get energized about the issue, or are actively pro. The GOP knows they're eventually going to moderate, which is why you see these fumbling, ham-fisted attempts to reach out to GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans.What I hold is that a strong case for gay marriage can be made according to conservative principles. The heart of my argument is this line from my post yesterday: “If marriage is everything we conservatives say it is, why should we want to deny its moral benefits to gays?” What I did not do yesterday, however, was to spell out what we conservatives say marriage is. I want to do so now. My conviction is that nothing in a moral account of marriage necessarily excludes gays.

In proposing this line of argument, I realize that I am setting myself against the late James Q. Wilson, who offered perhaps the most powerful case “Against Homosexual Marriage”:It would make more sense to ask why an alternative to marriage should be invented and praised when we are having enough trouble maintaining the institution at all. Suppose that gay or lesbian marriage were authorized; rather than producing [what Andrew Sullivan calls] a “natural foil” that would “not eclipse the theme,” I suspect such a move would call even more seriously into question the role of marriage at a time when the threats to it, ranging from single-parent families to common divorces, have hit record highs.I suspect the opposite—that gay marriage would strengthen the institution. The enormous social pressures on marriage, ranging from the sexualization of popular culture to the casualness of no-fault divorce, have not caused the institution to buckle, but to be reconstituted as a well-fortified refuge. As Pascal Bruckner observes in his newly translated Paradox of Love (Princeton, 2012):The fact that we can choose between traditional marriage, cohabitation, and a free relationship, that in the course of our lives we can encounter several forms of interpersonal connection, is ultimately a major step forward. We have not destroyed the institution of matrimony, we have, like hermit crabs, adapted it to our needs, bent it to our will to the point of making it unrecognizable. The old fortress has not collapsed and remains desirable for many people.Traditional marriage is counter-cultural. It may be only one of the choices available on the sexual buffet, but it is a choice—a choice to stand at cross purposes to the very culture that, in Wilson’s words, threatens the institution. In my view, traditional marriage needs all the allies it can get. One of the most prominent voices raised against same-sex marriage is the gay activist Michael Warner, who argues in The Trouble with Normal that marriage will have the insidious and unwelcome effect of making gays normal. He’s right. That’s the whole point of marriage.

The best account of traditional marriage is Denis de Rougemont’s classic L'Amour et l'Occident, first published in French in 1940 and translated into English in 1956 as Love in the Western World. A history of the literary idea of romantic passion, the book is especially good for my purposes because it ends, as George Woodcock noticed in reviewing it for the Sewanee Review, by coming down “in favor of Catholic orthodoxy.” No more conservative a case for marriage, in short, has ever been made. (Full disclosure: I am an Orthodox Jew.)

De Rougemont argues that much of the confusion in our emotional lives comes about as a result of having inherited two different moral systems—one that values sexual passion, the Stendhalian experience of being swept away against one’s interests, and the other that demands a plighting of a troth, in the wonderful old-fashioned phrase—a promise to stay. “Passion and marriage,” de Rougemont writes, “are essentially irreconcilable.” The one wants “irresistible love,” the heady sensation of losing all control and surrendering to ecstasy; the other prefers being in a state of happiness, which requires self-mastery and the ability to give to someone else what everyone expects in his day-to-day life, what even the passionate man hopes to return to after a bout of rapture—a “sense of constancy.” Too often, though, the desire for romance becomes the basis of marriage. The mistake is tragic. De Rougemont explains:Romance feeds on obstacles, short excitations, and partings; marriage, on the contrary, is made up of wont, daily propinquity, growing accustomed to one another. Romance calls for “the far-away love” of the troubadors; marriage, for love of “one’s neighbor.” Where, then, a couple have married in obedience to a romance, it is natural that the first time a conflict of temperament or of taste becomes manifest the parties should each ask themselves: “Why did I marry?” And it is no less natural that, obsessed by the universal propaganda in favor of romance, each should seize the first occasion to fall in love with somebody else.Traditional marriage is not the denial of passion, but its mastery. A “man does not control himself owing to lack of ‘passion’ (meaning ‘power of the libido’),” de Rougemont says, “but precisely because he loves and, in virtue of his love, will not inflict himself.” He will not force himself upon his lover, because to love means “to accept another being for his or her own sake, in his or her own limitations and reality, choosing this being not as an excuse for excited elevation or as an ‘object of contemplation,’ but as having a matchless and independent life.” Thus de Rougemont’s definition of traditional marriage, in which he underlines every word: it is the institution in which passion is “contained,” not by morals, but by love.

Tell me, because I do not understand, why gays are excluded from this beautiful and moving account—unless you think that gays are disqualified, simply by virtue of loving someone of the same and not the other sex, from the experience of self-mastery and keeping faith. The moral acceptance of another human being is not dependent upon his or her gender. If you agree with James Q. Wilson that “we are having enough trouble maintaining the institution,” I would think you’d want the help of anyone who also seeks to maintain it. Conservatives who believe in traditional marriage have no reason not to bring gay marriage under their belief.