Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two thrillers

Donald Hamilton, Death of a Citizen (London: Titan Books, 2013). 227 pages.

Charles McCarry, The Shanghai Factor (New York: Mysterious Press, 2013). 292 pages.

The thriller may be the only literary genre with its emotional effect in its name. The pastoral, the satire, the epithalamion—they point to the contents. The big ones (comedy, tragedy) refer to their origins. Sonnets, elegies, epistolary novels testify to how they are to be written. The thriller alone makes no secret of its aim—“to thrill and shake,” as the Bastard says in King John, “Even at the crying of your nation’s crow.”

Donald Hamilton
The name is relatively new, at least historiographically, dating from the end of the nineteenth century. In American criticism, it first began to show up in articles lamenting children’s (especially boys’) bad reading habits. The thriller’s climb to respectability began with progressive educators, the first shakers of the canon, who urged teachers to stop worrying, to lay off the moralistic preening over the classics, and to let schoolchildren follow their inclinations, no matter how disreputable: “For only books with ‘thrill’ are potent enough to develop the reading habit, to make pupils love books.”[1]

By now, primarily through the efforts of Kingsley Amis, whose criticism was animated by the same spirit as Jim Dixon (viz.: to razz the donnish establishment, in this case out of its disdain for popular books and common readers), the thriller is taken wholly seriously by professional literary critics. John Fraser, a damn good one, has an entire section of his website devoted to thrillers. “What counts,” he says,is what happens next—and next—and next, and having numerous suspense points, large or small, at which one’s anxiety increases. Being able to step through a door into that kind of experience and lose yourself there for an hour or two can be a blessing.I don’t entirely believe him, and not only because I have argued that the relief of suspense-aroused anxiety is not a literary experience. A book’s capacity to make you “lose yourself . . . for an hour or two” sounds very much like what Longinus (or Pseudo-Longinus) called sublimis (when he was translated into Latin) or (misleadingly) “sublime” in English. I’ve always thought a better translation would be “transports.” A powerful work of fiction transports you into a different life, a different place and time, instilling in you the absolute conviction that what you are reading about, what you feel in the hairs on your skin, is real and is happening to real people.

Why some transportation vehicles accept every passenger who boards, while others routinely break down or expel passengers in the middle of the journey, is a literary question that may never be solved. What is clear is that some must be learned to be ridden, like a horse; and that a one-for-all name for the riding experience (“escape”) is nowhere near adequate.

Donald Hamilton was the creator of the American-born rival to James Bond, although he himself was Swedish-born. His series of Matt Helm novels reached a total of twenty-seven in all. They are not as well known as Ian Fleming’s novels, in part because the cinematic versions, with Dean Martin in the starring role in four movies from the ’sixties, were laughable self-parodies. Since Hamilton’s first Matt Helm title was published in 1960, though, the books have remained great favorites with an underground readership, and now Titan Books has begun reprinting them every other month or so, in order of publication.

Death of a Citizen was the first, and it has all the nicks and scratches of having been written for a series—the background that must be pieced together, the loose ends to be tied up in a later book. Hamilton denied that he had conceived the book as the first of a series, but Gold Medal pitched the original 25-cent paperback as featuring “a new series character.” Matt Helm was an agent for a U.S. spy agency during the Second World War. He has retired to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he has become a dedicated fisherman (“fish don’t bleed much”) and well-remunerated author of “stories bursting with violence and dripping with gore.”

The requisite femme fatale—what would elsewhere be called a Bond girl—shows up on the first page. A professional assassin with a “paratrooper’s knife somewhere in her underwear” and a “capsule of poison taped to the nape of her neck,” Tina ran with Helm during the war, murdering German Nazis and generally making life difficult for the Axis powers in Europe. Fifteen years later she is better looking and better dressed, but I’m afraid just as obvious (as the James Mason character says in a similar connection in North by Northwest).

The plot jolts into motion with the classic, perhaps the defining, thriller sentence: “It wasn’t exactly a friendly gesture, leaving dead bodies in my bathtub.” The usual intrigue, the double cross and the narrow escape, follow. I must admit that I was unable to lose myself for an hour or even a quarter. There is plenty of next—and next—and next, but the problem is his serial protagonist. Matt Helm has been called (by Anthony Boucher, the dean of crime-fiction criticism) “as credible a man of violence as has ever figured in the fiction of intrigue,” a “genuinely tough and tough-minded protagonist.” Whether he is a person, though, is another question. “It seemed very odd to be coming home, like any businessman returning from a trip,” he reflects at the end of his spy adventure:I parked in the drive. The door burst open, and Beth [his wife] came running towards me and stumbled into my arms. I held her kind of gingerly. If you feel a certain way about a woman, and your work involves, say, a garbage truck or a butcher shop, you like to clean up a bit before you put your hands on her. I couldn’t help feeling I must stink of blood and gun power, not to mention another woman.Personality in fiction is a point of view, a distinct and chronic way of scrutinizing the world, even a display case of obsessions and irritating habits (think of Gatsby’s “Old Sport”), but wanting to shower after murder or adultery hardly qualifies. What Hamilton substitutes instead are what he calls “tools and techniques,” the physical details that give fiction a sense of the real. He never gets a gun or a car or a hotel lobby wrong. His characters don’t have unique outlooks on life—they have unique styles of violence. The politics are murky too. Are Matt Helm’s antagonists working for the Soviets? Who knows? All you need to know is they want to kill him, which should be enough to make them evil, but he kills them first.

The only thriller writer I have read with any regularity and pleasure is Charles McCarry. Eight of his novels have featured the repeat protagonist Paul Christopher, a poet and a spook for the CIA. McCarry’s novels give the sense of exploring a history—Christopher’s personal history, including his family background and political principles, are enmeshed with the country’s as well as that of the spy agency for which he works. The novels do not venture beyond the Cold War; or, that is, not much beyond the period during which McCarry himself was employed as a field agent for the CIA (1958–1967). As he acknowledges in a recent interview, he no longer knows anyone at the agency and has “no idea” how it now operates.

The Shanghai Factor is his first “stand alone” spy novel. An unnamed American spy reporting to a Washington, D.C.-based agency known only as Headquarters is living under cover in Shanghai, pretending “to be a Canadian, anti-American to the bone and proud of it.” The pretense is effective. His “progressive gibberish” makes the Chinese want to strike up friendships with him, and before long he is recruited by the CEO of a powerful state-run Chinese company and returned to Washington in a kind of counter-intelligence role. He remains loyal to the U.S.—McCarry’s heroes always remain loyal to the U.S.—but he soon finds himself in a dance with a cultured Chinese spy to see who can “turn” whom from loyalty to betrayal. There is no violence. McCarry’s plots rarely turn on violence. As the narrator says,The entire basis of espionage is trust. Spying could not exist without it. If such trust is imperfect or not quite complete, then it is like all other varieties of trust. Ask yourself—do you, does anyone trust absolutely his spouse, his doctor, his lawyer, his best friend, his employee, his mother? Trust is selective. In practice, the agent trusts his case officer to protect him, to keep secrets that are a threat to his life and the lives of his entire family. . . . In return the case officer trusts the agent not to set him up for capture, torture, imprisonment, and perhaps death. . . . Within an intelligence service, colleagues may dislike one another and often do, but they trust one another absolutely. It is part of the contract, part of the mystique. It is the indispensable element. Its perversion makes treason possible and all but undetectable among professional spies, but when uncorrupted it is the code that drives the system.The Shanghai factor (of the book’s title) is the difficulty for an American to know with any certainty what is true with the Chinese, which puts trust in question and absolute trust out of reach, perhaps forever. “How do I know this is true?” asks the book’s epigraph, a quotation from Laozi. Something like this is what most Americans find so beguiling about China, and may have been what drew McCarry to the subject. That, and Chinese women. The narrator has two Chinese lovers over the course of the novel; neither one resembles a Bond girl. They are whole persons who look nothing alike.

The Shanghai Factor may be a spy novel, but it is not a thriller at all, despite a couple of nail-biting scenes. Reading it, I suddenly understood why. The thriller lays down a substratum of realistic illusion (“a solid sense,” as Donald Hamilton said, “of dealing with real people involved in real intrigue in real places”) so that the astonishing eruptions of violence and the implausible getaway machines, which are the final appeal of the genre, are not dragged down by modernity’s disbelief in the supernatural. The children of postmodernity are not prisoners of any such disbelief, however. For over a decade now, cinematic violence has been stylized and untethered to natural constraints. Within the return of the supernatural, the days of the thriller are numbered—except among aging aficionados, who demand reprints of older classics. And except in the hands of canny professionals like Charles McCarry, who transform the genre into moral and political reflection, a hard twist on realism’s screw.

Update: A friend writes to disagree with my views on the thriller:Thrillers are the problem novels, where action is really [quoting John Fraser] “the successful solving of problems, at times a very rapid succession of problems. And those problems form part of larger sequences of problem-solving that entail a high degree of concentration.” In this sense, thrillers are the literature of an age of science, where the hero is a character who can solve problems life throws at him by the virtue of his own intelligence and skill. Much of the tension arises out of the uncertainties that are created as a problems are identified, solutions to them attempted and unexpected consequences must be dealt with.We’re on the same page in suggesting that thrillers arose as a belief in the supernatural declined (as the “age of science,” that is, became the official ideology of the intelligentsia). But then somehow we find ourselves in different books. I have never read a thriller without feeling let down when the “problem” facing the hero was solved. Howard Jacobson says it better than I ever could:The reason [whodunits] are never satisfactory is that the resolution doesn’t justify the waiting; the answer doesn’t live up to the question; the actual reason he dunnit is no match for the millions of reasons someone else might have. Even if you haven’t guessed right, it’s entirely without human significance that you guessed wrong. There is more drama in not being able to finish The Independent cryptic crossword.The “problem” is entirely a function of the plot, in other words: what happens to a person is far less significant than how he handles it, because it is the latter which invites identification with the hero.

[1] Thomas C. Blaisdell, “Let the Child Read,” Elementary English Review 7 (January 1930): 2–5.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The audacity of revenge

Scott G. F. Bailey, The Astrologer (Moses Lake, Wash.: Rhemalda, 2013). 253 pages.

Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who was among the great figures of the Renaissance, died suddenly in Prague on October 24, 1601. Scott G. F. Bailey’s premise in this nimble debut novel is that Brahe was poisoned on orders from Christian IV, the king of Denmark. The Astrologer might be described as a historical thriller in which scientific knowledge seeks retribution against political power, only to discover that love scorned is the fiercer enemy.

Tycho Brahe
Soren Andersmann, Bailey’s title character, has sworn revenge for Brahe’s murder by assassinating Christian. The son of a stone mason but “small and sickly as a youth,” lacking the “physique to earn a living with [his] hands,” he was educated at Wittenberg and then installed at court as tutor to the crown prince, who is also named Christian. A self-proclaimed disciple of Brahe, Soren is without talent for mathematics, and so he becomes the court astrologer rather than Brahe’s successor as royal astronomer. He is an articulate spokesman for the new scientific knowledge, or what would now be called a popularizer:Philosophers do not murder each other. Priests, princes, popes, and kings keep at the slaughter because they have no habit of intellectual inquiry. They are no better than the pagans whom God drowned in the Flood. . . . I place my faith in the Ark of knowledge, and I believe that science will save man from his innate depravity. Thus have I ever bent my knee to the great men of philosophy, alchemy, astronomy, and astrology. Thus did I thrive at university and thus did I crave employment with Tycho Brahe. . . .In addition to murdering Brahe, the king has also banned Soren’s book Nunc Scio Mysterium (“Now I Know the Mystery”). The book’s argument is that “what we can see is to be more trusted than what we are told without evidence,” but the crown prince warns that some men “will read it more broadly, as a political commentary.” Soren’s position at court is tenuous, although the queen seems to favor him; he is anxious about his future, although no warnings are made explicit. He draws up favorable horoscopes for the king in battle, no matter what the stars portend. All in all, Soren would feel better off if Christian IV were dead.

If you are going to kill the king, the old adage has it, you had better not miss; but Soren misses twice, in ghastly comic fashion. His assassination plots are elaborate Rube Goldberg machines—a box of poisonous snakes left open in the royal bedchamber, a poisoned bottle of wine shared with the king by a nobleman who had sworn off drink—and Soren is caught in the act by the king’s Swiss guard. With one hundred and fifty pages yet to go, the question naturally arises how the book’s narrator will get out of this pickle. “You are not the man to do this deed, astrologer,” the captain of the guard says, shocking Soren and the reader. “You will need our help.” Bailey has recovered the lost art of the cliffhanger!

He also gets many of the period details right, especially about the king’s mistress Vibeke Kruse (whom Bailey portrays as an addled but fetching girl impregnated by Christian) and about Brahe’s castle and underground observatory on the island of Hven. Sent there by the king to salvage Brahe’s instruments from the ruins, Soren learns instead about a different Brahe altogether—not the man of truth, but a tyrant who treated the residents of Hven with a cruelty worse than Pharoah’s. “If I believed all I heard of Tycho in my visit to the island,” Soren reflects toward the end of his visit there, “he was no great man at all, but an indifferent knave like so many others.” This is not a truth that Soren, the proud disciple of truth, wishes to know. “To believe this,” he says, “to deny Tycho, was to deny myself.”

Soren never appreciates the irony that he has no real self to deny. The man who claims to live by Brahe’s motto (“by looking at Heaven I see the Earth”) and then falsifies horoscopes to reassure the king is a man who contributes his own share to a world in which nothing is quite as it seems—in which we can no more trust what we see than what we are told. Soren is a familiar persona in Renaissance drama, the hanger-on at court, the angler for royal favor and position, the self-important man of learning whose learning consists almost entirely of “bug’s words,” sycophancy, and received wisdom. He is a little like Rosenkrantz (or Guildenstern). Come to think of it, he is a lot like Rosenkrantz (or Guildenstern). As the glancing allusions to Hamlet pile up—the names of the Swiss guards, the slightly anachronistic reference to tennis at the 17th-century Danish court, The Murder of Gonzago, which the crown prince acts out on the beach at Hven, Vibeke’s performance as a double for Ophelia, driven mad with grief over her father’s murder at the prince’s hands as well as the king’s erotic betrayal—it gradually becomes clear that Bailey is up to something very different in The Astrologer from run-of-the-creative-writing-mill fiction.

In the end, Vibeke burns down the castle at Kronberg, taking the lives of both Christians four decades before either man actually died. And Bailey’s secret is thus revealed. Despite its historical setting, The Astrologer is not really a historical novel at all. It is a self-concealing but ambitious attempt to resuscitate the revenge tragedy. The delight of reading it lies in the discovery and tracing of Bailey’s scheme. If his prose is adequate to the task and nothing more, if there is no larger message than the implicit rap at the shallow repetitiveness of contemporary fiction, then the sheer audacity of “reworking” Shakespeare in the 21st century—and without misstep—will be more than enough for most readers of The Astrologer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On writing a memoir

With the sound of time’s wingèd chariot at my back, I have cautiously begun a memoir. I am no novelist. My peculiar talent, such as it is, is for phrase and argument, not for invention. Besides, I have memorized J. V. Cunningham’s poem “To a Student”:

Fiction, but memoir. Here you know
Motive and act who made them so.
Life falls in scenes; its tragedies
Close in contrived catastrophes.
Much is evasion. Some years pass
Some years later. In this glass
Reflection sees reflection’s smile
And self-engrossment is good style.

Fiction is fiction: its one theme
Is its allegiance to its scheme.
Memoir is memoir: there your heart
Awaits the judgment of your art.
But memoir in fictitious guise
Is telling truth by telling lies.
How many celebrated memoirs of the last twenty-five years—the boom times for “creative” or “literary” memoirs—are indicted by those last two lines! I prefer to look elsewhere for models. The Amateur Reader’s account of Elias Canetti’s The Tongue Set Free is tempting: it “follows his education, which means, mostly, his reading.” My life has been eventful, but the events have almost always been strained through books. (See the one chapter I’ve published, for example—my memoir of Raymond Carver. Four books are mentioned within the first seven sentences!) If I were honest, and cared as little about the literary marketplace as I claim to, my title would be Mediated by Books or Books Do Intercede For Me.

My memoir will include the story of my conversion, but it will not be a conversion memoir. It will include the story of my cancer, but it will not be a cancer memoir. I was convinced to undertake it by a former editor to whom I had described my ex-wife’s “mango-shaped breasts.” “You have got to write a memoir,” he demanded. The problem in writing a memoir, though, is not to describe the right shape of things, but to give some shape, any shape, to the disordered chapters of a life without resorting to the falsity of “contrived catastrophes.” Nabokov says it best: “[T]he true purpose of autobiography,” he writes in Speak, Memory, one of the great examples of the genre, should be “[t]he following of . . . thematic designs through one’s life.”

The Goodreads list of best memoirs leads off with a book that isn’t even a memoir (Anne Frank’s Diary) and includes ghost-written books, fraudulent books, memoirs in fictitious guise, and puddles of sentimental goo—except for Holocaust literature, there is little over twenty-five years old. The sole redeeming feature of the list is that Dreams from My Father ranks no higher than #38. The Education of Henry Adams, perhaps the greatest autobiography ever written, is not ranked at all.

Every would-be autobiographer should worry about the scene in Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature (1971) in which the aging Boris Karloff-like horror star asks the magazine writer who is doing a feature on him what he’d really like to write. When the magazine writer confesses he’d like to write his autobiography, the horror star says: “Then may I say that I sincerely hope . . . that you soon find a halfway decent subject for it?”

There’s nothing worse than a memoir without a halfway decent subject. I’ve read dozens of them. A good memoir does not require a famous author, but it does require a good theme. Excluding Holocaust memoirs, which belong to a separate category, here are some of the best (or, at least, twenty-five of my English-language favorites, in addition to the ones I’ve already named):

• J. R. Ackerley, My Dog Tulip (1956). In middle age, the British editor of the Listener finds the love of his life—a German shepherd named Queenie (name changed to prevent jokes about the author’s homosexuality). Not a dog book, but rather a chronicle of unexpected happiness. An NYRB Classics book.

• William Barrett, The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals (1982). “I am not a walker in the city seeking narcissistically to capture myself,” Barrett writes in a slam at another remarkable memoir (see Alfred Kazin, below). What he is is the great portraitist of the New York intellectuals with all their changing loyalties, hot hatreds, and never-ending feuds.

• Richard P. Brickner, My Second Twenty Years: An Unexpected Life (1976). Brickner was only twenty years old when a car accident left him paralyzed from the chest down. All of the words that have been overused to describe memoirs (“honest,” “candid,” “unsparing”) were patented by him, but in supple unself-pitying prose.

• Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was the Rage (1993). A charming memoir of Greenwich Village in the ’forties by the New York Times book critic and master stylist, who also wrote autobiographically about the prostate cancer that killed him.

• Whitaker Chambers, Witness (1952). From Communism to anti-Communism to Christianity. Even today, the accuser of Alger Hiss remains a pariah to the literary world. Proof? Although Witness is undeniably one of the great American autobiographies, it will never be reprinted in a Library of America edition.

• Cyril Connolly, “A Georgian Boyhood” in Enemies of Promise (1938). Written in defense of Connolly’s claim that every critic is a “product of his time” who merely “affect[s] impartiality . . . while claiming authority over the reader. . . .” Connolly lifts the covers on his own critical authority by telling the story of his early life till leaving for Eton at eighteen.

• Lucy S. Dawidowicz, From That Place and Time (1989). The great Jewish historian was one of the last witnesses to see Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, while it was still a flourishing center of Jewish learning. Barely escaping the Nazis, she returned to New York to work at YIVO and watch helplessly as the Jews of Eastern Europe, the bearers of what she called the “Golden Tradition” in a remarkable anthology by that title, were put to death.

• Midge Decter, An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War (2001). As Dorothy Gallagher phrased it in her New York Times review, Decter’s book is an “argument against the 1960’s and 70’s in the form of a memoir.” One of the great practitioners of the harsh style, she is the mother of another great practitioner of it—the late Rachel Abrams, better known on the ’net as Bad Rachel, who died from stomach cancer last Friday at the age of sixty-two.

• Sidney Hook, Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (1987). A memoir of the philosopher’s public battles against Communism, this is the rarest of books: a drama of ideas.

• Maureen Howard, Facts of Life (1978). Childhood, education, and career presented in vignettes by a writer who realized, nearly too late, that the women her age were ignoring their beauty and freedom while “we all yearned for the goods of dissatisfied middle age.”

• Alfred Kazin, Walker in the City (1952). Maybe the best New York book ever written, even with its narcissism (see William Barrett, above). Kazin is remarkably attuned to the textures, sounds, and colors of the Brooklyn in which he grew up, and he captures them along with his young self.

• Robert Lowell, “91 Revere Street” in Life Studies (1959). Could this slim 30-page memoir of his family, published as an afterthought in Lowell’s first volume of “confessional” verse, be the best thing he ever wrote? The prose is flawless. You’re afraid to touch it.

• Mary McCarthy, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). I am going out on a limb here to say that Memories of a Catholic Girlhood is McCarthy’s best book—perhaps the only book of hers that will be remembered. Orphaned at six (along with her brother, the actor Kevin McCarthy), she was raised by her memorably cruel Uncle Myers (“no relation to us”). His “impartial application of punishment . . . did nothing to establish discipline,” she writes, but it did train her in a “policy of lying and concealment,” teaching her to become a “problem liar”—a novelist, in other words.

• Willie Morris, North Toward Home (1967). “Get the hell out of Mississippi,” his father urged the young Willie Morris, who took the advice to the University of Texas, the Texas Observer, and then to New York and Harper’s, where at the age of thirty-two he became the youngest editor in the magazine’s history and an aider and abettor of the New Journalism.

• Wright Morris, Will’s Boy (1981). The first volume of Morris’s autobiographical trilogy takes the novelist from his birth in 1910 (and the death of his mother six days later) to his first years of college, not yet “corrupted by an idea” nor “dampened by disappointment.” What does take shape over these years is Morris’s distinctive voice and style, which he demonstrates by intercutting passages from his novels.

• Albert Jay Nock, The Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943). An autobiography in the tradition of Henry Adams’s, Nock’s says practically nothing about himself or his career. He doesn’t even name the schools he attended or give the titles of his books. What he writes instead is an autobiography of his thinking, and it benefits from the fact that Nock is not an influential philosopher but a “superfluous man” with ideas that few will subscribe to, but that he takes wholly seriously.

• Norman Podhoretz, Making It (1967). The dirty little secret of the New York intellectuals: ambition. More important to them than sex (although sex is pretty damn important to them).

• Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (1995). The Jewish philosopher (who converted to Christianity on her death bed) managed to finish this tough-minded account of her “life affair” before her death of ovarian cancer at the age of forty-eight. An NYRB Classics book.

• Philip Roth, Patrimony (1991). Roth’s “true story” of his father’s final illness. He tries neither to lyricize it nor to mythologize it—he tells it straight, in the plain “unseemly” prose for which he is famous. A guided tour to what I have called elsewhere the strange and distant planet of late-stage cancer.

• Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1964). Originally published as a novel—and if it is a novel it is among the best of the ’sixties—it is the story of an Austrian Jewish family who are refugees from Hitler and their efforts to find a new home in England, the Dominican Republic, and finally the U.S.

• Wilfrid Sheed, Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents (1985). The Anglo-American novelist and critic tells the story of growing up as the son of the famous Anglo-Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, who transplanted him from Britain to America as a boy, saving him from cricket and enabling him to discover baseball.

• Jim Thompson, Bad Boy (1953). Published as a paperback original to appeal to the readers of his unique brand of violent crime fiction (Nothing More than Murder, The Killer Inside Me), this is Thompson’s coming-of-age story—memoir as pulp fiction.

• Diana Trilling, The Beginning of the Journey: The Marriage of Diana and Lionel Trilling (1993). Among the New York intellectuals, it is a popular sport to revere Lionel Trilling and trash Diana, his wife of forty-six years. This is a deeply flawed book, a widow’s attempt to defend herself and salvage her reputation, but the experience that shapes and informs it—a decades-long marriage—is almost never the subject of a book, certainly not one as interesting and well-written as this one.

• Evelyn Waugh, A Little Learning (1964). “Only when one has lost all curiosity about the future has one reached the age to write an autobiography”—Waugh’s great opening sentence. He was sixty-one when he wrote it, and he planned a multivolume autobiography, but A Little Learning was all he lived to complete.

• Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings (1984). Welty “shows us how close we all are to literature,” Anatole Broyard said in praising this book, “if we only knew it.” Only a hundred pages in length, Welty’s autobiography explores how her parents and her earliest reading conspired to make her into a writer—a great writer, although she is far too modest to admit she is that.

There are other obvious classics—Cardinal Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy, Richard Wright’s Black Boy—but you know me. I prefer the relatively obscure to the absolutely famous. Maybe that’s what I should call my own memoir: Jew the Obscure.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Fiction of the ’sixties

John Williams’s Stoner has been getting a lot of buzz lately, with stories in the Independent (a “slow-burn sensation,” at least “Until now”) and at the Millions (“through each decade, the book continued to be remembered”). Earlier in the week Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times phoned to interview me about my essay on the novel for Commentary. I won’t say anything about the interview, except to predict that Appleyard, unlike most of the other literary journalists who have written on it in recent weeks, will not focus on the novel’s publication history and reception, but on Stoner itself.

Stoner was published in 1965. Another novel from the same decade, which is beginning to generate some buzz because his daughter Katherine Powers is publishing his letters in the form of a novel about family life later this summer (Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life), is J. F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban (1962). Not coincidentally, both it and Stoner have been reprinted in lovely NYRB Classics editions. The other thing the books have in common is that they are both one of a kind. Nothing else like them—not even their authors’ later books—was ever written again.

A strong case can be made that the ’sixties were the best decade for American fiction—better even than the ’twenties. There are the obvious classics (Rabbit, Run, Catch-22, The Moviegoer, Revolutionary Road, Pale Fire, V., Herzog, A Fan’s Notes, Portnoy’s Complaint), and the last of those titles suggests how important the ’sixties were as a transitional decade or even a fulcrum for prying open the sexual reticence of the American novel.

But I am thinking of the minor classics from the ’sixties, the underground classics, the amazing books that still hold up and repay reading and rereading:

John Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
E. L. Doctorow, Welcome to Hard Times
Wright Morris, Ceremony in Lone Tree
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away
John Updike, Rabbit, Run

R. V. Cassill, Clem Anderson
Peter De Vries, The Blood of the Lamb
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
Edward Lewis Wallant, The Pawnbroker
Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

Bruce Jay Friedman, Stern
Norman Fruchter, Coat Upon a Stick
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
Dawn Powell, The Golden Spur
J. F. Powers, Morte D’Urban
Clancy Sigal, Going Away
Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave

Wright Morris, Cause for Wonder
Thomas Pynchon, V.

Louis Auchincloss, The Rector of Justin
Saul Bellow, Herzog
Elaine Dundy, The Old Man and Me [Ed.: Later addition—see below.]
Thomas Berger, Little Big Man
Thomas Gallagher, Oona O’

James Leo Herlihy, Midnight Cowboy
Maureen Howard, Bridgeport Bus
Richard G. Stern, Stitch
John Williams, Stoner

Evan S. Connell Jr., The Diary of a Rapist
Ross Macdonald, Black Money
Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show
Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
Charles Portis, Norwood
Wilfrid Sheed, Office Politics

Stanley Elkin, A Bad Man
James B. Hall, Mayo Sergeant

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes
Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne
Charles Portis, True Grit

Leonard Gardner, Fat City
Leo Litwak, Waiting for the News
Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint
Thomas Williams, Whipple’s Castle

By any measure, that is an astonishing run of great and near-great fiction. What is fascinating is that several of the decade’s books which are now recognized as classics, including Revolutionary Road and A Fan’s Notes, were largely neglected during their own publishing season. They were elevated to agreed-upon greatness only later. Even The Moviegoer’s 1962 National Book Award was something a rediscovery. At the time, many critics complained that no one had ever heard of Percy’s first novel.

Such, perhaps, is the decade’s keynote. Not many readers of this blog, I would wager, have read Clem Anderson, Going Away, Cause for Wonder, Oona O’, Bridgeport Bus, Office Politics, I Am Mary Dunne, or Whipple’s Castle. And if I were to suggest that these books would be a better use of their reading time than the latest celebrated titles (Philipp Meyer’s The Son, for example, or Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic), I’d be dismissed with a condescending laugh. The pressure in the literary culture is to “keep up,” to “keep current.” Few will acknowledge that this pressure serves the business interests of the publishing houses, but not literature. Nine-tenths of what passes for literary discussion at any given time is merely book advertising under the pseudonym of literary criticism. The best critics, the best readers, are (in Rohan Maitzen’s wonderful phrase) fearlessly behind the curve.

A good place to start falling behind is with the fiction of the ’sixties.

Update: No sooner had I posted this list than the British novelist Linda Grant tweeted: “Did women not start writing fiction till the 70s?” What does it say about me that I never anticipate this objection, although it has become a routine of the literary life? What does it say: besides the fact that I don’t think about fiction in gender terms, I mean. Three of the names on the original list—Flannery O’Connor, Dawn Powell, Maureen Howard—are women’s names. I replied to Grant as I have taken to replying to such accusations: “[S]ince three women are too few, what percentage would be adequate?” This question is never answered. The implication is “more—no matter how many women you have included on whatever list, male critic.”

In plain fact, I’d considered and silently passed over several novels by women—Hortense Calisher’s False Entry, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Mary McCarthy’s The Group—because they are not novels that, in my experience, repay rereading (the standard advanced above). In reply, Grant recommended that I consult the Virago backlist to see whom I had “missed.” I asked Grant which of the novels on Virago’s list was an American novel from the ’sixties. Instead of naming a single title, Grant shot back: “Just suggesting you refresh your own memory about the ‘woman's novel.’ ”

So in the end Grant simply wanted to change the subject—from American fiction of the ’sixties (my subject) to women’s writing (hers). Her insinuation that as a critic I am “forgetful” of women writers was a bit surprising, it seemed to me, coming from a writer whose novel When I Lived in Modern Times I had praised extravagantly, ten years or more after it was first published, in an effort to keep its reputation alive. Perhaps it is too much to expect that such a writer might familiarize herself with my other critical writings to see whether it is really true that my “memory” of women’s writing needs “refreshing.” And I won’t defend my record as a critic here. (I’m tired of doing so. I’m tired of being expected to do so.) Since Grant would not, however, I closely examined the Virago list and found one novel that I should have included on my list above. So I’ve added Elaine Dundy’s The Old Man and Me, a novel that is delightful in its harsh and biting tone.

But Grant did not ask me to include a specific book. She was not really interested in books at all. She was interested in an abstract demand for literary equity, which might have been satisfied by any books, as long as their number was right.

Update, II: I’ve been thinking a lot, ever since Linda Grant obliged me to do so, about fiction by women during the ’sixties. My old friend Carol Sklenicka, who is writing her biography, makes a strong case for Alice Adams’s Careless Love (1966) in the comments section.

Jessamyn West published a “companion” to The Friendly Persuasion (a prequel, really, but the word was not yet in existence) entitled Except for Me and Thee in 1969. In the New York Times Book Review, Carlos Baker found it “paler” than the first book, but praised its picture of domestic life on the Indiana frontier—“thankful, satisfying, unsentimental.” He also identified himself as among those who “are always eager to begin a new book by Jessamyn West.”

Joy to Levine! (1962), Norma Rosen’s first novel, about a New York office worker being squeezed out by women and automation, was described by Harper’s as “beautifully poised between pathos and comedy.”

Nine Months in the Life of an Old Maid (1969), Judith Rossner’s second novel, is a striking and unusual study of three siblings who are voluntarily orphaned by their Communist parents and grow up alone on Long Island.

None of these novels is great, perhaps not even near-great, but they shouldn’t be entirely forgotten either—especially since they are not generic novels by women, but interesting books with interesting strengths and equally interesting flaws.

There was a genuine masterpiece by a woman that was published as a novel in 1963—Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses. The trouble is that, as marvelous as it is (its prose is magical), the book is not really a novel; it is a memoir. It was published as a novel only because it was written before memoirs were all the rage. As another famous woman would later say, “What difference does it make?” Quite a lot, I think. Segal’s next books—Lucinella (1976), a comedy of the New York literary world, and the hilarious interracial immigrant romance Her First American (1985)—are wildly inventive.

Other People’s Houses doesn't require the aid of invention. It traces her Austrian Jewish family’s flight from the Nazis in 1938 ending in America and her marriage in 1961 to David Segal, an editor at Alfred A. Knopf. Much of the dialogue is “fictionalized,” I’m sure, but the book takes its structure from the Segal family’s rambling experience and does not transmute it into art, no matter how beautifully it is written. Does it belong on a list of great ’sixties fiction? Can we agree it belongs on any list of great writing from the ’sixties (along with, say, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem), and leave it at that?

Monday, June 03, 2013

Serial protagonists

Reading in bed with my wife this weekend, I was struck by the convention of the serial protagonist, a convention which is so common among mystery writers that, if a famous detective does not have more than one book devoted to him, later writers will supply the lack—just as Joe Gores did with Spade and Archer, his 2009 “prequel” to The Maltese Falcon. Ross Macdonald tailed his “new-type detective” Lew Archer from ca. 1948 to ca. 1975 in a series of eighteen novels published during the same time period (1949 to 1976). Edith Wharton, by contrast, saw her own protagonist named Archer through about the same stretch of time—twenty-six years—in the single volume of The Age of Innocence.

Ross Macdonald
The tradition of the serial detective was established when Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in 1887. G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown followed in 1910. Agatha Christie created Hercule Poirot in 1920; Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Whimsey in 1923; S. S. Van Dine, Philo Vance in 1926; Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe in 1934. The detectives became so popular that the novels about them were often referred to by their name, not their author’s. Meanwhile, the realists who were the older and more comfortable brothers of the mystery novelists—the firstborn, who had inherited the father’s estate—almost never brought the same protagonist back for an encore. Mark Twain wrote two more sequels to Tom Sawyer, also featuring Huck Finn, but neither one is any good. Hemingway wrote a double egg carton of stories about Nick Adams. After committing suicide in The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson returns seven years later to narrate Absalom, Absalom! In the last half century there have been Rabbit Angstrom and Frank Bascombe and who else? After a couple of novels about him, Nathan Zuckerman becomes a narrative voice rather than the lead character in his own drama.

I am trying to imagine what a Nick Carraway series of novels might have looked like. In the fourth or fifth novel of the series, Nick tells the story of the ambitious young stockbroker who jumped to his death after going broke on Black Tuesday—and impoverishing all of his clients. Or the Lucky Jim series of novels! Not content to expose the hypocrisy and deadwood at England’s red brick universities, Jim Dixon gets a visiting appointment to a land grant university in the midwestern United States and repeats his antics amid the alien corn. Jane Smiley never would’ve had to write Moo. Or Michael Chabon could have gone on repeating the success of his first novel. After deciding that the “trace a woman leaves . . . is better than a man’s,” Art Bechstein investigates The Mysteries of Grad School and learns that bisexuality might be better for his career.

Why do mystery buffs form attachments to recurring detectives while there is small demand for sequels to Invisible Man or Herzog or Song of Solomon or Mating? Is the serial protagonist a marketing device that more “serious” writers (read: market-obtuse writers) just fail to grasp? The mystery writer arouses a thirst to see the protagonist in action again. The realistic novel is distinguished, in part, by its ambition of telling the whole story, of leaving not one word to be added or taken away. Again, the serial detective is a character who is rarely glimpsed in full—he is an assortment of familiar gestures, a glossary of familar patter. His own story is backstory, and something of a mystery. The reader must piece it together from book to book. A realistic novel which left a character unfinished at the end would be recognized, by contrast, as a failure. It contains its own prequel and sequel. The tantalizing hint it offers instead, if it is any good, is a voice, a point of view, a peculiar and cockeyed way of squinting at the world. The “serious” novelist is a serial stylist. Perhaps this is not a particularly effective marketing device, but it works with some readers: they await a novelist’s next book to be swayed by the familiar sentences. The difference between mysteries and “serious” realistic fiction is not one of genre, or even literary practice, but of ambition.

Or so I’m guessing.

Patrick Kurp reminds me of Thomas Berger’s four novels featuring Carlo Rinehart: Crazy in Berlin (1958), Rinehart in Love (1962), Vital Parts (1970), and Rinehart’s Women (1981).

A letter from Oakeshott

Early in 1990, I wrote a review of Michael Oakeshott’s essays on education, edited by Timothy Fuller and published by Yale University Press as The Voice of Liberal Learning, for the American Scholar. (The review eventually appeared in the autumn number of the quarterly, which was edited then by Joseph Epstein.) I sent a draft copy to Oakeshott, who replied the same day he received it.

19 March 1990
       Dear Professor Myers,
          Thank you for your letter which arrived this morning: it was most kind of you to write and I look forward to your piece in The American Scholar. Now I know that there is at least one person in the world who has understood & appreciates what I have had to say. What you are doing in respect to literary criticism is something I have never attempted, but I can see how it would go & it needs to be done. And what a delight it was to see the name of Sir Philip Sidney. The Liberty Press are bringing out, this summer, a new & enlarged edition of my book of essays called Rationalism in Politics which was first published a long time ago. I think there may be something in it to interest you & I will see that you get a copy.
                              Yours sincerely,
                                        Michael Oakeshott
Ever since receiving it, I have displayed this letter, in a modest green-matted frame, on my office wall. It is, I tell visitors who ask, my charter as a literary critic. Michael Oakeshott died nine months later, almost to the day.