Raymond Carver, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: StoriesWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A character in this iconic collection’s final story thinks of her daughter’s truancy as “another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies.” This 1981 book, which perhaps more than any other made its author’s name as a figurehead of minimalist fiction, might be subtitled “low-rent tragedies.” In content, it tells stories of working-class and lower-middle-class white American life, usually in the west or northwest. It is about men and women struggling with work and poverty, adultery and domestic violence, divorce and alcoholism. Anyone who ever experienced or witnessed any of what’s described in these stories—and alcoholic desperation in the 1980s was the background, though happily not the foreground, to some of my own earliest memories—will be able smell the stale cigarette smoke molecularly bonded to the pages.

A writer can use several authorial strategies to save such subject matter from exploitation or artless severity. Carver himself tended to prefer what we might call the Chekhovian tactic of sympathetic amplitude: giving us his characters from the inside, allowing them, even in the third person, their own voice and language and sensibility with which to tell their own stories. Carver’s later fiction, his work of the mid-to-late ’80s before his death in 1988, exhibits such a classic style of story-writing.

The fiction in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, though, reflects a different aesthetic: that of its highly interventionist editor, Gordon Lish. For Lish, as I understand it, fiction was less about the mimesis of consciousness than it was about intensive semiosis. If Carver descended from Chekhov’s humanism, Lish comes down from that other and much different instituter of the short story, Edgar Allan Poe, with his almost mathematical philosophies of composition and his proto-camp approach to sentimental subjects. Lish was a reader of Shklovsky, Barthes, and Kristeva; he was a friend and companion of DeLillo. He believed literature was the arrangement of sentences for maximal effect rather than the expression in language of some pre-linguistic, self-sufficient essence popularly called the self.

Lish’s approach to Carver, then, was to delete anything that might seem extraneous, often paring down Carver’s stories by 30% or even 50%. He excised over-explanation and lopped off discursive conclusions, favoring rather the stark dialogue, the incised image, and the abrupt ending.

A classic example is the story “The Bath” (appearing in What We Talk About) in contrast to its earlier/later iteration, “A Small, Good Thing” (appearing in Cathedral). Lish’s version is a brief and benumbed account of a couple’s grief and terror after their son is struck by a car on his birthday. Carver’s text, by contrast, lets the emotions find utterance rather than evoking them by their verbal absence. Lish, faithful to writers like Joyce, Hemingway, and O’Connor, tries to induce readers to feel by withholding all feeling from the story’s own tone:

The father gazed at his son, the small chest inflating and deflating under the covers. He felt more fear now. He began shaking his head. He talked to himself like this. The child is fine. Instead of sleeping at home, he’s doing it here. Sleep is the same wherever you do it.

But there is a problem of means and ends here: Joyce wanted to show his fellow citizens the ugly reality of their political and cultural paralysis, Hemingway was trying to craft and communicate a stoic ethic that could replace modernity’s vanished traditions, and O’Connor was trying to make us recognize the necessity of the divine by presenting us with its absence. Their story-writing styles of what Joyce called “scrupulous meanness” had serious political, ethical, and religious purposes. They contrasted their cold forms with their warm contents for a reason, and their intended effect on the reader was more than a sensational one.

What purpose did Lish bring to Carver when he killed his darlings? Carver wanted to tell the stories of the world he knew in a language that was not over-stylized but rather naturalistic and discursive. Lish, by contrast, wanted those stories to be objects he could find aesthetically interesting according to his own theories. This disjunction leads, in my experience, to the curdling of modernist irony into postmodern sarcasm. Lish turns Carver’s stories into near-cartoons of curtailed emotion, as if to mock the idea of feeling at all. In his hands, Carver’s fictions end with anti-epiphanies, shock tactics, as in “Tell the Women We’re Going,” with its calmly-stated last-paragraph double-murder ( which had developed into a full-fledged suspenseful scene in Carver’s earlier draft):

He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.

I derive much of my information about Carver’s drafts and Lish’s interventions from Brian Evenson’s recent book-length appreciation of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Evenson, though better known nowadays as a fiction writer, was one of the first scholars to study the Carver/Lish issue, precisely because as a college student he had so fallen in love with Lish-phase Carver, and particularly with this collection.

Evenson admits that Lish’s dealings with Carver verge upon, or even cross into the territory of, the unethical. Added to that is the political question of the high-powered editor’s not allowing stories from the provinces into circulation until he’d shorn them of all that the jaded metropolitan would regard as overly sincere or sentimental. Yet Evenson wants to defend What We Talk About When We Talk About Love as a cohesive collection that communicates an authentic nihilism. On this reading, we might say that Carver was trying for Chekhov but reaching only Dreiser, so Lish was right to use a few deft excisions to turn him into Kafka instead.

Kafka is Evenson’s own comparison: “So when I got to Carver, I had Beckett and Kafka as models for what literature could do. Which probably made me see Carver in a very eccentric light.” Despite the self-mockery in the word “eccentric,” Evenson is, I believe, trying to rescue Carver from his own reputation by making us re-evaluate his style. Later in the book, Evenson notes that his older classmates, hipper to the literary journal scene in the ’80s, were able to place Carver among the other minimalists and dirty realists of the time: “people like Richard Ford or Bobbie Ann Mason or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolff.”

To put it somewhat unkindly, though, readers who don’t have MFAs do not necessarily care for these “crafty” short story writers who tend to feel as mannered and formulaic as “genre fiction” is supposed to be. This increasingly common observation is in fact one source, beyond his obvious gifts, of Evenson’s own success as a writer who works in the mode of the weird. There has been in this century a turn in literary fiction away from artisanal realism to artisanal fabulism, which does indeed descend, among other writers, from Kafka.

Evenson’s slyly polemical originality is to offer us the Carver of What We Talk About as an inhabitant of this fantastical lineage rather than the realist one, of seeing him as the companion less of the dirty realists than the magical realists: the explorer of a slightly different type of bloody chamber, but a bloody chamber nonetheless. The Carver of Lish’s invention, no less than Lish himself, is a child of Poe more than of Chekhov.

All of the above is literary sociology, but what about literary criticism? Are these stories, taken at face value, worth reading? Read all at once, What We Talk About is too much of a good thing (which sounds like a be-Lished Carver title). As I read them, I could only admire their compression and concision and the often brutal punchlines these artistic priorities allow. But this is a limited aesthetic, and the effect of reading one story after another in this mode is slapstick. The less up-to-date, less polished instrument of Carver’s own style, though it can do less with a single page, can probably accomplish more in a story or a book. I hardly remember a character from these stories, because they come as vivid images but don’t stay long enough to impress, still less to ramify. What I remember is a tone, an unforgettable one.

The title story is justly famous for its non-communicative dialogue and darkening tone. “The Calm” is a surprising study in homoeroticism, “After the Denim” an almost sweet and definitely scary paean to marriage under the stresses of illness and age. “I Could See the Smallest Things” has a loopy, Lynchian slug-killing suburban surrealism. My favorite is “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a true affront, and I mean that as the highest compliment. I’d quote from it, but you need to read the whole thing; I doubt Andrea Dworkin herself ever wrote with such cosmic pessimism about men, women, and sex.

Such a story validates Evenson’s claim that Carver, under Lish’s influence, attains true originality: he gives us, or they give us, lower-class American life seen under the blacklight of a meaningless eternity. They are a chortling, bleak poetry preferable to the second-rate humanism of Chekhov’s mere imitators.

“Our moods do not believe each other,” said Emerson; in one mood, I want Lish’s Carver, and in another mood I want Carver unLished. Which Carver is better? I leave it to you, but if you want to see what Poe or Kafka might have written in the 1980s about my aunts and uncles and my parents’ friends, then you should read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.


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Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of OtrantoThe Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Published pseudonymously in 1764 by an English politician, The Castle of Otranto is usually praised as the first Gothic novel. It not only set off a craze for novels about haunted castles and abbeys, about predatory dukes and scheming monks and fainting maidens, all necessary popular accompaniments to Romanticism’s more philosophical critique of Enlightenment rationality, it also changed the novel form. And this was its author’s explicit goal. In his preface to the second edition, to which Walpole appended his own name, he writes:

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.

Walpole here observes the same trend noted by Dr. Johnson in his Rambler, No. 4: the movement of fiction toward realism, a mode that aspires to tell invented stories about common people in a style that emphasizes social and psychological verisimilitude. Unlike Johnson, who praises this development for making literature morally relevant to its audience and raising it above mere entertainment, Walpole laments the loss of “fancy” that characterized prose fiction—romance—from late antiquity to the 17th century.

The formal solution Walpole devises to this problem of how to write fantastic fiction in a realist age is one that is still with us today: he recommends that authors use both plausible external detail and naturalistic human behavior to make the supernatural events of their fiction more believable. Walpole lives on in every meticulous horror-movie attempt to create a real world for the the monster or the demon to reduce to ruins. The most recent example that comes to my mind is the family psychodrama at the heart of the film Hereditary, complete with a stagey set-piece dinner-table argument that belongs, in terms of dramatic mode, to the realist theater.

Walpole’s theory is better than his practice, however. The Castle of Otranto is not very good qua novel. While its supernatural episodes have an intriguing surrealism—the book’s inciting incident occurs when a prince is “dashed to pieces, and almost buried under an enormous helmet”—the narrative’s brevity coupled with its complexity makes it read like farce. Walpole’s idea of realistic human behavior seems to have come from sentimental fiction, so much of the novel consists of tearful arias by the confusing profusion of heroines, Matilda, Isabella, and Hippolita, as they struggle under the tyranny of the novel’s villain, Prince Manfred.

The plot is not worth recounting in full: it essentially concerns the supernatural means by which the rightful heir to the titular castle comes to succeed the usurping Manfred. The story is in constant motion—Walpole uses a five-chapter structure that mirrors Shakespearean plotting, and his method is more dramatic than novelistic, comprised mostly of action and dialogue—which means that we never come to care about any of the characters, who exist only as types (cruel tyrant, pious mother, young brave, etc.); granted, the types are moody and changeable in another superficial borrowing from Shakespeare, but Walpole lacks Shakespeare’s gift for creating characters who introspect in language so rich that they come to seem not mechanically unpredictable but humanly complex.

The bulk of Otranto‘s plot consists of a love triangle among the mysterious peasant hero Theodore, Manfred’s daughter Matilda, and his would-be daughter-in-law (spared marriage by the aforementioned helmet-crushing of his son) Isabella. Because the characters are uninteresting, many of the novel’s sentences read like word problems; you could substitute letters for the characters’ names, and it would still make as much sense:

Theodore, under pretence of expressing his joy at being freed from his apprehensions of the combat being fatal to Frederic, could not resist the impulse of following Matilda. Her eyes were so often cast down on meeting his, that Isabella, who regarded Theodore as attentively as he gazed on Matilda, soon divined who the object was that he had told her in the cave engaged his affections.

By blending a supernatural tragedy with a sentimental love story, Walpole fulfills his mandate of combining ancient and modern fiction-writing techniques. To the same end, and again following Shakespeare, he uses the castle’s servants to leaven the tragedy with humor. Bianca, a dim and loquacious maid who comes across as a youthful version of Juliet’s nurse, steals the show, as in a late scene when Manfred tries to pry information from her despite her stream of naive and self-serving prattle.

Everything about this novel leads me to believe that Walpole’s real literary gift was a comic one. How seriously are we supposed to take this quasi-Shakespearean tragedy anyway? The preface to the first edition casts it as a manuscript “found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529.” Our author, posing as translator and editor, goes on:

The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that savours of barbarism. The style is the purest Italian.


It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators, and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.

This solution of the author’s motives is, however, offered as a mere conjecture. Whatever his views were, or whatever effects the execution of them might have, his work can only be laid before the public at present as a matter of entertainment.

In other words, this story of haunted castles and sinister monasteries and the underground labyrinths linking them may once have been dangerous: it might have served to reawaken belief in all the Catholic superstitions the Renaissance and the Reformation (the “innovators” named above) had so successfully dispelled. But now that this danger has passed, now that we definitely don’t believe that nonsense anymore, we can read such a story as a lark or a game, especially if its style is a pleasing one. From the aesthetic distance of Enlightened England, the barbarous past of Italy and “the Orient” (the novel, at least in recollection, spans both settings) can be enjoyed in good fun.

Walpole, son of England’s first prime minister, spent much of his life as a Whig politician, despite his predilection for the arts. In his introduction to this Oxford edition, W. S. Lewis notes that, to discharge the stresses of politics, Walpole devoted his free time to proto-Romantic artistic pursuits, famously renovating his house on Strawberry Hill into a neo-Gothic villa as well as building in prose The Caste of Otranto.

It takes a Whig, not a Tory, to invent the Gothic genre. To recast the barbarous brutal past, Catholic and Oriental, as light, if shocking, relief, a nerve-titillating escape from the workaday world of the modern, you would have to belief in that past’s absolute supersession, or at least that it deserves such supersession. Once aestheticized in a pure literary style, the beauties and the terrors of the Old World, its aristocrats and monks and visionary maidens, become a theme park and a tourist trap, as well as an occasion for self-congratulation—an assertion of who is on the right side of history.

On the other hand, Walpole’s formal innovation of combining the supernaturalism of the old-style romance with what the age of sentimentality considered a realistic portrayal of character tends to have the opposite effect: if the people undergoing these ghostly experiences are just like us, then why can’t the repressed return to us as it does to them? If character is so unchanged across time and space, then how can we moderns be sure we have evaded what we were obviously too quick to mock as the Latin barbarisms we supposedly left behind with Luther?

Because the Gothic grounds its terrors in everyday emotion and naturalizes them through the techniques of realistic fiction, it works against its own ideological presupposition that we have thrown off the dead hand of history. Lewis in his introduction writes that Walter Scott, inventor of the modern historical novel, praised Otranto for its well-researched detail in the description of architecture and costume; this presumably inspired Scott’s own innovations in fictionally recreating a past that feels different from the present, a quality absent from prior historical novels and dramas. Yet insofar as Lewis combines period costume with perennial psychology, he creates an anti-historical novel and gives the Gothic its counter-Whiggish political edge.

Walpole borrowed from Shakespeare, and moreover defends Shakespeare in his second preface to the novel against the neo-classical and Enlightened criticism of Voltaire. Whereas Voltaire had chastised the English playwright for his mixed modes, mingling high tragedy with low farce to create a disordered aesthetic effect, Walpole hails Shakespeare as “[t]hat great master of nature,” which presumably does not obey the schematic dicta of French literary theory. Again, though, Walpole implies that what is natural is universal: nature holds true in modern England as in medieval Italy, under Protestantism as under Catholicism, in 18th-century novels as in 16th-century tragedies. Can you be a Whig and think that Shakespeare copied nature in all its grotesque, chaotic copiousness of mood and meaning? Can you read Macbeth or King Lear—or even Richard II—and believe that history is, or at least should be, moving toward a telos of enlightenment?

We may be crushed at any moment by an uprising of what we thought was settled history; we may be undone today or tomorrow by secrets that suddenly seize us and, without our understanding, control our passions. Ironically, to be modern is to feel always insecure in our modernity, which is to say unsure that we are in rational command of our lives or others’. We all live in the castle of Otranto.

As a much later Gothic novelist will so famously propose, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” When Walpole finds a fictional form for those elements of the mind and of history that rational realism cannot contain or explain away, he invents more than just modern genre fiction with its attempts at verisimilitude. He finds the neglected road that leads from Shakespeare to Faulkner and to Freud—to modernism.


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Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation

Dept. of SpeculationDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This acclaimed 2014 novel of marriage, motherhood, and adultery is a perfect expression of the fictional and even critical style of our time.

Five years ago, in homage to James Wood’s famous censure of the late 20th century’s “hysterical realism,” I called this style “penitential realism” and noted some of its most salient characteristics: “a resistance to the kind of holistic plotting that binds the narrative into a fully meaningful structure of co-incidence”; “[a] focus on moral ambiguity, on characters inextricably complicit in their societies’ sufferings, along with an emphasis on negative mental states and affects…shame, guilt, embarrassment, repression, anhedonia”; and “a benumbed tone, disenchanted, inert, and baffled, not least by themselves.” Dept. of Speculation is much funnier than this list would suggest, but otherwise it fits the bill. Likewise, Anthony’s recent note on autofiction also applies:

It takes further the self-conscious writing of writers like Marguerite Duras into what [Rachel] Cusk describes as writing as close to herself as possible, a merging of autobiography and fiction, an extreme awareness of the self’s fictional status.

When I say that Dept. of Speculation is autofiction, I don’t mean to imply that it is autobiographical; I have no idea whether it is or not. But its fragmentary and intimate first-person address, one drawing for support on a range of cultural discourses, echoes a characteristic 21st-century mode of writing that, with inspiration from Bernhard and Barthes, Sebald and Berger, traverses several different genres from fiction to criticism and even to poetry and the graphic memoir. Works by writers as diverse as Teju Cole,  Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Kristen Radtke come to mind.

Elevating the fragment over the scene, the notation over narration, such writing testifies to a loss of faith in fictional or nonfictional storytelling. This is an older idea than it looks, going back at least to Romantic aesthetics and the modern (not postmodern) collapse of faith in traditional theology and systematic philosophy, as The Stanford Encyclopedia instructs:

The fragment is among the most characteristic figures of the Romantic movement. Although it has predecessors in writers like Chamfort (and earlier in the aphoristic styles of moralists like Pascal and La Rochefoucauld), the fragment as employed by Schlegel and the Romantics is distinctive in both its form (as a collection of pieces by several different authors) and its purpose. For Schlegel, a fragment as a particular has a certain unity (“[a] fragment, like a small work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog,” Athenaeumsfragment 206), but remains nonetheless fragmentary in the perspective it opens up and in its opposition to other fragments. Its “unity” thus reflects Schlegel’s view of the whole of things not as a totality but rather as a “chaotic universality” of infinite opposing stances.

I emphasize both the current popularity and the distinguished pedigree of this literary mode because I want to play fair. The truth is I am not sure how much I like it. At one time, I liked it enormously. When I was younger, I thought it was the height of profundity to concede the humility, contingency, and contradictoriness of one’s own discourse. I was stunned in a seminar, late in college, to read Barthes’s S/Z and Ondaatje’s English Patient, and I wanted to write criticism like Barthes and fiction like Ondaatje, or maybe even vice versa.

Now, and I can’t say why for sure, or when the change came, I am far more impressed by those who actually make the doomed effort of coherence, of continuous argument, of epic narration. Fragmentary penitential autofiction strikes me as fundamentally evasive, raising questions only to flee from them. I am also troubled by this style’s tendency toward political self-congratulation. Here, for instance, is Jenny Offill in an interview:

As for form, I will say that compression and distillation of grand themes feels particularly anti-patriarchal to me. I get tired of the idea that big doorstopper books equal ambitious books. But to be fair, that’s just my particular aesthetic. Part of becoming a real artist is deciding if and how you want to push back against prevailing norms. You’re free, remember?

I appreciate the “to be fair,” but all the same, the conflation of gender and genre doesn’t match the historical record. Offill’s chosen fragmentary form was the invention, by and large, of male Romanic philosophers and poets, while women have been writing “big doorstopper books” for at least a millennium. World literature’s first great novel is a big doorstopper written by a woman: The Tale of Genji. The longest novel ever written was written by a woman: Artamène. The most socially and politically important Anglophone novel of the 19th century is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Perhaps the single greatest Anglophone novel of the 19th century, or even ever, is a big doorstopper written by a woman: Middlemarch. Are all of these women patriarchs? I don’t see what “patriarchy” (a word that, like certain other explanatory terms favored by the intellectual left, explains everything and so explains nothing) has to do with it.

Politics having failed us yet again, let’s talk about aesthetics. Dept. of Speculation is the brief first-person narrative of a writer, editor, and creative writing professor who tells the discontinuous tale of her marriage from its beginning to its crisis, when the husband commits adultery and then the couple attempts to reconcile.

The book take a montage or collage form, with every paragraph set apart from every other, each offering its own image or observation, quotation or fact. There are few full-fledged scenes or sustained reflections. Moreover, Offill’s prose is not notably stylized but rather written in relatively colloquial English. This choice works overall, since the fragmentary style when combined with a higher verbal register can sound portentous or self-important. At the same time, an occasional sense of slackness prevails, as here:

The philosopher’s sister-in-law ordered a piece of antique mourning jewelry to wear. A gold locket with a place inside to put a picture of the one who died. On the outside their is a small etched rose. But Prepare to follow is engraved on the inside of it. The nineteenth century. Jesus. Those people did not mess around.

To adapt Capote’s infamous comment on Kerouac: that’s not writing, that’s Tweeting. All the same, Offill needs to risk this casualness to create the novel’s chief appeal, which is the candor of the narrator’s voice:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.

She confesses to confusion, bad feelings, mixed emotions, divided loyalties. She is honest about the travails of motherhood:

Is she a good baby? People would ask me.
Well, no, I’d say.

She is honest about her seemingly indefatigable love for her errant husband:

The wife has never not wanted to be married to him. This sounds false but it is true.

(Note the play with perspective: sometimes the narrator speaks in the first person and addresses her husband in the second, while at other times, as their marriage grows troubled, she distances herself, even grammatically, from both.)

Sometimes it feels as if the narrator is willfully transgressing the expectations of various imagined constituencies at different times: now daring the hidebound male reader to upbraid her for insufficient feminine deference, now flaunting to the feminist ideologue her incorrigible commitment to husband and child. This psychological and by extension moral complexity is the best use of the autofictional style, as it brings the personal voice in all its brittleness and inner contradiction into fiction, so as to better perform the greatest fiction’s traditional office of refusing didacticism and defying absolutism.

Offill also puts her story in a grander perspective by calling on canonical voices (the narrator quotes Keats, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Rilke, and Berryman) and the cosmic vistas of science. The narrator is editing a book about space for an eccentric rich man, which allows Offill to add at intervals facts about the travails of space travel to her story, a motif of literally universal loneliness that compounds the mundane loneliness of the struggling couple. On the other hand, the prevalence of male authorities cited by the narrator, from philosophers to cosmonauts, adds to the novel’s theme of men’s greater cultural latitude for the selfishness apparently necessary to grand achievement:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

A countervailing Buddhist motif in the novel suggests that better than monstrousness is the abandonment of self:

The Buddhists say that wisdom may be attained by reaching the three marks. The first is an understanding of the absence of self. The second is an understanding of the impermanence of all things. The third is an understanding of the unsatisfactory nature of ordinary experience.

This recalls Nietzsche’s prophecy that Buddhism, precisely because of its princely abdication of moral selfhood, would eventually predominate in the post-Christian west: “Buddhism is a religion for the closing, over-wearied stages of civilization” (The Antichrist, trans. Mencken). Such aspirations to quasi-aristocratic upper-middle-class detachment are sociologically appropriate to this anti-novel about a pair of Brooklyn intellectuals who seem hardly ever to worry about money.

Dept. of Speculation is a superb instance of the kind of novel that it is. Judged from within its own frame of reference, it can hardly be faulted. I suspect I will even teach it in a class on contemporary literature for its exemplary qualities. But I do question the dominance of this aesthetic today, especially when accompanied by arguments that fiction more fully imagined, more conceptually complete, more stylistically weighty is aesthetically naive or politically regressive. At one point, Offill’s narrator offers this piece of cultural flotsam:

Advice for wives circa 1896: The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject. Besides the false views of human nature it will impart…it produces indifference to the performance of domestic duties, and contempt for ordinary realities. [Offills’s italics and ellipses.]

Observe the ambiguity: we are, on the one hand, obviously invited to laugh at this old-time sexism; on the other hand, does Offill’s artistic method not coincide perfectly with the advice book’s mistrust of fiction? Isn’t the entire point of the fragmentary rather than architectonic style to recall us to “ordinary realities”?

What if we are personal because we are too timid to venture the universal? What if we are fragmentary because we are not energetic enough to create wholes? What if we collect facts because we cannot attain visions? What if we insist that life does not cohere only because we are no longer even willing to try to make sense? Do we think the world will judge us kindly, or forget to judge us at all, if we make ourselves inconspicuous? I suspect it’s time to speculate more boldly. “You’re free, remember?”


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

Maggie: A Girl of the StreetsMaggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”

—Stephen Crane

The short-lived and hard-living American writer Stephen Crane exemplifies the aesthetic ambiguity of the 1890s. On both sides of the Atlantic and even both sides of the English Channel, it is an in-between period, fecund with avant-garde literary schools and movements (naturalism, impressionism, Symbolism, Decadence, Aestheticism, regionalism) and incubating the popular genres in their modern forms (science fiction, detective and mystery fiction, horror fiction). It is a literary epoch harder to define than the seemingly more settled moments of high realism and high modernism that precede and succeed it, and its own experimental variations on realism and modernism are intriguingly “low,” in the dual senses of provisional rather than monumental and de-idealizing rather than championing the human spirit.

Before dying at 28 of tuberculosis, Crane wrote fiction considered the earliest examples of naturalism in America and poetry that looked forward to Imagism and other modernist de-clutterings of the lyric.  Joseph Katz, in the introduction to The Portable Stephen Crane, writes, “In his own time, he was called either an impressionist or a decadent; but as later criticism sought a perspective of the literary nineties he was variously considered a realist, a naturalist, a symbolist, a parodist, and even a romantic.”

Crane’s first novel, really a novella, written when he was 22, is 1893’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. Like my own Portraits and Ashes, Maggie ran afoul of too many of its time’s moral and commercial assumptions, so Crane was obliged to publish the book himself. It first appeared under a pseudonym in an error-ridden edition that nevertheless came to the attention of distinguished critics like William Dean Howells. Maggie was later republished respectably by a major firm, despite its almost vicious anti-sentimentality and profane-for-the-time dialogue, after the 1895 success of Crane’s great Civil War novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

But Maggie is more interesting for how it challenges the literary presumptions of our time than for how its characters’ frequent verbal recourse to “damn” and “hell” shocked the prudish literati of the 1890s. C. S. Lewis, in a passage quoted five years ago by Alan Jacobs, gives the following justification for reading old, even seemingly outdated, books:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook — even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. […] The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

I think the most commonly-shared assumption among readers, writers, and critics of our time is that fiction exists primarily to provoke emotion through empathy. Whether this takes the form of popular YA fiction’s open sentimentality or the theoretical manifestoes in favor of affectively authentic autofiction or autocriticism in writers like David Shields, Karl Ove Knausgaard, or Maggie Nelson, we are all apparently looking for strong feeling in our fictions, feeling that has the power to bridge the social chasms that exist between classes, races, and genders or just the ontological chasm that exists between any two distinct selves. (I don’t exempt myself from this diagnosis, by the way; if do you read my Portraits and Ashes—and I wish you would!—you might well shed a tear or three.)

In this emotionalism, we are akin to the Victorian realists and sentimentalists at whom writers like Crane, whether they deployed aestheticism (with its Platonist underpinning, its quest for metaphysical beauty within and behind all mere phenomena) or naturalism (with its ruthless Darwinian materialism scorning the metaphysical), were taking aim. For these reason, we might use Maggie as a corrective, not despite but because it offends our own sensibilities.

While the Newark-born Crane was heir to America’s traditional social and spiritual elite (his bloodline went back to the Massachusetts Bay Company, and his father was a Methodist minister), he rejected his pious upbringing, abandoned traditional paths to success, and liked to live in an atmosphere of poverty and danger. Like those later laureates of Newark, Amiri Baraka and Philip Roth, Crane was an incorrigible literary (and extra-literary) rebel. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, with its pitiless canvas of New York’s impoverished and immigrant-populated Bowery district, is the result of this literary insurgency.

A contemporary writer of privileged background treating the lives of the underprivileged would almost certainly use a variety of literary techniques to close the gap between the educated author and audience, on the one hand, and the culturally and economically deprived characters, on the other.

Free indirect discourse, where the objective narrator’s language merges almost-but-not-quite totally with the language and sensibility of the characters, is the key device for this transgression of boundaries between self and other: it exists to fuse author, character, and audience, while preserving a minimal space of narrative objectivity to allow for the savor of irony. The writer has access to the characters’ thoughts, but as long as the narrator can say he, she, or they of the characters, the writer also implies superior because distanced knowledge. This irony, which exists in the slight gap between the third-person narrator and the first-person consciousness of the character, causes free indirect discourse to feel sometimes like the literary corollary of the patronizing attitude of the guilty middle-class liberal toward the poor. It is a way of saying, as Bill Clinton once notoriously said, “I feel your pain.”

Crane’s refusal of free indirect discourse in Maggie—which he might very well have used, since it goes back at least to Austen and Flaubert—is therefore bracing and intriguing to encounter in the present. In its place, Crane seeks his effects in the contrast between the narrator’s elevated verbal register and the sadly circumscribed lives of the characters. In the first chapter, he narrates a fight between rival boy gangs:

Some Rum Alley children now came forward. The party stood for a moment exchanging vainglorious remarks with Devil’s Row. A few stones were thrown at long distances, and words of challenge passed between small warriors. Then the Rum Alley contingent turned slowly in the direction of their home street. They began to give, each to each, distorted versions of the fight. Causes of retreat in particular cases were magnified. Blows dealt in the fight were enlarged to catapultian power, and stones thrown were alleged to have hurtled with infinite accuracy. Valor grew strong again, and the little boys began to swear with great spirit.

The irony here is not the bittersweet one of free indirect discourse, which says, “Poor dears, how much they have to learn.” It is, rather, a cruel irony, an almost mocking display of the disparity between the narrator’s epic means of narration and the paltriness of the acton narrated. Yet the irony is as cruel as the setting, and in that way pays tribute to the integrity of the situation described. These children don’t want Stephen Crane’s pity, and might like to think of themselves as Homeric warriors.

We are not far, here, from Joyce or Faulkner, lavishing epic and tragic language on their lower-class characters with more earnestness than irony, as if there were no real reason Bloom could not be equal to Odysseus or Darl Bundren to Hamlet. This objectification and aestheticization at once of social life, providing the reader with both knowledge and pleasure sans moral judgment, is why there is no contradiction in seeing Crane as both a naturalist and a decadent. (The element of decadent aestheticism will soon drop out of American naturalism, which is why later and more didactic naturalist novelists like Theodore Dreiser, John Steinbeck, and Richard Wright will find themselves charged with sentimentalism and demagogy.)

Crane’s brevity is another aspect of his technique. Given the same story, Charles Dickens would have filled three volumes. By contrast, Crane compresses the life of Maggie Johnson and her brother Jimmie into fewer than 100 pages. The novel is episodic, made up of brief and discrete dramatic scenes, mostly dialogues punctuated by “hard, gemlike” descriptions evoking atmosphere.

Crane’s handling of dialogue also emphasizes the distance between character and author; with bracing remorselessness, Crane heightens the contrast between his representation of uneducated speech and the erudite dialogue tags:

On the street Jimmie met a friend. “What deh hell?” asked the latter.

Jimmie explained. “An’ I’ll t’ump ‘im till he can’t stand.”

“Oh, what deh hell,” said the friend. “What’s deh use! Yeh’ll git pulled in! Everybody ‘ill be onto it! An’ ten plunks! Gee!”

Jimmie was determined. “He t’inks he kin scrap, but he’ll fin’ out diff’ent.”

“Gee,” remonstrated the friend. “What deh hell?”

As for the story, it is simple, if narrated in fragments. Maggie is the oldest daughter of the Johnson family, and despite their poverty, she is beautiful and also idealistic, if in a more inchoate way than her predecessor, Emma Bovary:

The girl, Maggie, blossomed in a mud puddle. She grew to be a most rare and wonderful production of a tenement district, a pretty girl.

Her idealism leads her to fall in love with her brother’s friend, a bartender named Pete. The narrative, for me, reaches its height of grim tragicomedy when Maggie waits for Pete to take her on their first date:

When Pete arrived Maggie, in a worn black dress, was waiting for him in the midst of a floor strewn with wreckage. The curtain at the window had been pulled by a heavy hand and hung by one tack, dangling to and fro in the draft through the cracks at the sash. The knots of blue ribbons appeared like violated flowers. The fire in the stove had gone out. The displaced lids and open doors showed heaps of sullen grey ashes. The remnants of a meal, ghastly, like dead flesh, lay in a corner. Maggie’s red mother, stretched on the floor, blasphemed and gave her daughter a bad name.

The little details are so well-chosen and poetically phrased that it makes me think we should all restrict ourselves to novellas for the sake of our prose: “violated flowers,” “dead flesh,” “red mother.”

Unfortunately, the world of the Bowery is a strict big-fish-eats-the-little-fish hierarchy, and Pete is prevailed upon by a stronger and smarter woman to abandon Maggie, though she has already run away from the Johnson home, itself presided over by an abusive alcoholic mother. Maggie’s decline, first into forced prostitution and then into death, quickly follows. The narrative is most eloquent in describing the loveless night city she wanders after her fall:

At the feet of the tall buildings appeared the deathly black hue of the river. Some hidden factory sent up a yellow glare, that lit for a moment the waters lapping oilily against timbers. The varied sounds of life, made joyous by distance and seeming unapproachableness, came faintly and died away to a silence.

There is Crane’s irony again: the gap between Maggie’s horrific experience and the distant joy of the more fortunate. Her fall is not a Victorian warning to girls to keep on the correct path, nor is it a socialist polemic for the alleviation of the misery of the poor. However, if Crane eschews sentimentality, his irony nevertheless testifies to human hope. Without condescending to his characters, he shows readers the gap between their wishes and their existences so clearly that we cannot help but feel for them, all the more because the narrator does not. His refusal to judge allows us to think and feel for ourselves; his compassion is absent, but its shape is detectable in the jagged edges of his broken narrative. Far from exhibiting arrogance because it refuses overt pity, it takes remarkable restraint, even selflessness, to write this way.

If Lewis is right that old books help us correct our own invisible and pervasive mistakes, then we might find in Crane’s old book a caution against our present pious romance with our own emotions.


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Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One recurring theme of my reviews is that classic literary works often defy or exceed their traditional historical categorizations. The -isms of literary history are a necessary organizing system: they help us to locate books in time and context and to recognize common points of artistic and thematic emphasis in distinct eras. Without some generalizations, we can’t think at all; on the other hand, we can’t let generalizations do all our thinking for us. Since one purpose of art is to surprise and enliven, the best works are often those that cannot so easily be herded into their appointed places by the literary historian.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella of 1896, is a good example of how works are often doing something other than their historical designation, their customary -ism, would suggest. Anyone who has heard of Sarah Orne Jewett at all has heard that she belongs to the broad category of “realism,” and is usually relegated to the subcategory of “regionalism.”

Her most famous work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, does bear out these labels. Narrated by a vacationing writer from the city, the novella is set during one summer in a small fishing village in coastal Maine. Our narrator carefully records the manners and mores of the villagers, as well as the landscape, seascape, and flora of the country. Jewett’s concern for the lives of ordinary people, her precision in description, and her verisimilitude in dialogue all make this a work that exemplifies both realism’s rejection of Romantic flights of fancy and regionalism’s interest in often vanishing ways of life far from the economic and urban centers of American society after the Civil War.

Toward the novella’s conclusion, the narrator is on her way back from a family reunion and comments, “The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” A wistful newness disclosed by retrospection is the novel’s emotional keynote. The narrator, about whom and about whose metropolitan life we learn little, spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens. She lives with an old herbalist named Mrs. Todd, whose eccentricities furnish much of the novella’s gentle comedy, but she also spends time with old sea-captains and fishermen.

In an early comic-Gothic episode, the possibly senile Captain Littleplace tells her a story of an Arctic expedition so haunted and mysterious that I thought the pointed firs were about to give way to the mountains of madness when the sailors encounter “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.” A much later episode shows her visiting the elderly widower, Mr. Tilley, whose fastidiousness and grief help draw the plotless narrative to its emotional climax: “‘I can’t git over losin’ of her no way nor no how. Yes, ma’am, that’s just how it seems to me.'” She also hears, at the center of the book, the tale of “poor Joanna,” a woman of an earlier generation, who, spurned in love, retreated to a remote island and lived in seclusion for most of her life.

Though Jewett’s tone is superficially light at first, almost like that of the literature of tourism, the narrator comes not to condescend to but to sympathize with these old villagers: the intensity in love and labor of their vanished time, their deep knowledge of land and sea, their seafaring cosmopolitanism to rival the metropole’s as their travels bring them objects and ideas from far away, and their connection to sources of meaning and value that urbanites never experience. The narrator is impressed by the camaraderie and affection that exists even among inhabitants of various coastal islands:

[O]ne revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence.

But the gradual disappearance of this community, and the sense that a larger set of human values is evanescing along with it, accounts for the novella’s gathering tone of elegy. The narrator hints, again and again, that this seaside village and its inhabitants, while quaint, also open onto lonely eternities:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

Jewett’s desire to honor this vanishing culture takes her beyond realism. The narrator at regular intervals deploys a literary technique that we associate not with realism but with modernism: what T. S. Eliot, explicating Ulysses, called “the mythic method.” Jewett orders her present-day subject matter by correlating it with ancient precedents. We may at first find Mrs. Todd a charming and humorous old lady, but the chapter where we first meet her ends this way:

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

Likewise, later on, after Mrs. Todd tells the narrator about her unrequited love while they are on an herb-gathering expedition, the narrator observes:

She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

In a later instance of the same mythologizing motif, the narrator says of Mrs. Todd: “She might belong to any age, like an idyl of Theocritus.”

No doubt this incipient modernism helps to explain Willa Cather’s love for this novella. She judged, reports the back cover of the edition I read, that The Country of the Pointed Firs “ranked [with] Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…as one of the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition.” Cather alludes, in My Ántonia, to Virgil just as Jewett alludes to Theocritus; and we might see Cather as standing in relation to Jewett as Virgil stands to Theocritus, with each later writer refining the earlier one’s pastoral poetry to praise those who live in, with, and by nature—and who are, by virtue of their proximity to land and sea, closer to the gods.

When the narrator joins a procession of the guests at a family reunion, she reflects, echoing Keats’s “Grecian Urn” this time, on the immemorial rituals of human community:

[W]e might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.

This is a cold pastoral in the end: the narrator’s sojourn concludes with the summer and she goes back to “civilization.” Like the pastoral poets Theocritus, Virgil, and Keats before her, Jewett has only the consolation and keepsake of her art.

Meanwhile, what remains in my memory from this book is less some patronizingly quirky anthropological information of the sort connoted by “regionalism,” but a tone and vision both more archaic and more modern at once, as when the narrator visits the grave of the self-exiled hermit, Joanna:

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.

This is an example of the realism that is rarely spoken of by the literary historian: the writer’s realistic appraisal of our ability to endure the endemic hardships of the human condition in whatever region we may find ourselves.


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Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne

Niels LyhneNiels Lyhne by Jens Peter Jacobsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 1880 Danish novel was once immensely influential: it and its author were cited or praised by Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Rainer Maria Rilke. That is reason enough to read it for those interested in literary history, but it is also a superb psychological portrait of a failed artist, written in a style marked by startling imagery and precise emotional analysis (as conveyed in Tiina Nunnally’s 1990 translation published by Penguin Classics).

There are a number of historical -isms under which we could categorize Niels Lyhne. In its ruthless portrayal of middle-class life as actually lived behind the mask of bourgeois respectability, it resembles the disillusioning realism of mid-to-late 19th-century writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, and Ibsen. In its emphasis on the frail body and biological processes leading toward death, coupled with its concluding atheist rhetoric, it is a work of naturalism akin to that of Hardy, Zola, or Crane. In its plotless evocation of often morbid psychological states and in its focus on the artist as martyr to an uncomprehending society, it is a quintessential proto-modenist psychological novel like those of Dostoevsky, Huysmans, or Hamsun.

Such attempts at narrow categorization, though, would miss the larger issue: Jacobsen’s novel reflects and hastens the collapse, across a whole range of domains from geology to psychology, of prior forms of order and faith. Jacobsen, who translated Darwin into Danish and who died young (in 1885) after a long struggle with tuberculosis, tells the story of a character who tries to live, to love, and to make art when all the ideals that empowered prior generations, from Christianity in religion to Romanticism in literature, have been discredited by the ongoing revelation that a human being is only another animal.

Niels Lyhne, in keeping with a Darwinian concern for genealogy, begins with the eponymous hero’s parentage: a passionately idealistic mother and a far more prosaic businessman-farmer of a father. These two parents pull young Niels in two different directions, neither of which will be able to appease his simultaneous need to understand and to transcend reality. The author, unlike the hero, gets to have it both ways, though: he gratifies his idealism by narrating his characters’ perceptions of natural beauty and aesthetic or erotic rapture, even as, in so doing, he also provides a precise scientific description of the psyche:

Of course this was not as clear and definite in [Niels’s] childish consciousness as words can express it, but it was all there, unfinished, unborn, in a vague and intangible fetal form. It was like the strange vegetation of the lake bottom, seen through milky ice. Break up the ice or pull what is dimly alive out into the light of words, and the same thing happens—what can now be seen and grasped is, in its clarity, no longer the obscurity that it was.

The novel follows Niels from his childhood to the premature end of his life; it is organized around his major relationships, mainly with a series of idealized women along with male friends who act as de-idealizing counterweights and, sometimes, erotic rivals.

While Jacobsen’s prose often consists of the abstract notation of psychological states, he is also a writer of memorably vivid and sensory erotic scenes that convey the overwhelming sensuality of even seemingly trivial moments, as here with Niels encounters his older cousin, Edele, who comes to stay with the family shortly before her untimely death from tuberculosis, the first of many such early deaths in the story:

“Give me that over there,” she said, pointing to a red bottle lying on a crumpled handkerchief by her feet.

Niels went over to it; he was beet-red, and as he bent over those matte-white, gently curving legs and those long, narrow feet that had something of a hand’s intelligence in their finely cradled contours, he felt quite faint; when, at the same moment, the tip of one foot curled downward with a sudden movement, he was just about to collapse.

Edele’s death brings Niels to his first rebellion against God, the cruel deity who took such a young and beautiful life:

He thought with the mind of the conquered, felt with the heart of the defeated, and he understood that if what wins is good, what surrenders is not necessarily bad; and so he took sides, said that his side was better, felt that it was greater, and called the victorious force tyrannical and violent.

His next major relationship is to his an older boy named Erik, another cousin, with whom he enjoys idyllic boyhood escapades that provide a later model of intelligent, realistic play rather than just dreaming fantasy. This relationship, precisely because it is devoid of the erotic as such, proves more satisfying, even if it does not end more happily, than Niels’s relationships with women:

Of all the emotional relationships in life, is there any more delicate, more noble, and more intense than a boy’s deep and yet so totally bashful love for another boy?

When the seemingly un-artistic Erik goes to Copenhagen to pursue sculpture, Niels follows and falls in with the urban demimonde, reflecting on the pleasures and sorrows of bohemia. There he has an abortive love affair with an older and more experienced widow, Fru Boye. Though described as child-like (all Niels’s love interests are both child-like and resemble his mother in their passionate iconoclasm—obviously a case for Jacobsen’s contemporary Freud), Fru Boye speaks eloquently against the lingering Romanticism of Niels’s artist friends. She upholds instead the earthly complexity of Shakespeare:

“[G]ood God, why can’t we be natural? Oh, I know full well that courage is what’s missing. Neither artists nor poets have the courage to to acknowledge human beings for what they are—but Shakespeare did.”

Sounding like one of Ibsen’s feminist heroines, Fru Boye is also the first to tell Niels that his idealization of women, in which we might have thought Jacobsen’s lyrical prose to be complicit, is oppressive and destructive:

“[T]hat adoration, in its fanaticism, is basically tyrannical. We are forced to fit into the man’s ideal. Like Cinderella, chop off a heel and snip off a toe! Whatever in us does not match up with his ideal image has to be banished, if not by subjugation then by indifference, by systematic neglect… I call that violence against our nature.”

After Niels’s affair with Fru Boye ends with her own withdrawal to the financial and social safety of bourgeois domesticity, Niels loses his beloved mother, whose impassioned pursuit of the ideal started it all. Fittingly, she dies amid the novel’s most visionary and redemptive writing, with an intermittent vision of nature as unity:

…for that was the time when yellow-lit evening mists hid the Jura Mountains, and the lake, red as a copper mirror with golden flames scalloped by the sun-red glow, seemed to merge with the radiance of the heavens into one vast, brilliant sea of infinity, then once in a great while it was as if her longing were silenced and her soul had found the land that it sought.

Then Niels and Erik both fall in love with the same woman, a seemingly guileless teenager named Fennimore. Her choice of Erik, her regret for that choice, and her consequent disastrous relationship with Niels brings the novel to its violent emotional climax, and with this climax we realize that every relationship in this narrative will end with either the death of a disappointed rebel or the chastened return of a disappointed rebel to the fold of normative society. Or both at once, as the novel’s conclusion proves: Niels at last seemingly finds happiness with another young woman. They marry, have a child, and together espouse atheism and humanism (“There is no God and the human being is His prophet,” Niels had earlier affirmed), so much so that it shocks their neighbors. Yet at the now-familiar approach of inexorable premature death, can doubt win out over faith? The answer varies by dying character, but Niels himself ends a lonely hero of integrity confronting death in fidelity to the anti-ideal that there is no God, no transcendence, no salvation.

That summation and those excerpts should indicate why the novel proved so influential. It is a very distinguished entrant in a line of novels running from Melville’s Pierre and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist and Mann’s Magic Mountain, novels in which the budding hero of the bildungsroman and the nascent artist of the künstlerroman fail to develop into good citizens or great artists, crushed as they are by a cruel society and an uncaring cosmos. Niels Lyhne had its greatest impact on American literature through its influence on the half-Danish Nella Larsen, whose great novella of the Harlem Renaissance, Quicksand, extends this doleful narrative pattern by applying it to a black woman rather than to a white man, showing that the existential dilemma may be the same, but that it manifests itself differently due to social circumstance and identity.

But we should not be as careless as the Twitterati sometimes are when, in unwitting imitation of the white supremacists they claim to fight, they fling around the word “white” so much that they efface variations and hierarchies within the non-unity that was and is Europe. What made Scandinavian, Russian, and Irish literature so potent and influential in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (like Latin American literature in the late 20th century) was precisely its coming from Europe’s periphery, from marginal or dominated nations able to look with a critical eye on both the provincial traditions they were struggling to transcend and the metropolitan modernity that often felt forced from above. Niels Lyhne participates in this modernist revolt from the European fringe, so it is no wonder the novel would inspire artists on the fringes of other polities or collectives.

Niels Lyhne is also admittedly flawed. As Jacobsen’s narrative method is mainly descriptive rather than dramatic, it often lacks tension, and its characters’ complexity tends to be abstractly asserted rather than vividly depicted. Georg Lukács, in his Theory of the Novel, faulted the book on these grounds. Lukács blames the hero’s alienation from society for the novel’s inability to portray reality in the round:

The precondition and the price of this immoderate elevation of the subject is, however, the abandonment of any claim to participate in the shaping of the outside world. […] Jacobsen’s novel of disillusionment, which expresses in wonderful lyrical images the author’s melancholy over a world ‘in which there’s so much that is senselessly exquisite’, breaks down and disintegrates completely; and the author’s attempt to find a desperate positiveness in Niels Lyhne’s heroic atheism, his courageous acceptance of his necessary loneliness, strikes us as an aid brought in from outside the actual work. This hero’s life which was meant to become a work of literature and instead is only a poor fragment, is actually transformed into a pile of débris by the form-giving process; the cruelty of disillusionment devalues the lyricism of the moods, but it cannot endow the characters and events with substance or with the gravity of existence. The novel remains a beautiful yet unreal mixture of voluptuousness and bitterness, sorrow and scorn, but not a unity; a series of images and aspects, but not a life totality.

Lukács’s judgment is not wrong exactly, but, with his characteristic Hegelian censure of the anti-social, he also misses the point, as he so often does when discussing naturalism and modernism. Niels Lyhne may not give us social reality in three dimensions, but it gives us what can be more rewarding to the individual reader: invaluable and eloquent testimony to the feelings of despair, loneliness, and nihilism that our disillusioning world so often provokes in us.


If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks!

François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters, The Theory of the Grain of Sand

The Theory of the Grain of SandThe Theory of the Grain of Sand by Benoît Peeters and François Schuiten

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Theory of the Grain of Sand (2016; originally published in 2007-2008 in France) is the 13th entry in Franco-Belgian collaborators Schuiten and Peeters’s series of graphic novels, Les Cités obscures. It is the first I’ve read, so there is much that is still, appropriately, obscure to me. Even so, this book impressed me as a thoughtful, subtle, charming narrative, with stunning art in a mode that may be unfamiliar to newer American comics readers used to the more cartoonish style favored by “literary” graphic novelists like Ware, Satrapi, Clowes, Bechdel, or Drnaso.

As the Calvino-esque title of the series implies, The Obscure Cities offers a kind of catalogue of distinct and quasi-fantastical urban spaces that are nonetheless refractions of this-worldly realities. As Wikipedia summarizes, “In this fictional world, humans live in independent city-states, each of which has developed a distinct civilization, each characterized by a distinctive architectural style.”

The architectural emphasis suits artist François Schuiten’s graphic approach: a style of remarkable grace and precision, not only in building design and backgrounds, but even in figure drawing, a beautifully rendered ink-swept romantic realism so evocative of the old cities that the march of  universally leveling commerce are removing from the world. On this theme, Wikipedia elaborates: “An important motif is the process of what [Schuiten] calls Bruxellisation, the destruction of this historic Brussels in favor of anonymous, low-quality modernist office and business buildings.” Lovers of the urban romanticism, whether in its utopian or dystopian guises, that characterizes certain older European literature from Balzac and Baudelaire to Woolf and Benjamin will admire this book.

The Theory of the Grain of Sand tells the story of Brüsel, a fantastical city much like Brussels, that undergoes an escalating series of strange events: rocks, each weighing exactly the same, begin appearing in an old man’s apartment; a single mother’s apartment is slowly filling with sand; a chef weighs less and less each day until he levitates into the air.

These odd happenings coincide with the appearance in the city of a warrior from the Bugti, a desert people, who attempts to sell a religious artifact captured from the chief of his tribe’s rivals, the Moktar. His prospective buyer is a woman who lives in the Horta House, an Art Nouveau marvel, and she too is drawn, this time by guilt rather than happenstance, into the mysterious plot.

Mary von Rathen, apparently a recurring character in the series, comes to the city to investigate. With the help of the afflicted citizens (and the man who runs the Gallery of Distant Worlds), she helps to solve the mystery while warning that not everything can be explained. The conclusion involves a journey out of Brüsel and into the desert, there to replace the Moktars’ plundered artifact and end the chaos.

While the above summary makes the book sound a mystery or adventure, even a colonial adventure, the pace is leisured, like a stroll through a walkable urban core of Old Europe, and the tone, characterized mostly by gentle and precise dialogue, is droll, even when the city is literally being crushed under the weight of sand and stone.

Thematically, Schuiten and Peeters implicitly criticize imperial blowback for destroying the irreplaceable aesthetic of the European city: the wars fought between Bugti and Moktar in the desert are revealed to have been escalated and goaded by arms trading from Brüsel, so that the metropole’s own partial destruction via magic from the periphery is logical and even just.

Moreover, the book’s writer, Benoît Peeters, is also the biographer of deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, so we can expect that a point is also being made about the permeability of all boundaries. The damage wrought in the city by sand and stone even inspires a spirit of collectivity and produces some changes in the citizens’ lives that are not all bad. Inside and outside interpenetrate, like speech and writing, like self and other.

But Peeters leaves behind his deconstructionist commitment to inherent alterity when his narrative sets out from his fanciful Europe for the frontier. At the graphic novel’s denouement, the replacement of the Moktar’s stolen artifact in the center of a desert citadel restores peace. Not all centers are as arbitrary as Derrida famously suggested, apparently. In a more cynical mood, we might accuse Peeters of upholding a typical patronizing postcolonial penitence that is not so different from the colonialism it purports to supplant: deconstruction for me, stasis for you. An enliveningly dangerous supplement for the citizen is the immobile totality of the natural order for the native.

Let’s saunter over the quaint cobbles to a happier subject, then: Schuiten’s extraordinary artwork, which I have already mentioned. It is very different from what we see these days in the most acclaimed graphic novels. Literary aspiration or even just the aspiration toward a mainstream audience in the Anglophone graphic novel has come to be associated with a cartoonish style relying heavily on abstraction and, often, cuteness.


We can trace this fact to a number of influences: the roots of the non-superhero American comics tradition in the great comic strips like Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts; the increasing importance of manga, a national aesthetic often reduced in loving stereotype to a cutesy style; the hyper-canonization, especially by those outside the superhero tradition, of Jack Kirby as almost the only artist in that mode worth discussing; the belief, derived from Scott McCloud’s theories, that an iconic style of facial and figure drawing enables reader identification; and the desire to appeal both to non-comics-reading audiences who are familiar with cartoons and to critics who have absorbed the art world’s century-long loathing of mimesis.

A style aiming at precision, a gift for realism, however heightened or stylized, becomes associated merely with the superhero slums. The idolators of Kirby barely ever even mention Wally Wood or John Buscema or Neal Adams; the stylistic effect of sad economic necessity, the need to churn out pages in a hurry, is unjustly elevated to the dignity of an aesthetic principle; and work that looks like it was produced by Charles Schulz on quaaludes is up for literary prizes in England.

Another factor at work in the demotion of styles like Schuiten’s is the belief that detailed art slows the reader down. But what is wrong with that? Comics is not cinema or animation, not meant to be read like a flipbook. The whole advantage of comics over cinema is that it provides a visual narrative whose pace is controlled by each audience member rather than passing at a fixed rate. Artists or even writers who make us linger by favoring the high style are not betraying the medium but exploiting one of its greatest potentials. My point is not that only work like Schuiten’s should be celebrated, but that such work deserves higher esteem in general than it usually ever receives from serious critics. Even in crude economic terms, you might think that a fast-paced style would sell better, but, as I see it, artists who give us more to look at are offering better value for our money.

In The Theory of the Grain of Sand, Schuiten creates a city and citizens so detailed and solid I felt like an authentic flâneur, and Peeters’s script gave me much to think about as I meandered over the stone flags. The book’s titular theory, by the way, holds that one grain of sand, one tiny detail, added or subtracted, is enough to change everything: a daring proposition for a book so rich with details as to resemble the vast and rolling desert where it comes to its climax.


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Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart, Seaguy

SeaguySeaguy by Grant Morrison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to all my regular readers who come here in search of slightly more traditional essays on the “classics,” however defined, for holding on tight through my now year-long re-reading of comic-book writer Grant Morrison.

My own perhaps too hasty disparagement of Morrison in my review of Greg Carpenter’s The British Invasion was my initial impulse to revisit his work, and I have had another powerful stimulant in the Morrison discussions going on at Dave Fiore and Elise Moore’s excellent podcast. Dave and I were discussing Morrison back on the comics blogs in 2003 (“bliss it was in that dawn” etc.), and I’ve enjoyed hearing his and Elise’s considered responses to Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Flex MentalloThe Filth, and now Seaguy. It makes my own re-reading feel like what our friends on BookTube call a readalong, and it has helped to change my perspective on the writer, or changed it back to what it was when I was younger.

As I wrote earlier this summer on Tumblr: in the middle of the 20th century George Steiner tried to explain modernity and modern literature by asking, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? I wonder if by the middle of the 21st century some critic will try to produce a book-length investigation of postmodernity by positing a similarly rival pair of powerful imaginations: Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? While my heart will probably always rest in the end with Moore, I have had periods of my life where I was more interested in, or persuaded by, the worldview of Morrison, and this is one of them. Something in his wilder style, his refusal of neat artistic formalism or political formulae, his odd mixture of aggressive experimentalism and grotesquery with no less flagrant sentimentalism, speaks to me now.

Even so, I was hesitant to revisit Seaguy, a projected trilogy of three-part miniseries, two of which have so far been published by DC/Vertigo, the first in 2004 and the second in 2009. Not only didn’t I grasp Seaguy at all the first time around, I was not alone; it sold poorly and was received mostly with bafflement. I seem to recall Morrison in interviews around 2004 berating the bewildered audience for not understanding it because they had not read Chrétien de Troyes or someone like that—this from an author who these days likes to tell interviewers he doesn’t read anything and is only influenced by TV!

Seaguy is set in the (imaginary) city of New Venice in a dystopian—or, more accurately, falsely utopian—future. The eponymous hero, along with his comic sidekick Chubby Da Choona (a floating cartoon tuna fish who talks like a character in a gangster movie), is one of the few remaining superheroes after the cataclysmic defeat of Anti-Dad, a cosmic villain whom the world’s superheroes took down in an apparently pyrrhic victory. This apocalyptic liberation parodies DC/Marvel’s habit of using regular crossover catastrophes (or crises) to reboot their continuity as well as (note Dave and Elise) the geopolitical projection of the post-Cold-War “end of history.”

In the wake of Anti-Dad’s defeat, the pacified world is now a consumerist pseudo-paradise under the corporate control of Mickey Eye, a cross between Disney and Big Brother. Artist Cameron Stewart’s superb art evokes the disquiet of this seeming utopia, the uncanny unease of a bad normality, most unforgettably through his scary-funny illustrations of anxious adults and traumatized children shuffling through an amusement park.


After this set-up, Seaguy becomes an essentially unsummarizable sequence of bizarre adventures, involving sentient food-stuffs, a mummy on the moon, and a first shot at liberating the Mickey-addled world. 

In keeping with Morrison’s ingenious crossing of two very different genres, the medieval romance and the modernist dystopia, the themes that emerge from Seaguy’s sojourns are twofold and at odds: first, Morrison demonstrates through his naive and brave hero a constant need for heroism, a refusal of the merely given, even when the given entertains or pacifies, just as the romance hero is urged ever onward toward the transcendence embodied by the Grail; on the other hand, every exercise of heroism in Seaguy’s world seems to generate in its turn new forms of authority and control, from the mummy’s tale of his own overweening performance as Pharaoh to the new normal brought about at the conclusion of the second miniseries, where the restored superheroes who have defeated Mickey Eye speak of protecting the status quo. 

As a political polemic, Seaguy might be considered an attack on corporate monopoly and its mask of benevolence. The mask has been growing ever more benevolent since Seaguy‘s first publication—Benetton was once more of an outlier, but all the tech monopolists now parade as “woke,” whatever their actual labor practices, environmental impact, or stultification of culture—so Morrison can be credited with prescience.

The narrative is probably better read biographically, though, than as some kind of political statement. It was Morrison who was counseling his audience in the early 2000s to accept the fact of corporate dominance and to use it to disseminate counterculture aesthetics and ideals; by the middle of the decade he was one of DC Comics’s chief writers, a development that would have been unimaginable in the ’80s or early ’90s.

Seaguy, also published by DC though a creator-owned property, reads to me like an expression of bad conscience in the midst of this success: it suggests that, despite Morrison’s hopeful rhetoric to the contrary, heroism in collaboration with the powers than be will always find itself compromised, will always function as a ruse of control. Reverting to my allusion above to the Morrison vs. Moore feud, this Pynchonian or Dickian or Foucaultian paranoia powered by wistful ’60s anarchism is a characteristically Moore-like point (as with the false utopias that conclude Miracleman and Watchmen), not one we associate with Morrison, whose insistence on interpersonal love generally overpowers the political as such to provide an image of redemption in his work.[1]

Seaguy gives us two moving relationships in this vein—that between Seaguy and his animal sidekick Chubby and that between Seaguy and his love interest She-Beard—but the tone of the book remains, from first to last, alienating and ungraspable. Maybe this is itself the point. Morrison is a writer often accused of perpetrating “weirdness for weirdness’s sake”—but what is the sake (that is, purpose) of weirdness?[2] I suggest the surplus of the inexplicable and incomprehensible in Seaguy, its extraordinary weirdness that so put off the initial audience, is a desperate and wishful demonstration that even in corporate comics sheer unbridled imagination can do its best and its worst.


[1] One more Moore/Morrison observation: Moore has resentfully and accusatorially noted points of convergence in the two writers’ careers, which he interprets as vindictive imitation. Seaguy, then, may be read as a response to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. If that series came out of Moore’s desire to trace the superhero archetype back to its roots in 19th-century popular fiction, Morrison in Seaguy goes Moore one better by finding the roots of superheroes in 12th-century Arthurian romance.

[2] There is also the dispiriting possibility that the weirdness in Seaguy has precise meaning available only to occultists. Early and late in his career, from Arkham Asylum to Nameless, Morrison has used various magical systems to structure the meaning of his stories, which he has then elaborately explained in afterwords, interviews, or published scripts, like Eliot annotating his own Waste Land. I dislike this artistic practice; as Coleridge explained 100 years before Eliot and 200 years before Morrison, the symbol is preferable to the allegory because both more grounded and more open-ended. A story you have to read a grimoire before you can understand is not a very good story; Eliot, anyway, was in his rather dryly macabre fashion being ironic, which many subsequent writers failed to understand.


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William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Go Down, Moses (1942), though not always grouped with Faulkner’s indisputable masterpieces, is nevertheless one of his most significant and influential books.

On strictly formalist or literary-historical grounds, it is a beautiful example of the short story collection as novel, an idea that developed over the course of the 20th century until becoming a major fictional mode in its own right today, as explored by Ted Gioia in his essay on “The Rise of the Fragmented Novel.”

When Go Down, Moses was first published, its title was followed by “and Other Stories,” but Faulkner himself insisted that it should be regarded as a novel. Though it ranges among several plots and several characters and has no single protagonist or narrative, it does tell the story of the McCaslin-Beauchamp family and, through them, provides a miniature history of the American South from its settlement by whites to the eve of World War II. No doubt taking inspiration from James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Jean Toomer’s Cane (all of which we know or suspect him to have read), Faulkner in this book pushes the modernist story cycle even closer to novelistic unity.

This novel is also a milestone in Faulkner’s literary project, often regarded by critics as marking the end of the great period that began in 1929 with The Sound and the Fury. Likewise, Go Down, Moses is also often cited as the culmination of Faulkner’s evolving political vision, even as his summa on the theme of race. Telling the tangled tale of the descendants, both white and black, of Lucius Quintus Carothers McCaslin, a fierce patriarch who tried to found a white dynasty even as he committed rape and incest among the black women he enslaved, Go Down, Moses is nearly impossible to read without consulting a family tree (luckily the copy of the novel I bought in a used bookstore came with one, pictured below, probably given as a handout in a literature course).

The novel begins with a story called “Was” that reads almost like a regional-fiction tall-tale in the vein of Mark Twain, a slightly confusing but high-spirited story about bumbling twins and a runaway slave the horror and significance of which will not become apparent until much later in the book, when we learn that the story’s black and white characters are in fact related, despite the latter’s holding the former as property.

Faulkner then switches perspective to Lucas Beauchamp, a proud and independent black descendant of the McCaslin line, and his tragicomic pursuit of buried fortune on the family farm at the expense of his wife; this long story’s titular motif of “The Fire and the Hearth” can be read as Faulkner’s celebration of basic civilized decency, as opposed to greed. A mysterious story called “Pantaloon in Black” follows: it narrates the surreal descent into madness of a grieving young black man on the McCaslin farm, whose travails are then recapitulated with flippant cruelty by a sheriff’s deputy. In each of these tales, Faulkner indicts racist reductionism by, as Toni Morrison once remarked, “[taking] black people seriously.”

In the book’s longest chapter, the classic freestanding novella “The Bear,” a young Isaac McCaslin, the closest thing the novel has to a hero, pores over the family ledgers in the farm’s commissary assembling through his forebears’ often sparse notations the appalling family history (“His own daughter His own daughter. No No Not even him“). The ledgers form “that chronicle which was a whole land in miniature, which multiplied and compounded was the entire South,” an obvious symbol, as Malcolm Cowley long ago pointed out in his introduction to The Portable Faulkner, of the author’s own literary aspiration.

The white Isaac is so disgusted by his ancestor’s crimes that he relinquishes his inheritance, makes many attempts to pay his black relatives their share of the patrimony, and becomes a simple carpenter in conscious imitation of “the Nazarene.” In a long argument with his cousin and surrogate father, Cass, he theorizes that God’s design necessitated not only the founding of America but also its violent purgation in the Civil War to purify botched humanity through suffering. As opposed to the racist sheriff’s deputy of “Pantaloon in Black,” who frankly declares his belief that black people “aint human,” Isaac judges thusly: “They are better than we are. Stronger than we are.” He recognizes his place in a universal brotherhood irrespective of race, claiming kinship with “not only the whites but the black one too, who were as much a part of his ancestry as his white progenitors.” To a northern black man who marries his cousin, he pleads:

‘Dont you see?’ he cried. ‘Dont you see? This whole land, the whole South, is cursed, and all of us who derive from it, whom it ever suckled, white and black both, lie under the curse? Granted that my people brought the curse onto the land: maybe for that reason, their descendants alone can—not resist it, not combat it—maybe just endure and outlast it until the curse is lifted. Then your peoples’ turn will come because we have forfeited ours. But not now. Not yet. Dont you see?’

Note the “not now.” Isaac, like Faulkner, is not a programmatic liberal or leftist. The “not now” theme is echoed in the penultimate story, “Delta Autumn,” where an elderly Isaac is confronted with the failed interracial relationship of another white McCaslin scion and thinks, “Maybe in a thousand or two thousand years in America, he thought. But not now! Not now!

Faulkner, like Melville, is one of the only white American writers to have come out of the critique of the canon looking better than he looked before, because his attempt to undo racist ideology from the inside using experimental literary techniques was made legible by late-20th-century literary theories that went beyond New Critical hopes for textual and social wholeness. Yet Faulkner, also like Melville, had no political program. Isaac’s anguished guilt is preferable to the Confederate nostalgia that haunts other characters in this book, but it is an equivalently mythic attitude, and undeniably patronizing toward the objects of its charitable gaze. White people are enjoined to behave like Christ and black people patiently to “endure,” a solution inadequate to the complexities of the 20th century, even if its Christo-Gothic mythos of curses and atonements may secretly structure much official anti-racist discourse even in the present.

If neither Faulkner nor his hero provides a political answer to the problems they so astutely perceive, what recompense do they offer for the injuries of history? Besides the sentimental trope of the hearth, Go Down, Moses, its modernist stream-of-consciounsess infused with latter-day Romanticism, suggests two familiar salvations from organized social violence: nature and art. These are also violent, Faulkner suggests, but at least they are animated by values higher than greed for land or gold.

In “The Bear,” Isaac is initiated into manhood by going on an annual hunt. His mentor, another surrogate father figure, is the aptly named Sam Fathers, a man of mixed Chickasaw and black heritage, who baptizes Isaac in the blood of the hunt after the boy kills his first buck. The theme of the novella is their quest to bring down Old Ben, a quasi-legendary bear, with one paw wounded from a trap, who has so far evaded capture. Young Isaac attains almost preternatural hunting skill in his quest for the titular bear, but his desire to kill Old Ben should not be taken as an Ahab-like hostility toward or rage against nature; it is rather a kind of communion with the massive eternity, outside of human time and greed and generation, that nature is:

Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him.

But the “big woods” Old Ben used to roam have been sold off to a timber company by the end of “The Bear.” Walking in the forest, Isaac finds the company’s corner-markers, subjecting “dimensionless” nature to the same measurements that served avarice and cursed the south in his ancestors’ time; he judges the concrete beams “lifeless and shockingly alien in that place where dissolution itself was a seething turmoil of ejaculation tumescence conception and birth, and death did not even exist.” The theme of death’s not existing because nature is a roiling eternity ever in flux is picked up shortly after this passage, when Isaac mediates on the graves of his former friends of the hunt, and thinks of the hunt’s continuance even after death:

…he had not stopped, he had only paused, quitting the knoll which was no abode of the dead because there was no death, not Lion and not Sam: not held fast in earth but free in earth and not in earth but of earth, myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part, leaf and twig and particle, air and sun and rain and dew and night, acorn oak and leaf and acorn again, dark and dawn and dark and dawn again in their immutable progression and, being myriad, one: and Old Ben too, Old Ben too; they would give him back his paw even, certainly they would give him his paw back; then the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled—

Faulkner’s own famous literary style, a heedless onrush of indifferently punctuated and sometimes agrammatical rhetoric, its ornate and sometimes confusing diction (“myriad yet undiffused of every myriad part”) meant to defeat ordinary sense, its endless sentences (one in “The Bear” goes on for five pages) meant to triumph over time, here finds its justification: I am only, implies the author, imitating nature itself, which also runs on and contains everything. Nature and art are at one. They need to be because more and more of nature is being eaten up by the profit motive in the postbellum south, leaving art as the only repository of values that are everywhere being degraded by the curse laid on the south by the greed of its white inhabitants.

Faulkner’s art, in effect, takes the place of nature. Note the echo in the passage quoted above of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” whose panting lover, pictured on the titular art object, is ever approaching his beloved but never will reach her, just as the bear, suspended after death in Faulkner’s narrative, always runs and never is caught. In the “cold pastoral” of art, cold because art freezes time, nature and its passions are preserved. Cass quotes Keats’s “Ode” to Isaac, making the point nearly explicit:

‘All right,’ he said. ‘Listen,’ and read again, but only one stanza this time and closed the book and laid it on the table. ‘She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,’ McCaslin said: ‘Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.’

‘He’s talking about a girl,’ he said.

‘He had to talk about something,’ McCaslin said. Then he said, ‘He was talking about truth. Truth is one. It doesn’t change. It covers all things which touch the heart—honor and pride and pity and justice and courage and love.’

That is how such a complex aesthetic artifact as this novel-in-stories allies itself to raw and wild nature: both sustain “all the things which touch the heart” in a world more often characterized by the heartlessness of civilized exploitation and oppression.

If I have enumerated the literary and political significance of Go Down, Moses above, this Keatsian humanism gives it its more basic emotional moment, and may explain more than anything the novel’s continuing influence. In just the last 12 months, I have read three contemporary American novels that almost overtly borrow from it: Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves. Any old novel with so diverse and distinguished a legacy as that demands to be read.


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Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bell is Iris Murdoch’s fourth novel. I had never read the celebrated 20th-century British philosopher and novelist before and decided to start with this 1958 book because it is often said to be her first novel that is characteristically “Murdochian” and also her first that makes a claim to greatness.

The novel has an immediately appealing premise. It is set at a remote Court or country house in England near Imber Abbey, where an enclosed order of nuns has existed since the Middle Ages. The Court has been in the family of Michael Meade for centuries, and he decides, after consulting the Abbess, to set up a lay community of believers and devotees who can live and work for the greater good of the Abbey and exist apart from the increasingly complex and alienating modern world:

…the Abbess imparted to Michael the idea of making the Court the home of a permanent lay community attached to the Abbey, a ‘buffer state’, as she put it, between the Abbey and the world, a reflection, a benevolent and useful parasite, an intermediary form of life.

Michael is one of three characters through whose eyes we see the growth and eventual dissolution of this lay community, as it is riven by the human (above all sexual) frailties of its members and visitors over the course of one late summer and early autumn.

Our other two protagonists are Dora Greenfield and Toby Gashe. Dora is an educated young woman adrift; she comes to the Imber community to follow her overbearing and older husband, the art historian Paul Greenfield, despite her own recent affair and the seeming collapse of their marriage. Toby is a much younger man, an aspiring engineer who intends to live at the Court before going up to Oxford because he wants to find a purer way of life. Whatever salvation Dora and Toby hope to discover, however, proves elusive as the plot becomes a tragic farce of hapless love affairs, misunderstandings, schemes, and accidents.

For one thing, Michael makes an odd leader for the community; less commanding than his lieutenant, James Tayper Pace, he is also a closeted gay man whose teaching career was ruined years before by a student named Nick, with whom he’d had the chastest of affairs. When Nick’s sister shows up at the Court, in order to prepare to join the nuns and enter the cloister, a dissolute Nick follows, and Michael must reflect on how to save the young man from his own addictions and self-hatred. A further complication is that Michael is beginning to have feelings for Toby as well, while Toby, a complete sexual innocent (to a somewhat hard-to-believe extent, in fact), is puzzled by his own sexuality and harbors complicated feelings not only for Michael but also for the alluring and flighty Dora.

While this suspenseful soap opera is transpiring, the titular bell (or rather, bells) furnishes a symbol for the moral problems of the individual. The Abbey’s original bell fell into the lake between the Abbey and the Court in the Middle Ages, as a result of a supernatural punishment for a nun’s sexual transgression. That bell was never recovered, but the Abbey is scheduled to receive a new bell at the end of the summer. In the meantime, Toby, diving in the lake, whose mystery, murk, and beauty also represent the mess of the human condition, discovers the old bell in the water and schemes with Dora to reveal it spectacularly.

The Bell is not just soap operatic, however; Murdoch, a philosopher, liked to use novels as Platonic dialogues, as A. S. Byatt explains in her excellent introduction to this Penguin Classics edition, and this novel’s sometimes over-the-top episodes pose questions about faith and doubt, the nature of morality, and the role of art, sex, and religion in our lives.

The moral question is the novel’s main one. Murdoch provides us dueling sermons, each with the bell as organizing metaphor. The robust James Tayper Pace, a character that Murdoch gives little space as she seems to think he is too strong to be interesting, advocates following simple moral precepts rather than examining the conscience. He preaches thusly:

‘A bell is made to speak out. What would be the value of a bell which was never rung? It rings out clearly, it bears witness, it cannot speak without seeming like a call, a summons. A great bell is not to be silenced. Consider too its simplicity. There is no hidden mechanism. All that it is is plain and open; and if it is moved it must ring.’

Michael, by contrast, advocates a recognition of human complexity and the exploration of that complexity over simple moralism:

‘I will use here, again following the example of James, the image of the bell. The bell is subject to the force of gravity. The swing that takes it down must also take it up. So we too must learn to understand the mechanism of our spiritual energy, and find out where, for us, are the hiding places of our strength.’

Whereas James, without knowing anything about Michael’s sexuality, had said in his own sermon that “sodomy is not deplorable, it is forbidden,” thus to remove the appealing glamor from sin, Michael reflects inwardly during his own sermon:

He did not in fact believe it was just forbidden. God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies run so deep that they were, in many people, the core of their personality.


It was complicated; it was interesting: and there was the rub. He realized that in this matter, as in many others, he always engaged in performing what James had called the second best act: the act which goes with exploring one’s personality and estimating the consequences rather than austerely following the rules.

While Murdoch doesn’t quite use Michael’s homosexuality as a metaphor for generalized outsiderdom, she does seem to suggest that the most moral people are not the best rule-followers or the devoutest believers but are rather those who have distance from conventionality forced upon them and who consequently have to make their own moral way with their own inner resources. This struggle is writ large in the lay community as they argue how much space to keep between themselves and the outer world without regressing into a kind of irrelevant neo-medievalist unreality. That Michael praises this struggle as “interesting” brings us out of the world of ethics and into that of aesthetics, and we can’t help but notice that Michael’s recommendation of the free exploration of personality echoes the priority of the novelist.

The Bell is a very briskly-written series of escalatingly intense dramatic incidents and confrontations (many of which are also very funny), but it is more notably illuminated by Murdoch’s old-fashioned essayistic analyses of her characters’ thoughts and feelings, calling to mind writers like George Eliot and Leo Tolstoy. In fact, Murdoch believed in the superiority of the 19th-century novel over the 20th-century novel; modernism, she thought, had in its formalism and nihilism evacuated the novel form of its ethical mission to represent human beings and human society in grounded and granular detail, this so that we may understand our fellows better and, more importantly, treat them better.

In his essay on Murdoch collected in The Broken Estate, James Wood sketches a little literary history that explains Murdoch’s intent for the novel as a literary form:

Of all the postwar English novelists, she had the greatest intellectual range, the deepest rigor. She takes her place, however awkwardly, in a tradition of flexible, homemade English Christian Platonism which includes Ruskin and George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Woolf, in some ways, was the rebel who had to overthrow her father’s moral Platonism and make the Good an aesthetic category only, and one discoverable only by a highly aestheticized fiction. Murdoch may be seen as the rebel to Woolf’s rebellion, closing down Bloomsbury’s aesthetic mysticism (art is never for art’s sake, always for life’s sake, she has written) in favor of a moral, “hard idea of truth.”

I understand the need to rebel against one’s immediate forebears very well, but still, I am with Woolf here. As much as I enjoyed The Bell for its well-constructed plot, its assured pacing, and its sheer intelligence of analysis, I would have enjoyed it more had Murdoch displayed any greater gift for imagery or description, any richer way with words. So much of the novel is straightforward character analysis. I’m not saying “show, don’t tell” is a rule that came down on tablets of stone (hell, it probably came from a CIA memo!), but I might have preferred more freedom of my own to reflect on the fable without having Murdoch’s interpretation always in front of me. Art requires a little mystery, which fact Murdoch seems to resent, and she seems to resent, too, readers’ potential to miss her point. Given the urgency of her sense of the novel’s mission, I understand her anxiety. Wood quotes her statement of what fiction is fundamentally for:

Art and morals are…one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality…. The enemies of art and morals, the enemies that is of love, are the same: social convention and neurosis….Fantasy, the enemy of art, is the enemy of true imagination: Love, an exercise of the imagination…. (Wood’s ellipses)

That this is a paraphrase of Shelley’s own Platonist tract, “A Defence of Poetry,” doesn’t dispel some of the problems with the argument. For one thing, I have always found pain a far more reliable reminder than love that something other than myself is real. Also, anyone who denies that hate is also “the perception of individuals” has never hated intensely enough, and is therefore perhaps to be envied: you study your enemies even more closely than your lovers, because your life depends on it. Love, anyway, relies on a certain saving idealization, lest you perceive too many of the beloved’s flaws too closely.

As for “fantasy,” the plot Murdoch cooks up in The Bell, while it never takes leave of the possible, departs so far from the probable that she obviously had a guiltily-nurtured gift for this most crucial tool of any artist. Without fantasy, reality likely can’t be discovered at all; what would be the motive to explore, except for a fantasy of what might be found? And you don’t need to be a Marx to know that reality isn’t just there to be discovered but also to be transformed. Anyone who has ever cooked a dinner, let alone written a novel, surely grasps this.

Murdoch grasps it too. Midway through The Bell, Dora flees what she sees as the moralism of the Court and ends up in the National Gallery of London where she experiences a revelation before “Gainsborough’s picture of his two daughters” (see here for the image):

She marvelled, with a kind of gratitude, that they [the paintings] were all still here, and her heart was filled with love for the pictures, their authority, their marvellous generosity, their splendour. It occurred to her that here at last was something real and something perfect. […] [She] felt a sudden desire to go down on her knees before [the painting], embracing it, shedding tears.

The work doesn’t teach her anything in particular about reality, still less morality, but exists itself in reality, as a reality, as an instance of the beauty that is and a promise of beauty that may yet be. This epiphany sends her back to Imber, if only because it chastens her desire for an escape, but it does not necessarily make her more moral, only more alive.

“Revelation,” “epiphany.” Let’s add “incarnation.” Here is A. S. Byatt in her introduction to The Bell:

Her own desire to make a world in which consciousnesses were incarnate, embedded in the stuff of things, might seem to derive from George Eliot, who wrote movingly of her wish to make pictures, not diagrams, to “make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate”. Eliot, like Murdoch, was a European intellectual who had also a very immediate sense of human bodies, encounters and absurdities. They shared a preoccupation with the tensions between the formal complexity and design of the work of art and the need to give the characters space, freedom, to be people, not only to represent ideas or classes. It may be that Murdoch thought that Eliot had failed. She asked me once what I thought was the greatest English novel. Middlemarch, I said. She demurred, looking disapproving, and finally said that she supposed it was hard to find which one of Dickens’s novels was the greatest, but that surely he was the greatest novelist…Eliot began, in English, the elegant patterning with metaphor and leitmotiv that Murdoch, who believed that novelists were first and essentially storytellers, sometimes saw as a trap. (Byatt’s ellipses)

In his classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1946; English translation 1953), a book roughly contemporary with The Bell, Erich Auerbach writes of how Christ’s incarnation, God’s interpenetration with not only humanity but with common (as in lower-class) humanity, breaks the aesthetic hierarchy of the ancient world and sets in train the cultural process that will lead to the triumph in the 19th century of the realist novel, which confers what Auerbach calls “tragic seriousness” on everyday life. What Murdoch resents in the agnostic Eliot is Eliot’s sense that, with God gone from the picture, art will have to take his place. If the novel becomes a matter of aesthetics, does it thereby lose its capacity for ethics?

Despite that religious quandary, Murdoch does not make an assertion of faith. The Bell is not quite a Christian novel. It ends on the note of a declaration from Michael: “there is a God, but I do not believe in Him.” This, with its echo of Kafka’s “plenty of hope but none for us,” is the opposite of the problem Nietzsche diagnosed in us, whom he addressed as “we moderns,” “we knowers”: we still believe in God, he said, because we still believe in grammar. That is, we are officially secular, often officially atheistic if we are modern intellectuals, but we do not realize how many forms of order we take for granted or wish to preserve actually depend on the tacit presumption of monotheism’s assurance of ultimate significance. Murdoch does understand this dilemma and seeks to circumvent it by writing, in a sense, as if there were a God. “[T]he mass existed and he existed beside it,” we read of Michael at the conclusion. We moderns aren’t ready to believe in the mass beyond its bare existence; still, if it exists, who knows but that its ultimate addressee might exist as well?

A novel this intricately conceived is not to be taken lightly, and I will certainly be reading more Iris Murdoch in the future; but the modernist intuition that a novel must live in its own right rather than just pointing us toward some external source of meaning is neglected to this novel’s detriment. If Murdoch recalls her forebears Eliot and Woolf without equalling their achievement, this painful self-mortification must be the reason why.


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