Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen

Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter JacobsenA Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen by Morten Høi Jensen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I decided to pick up this appealing brief recent biography of Jacobsen after reading the 19th-century Danish author’s masterpiece, Niels Lyhne (1880). While Jacobsen is not well-known today—I came to him through Nella Larsen, though I must have been overlooking references to him in Joyce, Rilke, and Lukács for years—Jensen demonstrates his extensive influence, particularly on German-language literature, around the turn of the century. Jacobsen was lauded by figures as diverse as Rilke, Kafka, Freud, Mann, Joyce, Adorno, and Zora Neale Hurston. Stefan Zweig called Niels Lyhne “the Werther of our generation,” with its timely depiction of a young man’s life lived without the comfort or promise of the divine.

But with superb critical acuity, Morten Høi Jensen shows that the story of Jacobsen’s intellectual context and posthumous reception is more complex than his simply giving voice to atheism in the decades after Darwin. This biography is as much about the short-lived Jacobsen’s milieu in a modernizing Scandinavia as it is about the sadly circumscribed and uneventful life of the tubercular author.

Jensen takes us to a Copenhagen roiled in the 1860s and ’70s by an insurgent freethinking and liberal mentality. The trained botanist Jacobsen participated in this cultural transformation with his translations of Darwin, but Jensen also emphasizes the influence of other figures, most notably the commanding Georg Brandes, an atheist, liberal, and feminist who would become probably the most important European literary critic of his time.

While I came away from Jensen’s book wanting to read Brandes, Jacobsen also benefits from the contrast with such a persona. Surrounded by agitators like Brandes, Jacobsen comes in Jensen’s telling to seem an appealingly thoughtful, quiet figure, tough-minded but kind, long-suffering but non-complaining, lonely but generous, a man who demurred, and not only due to illness, from confrontation and conflict, from polemics and culture wars.

Jacobsen’s troubled diffidence, his accurate understanding that atheism raises problems rather than solving them, allowed his writing to be ahead of its time. The perceptiveness granted the writer by a retreat from social controversy is an urgently needed lesson in our time, when every poet and novelist is expected to indulge in phony and predictable political grandstanding every day on Twitter.

Nothing could have been further from [Jacobsen’s] nature than to mount the barricades on behalf of an abstract political cause—or any other cause, for that matter. Years later he would write to Edvard Brandes: “I am too aesthetic in a good and bad sense to be able to join in such direct procurator-speech-types of works, in which problems are supposedly debated but are actually just postulated as solved”—an almost direct rejoinder to Georg Brandes’s exhortation that contemporary literature ought to take social and political problems up for debate.

In Niels Lynhe, atheism’s demotion of the human being from the center of creation clearly entails the end of utopian humanism, which the melioristic liberals and leftists of Jacobsen’s time did not understand; they failed to grasp that ideals like egalitarianism and progress silently presume monotheism’s assurance of human exceptionalism and equality before God. Brandes, who started out translating Mill and ended up translating Nietzsche, exemplifies the growing awareness of what godlessness may cost, but the price of living without God is embodied narratively, rather than via abstract argument, in Jacobsen’s proto-modernist prose, with its sometimes baffling commitment to the sensations and perceptions of the chaotic inner life. Such a recognition of the inner life and the subjection of every individual to death, however, may provide a surer basis for a humane society than fantasies of a world transformed by an activist mankind that has stepped into the now-vacant place of God.

Aside from these big ideas, Jensen is also good on more local and more literary matters. His portrait of Jacobsen’s small hometown, Thisted, and the confined life the author was forced to live there with kindly parents who did not quite comprehend him, is beautifully novelistic in its own right. And Jensen also demonstrates an impressive command, more than matching that of the book’s introducer, James Wood, of the main currents and movements of 19th-century European literature. Some of the literary paradoxes raised by Jacobsen’s posthumous canonization, for instance, are explained well: how is it that a Danish author mainly influenced by French and English literature came to have such an impact in Germany? Jensen explains it lucidly, placing Jacobsen expertly among his peers: Flaubert, Turgenev, Zola, Rilke, Mann, Joyce.

I recommend A Difficult Death, then, both as a perceptive, well-researched, and clearly-written introduction to a time and place in European literature that has fallen out of familiarity in the Anglophone world and as an exemplary life for our time, a time when we could use more Jacobsens and fewer Brandeses.

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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.

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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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Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This 1965 novel is a text so overwhelmed by its various contexts that it is almost impossible to read. It was still ubiquitous as a semi-illicit paperback when I was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reputed to be an overwhelmingly intense and filthy book. I accordingly tried to read it when I was 11 or 12, but couldn’t make head or tail of it; I had better luck with Kosinski’s later novel, the National Book Award-winning Steps (1968). Steps is an episodic novella in the mode of pornographic dystopia, and I read it in one sitting, fascinated and revolted and pool-dazed. It also, famously, made an impression on David Foster Wallace, who should have learned a thing or two from its brevity.

I abandoned any plans I had to read The Painted Bird when I discovered that it was regarded as a sham, that its author (a kind of counterculture celebrity in the late 1960s and early 1970s) had falsely advertised the novel to his publishers as autobiography, and that many of his works may have been either partially plagiarized or partially written or translated for the author, still uneasy in the English language, by editors.

Once hailed by the literati as an instant classic, praised by Arthur Miller and Anaïs Nin and Elie Wiesel, canonized as a contribution to the literature of the Shoah, The Painted Bird came to be regarded as a mere hoax, notably denounced by Norman Finkelstein as one more piece of false advertising for what he controversially called “the Holocaust industry.” Kosinski, who committed suicide in 1991, seemed by the turn of the millennium to belong not in the literary canon but in the annals of notorious confidence men.

So it is surprising to turn to the actual text of the novel, as I finally have, and to find a carefully composed narrative, delicately written and thematically unified. Scholars and critics differ as to the actual provenance of the text, except to note that the horrors it narrates are decidedly not autobiographical: the Jewish Kosinski spent the war sheltered by a Polish Catholic family, not wandering the novel’s psychosexual nightmarescape version of Poland’s countryside.

In fact, The Painted Bird is so manifestly symbolic, the extreme events it narrates so difficult to credit, that I have a hard time believing anyone could have taken it as an unvarnished memoir. Appearing around the same time as The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the first publication of The Master and Margarita, Kosinski’s book might usefully be regarded as magical realism. Elie Wiesel, to be fair, acknowledges as much in his New York Times review, quoted at length on the first page of my edition:

If we ever needed proof that Auschwitz was more a concept than a name, it is given to us here with shattering eloquence in The Painted Bird, a moving but frightening tale in which man is indicted and proven guilty, with no extenuating circumstances.

I would dispute only the word “proof” there: as befits a work of the literary imagination rather than of the mind in recollection, The Painted Bird gives proof only of its author’s sensibility. Kosinski’s sensibility is neither pleasant nor entirely original, but it is fascinating and bizarre enough, especially as rendered in this novel’s wonderfully economical prose, to commend this novel as more than a hoax—rather, as good fiction, a compelling “tale,” to use Wiesel’s most apt word.

The premise of the tale, as noted by D. G. Myers, who also judges the novel “great” despite the problems posed by Kosinski’s biography, is that Auschwitz is, for those who came after it, the truth of their world:

The Painted Bird is notorious for its horrors: eyeballs are gouged out of sockets, animals are tortured, women are violated with bottles holding manure, men are devoured by rats. “The Germans puzzled me,” the boy says. “Was such a destitute, cruel world worth ruling?”

This is the question that Kosinski’s whole life was given over to answering. That he died by his own hand suggests that his answer, finally, was No. And so Kosinski joined a line of Holocaust writers—Tadeusz Borowski, Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi—who by committing suicide testified that the world was beyond repair. Although The Painted Bird may not be directly about the Holocaust, although it may not be based on Kosinski’s own experiences during the Holocaust, it is nevertheless an indispensable document of the Holocaust.

Another blurb, this one on the back of my old paperback edition, where it is jarringly discordant with the grotesque wraparound cover illustration, compares Kosinski to Anne Frank. Even allowing for Cynthia Ozick’s wise warning not to sanctify Frank, this is highly misleading; The Painted Bird belongs on the shelf with Sade, Baudelaire, Nietzsche, and Bataille, not with The Diary of a Young Girl.

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From the uncredited cover illustration of the 1970 Pocket Books edition.

The novel is the retrospective narrative of a young boy’s journey through rural Poland during World War II after his parents have sent him away from the city to protect him from the Nazis.

In the countryside, rife with anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiment as well as with magical folk beliefs about metaphysics and medicine, the narrator encounters a sequence of grotesque and violent incidents, from the fire he accidentally sets that destroys the home of his first caretaker to the brutal gang rape and murder of a later caretaker’s lover. He witnesses incest and bestiality, he is systematically tortured by a peasant with a fearsome dog, he is nearly drowned in an iced-over pond, he is thrown into a pit of manure by an incensed mob, and he is even captured by German soldiers, only to be released in a mysterious act of mercy by a glamorous Nazi officer, whose power and command the boy admires:

The instant I saw him I could not tear my gaze from him. His entire person seemed to have something utterly superhuman about it. Against the background of bland colors he protected an unfadable blackness. In a world of men with harrowed faces, with smashed eyes, bloody, bruised, and disfigured limbs, among the fetid, broken human bodies, of which I had already seen so many, he seemed an example of neat perfection that could not be sullied: the smooth, polished skin of his face, the bright golden hair showing under the peaked cap, his pure metal eyes. Every movement of his body seemed propelled by some tremendous internal force.

Along the way, the boy accedes to folk belief about his status as an evil being (due to his being, in the peasants’ eyes, a “Jew” or “Gypsy”), adopts Catholicism and begs God to intercede on his behalf, decides that Satanic powers truly rule the world and tries to join the side of the evildoers, admires what he sees as the knowledge and power of the Germans who wish to subjugate him, and, finally, when liberated by the Red Army, accepts communism’s promise of the brotherhood of man until the flaws in that ideology, too, with its own trampling of the individual, become apparent.

Like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Painted Bird is a bildungsroman that follows its budding hero’s consciousness into wider and wider contexts, each new one revealing the limitations of the previous. Struck mute during his ordeal, the boy regains his voice at the novel’s conclusion; in other words, having passed through these ordeals and ideologies, he becomes capable of telling his story.

But if the latter development sounds like a sentimental anticipation of official multiculturalism’s favorite trope of literature as “voice,” the rest of the The Painted Bird is a decidedly more decadent affair. It is hard to avoid the conclusion, when reading scene after scene of vivid brutality, that the novel’s briskly-narrated phantasmagoria indulges an aestheticization of violence to the point of pornography. The regaining of voice at the conclusion even recalls the pornographer’s old alibi of having told a moral tale, while Kosinski’s deeper account of individualism, in keeping with the boy’s admiration for the Nazi officer and later for Stalin, involves the right of the strong to re-order the world at will according to their own aesthetic designs, precisely the game Kosinski played with history when he passed this off as his autobiography.

To support an interpretation that emphasizes individualism, consider the titular metaphor. The novel’s title comes from an early episode wherein another of the boy’s caretakers, a peasant bird-trapper named Lekh, would regularly choose a bird and paint its feathers in bright colors and then release it; when this painted bird would attempt to rejoin its flock, its fellows, disturbed by its dazzling and artificial coloration, would set on it and kill it. The Cold War moral is clear: individual vs. society.

As A. E. M. Baumann points out in his excellent Jungian reading of the novel, Kosinski portrays all collectivities, from rural peasantry to Soviet empire, as essentially hostile to individuation:

The effect within the book of this continuity between worlds and beliefs works not only on the grand scale but also to the specific. For example, when we meet Lekh the bird catcher, and read of the demise of the bird painted by Lekh, the whole of the scene is likewise brought into the mythic unity of the book. The scene is not an artificially inserted metaphor: it presents an idea already inherent to the world-systems of the Polish peasants, inherent to their belief systems: and as will be seen, inherent to all cultures, even to the “equality” within the new, Russian state. As such, the antagonism between the individual and culture that is the center of The Painted Bird is from the start inherent to the whole of the world through which the boy passes. In turn, through that unity, that antagonism is brought out of the historical and into the mythic.

Fair enough, but the reader also has the right to be disturbed by the total amorality of this mythical version of individualism, with the persecuted painted bird’s wish to join the flock and envy of its most powerful members (e.g., the Nazi officer), even with this myth’s affinity not only for what the boy sees as German style and swagger but also for the Nazis’ imperial view of the Polish populace, which the novel literally dehumanizes (per the bestiality motif).

When contemplating the ideological possibilities of an individualism untethered from morality, it is a relief that such a vision produces in this novel only a version of aestheticism, only the voice to tell the tale, rather than anything more severe. In this sense, Kosinski pits the paint of the painted bird against the violence of the flock; the novel implicitly and ultimately exalts the artist, who represents only his own idiosyncrasy, over the officer who marches on behalf of a collective.

To end on this aesthetic note, whoever wrote The Painted Bird wrote it effectively. (On the authorship question, I observe that Samuel Beckett’s first literary agent, the Irish writer George Reavey, is another claimant; and there is something of Beckett, if not his humane and humorous awareness of universal suffering, in this novel.) Its crisp narrative is a well-paced succession of sensory detail given in a style that is simple without being affected like that of a Hemingway epigone or someone imitating the paratactical style of the Bible; the novel would repay strictly formal study by the student. Orwell’s ideal of prose as a windowpane comes to mind, as long as we recall that the window is really a painting, and that the painted vista is, for better and for worse, almost entirely the product of Kosinski’s imagination.

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Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

AsymmetryAsymmetry by Lisa Halliday

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The jacket copy of this fascinating 2018 debut novel—back cover and both flaps—informs us no less than four times that Lisa Halliday was a recipient of the Whiting Award. This award goes to 10 promising writers each year, and is granted by a jury that is itself selected by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.

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I mention this odd insistence on the Whiting Award because Asymmetry does feel like a novel that would appeal to a philanthropic organization. Its ideology in harmony with its setting’s post-9/11 time period, Asymmetry is a work of humane but slightly traumatized liberalism, like many of the signal Anglo-American literary novels of the mid-2000s—Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Smith’s On Beauty, McEwan’s Saturday, Robinson’s Gilead.

If you’ve heard of Asymmetry at all, though, none of the above is what you heard. You know the book as a roman à clef about the author’s affair with Philip Roth. And it is, beautifully so, in its first half. Titled “Folly”—as in the folly of love, folie à deux—the freestanding novella that is the first 120 or so pages tells of 25-year-old editorial assistant Alice and her romance with a famous Jewish writer almost old enough to be her grandfather, Ezra Blazer. 

Despite today’s #metoo moment, their affair is depicted less as a straightforwardly predatory or “creepy” relationship than a warm, lovable, but fraught and unequal one, an instance of literary initiation and erotic pedagogy of the kind celebrated even today by some pedagogues, though denounced by others. Speaking only for myself, I don’t believe in erotic pedagogy at all: leaving aside the ethically disqualifying power differential in student/teacher relations, the acquisition, transmission, and retention of knowledge is difficult enough even when your blood isn’t flowing in the direction opposite your brain.

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My own beliefs aside, however, I admire how Halliday, in sometimes almost telegraphic third-person narration, depicts this relationship’s many facets, and most importantly captures its real affection, the solicitousness between the couple, without which we might not tolerate it.

Ezra genuinely seems to mean well, and his personal selfishness (and Rothian hunger for the Nobel Prize) is offset by great magnanimity, whether to homeless people he encounters or to Alice herself, as when he pays off her Harvard loans. He is so intelligent and funny that he ably seduces the reader; his increasing frailty as he ages also mitigates somewhat the aspects of his character that we might wish to judge more severely.

Alice, moreover, is a bit of a literary naïf—Ezra has to tell her how to pronounce “Camus”—but her odd sensibility, seemingly effortless erotic sophistication, and her quiet understanding of what Blazer’s patronage might mean for her makes her the novel’s most complex character. Halliday’s unerring intelligence as a dramatist makes “Folly” a small masterpiece of charming ambiguity.

A theme in Alice and Ezra’s literary conversations is the proper subject for fiction—the self or the other. Ezra votes for the self, in line with his real-life counterpart Portnoy-Zuckerman-Roth, while Alice suggests that others, even “the other” in academe’s race-gender-religion-culture terms, are better topics: “Muslim hot dog sellers,” she suggests, after they’ve just visited one. Ezra, who gives Alice not only Henry Miller and Jean Genet to read but also Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt, is not insensible to the nightmare of history, but he seems not to share her desire to capture it in fiction. Their conversations on this topic prepare us for the novel’s second section, “Madness,” which appears unrelated to the first. 

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Another freestanding novella, “Madness” (as in the madness of war) is the first-person reminiscence of a Kurdish Iraqi-American named Amar as he is detained by immigration authorities at Heathrow Airport on the way to Iraq to visit his brother (though we later learn that the purpose of his voyage is more serious than just a visit). Amar narrates his childhood in Brooklyn, his college experiences (including his first love with a mercurial actress), his academic and professional hesitation between medicine and economics, and, most importantly, his befriending in London of a foreign correspondent and his adult travels back to Iraq after the 2003 war.

Unlike the compelling impersonality of “Folly,” a kind of stripped-down near-experimentalism, “Madness” is a more typical example of “literary fiction.” In fact it is almost a recitation of literary-fiction modes and styles of the last 70 or so years, from the early-Bellovian warmth and storytelling brio of the opening episodes about immigrant life in America, including the zany detail of the narrator’s in-flight birth, to the melancholy and learned Sebaldian meditations that come to dominate the last sections, where the destruction wrought by the Iraq War and generalized Islamophobia usher us into gloom, as if to say that the heroic immigrant bildungsroman of the midcentury has become a casualty of the 21st-century’s wars. 

We gradually become aware that we are reading in “Madness” a novel-within-the-novel. An intricately patterned, almost Nabokovian set of echoes and resonances shows that Amar’s story is one Alice has composed out of her own very different experiences and observations. Presumably in rebuke not only to the autobiographical obsessions of Roth’s generation but also to today’s ideologues of “cultural appropriation,” Halliday conducts a master-class on how the life of “the other” may be reconstituted from the experiences of the self. This is not without risk, as Amar himself, echoing the Zuckerman of American Pastoral, observes, but it remains worth doing:

But then even someone who imagines for a living is forever bound by the ultimate constraint: she can hold her mirror up to whatever subject she chooses, at whatever angle she likes—she can even hold it such that she herself remains outside its frame, the better to de-narcissize the view—but there’s no getting around the fact that she’s always the one holding the mirror. And just because you can’t see yourself in a reflection doesn’t mean no one can.

Just to prove Halliday’s awareness of what’s at stake, as well as her literary wit, there is an allusion on the same page to Stephen Crane, whose own most famous novel is an account of a war in which he did not fight.

Halliday’s descriptive intelligence and storytelling energy make “Madness” every bit as readable as “Folly,” but, in line with Alice/Halliday’s own intentions, there is a feeling of the dutiful, the mechanical, and the pedagogical about it, as if it were reported on assignment. There is in Amar’s life story perhaps a received quirkiness, but nothing of the authentic strangeness of Alice’s character.

Ironically, this demonstrates the real literary danger in “writing the other”: we are so anxious to show we are not estranged, to prove “nothing human can be alien to me” (to borrow Marx’s beloved maxim of Terence), that we shy from discovering in “the other” the terrifying alienness we find in our own single selves. Amar in one moment ruminates that he might have become a terrorist but for the accidents of birth; yet the most vivid novelistic characters are so unpredictable that you wonder if they might become terrorists tomorrow. 

The epilogue purports to be a Desert Island Discs episode featuring Ezra in 2011, after he (unlike Roth, cruel irony) wins the Nobel at last. While the epilogue is theoretically necessary to spell out what most readers will have already divined over 100 pages before—that the novel’s second part is a fiction written by Alice to test the limit of the novelist’s empathy—it feels tacked-on, as if an editor had requested something more in line with the aforementioned #metoo moment, even though the rest of the novel reads almost as a generous appreciation by a female author of some of the specific travails of men. 

Ezra here gives a charmless, crass performance that doesn’t sound much like the Ezra of the first half, or like Roth’s public voice, or like any other human being, and his musical tour of his life is by-the-numbers. I was amused for personal reasons, though, that Halliday relocated her Roth surrogate from Newark to Pittsburgh and enjoyed the well-researched references to Squirrel Hill, Kaufmann’s, and Edgewater Steel. But when recounting his participation in the founding of the Paris Review, Ezra doesn’t even mention the CIA! (As a chanteuse of my own Pittsburgh youth once sang, “I think I’m paranoid”!)

Asymmetry is an addictively entertaining novel, especially in its first half (and especially if you love Roth, as I do). Its Bush-era humanism, seemingly so innocent of today’s furious populism and identitarianism, throws a nostalgic light. Such liberalism, though, often lets itself off too easily, and so it might be here. There are asymmetries Halliday raises without ever addressing. 

If one point of Asymmetry is to answer affirmatively Alice’s worry about whether “a former choirgirl from Massachusetts might be capable of conjuring the consciousness of a Muslim man,” then, on humanistic grounds, I agree. “Only connect,” or else what’s the point of novels?

But what if Alice made her “Muslim man” not an economist but a writer? What if she made him a writer who, because he did not have an affair with a much older, richer, and better-known author who paid off his student loans, was not able to break into publishing? What if he was not able to tell his own story not so much because of the cultural barriers spoken of by identity politics, but because he did not have the right institutional and economic connections, erotic or otherwise? Such a narrative development would have made Asymmetry even more ethically complex and rigorous than it already is, but it might also have made it much less endearing and lovable, to me anyway, if not to you, or to the committee appointed by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation.

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Gerald Murnane, The Plains

The PlainsThe Plains by Gerald Murnane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gerald Murnane is in vogue. Every few years, it seems, a new writer or handful of writers is coronated in the book reviews, little magazines, and literary coteries of the English-speaking world as a monarch of world literature. So far this century, we’ve had W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, László Krasznahorkai, and the posthumous canonization of Clarice Lispector.

Murnane would appear to be the latest to join this company. True, he writes in English and hails from an Anglophone country, but his style and allegiances, his continuity with certain strains in 20th-century experimental writing, make his fiction a kind of honorary example of literature in translation.

I haven’t looked into Pascale Casanova’s sociological study The World Republic of Letters since early in grad school, but as I recall she argues there that the two readiest paths to canonization in world literature are those blazed by Joyce/Faulkner and Kafka/Beckett—to put it rather brutally, you can be the bard of the local or the philosopher of the void. 

The late 20th century, with its rise of the postcolonial novel, was the time of the Faulknerians: Gabriel García Márquez, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, Arundhati Roy. J. M. Coetzee was a Beckettian outlier in that context, reproved by Gordimer for his social irresponsibility.

But the 21st century so far has been a veritable age of Beckett: novels about time and the body, anhedonia and self-laceration,  the limits of language, the desperation of the writer, the inevitability of sorrow and loss, history as an unrepresentable sublime of suffering. Presumably the collapse of the 20th-century utopias—the communist and liberal variants on the end of history, more or less—has provoked a chastened literary response from the world avant-garde.

Murnane, though praised for his originality, is also clearly in the Kafka/Beckett line, all mysterious landscapes and inner deliberations over truth and representation.

In his 1982 novel The Plains, re-released last year in a beautiful new hardcover from Text Publishing, a narrator from nearer the coast arrives at the titular setting, a fantastical variant of the interior of Australia, with the intention of making a film that would capture its essence.

The novel’s first sentences (praised by Paul Genoni as “the most compelling opening in Australian fiction”) sets its stately, meditative tone and announce its theme of searching apparent blankness and monotony for significance:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.

Genoni oddly but persuasively goes on to compare The Plains to The Great Gatsby; while the idea is evidently to suggest that The Plains is a “national” work akin to Fitzgerald’s perennial candidate for Great American Novel, it is a counterintuitive comparison. The Great Gatsby is, whatever else it is, a heavily-plotted thriller crowded with personalities, dialogue, visual description, and often violent incident.

Murnane wants nothing more than to wean us from all such fictional trappings. His narrator is attracted to the plains precisely because their, well, plainness both invites heightened attention and provokes their habitués to sensibilities of great individuality and subtlety:

I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets. Readers and audiences on the plains were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains.

The landscape is a correlate or metaphor for Murnane’s ideal fiction, and the word “plain” comes in the novel to signify any rarefied and evanescent ideal.

The narrator, as he waits in a bar to seek patronage for his film from the great landowners of the plains, thinks of the history of dueling artists who once dominated the plains and whose conflict even spilled into political factionalism. One side took as its standard the “subdued yellow” of the plains themselves, while the other adopted the “blue-green” of the horizon; politically, the former wished for the plains to secede from Australia, while the latter wished for the plains to dominate Australia.

In either case, whether valuing the land or its limit, whether separatist or imperialist, the artists of the plains devoted themselves, like the 20th-century avant-garde, to an ideal blankness signifying infinity.

The narrator says as much when making his case to the landowners: “I believed that every man was called to be an explorer.” He is taken on by one of them, and the second half of the novel details his uneventful and gently comic service as resident filmmaker in a great house. Our narrator never succeeds in making a film but only in making notes for one; Murnane, who has stated his dislike for film and for fiction that apes its effects, allegorizes the demotion of film in favor of literature in the novel we are reading, the failed filmmaker’s testament.

If the minimal suspense of the novel’s first half came from wondering whether or not the narrator would succeed in persuading the landowners to patronize his film, the minimal suspense in the second half is generated by the narrator’s interest in the landowner’s wife and granddaughter.

The wife likes to read a genre of philosophy favored in the plains that “most often would perhaps be called novels in another Australia” but that “on the plains make up a well-respected branch of moral philosophy.” These works consist, as the narrator describes it, of their authors’ phenomenology of regret, inspections of their own inner experience of loss. Again, Murnane’s fiction provides an image of its own ideal.

In his essay “In Praise of the Long Sentence,” a defense of compound sentences and  hypotactic prose as the ideal vehicle for a fiction of consciousness, Murnane distinguishes “film-script fiction,” which presents visual scenes to the reader, from “meditative fiction” or “true fiction,” which presents instead the reflections and sensibilities of a narrator.

The distinction does not, to my mind, hold up: fiction that presents visual scenes still expresses through them the sensibility of the author. Moreover, when Murnane says that the film-script-fiction writer “prefers, for the time being, to show me details rather than to impart information,” I have no idea what he means; are details not information? This essay shows Murnane in a “blue-green” mood, wishing to conquer Australia, or world literature, with the sensibility of the plains. I am all in favor of compound sentences, though; there we can agree.

Back to The Plains. When the narrator proposes to end his film with a shot of the landowner’s granddaughter in the landscape, we may recall the landowners’ long colloquy in the novel’s first half about how they visit brothels to enjoy suntanned prostitutes whose brown skin differentiates them from the pale women of the plains. The men sometimes find, however, that “there were always some girls who kept their last inches utterly white.”

Whiteness and idealized femininity are (do I even have to say “problematically”?) the human corollaries to the plains’ metaphysical infinitude of a various blankness. When I say that Murnane is, despite his much-praised originality, in the line of Kafka and Beckett, writing in an identifiable and, if I may, somewhat predictable genre of world literature, I am also thinking of those suggestive remarks scattered through Deleuze’s writings about the continuity between late-modernist fiction of the Kafka/Beckett variety and the quest romances of Arthurian myth, the search for the Holy Grail:

It is sometimes said that the novel reached its culminating point when it adopted an anti-hero as a character: an absurd, strange and disoriented creature who wanders about continually, deaf and blind. But this is the substance of the novel: from Beckett back to Chrétien de Troyes, from Lawrence back to Lancelot, passing through the whole history of the English and American novel. (Deleuze, “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”)

While some assessments of Murnane’s newfound popularity connect his work with the autofiction trend (as attested by Ben Lerner’s introduction to and Teju Cole’s blurb on this edition), The Plains is, generically, more a fantasy than anything else. If every occurrence of the word “Australia” were replaced with the name of a fictional planet or fantastical country, the novel’s metaphysics and politics would be little altered. I was reminded at times of Kafka’s Amerika, Beckett’s Molloy, Borges’s “The South,” Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Aira’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but I was reminded equally of Lem’s Solaris.

As for any world-lit Faulknerisms we may observe of Murnane, they come up in his life rather than his work, in his reputation as the local eccentric making extraordinary pronouncements even as he has never left his region of Australia. Shannon Burns* is a good guide to this aspect of Murnane’s reception and the difficulties it has created for his work’s reputation.

I personally dislike the metropolitan condescension, the patronizing indulgence, the “Isn’t he just darling?” that infects the tone of some commentary on Murnane I’ve seen. Many of his “eccentricities,” such as his preference for correct prose or his relative dislike of cinema, seem admirable enough to me, and his seeming arrogance, however tinged with self-satirizing grandiosity—

You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.

—is almost inarguably preferable to its inverse, the maddeningly faux-humble tweet of Millennial self-promotion: “So um guys I like wrote a thing?”

Even so, the commissars of world literature will have to pack me on to the next train to Philistia (maybe I can sit next to Ted Gioia if he’ll have me), because I am going to need many more sights and sounds and smells and scenes from my fiction than are on offer in The Plains, with its extraordinarily abstract narration. I admire, in theory, the severity and astringency of Murnane’s aesthetic, but my own preference is for a livelier landscape. What can I say? I was reared amid hills, reading Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

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* I can’t resist noting that Burns, an Australian academic and writer, also wrote two brilliant essays I’ve enjoyed recently. One is a somewhat illicit piece called “In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class,” which contains these lines, lines I wish I could make any number of people understand:

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon.

And he also wrote an appreciation of the late Philip Roth that doubles as a defense of amoral or even immoral fiction:

Some strains of contemporary criticism are driven to weed out the “bad seeds”, writers who are considered morally dubious, and Roth’s reputation has certainly suffered as a result of this critical turn, but I want to suggest that writers who disappoint moral or ideological expectations are as worthy of attention as those who appeal to and reinforce them. Writers are under no obligation to be role models or social engineers, and literature needn’t serve to reassure its readers or confirm their values.

I recommend both essays highly.

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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!

Eugene O’Neill, Long Day’s Journey into Night

Long Day's Journey Into NightLong Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Long Day’s Journey into Night, often considered one of the finest American dramas and as its author’s masterpiece, was first published posthumously in 1955. The sources of its plot and characters in the Nobel-winning author’s autobiography, his tortured family life marked by regret and addiction, seemed to demand its withholding until O’Neill’s death in 1953.

The play’s title is apt as it obeys the Aristotelian unities of time and place: it is set from morning to night on one summer day in one room of the Tyrone family’s New England summer home. The offstage sea, with its encroaching fog and sounding foghorn, contribute much of the solemn, oneiric mood.

The patriarch of the Tyrone family, James, is a wildly successful stage actor who came from impoverished Irish immigrants, including a father who abandoned the family. This poor beginning led him to sell out his Shakespearean gifts and ambitions for a moneymaking role that made him rich and famous but vitiated his talent; it also caused him to become a lifelong miser, no matter how much money he makes.

His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked on the opiate after the birth of their son, Edmund. Edmund is their third son, but their second, Eugene, died in childhood; this tragedy, along with a punishing life on the road as an actor’s wife, has contributed to Mary’s addiction and despair, her endless reminiscing upon her long-vanished youthful promise when she was a convent-school girl.

Jamie and Edmund are their grown sons, Jamie a dissolute and cynical actor and Edmund a budding intellectual and artist devoted to the most pessimistic currents of modern thought. (Biographical critics note that Edmund is transparently a stand-in for O’Neill, though observe, too, the poignance with which the author gives his own name to the dead child.) The two sons, like the father, are alcoholics. Much of the play’s rhythm is structured by their increasing drunkenness throughout the day, and by Mary’s increasing disappearance into her morphine haze, “night” being not only a time of day but a state of mental darkness.

Long Day’s Journey is not quite plotless: its two dramatic foci are the family’s discovery that Mary has relapsed into addiction, when they’d thought she was cured, and Edmund’s diagnosis of tuberculosis, which casts a shadow of death over the proceedings. Both events provoke the play’s intense dialogues between and among the family members as they hurl recriminations at one another or deliver monologues about their failed promise, speeches gathering emotional force and bitter honesty as day turns to night.

Brief quotation cannot suggest the play’s mounting power of confrontation and scenic construction; I imagine it, like Death of a Salesman, is more powerful staged than read. O’Neill and Miller share a perhaps greater gift for dramaturgy than a way with words (which is not quite true of other major American dramatists, like Tennessee Williams and August Wilson). The play’s tableaux, particularly the concluding one, might be more powerful than the rather slangy and verbose speeches.

On the other hand, Long Day’s Journey also has a novelistic quality that comes out in its extensive stage directions, the descriptive passages of which seem meant to be read rather than staged. O’Neill’s impossibly detailed renditions of his characters’ appearances, which no casting director could hope to approximate, demand an inner theater:

Edmund is ten years younger than his brother, a couple of inches taller, thin and wiry. Where Jamie takes after his father, with little resemblance to his mother, Edmund looks like both his parents, but is more like his mother. Her big, dark eyes are the dominant feature in his long, narrow Irish face. His mouth has the same quality of hypersensitiveness hers possesses. His high forehead is hers accentuated, with dark brown hair, sunbleached to red at the ends, brushed straight back from it. But his nose is his father’s, and his face in profile recalls Tyrone’s, Edmund’s hands are noticeably like his mother’s, with the same exceptionally long fingers. They even have to a minor degree the same nervousness It is in the quality of extreme nervous sensibility that the likeness of Edmund to his mother is most marked.

What most fascinates me about this play is the debate about literature itself that O’Neill stages between the generations. The living room that is the play’s setting features two bookshelves. One represents the rebellious modernity of the sons and the other represents the old man’s comparative classicism:

Against the wall between the doorways is a small bookcase, with a picture of Shakespeare above it, containing novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.

[…]

Farther back is a large, glassed-in bookcase with sets of Dumas, Victor Hugo, Charles Lever, three sets of Shakespeare, The World’s Best Literature in fifty large volumes, Hume’s History of England, Thiers’ History of the Consulate and Empire, Smollett’s History of England, Gibbon’s Roman Empire and miscellaneous volumes of old plays, poetry, and several histories of Ireland.

As opposed to the supposedly calm universality of the father’s classic and romantic drama and enlightened historiography, the sons incline toward anarchism and socialism in politics, naturalism and aestheticism in literature, all of which entail a rejection of Christian metaphysics and morality. In later scenes, the sons quote from Baudelaire, Swinburne, and Wilde, whose aesthetics Tyrone pronounces “morbid”; he goes on to claim that Shakespeare contains both the genuine truths expressed by the morbid moderns but also much more:

Why can’t you remember your Shakespeare and forget the third-raters? You’ll find what you’re trying to say in him—as you’ll find everything else worth saying.

When we learn in a monologue what Shakespeare means to Tyrone, nothing less than a total transcendence of his desperate origins, we are less inclined to condescend with the radical youth to the elder’s classicism:

I was wild with ambition. I read all the plays ever written. I studied Shakespeare as you’d study the Bible. I educated myself. I got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife. I loved Shakespeare. I would have acted in any of his plays for nothing, for the joy of being alive in his great poetry.

And when Edmund mocks Tyrone’s possibly parochial insistence that “Shakespeare was an Irish Catholic,” we might be invited to appreciate the English dramatist’s universality as much as to laugh at the Irish-American’s credulity (and history has caught up with half of Tyrone’s equation, anyway: Shakespeare is nowadays widely regarded as a Catholic writer, if not an Irish one).

O’Neill intends, I think, to synthesize the classics with the moderns. If his characters are trapped in a fate they can’t escape, marked indelibly by their family and class origins and controlled by addictions they can’t evade through force of will, is this any less true of the personae in Sophocles and Shakespeare? How great a departure is Schopenhauer’s pessimism, Zola’s naturalism, or Wilde’s aestheticism, with their insistence on humanity’s determination by inhuman forces and on art’s amorality, from Greek tragedy’s celebratory hymns to crushing fate? Mary insists that “life,” a mysterious determining force, is the agent in their lives, rather than they themselves:

But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self for ever.

Mary, though, retains a transcendent belief in some “true self” for “life” to betray and abuse. Edmund, for his part, praises the dissolution of the self in the engulfing sea as his most authentic experience, which we could easily compare to Hamlet’s concluding admission, “Let be,” or the manifest death-drive of Sophocles’s Antigone or Euripides’s Pentheus:

When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself. To God, if you want to put it that way. […] Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Edmund’s artistic-mystic vision is the authentic experience of which alcohol and morphine offer only the degraded copy; this insight is why Edmund, the O’Neill stand-in, is alone among the characters in being able to write the play.

Browsing through Harold Bloom’s introduction to a later edition of the text (Yale UP, 2002), I see that Bloom dwells on the un- or anti-Americanism of O’Neill’s aesthetic. For Bloom, this means un- or anti-Emersonian, a rejection of Transcendentalist self-reliance and progressive optimism, against which the Irish-American O’Neill posits the pessimism of Schopenhauer and the severity of Jansenist Catholicism. In this vein, I have also sometimes heard O’Neill discussed by others as not American at all, but an honorary Irish author working somewhere between the “scrupulous meanness” of Joyce’s naturalism in Dubliners and the surrealist inertia of Beckett’s drama.

Leaving aside the perhaps beside-the-point national question, Long Day‘s modernist combination of a naturalistic with a more symbolic or expressionistic mode makes O’Neill’s drama exemplary of a heightened or mythic realism, like so much of the 20th-century’s most powerful fiction and drama from Henrik Ibsen to Toni Morrison. O’Neill’s intellectual conviction that his characters’ wills are not their own, that they are lived by their fates, is embodied strikingly by their wild changes of mood, tone, and posture, as if O’Neill were asking the actors to be successively possessed by different spirits:

He forces a laugh in which she makes herself join. Then he goes out on the porch and disappears down the steps. Her first reaction is one of relief. She appears to relax. She sinks down in one of the wicker armchairs at rear of table and leans her head back, closing her eyes But suddenly she grows terribly tense again. Her eyes open and she strains forward, seized by a fit of nervous panic. She begins a desperate battle with herself. Her long fingers, warped and knotted by rheumatism, drum on the arms of the chair, driven by an insistent life of their own, without her consent.

In this way, O’Neill’s dramaturgy literalizes his famous description, in the drama’s opening dedication to his wife, of “the four haunted Tyrones,” protagonists of this haunting modern tragedy.

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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!

Q, Conspiracy, and the Novel; or, Why Portraits and Ashes Should Be Your Summer Read

Readers who perceive an esoteric subtext to my writing and who therefore keep a paranoiac tally of my cryptic allusions will recall that I have mentioned the “Q” or “Qanon” conspiracy theory twice. Both references occurred in the context of paranoiac fictions: Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. But there is more to be said about the crossroads where conspiracy and literature meet.

If you are unfamiliar with Q, here is the briefest possible summary I can manage: Q is the pseudonym of a 4chan/8chan message board poster (or group of posters) who claims to have a top-secret security clearance within the Trump administration. He further claims that the administration is mounting a sophisticated revolution or counter-revolution against the “deep state” at home and abroad—against, essentially, the global hegemony of administrative liberalism, which Q accuses of being a nearly satanic force of exploitation and predation, especially sexual exploitation and predation. A regular Q catchphrase: “These people are sick.”

Since last October, Q has regularly posted communiqués in the form of almost poetic questions or fragmentary hints, to goad his audience of Trump supporters to do their own research into the supposed perfidy of the international order. His goal is evidently to prepare a cadre of citizens to spread calm throughout civil society by providing rationales for the defeat of the deep state in a future climax of high-profile arrests (including Obama’s and Clinton’s) and even martial law. Another regular Q catchphrase: “Where we go one, we go all.”

The Q conspiracy is strange on several grounds. First of all, conspiracy theories do not generally assure their adherents that all is well, that the powers that be are on their side. Q takes elements from prior conspiracy theories, particularly those that describe cabals of shadowy perverts who manipulate states and economies, and rewrites them. Q revises conspiracy from a horror story, where evil is all-pervasive and defeated temporarily if at all, into a superhero story, where evil is defeated consistently and predictably by collective good.

In fact, Q is the only example of a positive conspiracy theory I can think of: it says that conspirators in high places are working quietly to serve us, to help us, to bring about the world we desire. In this sense, we might amorally describe it is an innovation in the history of legitimizing authority. A final regular Q catchphrase: “Trust the plan.”

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Another strange feature of Q is that it is becoming mainstream. An advocate for the overthrow of the liberal world order, for a coming military coup and the arrest or even execution of previous elected officials, has just been included by Time on a list of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. While the tone of the write-up, by Melissa Chan, is lightly disparaging, the lightness has a mollifying effect on the reader, as if a military junta were being described in a gossip column:

Last October, an anonymous user, known simply as Q, started posting cryptic messages on the controversial message board 4chan—the common theme being that President Trump is a secret genius and his opponents, namely Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, are evil. Q reportedly claimed to be getting this information directly from the government, thanks to top-secret, “Q-type” security clearance. There has been little—if any—hard evidence to support Q’s musings. But over time, thousands of people started to believe them—or at least, to acknowledge they might be real.

Propaganda often works not by arguing for a claim, but simply by placing the claim before audiences as an appropriate object of open-minded discussion. Similarly, almost sympathetic treatments of Q, often with a literary bent, have recently appeared in Tablet and Harper’s.

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TV writer Ted Mann opens his Tablet exploration of Q with an account of his researches while working on Homeland. I have never seen Homeland beyond one episode, but I was once obsessed with another show Mann worked on, Chris Carter’s ludicrously underrated grim and apocalyptic X-Files follow-up, Millennium (1996-1999). The series follows ex-FBI profiler Frank Black, an empath who is able to see through the eyes of serial killers, as he becomes embroiled in an involuted shadowplay among secret societies, intelligence services, and metaphysical forces struggling over the fate of the world ahead of the turn of the titular millennium. It was an uneven but brilliant show that overcame its obvious influences (Se7en above all) to create an uncommonly foreboding and psychedelic vision of a demon-stalked, rain-drenched landscape where goodness is just the fragile flame of one man’s love and integrity. In other words, all the Q themes, but played mournful and slow.

Anyway, Mann, in a worldlier tone than Chan’s, a tone heavy with winking savoir faire and barely withheld knowledge, also manages to “acknowledge that [Q] might be real”:

There’s a lot more to the Q anon story, but you’d never believe me if I told you now. Think of it as a dream. A world without war, a world of tremendous abundance powered by non-linear technology, a cure for cancer, the restoration of civility, kindness and humor to the long-suffering peoples of the earth, God only knows.

We are here witnessing a writer’s admiration for another writer, a writer of pre-millennial dystopias tipping his rumpled noir fedora to the gold-hatted scribe of post-millennial utopias.

These two themes, the literary and the utopian, are played still more insistently in novelist Walter Kirn’s Harper’s essay on Q. Kirn puts his conclusions about Q in someone else’s mouth, but this half-disavowed thesis is the same one we’ve seen above. Kirn “acknowledge[s] that [Q] might be real”:

Could Q have actual foreknowledge? Was he somehow the oracle he purported to be? Having followed the posts for months now, I wish I could summarily dismiss them, but so outrageous is our current reality, so reliably unpredictable and odd, that it does not seem impossible to me that there might exist an internet seer stationed in the White House whose job is to brief lowly geeks on global intrigues. My friend Matthew, who saw combat in Afghanistan and has reported on intelligence issues, believes that Q may be the result of psyops conceived to maintain morale among Trump’s base.

To be fair to all the above writers, I am in agreement with their arguments and intimations, not least because Mann and Kirn seem to have inside information (as I do not): even if the Q conspiracy theory is untrue as stated, Q himself (or themselves) is likely not some shitposting chan troll but rather a mouthpiece for genuine powers that be—for “powers, principalities, thrones, and dominions,” to quote Ted Mann quoting St. Paul.

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Which makes me all the more bemused (or should I be alarmed?) at Q’s so far rather blasé reception in mainstream media, especially in its more literary corners. What is going on? Is the discourse hedging its bets? Or is it only the old Pynchon/DeLillo phenomenon: novelists’ envy of those who write novels with nations and lives?

Like Ted Mann, Walter Kirn frames his Q analysis with a discussion of fictional narrative. He first recounts his failed attempt, over a decade ago, to create an Internet novel, and he concludes by stating that Q, though working for disturbingly authoritarian ends, shows the way to a genuine literature, fragmentary and participatory, for the current age:

The Q tale may be loathsome and deeply wicked, a magnet for bigots and ignoramuses whose ugly dreams it caters to and ratifies, but as a feat of New Age storytelling I find it curiously encouraging. The imagination lives. A talented bard can still grab and keep an audience. Now for a better story, with higher themes. Now for the bracing epic of recovery that the dark wizards have shown us how to write.

Well said. I would find it well said, since my novel Portraits and Ashes is a story of art and conspiracy, paranoia and redemption, that acknowledges the mysterious forces pervading and degrading our world even as it also shows how they may be transcended by men and women committed to love and beauty. It is undoubtedly indecent to write propaganda for oneself, but I don’t know what to say or what to do about the paranoid forces marauding my country and my world; all I know is that I wrote Portraits and Ashes to drive myself sane. I hope it may do the same for you.  A page-turner and a philosophical novel, Portraits and Ashes will satisfy your desires both to indulge paranoia and to recover from it. From the back cover:

Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.

Plus, it is a literary novel that will also serve for the beach or the plane. If you ever get sick of the news or its refraction in social media’s mazy and scary missives, Portraits and Ashes will come as a relief: a novel for our exciting and petrifying millennium.

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Images 1-3: screencaps from the opening credit sequence of Millennium.

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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!

Gore Vidal, The City and the Pillar

The City and the PillarThe City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A little over a decade and a half ago, Gore Vidal was one of the most urgent voices on the American left: challenging empire in the era of neoconservatism, challenging religion at the height of evangelical power, he seemed to speak for America’s disaffected left-liberals in the Bush years.

Readers coming to Vidal’s cultural and political essays for the first time today, however, may not necessarily associate them with the political left at all. Politics change with the times. What is progressive in one decade looks regressive the next, and vice versa. If Vidal, who died in 2012, could come back to see Bill Kristol and David Frum hailed as heroes of an anti-fascist resistance movement, he would die all over again. But other changes are more subtle. The leading edge of today’s progressive movement, for instance, is notably religious, its socialism informed by a spiritual commitment to “the least among us.” Similarly, its feminism (having largely dismissed the sexual revolution as the alibi of the male predator) is tempered by an ecumenical avowal of “modesty.” Contrast Vidal’s classic essay, “Monotheism and Its Discontents” (1992):

The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved — Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

In the era of the religious right’s dominance, Vidal was not in the mood to be “inclusive.” When it came to capital-P Politics, matters of statecraft and war, he, in the same essay, remarks upon the resemblances between his own “isolationism” (a word he felt had been unfairly demonized) and that of the populist right:

Meanwhile, the word “isolationist” has been revived to describe those who would like to put an end to the national security state that replaced our Republic a half-century ago while extending the American military empire far beyond our capacity to pay for it. The word was trotted out this year to describe Pat Buchanan, when he was causing great distress to the managers of our national security state by saying that America must abandon the empire if we are ever to repair the mess at home. Also, as a neo-isolationist, Buchanan must be made to seem an anti-Semite.

Speaking of the latter point, Vidal did not place much value on politesse in matters multicultural. His most famous statement on sexual freedom is perhaps 1981’s “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (which you can read at The Nation under its original title, “Some Jews & The Gays”). That essay may be understood as a sequel to Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic.” As Wolfe’s 1970 essay charted the late-1960s apotheosis of phony leftism among “the new class” (midcentury media elites), so Vidal’s 1981 essay accounts for this class’s turn to neoconservatism and its accompanying homophobia.

Because so many members of the new class descended from immigrants, Vidal sought to make common cause with Jews on the grounds that reactionary regimes, Nazism above all, tended to target Jewish and gay populations alike. Yet he does not avoid stereotype. In fact, he mercilessly manipulates stereotype, evidently considering turnabout fair play: as if to avenge the vicious homophobia of Midge Decter and Joseph Epstein, he deploys, in discursive revenge, judeophobic tropes: “No matter how crowded and noisy a room, one can always detect the new-class person’s nasal whine.” And the whole essay argues, in the name of a universal humanism, against any exceptionalist understanding of the Holocaust, as illustrated by this memorable anecdote with, ironically, the cadence of a Borscht Belt bit:

In the German concentration camps, Jews wore yellow stars while homosexualists wore pink triangles. I was present when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. “After all,” said Isherwood, “Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.” The young man was not impressed. “But Hitler killed six million Jews,” he said sternly. “What are you?” asked Isherwood. “In real estate?”

Vidal’s attitude toward sexuality as such was anarchic. He construed human beings as essentially bisexual, denying any such thing as the homosexual identity as opposed to the variably sexual actor, and he saw males in particular as sexually omnivorous. He had a contempt for bourgeois family life, on the basis of whose protection the empire was extended and whose metaphysical warrant was monotheism, with the Hebrew Bible as its wellspring. A coherent and comprehensive worldview, then, not much in evidence on the left today, even if various of its features seemed crucial in the years after 9/11, when Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War seemed (to some) like beacons in a fog of propaganda.

Vidal once semi-seriously appointed Christopher Hitchens his “dauphin or delfino,” before the two men broke over Hitchens’s own post-9/11 conversion to neoconservativism; Vidal ironically outlived his erstwhile successor by one year, which means neither of them crossed into the Trump era. A few commentators have speculated that Hitchens, had he lived, would have warmed, out of sheer contrarianism, to Trump. I highly doubt it, notwithstanding the role played by Hitchens’s nemesis (and Clinton bagman) Sidney Blumenthal in the concoction of the Steele Dossier; I tend to imagine, wrongly perhaps, Hitchens voting for Evan McMullin! With Vidal, on the other hand, one does have to wonder.

Despite all of the above, I do not recommend, as I never do, intellectual biblioclasm. Vidal was a giant of American letters, a brilliant political essayist, and a rebel against orthodoxies whose solidity in their own time it is now difficult to remember. Often the contemporary critics most loudly denouncing historical figures for their “privilege” are themselves unwittingly privileged by their own presentist bias; heirs to the revolutions our predecessors made at great cost to themselves, we judge them from positions of moral security they could not have known.

After that unconscionably long preamble, let me get to the point: Vidal mainly considered himself a novelist. Like Orwell and Baldwin and Sontag, he was almost certainly a better essayist than novelist, but is his fiction any good at all?

His early novel, The City and the Pillar (1948, revised 1965), provides a mixed answer to that question. Historically, it is a crucial text, part of that handful of canonical testaments to 20th-century gay male life before Stonewall, alongside Maurice (1913-14, 1971), Giovanni’s Room (1956), and A Single Man (1964). Of these novels, Isherwood’s is perhaps the only outright literary masterpiece, while Vidal’s is, aesthetically speaking, the slightest. The work of a very young author (Vidal was 21 when he wrote it), The City and the Pillar lacks the moral wisdom of Forster or the sociopolitical acuity of Baldwin, not to mention Isherwood’s late-modernist prose-poetry. Nevertheless, as Vidal mentions in his 1995 introduction to this edition, a reprint of the 1965 revision, he sent the novel to Isherwood and to Thomas Mann, and both men admired it, with Mann reporting in his diary, “An important human document, of excellent and enlightening truthfulness.”

The novel begins with Jim Willard drunk in a New York City bar. From there, a flashback is cued that fills out the bulk of the novel before we return, in the final chapter, to the present. Jim is reared in a politician’s family in Virginia, and is an all-American athlete himself destined for politics. But in high school, he falls in love with a classmate named Bob and they share a tryst in an old “slave cabin” (Vidal again links instances of oppression) by the Potomac:

Now they were complete, as each became the other, as their bodies collided with a primal violence, like to like, metal to magnet, half to half and the whole restored.

Then novel’s prose will rarely be so lyrical again. After high school, Jim becomes a sailor, and then he jumps ship and becomes the kept man of a movie star named Shaw. Life with Shaw gives Jim his introduction into the queer demimonde, which Jim regards ambivalently. Like Forster’s Maurice and Baldwin’s David, Vidal’s Jim is characterized as a “normal” man but for his desire for other men. “Normal” here means “not effeminate.” This is unacceptable to us, no doubt, but these novels tend to express a horror at the feminine, wishing instead to associate male homosexuality with traditionally masculine expressions of gender. As in Giovanni’s Room, the effeminacy of the queer male world is implied to be damage done by the constraints of the closet, and also a cause of the sorrows of gay life.

The City and the Pillar certainly dwells on the sorrows, though they come across more as corruptions given the briskness of the novel’s unsentimental dialogue-heavy and generally anti-lyrical style. Vidal in his introduction says he intended “a flat gray prose reminiscent of one of James T. Farrell’s social documents,” while Brian A. Oard ingeniously compares the novel to Candide. And in Vidal’s pitilessly appraising eye, canvassing in a brief but picaresque text almost the whole of North America as well as London and the sea, there is not a little of Voltaire.

The rest of the novel’s plot is shortly told. Jim leaves Shaw to take up with the writer Sullivan, which gives Vidal a chance to satirize the literary world. After a failed love triangle in Mexico with Sullivan and a woman named Maria, Jim enters the army during World War II and experiences more romantic failure. Though he finds economic success postwar as a tennis instructor in New York, he remains unlucky in love and unsatisfied with the gay subculture, a dissatisfaction that Vidal brings out most brutally in his cruel portrayal of the fatuous and hypocritical party host Rolly: “‘You know, I loathe these screaming pansies…I mean, after all, why be a queen if you like other queens, if you follow me?'”

The novel is plainly moving toward the crisis of Jim’s reunion with Bob, his first love, now married with a child. While Bob had been a willing sexual partner in their youth and expresses ambivalence when he rejoins Jim in New York, he eventually rebuffs his old friend’s advances. Following this rejection by his Platonically ideal male lover, Jim rapes Bob and leaves him face down on a hotel room bed (and in fact, in the novel’s original 1948 version, he kills Bob). After this unforgivable violation, Jim goes to the bar where we met him in the novel’s first chapter. The despairing conclusion finds him in contemplation of the river, water being the novel’s symbol of metamorphosis from the Potomac beside which Jim and Bob make love to the ocean on which they separately set sail:

Once more he stood beside a river, aware at last that the purpose of rivers is to flow into the sea. Nothing that ever was changes. Yet nothing that is can ever be the same as what went before.

As these words imply, The City and the Pillar differs from Forster’s, Baldwin’s, and (to a lesser extent) Isherwood’s novels. The hero’s fundamental problem is not society’s ban on his love for men as it is in, say, Giovanni’s Room. Jim’s tragedy, or fortunate fall, is rather the reverse: his love for men, by freeing him from family life and respectable bourgeois society, discloses to him the essential emptiness of existence, as perceived by the godless Vidal but concealed beneath monotheistic rhetoric and the nuclear family. Like the queer theorist Lee Edelman after him, Vidal treasures queerness for its power to dissolve comforting illusions, its anti-promise of “no future.” (A comparison might also be drawn to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood [1936].)

Like his political essays, then, Vidal’s fiction retains a power to shock and disturb. But Vidal’s wit is better expressed in essay form, where it is wedded to the dissolutely avuncular charm of his voice, rather than to the cold eye of his novel’s third-person narrator. The novel’s grim point, too, could have been made without the climactic act of violence, whether murder or rape, which to me bespeaks a young author’s belief that shock tactics can disguise structural flaws.

The novel’s main structural flaw is Jim. He is too colorless a character, merely a passive observer, his recalcitrant lovelessness and unconvincing obsession with his youthful paramour inexplicable extremisms. (Vidal compares him to Humbert Humbert in his introduction, but where in Jim is Humbert’s idiosyncrasy and perversity?) The novel’s title allies Jim to Lot’s wife: he is destroyed for looking back. But what does Vidal give him to look forward to? I admire amoralism in a novel, but immoralism is moralism’s equal and opposite, just another version of the didactic. Oddly, Vidal’s essays feel less sermonic than this novel does.

Even so, The City and the Pillar is darkly entertaining, historically illuminating, and remorselessly intelligent. Though politics and history have left him behind, as they will leave all of us behind, Gore Vidal remains a writer to read.

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