One of our best critics. Did I agree with him about all matters literary and political? Certainly not! But I always looked forward to reading him. As he said, literary criticism is a part of literature. As literature, his criticism displayed a clarity and precision amounting to grace, as well as boldness and (too rare these days) intellectual and ethical coherence. I rarely interacted with him—perhaps only once, and I was pseudonymous and callow at the time—but his Twitter presence was one of the few that ever made me regret my avoidance of that medium. When a writer dies, you must quote, to keep the language alive. I’ve been reading his blog since it began; here are a few passages that have stayed with me:
Literature is simply good writing—where “good” has, by definition, no fixed definition.
New Zembla—Kinbote’s kingdom—is the realm of vice (for Pope) or madness (for Nabokov), where the self-regarding interpreter “intercoils” himself, in Kinbote’s own words, with “the innocent author,” and strangles him. How, then, a student asked, are we to write about Nabokov without becoming Kinbote? The answer, I replied, is not to submerge the author in ourselves, but perhaps to submerge ourselves in the author.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that his perfectionism (his own word) makes Powers the better writer. Quite the opposite. I am beginning to wonder if the obsession with specificity and exactness, with perfecting a verbal surface, was not simply a fashion which has passed from the literary scene, and not an article of artistic faith at all. If Powers will not be remembered perhaps the reason is that his principle of style, like a green felt hat trimmed with sequins and gold braid and covered with a black lace veil, belongs to a past that is irrecoverably past. Call it the Age of Finish, a closed chapter of literary history. And Leonard, if he is remembered, will be remembered by an age that is not so fussy with its words.
What is relevant about her for literature, though, escaped the notice of the New York Times, which touted her as “the 13th woman to win the prize.” She is also the nineteenth English-language writer since 1944, the fourth writer in her eighties, the fifteenth avowed leftist (and the fifth in the last decade) to win the literature Prize, but these are not facts worth mentioning in the newspaper of record. That the Times was merely recycling the language on the literature Prize’s homepage (“Alice Munro is the 13th woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature so far”) suggests that, for the literary culture, counting by gender is now automatic and unreflective.
It is true that other Nobel winners have written many distinguished short stories, perhaps most conspicuously Isaac Bashevis Singer. But it is also true that Singer wrote nineteen novels, and in awarding him the Prize in 1978, the Nobel committee cited his “impassioned narrative art which, with roots in a Polish-Jewish cultural tradition, brings universal human conditions to life.” The other great story writers who took home the Prize—Heinrich Böll, Sh. Y. Agnon, Ernest Hemingway—were also prolific novelists who conceived of themselves as novelists.
Alice Munro is the first Nobel winner whose entire career has been devoted to the story. To overlook this fact about her, to consign her to being the thirteenth of her gender rather than the first of her genre, is to overlook her importance in literary history. It is, in fact, to dishonor her.
Puzo’s prose rarely flashes, but it rarely loses it balance either. The Godfather may not have been the best American novel of 1969, or even the third best (although it is easily better than Oates’s Them and two other novels nominated for the National Book Award, including Leonard Michaels’s Going Places and Kurt Vonnegut’s dull and tendentious Slaughterhouse-Five), but it remains a novel worth reading, if only for its ambition of copia or completeness.
The Godfather is a full picture of the Mafia, but it does not glamorize it. Puzo represents the Mafia as the social institutionalization of violence. This is not an accidental feature of “refusing to live by rules set up by others,” but its very essence. Nor does Puzo suggest a superficial and sloganeering moral equivalence between the Mafia and governments or businesses. His Mafia is a unique institution that uniquely degrades men, when it does not murder them.
In 1952, at the height of his fame, F. R. Leavis entitled a collection of essays The Common Pursuit. It was his name for the academic study of literature. No one takes the idea seriously any more, but nor does anyone ask the obvious followup. If English literature is not a common pursuit—not a “great tradition,” to use Leavis’s other famous title—then what is it doing in the curriculum? What is the rationale for studying it?
My own career (so called) suggests the answer. Namely: where there is no common body of knowledge, no common disciplinary conceptions, there is nothing that is indispensable. Any claim to expertise is arbitrary and subject to dismissal. After twenty-four years of patiently acquiring literary knowledge—plus the five years spent in graduate school at Northwestern, “exult[ing] over triumphs so minor,” as Larry McMurtry says in Moving On, “they would have been unnoticeable in any other context”—I have been informed that my knowledge is no longer needed. As Cardinal Newman warned, knowledge really is an end in itself. I fill no gap in the department, because there is no shimmering and comprehensive surface of knowledge in which any gaps might appear. Like everyone else in English, I am an extra, and the offloading of an extra is never reported or experienced as a loss.
We who are dying need from you what we should be demanding from ourselves—responsibility, honesty, the courage to face reality squarely. It matters less what you say to us than how you talk to us—face-to-face, as Moses spoke with God. And after all, who knows but that you might be the one, by your kindness and faith, to give us the strength to choose life in the face of death?