Machado de Assis, The Alienist

The AlienistThe Alienist by Machado de Assis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We could learn a lot, both about life and literature, from this 1882 novella by the Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis. Machado is only now becoming prominent in the Anglophone world with Liveright’s publication last year of his collected short stories (in which another translation of The Alienist appears; I read the 1963 version by William L. Grossmann—the first in English—as reprinted by Melville House). We are currently more aware both of his significance for Latin American letters and of the praise he has already received from English-language authors.

Philip Roth hailed him as a “tragic comedian,” Susan Sontag commended him as “the greatest writer ever produced in Latin America,” and Harold Bloom called him “the supreme black literary artist to date.” If we hesitate at Sontag’s import/export terminology or at Bloom’s perhaps presumptuous arbitration of black aesthetics, Roth’s judgment is nevertheless precise. Morten Høi Jensen, reviewing the Collected Stories, has this to say about The Alienist:

“The Alienist,” one of his best (and longest) stories, is a darkly comic parable of bureaucracy, madness, and power equal parts Kafka and Monty Python. I laughed out loud several times as I read it but found, upon reaching its conclusion, that what I had initially experienced as comic had become tragic. It is as if Don Quixote had been condensed to a 50-page novella.

Though Machado is credited with bringing literary realism to Brazil, I was reminded for my part of Voltaire by the novella’s slapstick briskness of narration and arch appraisal of human delusion; Jensen’s evocations of Cervantes and Kafka, however, catch the pre- and post-Enlightenment undertone of despair over human incorrigibility that sounds at The Alienist‘s close.

At 80-some pages, The Alienist is a little epic of revolution and counter-revolution, a little tragedy of one man’s fall from overweening ambition to final self-defeat, and a grand satire, eventually on everyone and everything. The story begins when the brilliant, European-educated physician, the eponymous psychologist Simão Barcamarte, decides, at the age of 34, to return to his provincial Brazilian home town of Itaguaí.

There, and with the support of a local government grateful for his modernization effort, he opens the region’s first asylum and, driven by pure scientific curiosity, determines to find the causes of and discover the treatments for mental illness. A rationalist, he marries a vain woman he hardly cares for because he deems her physiology (blood pressure, eyesight, etc.) promising for his progeny and claims that her charmlessness will leave him undistracted from his scientific work.

But Barcamarte (whose name translates as “Blunderbuss”) finds that more and more of his neighbors can be defined as mad; consequently, he confines more and more of them to his asylum, the Green House, so called because of its uniquely-colored windows. While Barcamarte begins with actually debilitating delusions, he comes to regard every human foible, from poetic fancy to vanity in fashion, as a symptom of mental illness and eventually has four-fifths of the population committed, including his own wife. He says:

“Till now, madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of sanity. I am beginning to suspect that is not an island at all but a continent.”

This incarceration of the populace provokes a revolution led by the barber Porfírio; but the new government, once installed, decides to work with Barcamarte instead of fighting him, and the previous government is restored in the end. This satire on populism, revolution, and governmental inertia suggests Machado’s political cynicism: while Porfírio, pleased with his own grandiose phraseology, proposes storming the “Bastille of human reason,” other fine phrases find their own constituencies, and revolution inevitably comes full circle.

Barcamarte relents not from outside pressure but when he he begins to question his own premises: if four-fifths of people are unbalanced, then how can mental illness be considered a deviation from the norm? Perhaps the norm is psychological imbalance, he concludes, and only the well-adjusted and rational belong in the Green House. He puts this theory into practice, releasing his prior patients and now locking up only those who exhibit unusual sense and rectitude. When he finds that the latter are only too easy to corrupt into irrationality, he frees them too. If folly is universal, what is madness and who is the madman? The story comes to its conclusion with the elegance of a logical proof and the fatedness of a tragedy:

Simão Barcamarte…had found in himself the perfect, undeniable case of insanity. He possessed wisdom, patience, tolerance, truthfulness, loyalty, and moral fortitude—all qualities that go to make an utter madman.

Why do I say we have much to learn about life and literature from this little book?

First, life. Today we encounter an almost unprecedented faith in the medical model of the psyche. Individuals accept, and institutions increasingly not only accommodate but demand, fundamental identification based on labels devised by physicians. That these labels are themselves often tropes, names for lists of symptoms, and that their sometimes pharmacological treatments might conduce more to the profits of corporations than people—these are observations I almost hesitate to type, so concealed are they behind a moralized rhetoric of “help” and “care.”

And while I certainly don’t mean to belittle the necessity of medical intervention for certain mental problems, I find The Alienist prophetic, especially as it was written before even the advent of psychoanalysis. Anticipating 20th-century enemies of totalizing psychology from Woolf and Nabokov to Pynchon and Foucault, Machado satirizes the arbitrariness and authoritarianism of psychological classification and queries the motives, even the sanity, of those who would presume to sit in judgment on human reason. In so doing, he speaks to the 21st century.

But Barcamarte is not just the butt of Machado’s joke—and here we find our literary lesson. In one passage, the narrator—who, Cervantes’s metafictional style, claims to be summarizing a historical chronicle—contrasts Barcamarte with his assistant, the pharmacist Crispim Soares:

Crispim Soares stared at the road, between the ears of his roan. Simão Barcamarte swept the horizon with his eyes, surveyed the distant mountains, and let his horse find the way home. Perfect symbols of the common man and of the genius! One fixes his gaze upon the present with all its tears and privations; the other looks beyond to the glorious dawns of a future that he himself will shape.

The humorous tone of the above notwithstanding, Barcamarte really is a genius. The proof comes when he has enough integrity to subject himself to his own theory. His true universality of perception allies him to his author, whose metafictional irony ensures that he satirizes himself and his discourse (i.e., fiction) as well as his subjects.

Both Machado and Barcamarte are disinterested. This word is now lazily used as a synonym for boredom, but it properly denotes the ideal impartiality of the scientist and the artist. Like every other ideal, it is not humanly achievable, but neither is it to be abandoned. Its mark in this text is the narrator’s dispassionate storytelling, a quality of withholding and understatement that allows the reader to feel the tragic finale to this ironic tale more than any authorial emoting would have.

As Namwali Serpell notes in her polemic on “The Banality of Empathy,” we may need less sentimentality in our fiction and more of the cognitive capacity to recreate viewpoints and attitudes, all the better to perceive both their potentials and their limitations. Here, too, Machado shows the way.


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José Revueltas, The Hole

The HoleThe Hole by José Revueltas

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Hole was written in Mexico City’s Lecumberri Penitentiary in 1969 and published the same year; a classic of Latin American literature, one that Valeria Luiselli claims on the back cover has informed the works of Bolaño and Aira, the novella appears for the first time in English in this 2018 translation by Amanda Hopkinson and Sophie Hughes.

Revueltas’s short novel is not only remarkable for its prison provenance. It is also an experimental formal contrivance—a solid block of prose from end to end with no breaks. Revueltas narrates his characters’ experience in real time, a viscous flow of consciousness that mimics the hallucinatory desperation of its criminal anti-heroes in the depths of the prison.

Our main characters are Albino and Polonio; they have convinced their cell-mate, a pathetic, disheveled man they call The Prick, to have his mother smuggle drugs into the prison  by carrying them in her vagina. She is accompanied by their young girlfriends, La Chata and Mecha, who themselves fall prey to the violations of the female guards who search them on their way into the prison. The smuggling plan goes as well as you’d expect, and the novella climaxes in an orgiastic and defeated rebellion.

Revueltas was in the prison, but not the titular hole; he was not a common criminal but a political prisoner, a lifelong Communist on trial for inciting the student rebellion in 1968. Accordingly, his novella makes a number of philosophical points in the course of its brief nightmare narrative.

First is that society at large is a prison. The novella opens with our anti-heroes watching their watchers, observing the guards, whom they think of as apes:

They were captive. […] They were born to keep watch and they knew as much, to spy, to constantly look around, making sure no one escaped their clutches in that city with its iron grid of streets, barred corridors, corners multiplying on all sides…

The prison is the city is the world, and the guards are as imprisoned as those they keep. In his comprehensive introduction to The Hole, novelist Álvaro Enrigue points out that Lecumberri Penitentiary was an exemplary modern institution, a model of “‘progressive’ rationalism” founded in 1900 on principles derived from Bentham’s panopticon.

Modernity, rationalism, progress: everybody watching everybody else along the sightlines formed by an authoritarian grid laid over us all by the powers that be. Revueltas makes the point even more explicit at his novel’s climax when the anti-heroes are defeated by guards who pin them in their cage by barring the space with metal rods:

…all in a diabolical mutilation of the space, triangles, trapezoids, parallels, oblique or perpendicular divisions, lines and more lines, bars and more bars, until every possible move those gladiators could make was blocked and they were left crucified on the monstrous blueprint of this gargantuan defeat of liberty, all the fault of geometry.

If “geometry” is at fault, if reality’s propensity to be rationalized defeated even the endless love of history’s most famous crucified convict, then resistance is whatever exceeds the rational. This is a filthy, nihilistic book, but it offers glimpses of redemption. Consider Albino’s tattoo, which drives observers to erotic frenzy:

Lower down his stomach was a tattoo of a Hindu figure—etched in the brothel of some Hindustani port, or so his story went, by the in-house eunuch, a member of an unpronounceable esoteric sect, while Albino dreamed a deep and almost lethal opium sleep beyond all possible recollection—the tattoo depicted an amusing couple, a young man and a woman in the throes of passion, their bodies entwined, enlaced in an incredible foliage of thighs, arms, legs, breasts, and marvelous organs—the Brahmanic tree of Good and Evil—positioned in such a way and with such kinetic wisdom that Albino only had to set it in motion with the right contractions and muscle spasms, its rhythmic oscillations rising at intervals on the surface of his skin, and a subtle, in apprehensible rocking of the hips, for those flailing and capricious-looking body parts—torso and armpits, feet and pubis and hands and wings and stomachs and hair—to assume a mystical unity in which the miracle of the Creation was repeated and human copulation was portrayed in all its magnificent and marvelous splendor.

Entwined foliage rather than straight lines, mystical unity rather than bars of division, miracles rather than reasons: if these can be found even in the eponymous hole, then perhaps geometry need not win the war, though it wins the battle Revueltas stages in the novella.

Geometry does tend to win out in Álvaro Enrigue’s long introduction, though, which frames the text for the Anglophone reader. While Revueltas was, as I said, a Communist, “all the fault of geometry” is not a Marxist position. Marxism does not perceive a fault in the structure of the universe as the source of social problems, but rather contingent and therefore alterable historical conditions. According to Enrigue, this tendency toward ontological pessimism rather than historical optimism caused Revueltas’s comrades to react with suspicion:

When Revueltas published his first novel, Walls of Water, Pablo Neruda denounced it for its pessimism: such existentialist themes were disrespectful of Stalinist orthodoxy. Neruda failed to understand the literary potential of young José Revueltas, who in turn held the Chilean poet—the loftiest of all lofty Communists—in such high esteem that he took Walls of Water off the market. Nevertheless, Neruda was correct in pointing out the link between Revueltas and post-war French literature. His tragic characters belong to the race of Albert Camus’s existential heroes: “indifferent to the future.”

Revueltas’s self-criticism anticipates the auto-#cancellation of authors scorned by social media activists today, and should tell us all we need to know about the Stalinist sources of the ideology taking root in American cultural institutions. Unfortunately, it takes further root at the end of Enrigue’s introduction, when he insists that this quasi-pornographic and wholly oneiric novella is “a timely fable about our complicity—all writers and readers—in the triumph of mass incarceration as the only solution to problems that could be resolved in more rational ways.”

But The Hole identifies rationalism itself as the enemy and names no solution whatever to the problems it describes, as it portrays prisoner and guard as alike caught in the cage of the universe and refuses to moralize over its anti-heroes’s murderous viciousness and visionary appetites. “Fable” is the last word I would use for this violent spasm of language.

I might have preferred a more emotionally complete fiction than The Hole myself, and I too hope our society can move on from mass incarceration; but the need to find in imaginative literature a timely and rational political fable is another “gargantuan defeat of liberty.”


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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!

Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other StoriesSnows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hemingway used to be overrated and is now if anything underrated. Once venerated for promoting a code of restrained masculine heroism forged in war, he is now execrated by the ideologists of “toxic masculinity.” Neither variant of gender politics, however, provides an answer to the question of whether or not his works are any good.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro offers a convenient opportunity for a literary reappraisal of Hemingway’s stylings. The book is a brief showcase of Hemingway’s short fiction published in 1961—the year of the author’s death—though almost all the stories in the collection, some of the author’s most famous, appeared in the modernist decades of the 1920s and ’30s.

The title story, first published in 1938, and “The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936)—two expansive tales of white men on safari in Africa—bookend the shorter stories that make up the middle of the collection. These shorter stories are the most “Hemingwayesque.” Like their dual inspirations in high and low culture—Imagist poetry, journalism, perhaps even early radio and talkie cinema—their narratives are pared down to just the telling detail and their stories are conveyed mostly in dialogue. Moreover, the dialogues are never straightforward; characters only imply what they mean, they talk past each other, they repeat themselves, they circle difficult subjects. Above all they try never to disclose what they feel, even as the means they use to conceal their affect only heightens attention to their anguished inner lives.

The self-enclosed tough-guy universes Hemingway writes about, from the armies of the Great War to the criminal underworld to the culture of sport, are ruled by codes of decorum as inflexible as anything in the epicene cosmos of Henry James’s transatlantic upper class. James’s dictum for the fiction writer to “dramatize” rather than employing the expository narration that dominated in the novel from Walter Scott to George Eliot fits Hemingway’s subject matter as much as it fit James’s.

“The Killers” (1927) is the classic example. In this famous story, Hemingway’s alter ego Nick Adams is working in a diner when two hired hitmen come in to wait for a boxer they plan to murder. Most of The story’s suspense is created by the evasive dialogue of the titular killers. Empty patter occupies our attention while we wait for an “orgastic” (to borrow from Fitzgerald) climax that that may or may not come. As a number of other critics have noted, all of Tarantino comes out of this story:

“Well, bright boy,” Max said, looking into the mirror, “why don’t you say something?”

“What’s it all about?”

“Hey, Al,” Max called, “bright boy wants to know what it’s all about.”

“Why don’t you tell him?” Al’s voice came from the kitchen.

“What do you think it’s all about?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think?”

Max looked into the mirror all the time he was talking.

“I wouldn’t say.”

“Hey, Al, bright boy says he wouldn’t say what he thinks it’s all about.”

Another classic example of the “Hemingwayesque” can be found in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933), a beautiful mood piece about a late-night cafe and the pleasures and sorrows of urban alienation, about the need for a “third place” (neither home nor work) to go to be alone among strangers and stave off the nihilism that descends on us all from time to time:

“I am of those who like to stay late at the cafe,” the older waiter said.

“With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”

“I want to go home and into bed.”

“We are of two different kinds,” the older waiter said. He was now dressed to go home. “It is not only a question of youth and confidence although those things are very beautiful. Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the cafe.”

“Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”

“You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”

The longer stories in this pared-down and dialogue-driven vein, such as “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio” (first published in this collection) and “Fifty Grand” (1927), strike me as less successful. Hemingway’s techniques pursued at length come to seem gimmicky, especially with third-person narration where you can’t explain the distinctive style as the narrator’s essential voice (as you can with Jake Barnes: this is why The Sun Also Rises is so effective). As well, the stories that lavish the “Hemingwayesque” on traditionally sentimental subjects, such as the Nick Adams tale “Fathers and Sons” (1933), make one wonder that this variant of modernism was ever thought anti-sentimental when it is only another route to the tearjerker.

The technique is also dispiritingly easy to historicize—we can just arrogate this way of writing to the Age of Freud and its theses on repression. Because Hemingway provides so little beyond bare narrative and dialogue and the rather simple emotions they imply, his stories are unable to circumscribe the contemporaneous ideas that would explain and contain them within any larger context of their own. This is one difference between major work and minor work. Faulkner, with his ever unreliable narrators and opacities of grand language, is able to throw back in the critic’s face the ultimate futility of explaining anything. Can Hemingway’s work do the same? A writer needs a total vision; Hemingway, unfortunately, had only a total style.

The two stories that begin and end the collection are larger than the stories they encompass, and both take us further afield—to the hunting grounds of eastern Africa where rich white men go to live the “strenuous life” on safari with their trophy wives. This is an experience more difficult to relate to or to admire—for me at least!—and I found the claustrophobia of the Hemingway hero’s straitened consciousness all the more confining for the African vista it here commands.

Nevertheless, the title story’s authorial surrogate Harry, dying of gangrene, is the occasion for some poignant recollections of both the war and of shell shock in ex-pat interwar Paris, as if providing a little digest of modernist living. You also get a glimpse of a Hemingway who is less remarked these days: the man of the Left:

Around that Place there were two kinds; the drunkards and the sportifs. The drunkards killed their poverty that way; the sportifs took it out in exercise. They were the descendants of the Communards and it was no struggle for them to know their politics. They knew who had shot their fathers, their relatives, their brothers, and their friends when the Versailles troops came in and took the town after the Commune and executed any one they could catch with calloused hands, or who wore a cap, or carried any other sign he was a working man. And in that poverty, and in that quarter across the street from a Boucherie Chevaline and a wine cooperative he had written the start of all he was to do. There never was another part of Paris that he loved like that, the sprawling trees, the old white plastered houses painted brown below, the long green of the autobus in that round square, the purple flower dye upon the paving, the sudden drop down the hill of the rue Cardinal Lemoine to the River, and the other way the narrow crowded world of the rue Mouffetard. The street that ran up toward the Pantheon and the other that he always took with the bicycle, the only asphalted street in all that quarter, smooth under the tires, with the high narrow houses and the cheap tall hotel where Paul Verlaine had died. There were only two rooms in the apartments where they lived and he had a room on the top floor of that hotel that cost him sixty francs a month where he did his writing, and from it he could see the roofs and chimney pots and all the hills of Paris.

“The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber” (1936), about a love triangle on safari among a callow rich American, his actress wife, and a British “white hunter” who leads his clients on the hunt, is a brilliantly constructed tale of masculine initiation and dissolution. This dissolution—that is, the end of the initiation in futile death—calls the story’s polemically male ethos into question and serves to cut its fairly flagrant misogyny with a bit of irony.

Be a damn fire eater now. He’d seen it in the war work the same way. More of a change than any loss of virginity. Fear gone like an operation. Something else grew in its place. Main thing a man had. Made him into a man. Women knew it too. No bloody fear.

So how good is Hemingway’s work? As a primer on basic techniques for relieving fictional narrative of extraneous details or emotions, it is superb; as a guide to the inner lives of the men of a certain generation—and these men, it should be said, suffered enormously in and as a result of the Great War, a fact often neglected in today’s sometimes flip dismissal of “white male” etc.—it remains moving and helpful. On the other hand, there are writers of the same era—I think of a variety from Joyce to Cather—who were able to do what Hemingway could and also much more. Rated at his proper value, and to use a military idiom he might appreciate, he is a writer of the second rank.


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Herman Melville, Benito Cereno

Melville's Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, CriticismMelville’s Short Novels: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism by Herman Melville

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Benito Cereno is one of the post-Pierre short works of the 1850s by which Melville hoped to right the ship of his literary career. A novella of slavery, based on a true story, it is both an effective work of suspense and mystery and a remarkably intricate literary and political structure. Melville’s protest—and protest it is—against slavery is written in code, a figure in the carpet. This technique was perhaps necessitated not only by proto-modernist artistic ambition but also by the crasser consideration that Melville’s father-in-law, on whose largesse his family partially depended, was Lemuel Shaw, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court and enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Law (despite his own hostility to slavery). Even so, the novella, like “Bartleby” before it, is so thorough a critique of the politics of sentimentality, benevolence, Christian charity, Transcendentalist idealism, and the general smugness of the New England elite’s liberalism, that I doubt Melville would have wanted to write an outright protest fiction on the Stowe model even had he felt freer to do so. Later generations of critics have in any case approved his choice to demur from explicit advocacy: the space for politics Melville leaves open in his elliptical narrative can only be filled, as I will explain, by the black insurgent rather than by the white philanthropist.

The novella’s plot, simply stated, follows New Englander Captain Amasa Delano aboard a stranded Spanish slave ship off the coast of Chile. The scene on the ship is unsettling, even after captain and crew explain that they have suffered storm and fever. The titular character is the debilitated-seeming Don Benito Cereno, literally upheld by his apparently faithful enslaved body-servant, the diminutive Babo. Cereno’s nervousness and reticence, along with the peculiar disposition of the ship’s inhabitants—which includes a corps of black men sharpening hatchets amid a general restiveness among the white crew—arouses Delano’s suspicion. In fact, most of the novella, narrated in third-person perspective with a rigorously maintained focalization through Delano’s consciousness, is an oscillation between the New England captain’s fears and his self-reassurances, an emotional wave motion miming the sea. Eventually, the truth is revealed: there was a mutiny of the enslaved on Cereno’s ship, and Delano has been witnessing a carefully-staged pantomime masterminded by the chief of the rebels, Babo, whose constant attendance upon Cereno had been a technique to ensure the deposed captain’s compliance. The story ends with Cereno’s escape, the slaves’ capture, and a legal deposition explaining the whole affair. The story, then, must be read twice, since its first three quarters or so make little sense without knowledge of the ending. Understanding is always retrospective, subsequent to the event.

Or is it? Perhaps it depends on who beholds the event. The novella’s power comes in part from its viewpoint character’s limitations of perspective. A remarkable opening visual description sets the story’s tone:

The morning was one peculiar to that coast. Everything was mute and calm; everything gray. The sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter’s mold. The sky seemed a gray surtout. Flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. Shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

Yet Captain Delano, we are told in the very next paragraph, is intellectually ill-equipped to dwell in a world of ambiguity (gray, as against black and white), of shadow (which must be distinguished from substance), or of suffering (the passion evoked by “rood,” a synonym for “crucifix” as a well as a unit of measurement). Delano is, locally, a caricature of the Transcendentalist with his privative definition of evil and his complacent idealism, and is also, more expansively, a satire on the self-satisfied meliorism of the liberal sensibility at large:

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated excitement, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.

Delano is unable to see the reality in front of him because he looks out through a haze of erroneous expectation. To him, black people are naturally docile, and so Babo’s exaggerated performance of servility seems scarcely remarkable:

As master and man stood before him, the black upholding the white, Captain Delano could not but bethink him of the beauty of that relationship which could present such a spectacle of fidelity on the one hand and confidence on the other.

Not to mention this:

When at ease with respect to exterior things, Captain Delano’s nature was not only benign, but familiarly and humorously so. At home, he had often taken rare satisfaction in sitting in his door, watching some free man of color at his work or play. If on a voyage he chanced to have a black sailor, invariably he was on chatty, and half-gamesome terms with him. In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to Negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

Similarly, Delano sees only the decadent exhaustion of arbitrary authority in Latin Catholicism, an Old World relic, which serves for him to explain Cereno’s apparent swings between command and collapse:

Upon gaining a less remote view, the ship, when made signally visible on the verge of the leaden-hued swells, with the shreds of fog here and there raggedly furring her, appeared like a whitewashed monastery after a thunder-storm, seen perched upon some dun cliff among the Pyrenees. But it was no purely fanciful resemblance which now, for a moment, almost led Captain Delano to think that nothing less than a ship-load of monks was before him. Peering over the bulwarks were what really seemed, in the hazy distance, throngs of dark cowls; while, fitfully revealed through the open port-holes, other dark moving figures were dimly descried, as of Black Friars pacing the cloisters.

Upon a still nigher approach, this appearance was modified, and the true character of the vessel was plain—a Spanish merchantman of the first class, carrying negro slaves, amongst other valuable freight, from one colonial port to another. A very large, and, in its time, a very fine vessel, such as in those days were at intervals encountered along that main; sometimes superseded Acapulco treasure-ships, or retired frigates of the Spanish king’s navy, which, like superannuated Italian palaces, still, under a decline of masters, preserved signs of former state.

Yet in the story’s Gothic atmosphere, its slave ship reminiscent of ruined abbeys and collapsing battlements, we may read a prophecy of America’s own eventual decline, just as “Bartleby” describes a Wall Street as “deserted as Petra.” When Cereno declares at the end of the story that “the negro” has cast a fatal shadow over him—in a passage that furnishes one of the epigraphs to Invisible Man—this sense of slavery as an ineradicable fault in the modern west, like the crack in the House of Usher, must be what he (or Melville) means to imply. Consider that the rebels have killed the slaveowner onboard the San Dominick and replaced a statue of Columbus as the ship’s figurehead with the slaver’s skeleton above the motto follow your leader. If the prophecy was opaque to Melville’s audience, it should be clear to us.

I conclude with Babo. For when Delano sees black people as animals—

His attention had been drawn to a slumbering Negress, partly disclosed through the lace-work of some rigging, lying, with youthful limbs carelessly disposed, under the lee of the bulwarks, like a doe in the shade of a woodland rock. Sprawling at her lapped breasts was her wide-awake fawn, stark naked, its black little body half lifted from the deck, crosswise with its dam’s; its hands, like two paws, clambering upon her; its mouth and nose ineffectually rooting to get at the mark; and meantime giving a vexatious half-grunt, blending with the composed snore of the Negress.

—it means that he cannot see them as political actors. But Babo, with his genius for staging public spectacle in the interests of his people, is what but a master of politics. The character scarcely speaks, and we gain no access to his consciousness. The story’s last paragraphs portrays his execution:

Some months after, dragged to the gibbet at the tail of a mule, the black met his voiceless end. The body was burned to ashes; but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites…

The key phrase is the remarkable “hive of subtlety.” Granted that “hive” is dehumanizing, it also hints at capacity and activity, a many-voiced throng of consciousness. Its intimation of the insectoid prepares us for the next noun, which recalls the Lord of the Flies via Biblical and Miltonic allusion. Satan in his guise as serpent is the “subtlest beast of the field,” we read in Book IX of Paradise Lost, wherein Milton reprises Genesis 3:1. The Romantic rebel Melville would almost certainly have taken the devil’s part when he read Milton, whose Satan stood, thought Blake and Shelley, for the human considered as Promethean freedom fighter.

So too did Toussaint L’Ouverture, emblematic for the young, radical Wordsworth of “man’s unconquerable mind.” Norton editor Dan McCall notes the following in this edition: Captain Delano’s narrative was a real document, but in adapting it for fiction Melville moved its date back from 1805 to 1799, into the decade of the Haitian Revolution, and changed the name of Cereno’s ship to the San Dominick, calling to mind Saint-Domingue. C. L. R. James argues in an excerpt at the back of this Norton Critical Edition that “Babo is the most heroic character in Melville’s fiction.”

There is no inconsistency, then, in seeing Babo as both devil and hero, the story’s veritable protagonist, when you consider the Romantic writer’s transvaluation of values: “evil be thou my good,” a defensible if controversial interpretation of what it would actually mean for the last to be first, for black to stand in the place of white. Come forward a century and Robert Hayden, in his “Middle Passage,” provides the needed gloss on Melville’s cryptic tale, when he precedes a slaver’s bitter monologue on the Amistad rebellion with the following credo addressed to the whites whose gaze Babo might meet:

You cannot stare that hatred down
or chain the fear that stalks the watches
and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;
cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will.


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Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust

Miss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the LocustMiss Lonelyhearts / The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nathanael West’s 1933 novella, Miss Lonelyhearts, has passionate defenders. Harold Bloom declares it his favorite modern novel; in his chapter on it in How to Read and Why, he notes that Flannery O’Connor’s own two favorite modern novels, which she saw as akin to each other, were As I Lay Dying and Miss Lonelyhearts. And there is a blurb inside my New Directions edition from Stanley Edgar Hyman calling it “one of the three best American novels of the first half of our century (with The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby)”—Hyman is better known today as Shirley Jackson’s husband, and Shirley Jackson and Nathanael West are clearly birds of a feather. I first read the novella in my teens, under orders from the aforementioned Bloom, but was moved to re-read it recently when a friend told me how hard it was to share in the classroom with the trigger warning generation. In his grimly comic indignation at the horror of human existence, West wants to squeeze every trigger in sight.

The very conceit of the novella is a provocation: Miss Lonelyhearts (a young male writer who is never referred to by any other name, not even by the impersonal narrator) is the advice columnist for the New York Post-Dispatch. He is tormented by the letters he receives (real letters that West actually appropriated from a newspaper job), to whose anguish there is really no answer. Take this one from a sixteen-year-old girl without a nose:

What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I commit suicide?

This is hard to read because you have to receive it both as unutterably sad and also as horribly funny. There are sensibilities for which this kind of thing can never be funny, but mine is not one of them. The deadpan of the final question, the somewhat cynical naïveté of “Even if I did do some bad things,” the slightly ludicrous extremity of the overall situation—these add up to a bleak laughter at the nature of things; I do not think it is a cruel laughter, though, it is more akin to the self-mortifying laughter in Swift or Beckett—or Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Connor—at the common plight in which we are all complicit. When West gets around to depicting actually cruel laughter, as when Miss Lonelyheart’s friends in the speakeasy are trading rape jokes even as they metafictionally mock the ’30s vogue for “hard boiled” writing, the narrator informs us of such cruelty’s etiology:

Miss Lonelyhearts stopped listening. His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.

Miss Lonelyheart’s co-worker Shrike—named for a predatory “butcher bird”—is the agent of unbelief. He tortures Miss Lonelyhearts by mocking and parodying every escape route from loneliness, despair, and violence. His systematically parodies religious belief, devotion to nature, love of art, and even the easier escapes of drugs and alcohol. The spirit of cynicism and sarcasm, he leaves no potentially redemptive discourse unmocked; he refutes nothing, but leaves every argument and way of life looking tawdry and ridiculous (I would be surprised if no critic has compared him to such canonically suspicious hermeneutists as Lacan, Foucault, Bourdieu, etc.).

Miss Lonelyhearts, for his part, is described this way:

Although his cheap clothes had too much style, he still looked like the son of a Baptist minister. A beard would become him, would accent his Old–Testament look. But even without a beard no one could fail to recognize the New England puritan. His forehead was high and narrow. His nose was long and fleshless. His bony chin was shaped and cleft like a hoof.

He is, in other words, a descendant of all those compromised goodmen and ministers in Hawthorne who wanted to be holy but in whose flesh the thorns of temptation and guilt left bloody lacerations. He has a Christ complex—and a statue of Christ’s body nailed to the wall in his one-room lodging, along with his copy of The Brothers Karamazov with a bookmark in the Father Zossima chapter. Shrike preys upon this: “He was thinking of how Shrike had accelerated his sickness by teaching him to handle his one escape, Christ, with a thick glove of words.” In search of some relief, Miss Lonelyhearts pursues love, first with his sometime girlfriend Betty and then with one of his letter-writers, a woman seemingly desperate for sex because she is “married to a cripple.” The novella’s swiftly narrated sequence of horrible incidents, all with ironically blasé chapter headings (“Miss Lonelyhearts Pays a Visit,” “Miss Lonelyhearts Has a Religious Experience”), demonstrate the impossibility of religious belief in the modern world and the Ecclesiastes emptiness of a world without faith. Loveless sex, with occasional beatings, and a climax in delirium and violence, are all that Shrike’s world has to offer. The novella is immensely impressive, and its pared-down imagistic prose and starkly allegorical energy seem to set a standard for modern American writing. The mix of humor and horror is almost unavailable to the literary class today, lost as we are in smug neo-Victoriana (the ’30s may well have been too hard-boiled, but we are weakly poached in our own self-righteous tears).

Still—and maybe I am just a philistine—I prefer West’s longer 1939 novel of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, to Miss Lonelyhearts. The later novel far more successfully dramatizes the earlier novella’s themes, demonstrating them through character and incident rather than asserting them; also, the proto-postmodern space of Hollywood, which is the occasion for so much of West’s brilliant descriptive writing, is a superbly persuasive “objective correlative” (I am feeling old-fashioned today) for the spiritual emptiness of modern life. The novel’s protagonist is Tod Hackett, an aspiring artist and Yale graduate who has been brought west to be a set designer. In L.A., he becomes infatuated with his neighbor, Faye Greener, a beautiful young wannabe actress whose dying father, a brilliant Dickensian grotesque, is an old vaudevillian who never stops the act. For her part, Faye rejects Tod because he has no money and no prospects. She takes up instead with a midwestern transplant named Homer Simpson (yes, that’s where Matt Groening came by the name), a man of no experience in flight from his urges and desires. The novel is again episodic, a series of fairly horrible scenes (a vividly described cockfight, Tod’s rape-like pursuit of Faye, Faye’s own abusive torment of the naif Homer, etc.), but the main action, witnessed by the passive Tod, is Homer’s destruction by the corrupt world to which Faye has introduced him. Throughout, Tod is planning his great painting, The Burning of Los Angeles—and the novel’s famously spectacular climax, at an infernal film premiere, spiritually if not literally makes good on the painting’s title. West’s major theme seems to be the universal ubiquity of predation, its necessity in the human psychic economy. Here is how Tod thinks of Faye:

If he only had the courage to throw himself on her. Nothing less violent than rape would do. The sensation he felt was like that he got when holding an egg in his hand. Not that she was fragile or even seemed fragile. It wasn’t that. It was her completeness, her egglike self-sufficiency, that made him want to crush her.

And here is how Faye thinks of Homer:

His servility was like that of a cringing, clumsy dog, who is always anticipating a blow, welcoming it even, and in a way that makes overwhelming the desire to strike him. His generosity was still more irritating. It was so helpless and unselfish that it made her feel mean and cruel, no matter how hard she tried to be kind.

This is impressively penetrating psychology, but West really outdoes himself in his descriptions of Hollywood, a kind of artificial paradise where viciously bored Americans have “come to die.” In one bravura chapter, Tod seeks Faye throughout a sequence of film sets, moving through all the adjacent faked epochs they represent, until a recreation of Waterloo ends in real destruction when the set collapses. The scenic descriptions in the opening chapter sound this theme:

He reached the end of Vine Street and began the climb into Pinyon Canyon. Night had started to fall.

The edges of the trees burned with a pale violet light and their centers gradually turned from deep purple to black. The same violet piping, like a Neon tube, outlined the tops of the ugly, hump-backed hills and they were almost beautiful.

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.

When he noticed that they were all of plaster, lath and paper, he was charitable and blamed their shape on the materials used. Steel, stone and brick curb a builder’s fancy a little, forcing him to distribute his stresses and weights and to keep his corners plumb, but plaster and paper know no law, not even that of gravity.

On the corner of La Huerta Road was a miniature Rhine castle with tarpaper turrets pierced for archers. Next to it was a little highly colored shack with domes and minarets out of the Arabian Nights. Again he was charitable. Both houses were comic, but he didn’t laugh. Their desire to startle was so eager and guileless.

It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

This is satire, but more than satire: it is also sympathy. Our “need” has brought us to such a pass as the creation of Hollywood. Made of paper, it will easily burn, but the artist—Tod, West—is there to mark its passing, even if there is no other agency of redemption.

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Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl

The ShawlThe Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps Cynthia Ozick’s most famous book, this 1989 collection of two linked short stories about the Holocaust and its long aftermath is a triumphantly involuted and gorgeously self-lacerating traversal back and forth between the author’s mutually incompatible commitments—her iconoclasm, her zeal to smash whatever looks like an idol, a toy set up between human beings to seduce them out of their responsibilities; and her imagination, the autonomous trope-forging human faculty of which she is master, that magical power that dazzles the landscape with graven images.

The first story is “The Shawl”; its indelible opening sentence: “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” Stella is the teenaged niece of Rosa Lublin, and together with Rosa’s baby, Magda, they are confined in a Nazi concentration camp. Rosa has, with the aid of the titular shawl, concealed Magda from the guards; the shawl keeps the baby occupied and quiet. Rosa has suspected that Stella is envious of Magda (whose blue eyes and blonde hair make her look Aryan: “You could think she was one of their babies”), even that she wants to eat her—and this perversely comes true when Stella, claiming to be cold, takes the shawl. This causes Magda, who has just begun walking, to wander out in search of it. When a guard sees her, he murders her by throwing her against an electrified fence. This is all told in a brief and hallucinatory eight pages, spare in language but lushly metaphorical, a prose-poem of human hell.

After this, we come to a longer story called “Rosa.” It takes place thirty years later, in Miami Beach. Rosa, now “a madwoman and a scavenger,” has smashed up her New York junk shop and gone to live—on Stella’s money—with the rest of the elderly New York Jews in the Florida sun, even though they are mostly not Holocaust survivors, and she is not as well-off as they are, living as she does in one squalid room. But she has something in common with them: her emptiness.

It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages.

Through her memories and conversations and letters—mostly to her dead daughter, Magda, whom she imagines as alive and flourishing—we piece together her story and its implications.

Rosa was the daughter of a cultured, well-to-do family in Warsaw. Her parents were secular, assimilated, and immensely educated; her father “knew nearly the whole first half of The Aeneid by heart,” while her mother, she writes to Magda, “wanted so much to convert” to Catholicism. When they are forced by the Nazi occupation into the Warsaw ghetto, Rosa reports to her fancied daughter that they were humiliated and enraged:

…imagine confining us with teeming Mockowiczes and Rabinowiczes and Perskys and Finkelsteins, with all their bad-smelling grandfathers and hordes of feeble children! […] …we were furious because we had to be billeted with such a class, with these old Jew peasants worn out from their rituals and superstitions, phylacteries on their foreheads sticking up so stupidly, like unicorn horns, every morning.

She summarizes her own life as an ugly fairy tale:

Her own home, her upbringing—how she had fallen. A loathsome tale of folk-sorcery: nobility turned into a small dun rodent.

And she moreover writes to Magda, whom she imagines as an utter success, that “you can be a Jew if you like, or a Gentile, it’s up to you”—in other words, one imagines the Ozick of the essays quite sternly insisting, precisely the choice that history did not give to the Jews.

(Rosa angrily denies the suggestion from Stella that Magda was in fact the issue of Rosa’s rape by a German soldier, claiming instead that Magda’s father was a son of her mother’s friend who’d married a Gentile. Given Rosa’s fixation on her decline in social status, her reduction from cultivated Pole to despised Jew, her probable re-imagination of the Nazi rapist as an elite Gentile lover has immense pathos. “You are pure,” she tells the Magda of her imagination, unwittingly echoing the ideology of the real Magda’s murderers.)

Behind Rosa’s cultivated contempt for European Jewry lies Ozick’s contempt for Europe’s cultivation: its idolatrous imaginings that led the Gentile to make a thing of the Jew and then to destroy that thing. Though, to be sure, Rosa’s disgust with American Jewry—she asks a resort owner, “Where were you when we was there?”—for its complacency, for its evasion of the catastrophe and of history, may be Ozick’s own, not less intense for being self-disgust. Just as Rosa’s fury at a professor who keeps writing her amusingly unctuous, jargon-filled letters requesting to study her for his theories of “Repressed Animation”—to the effect that those who survived the camps attained a state of Buddhist non-attachment—is Ozick’s own, an excoriation of the so-called social sciences’ incorrigibly dehumanizing tendencies.

But in Ozick’s system of thought (how many contemporary American writers have a system of thought?), Rosa is guilty of something far worse than elitism or internalized anti-Semitism: she is guilty of idolatry. (Michiko Kakutani writes well about this in one of the early reviews.) For she worships both her imagined Magda, and the dead Magda’s sole legacy—the shawl. When she writes to the hated Stella asking her to send the shawl to Florida, Stella writes back:

Your idol is on its way…You’re like those people in the Middle Ages who worshiped a piece of the True Cross, a splinter from some old outhouse as far as anybody knew, or else they fell down in front of a single hair supposed to be some saint’s.

Rosa’s mother’s attraction to Catholicism—and Rosa’s own—is no idle allusion: what is Catholicism in the iconoclastic imagination but idolatry itself, idolatry systematized, elaborated into a Moloch cannibal state like the one that claimed the Jews of Europe?

So Ozick condemns Rosa, but she also is Rosa. Rosa’s fancies, her imagination, her literary gift are the life and the fire of this so magnificently written book. Go back to “The Shawl” and read Magda’s death scene, which should be too awful to turn into art; here is a sentence from the scene, almost Shakespearean in its mixed-metaphor verve, its triumphant troping (or turning: “a lie against time,” to quote Ozick’s old nemesis, Harold Bloom):

She only stood, because if she ran they would shoot, and if she tried to pick up the sticks of Magda’s body they would shoot, and if she let the wolf’s screech ascending now through the ladder of her skeleton break out, they would shoot…

Poetry not just after but even during Auschwitz: by what right does Ozick commit such an impiety? By right of the imagination. The judge stands arraigned; the iconoclast takes the hammer to herself. Her readers gather the glittering shards.

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Published: “Sweet Angry God”

Please click here for a free pdf of my latest short story, published in the December issue of Writing Raw (and check out the rest of the issue!). Writing Raw prefaces each story with a brief description; here is their teaser for mine:

When her sister announces that is absconding with a dubious man attracted to violence and fanaticism, an intellectual reflects on all else she has lost in her brief existence: her leg, her first love, her trust in life. The sisters enjoy a final dinner against the backdrop of a decadently desiccated Los Angeles in this joyous, bitter story of beauty and pain.

And here, for your pleasure, is the first paragraph:

Apparently it began with a hate fuck. There was a dirtball café, no doubt collectively owned, a few blocks from the art school. He worked there, and she had been watching him for some months, maybe even her entire sophomore year. The first time she went into the place she noticed him, how hateful and stupid he was. Some kind of percussion-heavy music rumbled over the speakers, hissing with analogue static. She thought she felt the tuba thrum in her throat. Above the music she heard him talk to his co-worker as his face glistened in the espresso machine steam. He didn’t look at her, not even when his dirty fingernails grazed her palm with the change.

Henry James, The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories

The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories The Beast in the Jungle and Other Stories by Henry James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I took up this volume as Halloween approached and I realized I had never read James’s second most famous ghost story, “The Jolly Corner.” (I love James, but his most famous ghost story, the novella The Turn of the Screw, has always struck me as a bit of a gimmick, a work written to order for a syllabus on literary interpretation.) Nor had I read “The Altar of the Dead,” also collected here; and while I had read the collection’s middle story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” I cannot claim to have understood it.

These three stories belong to James’s later period: “The Altar of the Dead” is from 1895 (the disastrous year of Guy Domville), “The Beast in the Jungle” from 1903 and “The Jolly Corner” from 1908. The prose in this volume accordingly grows more involuted and periphrastic and vague, James’s late style being a vast effort at artful evasion. (I do not admire the notion adopted by many of the modernists that their styles were tending toward some absolute uniqueness, untouched by reality. I prefer the discoveries of their middle period, when their styles developed under the novel pressures of their themes, with form and content inseparable: I like Ulysses better than Finnegans Wake, Mrs. Dalloway better than The Waves, Molloy better than “Ping”—and The Portrait of a Lady better than The Wings of the Dove.)

These three tales are all one story, really: a man turns aside from the course of normative life—family, business—and develops a monomania or obsession with something absent—a dead loved one, a mysterious destiny, his own past self; in this bizarre worship of the vanished, he is joined and goaded by a woman who is not quite a lover but who fills something like a lover’s role. All three chart the peril and potential of a life consecrated to something other than the natural or the conventional. Because this “something” remains yet to be realized in a social reality that is bound to custom or else has vanished with the potential of an individual’s evanescent youth, it is often said that all James’s stories are ghost stories, haunted by the elusive possibility of a richer existence that never materializes in the present, just as his increasingly unreadable prose never fully brings meaning before the reader.

“The Altar of the Dead,” being the earliest of the stories in this slim volume, is perhaps my favorite. It concerns a man named Stransom who devotes himself to a shrine to his dead loved ones; soon he is accompanied in this morbid devotion by a woman who becomes “the priestess of his altar.” They seem happy in their two-person cult until Stransom discovers that all her mourning is directed at his own late ex-friend, Acton Hague, who appears to have cruelly used her sexually, in spite of which she has forgiven him. The quarrel over whether or not to memorialize Hague divides them until each realizes that they have nothing to live for but their shared worship. The story is redolent of church candles and incense, all that fin-de-siècle longing for an inviolable and sacred haven amid the industrial soot, the tenement filth, and the noise of the emergent mass culture. Not that there is religious belief in this story; what Stransom intends by his memorial project is precisely the prolongation of the presence—if only as fire—of his beloved dead, a kind of secular immortality that Walter Pater, who died the year before this story’s publication, might have called art:

It was in the quiet sense of having saved his souls that his deep, strange instinct rejoiced. This was no dim theological rescue, no boon of a contingent world; they were saved better than faith or works could save them, saved for the warm world they had shrunk from dying to, for actuality, for continuity, for the certainty of human remembrance.

Now for the “The Beast in the Jungle.” I am not well-versed in James criticism, but I gather there have been two successive tendencies in interpreting this story about a man who, convinced that some vast destiny awaits him (the titular beast), does nothing with his life, abetted in this inaction by a devoted woman whom he realizes too late—after her death—that he might have loved. The first (moralizing) school of interpretation sees this as a story that warns against the arrogance of believing yourself set apart from the duties of the ordinary; the second (politicizing) interpretation sees this as a tragic tale of the closet, about a furtive gay man and his kindly, knowing beard. Both of these critical allegories, though, seem to evade the story’s main action, in which a canny and imperious woman takes a rather formless, dreamy man and molds his life into a sublimity of nothingness, a vast abstraction. Marcher, as his name may imply, is a mere conscript or trouper in May Bartram’s lifelong project to shape a life. Marcher’s epiphany—that he ought to have loved her—is a bathetic and sentimental falling-off from the glory of absolute and inhuman art that they had shared; he fails to see that this is what she meant when she told him that his destiny had already come without his knowing it—his destiny was to be her creation, her character, an artwork like those of the coming century that would have no reference to our common life. She was the beast all along, and he her prey in a city that has forgotten that it remains a jungle. Read this way, instead of as a sentimental tale about a man who is either a moral delinquent or a political victim, “The Beast in the Jungle” becomes as austere as a Greek tragedy about a mortal man who falls victim to—and is therefore elevated by—the immortal designs of the gods.

“The Jolly Corner” is, as its title hints, a more genial tale than these. It is about an American expatriate who returns to New York City after a long absence and begins to wonder what his life would have been like had he chosen an American destiny of swashbuckling capitalism instead of opting, like James, for the Old World. To find out what might have been, Spencer Brydon becomes convinced that he can encounter the ghost of his alternate self haunting his childhood home (which sits on the eponymous corner). In this obsession he is, like the previous protagonists, helped by a woman—Alice Staverton has had “an unbroken career in New York” and seems poised to love Brydon. Most of the story is an exercise in suspense, a build-up to Brydon’s dead-of-night encounter with the ghost and to the climactic revelation that Alice has also seen this grizzled spirit—anguished and maimed (missing two fingers) from its hard life of American business. (You can almost see the faint smile on the aged James’s lips at these sportive exaggerations.) Alice seems more attracted to the businessman ghost of Brydon than to the bohemian reality, but she comes around by the end, and the story seems to end happily. A very poignant but also witty reflection on the artist’s dream of having been “normal”—if you will let me end on a self-indulgent note, it reminds me very much of my own short story, “They Are in the Truth,” which is admittedly less complex, though probably easier to read.

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