Heart of Darkness (Modern Library #67)

(This is the thirty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Main Street.)

Hello, Darkness, my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again. Except that I don’t particularly want to. It’s not you, Joe. It’s me.

Don’t worry. We’ll still text each other. I’ll still speak fondly of you. We can still meet for Sunday brunch sometimes. I’m just in a different place these days. Namely the 21st century.

It can’t be an accident that the wildly underrated Julian MacLaren-Ross skewered the idea of reading Conrad as an upwardly mobile class aspiration in Of Love and Hunger. In Frog, Stephen Dixon took the piss out of Conrad along these lines as well. Indeed, slagging off Conrad seems to be a common trait among many of my literary Bohemian heroes. And I do need to heed them. I feel and trust their instincts. It’s almost as if we’re told that we should simply accept that Conrad is a great writer who changed the course of literature (and he did) even as we pretend that he isn’t ancient and hoary and horribly regressive. When I confessed my reluctance to reread Heart of Darkness to a few friends, they told me, “Well, it’s only a hundred pages.” Which suggested very strongly that nobody really wants to read Conrad anymore. He doesn’t pop out at you like Joyce or Faulkner or Nabokov or even Lawrence. And, to tell you the truth, I would much rather reread Finnegans Wake than anything from Conrad.

Yet I don’t detest Conrad. Certainly not with the full-bore commitment in which I direct my fierce energies loathing Henry James — a man who is represented on the Modern Library canon with three hideous doorstoppers and who I have tried to learn how to enjoy (even enlisting the tremendously gracious Dinitia Smith for assistance), but whose “charms” I have proven totally impervious to. And since I’m getting ever closer to fifty and there hasn’t been a break in the Henry James ice floe, I suspect that I’m fated to go to my grave hating him, possibly living a few extra months not only to spite my enemies, but to deliver a few final rounds of vitriol towards one of the most overrated and egotistical writers in the English language. I truly dread the James slog that’s in store for me about forty titles from now. The horror! The horror! Perhaps I shall be driven mad like Kurtz.

But not so with Conrad! There is much about Conrad to like: his intensity, his often beautiful imagery, and his insights into human atavism. Eleven years ago, Lord Jim did hold my attention — but I had to give Conrad everything that I had. Decades before I read Lord Jim, I was dazzled by Heart of Darkness in high school. I reread it twice in the last few months and, while the allure that once hypnotized me seems to be gone, I can’t gainsay that this is a masterpiece.

First off, I think we can all agree that Marlow is one of the most long-winded bastards in all of literature. “Mansplaining” doesn’t even begin to describe the dude’s incessant need to talk. Compared to your FOX News-watching uncle going on and on about Marxist conspiracies at the Thanksgiving table, Charlie Marlow is an outright conversational tyrant. All these poor sailors want to do is play dominoes, but the unnamed passenger listening to Marlow’s tale notes that only “the bond of the sea” keeps the sailors from bitching about this incessant rambler “so often unaware of what [his] audience would best like to hear.” (Incidentally, this two-layer approach to narrative is a shrewd move by Conrad to insulate himself from any charges of planting autobiography into his fiction. Conrad and Marlow share many similarities. Not only did Conrad go to the Congo to fulfill a boyhood dream, but he also, like Marlow, endured the stench of a fresh corpse while commanding a steamer. Small wonder that the Polish-Ukranian bard decided to devote all of his time and energies to a full-time writing career not long after this hideous tour of duty.)

Graying technophobes — the kind of unadventurous dullards best epitomized in today’s literary world by the likes of Jonathan Franzen and Sven Birkerts — often complain about the Internet’s impact on attention spans. But consider the alternative. Do you honestly want to live in a pre-radio world in which men explain things with indefatigable logorrhea? In this case, we have Marlow counterbalancing the “savage” world with the “civilized.” There were points in which I felt great sorrow for the poor sailors and imagined sending smartphones back in time so that these poor men could wile away their hours with Candy Crush and cat videos instead of listening to a reactionary seaman splaying out his white supremacy.

And about that white supremacy. Chinua Achebe has been perhaps the most vocal literary figure who has denounced Heart of Darkness, calling Conrad “a thoroughgoing racist,” rightly impugning Conrad’s belittling and dehumanization of Africa, and pointing out how Conrad’s “generosity” in having Black people show up for token cameos is anything but. Achebe scolds Conrad for avoiding the word “brother” in lieu of “kinship” in relation to Black people. (Indeed, the ocean itself, described as “a positive pleasure, like the speech of a brother,” gets more dignity than the dark-skinned “natives” of this tale.) What draws Marlow to Africa on a map is “a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over.”

On the other hand, there is some modest pushback when the Company’s office is compared to a “whited sepulchre.” Smoke from gunpowder is described as “white,” thus suggesting some white complicity. Can we likewise interpret Marlow pointing to the Blacks being unable to distinguish between individual white men as “being so much alike at a distance” as an acknowledgment of Marlow’s tendency to do the same with Black people? And what are we to make of the white worsted tied around the neck of a dying Black man? Or the foreman whose beard is tied up in “a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose”? Or a book “lovingly stitched afresh with white cotton thread”? Or the “cold and monumental whiteness” of a marble fireplace?

Humorless sods like Jonathan Jones have written masturbatory articles defending Conrad (and dissing Achebe) with all the clueless gusto of a Trump cultist declaring noted Hungarian tyrant Viktor Orban “a good guy.” But the truth of Conrad’s racism is somewhere in between. Conrad was racist. (The N-word appears ten times within Heart of Darkness‘s 38,000 pages. And the Black caricatures are frequently sickening.) Like all great writers, he executed his storytelling with instinctive ambiguity. And since many of the colonialists carry remnants of white, Conrad’s imagery — whether intentional or not — can also be read as condemnatory of imperialism and privilege.

And you cannot deny Conrad’s commitment to atmosphere! The old woman who greets Marlow with “flat cloth slippers…propped up on a foot warmer, and a cat reposed on a lap.” The Eldorado Exploring Expedition manager who resembles “a butcher in a poor neighbourhood.” The “torn curtain of red twill” hanging in the doorway of a hut that “flapped sadly in our faces.” A “long, decaying building on the summit…half buried in the high grass.” For all of Marlow’s garrulity, Conrad was a master of imagery, knowing the exact measure of words — never too many, never too few — to connote this tropical world.

Still, for all my complaints about Conrad’s racism, Kurtz is truly one of the all-time creepy fucks of literature. On one hand, we are told that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts” and that he is possibly mad. But his seemingly calm rationalization about how he has manipulated the world around him is deeply unsettling. And while Conrad suggests that Kurtz has become this way because of uncharted and unfamiliar terrain (“The long shadows of the forests had slipped downhill as we talked”), it is quite likely that Kurtz was always unhinged. And if this is indeed the case, then Conrad is saying something very vital about the tyranny of white privilege, even if it comes saddled with tacit endorsement.

Next Up: W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage!

Main Street (Modern Library #68)

(This is the thirty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The House of Mirth.)

Evelyn Waugh, Erskine Caldwell, Iris Murdoch, Nathanael West, George Orwell, Joseph Heller, James Joyce, Rebecca West. They — and so many other writers — were far nimbler in their shellacking of institutional norms than Sinclair Lewis ever was. Yet it was Lewis who won the Nobel Prize. And they didn’t. Why? Likely because the Nobel Prize Committee had it in for Edith Wharton and the Norwegian cultural oligarchs may have secretly believed they were correcting a “wrong.” Just nine years before, Lewis quietly seethed after the Pulitzer Prize Board changed its mind and awarded the Fiction Prize to Edith Wharton for The Age of Innocence instead of Main Street. It was an appropriate correction. Not only is The Age of Innocence a far superior novel to Main Street, but this was also the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction awarded to a woman. And Edith Wharton could write Sinclair Lewis’s wino ass under the table. (Meet me in a coffeehouse and I will argue this point for hours! I am Team Wharton all the way!) We also know from Hermione Lee’s biography that Wharton, who was tremendously gracious and got along with nearly everyone, became disappointed in Lewis after he revealed himself for the self-serving drunk he truly was. She wrote to Gaillard Lapseley that Lewis was “utterly unperceiving, & frankly interested only in the sale of Arrowsmith! What a queer product — for he really is an artist, though he is so unaware of it.”

Wharton was being kind. Sheldon N. Grebstein suggested that Lewis’s clear disinterest in style is one of the reasons why he is not more widely read today. And even Grebstein, who was in the tank for Lewis, pointed out that the Minnesota bard was not exactly your goto guy when it came to unpacking the complexities of human behavior. (Main Street, in particular, fails on this front. More anon.) But Grebstein also held up this absence of eclat as a virtue, for Lewis’s primordial approach liberated him to explore chance and contrivance. And when his id was hitting the right targets, he could be just as efficiently brutal as any twentieth century writer. (Lewis’s line in Elmer Gantry about the preacher flunking Greek, but winning a ten dollar prize for “Sixteen Ways of Paying a Church Debt” is a genuinely funny one.) Perhaps this is one big reason why Gore Vidal declared Lewis a romantic.

But ultimately Sinclair Lewis’s visceral qualities are often vitiated by his limited understanding of human behavior. Jealousy is one of the cornerstones to the Sinclair Lewis formula. Martin Arrowsmith hates the starry-eyed men who fawn over his wife, as well as the success of his associates. In his 1930 Nobel lecture, Lewis was to invoke jealousy as one salient reason for American literature being poorly regarded in Europe. In his biography Rebel from Main Street, Richard R. Lingeman makes a persuasive case that Lewis’s late-life romantic relationship with Marcella Powers was cemented in jealousy. It’s certainly true that jealousy can take you far in life. Sure, you may end up looking and behaving like Emperor Palpatine near the end of your days. And you probably won’t have a sense of humor. And countless people will secretly hate you even after you achieve a modicum of fame and renown. But, by Jove, you tripled down on your reach and you got somewhere! And in Lewis’s case, it landed him a Nobel and a slot on the Modern Library list.

Lewis’s canonical “importance” has been greatly inflated because Lewis cloaked his privilege in Midwestern roots. Even those who were enlisted to stump for Lewis in his prime did so with great reluctance. (In 1961, Mark Schorer wrote a Lewis biography for the money and dreaded every minute of it.)

To my mind, Lewis’s strongest novels are Babbit, Elmer Gantry, and the underrated It Can’t Happen Here. All three of these books document the peculiarly American dangers of obsession and conformity. Read this triptych today and you feel that Lewis was writing from a place of great urgency. Read his other work and you will find slipshod prose (Lewis was an alcoholic and it has been suggested by a few scholars that he wrote most of Arrowsmith completely blotto), rambling and often incoherent narratives (particularly in his later work), and wildly inconsistent quality. To write well, Lewis needed beastly instinct and emotional angst. And when he didn’t have that, he floundered along with bloat and bitterness.

Sadly, Main Street is the only Lewis volume represented on the Modern Library list. And the unfortunate truth is that this is a vastly overesteemed, doughty, and ponderous volume — not entirely without merit — that will surely fade from public memory by the middle of the 21st century. Its attempts at Minnesota vernacular feel belabored rather than felt. (“W a’n’t it in 1979?” “Why no ‘twa’n’t.” Yeah, whole pages like that.) Yes, Carol Kennincott does try to bring culture and progressive values to a town steeped in bland vanilla values. But her calls for revolution are unpersuasive:

We want our Utopia now — and we’re going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We sha’n’t get it. So we sh’n’t ever be content —

Frankly I’ve heard more convincing platitudes from some “mic check” kid at a protest

Granted, Lewis is very good at showing how the town of Gopher Prairie subsumes Carol’s identity and erodes her standards. These uneducated Caucasian hicks — the great grandparents to today’s right-wing morons who rapturously pay attention to Tucker Carlson and other hate merchants with a bafflingly big draw when not donning their red hats and fascist paraphernalia and claiming to be victimized by critical race theory even as they espouse racism — truly believe that they are remarkable (Mrs. Ole Jenson’s “thoughts” on Shakespeare are the apotheosis of incuriosity and are truly more pitiful than a poorly sourced Wikipedia entry) and that they are “just as good as anybody in Minneapolis.” Midway through the novel, Carol and her husband actually make a trip to Minneapolis (the only place to see happening new plays and buy fashionable new threads) and we see just how residing so long in a backwards town has altered her:

She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year an a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennincott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging-houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill-tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennincott’s arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?

As someone who spent half his life slowly migrating his way from the colorless doldrums of the California Central Valley to the thrilling possibilities of New York City, Carol’s uncertainty and anxieties truly resonated with me. When Lewis juxtaposes Carol against the relentless judgment of Gopher Prairie, Main Street is good. Carol can’t even have a quiet moment of joy to herself without inciting the judgmental scrutiny of being a doctor’s wife. She can’t be anonymous. Her every move is written up with illiterate relish in the local newspaper. (These days, the libeling and shaming and speculation can now be found on the great hellscape of social media, where your residency in a big city or a small town no longer matters to the twisted hateful losers who condemn you for living a fun and interesting life clearly beyond their talent and initiative.)

Yet despite Lewis’s attempts to show how Carol is victimized for being a woman, the sad irony is that Carol is less of a character and more of an object. We really don’t have a strong sense of what attracts Carol to her husband Will other than his neck. (Look, I’m not going to kink-shame. But seriously? One of the interesting eccentricities about Main Street is its relentless neck imagery, applied equally to humans and horses. When Lewis preposterously described how Carol is attracted to “the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples,” I laughed so hard on the subway that two otherwise indifferent New Yorkers shot me disapproving glances. Even accounting for the unconsummated lust that Carol is acting out in this late section of the novel, it’s abundantly clear that Lewis didn’t really understand what women are attracted to.) We are told at the start of one chapter about how Carol suddenly loves her husband Will — this mediocre scumbag who won’t even give her enough money to buy groceries — but why? Then when Carol pops out a baby, we are told that “she loved him with all the devotion and instinct at which she had scoffed.” Sinclair, buddy, put the bottle down and give us more than these superficial details!

I didn’t outright hate Main Street, but I was greatly disappointed by it. After a hundred pages of this, all the potshots at Gopher Prairie locals feel like Lewis shooting monkeys in a barrel. Sinclair Lewis either lacked the desire or the talent to portray small town people as anything other than caricatures. But three years ago, the town of Sauk Centre erected a statue to the man. And in the immediate wake of the book’s publications, many rural Minnesotans proudly called themselves “Main Streeters.” Either they missed the point of the book or, more likely, they never bothered to read it.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness!

The House of Mirth (Modern Library #69)

(This is the thirty-second entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Alexandria Quartet.)

“But brilliant young ladies, a little blinded by their own effulgence, are apt to forget that the modest satellite drowned in their light is still performing its own revolutions and generating heat at its own rate.” — The House of Mirth

Our universe has become more hopelessly transactional. Vile narcissists with limitless greed and an absence of smarts and empathy have taken over the landscape with their blunt bullhorns. At every socioeconomic level, you will find a plurality of mercenaries who will push any bright and promising head beneath the waterline with ruthless cruelty. Perhaps I’m finally understanding, at an embarrassingly late age, just how commonplace such self-serving treachery is in our world. But what’s the alternative? Cynicism? At times, I have a sense of humor that is darker than the nightscape above the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, but no thanks. I’ve always been a cautious optimist with a healthy handle on reality, but I still detest this state of affairs. I will still speak out vociferously against it and fight the business-as-usual cowards who uphold this great sham known as the status quo at any personal cost. I stump for the outliers and the misfits. The people who have authentic and vital voices. I don’t care who they are or where they come from. I will stick up for the gas station attendants and the baristas. I will listen to their full stories rather than judge them from a fleeting glance or a superficial and supercilious position. I despise bullies and opportunists. I believe in affording everyone basic dignity. I believe that everyone has it within them to grow and to learn and that inquisitive efforts should never be mocked, especially when genuine curiosity is now in such short supply. Reprobates who use their positions of power to denigrate the marginalized and the underprivileged are scumbags who need to be fought and, if necessary, destroyed.

So you can probably imagine how much The House of Mirth means to me. It is one of the best books on the Modern Library list and it should have been ranked much higher. This is my favorite Edith Wharton novel, although The Custom of the Country is a close second. Just this year, I have purchased four copies of this book for friends, urging them to read it with every ounce of exuberance I can summon. And you need to read it too, if you haven’t already. This book is vivacious and brilliant and funny and utterly heartbreaking. I rooted for Lily Bart. I wept for her. Even when I knew her fate. She did not deserve her downfall. She is one of the great tragic heroines in all of literature, right up there with Emma Bovary, Dido, Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Bertha Mason, and Francesca da Rimini. Much like Muriel Spark’s masterpiece The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, you can read this novel multiple times and always discover a new angle. That the rules of the game haven’t changed all that much in the one hundred and seventeen years since this classic was published is a great testament to Wharton’s sagacious and prescient genius. And if you finish this novel and you’re not in the “ride or die” wagon for Edith Wharton, then I’m sorry, but you simply have no literary taste.

Should Lily Bart be blamed for her fate? Conservatives (and privileged neoliberals) will likely condemn her for her apparent financial irresponsibility, but the peer pressure from her rich friends to gamble away vast sums she doesn’t have at bridge will be deeply felt by anyone who can recall the youthful horrors of trying to fit in. (In fact, I’d say the only contemporary writer today who could be an Edith Wharton in the making is the ferociously talented Adelle Waldman, whose excellent novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, mined similar territory. MacArthur people, are you listening? Award her a fellowship already! We really need to get her writing more books so we can find out!) And Wharton is exquisite in communicating to us precisely why Lily is so susceptible to social pressure from these higher-ups and hangers-on:

Her naturally good temper had been disciplined by years of enforced compliance, since she had almost always had to attain her ends by the circuitous path of other people’s; and, being naturally inclined to face unpleasant facts as soon as they presented themselves, she was not sorry to hear an impartial statement of what her folly was likely to cost, the more so as her own thoughts were still insisting on the other side of the case.

More than a century later, with the Dobbs Supreme Court decision and the Democrats’ failure to revive the Equal Rights Amendment serving as disheartening signs that a Handmaid’s Tale future could be in store for us, women are still pressured to be “good” and compliant. And while women have a lot more freedom today than they did in 1905, patriarchal conformity upheld through peer pressure has ensured that a lot of women silently endure such internal and external conflict.

Lily is lucky to have true friends like Carry Fisher (initially described as a “professional sponge” and “a mental habit corresponding to the physical titillations of the cigarette or the cock-tail,” but she turns out to be a hell of a lot more than this) and Gerty Farish (an indefatigable charity worker who doesn’t easily buy into any of the false charges eventually leveled towards Lily) when she eventually slips, but the affluent allure of the Trenors and their circle amaurotizes (and thus amortizes and possibly amouritizes?) her to the deadly puppetry of the Trenors and, most diabolically, the repellent and calculating bedhopper Bertha Dorset, whose doctors, we are informed, forbid “her from exposing herself to the crude air of the morning.” (Such a beautifully compact way of foreshadowing Bertha’s vampiric nature!)

Wharton was a master of gentle ambiguity nestling just beneath the surface of narrative clarity. The first time you read Mirth, you don’t buy Simon Rosedale’s mercy near the end. With his “small stock-taking eyes,” he’s little more than a bean-counting arriviste and his despicable tabulating also applies to people. (When Rosedale says, “I can’t help making love to you” to Lily near the end of the book, he’s basically every vulpine loser hitting a singles bar at 3 AM, scoping out the remaining women who haven’t gone home with anyone.) But the second time you read Mirth, you’re not so sure. Rosedale says, “The wonder to me is that you’ve waited so long to get square with that woman.” Can Rosedale be forgiven for simply being socially clueless? Is he a product of the system? And does his gesture actually mean anything? I’ll leave it to the capable writers of Jezebel and The Cut to argue the culpability of mediocre men.

Mirth‘s vast cast of characters tend to glom onto the split-second flourish of a socialite’s physical gesture to fuel gossip and umbrage. Consider the way that Mrs. Peniston is described as “the kind of woman who wore jet at breakfast.” But Wharton’s meticulous study of mercenary manipulators is far from vapid. She hoped to show that “a society of irresponsible pleasure-seekers…can acquire dramatic significance only through what its frivolity destroys.”

Perhaps one of the reasons why The House of Mirth is so authentically devastating is because Wharton was undergoing a great deal of stress as she wrote it. Her husband Teddy had just experienced a nervous breakdown and his erratic behavior was worse than ever. Her fiction was in demand and was being published everywhere, but her social calendar was spiraling out of control. Scribner’s editor Edward Burligname needed a serialized novel at the last minute after another writer had dropped out. And amazingly, Wharton produced this masterpiece in ten monthly installments, with Mirth appearing in publication before Wharton had even finished it (although the tale had gestated in her notebooks for at least five years under the working title “A Moment’s Ornament,” taken from a Wordsworth poem).

Scribner’s knew that it had a big hit on its hands and promptly placed sensationalist ads on the cover — packaging that Wharton objected to — when The House of Mirth hit bookstores in October 1905. The publicity forces also talked up Wharton’s social movements and, while Wharton was happy to have her novel read, she feared that her work would be seen as nothing more than a juicy gossipfest.

She need not have worried. The book was fiercely debated in various letters sections, with many wondering if Wharton was accurately portraying the leisure class or mercilessly skewering them for her own gain. And the robust discussion lent greater credibility to Mirth‘s considerable literary merits.

In her excellent Wharton biography, Hermione Lee has suggested that The House of Mirth can be defined by the presence of books within the book: largely decorative and untouched by few outside Lawrence Selden, the young lawyer who toys with Lily Bart’s need to land a husband. But Mirth can also be epitomized by the actors recruited to entertain the wealthy at Bellomont:

Indeed, so skillfully had the personality of the actors been subdued to the scenes they figured in that even the least imaginative of the audience must have felt a thrill of contrast when the curtain suddenly parted on a picture which was simply and undisguisedly the portrait of Miss Bart.

If all the world’s a stage, why then are we still susceptible to objectifying people? It’s actually quite astonishing how effortless it is to transpose the cruelty of class trappings to the casual character assassination that now passes for “truth” on social media. (As Wai-Chee Dimock has observed, Lily Bart spends most of the novel marketing herself, attempting to appeal to the highest bidder. This is not unlike the behavior of a comely Instagram influencer or, if we want to take Gus Trenor’s sinister insinuation on its face, an OnlyFans model willing to say or do almost anything to extract money.)

Many disgusting creatures in high places fancy themselves Lily Barts — even as they stab with the fierce sociopathic duplicity of Bertha Dorset. (On literary Twitter, there can be no better contemporary parallel to Bertha than the monstrous bully and largely mediocre writer Jennifer Weiner, whose relentless attacks on other writers are quietly circulated among those in the know and whose odious demands for “literary respect” were smartly captured by The New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead in 2014.) They jockey for precarious perches to cleave to their careers while piling onto the week’s “main character” with gossip and lies. An otherwise innocent figure’s glaring mistake is used to perpetuate further prevarications and even those in the know, like Rosedale, will not lift a finger to salvage their own shaky ascent into a perceived predominance. Indeed, as someone who has been the target of multiple smear campaigns, I can report that a literary man of modest renown — a figure who once maintained a blog inspired by Wharton — treated me, when I was homeless, with the same false solicitude that Rosedale tenders to Lily Bart in the final crushing pages of The House of Mirth. He strung me along with phony plaudits about my writing talent and he offered me the sham promise of a prominent magazine gig that I would have killed to land at the time. He was not unlike Rosedale. Indeed, like all of Wharton’s socialites, he inevitably deemed me invisible — likely with a cognizant irony. It is doubtful that I will ever forgive this motherfucker for tinkering with my dignity and my then shaky self-respect to delude himself into thinking that he was a “kind and decent man.”

So Lily Bart’s awful and needless plunge into the abyss resonates deeply and painfully with me. Today I am tremendously grateful to be gainfully employed, doing what I love, tackling new creative mediums, and to be very much alive. That there are so many “influencers” who hold this book up without comprehending or practicing its emotionally instructive lessons about the need for empathy says everything about the vicious myopia of the contemporary literary world, which now thrives on stubbing out noisemakers and ruining outliers. They cancel anyone with an even remotely disagreeable opinion and they murder anyone who stands in their way of their self-serving and meretriciously earned “success.” Cutthroat capitalism and opprobrious opportunism at its finest! Edith Wharton had her finger on the pulse of 1905 life. And sadly 2022 life.

Next Up: Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street!

The Alexandria Quartet (Modern Library #70)

(This is the thirty-first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A High Wind in Jamaica.)

In a previous life, when talent and bonhomie mattered more than sad resentful ciphers dedicating their wasteful energies to demolishing rivals on social media, I had the great privilege to interview authors. I once made a northeastern trek by train to talk with a literary titan — a formidable essayist, a first-rate fiction writer, and a mischievous wit with a bright high voice who is still blessedly alive and who remains quite undersung today. After I pressed the square STOP button on my bulky black recording unit, we got to gabbing for two more hours off-tape — an act of generosity that stunned my companion and me. The author surprised us by confessing that she had played the then-in-vogue Angry Birds and we discussed the literary classics that young people read (or, more frequently, neglect). She was very likely picking our unweaned and less wiser brains in that pre-Trumpian epoch when, even then, declining erudition was a growing pestilence, as it wasn’t all too often that she had the company of young strangers at her long refectory table, which was punctuated by a plate of store-bought cookies that no one touched. The first name that this author mentioned was Lawrence Durrell.

“Does anyone even read him anymore?” she asked.

Neither my companion nor I had read a single word of this almighty author at the time. As I was to learn only in the last few months, I missed the teenage ritual of diving into Durrell by about five to ten years. Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. These were the four volumes read by an impressionable generation just before me. My older literary friends describe soaking up Durrell’s words with wide and voracious eyes around seventeen — just before they joined the less exclusive liturgical practice of tossing their tasseled caps into the heavens preceding the uncertain foray into higher education and the newfound duty of negotiating injurious capitalism (clearly not redeemable by taxation these days, contrary to sentiments expressed by the novelist Pursewarden in Mountolive).

Now that I have finally read the mighty quartet — with its gorgeous sentences, its exotic vernacular (which caused even a rhapsodic word nut and undefeated Wordle regular like me to make repeat trips to the dictionary), its bold meditations on “modern love” (a term of art regrettably coarsened by the New York Times‘s often vapid essays and an even more vacuous television offshoot) and intertextuality (most notably, Balthazar‘s Interlineal), its vast tapestry of unreliable narrators and colorful characters (many marked by disease and disfigurement and, most tellingly, the absence of eyes; the number of one-eyed characters throughout the Quartet greatly overshadows the sum of spastic dancers you’ll find in any Brooklyn nightclub on a Saturday night), and the hypnotic and baleful city at the center of all these proceedings — I am frankly kicking myself for not getting around to it much earlier. My reading experience was a true coup de foudre.

This tetralogy is clearly one of the 20th century’s greatest literary achievements. I suspect, as I crest closer to the age of fifty and reckon with surprising strains of unsummoned maturity that have often bemused me, that this was the last possible moment of my life in which I could have supped upon Durrell with an eager appetite. There are only a handful of living writers whose command of the written word beckons you to slow down and imbibe the text ever so delicately — much like a pied crested cuckoo leisurely supping on drops of rain water. Of Alexandria itself, we learn of warm winds that strike against the cheek as “soft as the brush of a fox” from an enchanting near-phantom city “whose pearly skies are broken in spring only by the white stalks of the minarets and the flocks of pigeons turning in clouds of silver and amethyst; whose veridian and black marble habour-water reflects the snouts of foreign men-of-war turning through their slow arcs.” Even if one is blind and cannot see the Nile’s adjacent estuary, there is eldritch life within the “gloomy subterranean library with its pools of shadow and light,” where “fingers [move] like ants across the perforated surfaces of books engraved for them by a machine.”

Shallow word-wasters have abseiled down the other side of once robust parapets with evermore ubiquity these days, emboldened by the narcotic allure of likes and follows rather than the purer and more rewarding journey set by the instinctive tempo of their distinct voices. But Durrell (whose name rhymes with “squirrel” and not the inexact “laurel,” as I have unknowingly mispronounced for decades) is very much on the level. Given the astronomical prices of his non-Alexandria volumes online — despite a well-received four season television series on the Durrell family in recent years and an enthusiastic nonprofit society sustaining a cheery and active Twitter presence — it appears likely that Lawrence Durrell is fated to be forgotten. All writers, of course, have their time and eventually fade into the sunset. Very few of today’s readers speak of Naipaul, Ford Maddox Ford, John Dos Passos, or even Anthony Burgess anymore. For some of these plodding stampeders now collecting well-earned dust in used bookstores from here to Gehenna, there is sturdy raison that only a handful of graying hangers-on will dispute. (Besides, what kind of giddy and obsessive bastard reckons with ancient canons when one is regularly unsettled by the cannonades of apocalyptic headlines and the high probability of a third world war? An increasingly shrinking number these days, easily a hundredfold more minuscule than the combined tally of all who still collect vinyl and Beanie Babies.) But in Durrell’s case, this feels like a notable criminal oversight. Particularly since crossing the four book Rubicon was, not so long ago, a vital rite for any stripling with unquenchable curiosity.

It all starts with an unnamed Irishman (whose name is revealed to be Darley a few books later) in exile on an island with a child, recalling his passionate affair with a woman named Justine.  Justine is married to a distinguished Copt diplomat named Nessim.  Before that, Justine had been married to a tyrannical French national and that life has been captured in a book called Moeurs written by some guy named Jacob Arnauti. Intertexuality and the struggle to make sense of ineffable feelings through words (or even the words from another committed and capricious chronicler) is very much a Durrell motif.  Darley has abandoned a devoted and far too patient dancer named Melissa for the sake of this seemingly distinguished affair.  There is also a mysterious painter named Clea, who smartly tells Darley, “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people.”

But what if the “love” that Darley feels has not been reciprocated in the way that he has believed? Durrell’s second volume, Balthazar, calls into question all the events of the first volume, with Balthazar himself (a mystical Jewish doctor who is involved with the Cabal) arriving by sea with an annotated version of Darley’s manuscript.  The third volume, Mountolive, not only expands these angsty escapades to the vaster canvas of surprising espionage developments that often crackle with the griping momentum of a John le Carre novel, but reveals the tableau from the third-person vantage point of the titular diplomat, where we not only learn that Nessim has an unhinged brother named Narouz, but that Mountolive himself is mad about their mother, Leila. Finally, in Clea, we return back to the narrator Darley, five years after the Rashomon-like events of the first three volumes. The Second World War now unsettles the city. And the characters we have been rapturously following are still trying to make sense of the events that have happened, but what living now encompasses. Which is not all that removed from today’s practice of doomscrolling, dodging new variants, and submitting one’s deltoid for yet anther booster shot. As Darley himself puts it:

I am hunting for metaphors which mighty convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of something so profoundly at peace with itself, at one with itself.  Words are the mirrors of our discontents merely; they contain all the huge unhatched eggs of the world’s sorrows.

Amazingly, Durrell wrote Clea in four weeks.

It may seem from my description that Durrell was merely a relentless brooder, but he was often quite witty with his pen. Biographies from Ian MacNiven and Gordon Bowker both depict Durrell’s obsession with the great P.G. Wodehouse.  And Durrell fueled these comic energies in humorous stories about a diplomat named Antrobus.  While the tableau of Scobie cross-dressing as Dolly Varten in Balthazar possesses the dowdy feel of an entry in the Carry On film franchise, Sir Louis’s eccentricities in Mountolive could almost be interposed to an Evelyn Waugh novel:

Within the last year, and on the eve of retirement, the Ambassador had begun to drink rather too heavily — though never quite reaching the borders of incoherence. In the same period a new and somewhat surprising tic had developed. Enlivened by one cocktail too many he had formed the habit of uttering a low continuous humming noise at receptions which had earned him a rather questionable notoriety. But he himself had been unaware of this habit, and indeed at first indignantly denied its existence. He found to his surprise that he was in the habit of humming, over and over again, in basso profundo, a passage from the Dead March in Saul. It summed up, appropriately enough, a lifetime of acute boredom spent in the company of friendless officials and empty dignitaries.

One reason why Durrell’s voice is so distinct on the page — and why it has been so inimitable since (only Malcolm Bradbury and Roger Angell have attempted Durrell parodies, with unsustainable and ineffectual results) — is because he needed a fellow outlier (specifically, Henry Miller) and a commitment to impropriety and originality to get there. Indeed, as Durrell himself observed in a January 12, 1972 appearance at UCLA, his febrile dilettantism was his lodestar:

But it seems that every writer need a kind of placental relationship with another writer to approve of him and to help him. To reassure him. And it seems very curious how they come up in doubles in such very dissimilar people. I’m very frequently asked, “How could a writer like you admire Miller? And what on earth could he see in you?” The second question is difficult, I know. But a friendship is not qualified by the actual material one produces. And in our case, what we had in common was an unprofessional attitude to literature. In other words, neither of us were really interested in literature. Nor was Anais Nin. We were interested in other things. That is to say that we were not professional litterateurs. And we didn’t think professionally about writing. Writing, for us, was a kind of windscreen wiper which might help us to look ourselves in the eye a little more clearly. To liberate ourselves or to realize ourselves. In other words, our occupation was not literary, but philosophic really.

The journalist Peter Pomerantsev has suggested that Durrell only appeals to “the ‘cross-patriates,’ the hyphenated.” And he may very well be right. As a writer, audio producer, journalist, theatre producer, radio dramatist, sound designer, performer, voiceover man, TikTok microinfluencer (this still puzzles me),  and (just weeks ago) soundtrack composer, it’s becoming increasingly harder these days to find people who aren’t so singular and unadventurous in their passions and interests. As Cormac McCarthy has said, “Of all the subjects I’m interested in, it would be extremely difficult to find one I wasn’t. Writing is way, way down at the bottom of the list.” Those of us who find joie de vivre in living as widely and as fulsomely as we can are increasingly becoming exiles like Darley.

It’s also difficult to fathom the lion’s share of today’s emerging writers being driven by the same impetus. One’s individuality is now drowned out by the unceasing firth of social media’s brackish tide, its morass of groupthink. The urge to please, to install one’s self as some influential pinnacle who plays it safe, is diametrically opposed to the noble pairing of future artists who can provide mutual succor, possibly shaking the very foundations of an increasingly stodgy medium that rewards uninventive bougie hokum and shameless mimesis. Inimical idiocrats with such stultifying surnames as Athitakis, Ulin, Kellogg, Kachka, Kreizman, Miller, Grady, Romano, Freeman, and Schaub regularly stump for what Durrell identified (through his novelist character Pursehaven) as “the ancient tinned salad of the subsidised novel.” All of them, unlike Durrell, will scarcely be recalled by anyone fifteen years after they pass. They will live out their dull and unadventurous lives and take out their parasitic resentiment on true originals with pablumatic “hot takes” that are largely mercantile and self-serving. Having abdicated their sense of humor sometime in their thirties or forties, and expressing little more than a perfunctory interest in other things, these egregious weasels continue to wage war on any dazzling lights casting a lambent heat upon their cold and cozy conformity. And contemporary literature is lesser for it.

So it becomes increasingly urgent these days to not tuck true talents like Durrell into the granules of forgotten history. Literary achievement is consummated by puckish punks who stand against the boring norms, by young writers who pay close attention to the dazzling output of all the eclectic outliers who presaged them and who summon the instinctive effrontery to pick a crucial and principled fight in the mystifying battles against misfits.

Next Up: Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth!

A High Wind in Jamaica (Modern Library #71)

(This is the thirtieth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A House for Mr. Biswas.)

Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is the wild and bracing corrective to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (forthcoming at ML #41) that I never knew I needed. Truth be told, the two books I am least looking forward to revisiting during the course of this ridiculously ambitious and time-consuming project are J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye (forthcoming at ML #64) and Lord. Both novels meshed with me when I was an impressionable high school kid who didn’t know any better, but I have assiduously avoided rereading both volumes as an adult — much in the way that you hang down your wiser and more mature head over some of the dodgier cartoons you advocated as a child. (For the record, in my adulthood, I still abide by The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, the decades-long catalog of Warner Brothers cartoons, and — if you get me on the right day — Robotech and Star Blazers.)

Thankfully, I had no such qualms with High Wind; in large part because, unlike Golding, Hughes isn’t so obsessed with plugging in values — the novel as a Sudoku puzzle? — to uphold his Great AllegoryTM (and thus literary posterity). The older you get as a reader, the more you welcome the fresh shock of the visceral: those exotic and sometimes unsettling voices you may not encounter in the real world.

Hughes was twenty-five years ahead of Golding when it came to writing a novel about children losing their civilized patina as they travel deeper into the wild and aberrant vales of anarchism (in this case, by dint of a ragtag gang of pirates). But his exquisite command of atmosphere shows that he was arguably more subtler than Golding, permitting the transformation of his children to become something of a shock in part due to the great care he took with his prose. High Wind was one of only four novels that Hughes wrote. (And aside from High Wind, I especially recommend In Hazard.) He was more of a playwright, a poet, and a journalist than a fiction writer — in large part because the lapidary approach he took with his sentences significantly slowed him down. But despite his bradykinetic progress, High Wind proved to be such a literary sensation that it turned Hughes into a notable figure saddled with controversy, literary renown, and even a modestly burgeoning financial cushion.

The novel’s setup involves the Bas-Thornton children, who flirt with feral wonders in the Jamaican wild when not relishing their privileged comforts at a plantation named Ferndale. A storm devastates their idyllic paradise. And as they sail back home to England, the children are scooped up by pirates.

When the pirates do board the ill-fated Clorinda (complete with Captain Narpole sleeping through the whole imbroglio, saving face later with a devastatingly bleak letter of lies), Hughes is crisply fastidious about describing these interlopers against type:

With this second boatload came both the captain and the mate. The former was a clumsy great fellow, with a sad, silly face. He was bulky; yet so ill-proportioned one got no impression of power. He was modestly dressed in a drab shore-going suit: he was newly shaven, and his sparse was pomaded so that it lay in a few dark ribbons across his baldish head-top. But all this shore-decency of appearance only accentuated his big splodgy brown hands, stained and scarred and corned with his calling. Moreover, instead of boots he wore a pair of gigantic heel-less slippers in the Moorish manner, which he must have sliced with a knife out of some pair of dead sea-boots. Even his great spreading feet could hardly keep them on, so that he was obliged to walk at the slowest of shuffles, flop-flop along the deck. He stooped, as if always afraid of banging his head on something, and carried the backs of his hands forward, like an orangutan.

Much as Knut Hamsun seemed to anticipate the hardboiled existential feel of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain in 1890 (thank you also, late and great translator Sverre Lyngstad!), so too does Hughes depict the professional working-class criminal just before the gaudily garbed grunt became a staple of noir. These pirates do make a perfunctory effort to look presentable (the captain — later revealed to be a Danish German-speaking ruffian named Jonsen — has gone to the trouble of shaving and pomading what is left of his hair), but they are also makeshift in their sartorial choices. Hughes’s beautiful choice of “dead sea-boots” suggests something vitiated and unholy at work here. (Indeed, one of the buyers who unloads the booty is a vicar, described as “less well shaved than he would have been in England.” Later, a warped nativity play is performed to entertain the pirates. Even later, the song “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is evoked in creepy fashion.) And Jonsen’s desperate attempt to keep his fancy bespoke slippers on — coupled with the telltale pocks of his aloof hands, which resemble a spastic animal — is just one of many examples of the dry exacting comedy that Hughes doles out gently throughout this deranged adventure tale. There’s also a mysterious first-person narrator serving almost as a cosmic god offering mordant asides. Indeed, the standoff between Marpole and these thugs reminded me of the “civilized” exchange between Barry and the highwayman in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. (In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick also had a sardonic narrator in the form of Michael Hordern’s arch commentary, which also dished up bone-dry asides on how we are all barely disguised animals beneath the human sheen. Was Kubrick familiar with Hughes? We may never know, although it is worth noting that a young Martin Amis did appear as one of the kids in the 1965 film adaptation of Hughes’s novel.)

Yet the look of these pirates is enough to ignite a modest crush within Margaret, one of the children, who marvels at their beauty. In an age in which television shows like Euphoria and high school cinematic classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are heralded for using transgressive behavior to depict teens as “adults” (one can likewise see this approach nimbly executed in Megan Abbott’s more recent novels, which have used this storytelling device by framing kids through the subcultures of ballet, cheerleading, and hockey), it’s impossible to overstate the big risk that Hughes took here in 1929. During the hurricane that plagues Jamaica, Hughes also foreshadows how living in a state of nature can inevitably subsume anyone — even a child — by having a domesticated pet named Tabby ruthlessly chased by wildcats.

You will, alas, have to contend with the novel’s appalling and off-putting racism (“there is, after all, a vast difference between a negro and a favorite cat,” writes Hughes when both die after a hurricane and there is a cruel treatment of a monkey on the high seas, which suggests an unsettling metaphor). But the sheer weirdness that forms the backbone of this sweeping story swiftly atones for these hoary and horrendous “cultural values.”

High Wind is also the first recorded instance of the Hangman’s Blood, a cocktail later favored by Anthony Burgess. Seventeen years ago, I persuaded a bartender in the Upper Haight to make me this famous libation. It was, I am sad to report, quite ghastly. I never tried it again. Hughes himself also understood what a hideous mix it was, describing it as possessing “the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so, once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.”

Subconsciously, too, every one recognizes they are animals — why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis?

The children adapt to their new life much like many of today’s bored kids stare into the vacuity of their digital screens for constant stimulation. When one of their number dies, Hughes eerily notes how quickly accustomed they become to an empty bed. When Jonsen withholds the “three Sovereign Rules of Life” on the basis of their youth, Edward replies, “Why not? When shall I be old enough?” Indeed, reading High Wind in 2022 is rather eldritch, particularly in the shock of recognizing such everyday behavior among children today. Hughes does not shy away from how boredom can turn kids unruly and mischievous quite fast. Margaret speaks “with an eagerness that even exceeded the necessities of politeness in its falsity.” When the first mate attempts to inveigle the kids by mentioning a famous pirate named Rector of Roseau, the children quickly see through the superficiality of the apocryphal origin story, puncturing the first mate’s plot holes faster than the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. And the children strike back, with Hughes even describing a corporeal awakening among Emily.

I certainly don’t want to spoil how the kids transform. But it is subtly disconcerting, with a clever nod to the Flying Dutchman. We are left to wonder whether this particular group of kids was fated to turn out this way, even if the pirates had never kidnapped them, or if feral circumstances shaped their transmutation. Hughes, to his credit, lets the reader off the hook somewhat with this aside, pointing to how children are regularly underestimated:

Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realize that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances nil.

Given how problem children have been a pain in the ass for so many parents over the years, it’s rather surprising that it took so long for literature to point this out. Hughes’s immaculately written masterpiece — complete with its alligators and earthquakes as odd forms of fierce incitement and its wry asides about our assumptions about children — was one of the first major works of fiction to interrogate this discomfiting truth. And, even today, A High Wind in Jamaica is a bold and welcome reminder that kids are not to be underestimated. In an epoch in which moronic milquetoasts ban Maus from classrooms for the most arbitrarily intransigent concerns (just read the meeting minutes), High Wind — complete with its chilling final sentence — is a swift kick in the ass to the cowardly and unadventurous sensibilities that prevent us from being honest about what anyone is capable of becoming and how so many of these disturbing possibilities hide in plain sight.

Next Up: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet!

A House for Mr. Biswas (Modern Library #72)

(This is the twenty-ninth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Day of the Locust.)

I have to be honest. V.S. Naipaul’s literary work is so abominably heartless that I would be greatly tempted to fire bottlerockets all night from my Brooklyn rooftop while wearing nothing more than a male monokini if his scabrous worldview and his pointless head games were permanently erased from the canon. He is surely the most overrated writer of the 20th century.

I’ve delivered variations of these sentiments over the phone to amused literary friends, who, when they weren’t laughing their asses off over my five minute anti-Naipaul soliloquies, were good enough to urge me to forgo the semi-scholarly format of this ridiculous years-long project and simply speak from the heart. I shall do my best to be as thoughtful as I can about my Naipaul bellicosity, which is, alas, the only way to move forward with this project. I can tell you this much. Not even Finnegans Wake, which took me five years to read and eventually write about, made me feel as frustrated as I was with A House for Mr. Biswas. Even the books on the list that I haven’t cared for all that much (The Old Wives’ Tale, the wildly overrated Ragtime, the failings of Kim) still contained something essential or interesting. You could see why a bunch of old white dudes decided to canonize the books even if they seemed to be speaking a hoary language — even accounting for the folkways and mores of 1998. But A House for Mr. Biswas was a joyless chore during the two times I read it. It is a reactionary monument to imperialistic ugliness that isn’t so much a thoughtful examination of colonialism as it is an author catching mice in a glue trap and watching them squirm their way into a slow and painful death instead of putting them out of their misery with a hammer.

In his life and his work, Naipaul was a sadistic bully, a narcissistic tyrant, and a mean-spirited man who used his powers to punch down. The only quality that distinguishes Naipaul from Donald Trump is his descriptive acumen and his honed prose. There is a moment in A House for Mr. Biswas in which Naipaul has a mother snap off branches from a hibiscus bush to discipline her child and it represents that brilliant exactitude. But that’s pretty much it. There isn’t a single Nobel laureate who basks in repugnancy like this simply because he can. Knut Hamsun was a terrible person (who later turned Nazi), but his masterpiece Hunger actually made you feel something about the down-and-out impoverished wretch at the center of the novel. The late great Toni Morrison, inexplicably omitted from the Modern Library canon, used ugly imagery to reveal the deep humanity within victims of racism and oppression. But what does Naipaul offer other than pointless cruelty? James Wood offered the hamfisted theory that Naipaul adopted the dual role of the colonizer and the colonized to adopt “a cool, summary omniscience that he uses to provoke our rebellious compassion.” But I personally could not feel any compassion for Biswas, in large part because I was constantly aware of the manipulative way that Naipaul had rigged the game. Naipaul, in other words, is an old school bully lulling and gaslighting the reader into a phony empathy. Having no empathy to offer, Naipaul leaves such overanalytical and generous critics as Wood to mine the gelid prose and do the work that Naipaul himself couldn’t be bothered to do. That Naipaul was able to play this game of three-card monte on so many says a great deal about how the literary establishment has a knack for propping up bona-fide sociopaths. Even progressive-minded naifs like Teju Cole stumped for this novel, claiming House to be “a masterwork of realism,” but largely on the basis of its itemized lists and of the way that the book encumbers the reader with its turgid pace. Both Wood and Cole acknowledge that it falls upon the reader to provide the munificence that Naipaul himself cannot. But they refuse to acknowledge that the faults of House‘s thin characterizations very much fall on Naipaul’s shoulders. If a writer isn’t committed to depicting the human, then why even bother praising the writer?

For the Spainards, Mr. Biswas knew, had surrendered the island one hundred years before, and their descendants had disappeared; yet they left a memory of reckless valour, and this memory had passed to people who came from another continent and didn’t know what a Spainard was, people who, in their huts of mud and grass where time and distance were obliterated, still frightened their children with the name of Alexander, of whose greatness they knew nothing.

I don’t gainsay Naipaul’s command at the sentence level, such as the measured passage above. At times, Naipaul comes across as the holistic sage reminding us that all of our lives are mired in historical cycles in which we often forget the final festoons of the previous arc. But grifters often talk in cant that suggest a larger tapestry. If you speak in ways that suggest larger cosmic contours, many people are going to assume that there’s something more to your tale than a mean monodimensional character who treats his family badly and who spends most of the goddamned novel writhing in anger and resentment simply because he never has the guts to make a real decision. I suspect Naipaul has bamboozled so many otherwise cogent minds because this kind of pedestrian toxic masculinity, especially in an older book, can be easily excused as a “sign of the times.” But even with Wuthering Heights‘s Heathcliff, named by Bustle‘s Charlotte Ahlin as the “most toxic male character in all of literature,” we can still understand why he forces his son Linton to marry. Heathcliff grows nastier as the novel continues. But he’s still tormented by Catherine’s ghost and the dregs of being bullied and locked in an attic. Mr. Biswas, by contrast, loses his father Raghu early on in the book after Mr. Biswas, entrusted to take care of a neighbor’s calf, falls into a stream and drowns. Mr. Biswas hides beneath his bed in shame. Raghu dives in for the missing calf and his own son. Raghu dies. Emily Bronte had the smarts to connect Heathcliff’s psychology to the past, which makes him more than merely a “toxic male character.” We want to understand why he behaves as he does. But, with Naipaul, the drowning incident is rarely referenced again in the novel. So Mr. Biswas is a man flung into misfortunes in the present without really acknowledging his past. Does this make him as much of a dope as any other ostensible cipher living out a failed life on a former Spanish colony? Apparently.

But there’s something much seedier at work here. As I pointed out with A Bend in the River, Naipual’s bad faith portrayal of low-caste types has always felt supererogatory. He isn’t taking potshots in an interesting or bona-fide punk rock way that challenges the audience. He revels in filth and ugliness and he chooses targets who are just too easy to flambee. You may recall my love for Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, which featured some wild and outlandish depictions of degeneracy, but Caldwell used his broad caricatures to implicate his audience for their generalizations about the poor. It’s clear to me that Naipaul doesn’t have any such grand game afoot here, other than reveling in his hideous hubris. He’s happy to see his inventions rot. The man lived to hurl unpleasant observations about unpleasant people, both in his life and in his fiction. And I say this as a huge fan of unlikable characters. Naipaul’s ensemble isn’t terribly interesting or dimensional. For all my complaints about Evelyn Waugh, at least that reactionary clown was committed to some kind of beauty. A throwback beauty that came from a repressed Catholicism, but a beauty nonetheless. What do we get with Naipaul? Hari “humming from some hymn book in his cheerless way.”

While I commend Naiapul’s prose powers (his description of a box imprinted with the circles of condensed milk cans and his evocation of gods for the Tulsi house are two of many examples of what make him a commendable stylist), I really don’t see why Mr. Biswas deserves such an expansive volume. He is mean, arrogant, cowardly, and an altogether predictable specimen of 20th century masculinity. He possesses no empathy for the people who surround him, looking at his future wife Shama not with compassion as she is berated by a customer, but “as a child.” He expresses flights of wild behavior that might be characterized as bipolar. He throws fits, feels as if he is entitled to a job. Even in describing Mr. Biswas in the way I am here, I fear that I am making him more interesting he deserves to be portrayed. Naipaul doesn’t give us a real reason for Mr. Biswaa’s ego or his cruelty — despite the fact that we are constantly surrounded by his family, which include in-laws who are too numerous to track without notes. He would prefer to wallow in ugliness — both in the ramshackle aesthetic of rural Trinidad and the boorish behavior of his many side characters. There are unlikable characters and villains in literature who deserve our attention because we want to know how they came to be who they are. But with Mr. Biswas, I never felt any strong pull to know him any further. Mr. Biswas is an unremarkable reader, a mediocre sign-painter, and a ham-fisted writer who never has anything especially interesting to say, but always has an especially monstrous act to mete out to anyone in his surrounding orbit.

So I’m quite happy to be rid of Naipaul. I will never read him again. There are people who still swear by Naipaul. Robert McCrum once declared Naipaul to be “the greatest living writer of English prose.” But what’s the point of picking up the pen when you don’t have a pulse?

Next Up: Richard Hughes, A High Wind in Jamaica!

The Day of the Locust (Modern Library #73)

(This is the twenty-eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Farewell to Arms.)

December 22, 1940 may be literature’s answer to July 4, 1826, the day in which John Adams rasped his last words on his deathbed. “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” he gasped, not knowing that Jefferson himself had passed away only five hours before. One hundred and fourteen years later, two towering literary titans, far more obscure in their time than Adams and Jefferson had been in theirs, met their end at a needlessly early age. On December 21, 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed inside a ground-floor apartment not far from the Sunset Strip at the age of 44. The alcohol had finally caught up with him. He believed himself a failure. He would never know that his tragically brief life and his coruscating work would be rediscovered only a handful of years later — not long after 155,000 copies of The Great Gatsby were distributed to World War II servicemen. The next day, about two hundred miles southwest of Fitzgerald’s home, Nathanael West and his wife Eileen McKenney (whose sprightly spirit would be immortalized by her sister Ruth in a series of light but amusing New Yorker pieces later turned into a wildly successful stage show called My Sister Eileen) would be killed instantly in a car collision on their way back from Mexico. West was, by all reports, a notoriously awful driver and he was even younger than Fitzgerald. Just thirty-seven.

Both men had turned to screenwriting to stay afloat during the Great Depression. Both men had much to say about the traps and illusions of American life. But it would take longer for West to be reassessed and appreciated — in large part because he was arguably fiercer than Fitz with his fiction. He had his finger firmly on the troubling pulse of feral American life and he wasn’t afraid to use it with the other nine at his typewriter. In a short essay called “Some Notes on Violence,” West pointed to the idiomatic violence that had permeated every corner of printed media: “We did not start with the ideas of printing tales of violence. We now believe that we would be doing violence by suppressing them.” His razor-sharp satire featured philandering dwarves, skewered the hideous contradictions of gaudy Hollywood spectacle, and, in just one of many enthralling flashes of his grimly hilarious invention, depicted a dead horse serving as au courant decor at the bottom of a swimming pool. (In an age in which urine-drinking is prescribed as a COVID remedy and reality star Stephanie Matto makes $200,000 selling her farts in a jar, one wonders why the present fictional landscape doesn’t reflect our scabrous realities and why 85% of today’s gatekeepers are so hostile to such a necessary dialogue between fiction and life. But then this is the same universe in which Hanya Yanagihara’s excellent, quite readable, and wildly ambitious new novel, To Paradise, is framed by The New York Times in belittingly racist and sexist terms, assuaging an increasingly unadventurous bourgeois readership: “Can an Asian American woman write a great American novel?” (Well, of course, she can. Why even summon the rhetoric?))

West’s high point as a novelist was arguably The Day of the Locust — just as compact as Gatsby in its length and sentences, but more wryly surreal than ethereal. And he had a genius for fusing this talent with a theatrically visceral and often bleakly comic strain revealing the FOMO and desperate collective belonging at any vicious cost that one sees prominently among numerous Instagram influencers today. Consider this scene at a funeral:

He knew their kind. While not torch-bearers themselves, they would run behind the fire and do a great deal of the shouting. They had come to see Harry buried, hoping for a dramatic incident of some sort, hoping at least for one of the mourners to be led weeping hysterically from the chapel. It seemed to Tod that they stared back at him with an expression of vicious, acrid boredom that trembled on the edge of violence.

This is followed not long after by an old woman who shows up with “a face pulled out of shape by badly-fitting store teeth” whispering to “a man sucking on the handle of a home-made walking stick.” This close attention to background characters making do with either the remaining scraps they could cobble together or the insufficient products on sale at a store obviously sprang from the Great Depression and West’s own experience working at a hotel, where he undoubtedly observed a motley array of eccentrics and strange outliers. (Jay Martin’s excellent biography, Nathanael West: The Art of His Life, covers quite a bit of these hotel days and reveals West to be an impeccable bullshit artist in his life, wheeling deals to help other writers land rooms and constantly reinventing the details of his life to negotiate a failing capitalist system.) But West’s panoramic description also feels unsettlingly close to our present time, in which inflation, the supply chain, and an inept framework increasingly leaving Americans out in the cold produces the same plausible character types. And in another eerie parallel to the present, The Day of the Locust also includes a dismal romantic rival named Homer Simpson. The only song Homer knows is the national anthem

The novel follows Tod Hackett, an artist who has moved to Hollywood to find inspiration for what he hopes will be his masterwork painting, “The Burning of Los Angeles.” (I casually wondered if Rage Against the Machine’s album The Battle of Los Angeles took titular inspiration from West. But sadly no interviewer appears to have asked Zack de la Rocha and company this.) He swoons for Faye Greener after seeing her in the hall at a dismal complex called San Berdoo. But Faye can “only love a handsome man and would only let a wealthy man love her.” Tod harbors disturbingly intense and violent fantasies towards Faye. Is Tod mentally unbalanced? Or is this the inevitable byproduct of trying to find inspiration in a landscape of contradictions? West smartly leaves these questions open for the reader to infer.

One reads this masterpiece in 2022 greatly saddened by the possibilities of what West could have become. Would he have floundered like Erskine Caldwell or soured into a bitter reactionary like Evelyn Waugh? I don’t think he would have. West was committed to grim playful truth right out of the gate — as his scatologically driven first work, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, made abundantly clear. It says quite a lot about the bleak tenor of the prewar Depression period that so many wild and dark comic novelists flourished. Much as one reads the fiction published just before World War I and marvels at the flowing frankness that just preceded Hemingway permanently altering the English language with his declarative sentences, so too does one approach Tobacco Road, Scoop, and The Day of the Locust with a sense of what might have been in literature if the Second World War had never happened. One then turns to our present pandemic age and wonders why most of today’s contemporary fiction writers remain so spineless, so dully vanilla and offensively weak-kneed and uninventive, so hostile to serving up appropriate pushback against our present devil’s bargain of late-stage capitalism and all of its concomitant horrors.

West would have been canceled quite swiftly if he were starting out today. Joe Woodward’s biography of Nathanael West, Alive Inside the Wreck, points to a fascinating review from Ben Abramson that appeared in Reading and Collecting in which he suggested that West’s books should be reviewed two or three years after publication so that they could be reviewed on “merits” rather than “merchandise.” Indeed, it is the mercantile thrust of vapid careerist “critics” on social media these days — the type epitomized by so many mediocre Twitter addicts who wouldn’t know, appreciate or stump for bona-fide punk rock even if they traveled back in time and became desecrated by excrement while standing in the front row of a GG Allin show — that motivates their own sham criteria and their head-in-the-sand approach to our societal ills. But eighty-three years after The Day of the Locust‘s publication — well past Abramson’s prescription for proper consideration — The Day of the Locust says more about the eternal and seemingly unfixable ailments of American life than most of today’s writers can summon over the course of a career. Despite being cut down in his prime, Nathanael West still survives.

Next Up: V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas!

A Farewell to Arms (Modern Library #74)

(This is the twenty-seventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Scoop.)

You likely know the basics: An American goes to Italy and enlists as a “tenente.” He drives a battlefield ambulance just before his nation enters World War I. He gets wounded. He meets a nurse at a hospital. He falls in love. He feels free as he recovers. He feels trapped as he returns to the front. He gets disillusioned. He flees. He finds her again. Bad things happen. But A Farewell to Arms is so much more than this. It is a heartbreaking love story. It is a remarkably subtle indictment of war. It shows how people bury their romantic longings behind duty and how there’s a greater bravery in fulfilling what you owe to your heart. It argues for life and love. Its final paragraph is devastating. It zooms along with masterly prose that is buried with treasure. It is one of the greatest novels of the early 20th century. This statement is not hyperbole.

It is now quite fashionable to bash Hemingway rather than praise him, as the flip Paul Levy recently did in his oh so hip and not very bright “hot take”: “The Hemingway corpus is full of artistic failure.” Well, sure it is. I’ve read it all three times at different periods in my life and I don’t think any honest reader would deny that. When I was an obnoxious punk in my twenties, I resisted Hem big time, feeling that he could not teach me to be a man in the way that James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald had, yet I somehow held onto his books, sensing that I could be colossally wrong. (I was.) Even today, I have to acknowledge that To Have and Have Not is an embarrassment. The Garden of Eden is an interesting but unconsummated train wreck. For Whom the Bell Tolls has its moments, but the Old English verbs and the lack of subtlety can be risible. I’ve never quite been able to leap into The Old Man and the Sea, but that says more about me than Hem. The upshot is that there are quite a few clunkers in Hem’s collected works and some of the Nick Adams tales ain’t all that, but one could make this claim about any author. In the end, when you have a masterpiece like A Farewell to Arms that never grows tedious no matter how many times you reread it, who in the hell cares about the misses? There’s no profit in calculating a shallow statement when the crown jewels shine bright in your face.

The other way that people ding Hem these days is by singling out his macho posturing or peering at his pages through the prism of unbridled masculine hubris. The naysayers dismiss Lady Brett Astley in The Sun Also Rises as an archetype without recognizing her enigma or the way she aptly epitomized the Lost Generation. They don’t acknowledge how Hem had to prostrate himself before Beryl Markham in a letter to Maxwell Perkins and that he did get on (for a time) with Martha Gellhorn, who neither suffered fools nor caved to condescension.

Yet there is certainly something to Hemingway’s women problem, especially as seen in the correspondence between Fitzgerald and Hemingway. In June 1929, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hem a letter and observed how, in his early work, “you were really listening to women — here you’re only listening to yourself, to your own mind beating out facily a sort of sense that isn’t really interesting.” (Hemingway’s reply: “Kiss my ass.”)

Scott’s warning remains a very shrewd assessment on what’s so fascinating and frustrating about Hemingway. I’d argue that one of the best ways to ken Hem is to recognize that he was a wildly accomplished giant when he placed his own ego last and that any transgressions that today’s readers detect only emerged when Hem became overly absorbed in his own self. And on this point, one can find a strange sympathy for the man, thanks in part to Andrew Farah’s recent biography, Hemingway’s Brain, which points to Ernest’s many head injuries (which included nine concussions) and concludes that he suffered from CTE, the brain disease seen in professional football players after too many years of violent tackles. This theory, which takes into account the decline of Hemingway’s handwriting in his latter years, would also offer an explanation for the wildly disparate writing quality and thus invalidates Mr. Levy’s foolish pronouncement.

* * *

The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

A Farewell to Arms thankfully places us shortly after the rising sun of Hem’s career and, like its predecessor, the book contains razor-sharp prose, keen observations (ranging from Umberto Notani’s infamous The Black Pig, trains packed with soldiers, and the repugnant wartime indignity of a hopped up tyrant fiercely questioning a man who is fated to be shot), and a beautiful epitomization of the famous “iceberg theory” that Hemingway posited in Death in the Afternoon:

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

Much has been spilled over Hemingway’s declarative sentences, which are beautifully honed in this masterpiece. (Hem wrote 47 versions of the ending.) But I’d like to single out “was,” the most frequently used word in this novel. On a surface level, “was” is the most expedient way to hurl us into Frederic’s world: a simple verb of action and hard deets, but one that likewise deflects interior thought. It’s easy to dis Hem as a man’s man summing up life and the earth and the grit and all else that makes us want to ape him even though there can be only one, but the key to seeing the beauty of “was” is knowing that this book is all about pursuing a lost and deeply moving romantic vision, one kept carefully hidden from the beginning. Style advances the perspective and keeps us curious and lets us in and “was” is the way Hem gets us there.

Hemingway uses language with extraordinary command to clue us in on the distinct possibility that this story is in some sense a dream — indeed, a dream involving death based on what Hem was never able to make with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky while holed up in a ward. There’s the makeshift hospital office, with its “many marble busts on painted wooden pillars,” which is further compared to a cemetery. In the novel’s first part, there are very few adverbs — save “winefully” early on and “evidently” and “directly” in the same sentence as guns rupture Frederic’s existence. The first rare simile (“seeing it all ahead like moves in a chess game”) occurs when Frederic first tries to kiss Catherine and is greeted with a slap (which Catherine apologizes for). This is a far cry indeed from what The Daily Beast‘s Allen Barra recently claimed, without citing a single example, as “flowery and overwritten.” A Farewell to Arms basks in the same beautiful realm between the real and the ethereal that The Great Gatsby does, albeit in a different landscape altogether, but it offers enough ambiguity to speculate about the characters while encouraging numerous rereads.

Language also carries the deep resonances of what people mean to each other. Catherine cannot stand a triple-wounded vet named Ettore and repeats “dreadful” twice and “bore” four times when she vents to Frederic. The words “She won’t die” are also repeated in one harrowing paragraph near the end. (Indeed, if you see a word or a phrase repeated in Hemingway’s fiction, there’s a good chance that something bad will happen.) Shortly after Frederic is moved to the freshly built hospital in Milan (itself a marvelous metaphor for the fresh start of Frederic’s blossoming love for Catherine), he takes to Dr. Valentini, who speaks in a series of short sentences over the course of a paragraph (a small sample: “A fine blonde like she is. That’s fine. That’s all right. What a lovely girl.”) and who Frederic later calls “grand.” The syntax, chopped and sheared and housed within manageable units, represents a telegraph from the human heart like no other.

Frederic acknowledges that he lies to Catherine when he tells her that she’s the first woman he’s loved. Now it’s tempting to roll your eyes over the “I’ll be a good girl” business that often comes from Catherine, but it’s also a safe bet to speculate that Frederic is likewise lying about what Catherine has actually told him, much as Hem himself has fudged the full extent of his “affair” with Agnes von Kurowsky through fiction. (“Now, Ernest Hemingway has a case on me, or thinks he has,” wrote von Kurowsky in her diary on August 25, 1918. “He is a dear boy & so cute about it.”)

An enduring romance is often built on a pack of lies. We often fail to recognize the full totality of who a lover was until we are well outside of the relationship. As for friendship, I’d like to argue that Miss Gage is a fascinating side character who stands up for this. She’s someone who ribs Frederic about not fully understanding what friendship is. Later, when Frederic returns to the front lines, Rinaldi tells him, “I don’t want to be your friend. I am your friend.” And if Frederic can’t recognize friendship, does he really know how to read the room when Cupid shows up with a puckish smile? Hem’s subtle acknowledgment of these basic truths allows us to trust and become invested in Frederic’s voice. And I’d like to think that even Hem’s opponents could get behind such idyllic imagery as Frederic and Catherine “putting thoughts in the other one’s head while we were in different rooms” or agreeing to sneak off to Switzerland together or even the funny “winter sport” business with customs. These are endearing and beautiful romantic moments that certainly show that Hem is far more than a repugnant hulk.

Love is a high stakes game, but it’s always a game worth playing. If you beat the odds, the payout is incalculable. Small wonder that the happy couple ends up throwing their lire into a rigged horse race. Indeed, Frederic’s early days with Catherine are a game like bridge where “you had to pretend you were playing for money or playing for some stakes.” For all of Frederic’s apparent confidence in not knowing the stakes, he does not reveal his name for a while — on its first mention, Frederic only partially spills his name as he is drinking. He is also more taken with the allure of being alone — as seen later in a Donnean nod when he says that “[w]hat made [Ireland] pretty was that it sounded like Island.” His loneliness is further cemented when Miss Ferguson says that Catherine cannot see him.

Is this the loneliness of war? We learn later that Frederic came to Rome to be an architect, although this is likely a lie, given that it is repeated a second time to a customs officer. But it does suggest that Frederic cannot build his own life without another. Perhaps this is the solitude that comes from the relentless pursuit of manly vigor (boxing, bullfighting, hunting) that Hemingway was to explore throughout his life? There is one clue late in the book when Hemingway writes, “The war seemed as far away as the football game of someone else’s college,” and another midway through when Frederic wonders if major league baseball will be shut down if America entered the war. (Fun fact: There was indeed a World War I deadline put into place, but the two leagues squeezed in numerous doubleheaders to ensure that the season could play out.) If the First World War arose in part because humanity was involved in a vicious game, then Hemingway seems to be suggesting that further games rooted in play and peace must be promulgated to restore the human condition. Frederic cynically quips to the 94-year-old Count Greffi, “No, that is the great fallacy; the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” But if being careful is the true measure of existence, why then do we celebrate valor that often emerges from reckless circumstances? Indeed, Hemingway sends up the very nature of heroism up when Frederic wakes up in the hospital and is greeted by Rinaldi, who presses him to confess the specific act he committed to earn his medal. “No,” replies Frederic. “I was blown up while we were eating cheese.”

In an age where razor blade ads are urging us to question what manhood should represent, there’s something to be said about studying what’s contained within masculinity’s ostensible ur-texts and with how careful men are in saying nothing but everything. A Farewell to Arms is a far more sophisticated and deeply beautiful novel when you start examining its sentences and questioning its motivations. Caught in a mire between love and war, Frederic opts for the laconic rather than the prolix. And in doing so, he tells us far more about what it means to love and lose than most authors can convey in a lifetime.

Next Up: Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust!

Scoop (Modern Library #75)

(This is the twenty-sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)

When I last dived into Evelyn Waugh’s exquisite comic fiction for this crazy project nearly six years ago, I wrote a sour essay in which I permitted my hostility towards Waugh’s pugnacious life and his reactionary politics to overshadow my appreciation for his art. Perhaps the way I read fiction has changed or the idea of completely discounting a writer’s achievements with the histrionic tone of an upbraiding Pollyanna who doesn’t possess a scintilla of self-awareness fills me with a dread I usually associate with wincing at a tax bill or standing in a needlessly long line for a pizza slice. Whatever the case, I allowed myself to zero in on Brideshead Revisited‘s weaker elements (namely, the deplorable gay stereotype Anthony Blanche) without possessing the decency to praise that novel’s excellent prose in any way. This was decidedly uncharitable of me. For Waugh was, for all of his faults, a master stylist. That I was also bold enough to rank Wodehouse over Waugh was likewise problematic (although I would still rather read Pip and I have never been able to get into the Sword of Honour trilogy and I still feel that Waugh was more or less finished as an author after The Loved One; incidentally, Waugh himself called Wodehouse “the Master”). At the time, the eminently reasonable Cynthia Haven offered what I now deem to be appropriate pushback, observing that I brought a lot of “post-modern baggage” into my reading. My “take” on that novel’s Catholic dialogue was, I now realize after diving into Waugh again, driven by a cocky yahooism that is perhaps better deployed while knocking back pints in a sports bar and claiming that you’re a big fan of the team everybody else is cheering for. Never mind that the names of the players are only lodged in your memory by the blinding Chryon reminders and the bellowing cries of histrionic announcers that work together to perfect a sense-deadening television experience.

Anyway, I’ll leave cloud cuckoos like Dave Eggers to remain dishonest and pretend they never despised great novels. I’d rather be candid about where I may have strayed in my literary judgement and how I have tried to reckon with it. In a literary climate of “No haters” (and thus no chances), we are apparently no longer allowed to (a) voice dissenting opinions or (b) take the time to reassess our youthful follies and better appreciate a novel that rubbed us the wrong way on the first read. Wrestling with fiction should involve expressing our hesitations and confessing our evolving sensibilities and perceiving what a problematic author did right. And so here we are. It has taken many months to get here, but it does take time to articulate a personal contradiction.

So here goes: As much as I appreciate Scoop‘s considerable merits (particularly the fine and often hilarious satire when the book takes place on Waugh’s home turf), I cannot find it within me to endorse this novel’s abysmally tone-deaf observations on a fictitious Abyssinia — here, Ishmaelia. There are unsophisticated thoughts cloaked beneath the light fluidity of Waugh’s exacting pen that many of his acolytes — including The Observer‘s Robert McCrum and NPR’s Alexander Nazaryan — refuse to acknowledge. There’s no other way to say this, but Waugh is more nimble with his gifts when he bakes his pies with an anglophonic upper crust. And that ugly truth should give any reader or admirer great pause. (Even Selina Hastings, one of his biographers, was forced to concede this. And McCrum, to his credit, does at least write that “Scoop derives less inspiration from Ethiopia,” although this is a bit like stating that Paul Manafort merely muttered a little white lie.) Waugh’s limitations in Scoop are not as scabrous as Black Mischief — a novel so packed with racism that it’s almost the literary equivalent to Louis C.K.’s recent attempts at a comeback. But his “insights” into Africa are still very bad, despite all the other rich wit contained within the book. Waugh cannot see anyone who does not share his lily-white complexion as human. His creatively bankrupt view of Africans as bloodthirsty cannibals or “crapulous black servants” or “a natty young Negro smoking from a long cigarette holder” carries over from Black Mischief. “A pious old darky named Mr. Samuel Smiles Jackson” is installed President. I was rankled by the constant cries of “Boy!” from the assorted journos, late risers who complain about not getting swift servitude with a smile. (“Six bloody black servants and no breakfast,” sneers the entitled Corker at one point.) Even the potentially interesting politics behind Ishmaelia’s upheaval are coarse and general, with the arrival of Dr. Benito at a press conference described in one paragraph with a contrast of “blacks” and “whites” that show the force and timing of a man determined to be vituperative, but without substantive subtlety. One of the book’s jokes involves a nonexistent city on the nation’s map identified as “Laku,” which is Ishmaelite for “I don’t know.” And while it does allow for a decent setup in which numerous journalists expend lavish resources to find Laku for their stories, I suspect that this is really Waugh confessing he doesn’t know and can’t know because he doesn’t want to.

Still, in approaching Scoop, I was determined to give this book more care than what I doled out to Brideshead. Not only did I spend a few months rereading all of Waugh’s novels up through Brideshead, finding them considerably richer than I did on my first two canon reads, but I also dived into the Selina Hastings and Martin Stannard biographies, along with numerous other texts pertaining to Scoop. And one cannot completely invalidate Waugh’s talent:

“Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in a carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spreadeagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. Well, they were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution.”

This is pitch-perfect Waugh. Sadly, the wanton laziness of journalists and willful opportunism of newspaper publishers remain very applicable eighty-one years after Scoop‘s publication. In 2015, a Hardin County newspaper misreported that the local sheriff had said that “those who go into the law enforcement profession typically do it because they have a desire to shoot minorities.” And this was before The New York Times became an apologist outlet for Nazis (the original title of that linked article was “In America’s Heartland, the Nazi Sympathizer Next Door”) and didn’t even bother to fact-check an infamous climate change denial article from Bret Stephens published on April 28, 2017.

So Scoop does deserve our attention in an age devoted to “alternative facts” and a vulgar leader who routinely squeezes savage whoppers through his soulless teeth. Waugh uses a familiar but extremely effective series of misunderstandings to kickstart his often razor-sharp sendup, whereby a hot writer by the name of John Courtney Boot is considered to be the ideal candidate to cover a war in Ishamelia for The Daily Beast (not to be confused with the present Daily Beast founded by Tina Brown, who took the name from Waugh — and, while we’re on the subject of contemporary parallels, Scoop also features a character by the name of Nannie Bloggs, quite fitting in an epoch populated with dozens of nanny blogs). John Boot is confused with William Boot, a bucolic man who writes a nature column known as Lush Places and believes himself to be in trouble with the top brass for substituting “beaver” with “great crested grebe” in a recent installment. He is sent to cover a war that nobody understands.

The novel is funny and thrilling in its first one hundred pages, with Waugh deftly balancing his keen eye for decor (he did study architecture) with these goofy mixups. Rather tellingly, however, Waugh does spend a lot of time with William Boot in transit to Ishamelia, almost as if Waugh is reluctant to get to the country and write about the adventure. And it is within the regions of East Africa that Waugh is on less firm footing, especially when he strays from the journalists. Stannard has helpfully observed that, of all Waugh’s pre-war novels, Scoop was the most heavily edited and that it was the “political” sections with which Waugh had “structural problems.” But Scoop‘s problems really amount to tonal ones. Where Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (ML #91) brilliantly holds up a mirror to expose the audience’s assumptions about people (with the novel’s Broadway adaptation inspiring a tremendously interesting Ralph Ellison essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter,” which many of today’s self-righteous vigilantes should read), Scoop seems more content to revel in its atavistic prejudices.

In 2003, Christopher Hitchens gently bemoaned the “rank crudity” of Waugh’s childish names for side characters. And I think he was right to pinpoint Waugh’s declining powers of invention. For all of Scoop‘s blazing panoramas and descriptive sheen (the prose committed to the Megalopilitan offices is brilliant), the ultimate weakness of the book is that Waugh seems incapable of imbuing Ishamelia with the same inventive life with which he devotes to England. When one looks at the travel writing that came before this, even the high points of Waugh in Abyssinia are the sections where he bitches about his boredom.

Waugh’s writing was often fueled by a vicious need for revenge and an inability to let things go. Take the case of Charles Crutwell, the Hertford dean who praised Waugh on his writing and awarded him an Oxford scholarship as a young man. Waugh proceeded to be incredibly lazy about his studies, deciding that he had earned this financial reward, that he no longer needed to exert himself in any way, and that he would spend his time boozing it up and getting tight with his mates. Crutwell told Waugh that he needed to take his research more seriously. He could have had Waugh expelled, but he didn’t. And for this, Crutwell became the target of Waugh’s savage barbs throughout much of his early writing and many of his novels. In Decline and Fall, you’ll find Toby Crutwell as an insane burglar turned MP. In Vile Bodies, a “Captain Crutwell” is the snobby member of the Committee of the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois. There’s a Crutwell in Black Mischief and A Handful of Dust. Waugh’s story “Mr. Loveday’s Little Outing” was originally titled “Mr. Crutwell’s Little Outing.” And in one of Scoop‘s supererogatory chapters, William Boot meets a General Crutwell who has had numerous landmarks named after him. Keep in mind that this is sixteen years after the events in Hertford. You want to take Waugh aside, buy him a beer, and say, “Bro, walk away.”

Now I have to confess that this type of brutal targeted satire was catnip for me at a certain impressionable age that lingered embarrassingly long into my late thirties. The very kind George Saunders tried to get me to understand this twelve years ago during an episode of my old literary podcast, The Bat Segundo Show, in which we were discussing the way Sacha Baron Cohen singled out people with total malice. Cohen’s recent television series Who is America certainly upheld Saunders’s point. Of course, I stubbornly pushed back. Because ridicule is a hell of a drug. Just ask anyone with a Twitter account. But I now understand, especially after contending with Waugh again, that effective satire needs to be more concerned with exposing and virulently denouncing those in actual power, railing against the tyrannical institutions that diminish individual lives, and, of course, exposing the follies of human behavior. Waugh does this to a large extent in Scoop and his observations about newspapermen running up large tabs on their expense accounts and manipulating the competition are both funny and beautiful, but he also appears to have been operating from an inferiority complex, an intense need for victory against his perceived oppressors and something that, truth be told, represents a minor but nevertheless troubling trait I recognize in myself and that has caused much of my own writing and communications with people to be vehemently misunderstood, if not outright distorted into libelous and untrue allegations. When your motivation to write involves the expression of childish snubs and pedantic rage without a corresponding set of virtues, it is, from my standpoint, failed satire. And I don’t know about you, but my feeling is that, if you’re still holding a grudge against someone after five or six years, then the issue is no longer about the person who wronged you, but about a petty and enduring narcissism on behalf of the grudgeholder. What precisely do these many Crutwells add to Waugh’s writing? Not much, to tell you the truth.

We do know that, when Waugh covered Abyssinia, he wrote in a letter to Penelope Betjeman, “I am a very bad journalist, well only a shit could be good on this particular job.” So perhaps there was a part of Waugh that needed to construct a biting novel from his own toxic combination of arrogance and self-loathing.

But Waugh’s biggest flaw as a writer, however great his talent, was his inability to summon empathy or a humanistic vision throughout his work, even if it is there in spurts in Brideshead and perhaps best realized in his finest novel, A Handful of Dust. When William Boot foot falls in love with Kätchen, a poorly realized character at best, Waugh has no interest in portraying Boot’s feelings as anything more than that of a dopey cipher who deserves our contempt: “For twenty-three years he had remained celibate and and heart-whole; landbound. Now for the first time he was far from sure, submerged among deep waters, below wind and tide, where huge trees raised their spongy flowers and monstrous things without fur or feather, wing or foot, passed silently in submarine twilight. A lush place.” It is one thing to present Boot clumsily setting up an unnecessary canoe or showing the way he gets hoodwinked over a heavy package of stones or not understanding basic journalism jargon and to let Boot’s bumbling behavior (or, for that matter, the apposite metaphor of a three-legged dog barking in a barrel just outside Kätchen’s home) speak for itself. It is quite another thing to stack the deck against your protagonist with a passage like this, however eloquently condemned. What Waugh had not learned from Wodehouse was that there was a way of both recognizing the ineptitude of a dunderhead while also humanizing his feelings. You can lay down as many barbs as you like in art, but, at a certain point, if you’re any good, the artistic expression itself has to evolve beyond mere virtuosic style. This, in my view, is the main reason why Waugh crumbled and why I think his standing should be reassessed. The vindictiveness in Black Mischief, however crucially transgressive at the time, still represented a failure of creative powers. All Waugh had left at the end was a bitter nostalgia for a lost Britannia and a fear of modernity, which amounted to little more than an old man pining for the good old days by the time Waugh got to his wildly overrated Sword of Honour trilogy (and by the time Louis C.K. returned on stage with his first full set littered with racism, transphobia, and scorn for the young generation). If Waugh had learned to see the marvel of a changing world and if he had embraced human progress rather than fleeing from it, he might have produced more substantive work. But, hey, here I am talking about the guy nearly a century later, largely because he’s on a list. Still, even today, young conservative men have adopted the tweedy analog look of a “better time.” So maybe the joke’s on me. Thankfully the next Waugh novel book I have to write about, A Handful of Dust (ML #34), is a legitimate masterpiece. So I will try to give Waugh a more generous hearing when we get there in a few years. For now, I’m trying to shake off his seductive spite as well as the few remaining dregs of my own.

Next Up: Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Modern Library #76)

(This is the twenty-fifth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Finnegans Wake.)

We are two days away from the great Muriel Spark’s 100th birthday. Yet, despite New Directions’s valiant reissue of her remarkable work only a few years ago (along with a quiet event planned on Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, which stands incommensurately like a shaking child in the vast shadow of Edinburgh’s impressive celebratory blowout), we are no closer to literary people universally singing her praises on this side of the Atlantic than we are in stopping men from wearing black socks to bed. And that’s a shame. Because Muriel Spark was truly one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was a bold and an economical stylist who packed far more attentive detail and character speculation into one paragraph than most contemporary writers wrangle into a chapter, and she did so with high style, grace, and ferocious wit. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her most enduring and popular novel (and, through a magical twist of fate, the next volume in the Modern Library Reading Challenge), certainly sees Spark’s great gifts on full display, but it is also a book that demands constant and even obsessive study.

I have read Brodie four times within the last two years. It is very possible I will read it four more times within the next two. I am inclined to press this richly entertaining book, no more than a hundred pages, into the hands of anyone who purports to take literature seriously, but who has somehow ignored Spark to hold up some bland offering from one of those “Most Anticipated” lists published at The Millions that nobody will remember or quote from in a decade.

Brodie is both a portrait of an exuberant teacher determined to educate a carefully selected group of girls so that they may be better equipped when “in their prime” and an incredible tableau of 1930s Edinburgh, such as the “wind-swept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb.” Miss Brodie may or may not be a tyrant. (She is fond of Mussolini and Italian culture.) One can read the book anew and come away with an entirely different opinion of the title character. The novel tantalizes us with flash-forwards (which can also be found in many of Spark’s later novels, such as The Driver’s Seat and Territorial Rights, which are also well worth your time) revealing the fates of the schoolgirls in adult life, leaving us with impressions of how formative life and education influences unknowingly in later years. One reads little snippets of the six girls under Miss Brodie’s tutelage from the present and the future– Rose “pulling threads from the girdle of her gym tunic” in class or Jenny not experiencing any sexual awe “until suddenly one day when she was nearly forty, an actress of moderate reputation married to a theatrical manager” — and asks how much Miss Brodie is responsible for corrupting fate, with Spark slyly implicating us as we become more curious.

Muriel Spark wrote this masterpiece in less than a month. This is especially amazing because, much like the magnetic properties contained within the glowing amber necklace Miss Brodie wears when off-screen romance inspires a new step in her exacting stride, this short novel reads as if an exquisite jeweler had painstakingly ensured that not a single element could ever fall out of alignment. And Spark sculpts many glistening carats along the way: the fictitious letters that two girls write after imagining Miss Spark’s love life, the creepy, one-armed artist Teddy Lloyd who also teaches at the school and disguises his true pedophilc nature through the sham panacea of Catholicism and family life, and the lingering question of which schoolgirl betrays Miss Brodie and causes her to lose her job. The novel presents us with many hints and details that hide in plain sight, but that all contribute to an atmosphere in which the girls end up coming up with explanations (often fictitious and sometimes apostate) for what is both seen and not seen. Miss Brodie’s careful lessons, which include a field trip into a rougher part of Edingburgh and often involve knowing the roots of words to better understand them, are perhaps being applied in dangerous ways. And in an age where people judge people who they haven’t met based on what they think they know from a social media profile, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie remains potent and necessary reading.

Spark’s lecture “The Desegregation of Art,” delivered before a crowd of New York literati on May 26, 1970, offers useful insights into the ambitious gauntlet she felt obliged to throw down as an artist and gives us a sense of what is very much at stake in Brodie. She firmly believed that literature existed to infiltrate and fertilize the mind and denounced any fiction that stood in the way of this lofty artistic goal. If that meant tossing out socially conscious art that was not “achieving its end or illuminating our lives any more,” then this was the price to pay for better art that reflected the depths and thorny hurdles of life. She insisted that “ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” and believed that addressing wrongs emerged not so much from instant outrage, but through “a more deliberate cunning, a more derisive undermining of what is wrong. I would like to see less emotion and more intelligence in these efforts to impress our minds and hearts.” Much as Spark detested being a victim in her life, she believed that art reveling in victimhood turned readers into oppressors.

So we are left with Brodie as a remarkable volume that fertilizes our minds even as it challenges our own interpretations. Spark’s honorable ridicule in Brodie may very well lie with the way she shrewdly sends up how people are perceived for their failings based on superficial shorthand. And this extends even to the hypnotic allure of Miss Brodie’s own teaching. At one point, Miss Brodie observes that “John Stuart Mill used to rise at dawn to learn Greek at the age of five” and that the teacher herself learned from this lesson. Mill is a particularly funny choice, given that this philosopher was known for utilitarianism and that we are seemingly experiencing a short “utilitarian” novel when we read Brodie. But, of course, we aren’t. For one wants to reread it yet again.

The intrepid literary adventurer plunging forward on a bold bender for real-life inspiration is often viewed with contempt by any practitioner transforming bits of his life into analeptic artistic truth withstanding the test of time. The adventurer shakily balances the author’s complete works like vertiginous trays stacked tall enough to scrape plaster flakes off the ceiling as the letters and the collected marginalia and the autobiographical tidbits are swirled into a overflowing flute by a jittery finger serving as a makeshift cocktail straw. If not written off as a slightly smarter TMZ reporter who has somehow retained the ability to read despite being barraged daily by Harvey Levin’s soul-destroying smile, such an apparent gossipmonger, even if she is cogent enough to know that fictional characters rarely spring from a singular source, is still tarnished as that rakish yenta who reads fiction for the wrong reasons.

As I have ventured further into this years-long Modern Library project, I’ve come around to the daring idea that, for certain sui generis authors (and Muriel Spark is certainly one of them), one may indeed find deeper appreciation in the way they forge art from the people surrounding them. It isn’t so much the schema of who matches up with whom that should concern us, but rather the fascinating way in which characters defy an easily identifiable origin, turning into a form of fictionalized life that feels just as real on the page as any spellbinding life experience. There is a fundamental difference between the novelist who runs out of raw biographical material mid-career, her limited inventive faculties and inherent disconnection with humanity dishearteningly revealed with mediocre and unconvincing and blandly repetitive offerings in late career (see, for example, the wildly overrated Joyce Carol Oates, surely one of the great living literary embarrassments in the early 21st century), and the novelist who seizes the reins of an indefatigable spirit that runs quite giddily to the very end.

For someone like Muriel Spark, who was fiercely protective of her privacy and her public image, this is not necessarily a slam-dunk proposition even when many of the real life details match up. The formidable literary biographer Martin Stannard secured Spark’s reluctant blessing to get his hands dirty on details occluded in Spark’s remarkably opaque autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. Stannard, like many before him, pegged Christina Kay, the schoolteacher who taught Spark at the age of twelve, as the predominant inspiration for “the real Miss Jean Brodie.” Both Kay and Brodie insisted that their girls were the “crème de la crème.” Miss Kay also took Spark and her fellow students on great cultural adventures into Edinburgh. Both were keen on Italy and shared a rather clueless interest in Mussolini. (As late as 1979, Spark would insist that Miss Brodie was not a fascist and that Brodie’s admiration for Il Duce had more to do with Benito’s powerful masculinity, as it was perceived in 1930, which leads one to ponder the 53 percent of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Some weaknesses in human perception regrettably endure, despite the best history lessons.)

But much as the great Iris Murdoch regularly transcended reality to achieve jaw-droppingly marvelous art, which she defined as that which “invigorates without consoling,” one finds a similarly spellbinding spirit within Spark’s equally incredible novels. Once you read The Girls of Slender Means, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori, The Driver’s Seat, or A Far Cry from Kensington, if you have even the faintest desire of wanting to know how art works, you may find yourself obsessing over just how she was able to put so much into her novels. Ian Rankin, writer of the rightfully well-regarded Rebus novels, found himself precisely in this very position, reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie over and over again over the course of thirty years and always finding new details, even wondering if the titular character was the hero or the villain. (Some of Rankin’s work on Spark when he was pursuing a Ph.D is available online behind a paywall.)

And if you read Brodie, you may very well join us on this pleasantly fanatical quest. We are told at the end, with one of the characters hiding from the truth of how her life has been altered, “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.” And that seemingly innocent notion, in Spark’s nimble hands, is the white whale that turns any reader into Ahab.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop!

Finnegans Wake (Modern Library #77)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Kim.)

It has been five years since I last tendered any heartfelt words about 20th century fiction for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. An infernal yet magnificent Irish genius is to blame for the delay. Five years is frankly too damned long, especially if I hope to complete this massive and somewhat insane project before I croak my own answer to Joyce’s “Does nobody understand?” Frank Delaney’s recent passing has made me keenly cognizant that being a wallflower is not an option when any of us could fall off the wall. (The poor man never got to finish Re: Joyce, his wonderful podcast on Ulysses.) So here we go.

What I have wondered during this Joyce-populated reading period is whether one should even attempt to match Jimmy Jimmy Jo Jo Bop’s unquestionable erudition, for this is the kooky bodkin he has wielded before readers. A Wake expert once told me that fencing with this book is comparable to being diagnosed with a disease. A good friend, as deeply moved by Ulysses as I am, told me that he never bothered with Finnegans Wake. I asked why. He said that he refused to play James Joyce’s game. I replied, “Yes, but in the name of Annah the Allmaziful, the Everliving, the Bringer of Plurabilities, you are missing out on some marvelous puns and portmanteaus and the limitless richness of an obscurant dreamscape!” But I do see my pal’s point. Where Ulysses provides us with an invitational beauty to be treasured and reconsidered at nearly any time in life, Finnegans Wake is the loutish intoxicating charmer for the young, the book declaring itself the cleverest in the room, the novel above all novels that says, “Well, if you really love literature…”

In attempting to come to terms with the Wake, I certainly don’t wish to align myself with such execrable anti-intellectual oafs like Dan Kois, who see the joyful act of great art mesmerizing a daredevil reader as something akin to eating cultural vegetables. I have enjoyed longass offerings from Marugerite Young, Samuel R. Delany, Laurence Sterne, Umberto Eco, Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, Mark Z. Danielewski (see The Familiar, the fifth of its twenty-seven volumes will be released in October), and William T. Vollmann, but none of this could prepare me for the Wake. Finnegans Wake is worth the cerebral sweat if you are willing to sign up for the gym package, which involves knowing a little German, Gaelic, and French, familiarizing yourself with Vedic commentary, reading up on Giambattista Vico and Irish history, and doing your best to encourage and resist the urge to plunge further. It is certainly difficult to argue against the Wake‘s enchanting use of language. But if cleverness — even from a bedazzling and often sprightly brainiac such as the Wake — involves adjusting one’s mind and heart entirely to that of the author, there is unquestionably a form of literary tyranny involved. On the other hand, the Wake, unlike any other book I have ever read, does test the limits of what we’re willing to know and how you can live with not knowing. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that reading the Wake aloud and letting much of the esoterica wash over you is the best way to approach it and to love it. The only sane option is to accept that you will never know all the answers, that Joyce is smarter than you, and to enjoy the experience.

The book left me baffled, delighted, and often drove me mad. I am not sure that I want to read it again, although who’s kidding whom? I probably will. Finnegans Wake often felt like some bright and charming friend with benefits who texts you at 2AM, asking if you’re down to hook up, only to make you its bottom and leaving you cooking breakfast the next morning as your sexy lover basks in languor in your bed, singing pitch-perfect melodic ballads and cracking the smartest jokes in German. You sometimes wonder if you’re receiving any pleasure in a consummation that was supposed to be fun and spontaneous. Did I catch a case of the ten thunderclap words sprinkled throughout the book (Adam Harvey has kindly made YouTube videos on how to pronounce these) or merely the clap? These carnal metaphors on a book that essentially builds a dreamy narrative from an episode of sexual humiliation are no accident. Like Tinder, Finnegans Wake is a young man’s game. I would recommend attempting it before the age of forty, when there is still the time and the hunger to unravel the arcane wisecracking. Perhaps my mistake was reading this book on both sides of forty, with one foot steeped in bountiful possibility and the other more aware of mortality and the grave. My earlier plunges were largely felicitous. My subsequent belly flops were coated with the minor sting of missing out on something vital in the real world. And given the choice between staying home with the Wake or having a fun night out, it was a fairly easy decision. Many unreportable evenings later, I still believe I made the right choice. But how could any sensible reader not be wowed and enamored by Joyce’s uncompromising commitment to a difficult aesthetic?

All told, I worked my way through this intoxicating and frustrating melange in its full inimitable entirety twice, returning to the beginning of the Earwicker saga and then rereading other bits out of sequence, such as the mirthful and genuinely pleasurable showdown between Shaun and Shem in Book I, Chapter 7, which is among my favorite parts of the book. I can certainly follow the primary points of this “commodious vicus of recirculation,” even if the music of words usually triumphs over narrative coherence, which is often sandbagged altogether by later events such as Shaun’s ever-shifting identity. While I have largely enjoyed my journey, there were several points in which I cursed out Joyce for leading me down another rabbit hole. (The Dubliners’ low-key musical version of “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly? My weeks-long obsession with the Wellington Monument near the south of Dublin’s Phoenix Park? My futile attempts to learn Gaelic on Duolingo? My concern with ellipses and a surprising preoccupation for how reels of film turned upon encountering “the lazily eye of his lupis” and the diagram above? My efforts to reconcile Butt and Taff with Mutt and Jute and follow the batty Irish-American connections — extending to a few visiting American characters and the dual Dublin in Laurens County, Georgia, which Joyce cites?) It has left me to ponder in all this time if Finnegans Wake and its “futurist onehorse balletbattle pictures” were entirely worth understanding. It has left me feeling very sorry indeed for Joyce’s very patient benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver. The phrase “tough sledding” is an understatement.

Still, you can’t help but sympathize with a man who, buttressed by the wealth and the literary notoriety that came after Ulysses, saw his “Work in Progress” (early selections of the Wake published in journals) abandoned by many of his prominent supporters as he was going blind. Stanislaus Joyce had already become suspicious of Ulysses‘s famously difficult “Oxen of the Sun” chapter and proceeded to condemn his brother further for the bits of the Wake that had appeared in the transatlantic review and would later tell Jim to his face that his “book of the night” was impenetrable. His benefactor Harriet Shaw Weaver went along with Joyce’s new direction for a while, with Joyce providing her with a pre-Campbell skeleton key on January 27, 1925, but later that year, some printers refused to set the type for these new excerpts. And two years later, Weaver would condemn the “Wholesale Safety Pun Factory” that Joyce had wrought. Ezra Pound, the putative paragon of poetic innovation, turned on Joyce, badmouthing this “circumambient peripherization.” H.G. Wells called it a dead end. (Did Rebecca West put a burr in Herbert’s ear?) In the face of declining love, Joyce’s remaining admirers published Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, featuring the likes of Samuel Beckett, Frank Budgen, and William Carlos Williams defending Joyce’s new direction. Beckett would write:

Here form is content, content is form. You complaint that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read — or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something: it is that something itself….When the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep….When the sense is dancing, the words dance.

It was believed that Joyce himself wrote one of the two letters of protest featured in this small volume. Certainly the voice in the letter is unmistakably recognizable:

You must not stink I am attempting to ridicul (de sac! )you or to be smart, but I am so disturd by my inhumility to onthorstand most of the impsolocations constrained in your work…

Joyce wanted to have it both ways. He both longed for recognition and was contemptuous of anyone who didn’t recognize his genius. The remarkably vanilla-minded Arnold Bennett, a troublesome gnat who I wrote about earlier and who only boorish bores like Philip Hensher now have wet dreams about, redoubled the troubling conventionalism that he had expressed for Ulysses and continued to attack Joyce in the press, which inspired Joyce to send him up as Jute.

In reading the Wake, I have often wondered if I have understood anything at all, but I cannot abide by D.H. Lawrence’s characterization of Joyce as “too terribly would-be and done-on purpose, utterly without spontaneity or real life.” For Joyce does not bore me. He merely maddens me with his demands on my time. I ken the puns in many tongues and can divine much of the history blurring into alluring verbs. Joyce’s wildly arrogant but nonetheless remarkable goal was to keep the professors arguing over enigmas and riddles for centuries. And with the Internet, he has succeeded. Finnegans Wiki is a vital companion when you first start reading and hope to know everything, until you realize that you never will. What is more important here is to feel the book, to take in its miasmic rushes and quell the urge to order mimosas when your noggin explodes from too much “folkenfather of familyans.”

In my early days of reading the Wake, I kept up a Tumblr on my notes. I filled up a five subject notebook with crazed and often indecipherable notes. And then I realized that to carry on like this was futile. It would be akin to resolving every unsolved mystery about life. The Wake contains almost as many tributaries.

Finnegans Wake is not a book to be read. It is a book to be lived, ideally with fellow travelers. So if you have a very rich and active life, there’s no getting around the need to make time for it. Fortunately, it has inspired any number of marvelous online offerings. The incredible project, Waywords and Meansigns, has performed three different musical versions of the Wake. Listening to these interpretations helped lift my spirits when I wondered if I should give up entirely (the bluesy interpretation of the pearlagraph episode near the beginning of Book II came at a time when I was about to throw my book into the wall for the seventh time). I attended a meeting of The Finnegans Wake Society of New York, which not only led me to this invaluable annotative resource, but allowed me to understand that even the smartest and most literary people imaginable could not entirely make head or tail of Joyce and that any and all interpretive suggestions were fair game.

If Joyce wrote Ulysses for people to reconstruct Dublin brick by brick after the apocalypse, then Finnegans Wake was written to reconstruct the whole of human existence, albeit a region teetering somewhere between reality and dreams. There are crazed Russian generals and discordance and recursiveness and twins and families and lust and religion and bawdiness and drinking and blasphemy, but, much like Molly Bloom’s beautifully baring “Penelope” monologue, the Wake ends with the singular motive voice of a woman:

First we feel. Then we fall. And let her rain now if she likes. Gently or strongly as she likes. Anyway let her rain for my time is come. I done me best when I was let. Thinking always if I go all goes. A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me? One in a thousand of years of the nights? All me life I have been lived among them but now they are becoming lothed to me. And I am lothing their little warm tricks. And lothing their mean cosy turns. And all the greedy gushes out through their small souls. And all the lazy leaks down over their brash bodies. How small it’s all! And me letting on to meself always. And lilting on all the time. I thought you were all glittering with the noblest of carriage. You’re only a bumpkin. I thought you the great in all things, in guilt and in glory. You’re but a puny. Home! My people were not their sort out beyond there so far as I can. For all the bold and bad and bleary they are blamed, the seahags. No! Nor for all our wild dances in all their wild din.

And then we read “A way a lone a last a loved a long the,” and feel and fall some more, and turn back to the beginning to finish the aborted sentence. And every time we run through the loop, there is laughter, marvel, something we missed, something that aggravates us, and something that makes the rest of literature feel irrelevant.

Next Up: Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie!

This Boy’s Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: A Mathematician’s Apology.)

It is worth recalling that the Boy Scout, that putative paragon of American boyhood virtue, originated in 1909 with a man lost in the foggy haze of a mazy London byway. W.D. Boyce was a recently divorced newspaperman cast adrift in the English mist, until he was guided by a uniformed lad known only as the Unknown Scout. This young whippersnapper, who was no soldier and had no tomb (unless you count a mangy Silver Buffalo memorial that presently stands in Gilwell Park), steered Boyce to his destination and refused Boyce’s tip after that gent hoped to consummate his gratitude. The boy did so not because he was a well-paid German stevedore or a terrified Uber driver hoping to hold onto his job, but because he was merely doing his duty and this was enough recompense, thank you very much. From here, Boyce asked the boy about his coterie, was allegedly led to Boy Scouts HQ like a starry-eyed drifter seeking a new easy access religion, and encountered Chief Scout Robert Baden-Powell, an irrepressible do-gooder who intoxicated Boyce with tales of uniforms and valor and decency and truth and justice and many other nouns etched with ostentatious pedigree and scant subtlety that were later memorialized in a handbook published in six fortnightly parts called Scouting for Boys. Four months later, Boyce returned to the States to found the Boy Scouts of America. He had found his calling. Shortly after this, presumably emboldened by the new youthful virtues flooding through his veins, Boyce would marry a well-connected woman twenty-three years younger. But Boyce’s brio was not enough to preserve this second marriage, which dissolved within two years. The Boy Scouts, on the other hand, have continued to endure, albeit with plentiful dissimulation saddled to the “Be prepared” credo.

This legend, which isn’t nearly as imaginative or as thrilling as Robert Johnson signing away his soul to the devil in exchange for spangling guitar chops, has nevertheless become as accepted and as apocryphal as the birth of the blues or any story of rugged outliers founding tech startups in their garages or, for that matter, the cloying cherry tree myth associated with George Washington, a shrewd political operator who claimed that he could not tell a lie despite deceiving many over a lifetime about his professed lack of political expertise. Boy Scout booster (and sex therapist!) Edward Rowan has pointed out that Boyce outed himself in a February 27, 1928 letter, claiming that he was not floating in the Dickensian murk, but merely standing before the Savoy Hotel while contemplating the question of whether he should cross a street. Moreover, others have suggested that there was no fog during that evening. As one excavates further into W.D. Boyce’s history, one learns that this sanctimonious founder was a racist, even denying African-Americans entry into the hallowed organization. (Boyce also published a journal called The White Boy’s Magazine.) By the late 1980s, the Boy Scouts were forced to establish protective measures in response to countless sex abuse cases later documented by reporter Patrick Boyle in 1991. The Boy Scouts of America, a seemingly sacred institution, had been little more than a seductive shawl disguising the ugly American id. It is thus the perfect metaphor for Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, a moving memoir about a boy wrestling with the lies, the duplicities, and the hypocrisies of growing up in America. It is an especially cogent volume in an epoch of fake news, covfefe, and thundering Republican men casually asphyxiating the weak and the vulnerable in the name of old school virtue.

For young Tobias (aka Jack, a sobriquet inspired by an altogether different London), the deceptive pose was a way of being and coping through a rough-and-tumble existence. This Boy’s Life opens with Toby and his mother retreating from an abusive man in Florida by way of a dodgy Nash Rambler with an overboiling engine. Their hope was to find fortune through a desperate uranium hunt by way of a poor man’s Geiger counter. Like many Americans before, the westward journey here is one of escape and, as one pores through the memoir’s crisply paced pages, increasingly about assuming roles that bear no resemblance to reality. The cooing pop songs crooning from the radio provide voices for Toby to emulate, perhaps serving as a staging area for transformation. Yet Catholicism, itself a practice just as fraught with frangible self-abengation as the Boy Scouts, also represents the new terrain from which to launch an identity. Toby’s father, telephoning from Connecticut, claims that the family line has always been Protestant or Episcopalian, but Wolff informs us that he learned of his true Jewish heritage ten years after this revelation. Names, identities, veneers, and backgrounds are the melting pot from which to sprout a respectable soul, yet Toby scoffs at the purported innocence of this problematic chrysalis. “Power,” writes Wolff, placing his budding irritation within the context of his later experience in Vietnam, “can only be enjoyed when it is recognized and feared. Fearlessness in those without power is maddening to those who have it.”

Woolf’s Vietnam memoir, In Pharaoh’s Army, would chronicle similar tensions between patriotic duty and survival, and one must observe that the two memoirs are united by Wolff possessing a gun, that priapic symbol of American manhood that has caused so much recent and needless terror. This Boy’s Life sees these uncertain seeds planted in loam long before basic training. I once had the good fortune to interview Wolff in 2008 and he revealed that he was dead set against narcissism’s pathology overtaking any story. Which leads me to believe that Wolff understands, as William Gass has observed in a notable essay on narcissism and writing, that autobiographers turn themselves into monsters, often hiding deceit behind their confessions. To reckon poignantly with a life, a memoirist must never cover up his shame or settle scores with self-serving vigor, for he invites a dishonesty in which the professed act of soul-bearing smudges the more important ink needed for corrupted but authentic memory.

What is most striking about This Boy’s Life is that Wolff never sugarcoats his life. Nor does he beckon the reader to feel sympathy for him, even as he succumbs to abuse from Dwight, the abominable man whom his mother Rosemary eventually tries to forge a family with. It is the shakiest of new beginnings following an uncertain stint at a West Seattle boardinghouse. There are men who hit on Rosemary, ascribing athleticism to Toby and pledging bicycle gifts that never materialize, and we see only Rosemary’s tears from unseen boorishness. Toby steals and breaks windows with his pals. He puts forth lies. And as Dwight enters Toby’s life, Wolff observes that this minuscule mechanic tries too hard: “No eye is quicker to detect that kind of effort than the eye of a competitor who also happens to be a child.” But Dwight does have a family, including a daughter named Pearl with a prominent bald spot. And just as Rosemary sees possibility in volunteering for idealistic Democratic candidates, she sees an opportunity in Dwight. Much as W.D. Boyce being bowled over by a Boy Scout, effort is enough to plant an acorn for a dubious family tree. Meanwhile, Toby lets loose several “Fuck yous,” memorializing the message into a wall, and gets in trouble with the vice principal. When the vice principal meets with Rosemary, Toby is convinced of his innocence, not unlike Dwight, and the vice principal reveals his own systematic and sanctimonious story of how he quit smoking to buy a Nash Rambler, the very same rickety vehicle that brought Toby and Rosemary to the west.

It is here that the kernel for Dwight’s autocratic adoption of Toby begins to pop with a frenzy of fragile male ego: the belief that laborious effort, even on the most inconsequential acts, somehow makes one a respectable hard-working American. Toby is asked to pick up roadkill. He is asked to wait in a car as Dwight gets plastered in a bar. He is watched as Dwight fuels himself on tugs of Old Crow and Camels. He delivers newspapers and his earnings are pilfered by Dwight. He paints an old Baldwin piano to cover up its chintz. And he is commanded to pluck hard husks of horse chestnuts — a tyrannical tilling with some unspecified life lesson attached in which the product of all this hard labor is never actually used. When Toby gets into a fight with a kid named Arthur Gayle, Dwight coaches him on pugilism, claiming that any defeat is his fault. And throughout all this, there are the weekly Boy Scout meetings. Toby’s plan is to run away from Dwight’s home in Concrete, a Washington hamlet built on shaky slopes that Wolff describes as a graying and dusty landscape with cracking cement banks. It is, like many parts of America even today, a fraying tableau where too much effort gets in the way of existence, disguising the fissures of easily broken lives. One can almost imagine Dwight using the hashtag #MAGA on Twitter had he materialized decades later.

Whether this subjective truth-telling represents a kind of fearlessness or power in its own right is subject to the degree to which you are willing to embrace Wolff’s life story. But it does represent a refreshing alternative to the Horatio Alger grandstanding that too many personal essays wallow in today. (See, for example, most of the material published on Thought Catalog.) David Plotz once chided Dave Pelzer for turning child abuse into entertainment. This Boy’s Life avoids such petty voyeurism, in large part because it nestles Toby’s life and Dwight’s stark assaults by Dwight within the larger American dilemma of how to contend with fakery. And in an epoch where narcissistic dishonesty and “alternative facts” and social media outrage are increasingly the norm, there is a beautiful grace in putting your life out there and not giving a damn how others judge it.

Next Up: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night!