Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories

The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to BerlinThe Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris & Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Berlin Stories collects Christopher Isherwood’s two novels of the 1930s set in Weimar Germany, The Last of Mr. Norris (1935), published in England under the superior title Mr. Norris Changes Trains, and the better-known Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which introduced Sally Bowles and made Weimar’s cabaret scene a pop culture paragon after being adapted for stage and screen.

Isherwood was a relatively young writer—in his late 20s—when he was having and first writing up his experiences as Berlin visitor (or sex tourist, more of which below), so The Last of Mr. Norris is a slight, callow performance.

The novel is the first-person reminiscence of William Bradshaw, a visiting English writer who is only a barely-fictionalized version of Isherwood—William and Bradshaw were the writer’s middle names. But Bradshaw is not the novels’ focus: rather, the narrative dramatizes Bradshaw’s encounters with the eponymous Englishman Arthur Norris, a middle-aged habitué of the demimonde, who introduces Isherwood and us to Weimar Berlin’s panorama of prostitution, paraphilia, and radical politics.

Norris, with his badly-attached wig and his constant debt, comes off at first as a bathetic but compelling figure, a sad sadomasochist and well-intentioned naïf in the paranoid underworld of interwar communism, an aging dandy who possesses the glamor of a faded starlet.

As the novel progresses, though, we see that his campy tremulousness conceals a ruthless will to survive even at the price of selling out his ostensible friends; as he is manipulated by the various forces conspiring to control Germany, from the police to the Communist Party, he in turn manipulates everyone that comes to hand. Bradshaw looks into Norris’s eyes toward the end of the novel to detect if he is telling the truth and sees the man for who he is:

As a final test, I tried to look Arthur in the eyes. But no, this time-honoured process didn’t work. Here were no windows to the soul. They were merely part of his face, light-blue jellies, like naked shell-fish in the crevices of a rock. There was nothmg to hold the attention; no sparkle, no inward gleam. Try as I would, my glance wandered away to more interesting features; the soft, snout-like nose, the concertina chin. After three or four attempts, I gave it up. It was no good.

Norris is at first amusing, and then he is chilling, and Isherwood manages this slow transformation ably; but as the lead of a novel, he is too lightweight, just a grotesque, and I found Mr. Norris overly long. Better than its portrayal of the title character is its glimpses of Berlin as the political situation comes apart, given in Isherwood’s style of documentary fiction:

Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming-baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines.

The narrator, though, has very little character of his own, just a style of ironic and detached observation that eventually seems as frigid as Norris’s amorality. Over and over again, he tells us that he smiled at some vivid eccentricity of Norris’s, a gesture that casts a pall of frivolity over the whole novel.

In Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the 20th Century’s Most Enjoyable Books, the critic John Carey speculates that Isherwood, understandably concealing his homosexuality and his real reason for his Berlin sojourn from the 1930s Anglo-American reader, in fact identified more with Norris than with the narrator:

But it seems that Isherwood also constructed Mr Norris out of parts of himself. He went to Berlin at a stage in his life when he was contemptuously dismissive of conventional morality, and cynical about political causes (‘All politicians are equally nasty’). In both respects, he resembled Mr Norris. Further, what attracted him to the city, as he frankly admitted, were the boy-bars where hungry youngsters would sell themselves to foreign homosexuals for the price of a meal. However much he might suppress it, it can hardly have escaped someone of Isherwood’s intelligence and upbringing that this was blatantly exploitative (and would have been equally so, of course, had the prostitutes been girls, not boys). He was using the misfortunes of the stricken city as an opportunity for his own hedonism, just like Mr Norris.

This speculation raises a question that might occur to contemporary readers, especially given Armistead Maupin’s preface to the 2008 New Directions edition of The Berlin Stories, which introduces these novels in the context of Isherwood’s own status as 20th-century gay icon: is Mr. Norris a gay or queer novel?

Hard to say: it takes place at a very different moment in “the history of sexuality” than our own. Its narrator, standing in for the gay author, represents himself as a rather hard-boiled, Hemingwayesque, masculinist 1930s narrator, and emphasizes several times that he resists the sexual come-on of the aristocratic pederast Kuno, and that he is, as ever, amused by Kuno’s boy-crazy ways.

Norris, on the other hand, is a heterosexual, a devoted sadomasochist, yet is he who speaks in the languid, campy tones of Wilde. His landlady reports to the narrator, “‘He’s so particular, Herr Bradshaw. More like a lady than a gentleman,'” and his beauty routine queers him in Bradshaw’s sardonic eyes:

Seated before the dressing-table in a delicate mauve wrap, Arthur would impart to me the various secrets of his toilet. He was astonishingly fastidious. It was a revelation to me to discover, after all this time, the complex preparations which led up to his every appearance in public. I hadn’t dreamed, for example, that he spent ten minutes three times a week in thinning his eyebrows with a pair of pincers. ( “Thinning, William; not plucking. That’s a piece of effeminacy which I abhor.” ) A massage-roller occupied another fifteen minutes daily of his valuable time; and then there was a thorough manipulation of his cheeks with face cream ( seven or eight minutes) and a little judicious powdering (three or four). Pedicure, of course, was an extra; but Arthur usually spent a few moments rubbing ointment on his toes to avert blisters and corns. Nor did he ever neglect a gargle and mouth-wash. (“Coming into daily contact, as I do, with members of the proletariat, I have to defend myself against positive onslaughts of microbes.”) All this is not to mention the days on which he actually made up his face. (“I felt I needed a dash of colour this morning; the weather’s so depressing.” ) Or the great fortnightly ablution of his hands and wrists with depilatory lotion. (“I prefer not to be reminded of our kinship with the larger apes.”)

Clearly, certain archetypes or stereotypes of gender and sexuality had not yet hardened by the time of this novel’s composition. Mr. Norris perhaps works better, then, as evidence for a cultural history of changing sexual ideas, than it does as a novel with its own artistic integrity.

Goodbye to Berlin, an acknowledged 20th-century masterpiece, is much better. Here the narrator is named Isherwood without pretense, and if he doesn’t tell us about his personal life it is because he famously theorizes a new form of documentary fiction inspired by the objectivity of film and journalism rather than by the stream-of-consciousness subjectivity that marked the prior generation’s high modernist novels:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

Divided into five freestanding sections, Goodbye to Berlin may be read as another instance, like Winesburg, Ohio, or Dubliners or Cane or Go Down, Moses, of the modernist story cycle or novel-in-stories. (On this note, it’s worth remembering that Isherwood famously championed this literary mode’s most notable use in science fiction, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.)

The first and last divisions are called “A Berlin Diary”—diaries being another documentary form—and they chronicle Berlin’s deteriorating political situation from 1930 to 1933, from the casual anti-Semitism of even otherwise sympathetic characters to open Nazi street violence. Isherwood’s quiet theme here, as he observes and reports, is the missed connection between public and private life (ironically exhibited by his own sexual diffidence, however understandable) that allows totalitarianism to thrive:

It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about “Der Führer” to the porter s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.

But the novel is better known for its second section, “Sally Bowles,” than for these weighty political reflections. Sally is a 19-year-old English cabaret singer who escaped to Berlin from her stultifying rich family (her father is a mill owner and her mother an heiress of a landed lineage); Isherwood is charmed by her sexual frankness and artistic flightiness. The climax of “Sally Bowles” is a bittersweet description of her abortion, though we see her again in the novel a final time, when she seals a sense of her corruption with a vile anti-Semitic remark. Isherwood, camera though he affects to be, is plainly taken with Sally’s air of prematurely degraded eroticism, which he captures, in keeping with his documentary realism, by several times showing us her hands:

As she dialled the number, I noticed that her finger-nails were painted emerald green, a colour unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette-smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. […] Sally lit another cigarette: she smoked the whole time. I noticed how old her hands looked in the lamplight. They were nervous, veined and very thin — the hands of a middle-aged woman. The green finger-nails seemed not to belong to them at all; to have settled on them by chance—like hard, bright, ugly little beetles.

The grotesquery in these passages, the imagery of dirt and insects, the confusion of age from “little girl” to “middle-aged woman” reminiscent of Isherwood’s treatment of the puerile but decaying Mr. Norris from the earlier novel, all suggest authorial disquiet over sexual disinhibition, not celebration of Weimar freedom.

But pop culture seems not to have noticed Isherwood’s ambivalence, and Sally Bowles, while she has ancestors in prior demimondaine fiction (George du Maurier’s Trilby comes to mind), helped to create a new archetype or sexual role model: the Bohemian girl. (My own swooning adolescent encounter with a much-desexualized version of the type occurred when I made the fictional acquaintance of Neil Gaiman’s cheery, black-clad Death from the Sandman comics.) Like Arthur Norris, though, Sally Bowles is too insubstantial to carry a novel, and I was more impressed by the sections that follow.

Both “On Ruegen Island” and “The Nowaks” dramatize Isherwood’s relation to the Nowak family. He meets their youngest son on a holiday on Ruegen Island, where the 16-year-old working-class boy falls into a flirtation or affair with an older Englishman, Peter Wilkinson. Isherwood here introduces a dreamy eroticism into his docu-style:

It is Peter’s will against Otto’s body. Otto is his whole body; Peter is only his head. Otto moves fluidly, effortlessly; his gestures have the savage, unconscious grace of a cruel, elegant animal. Peter drives himself about, lashing his stiff, ungraceful body with the whip of his merciless will.

The dream hardens to nightmare—a comic nightmare in the Dostoevskean style—when Isherwood goes to live with the Nowaks in their impoverished flat, where almost everyone sleeps in one room, and where Isherwood must dodge the flailing conflict of the drunken father, the tubercular mother, the Nazi older son, the puerile little sister, and the histrionic Otto. The whole section culminates in Isherwood’s avowedly nightmarish accompaniment of Otto to visit Frau Nowak in a tuberculosis sanitarium for women that strikes the narrator as a frightening epiphany of female sexuality:

Women being shut up together in this room had bred an atmosphere which was faintly nauseating, like soiled linen locked in a cupboard without air. They were playful with each other and shrill, like overgrown schoolgirls. […] They all thronged round us for a moment in the little circle of light from the panting bus, their lit faces ghastly like ghosts against the black stems of the pines. This was the climax of my dream: the instant of nightmare in which it would end. I had an absurd pang of fear that they were going to attack us—a gang of terrifyingly soft muffled shapes—clawing us from our seats, dragging us hungrily down, in dead silence.

If this unmistakable note of authorial misogyny disturbs or displeases, though, it is dispelled in “The Landauers,” wherein Isherwood befriends the wealthy, cultivated department-store owning Landauer family.

He visits the Landauers, to whom he has a letter of introduction, because they are Jews, increasingly threatened by the rise of the Nazis. He is especially enchanted with Natalia, the family’s daughter, a literate, witty, free-spirited 18-year-old anti-type to Sally Bowles, whom she despises. Isherwood also details his complex, perhaps homoerotic relation to Herr Landauer’s nephew and business partner, Bernhard, a reserved man tortured by his divided identity (he is Prussian, English, and Jewish) and by his complicity in crass commerce. When he upbraids the pseudo-objective narrator for his clear cultural biases, we might nod in agreement:

“You are a little shocked. One does not speak of such things, you think. It disgusts your  English public-school training, a little—this Jewish emotionalism. You like to flatter yourself that you are a man of the world and that no form of weakness disgusts you, but your training is too strong for you. People ought not to talk to each other like this, you feel. It is not good form.”

In the Landauers, we see an enlightened and brilliant world, however troubled, which the Nazi brutality incubated in the hothouse poverty of the Nowaks’ flat will pitilessly exterminate.

Isherwood’s insight, against the previous generation of British writers, that political and psychological insight could come from dispassionate reportage, an objective rather than subjective style, is borne out in the amplitude of Goodbye to Berlin‘s 200 tersely-narrated pages of description and dialogue. If Sally Bowles is overrated as a character—how many readers remember her anti-Semitic crudity, however unintentional, to Natalia Landauer?—the novel as a whole is perhaps under-studied for its artful montage arrangement, for its quiet play with time (events in its five sections are concurrent with one another), and above all for the way it only half-conceals behind the camera its author’s palpable passion.


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Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López, The Eternaut

The EternautThe Eternaut by Héctor Germán Oesterheld

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though The Eternaut only appeared in an English translation in 2015, it is often considered one of the central texts in the canon of Latin American comics and graphic novels, a work of the stature of—in other national or linguistic traditions—Maus or Watchmen, Tintin or L’Incal, Barefoot Gen or Akira.

A newspaper serial originally running in Argentina from 1957-1959, The Eternaut is a science-fiction epic about an alien conquest of earth launched from Buenos Aires. It has both local and global political resonance in its immediate context: its narrative can be seen as a refraction of anxieties over the menace of dictatorship in Argentina and of Cold War fears on the global periphery. But its hero became a kind of graffiti icon in his native country, as Juan Caballero reflects in “The Eternaut: Superpowers and Underdogs,” an afterword to the Fantagraphics translation, due to the grim fate of his creator. Héctor Germán Oesterheld, along with four of his daughters, was “disappeared” in 1977 for his leftist activities during the military dictatorship then ruling the country. He became, in Caballero’s words, “a kind of martyr not just of far-Left art and culture, but of humanism more generally.”

Humanism is the chief theme, the subtext and supertext, of Oesterheld’s tale of alien invasion. It begins with a card game in a Buenos Aires suburb among friends in the house of Juan Salvo. An eerie, glowing snow begins to fall, and it kills everything it touches. Salvo and his friends, men of a scientific bent, grasp the grave situation and begin a quest for survival that extends over the subsequent 350 pages. Along with Salvo, the other protagonists are his old friend, the tireless rationalist and physics professor Favalli, and a friend he makes along the way, the spirited metal-worker Franco.


While references to Robinson Crusoe and his own struggle for survival abound in the early parts of the novel, The Eternaut emphasizes collaboration and solidarity rather than the Protestant individualism of Defoe’s hero. Numerous critics point out the significance of Juan Salvo’s name: the generic, everyman “Juan” combined with “Salvo” and its overtones of battle, rescue, and salvation. In other words, ordinary people are the most salvific forces in the universe. To quote Caballero’s aforementioned essay:

Salvo is an icon of Argentine aspirations, a specifically Argentine kind of superhero: an everyman who fortuitously cracked the code, and when coincidences and circumstances piled up, was able to save the day by combining and coordinating the motley technological and human resources available to him.

Likewise, the band of men that Salvo leads evokes collaboration among all classes and types of humanity, a union of reason (Favalli) and energy (Franco) as of bourgeois and proletarian, which portends Oesterheld’s later commitment to Marxist politics. The book’s translator, Erica Mena, quotes in a preface Oesterheld’s own reflections:

The true hero of The Eternaut is the collective hero, humanity. Considering it now, though it was not my original intention, I feel strongly that the only real hero is “en masse”: never the individual hero, the hero alone.

In his study, “El Eternauta,” “Daytripper,” and Beyond: Graphic Narrative in Argentina and Brazil, David William Foster emphasizes the distance of this midcentury masculinist proto-Marxism from contemporary progressive ideas. Women appear in The Eternaut only in the form of Salvo’s good, beautiful wife and daughter, avatars of Goethe’s “eternal feminine,” drawing the men onward in their journey; the only other female character, playing the whore to Salvo’s madonna of a wife, is a seductive catspaw of the invaders. After noting “the work’s overall contextualization in Argentine cultural production of sixty years ago and unalloyed masculine dynamics of power in Argentina,” Foster concludes:

One is confident in venturing the opinion that Oesterheld’s public could find no grounds to reproach the manliness of these warriors and that the unspoken, probably mostly unconscious, desire of predominantly male readers to enter into this homosocial inner circle is one element that accounts for the enormous success of El Eternauta at the time of its original publication and its continuing favor with Argentine and Latin American reading audiences.

But the graphic novel’s overt allusions to the perils of existing on the semi-colonial periphery of superpower conflict—toward the end, the Northern powers show no more hesitation in bombing Buenos Aires than did the alien invaders—give it a continuing relevance; Caballero is worth quoting a final time for his conclusion that The Eternaut can be read as an assertion against our age of culturally flattening globalization:

It is as if the Cold War and its us/them categories are too small-minded to imagine a truly global and human response to shared challenges, but that response might just spring up on the sidelines of thought and power, in places like Buenos Aires. This, I think, is what makes the work so uplifting and affirming even in its seemingly total darkness for its Argentine readership, and for an international one as well: globalization runs both ways, and for all the Mickey Mouse and Katy Perry that America is exporting to the world, something of the world’s creativity, difference, and vision is flowing back through the same channel. Or so we hope.

The most poignant passages in The Eternaut, aside from its now perhaps over-familiar portrayals of urban apocalypse, come when characters praise a universal spirit of invention, creativity, and freedom, which the mysterious, enslaving alien invaders want to crush. The invaders, called only “them” in the book’s dialogue, are shown to enslave all alien races; Salvo and friends’ conversations with members of the poetic, many-fingered civilization whom “they” cruelly enlist as unwilling administrators draw out this theme of force vs. freedom, as when one of the dying aliens marvels at the commonplace beauty of a domestic teapot.


In a climactic speech, another of these aliens informs Salvo, now displaced in time in his quest to save the earth, that all races share in this spirit of liberty and creativity:

Just as there is between men, beyond the sense of family or nationality, a kind of solidarity among all human beings, you’ll find that there is also a kind of solidarity among all the intelligent beings in the universe. Though we may be very different, we share a loyalty to all that contains spirit, that links extraterrestrials with humans, links the tripeds of Rlima, Vega’s fifth planet, with the globe-beings of Laskaria, the home of the “Gurbos”…

The artistic form of The Eternaut itself breathes this spirit of energetic creation. The pace is deliberate, even slow, as we join the characters’ thinking-through of what possibilities for survival lie to hand. And while Francisco Solano López’s artwork is underemphasized in commentary on the graphic novel, its wonderful dense realism, its apparent facility with pen, marker, and brush, creates an immersive stage for Oesterheld’s cosmo-political drama; if, as in the contemporaneous American comics of the time, the storytelling is a bit staid, with block-like panels next to one another and a lot of shot/reverse-shot transitions, the quality of illustration is superlative, a true visual correlate to the aforementioned Defoe’s meticulously detailed realist literary style.

The main narrative of The Eternaut has a framing device: the titular hero, Juan Salvo, wandering through time, tells the story to Oesterheld himself over the course of a winter’s night four years before the alien invasion. The novel concludes, then, with Oesterheld’s realization that the only way to prevent the calamities the Eternaut has communicated might be to communicate them in turn—to us. The book we hold, then, testifies to a humanistic wish to forestall not so much alien enslavement, but the more mundane tyranny over the spirit that science fiction allegorizes. This is Oesterheld’s ultimate gesture of fidelity to freedom: he puts the end of his story in our hands.


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Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus

Doctor FaustusDoctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Far out to sea the water’s as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass; but it’s very deep, deeper than any anchor can reach. Many church steeples would have to be piled up one above the other to reach from the bottom of the sea to the surface. Right down there live the sea people.
—Hans Christian Andersen, “The Little Mermaid” (trans. R. P. Keigwin)

I begin by apologizing for my insufficiencies as a critic of Doctor Faustus: it suits a novel whose narrator endlessly apologizes to the reader for his own insufficiencies. He cites his ponderous bourgeois humanism that makes him unfit to compose a compelling narrative and his difficulty in writing at all about so personal a subject as the life and death of his best friend while his country—Nazi Germany in the last years of World War II—collapses around him.

My inadequacies in this case are much less dramatic: this 1947 classic is a novel about music and about German culture, and I lack expertise, or even at times basic knowledge, about both subjects. Luckily, Doctor Faustus is also about the necessity and impossibility of modern art, about modern art’s tortured relationship to ethics, politics, and metaphysics—and I have thought a great deal about these subjects, even if not as they pertain to the particular situation of the German composer of art music in the modernist period. What follows can’t claim to be a unified essay, only a few speculative ventures occasioned by this essayistic and discursive novel of ideas.

First, some preliminary information about the novel. Its plot, what there is of it, is shortly summarized: Mann casts the novel as a biography of the great composer Adrian Leverkühn, who lived from 1885 to 1940, written by his best friend since childhood, a humanist and teacher named Serenus Zeitblom. As mentioned, Zeitblom writes the manuscript during Germany’s defeat in the Second World War, and he consequently invites us to find in his story of a German culture hero the seeds of German culture’s catastrophic destiny.

What is Leverkühn’s story? Most problematically for a novelist, an artist’s life is not often outwardly exciting and doesn’t lend itself to a page-turner; artists make art, often sedentarily and in seclusion. Leverkühn is no different: the story of the novel is the story of his intellectual development, as he grows from a late-19th-century rural boyhood in the almost medieval town of Kaisersaschern to a youthful theology student to an avant-garde composer in adulthood in the 1920s, before his madness and premature death, presumably caused by syphilis.

The several outward crises of Leverkühn’s life are erotic, and are to a striking degree surmised rather than being verified by Zeitblom (for all of Nabokov’s hatred for what he took to be Mann’s lumbering Dostoevskean overinvestment in ideological fiction, Doctor Faustus is a novel of almost Nabokovian trickiness, about which more later). As a young man, Leverkühn deliberately contracts syphilis by coupling with a prostitute named Esmerelda; later, he becomes involved in a love quadrangle with a male violinist who is his friend and presumably lover and with two women in their social circle, an entanglement that ends, in a passage of shocking melodrama for this slowest of novels, in a public murder on a streetcar.

But Leverkühn’s real life is in his art, in his artistic progress toward a method that can lead music out of its 19th-century dead-end of Romantic subjectivity without merely jeering at that emotivism through the cynical device of parody. He achieves this paradoxical emancipation from freedom by inventing a severe formal procedure (the real-life 12-tone method of composition developed by Arnold Schoenberg) that allows subjective expression precisely by placing it within an objective formal grid. He and Zeitblom argue about whether or not such a method can really be described as emancipating, and they do so in resonantly political terms:

“Freedom always has a propensity for dialectical reversal. It very quickly recognizes itself in restraint, finds fulfillment in subordinating itself to law, rule, coercion, system—finds fulflliment in them, but that does not mean it ceases to be freedom.”

“In your opinion, that is,” I said with a laugh. “As far as it can see! But in reality that is no longer freedom at all, no more than a dictatorship born of revolution is still freedom.”

“Are you so sure of that?” he asked.

To devise this most modern of systems, though, Leverkühn must traffic with the premodern and the inhuman. Hence his origins in the medieval town of Kaisersaschern and his theological studies, with their focus on the omnipresence of Satanic evil. And hence his self-infliction of syphilis, that progressive illness that ascends to the brain and which was once indissolubly linked to the artistic and philosophical avant-garde.

In fact, Mann, who received a teenaged Susan Sontag in his California exile, seemed almost unable to write without deploying illness as metaphor, a metaphor above all for artists’ necessarily Nietzschean dalliance with the Dionysian forces of nature’s primordial flux if their Apollonian images are to be sufficiently vital to command and console an audience. Doctor Faustus does for syphilis what Death in Venice does for cholera and what The Magic Mountain does for TB. (By the way, the limitations of this metaphor can be shown by recent scholarship’s recision of some high-profile syphilis diagnoses: for instance and to the best of my knowledge, neither Nietzsche nor Wilde are currently thought to have had the sexually-transmitted disease, as they once were.)

At the center of the novel, Zeitblom places Leverkühn’s secret manuscript, a record of his supposed conversation with the devil, who appears variously as a pimp, a music critic, and one of Leverkühn’s former professors, who had argued, in the manner of Goethe’s Faust, that good is produced out of evil. The devil contracts with Leverkühn to produce a type of music that will overcome the Hegelian end of art, but in the midst of their conversation, he in his marvelously punning and almost Joycean discourse (here I can only praise the resourceful translation of John E. Woods) likens the flagellum of the syphilis bacterium to medieval flagellants:

The proper planets met together in the house of the Scorpion, just as Master Dürer drew it for his medicinal broadsheet, and there arrived in German lands the small delicate folk, living corkscrews, our dear guests from the Indies, the flagellants—you prick up your ears, do you not? As if I spoke of the vagabonding guild of penitents, scourging their backs for their own and all mankind’s sins. But I mean the flagellates, the imperceptible, which have flails, like our pale Venus—the spirochaeta pallida, that is the true sort. But right you are, it sounds so snugly like the high Middle Age and its flagellum haereticorum fascinariorum.

In other words, everything outside the control of reason, from premodern religion to incurable illness, is at one and conduces to art. Modernism, as Guy Davenport used to emphasize, was revival of the archaic, a valorization of whatever was trampled by the self-congratulatory progress of bourgeois western European modernity, whether it take the form of Europe’s own past cultures—pre-Christian paganism, medieval Christianity, folklore—or the cultures of Africa or Asia or, more simply, the biological substrate of consciousness that modernity presumes to shackle within the bounds of reason and moderation. The devil defines hell as nothing other than extremism, the extremism to which both modern art and politics were driven in the early 20th century:

Its essence, or if you will will, its point is that it allows its denizens only the choice between extreme cold and extreme fire that could bring granite to melt—between those two conditions they flee yowling to and fro, for within each the other ever appears a heavenly balm, but is at once, and in the most hellish sense of the word, unbearable. The extremes of it must please you.

Politically, this poses a problem, the name of which for Mann is “Germany.” Because Germany’s longstanding resistance to what Zeitblom identifies as humanism, associated variously and sometimes contradictorily with the Catholic Church, the French Revolution, Enlightenment philosophy, and neoclassical aesthetics, arguably incubated the ultramodern archaism, the techno-irrationalism—in sum, the modernism—of the Nazis.

This theme comes out in the novel’s overtly political passages, as when Zeitblom begins frequenting a salon where the assembled intellectuals of the 1920s express the coming anti-humanism. The most political of them advocates “a post- and counterrevolutionary conservatism, an assault on bourgeois liberal values from the other side, not from before, but from after,” showing that fascism/modernism is not really conservatism, is in a sense beyond those French categories of left and right, is a heedless leap into the future-past outside of reason and progress where the feeling subject is reborn in a surrender to the cold and chthonic forces of the universe.

As for sexuality, the novel’s plot, if we can call it that, narrates the break-up of the bourgeois home and the nuclear family, themselves inventions of modern western reason. Mann gathers adultery, prostitution, and queerness under the sign of syphilis to produce a sexuality counter to the bourgeois standard of domesticity. As opposed to Zeitblom’s settled family life, Leverkühn and everyone in his circle come to a bad end through sex, and it is no coincidence that Leverkühn makes his pact with the devil over the body of a syphilitic sex worker, joining the “brothel-hood,” if you will (and perhaps you won’t), of modernist masculinity, like the Joyce of “Circe” and the Picasso of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

At the novel’s conclusion, the final sign of Leverkühn’s damnation comes with the death of his little nephew, Nepomuk (nicknamed “Echo”), from cerebral meningitis, the effects of which are likened to possession. Modernism be damned, Mann (or Zeitblom) slathers on the 19th-century treacle to convince us of the little boy’s angelic loveliness and to make us mourn his death, symbolically brought on by his proximity to his evil uncle. Leverkühn had invited a disease of the brain into his own life without understanding that its like would blast the innocent, in a grim echo indeed. Echo is portrayed with such schmaltz that even Little Eva from Uncle Tom’s Cabin would blush, and not only from the feverish effects of her own highly symbolical wasting disease. Just so we don’t miss the point, we are informed several times that Echo is half Swiss: Switzerland, that country of multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic, and republican Enlightenment, as against Germany’s tragic and endemic irrationalism.

So it appears that Doctor Faustus is, for all its dense and riddling disquisitions on modernism and music, a story with a very clear moral: Mann comes out for humanism, reason, moderation, and against modernism’s Faustian ambition and romance with the inhuman. On the other hand, who wants to read a tract? And does the novel not frequently raise the possibility of parody, to say nothing of irony? There is that Nabokovian trickiness I mentioned at the outset. Could so staid a narrator as Zeitblom, who is always telling us just how staid he is, just how “eerie” and “uncanny” he finds the story he is telling us, be unreliable? Yes: simply because he is always telling us we can trust him, we should suspect him.

Doctor Faustus is a novel narratively in the mode of Melville’s Moby-Dick, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby: all of these books feature narrators of self-proclaimed humanism and enlightenment who tell us about the grand catastrophes of other, very different men, “ungodly god-like men,” to borrow from Melville. Yet each of these books, Doctor Faustus no less than the others, carefully shows us the secret yearning, even the erotic longing, of its stolid narrator to be more like its tragic anti-hero.

The Catholic Zeitblom, for one thing, is not without his own fascist tendencies. Despite unctuously proclaiming his philo-Semitism in the opening pages, he caricatures and even at times maligns the novel’s Jewish characters (one of whom is the aforementioned advocate for “counterrevolutionary conservatism”). Likewise he defends monarchical absolutism in an otherwise inexplicable scene wherein he speaks in favor of “mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria, another obsessed aesthete.

But more importantly than these political slips, at the end of the book, Zeitblom quietly discloses the dark secret of his own text, the very novel we’re reading, which we had taken for a meandering and even slightly dull biography. He is ostensibly describing the structure of Leverkühn’s final composition, The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus:

This gigantic lamento…is, properly speaking, undynamic, lacking development and without drama, in much the same way as when a stone is cast into water the concentric circles that spread farther and farther, one around the other, are without drama and always the same. A single immense variation on lamentation…it expands in rings, each inexorably drawing the others after it: movements, grand variations, which correspond to textual units or chapters in the book and yet in and of themselves are are once again nothing but sequences of variations. (my ellipses)

But isn’t this a perfect description of Doctor Faustus? Is it not a novel with no plot, no narrative, no drama, no progress, just incident after incident, each of which, no matter how minor, contains in miniature the themes of the whole? Even when Zeitblom gives us a passage of seeming comic digression (Sterne, by the way, is one of Leverkühn’s favorite writers), he plays variations on the Faust theme. He describes the denizens of the boarding house where Leverkühn stays in Italy and is careful to tell us that of the two brothers who live there, one is an Enlightened rationalist and the other an unreasonable reactionary. Similarly, the novel’s erotic subplots, particularly those stories of the “fallen” sisters Inez and Clarissa Rodde, allegorize the tragic conflict between bourgeois moderation and Faustian extremity.

All of which is to say that neither author (Mann) nor narrator (Zeitblom) can condemn the tragic hero Leverkühn, since both have introduced his totalizing Satanic-fascist musical innovations into the art of the novel. And that is why this is a modernist novel, despite its superficial appearance of belated 19th-century realism. Leverkühn had with his final composition wanted to “revoke” the monument of Romanticism and progressivism, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, converting its heroic joy into tragic sorrow. Mann similarly revokes the progressive temporality of Goethe, the organicism that allows the endless striving of Faust or of the bildungsroman, this to achieve the archaic revival in the modern novel of tragedy, with its union of irreconcilables—individual will, communal need, universal fate—in a grand calamity that makes a lamenting concord of discord. On the other hand, it takes a clear-headed, rational, i.e., humanistic, reading of the novel to discover these paradoxes; in that sense, it promotes anti-fascist habits of mind to grasp its potentially fascist form.

This novel dramatizes, among other conflicts, religion vs. magic. Religion deals in dualism: body against soul, good against evil. Magic, by contrast, posits the union of opposites, as does art.

Bourgeois humanism is for its curriculum parasitic upon nature and art—those demonic forces it tries to subdue. For this reason, Mann is not only indicting Zeitblom for hypocrisy and complicity, which would put this novel in the realm of rational polemics, but also indicting humanity’s inherent inner conflict, our competing desires for mutually exclusive forms of the good, the true, and the beautiful, which is what makes this novel a tragedy. Didn’t Mann in The Magic Mountain refer to the human being as the “lord of counterpositions”? We don’t want Hitler, and we can’t live by bourgeois reason alone. Start with that concession of confusion and contradiction, as Mann so delicately does beneath the overt argument of his superficially ideological novel, and maybe we will get somewhere.

But I don’t want to end with yet another self-flagellation of the modern artist, as if we were the only people who ought to have guilty consciences in this guilty world. For Mann insists that science is as culpable as the artistic and philosophical avant-garde in fascist irrationalism. A very minor character in the novel is Dr. Unruhe,

a philosophical paleozoologist, whose writings linked in a most ingenious fashion the study of fossils and geological strata with a vindication and scientific confirmation of materials found in ancient sagas, so that by his theory—a sublimated Darwinism, if you will—all things that an advance humanity had long since ceased to believe became true and real again.

This fusion of archaic lore with modern science is a motif of the novel. The devil compares the syphilis bacterium to Andersen’s Faustian little mermaid, for instance; like the sexually-contracted spirochete winding its way from phallus to cerebellum, she (for love) ascends from water to earth to air. Leverkühn, who late in the novel tries to drown himself and early in the novel watches his father’s scientific experiments with liquids, has a fantasy, on the cusp of his greatest artistic achievements, in which he explores the black depths of the ocean and there encounters

the mad grotesqueries, organic nature’s secret faces: predatory mouths, shameless teeth, telescopic eyes; paper nautiluses, hatchetfishes with goggles aimed upward, heteropods, and sea butterflies up to six feet long. Even things that drift passively in the current, tentacled monsters of slime… (my ellipses)

These watery passages are to my mind the most prophetic in the novel. Such tentacular and oceanic metaphors, such fears of a fascist science and of the primordial slime it discloses, seem pressing in a way that avant-garde art no longer does.

If we ourselves are (and we very may well be) on the brink of a post-bourgeois, post-humanist millennium, piloted by hypercapitalist city-states overseen by gene-editors and artificial intelligence, then the most significant writer of the 20th century will prove not to have been the humanist modernist Mann but—as Alan Moore suggests in his recent and startlingly not-un-Doctor-Faustus-like graphic novel Providence—the gothic materialist H. P. Lovecraft. But Mann is a writer of sufficiently diabolical foresight to have incorporated that unsettling possibility into this most eerie and uncanny of great novels.


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Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

But was I wrong, in “In Praise of Semicolons,” to be so severe in my judgment of Kurt Vonnegut, to castigate him for infantilism? I decided to find out by reading what is regarded as the author’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut’s sixth novel, and includes characters from many of its precursors and successors. Part of the charm of his books, I imagine, is that each feels like an episode in an ongoing conversation with the author; with each visit, readers receive an update on this fascinating man’s struggle with his preoccupations and obsessions. And what I like best in Slaughterhouse-Five, what still seems original half a century later, and what moreover still seems useful and usable, is Vonnegut’s mix of two modes considered wildly incongruous: memoir and fantasy.

He begins with a chapter about his writing of the novel, the qualms and researches involved in converting into fiction his most notable wartime experience: the firebombing of Dresden in 1945. (The novel takes its title from the slaughterhouse in Dresden where Vonnegut was held prisoner.) Will he glamorize war, as an old army buddy’s wife worries?

“You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.”

He promises that he will do no such thing: that he will write an anti-war book, that he will represent himself and his fellow soldiers as “babies.” Hence the novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, and hence Vonnegut’s emphasis that he made the novel’s outline on the back of a roll of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.

But Slaughterhouse-Five is a semi-satirical fable, not a realistic autobiographical war novel in the manner of All Quiet on the Western Front or A Farewell to Arms. Its main plot concerns an American everyman named Billy Pilgrim, who is “unstuck in time”: as he slips between all the moments of his life, we are treated, non-sequentially and in brief bursts of narrative, not only to his youthful experience as a prisoner of the Germans, during which time he survived the firebombing, but also to his middle age as a rich optometrist living an American life of “quiet desperation” and to his time as an exhibition in a zoo on the planet Tralfamadore.

The Tralfamadorians’s perception of time helps to explain the novel’s structure. For them, time is not a linear flow but an object in space. They liken the past to the part of the landscape you can see behind you and the future to the objects ahead of you. Their fiction, then, reads to Billy like Slaughterhouse-Five reads to us:

Billy couldn’t read Tralfamadorian, of course, but he could at least see how the books were laid out-in brief clumps of symbols separated by stars. Billy commented that the clumps might be telegrams.

“Exactly,” said the voice.

“They are telegrams?”

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of-symbols is a brief, urgent message describing a situation, a scene, We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

This idea of all space and time compressed into one art object is a modernist ambition, from Pound’s Chinese ideogram to Benjamin’s dialectical image. And as Pound’s and Benjamin’s desire to fuse word and picture suggests, the ideal format for such a perception of spacetime is less prose than comics: each page of a comic represents a time-sequence as a spatial array of images. Perhaps the best artistic treatment of spacetime, then, is Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, which I have to imagine took some leads from this novel.

Seemingly aware of this temporal theory’s need for pictures, Vonnegut includes a few cartoons throughout Slaughterhouse-Five; I very much could have done without them, particularly the climactic middle-schoolesque drawing of the banal serenity prayer hanging between a pair of crudely-rendered breasts. But the novel’s simple telegraphic style itself moves away from narration, from literacy, and toward the juxtaposition of images. It is a graphic novel avant la lettre.

But if the novel’s form sides with the Tralfamadorean desire for fiction with “no moral,” how does that square with Vonnegut’s avowed intention in the first chapter to produce anti-war fiction? The best answer is “uneasily.”

Without a plot, exactly, Slaughterhouse-Five is structured by its verbal refrains and motifs, from the depiction of “blue and ivory” feet to signify death to the repetition of a dying colonel’s poignant declaration, “If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob!” The most insistent of these motifs is “So it goes,” the phrase with which the Tralfamadoreans greet news of a death; the novel’s narrator repeats it any time he has to tell that anyone has died. If death is unimportant because a person’s life persists elsewhere in the solid structure of time, then what does it matter if anyone is killed in a war?

Opposed to the Tralfamadorean quietism and aestheticism (their recommendation is to “spend eternity looking at pleasant moments” rather than dwelling on such unpleasantries as war) is a countervailing anger in the novel at all forms of cruelty and injustice. This anger animates Vonnegut’s satirical portrait of upper-class Americans’ empty, privileged, self-satisfied lives, and his frequent mockery in particular of the political right.

Billy reads a novel by the (invented) science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout which traces injustice to an ethical flaw in the Biblical narrative of Christ’s life. Because the story tells us that humanity erred in “lynching” a man who was really the son of God, it allows us to go on thinking that there are people, not sons of God, whom we may legitimately lynch. The story should be revised so that the Christ-figure really is powerless, as Trout imagines an alien’s new gospel revealing:

The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had.

Trout’s alien is anti-Tralfamadorean; those amoralists don’t care at all about Jesus:

On Tralfamadore, says Billy Pilgrim, there isn’t much interest in Jesus Christ. The Earthling figure who is most engaging to the Tralfamadorian mind, he says, is Charles Darwin—who taught that those who die are meant to die, that corpses are improvements.

I’m not sure that is a fair summary of what Darwin taught, and I’m also not sure we should judge scientific theories by moral criteria; nevertheless, Vonnegut several times inveighs against a cruel social Darwinism that upholds the brutal calculus of those who make war, those who regard human lives as expendable in the name of profit or power. This theme comes out especially when Billy encounters the wealthy Air Force historian Rumfoord in a hospital:

The staff thought Rumfoord was a hateful old man, conceited and cruel. He often said to them, in one way or another, that people who were weak deserved to die. Whereas the staff, of course, was devoted to the idea that weak people should be helped as much as possible, that nobody should die.

The moral of the novel is clear enough, then, but the form of the novel works directly against it. This is not only because the kaleidoscopic narrative structure endorses the fatalism of Tralfamadore, but also because Vonnegut won’t, and perhaps can’t, create characters of sufficient depth to validate his crypto-Christian humanism, his sense that we are each inherently worthwhile and irreplaceable and so ought not to be oppressed or slaughtered:

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces.

Because humanity is no more than a pawn of inhuman forces, the old way of writing novels, rich in character, is out of date. In a mental hospital, Eliot Rosewater and Billy Pilgrim turn to science fiction to help them “re-invent themselves and their universe,” a task at which older fiction can’t assist them:

Rosewater said an interesting thing to Billy one time about a book that wasn’t science fiction. He said that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov, by Feodor Dostoevsky. “But that isn’t enough any more,” said Rosewater.

Even leaving aside the problem of how to “re-invent” self and universe in a deterministic cosmos, though, Vonnegut’s taste for cartoons over characters contradicts his humanism even more directly than does his novel’s fatalistic structure. As James Baldwin wrote of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as Franz Kafka wrote of Charles Dickens, sentimentality is often an overcompensation for cruelty. Consider two of this novel’s characters. The first is a mean and pitiful soldier whose stupidity leads to Billy’s capture by the Germans:

Roland Weary was only eighteen, was at the end of an unhappy childhood spent
mostly in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He had been unpopular in Pittsburgh. He had been unpopular because he was stupid and fat and mean, and smelled like bacon no matter how much he washed.

The second is the woman Billy will marry:

His fiancee was out there now, sitting on the visitor’s chair. Her name was Valencia Merble. Valencia was the daughter of the owner of the Ilium School of Optometry. She was rich. She was as big as a house because she couldn’t stop eating. She was eating now. She was eating a Three Musketeers Candy Bar. She was wearing trifocal lenses in harlequin frames, and the frames were trimmed with rhinestones.

Their grotesquery, their selfishness and foolishness, is never mitigated or explained. They are never given any deeper background than this: they are simply detestable, and Valencia’s death in particular is played for laughs.

Stowe and Dickens at least would have imagined them as fantastic, visionary gargoyles even if they would not have depended their characters with pathos, as, say, Chekhov or George Eliot might have done. But Vonnegut seems incapable of even the highest level of caricature: the likes of Uriah Heep or Miss Havisham are as beyond him as are three-dimensional characters in this novel that claims to represent the fourth dimension. We are left with cruel cartoons against cruelty, fat Americans who stand in for American greed and meanness, and Vonnegut performs the artistic equivalent of firebombing them.

So for all this novel’s originality of design and thought-provoking fabulism, I conclude where I began with Vonnegut: his artistic simplicity is not an indirect route to depth but rather over-simplification. As for Slaughterhouse-Five‘s quarrel with itself over fatalism and humanism, amoral vs. anti-war fiction, I see a lazy indulgence of confusion passed off as complexity. I will keep faith with Dostoevsky and semicolons.


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Iris Murdoch, The Bell

The BellThe Bell by Iris Murdoch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters by Frances Stonor Saunders

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone once said that beneath or behind all political and cultural warfare lies a struggle between secret societies.
—Ishmael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo (1972)

This 1999 book by British journalist Saunders is the classic account of the CIA’s semi-secret mid-20th-century sponsorship of cultural organizations, literary and political journals, artistic movements, and related ventures (including films and political campaigns) throughout the world to combat the influence of communism.

Taking the form of a narrative history, The Cultural Cold War focuses on three men who were the relays between seemingly independent artists and intellectuals and the American (as well as British) intelligence services.

Saunders’s stars are Melvin Lasky, a Bronx-born and City-College-educated militant anti-communist who became a prominent editor in Germany after World War II; Nicolas Nabokov, cousin to the more famous novelist Vladimir, a White Russian émigré and flamboyant composer who would go on to be at the center of the artists and writers knowingly or unknowingly recruited to fight communism; and Michael Josselson, descended from an Estonian Jewish family exiled after the Russian Revolution, who became an American citizen and then an intelligence and psychological warfare expert  overseeing the Agency’s domination of arts and letters.

This trio’s travails are the emotional spine of the book, and Saunders treats them with sympathy, especially Josselson, whom she seems to regard as a tragic figure, a man of cultivation and passion caught in world-historical circumstances well beyond his control. At times, I felt I was reading a sequel to Gravity’s Rainbow, another vast and complex story about humanists compromised by the domineering services to which the masters of war inevitably wish to put humanism.

While The Cultural Cold War is a dispassionate book with a minimum of editorializing, Saunders seems to reserve most of her judgment not for the intelligence officers, but for the artists and intellectuals themselves. They either cynically or naively accepted CIA money laundered through philanthropic foundations (many of which were simply fronts, little more than mail drops for the transfer of funds) even as they nevertheless congratulated themselves for being on the side of a free society where the government did not interfere with cultural life.

The CIA was instituted in 1947, an outgrowth of the wartime OSS (Office of Strategic Services), and it became a tentacular and autonomous bureaucracy operating unaccountably worldwide. Its motivation in waging a cultural Cold War was to recruit a “non-communist left.” Understanding the appeal of dissidence to artists and thinkers, and understanding too the pre-war attractions of communism during the 1930s, the CIA grasped that keeping rebellious intellectuals in the fold of liberalism would be crucial to ensure the success of “the American century.”

To that end, they funded a European organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the famous British liberal literary journal Encounter (edited by Stephen Spender and Irving Kristol), and art and music exhibitions meant to emphasize the progressive side of American culture to European audiences skeptical that America had a culture at all. Exemplary here are the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionist painting as an individualist and apolitical antidote to socialist realism and of jazz and other African-American arts as a riposte to the Soviet Union’s charges of American hypocrisy in complaining about communism’s civil unfreedom.

Saunders emphasizes that the CIA really did represent the liberal side of the internal American debate over how to handle the Cold War, referring to “many romantic myths about the CIA as an extension of the American liberal literary tradition.” The men she writes about were generally horrified by the know-nothing populism of Joseph McCarthy, while a number of presidents, including Truman and Johnson (but excluding the suave would-be Pericles Kennedy), resented intellectuals, distrusted modernist art, and would have preferred a more populist cultural ethos of God and country.

The American intelligence service, she notes, was staffed by the country’s traditional Anglo-Protestant elite, an educated class who felt the responsibility of national stewardship: “Many of them hailed from a concentration in Washington, D.C., of a hundred or so wealthy families…who stood for the preservation of the Episcopalian and Presbyterian values that had guided their ancestors.” Yet their waging of the Cold War would result, ironically, in that elite’s and those values’ cultural dispossession.

Part of this book’s sly comedy comes in the intelligence elite’s sometimes uncomprehending interaction with the “new class,” primarily Jewish intellectuals, but in the background there is also the emergence of Catholic writers and black artists and postcolonial talents, all of whom the CIA recruited as a bludgeon against communism. If the literary-sociological headline of midcentury American writing is the rise of Jewish, Catholic, and African-American authors to unprecedented prominence, Saunders implies that this was in a way a project of the WASP elite, a move in the Great Game against Russian communism and for western values.

But for Saunders, this new class, particularly the New York Intellectuals, did not acquit itself well, especially those who would go on to fill the ranks of the neoconservatives. Irving Kristol seems more or less to be the book’s villain. He represents for Saunders a type of pseudo-thinker who possesses an essentially militarized mind, a man who cannot conceive of intellectual life outside of polarizing combat and enemies to slay. Saunders tends to portray Sidney Hook, Diana Trilling, and Leslie Fiedler in the same unflattering light.

Quoted throughout the book as moral authorities, by contrast, are more independent-minded figures devoted to a nuanced conception of the literary and political life: Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, and New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein.

Saunders tentatively concludes that when American intellectuals, even those who had gone along with the cultural Cold War, turned against Johnson over Vietnam, he ordered the plug to be pulled on the operation, judging that “‘liberals, intellectuals, Communists—they’re all the same.'” The CIA’s cultural activities were exposed in a California-based radical magazine called Ramparts, and later reported in the New York Times. But Saunders implies that the Agency could probably have squashed Ramparts‘s reporting or at least effectively replied to it. But they did not; they allowed their own exposure, perhaps out of a sense that the cultural Cold War had run its course. If this is true, it makes the radical magazine’s exposure of liberal intellectuals’ collaboration with the CIA itself an instrument of the Agency’s will, a familiar hall-of-mirrors effect from spy thrillers: is there anything the CIA doesn’t control?

This problem of mirroring is the thesis, ultimately, of Saunders’s book. She writes of the irony in combatting totalitarianism by exercising (or participating in) in the state’s total control over intellectual and artistic life. American and British writers and artists, in trying to fight the Soviet Union, became far too much its counterpart. This comes out, for instance, in passages where Saunders records how the Agency attempted to quash art that reflected too negatively on the U.S., recalling nothing so much as the strictures of socialist realism:

Echoing Sidney Hook’s complaints of 1949 that Southern writers reinforced negative perceptions of America, with their “novels of social protest and revolt” and “American degeneracy and inanity,” the American Committee now resolved to “steer clear of incestuous Southerners. Their work gives an exceedingly partial and psychologically colored account of our manners and morals.” […] Sales of books by Caldwell, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and Richard Wright…slumped in this period.

Near the conclusion of the book, Saunders suggests that collaboration with state power, even in an ostensibly good political cause, is an abdication of the intellectual’s responsibility to tell the truth:

[E]thics were subject to politics. They confused their role, pursuing their aims by acting on people’s states of mind, choosing to slant things one way rather than another in the hope of achieving a particular result. That should have been the job of politicians. The task of the intellectual should have been to expose the politician’s economy with the truth, his parsimonious distribution of fact, his defense of the status quo.

Furthermore, in a preface to the 2013 edition, Saunders offers an argument against any excessive political conviction, any use of propaganda:

My sympathies are with Voltaire, who argued that anyone who is certain ought to be certified. I believe that Milan Kundera’s “wisdom of uncertainty” is a touchstone for intellectual inquiry. The Cultural Cold War could be described as a polemic against conviction (which can be distinguished from faith or belief or values) and the strategies used to mobilize one conviction against another. In the highly politicized context of the cultural cold war, this refusal to take sides was designated, pejoratively, as relativism or neutralism. It was not a position or sensibility tolerated by either side—both the Soviet Union and the United States were committed to undermining the case for neutralism, and in the theater of operations which is the focus of this book, Western Europe, that campaign devolved from very similar tactics.

The Cultural Cold War, then, argues for a rather unfashionable thesis: the autonomy of art and intellect from politics. The authority of artists and intellectuals to scrutinize and criticize their societies is based on their disinterested distance from its governing institutions. This distance is a modern phenomenon and is ever in danger of being compromised. The idea that artists do not exist to serve the church, the state, or any other collective or constituency hardly existed before the 19th century, though there are hints of it in Greek literature’s famous moments of even-handedness (The Persians, for instance) or in Shakespeare’s constitutive ambiguities.

Materially, the distance of intellectuals from power can rarely be total, especially today when so many of us are gathered under the aegis of the university. (I myself am paid in part with taxpayer funds.) Nevertheless, we give up this ideal of artistic and intellectual independence, the true meaning of “cultural freedom” betrayed in practice by the Cold Warriors, at the risk of relinquishing whatever social power we still have.

Saunders’s old-fashioned idealism, like the blurbs on the back of the book from Edward Said and Lewis Lapham, wistfully calls to mind an  “ideological formation” (to use the comrades’ jargon) that scarcely exists in this country any longer, a non-communist left worth supporting—non-communist not because it represents Cold War managerial liberalism (the “snivelling, mealy-mouthed tyranny of bureaucrats, social workers, psychiatrists and union officials” Saunders quotes William S. Burroughs as denouncing) but because its exponents were civil and cultural libertarians.

And what of today? What intellectual and artistic organs are being moved as we speak by the hidden hand of the deep state? I suppose we all have our suspicions, and “none” would be an absurdly naive answer. But who knows for sure? I imagine we’ll learn more about what is really going on right now in about 30-50 years. In the meantime, to get an idea of how paranoid you should be, you should read The Cultural Cold War.


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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.


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!