The Promise of American Life (Modern Library Nonfiction #95)

(This is the sixth 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: In Cold Blood.)

mlnf95Before The New Republic devolved under Chris Hughes into a half-worthy husk of knee-jerk platitudes just a few histrionic clickbait headlines shy of wily Slate reductionism, it was a formidable liberal magazine for many decades, courageous enough to take real stands while sustaining vital dialogue about how and when government should intercede in important affairs. The source of this philosophical thrust, as duly documented by Franklin Foer, was the greatly diffident son of a prominent newspaperman, an unlikely progenitor who entered and exited Harvard many times without ever finishing, someone who suffered from severe depression and who, for a time, didn’t know what to do with his life other than play bridge and tennis and write about obscure architecture. But Croly found it in him to spill his views about democracy’s potential, what he called the “New Nationalism,” into a 1909 book called The Promise of American Life, which served as something of a manifesto for the early 20th century Progressives and became a cult hit among political wonks at the time. It partially inspired Theodore Roosevelt, who was proudly name-checked by Croly as “a Hamiltonian with a difference,” to initiate his ill-fated 1912 Bull Moose campaign as an outsider presidential candidate. (Historians have argued over the palpable influence of Croly’s book on Roosevelt, but it’s possible that, had not Croly confirmed what Roosevelt had already been thinking about, Roosevelt may not have entered the 1912 race as ardently as he did. With a more united Republican coalition against Wilson, America may very well have carried on with a second Taft term, with an altogether different involvement in World War I. Taft’s notable rulings as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, which included extending executive power and broadening the scope of police evidence, may not been carried out in the 1920s. A book is often more of a Molotov shattering upon history’s turf than we are willing to accept.)

Croly’s book touched a nerve among a small passionate group. One couple ended up reading Croly’s book aloud to each other during their honeymoon (leaving this 21st century reader, comparing Croly’s thick “irremediable”-heavy prose style against now all too common sybaritic options, to imagine other important activities that this nubile pair may have missed out on). The newly married couple was Willard Straight and Dorothy Whitney. They had money. They invited Croly to lunch. The New Republic was formed.

So we are contending with a book that not only created an enduring magazine and possibly altered the course of American history, but one that had a profound impact on the right elite at the right time. So it was a tremendous surprise to discover a book that greatly infuriated me during the two times I read it, at one time causing me to hurl it with high indignant velocity against a wall, for reasons that have more to do with this gushing early 20th century idealist failing to foresee the rise of Nazism, the despicable marriage of racism and police brutality, growing income inequality, corporate oligarchy, draconian Common Core educational standards, and dangerous demagogues like George Wallace and Donald Trump.

But it is also important to remember that Croly wrote this book before radio, television, the Internet, women’s suffrage, two world wars, the Great Depression, smartphones, outrage culture, and 9/11. And it is never a good idea to read an older book, especially one of a political nature, without considering the time that it was written. I did my best to curb my instincts to loathe Croly for what he could not anticipate, for his larger questions of how power aligns itself with the democratic will of the people are still very much worth considering. Croly is quite right to identify the strange Frankenstein monster of Alexander Hamilton’s pragmatic central government and Thomas Jefferson’s rights of man — the uniquely American philosophical conflict that has been the basis of nearly every national conflict and problem that has followed — as a “double perversion” of our nation’s potential, even if Croly seems unwilling to consider that some “perversions” are necessary for an evolving democratic republic and he is often too trusting of executive authority and the general public’s obeisance to it. That these inquiries still remain irreconcilable (and are perverted blunter still by crass politicians who bellow about how to “make America great again” as they eject those who challenge them from the room) some 107 years after the book’s publication speaks to both the necessity and the difficulty of the question.

I’ve juxtaposed Croly’s meek-looking law clerk mien against George Bellows’s famous boxing painting (unveiled two years before Croly’s book) because there really is no better way to visualize the American individual’s relationship to its lumbering, venal, and often futile government. Croly’s solution is to call for all Americans to be actively engaged in a collaborative and faithful relationship with the nation: “to accept a conception of democracy which provides for the substantial integrity of his country, not only as a nation with an exclusively democratic mission, but as a democracy with an essentially national career.” On its face, this seems like a reasonable proposition. We all wish to belong in a democracy, to maintain fidelity to our country, and to believe that the Lockean social contract in which the state provides for the commonweal is a workable and reasonable quid pro quo. But it is also the kind of orgiastic meat and potatoes mantra that led both Kennedy and Reagan to evoke mythical American exceptionalism with the infamous “shining city upon a hill” metaphor. Dulcet words may make us feel better about ourselves and our nation, but we have seen again and again how government inaction on guns and a minimum wage that does not reflect contemporary living standards demands a Black Lives Matter movement and a “fight for $15.” And when one begins to unpack just what Croly wants us to give up for this roseate and wholly unrealistic Faustian bargain, we begin to see someone who may be more of a thoughtful and naive grandstander than a vital conceptual pragmatist.

Croly is right to demand that America operate with a larger administrative organ in place, some highly efficient Hamiltonian body that mitigates against “the evil effects of a loose union.” He smartly points out that such evils as slavery resulted from the American contradictions originating in the strange alliance between our poetic Jeffersonian call for Constitutional democracy and individualistic will and the many strains of populism and nationalism that followed. In his insistence on “the transformation of Hamiltonianism into a thoroughly democratic political principle,” Croly is suspicious of reformers, many of which he singles out in a manner strikingly similar to Norman Mailer’s “Quick and Expensive Comments on the Talent in the Room.” He calls William Jennings Bryan an “ill conceived” reformer, claims the now nearly forgotten William Travers Jerome to be “lulled into repose” by traditional Jeffersonian democracy (never mind Jerome’s successful crusades against Tammany Hall corruption, regrettably overshadowed by his prosecution of Harry K. Thaw during the Stanford White murder trial), interestingly pegs William Randolph Hearst as someone motivated by endless “proclaimation[s] of a rigorous interpretation of the principle of equal rights,” and holds up Teddy Roosevelt as “more novel and more radical” in his calls for a Square Deal than “he himself has probably proclaimed.”

But Croly’s position on reform is quite problematic, deeply unsettling, and often contradictory. He believes that citizens “should be permitted every opportunity to protest in the most vigorous and persistent manner,” yet he states that such protests “must conform to certain conditions” enforced by the state. While we are certainly far removed from the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building that galvanized the labor movement, as we saw with the appalling free speech cages during the 2004 Republican Convention, muzzling protesters not only attenuated their message but allowed the NYPD to set up traps for the activists, which ensured their arrest and detention — a prototype for the exorbitant enforcement used to diminish and belittle the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years later. Croly believes that the job of sustaining democratic promise should, oddly enough, be left to legislators and executives granted all the power required and sees state and municipal governments as largely unsuccessful:

The interest of individual liberty in relation to the organization of democracy demands simply that the individual officeholder should possess an amount of power and independence adequate to the efficient performance of his work. The work of a justice of the Supreme Court demands a power that is absolute for its own special work, and it demands technically complete independence. An executive should, as a rule, serve for a longer term, and hold a position of greater independence than a legislator, because his work of enforcing the laws and attending to the business details of government demands continuity, complete responsibility within its own sphere, and the necessity occasionally of braving adverse currents of public opinion. The term of service and the technical independence of a legislator might well be more restricted than that of an executive; but even a legislator should be granted as much power and independence as he may need for the official performance of his public duty. The American democracy has shown its enmity to individual political liberty, not because it has required its political favorites constantly to seek reëlection, but because it has since 1800 tended to refuse to its favorites during their official term as much power and independence as is needed for administrative, legislative, and judicial efficiency. It has been jealous of the power it delegated, and has tried to take away with one hand what it gave with the other.

There is no room for “Act locally, think globally” in Croly’s vision. This is especially ungenerous given the many successful progressive movements that flourished decades after Croly’s death, such as the civil rights movement beginning with local sit-ins and developing into a more cogent and less ragged strain of the destructive Jacksonian populism that Croly rightly calls out, especially in relation to the cavalier obliteration of the Second Bank of the United States and the Nullification Crisis of 1832, which required Henry Clay to clean up Jackson’s despotic absolutism with a compromise. On the Nullification point, Croly identifies Daniel Webster, a man who became treacherously committed to holding the Union together, as “the most eloquent and effective expositor of American nationalism,” who “taught American public opinion to consider the Union as the core and crown of the American political system,” even as he offers a beautifully stinging barb on Webster’s abolitionist betrayal with the 1850 speech endorsing the Fugitive Slave Act: “He was as much terrorized by the possible consequences of any candid and courageous dealing with the question as were the prosperous business men of the North; and his luminous intelligence shed no light upon a question, which evaded his Constitutional theories, terrified his will, and clouded the radiance of his patriotic visions.”

But Croly also promulgates a number of loopy schemes, including making representative legislatures at any level beholden to an executive who is armed with a near tyrannical ability to scuttle laws, even as he claims that voters removing representatives through referendum “will obtain and keep a much more complete and direct control over the making of their laws than that which they have exerted hitherto; and the possible desirability of the direct exercise of this function cannot be disputed by any loyal democrat.” Well, this loyal democrat, immediately summoning Lord Acton’s famous quote, calls bullshit on giving any two-bit boss that kind of absolute power. Because Croly’s baffling notion of “democracy” conjures up the terrifying image of a sea of hands raised in a Bellamy salute. On one hand, Croly believes that a democracy must secure and exercise individual rights, even as he rightly recognizes that, when people exercise these rights, they cultivate the “tendency to divide the community into divergent classes.” On the other hand, he believes that individuals should be kept on a restrictive leash:

[T]hey should not, so far as possible, be allowed to outlast their own utility. They must continue to be earned. It is power and opportunity enjoyed without being earned which help to damage the individual — both the individuals who benefit and the individuals who consent — and which tend to loosen the ultimate social bond. A democracy, no less than a monarchy or an aristocracy, must recognize political, economic, and social discriminations, but it must also manage to withdraw its consent whenever these discriminations show any tendency to excessive endurance. The essential wholeness of the community depends absolutely on the ceaseless creation of a political, economic, and social aristocracy and their equally incessant replacement.

There’s certainly something to be said about how many Americans fail to appreciate the rights that they have. Reminding all citizens of their duties to flex their individual rights may be a very sound idea. (Perhaps one solution to American indifference and political disillusion is the implementation of a compulsory voting policy with penalties, similar to what goes on in Australia.) But with such a middling door prize like this handed out at the democratic dance party, why on earth would any individual want to subscribe to the American promise? Aristocrats, by their very nature, wish to hold onto their power and privilege and not let go. Croly’s pact is thus equally unappealing for the struggling individual living paycheck to paycheck, the career politician, or the business tycoon.

Moreover, in addition to opposing the Sherman Antitrust Act, Croly nearly succumbs to total Taylorism in his dismissal of labor unions: “They seek by the passage of eight-hour and prevailing rate-of-wages laws to give an official sanction to the claims of the unions, and they do so without making any attempt to promote the parallel public interest in an increasing efficiency of labor. But these eight-hour and other similar laws are frequently being declared unconstitutional by the state courts, and for the supposed benefit of individual liberty.” Granted, Croly’s words came ten years before the passage of the Adamson Act, the first federal law enforcing a mandatory eight-hour day. But Croly’s failure to see the social benefits of well-rested workers better positioned to exercise their individual liberty for a democratic promise is one of his more outrageous and myopic pronouncements, even as he also avers how the conditions that create unrestricted economic opportunities also spawn individual bondage. But if Croly wants Americans to “[keep] his flag flying at any personal cost or sacrifice,” then he really needs to have more sympathy for the travails of the working stiff.

Despite all my complaints, I still believe some 21st century thinker should pick up from Croly’s many points and make an equally ambitious attempt to harmonize Hamilton and Jefferson with more recent developments. American politics has transformed into a cartoonish nightmare from which we cannot seem to escape, one that causes tax absolutist lunatics like Grover Norquist to appear remotely sane. That we are seeing a strange replay of the 1912 election with the 2016 presidential race, with Trump stepping in as an unlikely Roosevelt and Bernie Sanders possibly filling in for Eugene Debs, and that so many Americans covet an “outsider” candidate who will fix a government that they perceive as a broken system speaks to a great need for some ambitious mind to reassess our history and the manner in which we belong to our nation, while also observing the many ways in which Americans come together well outside of the political bear trap. For the American individual is no longer boxing George Bellows-style with her government. She is now engaged in a vicious MMA match unfurling inside a steel cage. Whether this ugly pugilism can be tempered with peace and tolerance is anyone’s guess, but, if we really believe in democracy, the least we can do is try to find some workaround in which people feel once again that they’re part of the process.

Next Up: William Appleman Williams’s The Contours of American History!

In Cold Blood (Modern Library Nonfiction #96)

(This is the fifth 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: The Journalist and the Murderer.)

halmacapoteTruman Capote was a feverish liar and a frenzied opportunist from the first moment his high voice pierced the walls of a literary elite eager to filth up its antimacassars with gossip. He used his looks to present himself as a child prodigy, famously photographed in languorous repose by Harold Halma to incite intrigue and controversy. He claimed to win national awards for his high school writing that no scholar has ever been able to turn up. He escorted the nearly blind James Thurber to his dalliances with secretaries and deliberately put on Thurber’s socks inside out so that his wife would notice, later boasting that one secretary was “the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.” Biographer Gerald Clarke chronicled how Capote befriended New Yorker office manager Daise Terry, who was feared and disliked by many at the magazine, because he knew she could help him. (Capote’s tactics paid off. Terry gave him the easiest job on staff: copyboy on the art department.) If Capote wanted to know you, he wanted to use you. But the beginnings of a man willing to do just about anything to get ahead can be found in his early childhood.

Capote’s cousin Jennings Faulk Carter once described young Truman coming up with the idea of charging admission for a circus. Capote had heard a story in the local paper about a two-headed chicken. Lacking the creative talent to build a chicken himself, he enlisted Carter and Harper Lee for this faux poultry con. The two accomplices never saw any of the money. Decades later, Capote would escalate this tactic on a grander scale, earning millions of dollars and great renown for hoisting a literary big top over a small Kansas town after reading a 300 word item about a family murder in The New York Times. Harper Lee would be dragged into this carnival as well.

mlnf96The tale of how two frightening men murdered four members of the Clutter family for a pittance and created a climate of fear in the surrounding rural area (and later the nation) is very familiar to nearly anyone who reads, buttressed by the gritty 1967 film (featuring a pre-The Walking Dead Scott Wilson as Dick Hickock and a pre-Bonnie Lee Bakley murder Robert Blake as Perry Smith) and a deservedly acclaimed 2005 film featuring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. But what is not so discussed is the rather flimsy foundation on which this “masterpiece” has been built.

Years before “based on a true story” became a risible cliche, Capote and his publicists framed In Cold Blood‘s authenticity around Capote’s purported accuracy. Yet the book itself contains many gaping holes in which we have only Smith and Hickock’s words, twisted further by Capote. What are we to make of Bill and Johnny — a boy and his grandfather who Smith and Hickock pick up for a roadside soda bottle-collecting adventure to make a few bucks? In our modern age, we would demand the competent journalist to track these two side characters down, to compare their accounts with those of Smith and Hickock. Capote claims that these two had once lived with the boy’s aunt on a farm near Shreveport, Louisiana, yet no independent party appears to have corroborated their identities. Did Capote (or Hickock and Smith) make them up? Does the episode really contribute to our understanding of the killers’ pathology? One doesn’t need to be aware of a recent DNA test that disproved Hickock and Smith’s involvement with the quadruple murder of the Walker family in Sarasota County, Florida, taking place one month after the Clutter murders, to see that Capote is more interested in holding up the funhouse mirror to impart specious complicity:

Hickock consented to take the [polygraph] test and so did Smith, who told Kansas authorities, “I remarked at the time, I said to Dick, I’ll bet whoever did this must be somebody that read about what happened out here in Kansas. A nut.” The results of the test, to the dismay of Osprey’s sheriff as well as Alvin Dewey, who does not believe in exceptional circumstances, were decisively negative.

Never mind that polygraph tests are inaccurate. It isn’t so much Hickock and Smith’s motivations that Capote was interested in. He was more concerned with stretching out a sense of amorphous terror on a wide canvas. As Hickock and Smith await to be hanged, they encounter Lowell Lee Andrews in the adjacent cell. He is a fiercely intelligent, corpulent eighteen-year-old boy who fulfilled his dormant dreams of murdering his family, but Capote’s portrait leaves little room for subtlety:

For the secret Lowell Lee, the one concealed inside the shy church going biology student, fancied himself an ice-hearted master criminal: he wanted to wear gangsterish silk shirts and drive scarlet sports cars; he wanted to be recognized as no mere bespectacled, bookish, overweight, virginal schoolboy; and while he did not dislike any member of his family, at least not consciously, murdering them seemed the swiftest, most sensible way of implementing the fantasies that possessed him.

We have modifiers (“shy,” “ice-hearted,” “gangsterish,” “silk,” “scarlet,” “bespectacled,” “bookish,” “virginal,” “swiftest,” and “sensible”) that conjure up a fantasy atop the fantasy, that suggest relativism to the two main heavies, but there is little room for subtlety or for any doubt in the reader’s mind. Capote does bring up the fact that Andrews suffered from schizophrenia, but diminishes this mental illness by calling it “simple” before dredging up the M’Naghten Rule, which was devised in 1843 (still on the books well before psychiatry existed and predicated upon a 19th century standard) to exclude any insanity defense whereby the accused recognizes right from wrong. But he has already tarnished Andrews with testimony from Dr. Joseph Satten: “He considered himself the only important, only significant person in the world. And in his own seclusive world it seemed to him just as right to kill his mother as to kill an animal or a fly.” I certainly don’t want to defend Andrews’s crime (much less the Clutter family murders), but this conveniently pat assessment does ignore more difficult and far more interesting questions that Capote lacks the coherence, the empathy, or the candor to confess his own contradictions to pursue. Many pages before, in relation to Hickock, Capote calls M’Naghten “a formula quite color-blind to any gradations between black and white.” In other words, Capote is the worst kind of journalist: a cherry-picking sensationalist who applies standards as he sees fit, heavily steering the reader’s opinion even as he feigns objectivity. The ethical reader reads In Cold Blood in the 21st century, wanting Katherine Boo to emerge from the future through a wormhole, if only to open up a can of whoopass on Capote for these egregious and often thoughtless indiscretions.

Capote’s decision to remove himself from the crisp, lurid story was commended by many during In Cold Blood‘s immediate reception as a feat of unparalleled objectivity, with the “nonfiction novel” label sticking to the book like a trendy hashtag that hipsters refuse to surrender, but I think Cynthia Ozick described the thorny predicament best in her infamous driveby on Capote (collected in Art & Ardor): “Essence without existence; to achieve the alp of truth without the risk of the footing.” If we accept any novel — whether “nonfiction” or fully imaginative — as some sinister or benign cousin to the essay, as a reasonably honest attempt to reckon with the human experience through invention, then In Cold Blood is a failure: the work of a man who sat idly in his tony Manhattan spread with cadged notebooks and totaled recall of aggressively acquired conversations even as his murderous subjects begged their “friend” to help them escape the hangman’s noose.

In 2013, Slate‘s Ben Yagoda described numerous factual indiscretions, revealing that editor William Shawn had penciled in “How know?” on the New Yorker galley proofs of Capote’s four part opus (In Cold Blood first appeared in magazine form). That same year, the Wall Street Journal uncovered new evidence from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which revealed that the KBI did not, upon receiving intelligence from informant Floyd Wells, swiftly dispatch agent Harold Nye to the farmhouse where Richard Hickock had lodged. (“It was as though some visitor were expected,” writes Capote. Expected by Hickock’s father or an author conveniently tampering his narrative like a subway commuter feverishly filling in a sudoku puzzle?) As Jack de Bellis has observed, Capote’s revisions from New Yorker articles to book form revealed Capote’s feeble command of time, directions, and even specific places. But de Bellis’s examination revealed more descriptive imprudence, such as Capote shifting a line on how Perry “couldn’t stand” another prisoner to “could have boiled him in oil” (“How know?” we can ask today), along with many efforts to coarsen the language and tweak punctuation for a sensationalist audience.

And then there is the propped up hero Alvin Dewey, presented by Capote as a tireless investigator who consumes almost nothing but coffee and who loses twenty pounds: a police procedural stereotype if ever there was one. Dewey disputes closing his eyes during the execution and the closing scene of Dewey meeting Nancy Clutter’s best friend, Susan Kidwell, in a cemetery is not only invented, but heavily mimics the belabored ending of Capote’s 1951 novel, The Grass Harp. But then “Foxy” Dewey and Capote were tighter than a pair of frisky lovers holed up for a week in a seedy motel.

Capote was not only granted unprecedented access to internal documents, but Capote’s papers reveal that Dewey provided Capote with stage directions in the police interview transcripts. (One such annotation reads “Perry turns white. Looked at the ceiling. Swallows.”) There is also the highly suspect payola of Columbia Pictures offering Dewey’s wife a job as a consultant on the 1965 film for a fairly substantial fee. Harold Nye, another investigator whose contributions have been smudged out of the history told Charles J. Shields in a December 30, 2002 interview (quoted in Mockingbird), “I really got upset when I know that Al [Dewey] gave them a full set of the reports. That was like committing the largest sin there was, because the bureau absolutely would not stand for that at all. If it would have been found out, he would have been discharged immediately from the bureau.”

haroldnyeIn fact, Harold Nye and other KBI agents did much of the footwork that Capote attributes to Dewey. Nye was so incensed by Capote’s prevarications that he read 115 pages of In Cold Blood before hurling the book across the living room. And in the last few years, the Nye family has been fighting to reveal the details inside two tattered notebooks that contain revelations about the Clutter killings that may drastically challenge Capote’s narrative.

Yet even before this, Capote’s magnum opus was up for debate. In June 1966, Esquire published an article by Phillip K. Tompkins challenging Capote’s alleged objectivity. He journeyed to Kansas and discovered that Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend was hardly the ace athlete (“And now, after helping clear the dining table of all its holiday dishes, that was what he decided to do that — put on a sweatshirt and go for a run.”) that Capote presented him as, that Nancy’s horse was sold for a higher sum to the father of the local postmaster rather than “a Mennonite farmer who said he might use her for plowing,” and that the undersheriff’s wife disputed Capote’s account:

During our telephone conversation, Mrs. Meier repeatedly told me that she never heard Perry cry; that on the day in question she was in her bedroom, not the kitchen; that she did not turn on the radio to drown out the sound of crying; that she did not hold Perry’s hand; that she did not hear Perry say, ‘I’m embraced by shame.’ And finally – that she had never told such things to Capote. Ms. Meier told me repeatedly and firmly, in her gentle way, that these things were not true.

(For more on Capote’s libertine liberties, see Chapter 4 of Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.)

Confronted by these many disgraceful distortions, we are left to ignore the “journalist” and assess the execution. On a strictly showboating criteria, In Cold Blood succeeds and captures our imagination, even if one feels compelled to take a cold shower knowing that Capote’s factual indiscretions were committed with a blatant disregard for the truth, not unlike two psychopaths murdering a family because they believed the Clutters possessed a safe bountiful with riches. One admires the way that Capote describes newsmen “[slapping] frozen ears with ungloved, freezing hands,” even as one winces at the way Capote plays into patriarchal shorthand when Nye “visits” Barbara Johnson (Perry Smith’s only surviving sister: the other two committed suicide), describing her father as a “real man” who had once “survived a winter alone in the Alaskan wilderness.” The strained metaphor of two gray tomcats — “thin, dirty strays with strange and clever habits” – wandering around Garden City during the Smith-Hickcock trial allows Capote to pad out his narrative after he has exhausted his supply of “flat,” “dull,” “dusty,” “austere,” and “stark” to describe Kansas in the manner of some sheltered socialite referencing the “flyover states.” Yet for all these cliches, In Cold Blood contains an inexplicably hypnotic allure, a hold upon our attention even as the book remains aggressively committed to the facile conclusion that the world is populated by people capable of murdering a family over an amount somewhere “between forty and fifty dollars.” As Jimmy Breslin put it (quoted in M. Thomas Inge’s Conversations with Truman Capote), “This Capote steps in with flat, objective, terrible realism. And suddenly there is nothing else you want to read.”

That the book endures — and is even being adapted into a forthcoming “miniseries event’ by playwright Kevin Hood — speaks to an incurable gossipy strain in Western culture, one reinforced by the recent success of the podcast Serial and the television series The Jinx. It isn’t so much the facts that concern our preoccupation with true crime, but the sense that we are vicariously aligned with the fallible journalist pursuing the story, who we can entrust to dig up scandalous dirt as we crack open our peanuts waiting for the next act. If the investigator is honest about her inadequacies, as Serial‘s Sarah Koenig most certainly was, the results can provide breathtaking insight into the manner in which we incriminate other people with our emotional assumptions and our fallible memories and superficially examined evidence. But if the “journalist” removes himself from culpability, presenting himself as some demigod beyond question or reproach (Capote’s varying percentages of total recall memory certainly feel like some newly wrangled whiz kid bragging about his chops before the knowledge bowl), then the author is not so much a sensitive artist seeking new ways inside the darkest realm of humanity, but a crude huckster occupying an outsize stage, waiting to grab his lucrative check and attentive accolades while the real victims of devastation weep over concerns that are far more human and far more deserving of our attention. We can remove the elephants from the lineup, but the circus train still rolls on.

Next Up: The Promise of American Life by Herbert Croly!

The Journalist and the Murderer (Modern Library Nonfiction #97)

(This is the fourth 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: The Taming of Chance.)

mlnf97One of the mistakes often made by those who immerse themselves in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer is believing that MacDonald’s guilt or innocence is what matters most. But Malcolm is really exploring how journalistic opportunity and impetuous judgment can lead any figure to be roundly condemned in the court of public opinion. Malcolm’s book was written before the Internet blew apart much of the edifice separating advertising and editorial with native advertising and sponsored articles, but this ongoing ethical dilemma matters ever more in our age of social media and citizen journalism, especially when Spike Lee impulsively tweets the wrong address of George Zimmerman (and gets sued because of the resultant harassment) and The New York Post publishes a front page cover of two innocent men (also resulting in a lawsuit) because Reddit happened to believe they were responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Yet it is important to approach anything concerning the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case with caution. It has caused at least one documentary filmmaker to go slightly mad. It is an evidential involution that can ensnare even the most disciplined mind, a permanently gravid geyser gushing out books and arguments and arguments about books, with more holes within the relentlessly regenerating mass than the finest mound of Jarlsberg. But here are the underlying facts:

On February 17, 1970, Jeffrey MacDonald reported a stabbing to the military police. Four officers found MacDonald’s wife Colette, and their two children, Kimberley and Kristen, all dead in their respective bedrooms. MacDonald went to trial and was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder and two counts of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to three life sentences. Only two months before this conviction, MacDonald hired the journalist Joe McGinniss — the author of The Selling of a President 1968, then looking for a comeback — to write a book about the case, under the theory that any money generated by MacDonald’s percentage could be used to sprout a defense fund. MacDonald placed total trust in McGinniss, opening the locks to all his papers and letting him stay in his condominium. McGinniss’s book, Fatal Vision, was published in the spring of 1983. It was a bestseller and spawned a popular television miniseries, largely because MacDonald was portrayed as a narcissist and a sociopath, fitting the entertainment needs of a bloodthirsty public. MacDonald didn’t know the full extent of this depiction. Indeed, as he was sitting in jail, McGinniss refused to send him a galley or an advance copy. (“At no time was there ever any understanding that you would be given an advance look at the book six months prior to publication,” wrote McGinniss to MacDonald on February 16, 1983. “As Joe Wambuagh told you in 1975, with him you would not even see a copy before it was published. Same with me. Same with any principled and responsible author.” Malcolm copiously chronicles the “principled and responsible” conduct of McGinniss quite well, which includes speaking with MacDonald in misleading and ingratiating tones, often pretending to be a friend — anything to get MacDonald to talk.)


On 60 Minutes, roughly around the book’s publication, Mike Wallace revealed to MacDonald what McGinniss was up to:

Mike Wallace (narrating): Even government prosecutors couldn’t come up with a motive or an explanation of how a man like MacDonald could have committed so brutal a crime. But Joe McGinniss thinks he’s found the key. New evidence he discovered after the trial. Evidence he has never discussed with MacDonald. A hitherto unrevealed account by the doctor himself of his activities in the period just before the murders.

Joe McGinniss: In his own handwriting, in notes prepared for his own attorneys, he goes into great detail about his consumption of a drug called Eskatrol, which is no longer on the market. It was voluntarily withdrawn in 1980 because of dangerous side effects. Among the side effects of this drug are, when taken to excess by susceptible individuals, temporary psychosis, often manifested as a rage reaction. Here we have somebody under enormous pressure and he’s taking enough of this Eskatrol, enough amphetamines, so that by his own account, he’s lost 15 pounds in the three weeks leading up to the murders.

eskatrolnoteWallace: Now wait. According to the note which I’ve seen, three to five Eskatrol he has taken. We don’t know if he’s taken it over a period of several weeks or if he’s taken three to five Eskatrol a day or a week or a month.

McGinniss: We do know that if you take three to five Eskatrol over a month, you’re not going to lose 15 pounds in doing so.

Jeffrey MacDonald: I never stated that to anyone and I did not in fact lose fifteen pounds. I also wasn’t taking Eskatrol.

Wallace (reading MacDonald’s note): “We ate dinner together at 5:45 PM. It is possible I had one diet pill at this time. I do not remember and do not think I had one. But it is possible. I had lost 12 to 15 pounds in the prior three to four weeks in the process, using three to five capsules of Eskatrol Spansule. I was also…”

MacDonald: Three to five capsules for the three weeks.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: Right.

Wallace: According to this.

MacDonald: And that’s a possibility.

Wallace: Then why would you put down here that…that there was even a possibility?

MacDonald: These are notes given to an attorney, who has told me to bare my soul as to any possibility so we could always be prepared. So I…

Wallace: Mhm. But you’ve already told me that you didn’t lose 15 pounds in the three weeks prior…

MacDonald: I don’t think that I did.

Wallace: It’s in your notes. “I had lost 12-15 lbs. in the prior 3-4 weeks, in the process using 3-5 capsules of Eskatrol Spansules.” That’s speed. And compazine. To counteract the excitability of speed. “I was losing weight because I was working out with a boxing team and the coach told me to lose weight.” — 60 Minutes

One of McGinniss’s exclusive contentions was that MacDonald had murdered his family because he was high on Eskatrol. Or, as he wrote in Fatal Vision:

It is also fact that if Jeffrey MacDonald were taking three to five Eskatrol Spansules daily, he would have been consuming 75 mg. of dextroamphetamine — more than enough to precipitate an amphetamine psychosis.

Note the phrasing. Even though McGinniss does not know for a fact whether or not MacDonald took three to five Eskatrol (and MacDonald himself is also uncertain: both MacDonald and McGinniss prevaricate enough to summon the justifiably hot and bothered mesh of Mike Wallace’s grilling), he establishes the possibility as factual — even though it is pure speculation. The prognostication becomes a varnished truth, one that wishes to prop up McGinniss’s melodramatic thesis.

* * *

Malcolm was sued for libel by Jeffrey Masson over her depiction of him in her book, In the Freud Archives. In The Journalist and the Murderer, she has called upon all journalists to feel “some compunction about the exploitative character of the journalist-subject relationship,” yet claims that her own separate lawsuit was not the driving force in the book’s afterword. Yet even Malcolm, a patient and painstaking practitioner, could not get every detail of MacDonald’s appearance on 60 Minutes right:

As Mike Wallace — who had received an advance copy of Fatal Vision without difficulty or a lecture — read out loud to MacDonald passages in which he was portrayed as a psychopathic killer, the camera recorded his look of shock and utter discomposure.

Wallace was reading MacDonald’s own notes to his attorney back to him, not McGinniss’s book. These were not McGinniss’s passages in which MacDonald was “portrayed as a psychopathic killer,” but passages from MacDonald’s own words that attempted to establish his Eskatrol use. Did Malcolm have a transcript of the 60 Minutes segment now readily available online in 1990? Or is it possible that MacDonald’s notes to his attorney had fused so perfectly with McGinnis’s book that the two became indistinguishable?

This raises important questions over whether any journalist can ever get the facts entirely right, no matter how fair-minded the intentions. It is one thing to be the hero of one’s own story, but it is quite another to know that, even if she believes herself to be morally or factually in the clear, the journalist is doomed to twist the truth to serve her purposes.

It obviously helps to be transparent about one’s bias. At one point in The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm is forthright enough to confess that she is struck by MacDonald’s physical grace as he breaks off pieces of tiny powdered sugar doughnuts. This is the kind of observational detail often inserted in lengthy celebrity profiles to “humanize” a Hollywood actor uttering the same calcified boilerplate rattled off to every roundtable junketeer. But if such a flourish is fluid enough to apply to MacDonald, we are left to wonder how Malcolm’s personal connection interferes with her purported journalistic objectivity. In the same paragraph, Malcolm neatly notes the casual abuse MacDonald received in his mailbox after McGinniss’s book was published — in particular a married couple who read Fatal Vision while on vacation who took the time to write a hateful letter while sunbathing at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. This casual cruelty illustrates how the reader can be just as complicit as the opportunistic journo in perpetuating an incomplete or slanted portrait.

The important conundrum that Malcolm imparts in her short and magnificently complicated volume is why we bother to read or write journalism at all if we know the game is rigged. The thorny morality can extend to biography (Malcolm’s The Silent Woman is another excellent book which sets forth the inherent and surprisingly cyclical bias in writing about Sylvia Plath). And even when the seasoned journalist is aware of ethical discrepancies, the judgmental pangs will still crop up. In “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (contained in the marvelous collection, Forty-One False Starts), Malcolm confessed her own disappointment in how Ingrid Sischy failed to live up to her preconceptions as a bold and modern woman. Malcolm’s tendentiousness may very well be as incorrigible as McGinnis’s, but is it more forgivable because she’s open about it?

* * *

It can be difficult for Janet Malcolm’s most arduous advocates to detect the fine grains of empathy carefully lining the crisp and meticulous forms of her svelte and careful arguments, which are almost always sanded against venal opportunists. Malcolm’s responsive opponents, which have recently included Esquire‘s Tom Junod, Errol Morris, and other middling men who are inexplicably intimidated by women who are smarter, have attempted to paint Malcolm as a hypocrite, an opportunist, and a self-loathing harpy of the first order. Junod wrote that “it’s clear to anyone who reads her work that very few journalists are animated by malice than Janet Malcolm” and described her work as “a self-hater whose work has managed to speak for the self-hatred” of journalism. Yet Junod cannot cite any examples of this self-hate and malice, save for the purported Henry Youngman-like sting of her one liners (Malcolm is not James Wolcott; she is considerably more thoughtful and interesting) and for pointing out, in Iphigenia in Forest Hills, how trials “offer unique opportunities for journalistic heartlessness,” failing to observe how Malcolm pointed out how words or evidence lifted out of context could be used to condemn or besmirch the innocent until proven guilty (and owning up to her own biases and her desire to interfere).

Malcolm is not as relentless as her generational peer Renata Adler, but she is just as refreshingly formidable. She is as thorough with her positions and almost as misunderstood. She has made many prominent enemies for her controversial positions — even fighting a ten year trial against Jeffrey Masson over the authenticity of his quotations (dismissed initially by a federal judge in California on the grounds that there was an absence of malice). Adler was ousted from The New Yorker, but Malcolm was not. In the last few years, both have rightfully found renewed attention for their years among a new generation.

One origin for the anti-Malcolm assault is John Taylor’s 1989 New York Magazine article, “Holier than Thou,” which is perhaps singularly responsible for making it mandatory for any mention of The Journalist and the Murderer to include its infamous opening line: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Taylor excoriated Malcolm for betraying McGinniss as a subject, dredged up the Masson claims, and claimed that Malcolm used Masson much as McGinniss had used MacDonald. It does not occur to Taylor that Malcolm herself may be thoroughly familiar with what went down and that the two lengthy articles which became The Journalist and the Murderer might indeed be an attempt to reckon with the events that caused the fracas:

Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Flaubert said of his famous character. The characters of nonfiction, no less than those of fiction, derive from the writer’s most idiosyncratic desires and deepest anxieties; they are what the writer wishes he was and worries that he is. Masson, c’est moi.

Similarly, Evan Hughes had difficulty grappling with this idea, caviling over the “bizarre stance” of Malcolm not wanting to be “oppressed by the mountain of documents that formed in my office.” He falsely infers that Malcolm has claimed that “it is pointless to learn the facts to try to get to the bottom of a crime,” not parsing Malcolm’s clear distinction between evidence and the journalist’s ineluctable need to realize characters on the page. No matter how faithfully the journalist sticks with the facts, a journalistic subject becomes a character because the narrative exigencies demand it. Errol Morris can find Malcolm’s stance “disturbing and problematic” as much as he likes, but he is the one who violated the journalistic taboo of paying subjects for his 2008 film, Standard Operating Procedure, without full disclosure. One of Morris’s documentary subjects, Joyce McKinney, claimed that she was tricked into giving an interview for what became Tabloid, alleging that one of Morris’s co-producers broke into her home with a release form. Years before Morris proved triumphant in an appellate court, he tweeted:

The notion of something “unvarnished” attached to a personal account may have originated with Shakespeare:

And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnished tale deliver
Of my whole course of love. What drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic—
For such proceeding I am charged withal—
I won his daughter.
Othello, Act 1, Scene 3

Othello hoped that in telling “a round unvarnished tale,” he would be able to come clean with Brabantio over why he had eloped with the senator’s daughter Desdemona. He wishes to be straightforward. It’s an extremely honorable and heartfelt gesture that has us very much believing in Othello’s eloquence. Othello was very lucky not to be speaking with a journalist, who surely would have used his words against him.

Next Up: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood!

The Taming of Chance (Modern Library Nonfiction #98)

(This is the third 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: Operating Instructions.)

mlnf98In the bustling beginnings of the twentieth century, the ferociously independent mind who forever altered the way in which we look at the universe was living in poverty.* His name was Charles Sanders Peirce and he’d anticipated Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle by a few decades. In 1892, Peirce examined what he called the doctrine of necessity, which held that every single fact of the universe was determined by law. Because before Peirce came along, there were several social scientists who were determined to find laws in everything — whether it be an explanation for why you parted your hair at a certain angle with a comb, felt disgust towards specific members of the boy band One Direction, or ran into an old friend at a restaurant one hundred miles away from where you both live. Peirce declared that absolute chance — that is, spontaneity or anything we cannot predict before an event, such as the many fish that pelted upon the heads of puzzled citizens in Shasta County, California on a January night in 1903 — is a fundamental part of the universe. He concluded that even the careful rules discovered by scientists only come about because, to paraphrase Autolycus from A Winter’s Tale, although humans are not always naturally honest, chance sometimes makes them so.

The story of how Peirce’s brave stance was summoned from the roiling industry of men with abaci and rulers is adeptly set forth in Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance, a pleasantly head-tingling volume that I was compelled to read twice to ken the fine particulars. It’s difficult to articulate how revolutionary this idea was at the time, especially since we now live in an epoch in which much of existence feels preordained by statistics. We have witnessed Nate Silver’s demographic models anticipate election results and, as chronicled in Moneyball, player performance analysis has shifted the way in which professional baseball teams select their roster and steer their lineup into the playoffs, adding a strange computational taint that feels as squirmy as performance enhancing drugs.

But there was a time in human history in which chance was considered a superstition of the vulgar, even as Leibniz, seeing that a number of very smart people were beginning to chatter quite a bit about probability, argued that the true measure of a Prussian state resided in how you tallied the population. Leibniz figured that if Prussia had a central statistic office, it would not only be possible to gauge the nation’s power but perhaps lead to certain laws and theories about the way these resources worked.

This was obviously an idea that appealed to chin-stroking men in power. One does not rule an empire without keeping the possibility of expansion whirling in the mind. It didn’t take long for statistics offices to open and enthusiasts to start counting heads in faraway places. (Indeed, much like the early days of computers, the opening innovations originated from amateurs and enthusiasts.) These early statisticians logged births, deaths, social status, the number of able-bodied men who might be able to take up weapons in a violent conflict, and many other categories suggested by Leibniz (and others that weren’t). And they didn’t just count in Prussia. In 1799, Sir John Sinclair published a 21 volume Statistical Account of Scotland that undoubtedly broke the backs of many of the poor working stiffs who were forced to carry these heavy tomes to the guys determined to count it all. Some of the counters became quite obsessive in their efforts. Hacking reports that Sinclair, in particular, became so sinister in his efforts to get each minister of the Church of Scotland to provide a detailed congregation schedule that he began making threats shrouded in a jocose tone. Perhaps the early counters needed wild-eyed dogged advocates like Sinclair to establish an extremely thorough baseline.

The practice of heavy-duty counting resulted, as Hacking puts it, in a bona-fide “avalanche of numbers.” Yet the intersection of politics and statistics created considerable fracas. Hacking describes the bickering and backbiting that went down in Prussia. What was a statistical office? Should we let the obsessive amateurs run it? Despite all the raging egos, bountiful volumes of data were published. And because there was a great deal of paper being shuffled around, cities were compelled by an altogether different doctrine of necessity to establish central statistical hubs. During the 1860s, statistical administrations were set up in Berlin, New York, Stockholm, Vienna, Rome, Leipzig, Frankfurt-am-Main, and many others. But from these central offices emerged a East/West statistics turf war, with France and England playing the role of Biggie on the West and Prussia as Tupac on the East. The West believed that a combination of individual competition and natural welfare best served society, while the East created the welfare state to solve these problems. And these attitudes, which Hacking is good enough to confess as caricaturish even as he illustrates a large and quite important point, affected the way in which statistics were perceived. If you believe in a welfare state, you’re probably not going to see laws forged from the printed numbers. Because numbers are all about individual action. And if you believe in the Hobbesian notion of free will, you’re going to look for statistical laws in the criminal numbers, because laws are formed by individuals. This created new notions of statistical fatalism. It’s worth observing that science at the time was also expected to account for morality.

Unusual experiments ensued. What, for example, could the chest circumference of a Scotsman tell us about the stability of the universe? (Yes, the measurement of Scottish chests was seriously considered by a Belgian guy named Adolphe Quetelet, who was trying to work out theories about the average man. When we get to Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man several years from now, #21 in the Modern Library Nonfiction canon, I shall explore more pernicious measurement ideas promulgated as “science.” Stay tuned!) More nefariously, if you could chart the frequency of how often the working classes called in sick, perhaps you could establish laws to determine who was shirking duty, track the unruly elements, and punish the agitators interfering with the natural law. (As we saw with William Lamb Melbourne’s story, the British government was quite keen to crack down on trade unions during the 1830s. So just imagine what a rabid ideologue armed with a set of corrupted and unproven “laws” could do. In fact, we don’t even have to jump that far back in time. Aside from the obvious Hollerith punch card example, one need only observe the flawed radicalization model presently used by the FBI and the DHS to crack down on Muslim “extremists.” Arun Kundnani’s recent book, The Muslims Are Coming, examines this issue further. And a future Bat Segundo episode featuring Kundnani will discuss this dangerous approach at length.)

Throughout all these efforts to establish laws from numbers (Newton’s law of gravity had inspired a league of scientists to seek a value for this new G constant, a process that took more than a century), Charles Babbage, Johann Christian Poggendorf, and many others began publishing tables of constants. It is one thing to publish atomic weights. It is quite another to measure the height, weight, pulse, and breath of humans by gender and ethnicity (along with animals). The latter constant sets are clearly not as objective as Babbage would like to believe. And yet the universe does adhere to certain undeniable principles, especially when you have a large data set.

It took juries for mathematicians to understand how to reconcile large numbers with probability theory. In 1808, Pierre-Simon Laplace became extremely concerned with the French jury system. At the time, twelve-member juries convicted an accused citizen by a simple majority. He calculated that a seven-to-five majority had a chance of error of one in three. The French code had adopted the unusual method of creating a higher court of five judges to step in if there was a disagreement with a majority verdict in the lower court. In other words, if the majority of the judges in the higher court agreed with the minority of jurors in the lower court that an accused person should be acquitted, then the accused person would be acquitted. Well, this complicated system bothered Laplace. Accused men often faced execution in the French courts. So if there was a substantial chance of error, then the system needed to be reformed. Laplace began to consider juries composed of different sizes and verdicts ranging from total majority (12:0) to partial majority (9:3, 8:4), and he computed the following odds (which I have reproduced from a very helpful table in Hacking’s book):


The problems here become self-evident. You can’t have 1,001 people on a jury arguing over the fate of one man. On the other hand, you can’t have a 2/7 chance of error with a jury of twelve. (One of Laplace’s ideas was a 144 member jury delivering a 90:54 verdict. This involved a 1/773 chance of error. But that’s nowhere nearly as extreme as a Russian mathematician named M.V. Ostrogradsky, who wasted much ink arguing that a 212:200 majority was more reliable than a 12:0 verdict. Remember all this the next time you receive a jury duty notice. Had some of Laplace’s understandable concerns been more seriously considered, there’s a small chance that societies could have adopted larger juries in the interest of a fair trial.)

French law eventually changed the minimum conviction from 7:5 to 8:4. But it turned out that there was a better method to allow for a majority jury verdict. It was a principle that extended beyond mere frequency and juror reliability, taking into account Bernoulli’s ideas on drawing black and white balls from an urn to determine a probability value. It was called the law of large numbers. And the great thing is that you can observe this principle in action through a very simple experiment.

Here’s a way of seeing the law of large numbers in action. Take a quarter and flip it. Write down whether the results are heads or tails. Do it again. Keep doing this and keep a running tally of how many times the outcome is heads and how many times the coin comes up tails. For readers who are too lazy to try this at home, I’ve prepared a video and a table of my coin toss results:


The probability of a coin toss is 1:1. On average, the coin will turn up heads 50% of the time and tails 50% of the time. As you can see, while my early tosses leaned heavily towards heads, by the time I had reached the eighteenth toss, the law of large numbers ensured that my results skewed closer to 1:1 (in this case, 5:4) as I continued to toss the coin. Had I continued to toss the coin, I would have come closer to 1:1 with every toss.


The law of large numbers offered the solution to Laplace’s predicament. It also accounts for the mysterious picture at the head of this essay. That image is a working replica of a Galton box (also known as a quincunx). (If you’re ever in Boston, go to the Museum of Science and you can see a very large working replica of a Galton box in action.) Sir Francis Galton needed a very visual method of showing off the central limit theorem. So he designed a box, not unlike a pachinko machine, in which beans are dropped from the top and work their way down through a series of wooden pins, which cause them to fall along a random path. Most of the beans land in the center. Drop more beans and you will see a natural bell curve form, illustrating the law of large numbers and the central limit theorem.

Despite all this, there was still the matter of statistical fatalism to iron out, along with an understandable distrust of statistics among artists and the general population, which went well beyond Disraeli’s infamous “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” quote. Hacking is a rigorous enough scholar to reveal how Dickens, Dostoevsky, and Balzac were skeptical of utilitarian statistics. Balzac, in particular, delved into “conjugal statistics” in his Physiology of Marriage to deduce the number of virtuous women. They had every reason to be, given how heavily philosophers leaned on determinism. (See also William James’s “The Dilemma of Determinism.”) A German philosopher named Ernst Cassirer was a big determinism booster, pinpointing its beginnings in 1872. Hacking challenges Cassierer by pointing out that determinism incorporated the doctrine of necessity earlier in the 1850s, an important distinction in returning back to Peirce’s idea of absolute chance.

I’ve been forced to elide a number of vital contributors to probability and some French investigations into suicide in an attempt to convey Hacking’s intricate narrative. But the one word that made Perice’s contributions so necessary was “normality.” This was the true danger of statistical ideas being applied to the moral sciences. When “normality” became the ideal, it was greatly desirable to extirpate anything “abnormal” or “aberrant” from the grand human garden, even though certain crime rates were indeed quite normal. We see similar zero tolerance measures practiced today by certain regressive members of law enforcement or, more recently, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s impossible pledge to rid New York City of all traffic deaths by 2024. As the law of large numbers and Galton’s box observed, some statistics are inevitable. Yet it was also important for Peirce to deny the doctrine of necessity. Again, without chance, Peirce pointed out that we could not have had all these laws in the first place.

It was strangely comforting to learn that, despite all the nineteenth century innovations in mathematics and probability, chance remains very much a part of life. Yet when one begins to consider stock market algorithms (and the concomitant flash crashes), as well as our collective willingness to impart voluminous personal data to social media companies who are sharing these numbers with other data brokers, I cannot help but ponder whether we are willfully submitting to another “law of large numbers.” Chance may favor the prepared mind, as Pasteur once said. So why court predictability?

* Peirce’s attempts to secure academic employment and financial succor were thwarted by a Canadian scientist named Simon Newcomb. (A good overview of the correspondence between the two men can be found at the immensely helpful “Perice Gateway” website.)

Next Up: Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer!

Operating Instructions (Modern Library Nonfiction #99)

(This is the second 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: Melbourne.)

mlnf99It is easy to forget, as brave women document their battles with cancer and callous columnists bully them for their candor, that our online confessional age didn’t exist twenty years ago. I suspect this collective amnesia is one of the reasons why Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions — almost an urtext for mommy blogs and much of the chick lit that followed — has been needlessly neglected by snobbish highbrow types, even when hungry young writers rushed to claim transgressive land in the Oklahoma LiveJournal Run of 2006.

Lamott’s book, which is a series of honed journal entries penned from the birth of her son Sam to his first birthday, was ignored by the New York Times Book Review upon its release in 1993 (although Ruth Reichl interviewed her for the Home & Garden section after the book, labeled “an eccentric baby manual” by Reichl, became a bestseller). Since then, aside from its distinguished inclusion on the Modern Library list, it has not registered a blip among those who profess to reach upward. Yet if we can accept Karl Ove Knausgaard’s honesty about fatherhood in the second volume of his extraordinary autobiographical novel, My Struggle, why then do we not honor Anne Lamott? It is true that, like Woody Allen in late career, Lamott has put out a few too many titles. It is also true that she attracts a large reading audience, a sin as unpardonable to hoity-toity gasbags as a man of the hoi polloi leaving the toilet seat up. Much as the strengths of Jennifer Weiner’s fiction are often dwarfed by her quest for superfluous respect, Anne Lamott’s acumen for sculpting the familiar through smart and lively prose doesn’t always get the credit it deserves.

Operating Instructions — with its breezy pace, its populist humor, and its naked sincerity — feels at first to be a well-honed machine guaranteed to attract a crowd of likeminded readers. But once you start looking under the hood, you begin to understand how careful Lamott is with what she doesn’t reveal. It begins with the new baby’s name. We are informed that Samuel John Stephen Lamott’s name has been forged from Lamott’s brothers, John and Steve. But where does the name Samuel come from? And why is Lamott determined to see Sams everywhere? (A one-armed Sam, the son of a friend named Sam, et al.) There are murky details about Sam’s father, who flits in and out of the narrative like some sinister figure with a twirling moustache. He is six foot four and two hundred pounds. He is in his mid-fifties, an older man who Lamott had a fling with. We learn later in the book that he “filed court papers today saying that we never fucked and that he therefore cannot be the father.” Even so, what’s his side of the story?

This leaves Lamott, struggling for cash and succor, raising Sam on her own with a dependable “pit crew” of friends. Yet one is fascinated not only by Lamott’s unshakable belief that she will remain a single parent for the rest of her natural life (“there is nothing I can do or say that will change the fact that his father chooses not to be his father. I can’t give him a dad, I can’t give him a nuclear family”), but by how the absence of this unnamed father causes her to dwell on her own father’s final days.

Lamott’s father was a writer who “died right as I crossed the threshold into publication.” His brain cancer was so bad that he could barely function in his final days. Lamott describes leaving her father in the car with a candy bar as she hits the bank. Her father escapes the car, becoming a “crazy old man pass[ing] by, his face smeared with chocolate, his blue jeans hanging down in back so you could see at least two inches of his butt, like a little boy’s.” It is a horrifying image of a man Lamott looked up to regressing into childhood before the grave, leaving one to wonder if this has ravaged Lamott’s view of men — especially since she repeatedly chides the apparent male relish of peeing standing up — and what idea of manhood she will pass along to her growing boy.

Part of me loves and respects men so desperately, and part of me thinks they are so embarrassingly incompetent at life and in love. You have to teach them the very basics of emotional literacy. You have to teach them how to be there for you, and part of me feels tender toward them and gentle, and part of me is so afraid of them, afraid of any more violation. I want to clean out some of these wounds, though, with my therapist, so Sam doesn’t get poisoned by all my fear and anger.

This is an astonishing confession for a book that also has Lamott tending to Sam’s colic, describing the wonders of Sam’s first sounds and movement, and basking in the joys of a human soul emerging in rapid increments. Motherhood has long been compared to war, to the point where vital discussions about work-family balance have inspired their own “mommy wars.” Operating Instructions features allusions to heroes, Nagasaki, Vietnam, and other language typically muttered by priapic military historians. Yet Lamott’s take also reveals a feeling that has become somewhat dangerous to express in an era of mansplaining, Lulu hashtags, and vapid declarations of “the end of men.” Men are indeed embarrassing, but are they an ineluctable part of motherhood? It is interesting that Lamott broaches this question long after Sam’s father has become a forgettable presence in the book. And yet months later, Lamott is more grateful for the inherited attributes of the “better donor” in “the police lineup of my ex-boyfriends”:

He’s definitely got his daddy’s thick, straight hair, and, God, am I grateful for that. It means he won’t have to deal with hat hair as he goes through life.

Throughout all this, Lamott continues to take in Sam. He is at first “just a baby,” some human vehicle that has just left the garage of Lamott’s belly:

The doctor looked at the baby’s heartbeat on the monitor and said dully, “The baby’s flat,” and I immediately assumed it meant he was dead or at least retarded from lack of oxygen. I don’t think a woman would say anything like that to a mother. “Flat?” I said incredulously. “Flat?” Then he explained that this meant the baby was in a sleep cycle.

But as Sam occupies a larger space in Lamott’s life, there is an innate ecstasy in the way she describes his presence. Sam is “a breathtaking collection of arms and knees,” “unbelievably pretty, with long, thin, Christlike feet,” and “an angel today…all eyes and thick dark hair.” We’re all familiar with the way that new parents gush about their babies, yet Lamott is surprisingly judicious in tightening the pipe valve. Even as she declares the inevitable epithets of frustration (“Go back to sleep, you little shit”) and trivializes Sam (“I thought it would be more like getting a cat”), Sam’s beauty is formidable enough to spill elsewhere, such as this description of a mountain near Bolinas:

So we were driving over the montain, and on our side it was blue and sunny, but as soon as we crested, I could see the thickest blanket of fog I’ve ever seen, so thick it was quilted with the setting sun shining upward from underneath it, and it shimmered with reds and roses, and above were radiant golden peach colors. I am not exaggerating this. I haven’t seen a sky so stunning and bejeweled and shimmering with sunset colors and white lights since the last time I took LSD, ten years ago.

Being a mother may be akin to a heightened narcotic experience, but that doesn’t have to stop you from feeling.

* * *

I suggested earlier that Operating Instructions serves as a precursor to the mommyblog, but this doesn’t just extend to the time-stamp. There is something about setting down crisp observations while the baby is napping that inspires an especially talented writer to find imaginative similes, especially in commonplace activities which those who are not mothers willfully ignore or take for granted. Compare Lamott and Dooce‘s Heather Armstrong (perhaps the best-known of the mommy bloggers) as they describe contending with a breast pump:

“You feel plugged into a medieval milking machine that turns your poor little gumdrop nipples into purple slugs with the texture of rhinoceros hide.” — Anne Lamott, 1993

“I end up lying on my back completely awake as my breasts harden like freshly poured cement baking in the afternoon sun.” — Dooce, February 23, 2004

Armstrong has sedulously avoided invoking Lamott’s name in more than a decade of blogging, but, in both cases, we see just enough imagery squirted into the experience for the reader to feel the struggle. Both Lamott and Armstrong have rightly earned a large readership for describing ordinary situations in slightly surreal (and often profane) terms. (Both writers are also marked in ways by religion. Lamott came to Christianity after a wild life that involved alcoholism. Armstrong escaped Mormonism, eluding to a period as an “unemployed drunk” before meeting her husband, who she subsequently divorced.)

Next Up: Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance!

Melbourne (Modern Library Nonfiction #100)

(This is the first 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.)

mlnf100History has produced such a rich pile of devious political figures who spend every spare minute scheming and plotting their rise that today’s aspiring aristocrats, who can be found working every connection to get their kids into bright educational citadels and reliable sinecures, cannot come close to such cutthroat monomania. Yet there are also those who blunder into top office like bumpkins crashing high-class weddings through the simple repetitive act of placing one foot in front the other. William Lamb, aka Lord Melbourne, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for eight years (1834, 1835-1841) and the subject of Lord David Cecil’s generous biography, was one such man.

Melbourne was a ponderous speaker, a bookish man who reportedly dozed off in the middle of a conversation, a leader largely blind to the way people beneath his station lived, and a cautionary tale for any soul who avoids conflict. “He pondered, he compared, he memorized,” writes Cecil of Melbourne in middle age, just before his improbable political career begins, “the Elizabethan drama, for instance, he knew so well that he could repeat by heart whole scenes not only of Shakespeare but of Massinger; the margins of his books were black with the markings of his flowing, illegible hand.” Melbourne was so mind-bogglingly passive in his actions that he not only refused to intervene in his wife’s adulterous affairs, but he believed that each infidelity would pass with the fleeting speed of a common cold.

It’s easy to ridicule Melbourne and the people of that time (as the bitterly judgmental Carrie A.A. Frye and Philip Ziegler, another Melbourne biographer, have). Melbourne was cuckolded by Lord Byron. When Byron would no longer plant his flagpole in Lady Caroline Lamb, Melbourne’s wife gradually traded down in her boys on the side until she tapped Edward Bulwer-Lytton (best known today for inspiring a writing contest for wretched writing). Caroline would go on to write Glenarvon, an awful roman à clef which exposed the Byron episode and left the Lambs open to disgrace and derision. When his wife died, the lonely Melbourne sought solace with another Caroline (the remarkable Caroline Norton, a tireless crusader who would go on to campaign successfully for legislative acts rectifying the second-class status of women), there was an attempt at blackmail. When Queen Victoria ascended to the throne, Melbourne became her unlikely tutor and constant companion, wasting a good chunk of his late years because the young Queen required constant attention (much of it documented in Victoria’s journals, which are now digitized and accessible through arrangement with your library; Cecil is good enough to quote from many of these entries).

When I learned from Paul Douglass’s Lady Caroline Lamb just how abhorrently Melbourne had treated the largely forgotten badass Isaac Nathan, I began to grow less tolerant of Melbourne’s nonplussed nature. Nathan — a Jewish composer who wrote the groundbreaking Hebrew Melodies and suffered from the Jewish exclusion laws which denied him the ability to vote, run for office, or pursue justice in the courts against the scabrous opportunists who stole his lyrics, often without credit or compensation — befriended Caroline and set many of her words to music. Despite Nathan defending Caroline when she was disgraced (to the lively extent of fighting duels and even publishing a defense of her character in Fugitive Pieces after her death), Melbourne refused to pay Nathan for services rendered to the Whigs when Nathan really needed the cash, leaving Nathan humiliated and bankrupt and forced to flee to Australia, where he was to write Don John of Austria (the first opera composed and performed in Australia), became the first to research indigenous music and the first settler in this new and exciting country to be killed by a tram. (Don’t worry. Nathan died at 74. It was an accident.)

Melbourne’s clueless cruelty also emerged as organized labor became a more vocal part of British life. In March 1834, a group of laborers in Dorset started a trade-union and it was discovered that these men had administered secret oaths as part of the membership. Several of these men were arrested and sentenced to seven years of penal transportation. At the time, Melbourne was Home Secretary. Instead of overturning this remarkably harsh punishment, Melbourne asked the local magistrates about the temperament of these men. He was informed by these tendentious adjudicators that they were scoundrels. Melbourne, strictly on this point of secret oaths, confirmed this inhumane sentence. And during the next month, a group of thirty thousand marched to Whitehall to demand redress. He refused to see these leaders. And this austere decision set back the trade-union movement for years. As Cecil writes:

“So far from being criminals and revolutionaries, they were sober, respectable men enough, driven into lawless courses largely by ignorance and hunger and by the struggle to hang up their families on wages lately reduced to seven shillings a week. Melbourne was not to blame for not realizing their true characters. He was not there, and he had to trust to the reports of his subordinates.”

Melbourne also did not intervene when the revolting laborers of 1830 (during the Swing Riots) were sent to the gallows. Even Cecil is forced to accept the “painful and disturbing” prospect of an ostensibly kind-hearted man who wished to uphold the death sentence even when prisoners were not intended to be executed. Yet as callous as these consequences were, contributing to great unrest in the immediate years that followed, one has to remember that these terrible measures emerged in response to fears over recent turmoil in France and while parliamentary reform was being hashed out at a frustratingly glacial pace. There was a palpable anxiety that events across the English Channel would be reenacted at home.

How did such a man ascend to Prime Minister? Largely because there was nobody else. In 1834, King William IV needed someone who could keep variegated political factions together and, although the King didn’t care much for Melbourne, he liked him better than the other candidates. After all, this wasn’t exactly a position that you could leave open because you didn’t care for the present spate of résumés. Melbourne almost didn’t take the job. (Indeed, near the end of his stint as Prime Minister, he drifted forward with listlessness and exhaustion. Obligation seemed to be the only quality that kept him going.) An opportunistic little creep named Tom Young, who ensconced himself into Melbourne’s administrative circle through skillful cunning, was the one who played to Melbourne’s vanity and love for the classics, securing Melbourne’s commitment with the following words: “Why, damn it all, such a position was never held by any Greek or Roman: and if it only last three months, it will be worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.”

Melbourne was a weird Prime Minister. His strategy involved ridding himself of loud and querulous colleagues and keeping the new Government as calm as possible, even as he remained obdurate in his decision making. This approach did not sit well with some of the more boisterous statesmen. In a moment that could almost be pulled out of a David Lynch movie, Cecil describes Lord Henry Brougham visiting Melbourne’s house just after learning that he would not have a place in the new government. “Do you think I am mad?” shouts Brougham over and over again, his tone and gestures rising with violence as he repeats this question, almost anticipating the charismatic psychosis of Blue Velvet‘s Frank Booth. Yet the highly avoidant Melbourne could not fend off the King, assorted radicals, and any number of people who beseeched him for attention. “Damn it!” he cried to himself. “Why can’t they be quiet?” (In 1836, the aforementioned Norton blackmail episode went down, with Melbourne emerging largely unscathed even while living at Downing Street.)

I can’t entirely pardon Melbourne for some of his asshattery, but Cecil’s careful touch allowed me to understand and even empathize with some of Melbourne’s flaws, for he was also quite idiosyncratic. He stuffed his coats with endless notes. He would emit several strange sounds before beginning to talk. He would shout at random servants and ask them what time it was rather than consult a watch. These quirks allowed him to be liked by the right people, or, perhaps more accurately, tolerated because his actions were so endearingly inexplicable. Perhaps they felt sorry for him because of the Glenarvon episode, although Cecil doesn’t really address how that scandal besmirched his later life, long after Caroline was gone.

What I can say is that Cecil does such a classy job conveying the shenanigans of these often loutish patricians — the rampant adultery, the tolerated insane behavior, the strange manner that all this infiltrated British poetry and politics — that I was placed in the unusual position of fighting strong desires to throw my mind into the mire of the French Revolution, parliamentary protocol, and numerous other subjects. In the last two years, we have seen wild ideological sentiment (exacerbated by Twitter) and staunch stylistic preference (e.g., any polemical book on the lyrical essay) erode the possibilities of understanding human nuance. Melbourne reminds us that the more receptive we are to factual details that trouble or intrigue us, the more willing we are to commiserate with a person’s embarrassing qualities. Perhaps this was one reason why Melbourne was one of John F. Kennedy’s favorite books.

Cecil found both a subject and a tone that recalls John P. Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1937 novel, The Late George Apley, published just two years before Cecil’s first half of Melbourne. He tells us baldly at the end that Melbourne’s death caused no great stir during the nineteenth century’s rampantly changing atmosphere. It is a crushing realization. Like Apley, Melbourne outlived his time and took in his personal and professional regrets with a resigned agreeableness. Melbourne’s life is often a sad portrait, yet we are somehow won over by him. Cecil’s book is a welcome reminder that if we’re going to judge someone, maybe we should buffet the impulse to castigate them with a smidgen of kindness, reserving our wrath for the real monsters. Without that vital flexibility that allows us to evolve, there may come a point when we outlive our time too. Sooner than Melbourne.

Next Up: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions!

The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge

mlnfindexJust under three years ago, I began the Modern Library Reading Challenge. It was an ambitious alternative to a spate of eccentric reading challenges then making the rounds. These included such gallant reading missions as the Chunkster, the Three Card Monte/Three Sisters Bronte, the Read All of Shakespeare While Blindfolded Challenge, and the Solzhenitsyn Russian Roulette Challenge. It took a fairly eccentric person to place the literary embouchure ever so nobly to one’s lips and fire off a fusillade of eupohonic Prince Pless bliss into the trenchant air. But I was game.

In my case, the idea was to write at least 1,000 words on each title after reading it. The hope was to fill in significant reading gaps while also cutting an idiosyncratic course across the great works of 20th century literature, with other intrepid readers walking along with me.

Over the next twenty-three months, I steadily worked my way through twenty-three works of fiction. Some of the books were easy to find. Some required elaborate trips to exotic bookstores in far-off states. When I checked out related critical texts and biographies from the New York Public Library, I was often informed by the good librarians at the Mid-Manhattan branch that I was the first soul to take these tomes home in sixteen years. This surprised me. New York was a city with eight million people. Surely there had to be more curiosity seekers investigating these authors. But I discovered that some of these prominent authors had been severely neglected. When I got to The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett was so overlooked that I appeared to be the first person to upload a photo of reasonable resolution (which I had taken from a public domain image published in a biography) onto the Internet.

There were other surprises. I became an Iris Murdoch obsessive. I was finally able to overcome my youthful indiscretions and appreciate The Adventures of Augie March as the masterpiece that it was. My mixed feelings on Brideshead Revisited proved controversial in some circles and caused at least one academic to condemn me. On the other hand, I also sparked an online friendship with Stephen Wood, who was also working his way through the Mighty 100, and was put into contact with an extremely small yet determined group of enthusiasts making similar reading attempts in various corners of the world.

Yet when I told some people about my project, it was considered strange or sinister. When I mentioned the Modern Library Reading Challenge to a much older writer, she was stunned that anyone my age go to the trouble of Lawrence Durrell. (And she liked Durrell!) Her quizzical look led me to wonder if she was going to send me to some shady authority to administer a second opinion.

One of the project’s appeals was its methodical approach: I was determined to read all the books from #100 to #1. This not only provided a healthy discipline, but it ensured that I wouldn’t push the least desired books to the end. Much as life provides you with mostly happy and sometimes unpleasant tasks to fulfill as they arrive, I felt that my reading needed to maintain a similar commitment. This strategy also created a vicarious trajectory for others to follow.

Everything was going well. Very well indeed. Henry Green. Jean Rhys. The pleasant surprise of The Ginger Man. With these authors, how could it not go well? I was poised to read to the finish line. I was zooming my Triumph TR6 down a hilly two-lane highway with a full tank of gas. Cranking loud music. Not a care in the world.

And then I hit Finnegans Wake.

To call Finnegans Wake “difficult” is a woefully insufficient description. This is a book that requires developing an ineluctably Talmudic approach. But I am not easily fazed. Finnegans Wake is truly a book of grand lexical riches, even if I remain permanently stalled within the voluble tendrils of its first 50 pages. I have every intention of making my way through Finnegans Wake. I have reread Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses. I have consulted numerous reference texts. I have even listened to all 176 episodes of Frank Delaney’s excellent podcast, Re: Joyce. These have all been pleasant experiences, but I am still not sure if any of this significantly contributes to my understanding of Finnegans Wake. However, when you do something difficult, it is often best to remain somewhat clueless. If you become more aware of how “impossible” something may be, then you may not see it through to the end. Joyce remains the Everest of English literature. I am determined to scale the peak, even if I’m not entirely sure how reliable my gear is.

The regrettable Finnegans Wake business has also meant that the Modern Library Reading Challenge has been stuck on pause. It has been eleven months since I published a new Modern Library installment on these pages. And while I have certainly stayed busy during this time (I have made a documentary about Gary Shteyngart’s blurbs, attempted to fund a national walk that I intend to fulfill one day, canceled and brought back The Bat Segundo Show, and created a new thematic radio program, among other industries), I have long felt that persistent progress — that is, an efflorescent commitment to a regular fount of new material — is the best way to stay in shape and keep any project alive.

I have also had a growing desire to read more nonfiction, especially as the world revealed itself to be a truly maddening and perilous place as the reading challenge unfolded. Some have sought to keep their heads planted beneath the ground like quavering ostriches about all this. There are far too many adults I know, now well in their thirties, who remain distressingly committed to the “La la la I can’t hear you!” school of taking in bad news. But I feel that understanding how historical and social cycles (Vico, natch) cause human souls to saunter down dark and treacherous roads also allows us to comprehend certain truths about our present age. To carry on in the world without a sense of history, without even a cursory understanding of ideas and theories that have been attempted or considered before, is to remain a rotten vegetable during the more important moments of life.

It turns out that the Modern Library has another list of one hundred titles devoted to nonfiction. And the nonfiction list is, to my great surprise, more closely aligned to the fiction list than I anticipated.

In 1998, the Washington Post‘s David Streitfeld revealed that the Modern Library fiction list was plagued by modest scandal. The ten august Modern Library board members behind the fiction list had no knowledge over who had voted for what, why the books were ranked the way they were, or how the list had been composed, with many of the rankings more perfunctory than anyone knew. Brave New World, for example, had muscled its way up to #5, but only because many of the judges believed that it needed to be somewhere on the list.

So when the Modern Library gang devoted its attention to a nonfiction list, it was, as Salon‘s Craig Offman reported, determined not to repeat many of the same mistakes. University of Chicago statistics professor Albert Mandansky was signed on to ensure a more dutiful ranking progress. Younger authors and more women were included among the board. Mandansky went to the trouble of creating a computer algorithm so that there could be no ties. But the new iron fist approach offered some drawbacks. There was a new rule that an author could only have one title on the list, which meant that Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station didn’t make the cut. And when the top choice was announced — The Education of Henry Adams — the crowd stayed silent. It was rumored that one board member scandalously played with his dentures as the titles were called.

Perhaps the Modern Library’s second great experiment reveals the unavoidable pointlessness behind these lists. As novelist Richard Powers recently observed in a National Book Critics Circle post, “The reading experiences I value most are the ones that shake me out of my easy aesthetic preferences and make the favorites game feel like a talent show in the Iroquois Theater just before the fire. Give me the not-yet likable, the unhousebroken, something that is going to throw my tastes in a tizzy and make my self-protecting Tops of the Pops slink away in shame.”

On the other hand, if it takes anywhere from five to ten years to get through a hundred titles, then the reader is inured to this problem. Today’s favorites may be tomorrow’s dogs, and yesterday’s lackluster choices may be tomorrow’s crown jewels. As the Modern Library reader grows older, there’s nearly a built-in guarantee that these preordained tastes will become passe at some point. (To wit: Lord David Cecil’s Melbourne, the first book I will be reading for this new challenge, is now out of print.)

So I have decided to take up the second challenge, reading the nonfiction list from #100 to #1. Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge titles shall flow from these pages as I slowly make my way through Finnegans Wake during the first challenge. Hopefully, once the disparity between the two challenges has been worked out, I will eventually make steady progress on the fiction and nonfiction fronts. But the nonfiction challenge won’t be a walk in the park either. It has its own Finnegans Wake at #23. I am certain that Principia Mathematica will come close to destroying my brain. But as I said three years ago, I plan to read forever or die trying.

To prevent confusion for longtime readers, the fiction challenge will be separated from the nonfiction challenge by color. Fiction titles shall carry on in red. Nonfiction titles will be in gold.

I’ve started to read Melbourne and I’m hoping to have the first Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge essay up before the end of the month. This page, much like the fiction list, will serve as an index. I will add the links and the dates as I read the books. I hope that these efforts will inspire more readers to take up the challenge. (And if you do end up reading along, don’t be a stranger!)

Now let’s get this party started. Here are the titles:

100. Melbourne, Lord David Cecil (December 27, 2013)
99. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott (January 14, 2014)
98. The Taming of Chance, Ian Hacking (March 23, 2014)
97. The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm (July 17, 2014)
96. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote (November 11, 2015)
95. The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly (January 21, 2016)
94. The Contours of American History, William Appleman Williams (February 7, 2016)
93. The American Political Tradition, Richard Hofstadter (February 18, 2016)
92. The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro (May 11, 2016)
91. Shadow and Act, Ralph Ellison (November 3, 2016)
90. The Golden Bough, James George Frazer (13 volumes, Third Edition) (November 14, 2016)
89. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard (November 23, 2016)
88. Six Easy Pieces, Richard P. Feynman (November 30, 2016)
87. A Mathematician’s Apology, G.H. Hardy (December 3, 2016)
86. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff (June 15, 2017)
85. West with the Night, Beryl Markham (August 21, 2017)
84. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan (December 6, 2017)
83. Vermeer, Lawrence Gowing (February 22, 2018)
82. The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield (September 16, 2018)
81. The Face of Battle, John Keegan (December 26, 2018)
80. Studies in Iconology, Erwin Panofsky (January 23, 2019)
79. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris (February 20, 2019)
78. Why We Can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. (February 28, 2019)
77. Battle Cry of Freedom, James M. McPherson (September 11, 2020)
76. The City in History, Lewis Mumford (September 12, 2020)
75. The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell (March 3, 2022)
74. Florence Nightingale, Cecil Woodham-Smith (June 14, 2022)
73. James Joyce, Richard Ellmann
72. The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
71. The Rise of the West, William H. McNeill
70. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward
69. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn
68. The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Jonathan D. Spence
67. A Preface to Morals, Walter Lippmann
66. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, R.H. Tawney
65. The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
64. The Open Society and Its Enemies, Karl Popper
63. The Sweet Science, A.J. Liebling
62. The House of Morgan, Ron Chernow
61. Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner
60. In the American Grain, William Carlos Williams
59. Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone (6 volumes)
58. Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen
57. The Second World War, Winston Churchill (6 volumes)
56. The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling
55. Darkness Visible, William Styron
54. Working, Studs Terkel
53. Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey
52. The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
51. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley and Malcolm X
50. Samuel Johnson, Walter Jackson Bate
49. Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson
48. The Great Bridge, David McCullough
47. Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson
46. The Affluent Society, John Kenneth Galbraith
45. A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee (12 volumes)**
44. Children of Crisis, Robert Coles (5 volumes)
43. The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Mark Twain (3 volumes)
42. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
41. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves
40. Science and Civilization in China, Joseph Needham (5 volumes, abridged)*
39. Autobiographies, W.B. Yeats
38. Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, Rebecca West
37. The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes
36. The Age of Jackson, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
35. Ideas and Opinions, Albert Einstein
34. On Growth and Form, D’Arcy Thompson
33. Philosophy and Civilization, John Dewey
32. Principia Ethica, G.E. Moore
31. The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois
30. The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson
29. Art and Illusion, Ernest H. Gombrich
28. A Theory of Justice, John Rawls
27. The Ants, Bert Hoelldobler and Edward O. Wilson
26. The Art of the Soluble, Peter B. Medawar
25. The Mirror and the Lamp, Meyer Howard Abrams
24. The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould
23. Principia Mathematica, Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (3 volumes)
22. An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal
21. The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White
20. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein
19. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
18. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr
17. The Proper Story of Mankind, Isaiah Berlin
16. The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman
15. The Civil War, Shelby Foote (Three volumes: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Fredericksburg to Meridian, Red River to Appomattox)
14. Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster
13. Black Boy, Richard Wright
12. The Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner
11. The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas
10. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes
9. The American Language, H.L. Mencken
8. Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov
7. The Double Helix, James D. Watson
6. Selected Essays, 1917-1932, T.S. Eliot
5. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
4. A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf
3. Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
2. The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James
1. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams

* December 15, 2018 Update: While I am striving to read the unabridged versions of all works for this project, upon further reflection, I’ve realized that the cost of obtaining the full 27 volume set of Needham’s opus is well beyond my price range. Each volume ranges from $40 to $200, in part due to the extortionate pricing of Cambridge University Press, a publisher that has proven deaf to my inquiries about obtaining a review copy. This effectively makes this purchase equal to the price of a used car. In addition, it is rather insane for any reader, even one who possesses my ridiculous ambitions, to devote some 8,000 pages to one author. I have reluctantly opted to substitute the five volume Shorter Science and Civilisation in China when I get to this particular essay. As of now, I do have the unabridged The Golden Bough under my belt. And I will spring for the unabridged Toynbee. I hope readers following along can forgive me for cutting corners on one entry. But I do want to complete this project before I depart this earth. And pragmatically speaking, this is the only way to do it.

** August 3, 2022 Update: Four years ago, it was possible to get a copy of the full twelve volume set of Toynbee for under $200. But in a testament to how rapidly these books are going out of print, getting a copy of the full set has become increasingly difficult to find. I may have to tackle the abridged version, with great reluctance.

Kim (Modern Library #78)

(This is the twenty-third entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Room with a View)

Three years ago, my jocular compadre Lydia Kiesling pointed out that Kim‘s festering reputation as an imperialist watermark had hindered her from a serious plunge. She rightly identified a “Post-Colonial Burn Index” for this type of literature, whereby enduring high and mighty white males braying in turgid and self-congratulatory sentences about their entitled position was an experience about as pleasant as being repeatedly kicked in the teeth by a herd of Thoroughbred racehorses that had been paddocked too long without option of rotary gallop.

While Lydia found Kim to be a pleasant surprise, I felt Kipling’s “masterpiece” to be largely repugnant: the kind of pernicious slog that turns good people into Aryan crusaders if they don’t move on quickly to something else. The book’s enticing aesthetic of geography, esoteric terminology, Arabic names, Jainist neologisms, and now commonplace food wasn’t enough to shake the deeply unsettling feeling that Kipling, despite his welcome overtures, really wanted all of India to remain subservient to the Anglo way, perhaps because this was the only way he could reckon with his nostalgia for a time long passed. This novel was his swan song to India. And while the book is sometimes an engaging adventure, it is too fraught with covert condescension.

Among many disgraceful stereotypes, Kim is a novel which describes how “Kim could lie like an Oriental,” how “[a]ll hours of the twenty-four are alike to the Oriental” and describes both “the Oriental’s indifference to mere noise,” how “Orientals understand speed,” and how a project “[falls] back, Oriental-fashion, on time and chance.” There is a Russian agent who announces late in the book, “It is we who can deal with Orientals.” (This sentiment of “dealing with Orientals” is later echoed by Hurree.) But the fun doesn’t stop there. There’s an odious drummer-boy from Liverpool who badgers Kim when he “[talks] the same as a nigger.”

This is far more insidious than Kingsley Amis writing of Kim‘s problematic meticulousness, “if he says coriander when he means cardamum I will let it go.” As my homeboy Edward Said wisely observed in Culture and Imperialism:

…yes, Kipling can get into the skin of others with some sympathy. But no, Kipling never forgets that Kim is an irrefragable part of British India: the Great Game does go on, with Kim a part of it, no matter how many parables the lama fashions. We are naturally entitled to read Kim as a novel belonging to the world’s greatest literature, free to some degree from its encumbering historical and political circumstances. Yet by the same token, we must not unilaterally abrogate the corrections in it, and carefully observed by Kipling, to its contemporary actuality.

The depictions of residents from the Far and Near East as lesser beings have been held up as criticisms of racism by some Kipling scholars. But given that the novel goes out of its way to grant thirteen-year-old Kimball O’Hara, “burned black as any native,” the luxury of swinging both ways as sahib and a boy capable of disguising himself in “native-fashion,” there’s a decidedly privileged feel to Kim’s picaresque adventures which gives any 21st century reading experience a sour and regressive taint.

So what is Kim‘s appeal? For me, the lama is the novel’s high point. He finds Kim in Lahore. He sets out with the boy to seek the physical manifestation of their respective visions (for Kim, a Red Bull in a green field; for the lama, “The River of the Arrow”). He serves as a remarkably patient patriarchal figure throughout. The novel felt more honest when Kim used the lama’s otherness to skimp out on train fare or when Kim was free to get into wild adventures without obligation or mimesis.

The sympathetic socialist critic Irving Howe is perhaps the closest in describing why the novel is still worth a soupçon of consideration. Howe observes that Kipling was “a jingo and a bully, or defender of bullies,” but identifies Kim as a work that involves seeing the world “as an apprehension of things as they are” and “accepting, even venerating sainthood, without at all proposing to surrender the world, or even worldliness, to saints.” But one of the chief frustrations about Kim is that, for all of Kipling’s erudition about India, he is blind to his own inherent prejudices.

No matter how liberated Kim may be, he is still identified by how he is seen or how he is “suited”:

The pallor of hunger suited Kim very well as he stood, tall and slim, in his sad-coloured, sweeping robes, one hand on his rosary and the other in the attitude of benediction, faithfully copied from the lama. An English observer might have said that he looked rather like the young saint of a stained-glass window, whereas he was but a growing lad faint with emptiness.

Is not Kipling complicit in how his characters are seen by the reader, who may be an “English observer” of another sort? In the gnarly opening chapters, we see Kim “flat on his belly” while a tall man stands “erect as an arrow.” And this is hardly the first time the novel resorts to a descriptive style where “erect” positioning is so closely identified to social station or caste.

Unlike Edmund Wilson, who complained about how the novel doesn’t live up to “what the reader tends to expect,” I don’t have any particular problems with the book’s inconclusive finale. Fiction has no obligation to answer everything. Kipling’s efforts to reconcile the book’s spiritual side (the Buddhist idea of the Wheel of Things, as introduced by the lama) with its espionage side (the Great Game of geopolitical conflict “that never ceases day and night”) smack of a desperate effort to sandwich disparate ingredients into a luncheon that cannot possibly satisfy everybody, let alone account for the complexities of a massive nation. It is fundamentally impossible for either Kipling or Kim to make a dichotomous choice when there is, quite literally, so much territory covered on the Great Trunk Road, on board the “te-rain,” and along the “long, peaceful line of the Himalayas.” (In deference to the lama’s portent, there are quite a number of “rivers” in this book, often through rail and road.) The Middle Way may be the “path to freedom,” but the river that the lama does eventually find cannot be found on any map.

But I am with Wilson in calling out Kipling’s failings to confront a very real crisis. I am hardly alone. Even the enthusiastic biographer Martin Seymour-Smith was to confess, “Kim is not, for me, quite the masterpiece that it is for many critics,” believing the problem to stem from the novel being simultaneously a children’s book and an adult’s book. Seymour-Smith also posits the interesting theory that Kipling’s failure to return to India and confront its considerable change is one of the reasons it is not quite right.

Kim lacks the imagination and the deft command of Kipling’s shorter fiction. But this novel was such a despondent read that I don’t think I’ll be reading this blustery Nobel laureate again for at least another decade. If I want a Great Game, I’ll drag out Cranium or Twister from the closet.

Next Up: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake! (This will take a very long time!)

A Room with a View (Modern Library #79)

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

Merchant Ivory Productions has been one of the greatest threats to literature during the past three decades. Known for producing well photographed films that put most sane people to sleep, the Merchant Ivory team has demonstrated a remarkable knack for divesting zest from the literary classics. They have ordered esteemed actors across sweeping vistas as if they are unbudgeable bovine who require vast encouragement to produce milk. They have bored more often than seems reasonable. Where Orson Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations or Iain Softley’s The Wings of the Dove or Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon or Sally Potter’s Orlando or William Wyler’s The Heiress or Corman’s Poe pictures or The Royal Shakespeare Company’s nine hour version of Nicholas Nickleby bristle with life and visual excitement, demanding that you get your hands on the source material at once, the Merchant Ivory movies are the cinematic equivalent to visiting the in-laws or steeling yourself up for a dreadful Thanksgiving or attending a funeral for someone you didn’t really know that well.

I have been dragged to too many of these goddam films over the years, often by friends who had nobody else to go with or by women who I have dated, and I have been polite. Because being polite often results in perversity. But the one thing I didn’t do, thanks to Merchant Ivory’s vacation slideshow approach to literary adaptation, was read E.M. Forster. Until now.

* * *

It all began with a bundle of notes Forster scribbled during the winter of 1901. It was his first trip to Italy, and he was forming some ideas about a novel set in Florence. There was a list of characters, a fund-raising concert as part of the narrative (later dropped), and a young woman named Lucy, who changed surnames swifter than a serial matrimonialist. There were more character lists and more drafts and more notes. Then in December 1903, Forster began referencing something called “The New Lucy Novel,” reconstructed from the Italian bones of “Old Lucy” with a new English section to match. Forster then wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread and The Longest Journey, flitting between these projects and various incarnations of the Lucy novels, before completing A Room with a View. (If you can get your hands on the edition of Room edited by Oliver Stallybrass, I recommend it. Stallybrass is more thorough about these matters than a querulous tax auditor. But while he can be humorless and overreaching, his notes provide helpful connection points.)

Forster wanted to write a romantic novel because he was interested in subverting formula. Biographer Nicola Beauman has suggested that Forster’s own fears of marriage (he was a lifelong bachelor who maintained a long-term relationship with a married policeman) undermined his self-confidence as a novelist around the summer of 1906. Perhaps this internal tension accounts for the subtle manner in which Forster’s heroine, Lucy, responds to the men who woo her.

Lucy Honeychurch — a name, I am sorry to say, which implied some pornographic starlet in my dirty mind until I remembered that I was reading a book published more than a century before — is on vacation with her cousin Charlotte Bartlett, an older chaperone who is about as much fun to be around as Pat Boone. (There is a juicy moment late in the novel, where Lucy tells Charlotte to remove a certain word from her envelopes, which is especially satisfying.) The two women arrive at a lodging house called the Pension Bertolini. They are disappointed with the room, which does not have a view of the Arno. Employing the finest passive-aggressive moves that prewar chivalry is willing to put up with, the two women finagle rooms with views from a certain Mr. Emerson and his son George.

People on vacation sometimes have to deal with louts. But in the first decade of the twentieth century, you could be ostracized for your perceived class or for displaying any modest idiosyncrasy. Thus, we see the poor Emersons, despite their potential philosophical namesake (which Forster is good enough to note in the book) and their early grand gesture, shunned for being “peculiar.”

Forster has some fun with the travel culture of the time. Everybody comes to Italy clutching a bright red Baedeker travel guide. To stray from the course is nothing short of mortifying. One day, Lucy is on her own with by an aspiring novelist named Miss Lavish, who unwittingly abandons her and takes the Baedeker with her. Lucy runs into the Emersons and, without any Baedeker, the three enter Peruzzi Chapel, where Mr. Emerson earned my instant respect by shouting “No!” when told how to interpret the frescoes by a patronizing lecturer.

“Pull out from the depths those thoughts you do not understand,” says Mr. Emerson to Lucy not long after this, “and spread them out in the sunlight and know the meaning of them.” This is actually pretty good advice for people walking in concentrated metropolitan areas looking down at their smartphones. The technology may change, but conformity remains the same.

Needless to say, this casual iconoclasm has the other tourists searching for other reasons to sneer at the Emersons. George gets pegged as some working-class interloper because he says that he works on “the railway.” But this doesn’t stop him from romancing Lucy.

The first kiss Lucy receives from George comes after she falls into an open terrace in the woods, with Forster very keen to describe how “the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves.” Nature, it seems, is doomed to ensnare you into a smooch, especially if you wantonly wander on your own. But isn’t life an adventure? It’s propriety, that troubling need to maintain a certain impression or to participate in bunk etiquette, that kills the mood.

So how does a young woman like Lucy summon her passions? It comes through the freedom to play the piano, albeit badly:

She was no dazzling executante; her runs were not at all like strings of pearls, and she struck no more right notes than was suitable for one of her age and situation. Nor was she the passionate young lady, who performs so tragically on a summer’s evening with the window open. Passion was there, but it could not be easily labelled; it slipped between love and hatred and jealousy, and all the furniture of the pictorial style. And she was tragical only in the sense that she was great, for she loved to play on the side of Victory. Victory of what and over what — that is more than the words of daily life can tell us.

Yet when Forster moves the action back to England, the words of daily life tell us everything. Cecil Vyse, a young man whose surname rightfully connotes the personality of a clamp, is as far from legitimate life as one can get. How many women were forced into marrying Cecil Vyse types around 1908? And how many unhappy marriages were saved with Cecil Vyse types getting killed off during the Great War? Our first glimpse of Lucy in the second part could almost happen on a stage. The window curtains part, and we encounter a terrace differing from the one in Florence, one “transfigured by the view beyond,” with Lucy in a rustic seat that “seemed on the edge of a green magic carpet which hovered in the air above the tremulous world.” The reader’s view of Lucy changes, but her passion remains. Yet Cecil’s own view of Lucy is “only as a commonplace girl who happened to be musical,” with Italy working some unspecified marvel in her. Forster, ever skeptical, manages to get in a few digs at this problematic practice:

An engagement is so potent a thing that sooner or later it reduces all who speak of it to this state of cheerful awe. Away from it, in the solitude of their rooms, Mr Beebe, and even Freddy, might again be critical. But in its presence and in the presence of each other they were sincerely hilarious. It has a strange power, for it compels not only the lips, but the very heart. The chief parallel -to compare one great thing with another- is the power over us of a temple of some alien creed. Standing outside, we deride or oppose it, or at the most feel sentimental. Inside, though the saints and gods are not ours, we become true believers, in case any true believer should be present.

Cecil’s belief comes from material things, from playing tricks on people, and from standing against the sanctity of life. As one character suggests near the end of the book, “He’s the type who’s kept Europe back a thousand years.” The word “medieval” pops up quite a bit in Room. Cecil is described as medieval. Churches are “built by faith in the full fervour of medievalism.” It’s even the name of a chapter. Forster expressly states that “Lucy does not stand for the medieval lady, who was rather an ideal to which she was bidden to lift her eyes when feeling serious.” So how does religion, as reflected through the clergyman Mr. Beebe, fit into all this? It’s surprisingly compatible. There is a bathing scene in which the Emersons and Mr. Beebe frolic in the splendor of The Sacred Lake, a pool that forms “when a good deal of water comes down after heavy rains” (a Flood perhaps from which to build a new Ark?). They run so free and naked, tossing their clothes with mirthful abandon, that one is heartened to find a loophole for flopping chorizos within Forster’s proper world.

Room is a paean for youthful ardor no matter what one’s age, a plea for humanity to bask in Phaethon’s shining possibilities. One wonders if Forster could have finished the novel had he still been at work when the guns of August boomed. If the novel can sometimes be too light for its own good, it’s nowhere nearly as dead as the soporific cinematic adaptations which wilt in its shadow.

Next Up: Rudyard Kipling’s Kim!

Brideshead Revisited (Modern Library #80)

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

Soak up enough art over the years and you’ll run into the cultural dichotomy, either through half-cocked introspection or cocktail party gunpoint. It’s a practice where two artists of equal merit and/or influence are positioned at opposing ends in talk, much as an oily advertising tyrant pins blindfolds on fat suburban heads to establish the next tasteless drink to slam down lacquered American throats.

The participant is forced to decide between two heavyweights. The answers are revealed among pals and peers, with shocked susurrations floating through the room like a toxic Yanni album, and the participant is put in a strange mode of defense. It is wrongly assumed that a devotee of one artist cannot possibly appreciate the other, and there are many words expended which slur the subtleties of artistic appreciation. But the practice does pass the time. In my twenties, I spent a minimum of 250 hours arguing with a Liverpudlian friend on Friday nights over Lennon vs. McCartney while sitting at a stop sipping Guinness from paper cups, awaiting the N Judah’s slow crawl up the hill into San Francisco’s empyrean drinking holes. Books were passed back and forth. Albums were played over and over, often at deafening levels. In hindsight, it’s astonishing how much musical and biographical minutiae we were able to summon up during these near rabbinical talks. I fear that I may be approaching similar levels of conversational twist with my partner, who is quite vocal about her Hammett preference while I argue strenuously for Chandler as the superior.

But here’s a cultural dichotomy likely to get me into trouble. I prefer P.G. Wodehouse over Evelyn Waugh, and this partiality, when announced, has had certain snobs declare me as a yob before I get the chance to articulate my reasons. While Wodehouse’s comic situations and character types tend to repeat over his 96 volumes (with such prolificity, how could they not?), there are few equals to the charm of his syntax, his lovable myopia to modern developments, his snazzy formality, and his genial silliness. Only a reader with an ass tighter than a hummer having a hard time with a parallel park would resist the artistic romance of the short story “The Man Upstairs” or the giddy premise of a portrait used to hypnotize the masses into eating ham in Quick Service, to say nothing of Jeeves or Blandings Castle. But the Modern Library magistrates, presumably viewing the good Pellham Grenville to be too light for their lofty criteria, decided there was no room for Wodehouse on the list. They gave three slots to a savagely precise stylist who cratered not long after the war. Wodehouse, as everyone knows, had a longer and steadier run.

So it’s quite aggravating to be forced, due to my orthodox commitment to this Modern Library countdown framework, to write about Waugh on the later novels first. My love for the early stuff is bountiful enough to avoid bringing up Wodehouse altogether. Just to be clear, if Lady Metroland shows up in a Waugh novel, it’s probably a winner. Yet because Brideshead Revisited is very much about clinging to what remains of older values and expired dreams, and because it sees Waugh hiding behind Charles Ryder looking back, if not in anger then from passive despair, as an excuse to belabor these points, I couldn’t help but think of Wodehouse’s comparatively freer manner as I sludged through this often beautiful and often maddening novel. Brideshead Revisited is also considerably more depressing if you happen to read it, as I did, shortly before hitting a birthday milestone in which that vile veneer between youth and middle age is decidedly closer to the latter and you are shuffling into inevitable adulthood while trying to find legitimate methods to retain youthful wonder.

* * *

I am writing a very beautiful book, to bring tears, about very rich, beautiful, high born people who live in palaces and have no troubles except what they make themselves and those are mainly the demons sex and drink which after all are easy to bear as troubles go nowadays.

That’s Waugh in a letter to Lady Dorothy Lygon in March 23, 1944, midway through the writing of Brideshead and shortly after a parachute accident. It’s likely he’s taking the piss out of the enterprise, for Waugh was not one to suffer fools (although he once suggested to Nancy Mitford that suffering fools was one of God’s happy responsibilities). He was up against wartime censors, spending much of his time soused out of his mind. Yet he was vehemently opposed to any efforts at Catholic reform. Some of these developments probably account for why Waugh was such a miserable bastard in his final years, and why his wartime efforts exacerbated the need to produce a magnum opus to match his prodigious intake of champagne.

It is safe to say that I did not shed a single tear for any of the assholes in Brideshead Revisited, although I was not without empathy. My salubrious contempt for people who bitch and moan when they have it all has been memorialized in several places, and I’m not likely to shake this quality anytime soon. It didn’t exactly enhance my reading experience when Charles Ryder, Waugh’s protagonist, was revealed to have the very exemplar of a free ride existence. Here is a Oxonian who lives beyond his means at school. Despite having a hearty coterie, a cushy spread, and a special friend named Sebastian Flyte (“we lit fat, Turkish cigarettes and lay on our backs”), Charles feels “at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer.” He complains about his neighbors, treats his servant Lunt with some disgrace, and ingratiates himself with Sebastian’s family, the Marchmains, who are “rich in the way people who are who just let their money sit quiet.” First World problems all the way.

When Charles stays with his father during the long vacation, Waugh does give us a number of masterfully executed comic moments. Charles’s father cannot comprehend that his son is short of funds, yet makes many cost-prohibitive suggestions on how a young man should live. He also has funny ideas of who “young people” are. There is the gloriously preposterous three-course dinner of humdrum quality, consumed “purely out of respect for your Aunt Philippa.” Charles’s father also manages to chase away Jorkins, one of Charles’s old acquaintances, by pretending he is American and extending this fantasy into a foolish belief that the young man will spend more time living at the family home.

Such idiosyncrasies can’t last forever. Charles receives a telegram from Sebastian that could almost serve as a six word memoir of their relationship (“GRAVELY INJURED COME AT ONCE, SEBASTIAN”), which sends Charles up to the famed Marchmain estate. The grave injury is reveled to be merely a cracked ankle bone. But the pretext leads Charles to “[believe] myself very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead.”

Sebastian encourages Charles to draw a fountain, a pivotal experience that lays down the flagstones for Charles’s career as an architectural painter. (He later finds uncommon success during a financial slump, publishing folios such as Ryder’s Country Seats, Ryder’s English Homes, and Ryder’s Village. But, of course, it’s the war that pushes him into glum vocational duty.) There is wine tasting, appreciation of Sebastian’s foibles (which include Catholicism and his teddy bear Aloysius), rooftop sunbathing, a trip to Italy on the Marchmain dime, and romance beneath the seams.

Not long after Italy, Sebastian is revealed as an alcoholic who requires constant attention, someone so out of control that he must be watched at all times and denied money that will surely keen its way onto a bar tab. It’s disheartening and telling that Sebastian’s dipsomania is portrayed by Charles as his most memorable quality. We are never fully informed of the dashing aspects which inspired their relationship because Charles can only reveal the true extent of his feelings through omission (and this isn’t limited to Sebastian: late in the book, when Charles has married, he is remiss to name his wife for an uncomfortably long stretch of pages). For all of Charles’s talk about memory, what is he leaving out? Has he actually learned anything?

“Inappropriate” relationships turn reductio ad absurdum when Julia, Sebastian’s sister, is engaged to marry an aspiring politico named Rex Mottram in high Catholic style. By this point, Sebastian has fled the family, besotted and quite in denial about his true feelings. Charles becomes smitten with Julia because she resembles her brother. But Rex puts the kibosh on the Catholic wedding when he reveals a secret first wife. So much for the covenant of lifelong matrimony. But Waugh doesn’t stop there. There’s a richly ironic moment when Brideshead, who is Sebastian’s older brother and has an Asperger’s-like affinity for matchboxes, finds an unlikely match and Catholic maxims are bended further.

* * *

The Catholic hold on how people should live reflects Charles’s own efforts to reckon with his present existence, which he forever compares against the past. Charles’s time with his father and the the deception Charles reveals later on a cruise ship (accompanied by some gleeful skewering of modern convenience by Waugh, including an ice swan filled with caviar and passengers who are so pampered into lax inattention that adulterous shenanigans become effortless) also illustrate the divide between old virtues and contemporary developments. But sometimes Charles’s belief in the past can be more insufferable than Jay Gatsby:

These memories, which are my life — for we possess nothing certainly except the past — were always with me….These memories are the memorials and pledges of the vital hours of a lifetime. These hours of afflutus in the human spirit, the springs of art, are, in their mystery, akin to the epochs of history, when a race which for centuries has lived content, unknown, behind its own frontiers, digging, eating, sleeping, begetting, doing what was requisite for survival and nothing else, will, for a generation or two, stupefy the world; commit all manner of crimes, perhaps; follow the wildest chimeras, go down in the end in agony, but leave behind a record of new heights scaled and new rewards won for all mankind; the vision fades, the soul sickens, and the routine of survival starts again.

To which I can only reply: lighten the fuck up. I’m as skeptical and as angry about news and developments as the next guy, but if you can’t find a happy belief in everyday magic and if you can’t reckon with relationships you should have pursued before the age of thirty-nine, maybe the problem is you. Would Charles have been happier if he had embraced candor and accepted the inevitability of change? Why does he have to be old and miserable?

Anthony Blanche, the Alfred Jingle knockoff who may be the most belabored character in all of Waugh’s fiction, is an uncloseted, flamboyant homosexual who serves as counterpoint to the secret and unspecified relationship between Charles and Sebastian. Waugh gives Blanche long speeches and “an unforgettable self-taught stammer” and has this annoying habit of being overly explicit about Blanche’s otherness:

At the age of fifteen, for a wager, he was disguised as a girl and taken to play at the big table in the Jockey Club at Buenos Aries…he had practice black art in Cefaluu; he had been cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oediups complex in Vienna.


He swept lightly across the room to the most prominent canvas — a jungle landscape — paused a moment, his head cocked like a knowing terrier…

Wodehouse never had to sell his readership on eccentricity this hard. On the other hand, perhaps Charles is describing Blanche this way because he is needlessly “proper.” Still, if Blanche can strong-arm his way into affluent and artistic circles, surely he’s more than just a freak. Maybe the truly depraved people are the ones who cling to normalcy like a spoiled boy holding his Gyro-Bot tight.

* * *

A mere eighteen months ago, I promised that I would respond to Lydia Kiesling’s notion of Evelyn Waugh as a “bi-curious hipster boyfriend.” So let’s get this out of the way. As of August 2012, Michael Cera’s career is in modest free fall: a benison for those of us who have long tired of his squeaky-voiced faux emo act. As of August 2012, there are still a few hipsters, although they are no longer taken seriously (not even by n+1). The smarter ones have moved to Portland or joined an Occupy movement or now write for The New Inquiry. But a sizable majority have transformed into obnoxious early thirtysomething layabouts who have no desire to grow up or grapple with serious issues, much less read an author who is challenging and/or not Caucasian. In their defense, some of them have been slammed hard by the 2008 recession and face chronic unemployment. But that’s still no excuse for slacking in the worst sense of the word.

Was Waugh a bi-curious hipster boyfriend? Not quite. He was a recovering hipster. Like any figure saddled by the deep need to abide by inflexible norms incompatible with the whims of life, he was torn and hungry and more than a little sad. But when it came to expressing his inner turmoil, he was willing to go to the mat and, like all great artists, give us plenty to talk about.

Next Up: E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View!

The Adventures of Augie March (Modern Library #81)

(This is the twentieth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Angle of Repose)

In 1995, Martin Amis insisted that Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March was America’s very reflection: a literary lodestone attracting all known bits of iron and reducing all subsequent ambition to blast furnace rejects. Six years later, Christopher Hitchens was more liberal about the dilemma: “I do not set myself up as a member of the jury in the Great American Novel contest, if only because I’d prefer to see the white whale evade capture for a while longer.”*

Augie March is indeed a fearsome masterpiece, but I’m inclined to side with Hitchens on the legacy question, for I would like to believe that some as yet unwritten book will change the game in ways now unknown. For now, we have Augie, which definitely stands as one of the 20th century’s heavyweights. I can state with certitude that this book will humble you, perhaps even wreck you for a time. Because nothing you read or write will feel this perfect.

I was so in awe of this novel that I was forced to read the two apprentice novels that came before (Dangling Man and The Victim), as well as Bellow’s recently published volume of letters. I needed to know that Bellow could fail like the rest of us. I needed this great human chronicler to be made more human. Dangling Man, in particular, proved to be an unexpectedly funny chronicle of a shut-in, with such declarations as “Hemmed in all day, inactive, I lie down at night in enervation and, as a result, I sleep badly.” And I was somewhat surprised to see Bellow take this book quite seriously. “I’m speaking of wretchedness and saying that no man by his own effort finds his way out of it,” Bellow wrote to David Bazelon in 1944.

* * *

But most literary people are self-important in their twenties. I swallowed Bellow’s middle period novels (Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, Humboldt’s Gift) during those years, but I never got around to reading the 600-page redwood that made Bellow a giant. I recall a few older strangers giving me approving nods on buses and subways. At the time, Bellow was still alive, but he was one of those writers you weren’t supposed to talk about. I had no idea why. It may have had something to do with Bellow siring his fourth child at the age of 84. I read his books anyway.

When I discovered that Dave Eggers was a huge Bellow fan (Eggers called Bellow “the person who I idolized more than anybody else” in an interview) and when I saw how The Adventures of Augie March had made Eggers’s fiction writing even more insufferable (You Shall Know Our Velocity anyone?), I became gravely horrified that Augie would have the same disastrous effect on me. (Again, I was in my twenties.) I did not want to become some smug asshole swimming in a twee cesspool. So I avoided reading Augie March in the same way that I avoided born again Christians, mass murderers, and rude moviegoers who bring loud plastic bags to crinkle.

This was a severe mistake.

* * *

No book can tell you how to live, but a great novel can kick your ass in the right direction. And I memorialize my youthful follies as minor regrets and as a plea to anyone under thirty to not make the same mistake. Read this novel at once!

The American temperament once prided itself upon initiative, innovation, and a sense of duty to anyone needing help. Augie March epitomizes all three ideals, but it is thankfully not without corruption or philandering or the need to hustle. After all, this book is set partly during the Great Depression. The gripping chapter where Augie takes his neighbor Mimi Villars in for an abortion is not only exceptionally daring for a book published in 1953, but, when Augie faces reprisals for his help, it reveals the peculiarly punitive American attitude steeped in moral judgment combined with partial knowledge of the facts.

Augie’s picaresque existence of finding odd jobs and falling in with odd characters and fretting over friends and losing lovers represents the kind of well-filled life serving in sharp contrast to today’s hipsters and go nowhere types. I am no longer in my twenties, but reading Augie did find me wondering how much time I was wasting and whether my energies needed to be focused more on the joy and love which drips in droves throughout this bawdy book.

* * *

Augie March is extremely well-observed, whether capturing a salon’s “oriental rugs that swallow sounds in their nap” or describing the way that Augie returns to Chicago to see a “gray snarled city with the hard black straps of rails” after his adventures in Mexico. It is wise, adventurous, heartbreaking, rueful, exciting, inspiring, but never mawkish. It is populated by indelible side characters such as the patriarch Einhorn, an ever-resourceful operator with a “fatty, beaky, noble Bourbon face” who serves as Augie’s father figure, the querulous Grandma Lausch who tends to the March home when Augie’s mother cannot, and Mintouchian, the avuncular Armenian who doles out some rules for living. Even Trotsky makes a cameo.

And then there’s Bellow’s nimble linguistic dexterity, in which his gift for description merges seamlessly with Augie’s expansive wisdom:

But maybe that spicy, sumptuous fish-gravy odor that belonged to the past made me too much of a critic of the present moment, exaggerating Mama’s difficulties and imagining that the Gulistan and the drapes were the softenings of a cage.

This passage comes late in the book, when Augie is wondering if he has been altogether decent to his debilitated Mama and to his developmentally disabled brother Georgie, locked away and betrayed by Augie’s older brother Simon, who spends most of the book with a missing tooth. It’s especially wistful that this is the ultimate cost of Augie’s raucous adventures: that the broken family should be so physically broken and that dear relatives should be schlepped away to institutions.

Since Augie may be fated to start a family of his own, his Adventures could be read as a Rosseau-like confessional. Rosseau hoped to make his way into heaven by telling all. For Augie, perhaps family and love may be the empyrean reward. When Augie says in the final paragraph that he’s “a sort of Columbus of those near-in-hand,” we realize his terra incognita may not necessarily be of the “American, Chicago-born” category, but more concerned with stretching the soul. And if his soul has already stretched across decades, why wouldn’t it stretch further?

* — It may be worth noting that Amis, who befriended Bellow, took Hitchens to meet the great genius. But the two distinctive writers got a bit contentious. From Bellow’s August 29, 1989 letter to Cynthia Ozick:

During dinner he mentioned that he was a great friend of Edward Said. Leon Wieseltier and Noam Chomsky were also great buddies of his. At the mention of Said’s name, Janis grumbled. I doubt that this was unexpected, for Hitchens almost certainly thinks of me as a terrible reactionary — the Jewish Right. Brought up to respect and to reject politeness at the same time, the guest wrestled briefly and silently with the louche journalist and finally [the latter] spoke up. He said that Said was a great friend and that he must apologize for differing with Janis but loyalty to a friend demanded that he set the record straight. Everybody remained polite. For Amis’ sake I didn’t want a scene. Fortunately (or not) I had within reach several excerpts from Said’s Critical Inquiry piece, which I offered in evidence. Jews were (more or less) Nazis. But of course, said Hitchens, it was well known that [Yitzhak] Shamir had approached Hitler during the war to make deals. I objected that Shamir was Shamir, he wasn’t the Jews. Besides I didn’t trust the evidence. The argument seesawed. Amis took the Said selections to read for himself. He could find nothing to say at the moment but next morning he tried to bring the matter up, and to avoid further embarrassment I said it had all been much ado about nothing.

Hitchens appeals to Amis. This is a temptation I understand. But the sort of people you like to write about aren’t always fit company, especially at the dinner table.

Next Up: Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited!

Angle of Repose (Modern Library #82)

(This is the nineteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: A Bend in the River)

For more than a decade, I have nursed a grandiose grudge towards Wallace Stegner that has less to do with the eco-friendly West Coast bigshot’s literary streetcred and more to do with my own irrepressible ineptitude concerning matters of the boudoir.

You see, in my early twenties, long before social networks made it astonishingly effortless to locate a no strings attached entanglement with a few clicks and a seductive missive, I had devised the foolhardy stratagem of attending numerous book clubs, hypothesizing that some law of averages would present me with a reliable method of meeting women. Because I could read thick books fairly quick, discussing the plots and style and themes with some modest wit and intelligence, I developed the odd notion that my quasi-bravura take, seamlessly enmeshed with the views of my peers, would somehow impress the comely damsels within my reach.

The older and more experienced women saw through my ruse, but they tolerated me as some lingering specimen of youthful bravado that reminded them why they were comfortably adult. I remember one happily married woman who was nice enough to give me occasional lifts back from Berkeley and who gently suggested that I lighten the fuck up.

At one point, I was in six book clubs just to keep my options open. While I did wake up in a few literary beds through blind clueless luck and some apparent appeal which I still remain largely in the dark about, it is safe to say that my efforts were mostly unsuccessful, though not as barren as they had been previously.

Now, for reasons probably having to do with Stanford’s proximity, Wallace Stegner was then very popular in the San Francisco Bay Area. And there was one book club I attended in the Outer Sunset where the title being discussed was The Spectator Bird. No problem. I had read it and discussed it before in another book club. On this second effort, there was a chestnut-haired twentysomething who I really liked and wanted to get to know better. The discussion went well and a number of the book club members riffed off what I had to say. Then I made some observation about Joe Allston’s feelings for the Countess being a bit overblown. Because every man had thoughts about other women. Was this really so adulterous?

But I apparently phrased these innocuous thoughts in a way that proved so tasteless that I was asked not to return to the book club.

I later learned that the woman I was trying to ask out for coffee was a family values type saving herself for marriage. There had clearly been no chance.

I took my folly out on Stegner, blaming him for my misfortunes and vowing never to read the man again.

* * *

It was the glint of cash that turned Stegner to fiction writing. During the Great Depression, he had just written his dissertation on the overlooked nineteenth-century naturalist Clarence Edward Dutton. He had come to Utah to teach and was making only $1,800 a year. His wife, Mary, was pregnant. And he saw an advertisement for a novelette contest from Little Brown. Like many of the misleading get rich quick schemes bulging from any issue of Writers Digest, Little Brown promised a $2,500 prize. But Stegner was a stubborn man of will. He sat down and wrote the presciently titled Remembering Laughter, which won the prize and was published in 1937.

There was more teaching and a series of insubstantial novels, until Stegner turned to his own life for material in his 1943 novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and found some success. Still, it was nonfiction’s hard objectivity which guided Stegner during these years like a maritime man following Oléron. While he turned out a steady stream of dependable short stories, he was a late bloomer when it came to the novel’s fatter form. It took the introduction of Joe Allston in 1967’s All the Little Live Things for Stegner to perfect his character model of an older man who enjoyed bitching about the flower children living it up just outside the edge of his damn lawn. Allston was Stegner’s first use of the first person, and the character would pop up again in The Spectator Bird, spawning untold frustration for at least one young punkass a few decades later.

Between Little Live Things and The Spectator Bird, Stegner wrote what is arguably his masterpiece. Lyman Ward, a historian whose legs are amputated, serves this time as Stegner’s first-person coot, and has much to say about the spirit of free thought and free love going down just outside his home (and in a nice twist, Stegner has “the sounds carry up the bare stairs,” suggesting that any vocal intercession from youthful ruffians, which include his son Rodman, are inescapable):

What kind of a loony bin have they got down there in Berkeley, anyway? What kind of a fellow is it that will let his wife support him for two years, living around in those pigpen places, everybody scrambled in together?

Stegner derided “the antihistorical pose of the young,” yet it’s worth pointing out that he did participate in the Vietnam War marches. But when the protests turned violent, he stopped, steeping his crankiness in old school values. History served as the apparent distinction between Stegner and these young muckrakers, and it also served to make Lyman Ward far more than a cantankerous chronicler.

Angle‘s other great inspiration came from the history books. Stegner discovered Mary Hallock Foote while combing through magazines and journals for a chapter he was commissioned to write for the Literary History of the United States. He researched her, uncovered her sketches and writings, republished one of her stories in an anthology, and began teaching her at Stanford. Foote was obscure enough at the time for Stegner to be pretty much the only guy singing her praises. And as it so happened, Foote’s granddaughter happened to be living in Grass Valley.

With the help of Stegner’s student, George McMurray, there were efforts to get Foote’s papers into the Stanford library. The Foote famiily gave them to Stegner, with the apparent pledge that Stegner would publish these and provide typed transcriptions. Ten years passed. There was no traction. Then sometime during the mid-1960s, Stegner decided to take these letters cross-country to his summer home.

He had his mind on a contemporary novel. But the letters nagged at him. So Foote transformed into Susan Burling Ward, who became Lyman Ward’s grandmother. Both the real woman and Stegner’s creation were illustrators and short story writers, with their creative labor in constant demand from the editors of the day. But they were similar in other uncanny ways.

For Stegner had befriended Janet Micoleau, Foote’s granddaughter. Micoleau wanted to see her forgotten grandmother revived and apparently gave Stegner permission to use the papers in any way he desired. Micoeau’s sister, Evelyn Foote Gardiner, was stunned when the letters appeared nearly verbatim in Angle of Repose. Roughly a tenth of the novel includes these letters, opening up a debate over whether or not Stegner was a plagiarist.

Stegner’s indiscretions certainly aren’t on the level of Q.R. Markham. Still, when one learns that Rodman Paul was going to publish a collection of Foote’s letters, Stegner’s response — a letter to Micoleau — does leave the moralist shaking head over Stegner’s swagger:

The question arises, must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly raveled together — the real with the fiction — and replace all truth with fiction?

If the great novelist here is so great, then why couldn’t Stegner get the reader to believe in the story without using history as a crutch? Does a novel predicated on deceit deserve a Pulitzer Prize and inclusion in the Modern Library canon? Or are all novelists inherently deceitful?

* * *

When I learned about the Foote controversy after reading Angle of Repose, I was surprised to find myself defending Stegner. I might have grabbed the pitchfork if Stegner had plucked the text from one of his contemporaries and attempted to pass it off as his own, but surely some statute of limitations kicks in after a hundred years. Would Foote have received as much attention if Stegner hadn’t written this novel? Since books have a tendency to fall so rapidly out of print, isn’t one method to ensure their long-term survival this type of revitalization?

What’s especially interesting to me is that while Stegner sees no problem being promiscuous with text, his historian hero is intriguingly prudish when it comes to being blunt about what went down with his ancestors:

It happens that I despise that locution “having sex,” which describes something a good deal more mechanical than making love and a good deal less fun than fucking. Also I don’t think anybody’s sex life, Grandmother’s included, very funny, unless you mean funny-peculiar, and Shelly didn’t mean that. She meant funny ha-ha, funny-hypocritical, funny-absurd. I had imagined that Leadville love scene, exceeding my license as a historian, because I felt just then she was fighting against her ingrown gentility and snobbery, ashamed of herself for having been ashamed of her husband, and making contrite and affectionate amends. I had meant that scene to be tender. I meant it to clear away, at least for the time, all the cobwebs. I wanted it to shine the windows and polish the tarnished feelings like a good spring house-cleaning. Which I have known a good love scene to do.

Why on earth did I let some irrational association prevent me from reading Stegner? It’s abundantly clear that he (or rather Lyman) had greater sexual issues to work out on the page.

I forgot to mention Oliver Ward (based on Foote’s husband, Arthur De Wint Foote), who is surely one of the more fascinating entrepreneurial failures in American fiction. Oliver is a man of principle (“I’m an engineer, not a capitalist.”), and this gets in the way of a lucrative scheme to make hydraulic cement that he refuses to act upon. His perpetual failure to mind the store causes him to lose a vital claim that he’s worked much of his life for. And it also makes him embarrassingly passive when he cannot stand up for himself when his hotel reservation is taken away from him and his wife on the way to Leadville, and he is reduced to repeatedly stammering “I’m sorry” when they are forced to hole up in a boardinghouse.

What’s astonishing is how Susan sticks with this man despite his repeat failures — especially when another man, Frank Sargent, Oliver’s most trusted friend, wastes most of his life to be close to her. Do her constant letters to her dear friend Augusta keep her together? Or is there something else that she (or Lyman) is not telling us? She’s hopeful in Santa Cruz (“But Oliver, if thee can make it work, I’d be willing to stay here ten years.”), says “I want this trip to go on being perfect” in Mexico, and is dedicated to her work and family throughout. But when Oliver takes to drink, she asks “Are you even sorry? Are you even ashamed?” and it takes him a good long while to respond. And in light of the terrible fate that Pricey, an Emerson-quoting Englishman who is close with the Wards, suffers, one can’t help but wonder whether Oliver is merely the same man from another angle.

In a time when many married men who have dropped out of the job market or settled for lower stations because the Great Recession has left no place for them, Stegner’s depiction of thwarted masculinity is strangely contemporary.

On the other hand, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is Lyman Ward’s view of history, not necessarily the full truth of this marriage. If Lyman is so sure that he knows what a good love scene can do, then why is he so opaque about what may have happened between Susan and Frank? If Lyman Ward has any shot of being a bigger man than his grandfather, then why can’t he man up and confront his own failed marriage? That pivotal vantage point within Stegner’s title can apply to just about everything. And if any deep soul is doomed to fight gravity, does this not, in some sense, justify Stegner’s use of the Foote letters? Would not another author or another character have created an entirely different yet equally complex heap of willful obfuscation? Is Angle of Repose the truest expression of Stegner’s character? And if so, should we cut him some slack?

I can ask these questions with confidence. Because I know that the book club story I offered at the beginning is hiding quite a bit that I’m not going to tell you. I have purposefully kept some details nubilous because the mythology, imperfect and imprecise as it is, is mine. If we tell each other stories to live, then do we not also live to tell stories?

Next Up: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March!

A Bend in the River (Modern Library #83)

(This is the eighteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Death of the Heart)

There are so many unpardonable cruelties collected in Patrick French’s gripping (and authorized!) biography, The World Is What It Is, that it’s difficult to know where to start in condemning V.S. Naipaul’s boorish behavior, while also praising his prowess on the page. And yet I can’t quite do that either. I’ve read A Bend in the River twice, and I have to conclude that the book’s pat pronouncements about colonialism, even with the adept take on self-deception and willful naïveté, aren’t especially staggering. By the time the shopkeeper Salim shows his colleague Indar around the African town where he lives and reveals how little he knows (“All the key points of the town I knew could be shown in a couple of hours, as I discovered when I drove him around later that morning”), it was abundantly clear to me that he would never know.

Perhaps the mid-career rise of Naipaul’s rep was all in the timing. French suggests that “[a] rising disillusion with the post-colonial project in many countries lead to Vidia being projected as the voice of truth, the scourge who by virtue of his ethnicity and his intellect could see things that others were seeking to disguise.” But Naipaul does deserve props for depicting how a revolutionary leader (referred to as “the Big Man”), even after the aloof establishment of a McDonald’s-like Bigburger restaurant and a dubious university, steers an unnamed African nation to the same scorched earth which existed before. And this, along with a sad and desperate historian named Raymond and the many ruined monuments seen from previous regimes, makes Bend a rock-hard reading experience for the strident geopolitical junkie. (When I first read Bend, I had this image of Wolf Blitzer shouting aloud passages on CNN, demanding reader responses from Romney and Santorum. I did my best to shake off this terrifying vision of the dreaded bearded bloviator. But my imagination revolted. Because not long after this, I had a weird dream where Blitzer kidnapped me and ordered me to burn all books aside from Naipaul. Blitzer then set himself on fire and began laughing like a psychotic, refusing to let me extinguish the conflagration. And I woke up. This may explain, in part, why it’s taken me many weeks to get to this essay.)

The Andrew Seal types will tell you that the novel’s appeal involves how Naipaul has demonstrated how order is not necessarily in opposition to complexity. And the academic Fawzia Mustafa has rightly suggested that Bend is very much about how one’s relationship to Africa is determined through a misread. (Miscerique probat populus et feodera jungi, a commemorative plague at the dock, is deliberately misread throughout the book.)

But this still doesn’t make up for Naipaul short-changing the African people, who are little more than crude caricatures serving this allegorical exercise. There are marchandes like Zabeth, who pick up supplies from Salim’s store and have “a special smell” that is “strong and unpleasant.” There is the houseboy Ildephonse, who becomes an ad hoc restaurant manager who turns “vacant” when his bosses leave. This leads Salim to conclude:

I noticed this alteration in the African staff in other places as well. It made you feel that while they did their jobs in their various glossy settings, they were only acting for the people who employed them; that the job itself was meaningless to them; and that they had the gift — when they were left alone, and had no one to act for — of separating themselves in spirit from their setting, their job, their uniform.

Granted, the matryoshka-like idea here is that Salim, the Indian émigré who has set up shop and plays squash at the Hellenic Club and is often clueless about how much he is reviled by apparent pals and locals, is the imperialist mirror image to what he sees. The Africans — especially the family servant Metty (nicknamed this because of his interracial background) — develop sentiments that Salim refuses to see. Even outright revolution is beyond his scope. There’s one stirring moment in which Salim visits a school with Indar and is challenged by a student: “Would the honourable visitor state whether he feels that Africans have been depersonalized by Christianity?” Yet Salim refuses to ken these kernels of discontent, later remarking, “I thought how far we had both come, to talk about Africa like this.”

So Naipaul’s novel made for a frustrating experience. On one hand, he wants to expose Salim’s inherent hypocrisy and nastiness. But I have good reason to believe that Naipaul himself embraces it, which is probably why this ugliness smoulders off the page. So while I can admire Naipual’s hard-hitting imagery (“smooth white lips of bread over mangled black tongues of meat”) and his knack for myopic maxims (“We make ourselves according to the ideas of our possibilities” and “The airplane is faster than the heart”), I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’ve been eagerly anticipating a reading life without Naipaul. (Not quite. Like a Romero zombie, A House for Mr. Biswas is on the Modern Library list at #72.)

A Bend in the River isn’t a bad book. It isn’t as overrated or as desperate to please as Midnight’s Children.* But I don’t think I would call it a classic. While one should take care to separate the author from his work, I have learned that Naipaul has largely drawn from his life. (Indeed, if you read French’s book, it can be handily argued that “V.S. Naipaul” is Naipaul’s favorite subject.) I’ve really wanted to understand why so many people would refuse to question such a flagrant sociopath. Naipaul is a good writer, but he’s certainly not great if we stack the smug scamp against Conrad, Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. All could easily clean Naipaul’s clock.

How has Naipaul mined from his life? One monstrous moment bubbles to the brim. Here’s Naipaul writing his mother in 1956, remarking upon a fellow boat passenger:

Poor thing, she was so frightened at the thought of travelling alone for the first time out of Trinidad at the age of thirty-five. She palled up with me and begged me in case of any alarm or trouble to come and look after her. The red nigger woman is really delightfully simple. You know, in ships, the chairs and tables are all chained to the floor to prevent them from rolling about the place when the sea gets rough. I told the woman that the tables and chairs were chained to prevent people stealing them. And, she believed it. ‘Eh, eh,’ she said, “But look at that, eh.” And again: passengers in different parts of the ship are assigned to different lifeboats (there are 6 on the Golfito). I told her that she had to find out which lifeboat was hers because, in case of any trouble, they were not going to let her get into any old lifeboat. In fact, if they found her in the wrong boat they were going to throw her into the sea. It was, I told her, the origins of the phrase ‘to be in the wrong boat.’

It is already mind-boggling enough to consider anyone who would practice such unmitigated spite towards a woman who was harming nobody. It is another thing altogether to boast about such baleful behavior to your own mother. Naipaul is clearly a man whose central pleasure involves terrorizing any figures “who are nothing” or “who allow themselves to become nothing,” to invoke, as French has with his biography title, A Bend in the River‘s famous opening.

As we read Bend, we learn that the writer and his antihero aren’t terribly different. Here’s Salim responding to poor Ferdinand, when the latter expresses a desire to find a better life studying in America:

I said, “Why should I send you to America? Why should I spend money on you?”

He had nothing to say. After the desperation and the trip through the rain, the whole thing might just have been another attempt at conversation.

Was it only his simplicity? I felt my temper rising — the rain and the lightning and the unnatural darkness of the afternoon had something to do with that.

I said, “Why do you think I have obligations to you? What have you done for me?”

The same question might likewise be addressed to the vile Vidia.

* * *

“I love you because you are so mean,” wrote Eve Babitz to Naipaul shortly after Bend‘s publication. But why should we celebrate an author who offers little more than meanness in life and in art? I ponder the type of blindsided reader who would only pine for the negative. Because it sure as hell isn’t me. Sure, I may have been seduced by Elizabeth Bowen’s brand of cruelty in the last installment, but there was enough carefully orchestrated character flinging to keep me intrigued. With Naipaul, the prose was often so slick that I felt my soul being clogged up by a BP-sized oil spill. I haven’t even brought up the unintentionally hilarious affair with Yvette, which is so rooted in preposterous male fantasy that one wonders if Vidia has ever understood women. (This is the same man who has the audacity to claim that women cannot write.)

“Carrying on” may help you negotiate the frontier, but that passive place doesn’t help you connect with other people or overcome your assumptions. That’s certainly Naipaul’s point. Yet I came away from this novel thinking that Naipaul was just as much monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum as his characters.

* — And since I’m being a little hard on Rushdie, in the interest of balance, I should probably relate this remarkably insensitive Naipaul anecdote. Naipaul has remained so committed to steely misanthropy that he refused to sign a petition supporting Salman Rushdie after Khomeini issued his fatwa, adding (according to the French bio), “I don’t know his books, but I’ve been aware of his statements. I found them usually left-wing and trivial and antiquated.” And he didn’t stop there. Naipaul would call the fatwa “an extreme form of literary criticism.” It’s one thing to dislike Rushdie’s books. It’s another thing to employ one’s literary sensibilities as justification for murder.

Next Up: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose!

The Death of the Heart (Modern Library #84)

(This is the seventeenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Lord Jim)

“I won’t ruin it for you,” emailed my fellow Modern Library reader Steve, “but so far, that’s the 2nd worst book I’ve read for this project.” And while I was corralling my thoughts and feelings after finishing the latest tome for a project which I now realize (nearly one year after the gauntlet cleaved my happy little picnic table) will take me five to six years, I noticed that Devon S., another trusted Modern Library adventurer, served up only a soupçon more hope: “I don’t know how to judge my indifference to this book. Sometimes books are like calf leather gloves in August: sumptuous wonders of of craftsmanship and texture that we’d appreciate if only we weren’t too tired, too harried, too dull, too careless, too immature, too hot, at that moment.” Maybe so. But when the Brooklyn nights outside are 13 degrees and you’re still wondering why two stuffy high society types (one reappears very sparingly throughout the rest of the book) have chosen the “bronze cold of January” with its shivering swans, of all places, to dish dirt during the oddly loquacious opening of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, calf leather gloves in August feel as distant as last year’s milk. What the good Lydia Kiesling will have to say about Bowen is anyone’s guess.

Death is a novel quite at odds with a reader’s expectations, which is very much to its credit. Here is a book so blithe about its splenetic revelations that a cigarette lighter illuminates a telltale betrayal in the dark of a movie theater, the moment as casual as a chicken’s throat getting sliced on an abattoir assembly line. Yet even with the flashy reveal of a 20th century habit’s fire, Bowen is fixated on the “taut blond silk” of a character’s calf and fingers keeping up “a kneading movement.” If you’re thinking Bowen’s characters come off as positional objects more clay than flesh, then you’re catching on quick. At times, Death reads as if Bowen blossomed her bulb when describing a dining room’s “sideboards like catafalques” or characters who sit “with pencil poised, preparing to make disdainful marks” rather than with internal emotion. Yet even with Death‘s weird fixations on crudely general and somewhat ridiculous maxims (“There are moments when it becomes frightening to realize that you are not, in fact, alone in the world — or at least, alone in the world with one other person”) and carefree racism (“Matchett, who was as strong as a nigger”), I’d be hard-pressed to deny Bowen’s voice. In chronicling the numerous cruelties heaped upon the sixteen-year-old orphan Portia by servants and gentry alike, Bowen commits herself to an unremitting ugliness in a way rarely seen these days outside of a private party hosted by Roger Ailes.

Last year, The Rumpus‘s Charlotte Freeman described how she admired the way in which Bowen refused to save any of her characters. She asked, “Could one publish such a book now? A book in which no one is healed, in which everyone is, in fact, injured by contact with another?” Perhaps the real question to ask is this: Can a sanguine type of any stripe read such a book now? Joanthan Yardley suggested, in his fulsome praise for Death, that “[a] certain measure of experience, of exposure to life’s cruelties and compromises, is necessary for a full grasp of it.” Spoken like an unadventurous pessimist. Yet I didn’t detest the book like Steve, nor did I feel Devon’s indifference. I think there’s some credence to the idea that time and reference was Bowen’s real game with Death. Maybe Death, like many interesting books, is a Rorschach test. And if that is the case, the place to start surely is the reader’s temperament.

I’m not the type who flits through life without kenning that humans can be cruel (and I have had more than my share of this), but my approach is to be cheerful, protectively acerbic if need be. I’d rather believe that everyone — even the scabrous souls who make existence miserable, often without knowing it — has the power to be kind and decent. My earnestness may seem out of place in New York, but this is a city with a population who performs many quiet favors to strangers. And I’ve lived close to four decades with the good apples far outshining those rotten to the core. As Tracy says at the end of Manhattan, “Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” Sensible advice. My disappointment rumbles when people choose to be mean and avaricious and subpar, especially when they do so without any corresponding set of virtues or they are driven by callow opportunism or stomp on other people on the way up or deliberately set out to destroy something dear to a decent person who isn’t doing any harm. Which is not to suggest that I haven’t sinned or that my own sense of what’s right may be another person’s wrong. (And any opportunistic pixie who props herself up as “fair and empathetic” without copping to the possibility that she may be more than a bit hypocritical in blind spots is not to be trusted. Idealogues come in several forms.) I’m not against healthy skepticism or getting revenge (although it’s better to stick with good deeds, when possible), but the idea of swallowing the bitter pill before seeking any delight, or assuming that people are driven first and foremost by malice, strikes me as a needlessly melancholy way to live.

And yet, on the page and from Bowen’s pen, these selfsame qualities are strangely alluring! So if you have a particular type of titivating heart, you may be confused by Elizabeth Bowen. I may protest Bowen’s worldview (and, after listening to this sour lecture broadcast in 1956*, I don’t think I’d want to know her), but I’m fascinated by how she could think this way. Sixteen-year-old Portia has no parents. The only family members she has to turn to are Thomas Quayne, her half-brother some two decades older, and his wife Anna, who is clinging to lingering youth in crueler, pre-Botox days. (She’s so inveterate that she finds Portia’s diary and reads it. One of Death‘s more brutal subtleties is that nearly all of Portia’s private thoughts are read by other characters. Is this Bowen’s way of scolding the reader?) Thomas and Anna send Portia away to a small town — allegedly “by the sea,” but of course not at all — so that they can have their vacation. Even if one accounts for the fact that Thomas works in advertising and has this tendency to stare at nothing “with a concentration of boredom and lassitude,” one ponders why wanton neglect would be the natural state. Yet as Bowen pushes Portia into a bigger mess — with various letters and diary entries spelling further hints of Portia’s despair; no accident that I thought of Jack Womack’s excellent and needlessly neglected novel, Random Acts of Senseless Violence, while reading these parts (Womack was kind enough to respond to my connective enthusiasm on Twitter) — it’s almost as if Bowen’s pushing the limits of how vicious she can be (which is, as it turns out, sometimes more sadistic than Evelyn Waugh). I haven’t even mentioned the disgracefully rakish 23-year-old Eddie, who not only leads Portia into sham chivalric romance, but doesn’t even know how to smooth things over, much less apologize, when he bungles things up. One of the novel’s high points is Eddie hitting the resort town where Portia is staying and causing a cringe comedy disaster that I cannot in good conscience spoil.

There’s some truth to the notion that Elizabeth Bowen may very well be the missing link between Virginia Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness and Iris Murdoch’s masterful fusing of behavioral study and philosophy. Yet as I’ve intimated above, Bowen can be curiously dictatorial and objectifying with her interior monologues:

She was disturbed, and at the same time exhilarated, like a young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind. The force of Eddie’s behaviour whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations, of her hundred failures to take the ordinary cue. She could meet the demands he made with the natural genius of the friend and lover. The impetus under which he seemed to move made life fall, round him and her, into a new poetic order at once. Any kind of policy in the region of feeling would have been fatal in any lover of his — you had to yield to the wind. Portia’s unpreparedness, her lack of policy — which had made Windsor Terrace, for her, the court of an incomprehensible law — with Eddie stood her in good stead. She had no point to stick to, nothing to unlearn. She had been born docile. The momentarily anxious glances she cast him had only zeal behind them, no crucial personality.

A “young tree tugged all ways in a vortex of wind” sounds like an engineer maneuvering object-oriented data into a massively multiplayer video game universe. And it’s interesting how Bowen shifts from a simile into an entirely different metaphor (“whirled her free in a hundred puzzling humiliations”) before riding with geographic imagery (“the region of feeling,” “No point to stick to”) and concluding this section with highly general and irreversible conditions (“nothing to unlearn,” “born docile,” “only zeal behind them,” “no crucial personality”). While this language certainly mimics a teenage girl’s confused feelings very well, this deliberately incoherent poetic effect (the “new poetic order,” if you will) pushed me away from Portia as I wanted to relate to her. I could admire the language from an external vantage point, but I kept wondering what might have happened if Bowen had dared to give us more of Portia’s heart. Was I meant to read this book much as the young students in the photo above gaze at Bowen? Let me finish my Gauloise, my young pretties, or I shall send you to Samoa to be cooked in a white wine sauce by the cannibals! Fair for the reader or not, nevertheless, I was engaged enough with this novel to want to read more Bowen (still, given the choice, I would rather read more Iris Murdoch). I don’t think I would call The Death of the Heart a masterpiece, but it was good to find a book with a new hook to take me both outside and inside my zone. I never thought the Modern Library would have me affirming certain pockets of sanguinity.

* — Despite Bowen’s grating voice, which is so off-putting that I was compelled to open a window and happily stick my head into the frigid winter air about five minutes in before returning to the last six minutes, the lecture is still quite interesting in what it reveals about Bowen’s methods. She refers to self-conscious expression offered in lieu of description as “character analysis” and has this to say: “Two things may be remarked about the stream of consciousness as a showing of character. It does take time and it deals almost always with prosaic experience. Scenes are reacted to in a highly individual way. I don’t know whether we should ever have, for instance, a stream of consciousness novel about somebody scaling Everest. Because the scaling of Everest is quite exciting enough in itself. In the ordinary stream of consciousness, the excitement, the sense of crisis, resides in the personality. And all the other characters in the novel are likely to be very slightly out of focus.” These sentiments make me want to reach for John D’Agata, Nicholson Baker, Daniel Clowes, or Yannick Murphy and howl to the heavens. Why wouldn’t a mountain climber’s interior monologue be as exciting as the action? And yet I can’t help but marvel over Bowen championing the stylistic dialogue of Henry Green and Ivy Compton-Burnett, whereby there is often no distinction between characters, as a quality which might be altering the form of the novel itself!

Next Up: V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River!

Lord Jim (Modern Library #85)

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

Much like today’s tawdry Hollywood movies, Lord Jim was based on a true story — back in the days when it actually meant something. On August 7, 1880, a ship called the Jeddah, on its way from Singapore to Arabia and carrying 950 Muslim pilgrims, had an accident. The British officers abandoned the ship near Cape Gardafui. But the Jeddah did not sink. Captain Clark was on his way out of the British Consulate when another captain reported that the Jeddah had been salvaged and towed. Clark got off lightly. His certificate was stripped for three years. But the Jeddah‘s first mate, Augustine Podmore Williams, received a harsher sentence.

This tale of lost honor and irresponsible officials eluding their duties so captivated Conrad’s imagination that he began drafting a short story in a thick album bound in leather that had belonged to his grandmother. The Jeddah became the Patna. (And the Patna would show at the end of Alien 3, lest you thought that film franchise was solely Nostromo.) Zdzislaw Najder’s very large biography, Joseph Conrad: A Chronicle, informs us that Conrad kept tabs on his word count in the margins. Serializing the yarn in a magazine was the idea, and his labor on the Lord Jim prototype intersected with the completion of “Youth” — a story that also featured the well-known Charles Marlow. Yet at this stage in the Lord Jim writing, Marlow hadn’t yet found his loquacious entry point. What Conrad would not know is that Marlow would become as ubiquitous in his work as the creepy adjusters you see in today’s subdivisions who show up minutes after a fire to stake out a husked out building. While Marlow may not have been driven by the adjuster’s compulsion to itemize and sweep in, he did share the common trait of being a remarkably patient listener to a tragic tale.

After some early starts, there was a six month break. Around this time, Conrad was also at work on Heart of Darkness (yet another deck for Marlow to walk on), which appeared in three parts in Blackwood’s Magazine (and which will be discussed in a future Modern Library installment). Factor in an especially vituperative article from Eliza Orzeskowa (“The Emigration of Talent”) that accused Conrad of deserting the Polish homeland and diminishing his talents and one gets the sense that Conrad wasn’t exactly doing the happy dance around 1899.

Conrad had to go sailing on a boat (La Reine) he had purchased with his pal Stephen Crane to unlock Lord Jim‘s secret: namely, the shift from omniscient narration to Marlow, who is arguably one of the most formidable ramblers in all of literature. (Indeed, there is a strange pleasures reading Lord Jim in the 21st century and contemplating the type of audience who would sit through such a protracted tale without offering a question or an interruption. I’ve done the math here, and Marlow’s tale is probably a lot longer than Christian Marclay’s The Clock. When you factor in our short attention span age, the time investment and patience is tenfold more remarkable. Today, I have no doubt that people would be live-tweeting Marlow or checking their BlackBerries. And we haven’t even discussed bathroom breaks.) Conrad’s “long short story” of 20,000 words eventually expanded to six times the calculated length. This didn’t stop him from additional dips into continuous partial attention. He even collaborated with Ford Madox Ford on The Inheritors in early 1900.

In addition to bracing the pressure of Blackwood’s serializing Lord Jim, Conrad also faced the death of his BFF GFW Hope’s seventeen-year-old son on the high seas (with some evidence of a covered up sexual assault, thus accounting for the book’s dedication), and, like many writers then and since, tremendous financial uncertainty. The plan had been for “Tuan Jim: A Sketch” to be part of a collection, but this idea became spottier as the story mushroomed.

One can offer the theory (and biographer Jeffrey Meyers certainly has*) that Conrad needed to be oblivious to keep up with the time-consuming nature of novel writing, claiming to be just about finished when there was still a good deal of work that needed to be done. Yet Conrad plowed forward, fighting off bronchitis, malaria, and even gout. Indeed, if one isn’t humbled by the fact that Conrad wrote this sweeping masterpiece in his third learned language, there’s the impressive manner in which Conrad doggedly used a paperweight to keep down his sheets while working with an inflamed wrist.

Conrad’s grief over his good friend Crane’s untimely death on June 5, 1900 made its way into Lord Jim‘s last ten chapters. And given how these heavy feelings fueled such a heavy book, there is little doubt that Conrad had reached a point where he wanted to be done with Lord Jim, as he was to remark in a July 20, 1900 letter to John Galsworthy:

The end of L.J. has been pulled off with a steady drag of 21 hours. I sent wife and child out of the house (to London) and sat down at 9 am, with a desperate resolve to be done with it. Now and then I took a walk round the house out at one door in at the other. Ten-minute meals. A great hush. Cigarette ends growing into a mound similar to a cairn over a dead hero. Moon rose over the barn looked in at the window and climbed out of sight. Dawn broke, brightened. I put the lamp out and went on, with the morning breeze blowing the sheets of MS all over the room. Sun rose. I wrote the last word and went to the dining room. Six o’clock. I shared a piece of cold chicken with Escamillo [Conrad’s dog, named after Carmen] (who was very miserable and in want of sympathy having missed the child dreadfully all day). Felt very well only sleepy; had a bath at seven and at 8:30 was on my way to London.

The thing that gets me is how Conrad felt the need to punctuate the end of his industry with a cold piece of chicken. But Conrad would initially dismiss Lord Jim as “a lump of clay.” While Lord Jim was to be favorably received, it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster. The first batch of 2,100 copies sold out in two months. The next printing of 1,050 copies took four years. Some reviewers complained. Many raved. Henry James sent Conrad a letter of congratulations.

* * *

If I am to be truthful here, I must confess that I had to start Lord Jim a second time before I really got into Jim’s woeful adventures from Patna to Patusan. My first reading attempt pushed me to the 200 page mark, but I zoned out, Conrad’s paragraphs washing over my eyes like imposing ebbtides. At first I feared that Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness I had loved so much in high school, did for me what Thomas Pynchon does for other people when they resent not being able to finish Gravity’s Rainbow. But when I put aside some professional obligations and realized that Lord Jim required my total attentions, I found myself stirred and fascinated by Jim’s remarkable obstinacy, his failure to shake off the shame from the bulkhead accident and move on. Here’s a guy who skips town anytime some stranger brings up the Patna incident. You almost want him to go all Dustin Hoffman (as opposed to James Marsden) in Straw Dogs rather than sit there passively while others deface his honor. Jim would never be able to get away with these chicken sprints in the age of Google.

Other characters tolerate this curious strain of romantic heroism. Poor Marlow, who you figure should know better, gets Jim a gig in the most munificent manner possible, pointing out to the troubled young hipster (sorry, but I can’t help but think of emo layabouts when imagining Jim in my mind’s eye) just how much he’s put his ass on the line:

“Look at the letter I want you to take. I am writing to a man of whom I’ve never asked a favour, and I am writing about you in terms that one only ventures to use when speaking of an intimate friend. I make myself unreservedly responsible for you. That’s what I am doing. And really if you will only reflect a little what that means…”

Jim gets the gig, offering a jolly “Jove!” in response to this generosity. (It’s worth noting that Jim is very big on “Jove!” I’m guessing that “Jove!” was the “Fuck yeah!” of its day.** And, on second thought, I don’t blame Marlow too much. If I was in the company of an exuberant lad who liked to yell “Jove!” all the time, I’d probably buy him a few beers with the remaining shekels in my reticule.) But he blows the job (and costs the man his business) when the second engineer of the Patna shows up. “I couldn’t stand the familiarity of the little beast,” writes Jim back to Marlow.

But given how Conrad offers us so many eccentric characters of the sea, is Jim’s bitching really called for? Especially when Jim’s stolid near Bartleby-like temperament causes people he knows to die after Stein appoints Jim as manager of his trading post in Patusan. We see any number of idiosyncratic types throughout Lord Jim: the German skipper who demands liquor by the light of the Patna‘s binnacle, the captain who is part of the Patna investigation and suicidally throws himself overboard as though “he had suddenly perceived the gates of the other world flung open wide for his reception,” Marlow’s brief chief mate Selvin who, upon not receiving a letter from his wife, “would go quite distracted with rage and jealousy, lose all grip on the work, quarrel with all hands, and either weep in his cabin or develop such a ferocity of temper as all but drove the crew to the verge of mutiny,” the butterfly-collecting merchant Stein, and the monstrous buccaneer Gentleman Brown who forces Jim’s hand in Patusan. Given his close proximity to goofballs and mountebanks, one would think that Jim would have something bigger on his mind than his own fragile ego.

If Jim is considered “a solitary man confronted by his fate,” then it interesting how he attempts to reconcile his honor with Cornelius, the “unspeakable” man embezzling and appropriating from Stein whom Jim replaces in Patusan. Cornelius treats his station and his girl quite unwell. But can we commend Jim for trying to be civil with Cornelius when he asks if he is unwell? Perhaps. But doesn’t Cornelius, for all of his odious qualities, carry some slim honor? Sure, the man has bamboozled Stein. He’s clearly stealing more than a few office supplies. But there’s something equally absurd to Jim in the way Cornelius offers to smuggle Jim out through the river for a mere eighty dollars. Cornelius certainly has a point when he declares to Marlow, “What did Mr. Stein mean sending a boy like that to talk big to an old servant? I was ready to save him for eighty dollars. Only eighty dollars. Why didn’t the fool go? Was I to get stabbed myself for the sake of a stranger?”

In light of the “Look at that wretched cur” farcical business at the Patna inquiry, whereby Marlow remarks on a weaving yellow dog and the oversensitive Jim believes that Marlow is talking shit about him, what makes Cornelius’s griping about sacrifice any less ignoble than Jim’s? And in disseminating Jim’s tale of dishonor to unknown listeners in the shadows, isn’t Marlow also sullying Jim’s honor? Certainly not in our eyes, if we look upon the tale from the outside. But Jim would most certainly think so, if he knew the full extent of Marlow’s goodnatured gossiping. We also have no idea how reliable Marlow is — especially since we are getting boatloads of hearsay. In fact, only “one privileged man” gets to hear the final word of the story, which is mostly second-hand from a fairly unreliable source.

Perhaps as Marlow says, the problem resides in the externals:

The conquest of love, honour, men’s confidence — the pride of it, the power of it, are fit materials for a heroic tale; only our minds are struck by the externals of such a success, and to Jim’s success there were no externals.

* — You may have observed that I haven’t really probed into Joseph Conrad’s bad behavior in this Modern Library installment. Given that there are three more Conrad volumes on the list, I’m thinking I’ll probably be addressing Conrad’s boorishness at some future point. However, since we’re on the subject, I feel compelled to point out that, should you check out Jeffrey Meyers’s Joseph Conrad: A Biography from the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, you will find this amusing marginalia on Page 187 suitably illustrating the author vs. work predicament:

Annotator 1: Ingrate! mistreats his wife I am trying to find something beneficial
Annotator 2: His writing!

Annotator 1: Constantly borrowing money
Annotator 2: So what?

** — Aside from “Jove,” “tumult” is another word Conrad is quite fond of — for abundantly clear reasons. I am also highly inclined to devise some Brooklyn answer to “tiffin” that I can work into my life and vernacular.

Next Up: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart!

Ragtime (Modern Library #86)

(This is the fifteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Old Wives’ Tale)

In 1975, the New York Times‘s Christopher Lehmann-Haupt initiated his review with this typically hyperbolic sentence: “E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Ragtime’ is a highly original experiment in historical fiction.” Unfortunately, because Lehmann-Haupt possessed middling erudition, he could not ken that Doctorow had, in fact, ripped off Heinrich von Kleist for his novel’s most memorable character.

In a 1978 interview with Jared Lubarsky, Doctorow declared, “I realized as I went along that the model for this book, in terms of its narrative distance, was the chronicle fiction of the German master Heinrich von Kleist. His novella ‘Michael Kohlhaas’ was very much in my mind when I found the black man Coalhouse Walker, driving up the hill in his Ford.” In 1983, Doctorow was somewhat more honest about his carjacking with the notably sharper Larry McCaffery:

Several years ago my wife related a true story she’d heard about a housemaid in our neighborhood who bore a child and then buried it in a garden. I knew when I heard this I’d use it someday. I found myself using it in Ragtime, where I never knew in advance what was going to happen. Suddenly there was Mother discovering the little brown newborn in the flower bed. There was Sarah coming to live in the house with this baby. Obviously, she would have tried to kill the child only from overwhelming despair or sense of betrayal. So there had to be a father. I had introduced Houdini driving up Broadview Avenue. He came along in his shining Ford, an older man, and he said, “I’m looking for a young woman of color.” Where had he been? I decided he was a musician, a man who lived on the road, going where he found work. Now he was back to make amends. He starts to court Sarah and when she refuses to see him, he plays the piano for the family in their parlor. And that’s how I found the central image of the book. Then I began to think about the implications of a black man owning his own car in the early 1900’s. I knew Sarah would forgive him and they would be reconciled. But that car: What would happen to that lovely car of his is what happened to Michael Kohlhaas’s horses. I had always wanted to rework the circumstances of Kleist’s story. I felt the premise was obviously relevant, appropriate — the idea of a man who cannot find justice from a society that claims to be just. So there it was — I’d finally found the use for that legend I’d hoped to find — but not until the moment I needed it.

Yet four years later, in a Yale Vernacular interview with Liesl Schillinger, Doctorow downplayed “reworking the circumstances” to being “very much inspired by Kleist.” And in a 1988 interview with Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz, Doctorow would identify his theft as “a quite deliberate hommage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time.” That same year, Doctorow would offer an altogether different defense to Winifred Farrant Bevilacqua: “somewhere along the line as I was writing Ragtime I realized I was writing chronicle-fiction with a certain mocking or ironic tone but nevertheless with the same distance with the characters that you find in chronicle-fiction, that is to say, a distance not as great as a historian, not as close as the post-Flaubertian novelist, but somewhere in the middle and maybe that’s why I remembered that I’d always wanted to use ‘Michael Kohlhass’ in some way, it was a story for me.” But by 1997, Doctorow (sounding more like Cory than Edgar) said to Michael Silverblatt, “The source of what you use finally doesn’t matter….The sources don’t matter as much as the act of composing.”

As The New York Observer noted on March 23, 1998, there was clearly more going on than composing. Doctorow had ripped off many key elements of “Kohlhaas.” Both Kohlhaas and Coalhouse are stopped by men who demand toll. Both figures seek a vigilante form of justice, enlisting men to their eventual deaths when denied proper recourse. Both feature the horse and the car returned in perfect condition. Doctorow’s Booker Washington fills in for Kleist’s Martin Luther. Both feature very specific imagery of significant others receiving a blow to the chest from a weapon (and, as the Observer points out with its citations, the passages from both narratives are quite similar).

But let us inform our good thief Edgar why the sources do matter. According to Broadway World, the 1998 Broadway adaptation of Ragtime grossed close to $80 million during its two year run. The 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime, which featured a working Model T automobile (the very story element that Doctorow ripped off and altered for his use) as a dominant part of the set, grossed more than $5 million. Not bad for a musical that was budgeted at $11 million and faced declining revenue due to the recession. That’s an $85 million gross over a little more than a decade on a musical based on a novel that ripped off another narrative. If Doctorow can be compared to a robber baron (in Ragtime, he does seem strangely at home writing about JP Morgan and Henry Ford), it’s a remarkably barren robbery.

Doctorow would prove quite defensive and more than a bit smug when called on the carpet more directly. “I find it surprising that this is being brought up 22 years after the event,” he would tell the Observer, seemingly not seeing why a highly successful Broadway adaptation might shine a brighter Klieg on the Kleist pillaging. “I have a sense of a readership that is sophisticated and understands how literature works. There are others who may be naïve about that. And that naïveté is taught by example.”

* * *

But was the 1975 novel really all that sophisticated? I read Ragtime twice for this essay. While I enjoyed it slightly more on the second read, I had severe doubts about Doctorow respecting a readership who “understands how literature works.” Ragtime‘s parody of a junior high school textbook grew tedious. I do everything in my power to accept a book for what it is (Updike’s Rules for Reviewing and all), but I wanted to feel these figures rather than look upon them as one-dimensional. Even Harold Bloom, writing in an introduction for a 2004 study guide, confessed that Ragtime “is far from being Doctorow’s most eminent work.” Was Ragtime a second-rate Doctorow?

Nearly four decades after its publication, one of the book’s biggest surprises is how patronizing Doctorow is. Above all, Doctorow is driven by the need to repeat and explain, as if his readership is a simpering mass of small children, perhaps plagued by amnesia or an uncanny inability to look up a vaguely arcane word, that he must speak down to. We are introduced to “the famous architect Stanford White” in the first chapter. A mere two chapters later, Jacob Riis decides to “interview the eminent architect.” Two chapters after that, we encounter Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who is “throwing a commemorative ball in honor of her friend the late Stanford White, the architect of her home. He had designed her home in the style of a doge palace. A doge was the chief magistrate in the republic of Genoa or Venice.”

It’s regrettable that this generic repetition extends to generic and sometimes cartoonish character description. Of the great Booker T. Washington, we are offered this redundancy: “He was an orator and his voice was strong.” Of Houdini, Doctorow writes, “Pound for pound he was as strong as any man he had ever run up against.” That’s pulpish, but somewhat fair. So why then do we need to be explicitly reminded about this already established strength only two sentences later? “He was immensely muscular and agile and professionally courageous.”

Of a strike, Doctorow offers this homely description: “The bosses want you weak, therefore you have to be strong. The people who will help us today will need our help tomorrow.” The reader who flips the next page will read the page that comes after this one. E.L. Doctorow has written a masterpiece. He has written a masterpiece because the book is on the Modern Library list. The Modern Library list, which is still regarded highly by certain literary geeks, is one method of locating masterpieces. Autistic readers are most welcome. Insert your logical fallacy or your X=Y observation of choice here.

Doctorow’s doggerel is hardly confined to phrases or sentences. Here is the man attempting to mythologize American heft as Taft ascends to the White House:

All over the country men began to look at themselves. They were used to drinking great quantities of beer. They customarily devoured loaves of bread and ate prodigiously of the sausage meats of poured offal that lay on the lunch counters of the saloons. The august Pierpont Morgan would routinely consume seven- and eight-course dinners. He ate breakfasts of steak and chops, eggs, pancakes, broiled fish, rolls and butter, fresh fruit and cream. The consumption of food was a sacrament of success. A man who carried a great stomach before him was thought to be in his prime.

If this is deliberate comedy, then it becomes tedious by the third sentence and spoiled by the fifth sentence’s desperate laundry list retreat. If this is intended as literature, then the third sentence’s passive voice and eyesore adverb infringes upon lexical decency. If this is intended as wisdom, then the concluding homily is no different from a barfly’s botched wisdom.

There’s also something of a creepy misogyny running ragged through Ragtime. It’s there early on in the lurid manner with which Harry Thaw demands proof of his wife’s “devotion and it turned out nothing else would do but a fellatio.” But not long after we first meet Emma Goldman, Doctorow depicts Goldman giving Evelyn Nesbit a sensual massage with dimebag imagery: “Goldman rubbed the oil into her skin until her body found its own natural rosy white being and began to stir with self-perception.” Mother’s Younger Brother, who has been stalking Nesbit, bursts out of the closet mid-jerk, firing off “great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like fallng ticker tape.” As if this silly masturbatory fantasy isn’t enough, Evelyn is next seen taking Mother’s Younger Brother as her new lover. The reason? “It was characteristic of Evelyn that she could not resist someone who was strongly attracted to her.”

And it is characteristic of Doctorow that, with the possible exception of Mother (and even this is dubious, as I shall soon demonstrate), he cannot write about women without objectifying them. Mameh, wife to Tateh, is forced to let her landlord “have his way on a cutting table” and is never seen again. When Evelyn eventually leaves Mother’s Younger Brother, she is never heard from again. Why can’t these women be interesting or useful to the narrative outside of the boudoir? Sarah, lover to Coalhouse Walker, spends most of her time mute and sequestered from the family when Coalhouse arrives. We do see Sarah laughing not long after a fortuitous development, but her happiness flows “in the milk of her breasts.” When Sarah finally does speak, she is bludgeoned by thugs. (And, again, keep in mind that this one-dimensional character is Doctorow’s appropriation from Kleist.)

Doctorow would likely defend such slips as a wry reflection of history’s male-centric sweep (“something I was always planning to do”), from which the narrative “we” (which undoubtedly includes the mysterious boy digging through trash at the family hotel) likely originates from. But when I remembered how William Kennedy’s Ironweed (a much superior novel) worked a time period and a setting somewhat close to Ragtime without this fatal flaw, I became even more bothered by Doctorow’s dickering. Even after her apparent transformation into someone slightly more autonomous, Mother is viewed with her underclothes sticking to her limbs, “recognized in her wet form the ample woman in the Winslow Homer painting who is being rescued from the sea by towline.” Why couldn’t Doctorow, a novelist who clearly loved writing about Houdini’s escape or Theodore Dreiser adjusting his seating position, find his own precise way out of this patriarchal predicament? If history is merely an alluring flipbook of silhouettes to find one’s fortunes and invent a baronetcy (the true underlying pull in this novel), then surely the decent thing for a novelist to do — even one claiming to specialize in mock chronicle-fiction — is to avoid having one’s German chocolate cake and eating it too.

Next Up: Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim!

The Old Wives’ Tale (Modern Library #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Call of the Wild)

I am fairly certain that I found The Old Wives’ Tale compelling for reasons that Arnold Bennett did not intend. After my great excitement with Jack London, Bennett was something of a letdown, reading more like fossilized culch than a lively adventure from the 20th century, although I experienced a great deal of pleasure as characters began to die and as they became needlessly blamed for other deaths. Consider the manner in which Sophia, assigned to watch over her bedridden father, sneaks away for a few minutes to chat with the strapping Gerald Scales. When she returns, something terribly odd occurs:

After having been unceasingly watched for fourteen years, he had, with an invalid’s natural perverseness, taken advantage of Sophia’s brief dereliction to expire. Say what you will, amid Sophia’s horror, and her terrible grief and shame, she had visitings of the idea: he did it on purpose!

As I continued to push through this 600 page novel, surprised by such lively spurts written in a mode I initially appraised as kitschy, there was a part of me that longed for the invention of time travel. I might roll a joint and get it into Bennett’s hands before he banged out another overly serious manuscript. His eccentricities, however, were also part of the charm. I must confess that I couldn’t quite shake Bennett.

* * *

Bennett was hot shit at one point in time. I suspect his inclusion on the Modern Library list involves some guilt over his swift fall from grace. In 1923, Virginia Woolf got nasty with an essay entitled “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”: “he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there.” And many seemed to believe her. The literary critic FR Leavis dismissed Bennett in a sentence. The situation became so desperate that Margaret Drabble felt compelled to publish an appreciative 400 page Bennett biography in 1974.

I asked several literary friends if they had read Bennett. But only one had. And this friend made strong suggestions that Anna of the Five Towns was one of the more dispiriting reads in her formative years. I was roundly rebuked for daring to mention Bennett, the name as ancient and as displeasing to her ears as Linda Ronstadt, and was banned from discussing literary matters with my friend for a week. It’s very possible that I’m one of the few Americans under the age of 40 who has actually finished one of Bennett’s novels. (Apparently, I am not the first to raise this observation. Shortly after drafting this essay, I discovered that Wendy Lesser, writing in The New York Times in 1997, had also pointed out Bennett’s stunning precipitation. Fourteen years later, the Bennett situation is considerably worse.)

In recent years, Bennett has found a few (still living) defenders in Drabble, Francine Prose, and Philip Hensher. And while two of these boosters can be rightly praised as skilled novelists, by all reports, this collective humor-impaired trio cannot be said to be especially vivacious at social gatherings. That’s part of the problem. To get Bennett, you have to take him somewhat seriously. And that means abdicating a healthy skepticism deeply valued by any freethinker who grew up in a post-Nixon or a post-Thatcher world. These days, Arnold Bennett is best known for an omelette recipe established at the Savoy. It’s worth observing that Bennett did not come up with the recipe. He was too busy writing a novel. There are certainly worse fates for an author. But despite my gripes, I still believe Bennett deserves more than a mere legacy of haddock and peppercorns.

* * *

The Old Wives’ Tale is a strange novel, imperious and engaging at times, but I cannot call it a classic — despite its admirable narrative ambition in tracking two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, and their families from youth to old age. It is plagued by inhebetating verbosity (“The horror of what had occurred did not instantly take full possession of them, because the power of credence, of imaginatively realizing a supreme event, whether of great grief or of great happiness, is ridiculously finite”). It feels the need to bully the reader into excitement with obnoxious exclamation marks (“This was what he had brought her to, then! The horrors of the night, of the dawn, and of the morning! Ineffable suffering and humiliation, anguish and torture that could never be forgotten!”). It is often condescending towards its characters, using bizarre interrogatory to suggest feeling (“But why, when nearly three months had elapsed after her father’s death, had she spent more and more time in the shop, secretly aflame with expectancy?”).

There is something needlessly systematic and almost Asperger’s-like in Bennett’s fixations. Here is Bennett describing the inner life of Constance’s son:

He had apparently finished his home-lessons. The books were pushed aside, and he was sketching in lead-pencil on a drawing block. To the right of the fireplace, over the sofa, there hung an engraving after Landseer, showing a lonely stag paddling into a lake The stag at eve had drunk or was about to drink his fill, and Cyril was copying him. He had already indicated a flight of birds in the middle distance; vague birds on the wing being easier than detailed stags, he had begun with the birds.

Bennett is more interested in positioning objects rather than being explicit about what his characters feel. His fixation on external imagery prevents him from contending with emotions. And this inferential approach does have its drawbacks. Even in describing the engraving, Bennett isn’t quite sure: “had drunk or was about to drink his fill.” Shortly after this moment, Cyril feels his mother’s hand on his shoulder and, before he replies, Bennett writes: “Before speaking, Cyril gazed up at the picture with a frowning, busy expression, and then replied in an absent-minded voice.” Frowning, busy expression? My mind drew uncomfortable parallels with the autistic passages contained in Tao Lin’s Richard Yates. One could make the argument that Bennett’s superficial imagery reflects both Cyril’s transformation into a young artist or the overall shift from bucolic business to a more modern age. Yet this aesthetic approach is hardly confined to Cyril. Of one of Sophia’s clients in France: “There was a self-conscious look in his eye.” Near novel’s end, Bennett even makes a big show of how characters look at others: “Peel-Swynnerton had just time to notice that she was handsome and pale, and that her hair was black, and that she was gone again, followed by a clipped poodle that accompanied her.” Considering these odd emphases and the sweeping melodramatic statements contained elsewhere in the book, it became necessary to investigate the man further.

* * *

Arnold Bennett began writing The Old Wives’ Tale on October 8, 1907. We know this because he wasted no time marking the notches in his journal:

Yesterday I began The Old Wives’ Tale. I wrote 350 words yesterday afternoon and 900 this morning. I felt less self-conscious than I usually do in beginning a novel. In order to find a clear 3 hours for it every morning I have had to make a time-table, getting out of bed earlier and lunching later.

The next day (October 10, 1907), Bennett offers this exacting news, worthy of Trollope or a chartered accountant: “I walked 4 miles between 8:30 and 9:30, and then wrote 1,000 words of the novel.”

Bennett would finish his novel less than a year later, noting on August 30, 1908: “Finished The Old Wives’ Tale at 11:30 A.M. today. 200,000 words. Now I can begin to keep this journal again.”

Bennett was indeed a man of his word. The volume I am presently consulting from, which contains all of Bennett’s journal entries, is more than 1,000 pages. While assembling this essay over several days, I have been on the lookout for a cockroach, hoping to test the density of Bennett’s private thoughts against a very 21st century dilemma. Unfortunately, the apartment is clean, the exterminator who last doused the place (along with my own independent boric appliqué) was too efficient, and I have not seen any insect life in the order of Blattaria for many weeks. Now I can begin to write this essay again.

As Bennett was working on The Old Wives’ Tale, he worked with an industry that might put Joyce Carol Oates to shame. He wrote two short novels (Helen of the High Road and Buried Alive), any number of articles and short stories, a scenario, a play, and a few popular works of reductionist philosophy (throughout his life, Bennett was a one man self-help book factory, writing such prescriptive pabulum as How to Live on 24 Hours a Day and Self and Self-Management; he even had the temerity to argue that men were superior to women). As he was to explain in an April 9, 1908 journal entry:

Habit of work is growing on me. I could get into the way of giving to my desk as a man goes to whiskey, or rather to chloral. Now that I have finished all my odd jobs and have nothing to do but 10,000 words of novel a week and two articles a week, I feel quite lost, and at once begin to think without effort, of ideas fora new novel. My instinct is to multiply books and articles and plays. I constantly gloat over the number of words I have written in a given period.

One curious quality about this period is Bennett’s reticence to name-check his fetching French wife Marguerite. I should hasten to add that Bennett’s “habit of work” came only a few months after his marriage. Bennett does register that he walked with his wife in the pouring rain on October 16, 1907, but he is more devoted to discussing how he enjoys “splashing waterproof boots into deep puddles” than Marguerite’s feelings on the matter. When Marguerite does show up in Bennett’s journal, it is mostly through “we” rather than “Oui!” And even then, Bennett is more driven by his inner “I” than any subtle references to Marguerite’s enticing third eye. By January 4, 1908, he is preoccupied by what he misinterprets as “unconscious and honest sexuality” from a Scottish woman in a London hotel.

I mention Bennett’s myopic matrimony not because I want to gossip about an English novelist who has been dead for a good eighty years (well, that’s not entirely true; on the other hand, since Bennett was writing a column of book gossip for New Age under a pseudonym during the same period, perhaps I am unintentionally avenging his targets, even though they are now all dead and have long stopped caring), but because his treatment of Marguerite is remarkably similar to the transactional manner that salesman Samuel Povey treats Constance Baines after they are married in The Old Wives’ Tale:

The basis of this contentment was the fact that she and Samuel comprehended and esteemed each other, and made allowances for each other. Their characters had been tested and had stood the test. Affection, love, was not to them a salient phenomenon in their relations. Habit had inevitably dulled its glitter.

* * *

What does a reader do with Arnold Bennett in 2011? Bennett undoubtedly had the stuff to stir the reader, but it’s difficult to let some of his more impetuous ideas about human behavior slide. This was a weakness cited by his most ardent defenders. Even Rebecca West was to confess that Bennett struck her “as being one of the most observant and unobservant persons I have ever known. He would remember the order of the shops in an unimportant street in a foreign city for years, but he was curiously blind about human beings. He would know a man and a woman for years and see them constantly without realizing that they were engaged in a tragical love affair; he could meet a man shaken by a recent bereavement and notice nothing unusual about him til he was told.”

Yet despite Bennett’s obvious blind spots, I feel a charitable impulse for the man. Few of today’s novelists are willing to write in such a reckless yet revealing manner. Were he working today, Bennett’s work would be rent in an MFA minute. But without this rampant rashness, Bennett would not have kept up his voice.

Next Up: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime!

The Call of the Wild (Modern Library #88)

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

In June 1902, Cosmopolitan published “Diable — A Dog” (the original title “Bâtard” had been softened by squeamish editors) by an emerging young writer named Jack London. This gripping tale involves a dog (“illegitimate” like London: his father a timberwolf, his mother a husky) battling his vicious master Leclère as the two wander the Yukon — seemingly with the sole purpose of rending each other at any opportunity. London describes how “hate bound them together as love could never bind,” not unlike Edward Albee’s George and Martha or Eminem and Kimberly Scott. And like the most extreme bonds of blinding enmity, for Diable and Leclère, this leads to a fatal end.

In December of that year and in a lonely place, London began work on a 4,000 word short story — a companion piece to “Bâtard” involving a civilized dog named Buck, who is also a mongrel, and his adventures in the Alaskan wilderness. Two months later, London had a novel. But he he would make a catastrophic business decision: $2,000 in cash from Macmillan for all rights with a further $750 to the Saturday Evening Post. Given the millions of copies that Call would go on to sell, and given London’s constant financial woes, this transaction may very well be American literature’s answer to the Dutch snapping up Manhattan from the Lenape for a mere 60 guilders.

Despite this bad business, Call would cement London’s literary reputation. And I am pleased to report that, a little less than three decades after I first read it, Call holds up remarkably well on a second and third read — so much so that I was compelled to read White Fang, a London biography, numerous critical responses, and countless other texts directly and indirectly related to Call before a kind friend cut me off from this London monomania in the manner of a respectful bartender telling an exuberant customer to go home and sleep it off. Additional friends encouraged me to read sections of White Fang aloud to an especially finicky cat and were surprised when I found that I could not stop. I could go on reading London for days. The man is that good.

My obsession likely emerged from the startling rediscovery that London’s prose remains alive in a way one would not expect from a novel published in 1903, especially since London found his inspiration to write from a somewhat incongruous source: Ouida‘s Signa. Soon after Buck is kidnapped from the “big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley,” where he lives with Judge Miller and his family, London masterfully establishes the way that the setting is changing by throwing the reader off with subtle syntactic shifts:

Several times during the night he sprang to his feet when the shed door rattled open, expecting to see the Judge, or the boys at least. But each time the joyful bark that trembled in Buck’s throat was twisted into a savage growl.

We believe that Buck springing to his feet will spawn an escape or that the door rattling open will precipitate some further action, but London establishes an uncertain feeling between understated fear and expectation. And he neatly foreshadows Buck’s inevitable transformation with the “joyful bark” twisting “into a savage growl.” This style might be identified as highly refined Alger, but it also allows us to become invested in Buck’s inner life in a manner that feels tough rather than sappy, transcendental rather than fixed. And we become so involved with Buck’s struggles that we forget we are reading an animal tale.

But Call has more going on than a soft Southland mutt growing into a legendary Ghost Dog who “sings a song of the younger world.” London, who spent much of his formative years laboring hard as a “work beast,” is also writing about the honor and integrity that emerge from doing a job well even in the worst of all possible worlds. This wild world of hard labor, in which one must eat faster and push one’s muzzle harder to grab that bit of protein needed to keep pulling the sleds and one must ward off belligerent “co-workers” like Spitz (if you think you’ve got annoying cubemates, wait until you meet this dog), still has its virtues:

Best of all, perhaps, he loved to lie near the fire, hind legs crouched under him, fore legs stretched out in front, head raised, and eyes blinking drearily at the flames. Sometimes he thought of Judge Miller’s big house in the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley, and of the cement swimming tank, and Ysabel, the Mexican hairless, and Toots, the Japanese pug; but oftener he remembered the man in the red sweater, the death of Curly, the great fight with Spitz and the good things he had eaten or would like to eat. He was not homesick. The Sunland was very dim and distant, and such memories had no power over him. Far more potent were the memories of his heredity that gave things he had never seen before a seeming familiarity; the instincts (which were but the memories of his ancestors become habits) which had lapsed in later days, and still later, in him, quickened and became alive again.

Work, which comes by necessity in the wild, overcomes the distressing prospect of being crippled by memory. It unites disparate souls, even those who are lashing at each other, and even causes experienced men to protest the clueless chekakos. Midway through the novel, three greenhorns show up with canned goods, “blankets for a hotel,” and beat their dogs into submission without lightening the load. Later in the novel, Buck makes his escape from this unthinking and irresponsible trio into John Thornton’s care.

While it’s true that unfastening a lock can require pluck, some critics have made too much hey now over certain autobiographical connections between Jack and Buck. It is true that London was writing The Call of the Wild as his first marriage was disintegrating. Buck does describes his love for John Thornton with lilting romance (“But love that was feverish and burning, that was adoration, that was madness, it had taken John Thornton to arouse”*), but London wrote these words before he had Charmian Kittredge, the woman who could match London’s libido and physical activity (she even boxed with him) and who would become his second wife. (And since I’m dishing out gossip, I should probably point out that London, licentious even as his belly bulged from drink, still cheated on her.)

If work can save you, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate class struggle, which London would explore more fully in his needlessly overlooked novel, Martin Eden. London’s daughter, Joan, would write that Call was “the story of all strong people who use the cunning of their minds and the strength of their bodies to adapt themselves to a difficult environment and win through to live,” but this strikes me as a little pat. It is certainly interesting that The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf both rely on bourgeois protagonists being plucked from their safe environments in order to learn invaluable lessons in individualism and morality. Perhaps you can learn such lessons within middle-class comforts. But London’s romantic view makes a compelling case that it is better for instincts to quicken and become alive when you are thrown outside your comfort zone. In other words, every MFA student and passive-aggressive vacillator needs to read Jack London pronto.

* — This seems as good a time as any to bring up the relationship between The Call of the Wild and London’s companion novel, White Fang, which depicts the transformation in reverse (wild wolf turning into civilized dog, complete with another judge taking care of White Fang near the end, suggesting a symmetry with London’s earlier volume). While I enjoyed White Fang quite a lot, I consider it to be the inferior volume, rehashing many story elements of Call (wolves getting into a squabble over a rabbit, rising to sled leader, and so forth) and not quite possessing the poetry and the tautness and the keen insight and the gripping gusto that’s there in Call. The passage I quote here about Buck’s love for John Thornton doesn’t feel nearly as schmaltzy as its heavy-handed counterpart in White Fang: “Human kindness was like a sun shining upon him, and he flourished like a flower planted in good soil.”

Next Up: Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale!

Loving (Modern Library #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Midnight’s Children)

Reading Henry Green’s Loving is a bit like going through a valise that a hardcore neat freak has spent many years packing for your once-in-a-decade vacation. You need to extract the chinos for that last summer blowout, but will your unseen friend berate you if you rustle the crisp blue oxford shirt from that fixed and implacable perch just above those promising pants? What Green has given us is a delicate book, difficult to unpack in a thousand words. It is so marvelous that you could spend a lifetime talking about it (certainly many have spent lifetimes teaching it). On the other hand, compared to Finnegans Wake (a Modern Library obligation so massive that I have started reading it early, devoting a Tumblr to my ongoing annotations), Loving may as well be a Parker novel.

We know from the outset what we’re in for. The book’s first four paragraphs alone introduce us to Eldon, Ellen, Miss Agatha Burch, Charley Raunce, and “Bert the yellow pantry boy” (a phrase almost suggesting a new band to argue about on Brooklyn Vegan) — all hired help within the sprawling confines of Kinalty Castle, a manse manifesting upstairs and downstairs shenanigans that is situated about a hundred miles from Dublin and carrying on during the early days of World War II (when Ireland was neutral). There is also an Edith and a Evelyn, perpetuating Green’s affinity for character names starting with the second vowel. And not long later, we meet another Bert who arrives at this estate. We learn that the IRA possesses two interpretive acronyms.

This perceptive flexibility within names is matched by a perceptive flexibility within sentences, many divested of commas: “Then one morning while they were at their dinner in the servants’ hall that telephone began to ring away in the pantry.” Green’s style suggests a fixed quality, but what kept me reading was the possibility of disorder and transgression. Miss Burch, the martinet-minded head housemaid, tells us, “Take someone out of their position in life and you find a different person altogether, yes.” And, yes, as peacocks and rings disappear and as couples are discovered in flagrante delicto, we learn that no amount of order, whether through style or action, can disrupt life’s inevitable antics. Different people are indeed revealed when they hew outside the hues with near farcical commitment. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Green has given Charley Raunce, the head footman pushing forty, eyes of differing color (“one dark one light which was arresting,” nearly matching the mysterious red and black notebooks containing shady business correspondence and creative accounting that Raunce is trying to make sense of). Raunce, a character who I liked a great deal, is sometimes good at tricking his employers (he refuses to go by the name “Arthur” upon taking Eldon’s post and offers additional demands to his masters, who are equally dismissive of Raunce and his peers out of earshot) and is sometimes a bit cruel (especially in relation to Miss Burch). But like any of us, his words and actions are understood, justified, and humanized by his love. He sends money to his mother and urges her to purchase an Anderson shelter. He is concerned about a sister who works in a gun factory. He confronts his love for Edith and the manner in which he proposes is strikingly diffident:

“You have it any way you want,” Raunce explained. “I thought just to mention her that’s all, Mrs. Charley Raunce,” he announced in educated accents. “There you are eh?” He seemed to be gathering confidence.

From passive explanation to “educated accents” to a nervous “There you are eh?” to prototypical confidence. Words, in some instances, are no match for living. Unsurprisingly, this was something that Green thought about a good deal. As he wrote in his memoir Pack My Bag:

Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.

In a 1958 Paris Review interview, Terry Southern suggested that some people had referred to Green as a “writer’s writer’s writer.” And it may be this commitment to the unexpressed and to the unbound that has made Henry Green a tricky and needlessly neglected writer, despite his well-earned presence on the Modern Library list.

Weeks ago, I asked a savvy friend, who was rightly chiding me for my wine-infused malapropisms, over dinner if she had read Loving. She confessed that she had and that she had not understood it. And I must confess that it took me three attempts before I was in the right mood to finish Loving, with the final and fortuitous push occurring as I was housesitting in the Hudson Valley.

But my efforts were worth it. Because once you slow to Green’s pace and begin to understand that nearly every sentence contains some insight, Loving reveals itself in interesting ways. Just before proposing to Edith, Raunce says, “But it’s not the truth that matters. It’s what’s believed.” This paraphrase of Goebbels had me wondering if Raunce’s shyness had anything to do with invasion anxiety. When Mrs. Tennant loses her ring and, after considerable misunderstandings, confesses, “It’s not the money I’m worried about, the thing had memories for me that money couldn’t buy,” I had to ask why Mrs. Tennant couldn’t cleave to the memories inside her own head. Was the wild goose chase to find the ring (along with the wild peacock chasing seen elsewhere) merely an effort to fill a void?

And what are we to make of the unusually sensuous foot massages and naked frolicking beneath the eiderdown that Kate and Edith practice in the small room they share in the attic? This is especially interesting (and not the way you’re thinking), because Edith later discovers Mrs. Jack in bed with a man who is not her husband (“two humps of body, turf over graves under those pink bedclothes”) and, shortly after this startling discovery, Edith is drawn more to Raunce. Did Edith seek out a “normal” arrangement with Raunce because she was exposed to the naked truth of a dissolute marriage? (Does this also explain why Kate devotes herself to cleaning and grooming the dim and uncouth Paddy?) I spent some time poring over what scholars had to say about Loving over the years, and I was somewhat surprised that this development had not been remarked upon all that much. Was Green somewhat ahead of the curve on lesbian relationships? Or were Kate and Edith’s topless adventures yet another “loving” galvanized by innocent efforts to get through the day?

These intriguing uncertainties are mirrored by the limitless illusions contained within the castle. We encounter “a large map of the country elaborately painted over the mantlepiece,” part of a clock that Raunce needs to rewind. Outside the castle, we discover “the complete copy of a Greek temple.” And when Raunce becomes (love)sick, he contains his neck in a scarf, with Miss Burch quipping that “he makes out the glands are enlarged.” These descriptive facades permit us to understand that the castle is a trompe-l’oeil for human connection. No hard schematic will suffice. And yet look how much we think we know when presented with such precision!

Some of Green’s grandest groomsmen don’t quite understand this point. In How Fiction Works, James Wood appraises the moment when Raunce notices Edith’s dark eyes, which catch the light “like plums dipped in cold water.” He suggests that because this “metaphor is not explicitly tied into character,” it is a successful example of a metaphor that “has been newly painted before our eyes” or “the kind of [poetic] metaphor that this particular character or community would produce.” But this snap of the key doesn’t quite undo the lock. Wood doesn’t observe that Raunce has been laughed at by his fellow footmen for the hued duality in his eyes, and that this moment of beauty, cadged during a stray moment, connotes some common eccentricity that is both within the world and shared between Raunce and Edith.

John Updike was a big fan of Henry Green, especially impressed by how “the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vial.” While it’s very easy for any impassioned style geek to lap up Green’s exactitude like an eight-year-old let loose in a candy store (and let me be clear on this: I certainly did), it is important to remember that Green’s fiction is, first and foremost, about the invitational qualities of inexplicable existence. Or as Raunce himself says, “It’s human nature you’ve got to keep count of.”

Next Up: Jack London’s Call of the Wild!

Midnight’s Children (Modern Library #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Tobacco Road)

It is somehow appropriate to announce, on the 235th anniversary of my nation announcing its independence from Great Britain, my independence from Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children is Rushdie’s allegorical novel about India declaring its independence from Great Britain. My announcement is buttressed by the fact that Rushdie himself is British and presently living in the city I happen to live in, albeit in a less interesting borough than mine.

Ultimately, one must separate the art from the artist. Patricia Highsmith preferred the company of animals to people, and was cruel to many. Norman Mailer stabbed his wife. Knut Hamsun sent Goebbels his Nobel Prize as a gift and called Hitler “a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations” after his death. Yet in Rushdie’s case, it has been difficult to draw the distinction, in large part because Rushdie himself is (a) a study in contradictions and (b) not yet dead. The man has sometimes proved so humorless that, when Insulted by Authors‘s Bill Ryan approached him for an insult, the good-natured literary enthusiast received this response from Sir Salman: “Well, why would you want to bring more insults on yourself?” And this seemed a needless extension of Rushdie’s efforts to enforce his will upon others. A few years ago, Rushdie caused Terry Eagleton to partially recant for taking him to task for his neoliberal imperialism. There have been lawsuits. On the other hand, Rushdie did support online criticism much earlier than one would expect from an apparent windbag.

* * *

When I was 22, I read Midnight’s Children for the first time. I was seduced, like many young and impressionable readers, by the language. I also liked Shame and Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I thought The Satanic Verses to be a sensationalistic exercise. The infamous book had earned Rushdie a fatwā, resulting in many years of hiding (with a £10 million tab to UK taxpayers for protecting him over a decade) and a bizarre exchange of letters between Rushdie, John le Carré, and Christopher Hitchens over free speech. Then I read The Moor’s Last Sigh and was greatly underwhelmed. I had the sense that Rushdie’s big mammoth books were less about engaging the reader’s interest and more about forcing the reader to submit. Where was the Rushdie who had charmed in the earlier books?

Still, I decided to give the man another chance. I read Shalimar the Clown and discovered a remarkably ho-hum book despite the promising title. I had observed Rushdie at a few literary events I had attended, seeing a man who appeared to be in love with himself. Since Rushdie wasn’t going away anytime soon, I figured the best thing to do would be to ignore the guy. Let the man stay busy with his half-assed involvement with politics and the film world. Let him have fun persuading supermodels and actresses decades his junior to hop into bed with him. It’s a free country. I didn’t need Rushdie.

So I had thought myself done with the man. It had not occurred to me that Rushdie would pop up like some zombie surprise when I threw down the gauntlet back in January.

* * *

Ultimately one must separate the art from the artist. And I cannot deny, in my thirties, that Midnight’s Children is a stylistically accomplished novel. If you know nothing about Rushdie and you are young and in need of patois, it will almost certainly fulfill a need. It is adept in stringing the reader along. Chapters begin with bold bursts of storytelling: “To tell the truth, I lied about Shiva’s death” and “No! — but I must.” So in Saleem Sinai, you have an unreliable narrator who is lying and twisting and inventing and rambling, but always giving you more. And by bringing in such side characters as the Brass Monkey begging, “Come on, Saleem; nobody’s listening, what did you do? Tell tell tell!” and in deftly deploying dependable tricks such as swapped babies and secret basements and political intrigue and creepy soldiers at tables and convenient coincidences, Rushdie’s gargantuan story reminds the reader that not only is this a story, but it’s a story familiar with story. There are indeed very few places in the book where I wasn’t aware that what I was reading was a story.

But Rushdie is not a writer who I enjoy reading now.

Perhaps it is because life is more than story. Or maybe I have reached a point where story is no longer enough to satisfy me in a novel. I confess that I had to take three twelve mile walks, dutifully flipping and sweating into the pages in the humidity, in order to finish this book. And even then, this eccentric form of self-discipline was countered by the many dogs, kids, and people who I talked with along the way — all of whom proved more worthy of my time and more interesting than Midnight’s Children.

The issue is not India’s marvelous history. Before rereading Midnight’s Children, I decided to read an enormous book (Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi), which outlined the great nation’s vivid history in remarkably clear and quite interesting detail. I figured that knowing more about Nehru and Indira and Sanjay — to say nothing of the Kashmir conflict, the battles with China over Tibet, and the wars with Pakistan — would give me additional insight and interest into Rushdie’s carpet bag. And yes indeed! I became very excited to step right up and enter Rushdie’s rollercoaster.

Until I realized the lack of tensility in the track.

The issue is not my mixed feelings about magical realism. I should probably confess that, while I’m almost always game for fantasy and speculative fiction and Murakami’s surreality, magical realism has felt like a cheat to me. Yet in revisiting the Midnight’s Children Conference, Saleem Sinai’s nose, and his ability to clamber inside other people’s heads, I found these portrayals justifiable because Rushdie remained fairly fluid with his allegory.

The issue is not complexity. Even now, when I read Joyce or Faulkner or Gaddis, I still have a good time doing so. I delight over the sentences and the jokes and the obscure words and the convoluted plots and the complex character relationships revealing more human insight, and I still feel very much alive on the second or third or fourth read. (Since some of these titles are contained on the Modern Library list, I look forward to experiencing this life again!)

Rather, the issue is Saleem/Salman’s desperate need to be liked, to smother the reader into a participatory role rather than that of a peer or a fellow adventurer seeking mystery and ambiguity. Back in 1981, Rushdie’s hey presto smashing mingling mixing form of writing was fresh and innovative: a defiant assertion from a wily wordsmith sticking up for his needlessly neglected home turf.

But thirty years later?

* * *

Statement Posited in Recent Weeks to Random Smart Literary People in Empirical Attempt to Determine Rushdie’s Current Stature: “I’m reading Midnight’s Children.”

Literary Person #1: “Oh, that’s great.” (Begrudging tone, recalling something distasteful — as if one is supposed to like the book rather than genuinely like it. Efforts to press Literary Person #1 on subject prove fruitless.)

Literary Person #2: “I read that in my early 20s.” (It’s the opening paragraph she likes, although she agrees with me that Lolita‘s opening is better. Have you reread it?) “No.” (Would you?) “No.”

Literary Person #3: “Oh….Rushdie.” (Do you like him?) “…” (Do you know him?) “…” (What’s wrong with Rushdie?) “Let’s just say I’d rather read Naipaul.” (You and me both.)

* * *

Indagating further:

independent: adj. 1. not influenced or controlled by others in matters of opinion, conduct, etc; thinking or acting for oneself: an independent thinker 2. not subject to another’s authority or jurisdiction; autonomous; free: an independent businessman.

What type of person initially read Midnight’s Children? Let’s slide the lectern to our man Rushdie:

“The people who like the book most are young. That’s obviously a simplification, but it’s interesting that very large numbers of the people who came to meet me or hear my talks were very young. They were all Saleem’s generation or younger. And I like that. I felt that it was right that the people who were the essential subjects in the book had taken it for themselves and made it their own. Endless numbers of people, not just in Bombay, would come up to me and say, ‘You shouldn’t have written this book. We know all this stuff. We could have written this book.’ And I thought that was an extraordinary thing for a writer to be told — much the biggest compliment anyone has ever paid me. The older generation, I suspect, were often shocked by it.” — Rushdie in conversation with Una Chaudhuri (interview conducted 1983, published in 1990 in Turnstile 2.1)

* * *

In 2011, I am neither especially old nor especially young. I was born in the state of California…once upon a time. No, that won’t do. There’s no getting away from the book.

I was not especially shocked by Midnight’s Children: not even with the book’s admirable depiction of forced sterilizations. But the assault upon the magicians ghetto near the end felt very much like an author desperately needing to justify his novel’s importance:

…standing in the chaos of the slum clearance programme, I was shown once again that the ruling dynasty of India had learned how to replicate itself; but then there was no time to think, the numberless labia-lips and lanky-beauties were seizing magicians and old beggars, people were being dragged towards the vans, and now a rumor spread through the colony of magicians: “they are doing nasbandi — sterilization is being performed!”

Note the way that Saleem telegraphs this horror to the reader without subtlety. Instead of letting the dreadful action speak for itself, Rushdie feels the need to frame it through “the ruling dynasty of India.” The prose here begs (pardon the crass pun) for a rhythmic juxtaposition between “labia-lips and lanky-beauties” and “magicians and old beggars,” but aside from the visual dashes and a few alliterative Ls in the first phrase, we have commonplace discordance. Is this an occupational hazard of communicating through a mishmash Mother India tongue? Saleem is capable enough to joke of a “djinn-soaked evening,” but why the explicit explanation for nasbandi? (Later Rushdie novels are, in fact, less literal than Midnight’s Children. But it is interesting to me that the Rushdie novel that is most celebrated is the one most cemented in explanation.)

* * *

Indagating further:

Rushdie’s early copywriting teaches him to condense. “Midnight’s Children may be long, but I don’t think it’s overwritten.” (The Sunday Times, October 25, 1981)

Rushdie establishes his vocational conditions on his own terms. “There are quite a lot of writers too who do advertising part-time. They both use it for the same reasons, a means to an end. I used to work never more than two days a week in advertising. Those two days would finance the other five. It’s very difficult for a completely unknown writer with no private means to find five-sevenths of his week entirely free for his own writing. In that sense, it was very useful. But it was also good to get out of it.” (Debonair Reviews, February 1982)

* * *

In Midnight’s Children, Saleem declares “…in autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.” Rushdie has denied that Midnight’s Children is a historical novel in numerous interviews. Is belief the only quality that remains? Aadam Aziz, Saleem’s grandfather, is separated from his friends by “this belief of theirs that he was somehow the invention of their ancestors.” And yet belief related to birth is both problematic and ugly, as when Saleem states his “belief that Pavarti-the-witch became pregnant in order to invalidate my only defense against marrying her.” Then there is India’s “national longing for form” — “perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality.” The midnight children do eventually lose belief in the very mechanism Saleem creates for them.

So if belief in Midnight’s Children cannot be tied to history, cannot be tied to people both real and imagined, and cannot be manifested even in the positive events that Saleem describes in hindsight (even the ones that result in betrayal), why then should we believe in Saleem? Why should we believe in Rushdie?

It seems to me that what I have been protesting through this essay — admittedly in the manner of an easily distracted tap dancer who longs for another ballroom — is not so much the idea of a novel reframing intricate history in a quirky and robust manner (which Midnight’s Children does quite well at times), but the troubling notion of Saleem (and by extension Salman) refusing to believe or burrow into belief.

In a 1996 interview, The Critical Quarterly‘s Colin McCabe asked Rushdie about the idea of creating a version of Islamic culture that could be inherited without belief. Rushdie replied (in part), “I felt that I had inherited the culture without the belief, and that the stories belonged to me as well. And because they belonged to me they were mine to use, in, if you like, my way.”

So if Rushdie sees culture, both religious and secular, as mere mechanical strata to pluck and claim as his own, then perhaps I’m objecting to his inherent insensitivity: his brazen ownership of other people’s ideas without recognizable deference to the originators. But in claiming ideas so totally in Midnight’s Children (an admittedly admirable performance), I don’t think he leaves nearly enough for the reader.

Next Up: Henry Green’s Loving!

Tobacco Road (Modern Library #91)

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

Like many great writers of the 20th century, Erskine Caldwell experienced difficulties keeping his dick in his pants. While such bulging foibles aren’t normally the stuff of pertinent consideration, Erskine Caldwell Reconsidered (edited by Edwin T. Arnold and published by the University Press of Mississippi) is the rare academic volume offering a partially persuasive case that Caldwell’s philandering was one throbbing element of the creative package.

In an essay titled “Caldwell’s Women,” Harvey L. Klevar writes, “During the first decade of his career — during the period he was married to Helen — he published quality novels and stories enough to satisfy a lifetime’s quota for an average writer.” Helen Caldwell Cushman, Erskine’s first wife, didn’t just correct Erskine’s mistakes and critique and type his fiction. She apparently allowed Erskine to carry on extramarital affairs, with the family living in near destitution as Erskine plugged away. How does Klevar know all this? Well, in the same volume, Klevar scored an interview with Helen, digging up considerable dirt. On their first date, Erskine told Helen, “I’d like to knock you in the head with a rock and go to bed with you.” As pickup lines go, that’s somewhat audacious for the early 1920s. Yet Helen managed to stick around. Erskine’s effrontery carried on into their wedding night, when Erskine took Helen to five burlesque shows. Years into the marriage, Erskine’s reliance on Helen had reached remarkable heights:

I used to cut his work. I used to cut through with a big blue pencil. And I corrected his errors. When he was in the throes of creation, shall we call it, he was completely inapproachable, and nobody was allowed to make any noise in this house. And don’t think that was easy, with two young children. I had to keep them out of the way. He wrote very painfully and was possessed to write. He had this internal compulsion. And I was truly interested in his work or I would have left him long, long before.

Many floundering marriages squeeze in a few additional years because of money or children or tax advantages or a capitulation to religious hypocrisy. But I was amazed that Helen suffered Erskine’s cavalier caprices simply because she was curious about his writing. It’s a testament to either Erskine’s wild originality or Helen’s supreme patience.

Klevar also reports in his book-length biography that Caldwell started work on his first novel, Tobacco Road, not long after Helen’s father died, just after Christmas 1930. It’s also worth noting that Caldwell informed legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins that he was “trying to get a new book started,” only to finish the novel in rough draft less than three months later. On May 4, 1931, Perkins received the manuscript, a little more than two weeks after Caldwell finished the rough draft. Was Helen instrumental in getting the book up to speed in such a short time? Perkins would later reply, “I’ll tell you plainly that I think myself [Tobacco Road] is well nigh perfect within its limits.” Another biography by Dan B. Miller suggests that Caldwell began writing Tobacco Road “six months before in California, and completed the actual writing in only three months.” On the other hand, Miller also writes that, despite Helen trimming “a bit here and there,” “the bulk of the novel remained as Caldwell had originally written it.”

I bring up the salacious details not to impugn or slander Erskine Caldwell, although there are many reasons for austere moralists to disapprove of his life choices (in Erskine’s defense, he would stay with his fourth and final wife Virginia — initially his editorial assistant and secretary — for close to thirty years). One must take great care to separate the art from the artist. Yet Caldwell’s fiction, with its truths about human perversity rooted in the libidinal and the louche, often resonates so strongly that one cannot help but consider these personal circumstances.

* * *

I will say that I’ve enjoyed Erskine Caldwell’s writing a great deal ever since I first read his salacious short stories (along with Cheever, de Maupssant, Maugham, and many others) as an aimless yet endlessly curious undergrad reading books while working evening and graveyard shifts as a desk clerk at a halfway house in the Tenderloin. When you’re a shy kid scrutinizing and buzzing in recovering heroin addicts and former alcoholics and ex-prostitutes and sundry streetwise fulminators, you become more willing to give people a second chance. Caldwell’s outlandish tales, especially when read at 3AM, were helpful vessels for this raucous world.

Yet for some reason (likely laziness or obliviousness), I never got around to reading Tobacco Road until a few weeks ago. I hadn’t read Caldwell in recent years, mainly because I have resisted revisiting authors who meant much to me as a young man. The profound insights one purports to detect at twenty are silly and superficial when one edges closer to forty.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy Tobacco Road as much as I did. This is a rare novel that not only gets the vernacular exact, but that forces an audience outside this world to confront its own inherent prejudices about the impoverished. (When Tobacco Road was turned into a play by Jack Kirkland — the 15th longest running Broadway show in history — did its success have more to do with New York audiences laughing at their own biases about the seemingly backward or the overt sexuality? Caldwell’s most lucid answer on the subject came from a 1941 interview in The Washington Star: “When people laugh at the antics of Jeeter Lester, they’re only trying to cover up their feelings. They see what they might sink to.”)

Five pages into the book, Lov Bensey, just after walking seven and a half miles with a sack of turnips on his back (no convenience stores in Depression era Georgia, of course) and just after complaining about his twelve-year-old wife not sleeping with him, is already “thinking about taking some plow-lines and tying Pearl in the bed at night. He had tried everything he could think of so far, except force, and he was still determined to make her act as he thought a wife should.” I love how Caldwell orphans the phrase “except force” in commas, suggesting that there’s another level to Lov’s ruminations. What makes this situation perversely funny is how Lov seeks advice from his father-in-law Jeeter Lester before going ahead with this plan. He requires confirmation from another that this terrible idea is terrible.

While it’s certainly true that we all possess terrible ideas, if you subscribe to any religious or philosophical ideas of universal enlightenment, you’re probably inclined to believe that there is a common goodness within every soul which repairs these base instincts. This essential goodness generates remorse, reconsideration, penitence, and numerous other feelings in response to previous actions.

The Lester family contains seventeen kids (at least one of them not sired by Jeeter) who have all occupied the ramshackle environs of Tobacco Road and have largely stuck it out waiting to be married off. When the aptly named Lov shows up at the beginning of Tobacco Road to complain about Pearl, there are only two kids left: the harelipped Ellie May and the baseball thumping and car horn blasting Dude. (Physical infirmities abound in this novel. When Bessie Rice shows up later, tricking Dude into a shotgun wedding without the premarital fumbling, her underdeveloped and boneless nose is compared to “looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun.”)

Escape would seem to be the only option for the Lester kids. Yet in fleeing this poverty, do they not become as sneering in their own way as the judgmental northern audiences reading this book? We learn that the oldest child, Tom, has become a successful cross-tie contractor “at a place about twenty miles away.” Later, when members of the family attempt to pay Tom a visit in Burke County, Tom wants nothing to do with them. Upon hearing this news, Jeeter repeats the phrase, “That sure don’t sound like Tom talking,” almost as if it’s a curative mantra to help one cope with an unforgiving reality. Another child, Lizzie Belle, has fled to a cotton mill, but “had not said which one she was going to work in.”

Are these characters good in some way? Have the Lesters developed any standards approximating some form of enlightenment? These questions of civilization — the brutal northern metric Caldwell passes along uncomfortably to the reader — hardly matter when these people are so impoverished. Especially when the impoverishment hinges upon how they believe the world operates (rather than how it really operates) and how capitalism has exploited them. Unable to raise a profitable cotton crop and denied the credit to purchase guano and seed-cotton, we learn that Jeeter has been forced to take a high-interest loan where it’s impossible for him to get back into the black. The financial situation sounds eerily similar to predatory lending during the recent subprime crisis:

The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. when he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan….Seven dollars for a year’s labor did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and had furnished the land and mule, too.

Jeeter still believes that he can get the farm back, even though he has sold off nearly every possession. And it is this tragicomic belief which sustains the Lester legacy, even after death and tragedy, in the book’s final paragraph. Should the Lesters, however repugnant they are perceived, be condemned because they have aspirations? This is a difficult question for elitists to swallow. Even the seemingly progressive-minded Kenneth White, writing in the July 16, 1932 issue of The Nation, complained, “There is nothing sentimental, for example, about Jeeter’s lyrical speeches of complaint, for everything is complained about. The error of the last words of the book is the error of dropping the comic method to point a moral.” What White failed to understand was that the comic, the sentimental, and the moral exist simultaneously in Caldwell’s novel. Judging by some of the surprisingly harsh reactions to Tobacco Road on Goodreads (“it seems like we were meant to laugh at the horrible people doing stupid things and making disastrous decisions, but what’s the fun in that?” or “I was horrified at what I perceived Caldwell was trying to do: get us to laugh at abject poverty, ignorance, and low down misery.”), it would appear that people remain just as uncomfortable contending with these blended emotions nearly eight decades after the book’s publication.

Caldwell is careful to demonstrate that surviving based on how one thinks isn’t confined to the low-class Lesters. When Bessie Rice cajoles Dude Lester into marrying her, bribing the young Dude with the purchase of a car with nearly the total savings of her recently departed husband, the Clerk asks the couple how they intend to support each other. “Is that in the law, too?” asks Bessie. “Well, no,” replies the Clerk. “The law doesn’t require that question, but I thought I’d like to know about it myself.”

Does the answer to one simple question offer the smoking gun? People, even the ones we frown upon, are more complicated than this. Should we judge Erskine Caldwell on his adultery or the Lesters on their apparent atavism? If all of us remain judgmental to some degree, believing we know or assuming we are entitled to know, perhaps all of us occupy some form of Tobacco Road.

Next: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children!

Ironweed (Modern Library #92)

(This is the 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 Magus)

[Only months after writing this essay, we were extremely honored to interview William Kennedy for The Bat Segundo Show. That conversation runs 64 minutes and gets into Kennedy’s entire career.]

“Anybody who doesn’t have an idea about what it is to be homeless, or on the road or lost and without a family, really hasn’t thought very much at all.” — William Kennedy, Interview with The Paris Review

William Kennedy was in his mid-fifties when all of his novels went out of print. While he remained a working journalist, his latest manuscript about a scuffed up drifter named Francis Phelan — a minor character from his 1978 novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game — had been rejected by thirteen publishers. Ironweed had come comparatively quicker than his previous novels. Kennedy wrote eight versions of Legs over six years. He devoted two years to Billy Phelan. But he wrote Ironweed in seven months. Still, this unanticipated celerity was of null solace to publishers studying Kennedy’s then sketchy sales record.

Kennedy was hardly a stranger to such uncertainty on the fiction front. In his initial fiction efforts, he wrote 30 stories These were all rejected. As he told Penny Maldonado in a 1969 interview, it was a rejection slip from The Atlantic reading “You write with a facility that has held our attention” that kept him going for ten more years. Saul Bellow, whom Kennedy met while in Puerto Rico, had urged the young Kennedy to carry on with his fiction writing. But Kennedy, banging away late into the night after a long day, would fall asleep at 2AM in the middle of a sentence. He felt he did not know his hometown of Albany, New York. So he moved back. Bellow continued to encourage him, even helping him secure an agent. Indeed, without Bellow, Ironweed would not have been published at all. It was Bellow’s direct intervention with Viking Press which ensured that Kennedy’s best known novel was published. The book would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Kennedy would be awarded a $264,000 tax-free MacArthur fellowship and he would use this money to establish what is now known as the New York State Writers Institute. Ironweed would be included on the Modern Library list, where, years later, some wild-eyed bastard in Brooklyn with a ridiculously ambitious reading project would finally get around to it.

* * *

I had not read Kennedy before, but I am glad that I did. Like Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, I read the book twice, thought about it for a while, and found myself very tempted to read additional volumes. Fortunately, I was halted from such ambition after taking a look at Benedict Giamo’s The Homeless of Ironweed, a dry and overanalytical tome written by one of those insufferable academics who can never see beyond their blinkered and not especially interesting perspectives. I realized that I’d be on firmer ground confining my modest insights to just one book in Kennedy’s multi-volume Albany Cycle.

Ironweed opens on October 31, 1938. Francis Phelan, a former major league ballplayer bouncing around for twenty-two years, sees dead people. Thankfully, by every artistic standard, William Kennedy is a superior writer to M. Night Shyamalan. The dead, which include Francis’s expired relatives and a few men he’s killed mostly in self-defense, observe him as he labors at Saint Agnes Cemetery. They haunt him in buses and boxcars. Is Francis hallucinating? Do these visions emerge from his drinking problem? Over the years, there has been a temptation among some critics to cite this facet of Ironweed as “magical realism.” But because Ironweed is such a human novel, I think that the ghosts can more sufficiently identified as part of Francis’s perspective. After all, if we wish to accept and understand troubled souls, then we must often acknowledge what seems real to them. (It’s worth observing that in a 1983 interview with Larry McCaffery, Kennedy pointed out that the ghosts “probably came more from Our Town and Dickens than from Marquez.”)

We learn in the book’s masterful first chapter that Francis has suffered great grief. Years before, Francis accidentally dropped his infant son Gerald onto the hard tile floor of a saloon, killing him only thirteen days after his birth.* “Francis left his family, drowned his sorrows in drink, and took up with another woman named Helen. Yet learn, in 1930, that Francis lost his job at a fixit shop through no fault of his own and he could not land another job. Back then, he left Helen too. He stays with her still, but the relationship has attenuated.

What causes Francis to run? Does Francis’s transiency transform him into an impatient and violent figure? Well, it’s complicated. Here is a man who, upon returning to his family home on All Saints’ Day with a turkey, says “I don’t want no fights, rile up the family.” And it would seem that he’s the type to avoid conflict. Yet only moments before, after an aggressive effort to collect payment from a ragman, Francis says, “And I ain’t really a bad sort once you get to know me.” But when a shady figure name Little Red tells him to shut up in a flophouse, Francis instantly resorts to violence.

Undoubtedly, being identified as a bum hasn’t exactly put Francis’s grief on the fast track. Late in the book, Rudy (a kind of quasi-Lenny to Francis’s George Milton) tells Francis that people call downtrodden figures bums because they feel better when they say it. But is being a bum such a cut and dry term of disparagement? Not exactly. When Francis works for a ragman named Rosskam, Rosskam regularly amends his assessment of the former Washington Senators ballplayer turned sandwich-eating “bum” with modifiers (“tidy,” “impatient,” “sensitive”), whenever Francis requests something or ventures a philosophical thought. Yet during one moment, the act of physical labor triggers a revelatory self-assessment:

He rubbed his hands together. Where they the enemies? How could a man’s hands betray him? They were full of scars, calluses, split fingernails, ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws, veins so bloated and blue they seemed on the verge of explosion. The hands were long-fingered, except where there was no finger, and now, with accreting age, the fingers had thickened, like the low-growing branches of a tree.

If Francis’s hands are an accumulative road map of nasty nicks and sad crannies, then why isn’t there any indication here of Francis’s past as a ballplayer or a family man? Even accounting for the fact that this period in Francis’s life came before Rowdy Dick took off “two thirds of a right index finger” with a cleaver (a curiously exact phrase), surely the complete portrait would value this period as much as the epoch that involved “ill-healed bones broken on other man’s jaws.” On the other hand, Francis doesn’t entirely accept his physical form, for he views his hands as independent entities. “They don’t need me,” he tells Rosskam, “They do what they goddam please.” (This is another inverted nod to Steinbeck’s Depression novel. Lennie may not know his own strength, but the hard truth is that Francis does. It’s also worth noting that, in a 1989 New York Times Book Review essay, Kennedy would confirm his great admiration for Steinbeck, with a sly nod to Francis’s digits: “I look around and try to find other American writers whose work has meant as much to me, and I count them on one hand. Maybe one and a half.”) On the other hand, Francis uses his hands for labor and is willing to obtain compensation by any means necessary. When Rosskam makes a move to cheat Francis, Francis says, “Dead men took their last ride on their hand. You get me?”

Are Francis’s hands just as dead as the phantoms who haunt him? Is Francis’s life “long-lived, except when there was no life?” Labor as a form of salvation crops up throughout the book during unusual moments. For example, when Francis and Rudy meet a tubercular man named Moose in a flophouse, Moose says, “Probably ain’t nothin’ wrong with you work won’t cure.” Yet Ironweed‘s vagrants can work as hard as they want or even discover ten dollar bills that “grow on trees,” but they are still at the behest of raiders who bust up shantytowns, a reverend who won’t provide shelter to anyone who drinks (this policy causes a woman to die), and cruel “goblins” who rip off hard-earned money.

Yet Kennedy is careful to suggest that within societal dichotomies lie additional distinctions. (There’s something especially plaintive in Francis “seeing” the dead when he is perceived as “dead” by others.) “Some people,” says Rosskam, “they don’t know junk. It ain’t garbage. And garbage, it aint’ junk.” And as an early conversation between Francis and Rudy about an alcoholic named Sandra reveals, labels are all about aesthetic perception:

“She’s a bum or just on a heavy drunk?”
“She’s a bum.”
“She looks like a bum.”
“She’s been a bum all her life.”
“No,” said Francis. “Nobody’s a bum all their life. She hada been somethin’ one.”

The last line from Francis, with its sandwiched As and its dropped Gs, shows off one of the novel’s subtle strengths. From the vantage point of 2011, it’s difficult to corroborate the way in which the homeless talked in 1938. Yet within the context of the book, the vernacular here feels authentic — even when a kind librarian offers an overly formalistic command to Helen: “But you may stay as long as you like, my dear, if you choose to read.” (Can we truly imagine a librarian saying a sentence constructed like that today?)

But Francis and his ilk may as well be Martians to most of the world. This xenophobia is backed up by several oblique references to Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. When Francis returns home, he says, “It ain’t one of them fellas from Mars.” An early colloquy between Francis and Rudy discussing the recently transmitted hysteria has Francis proposing a solution to the claims that Martians landing in Grovers Mill, New Jersey: “Anybody sees a Martian oughta jump out two windows.” But at least one learned man in Albany — specifically, Dr. Benjamin Ross of Dudley Observatory — points out, “Earth is a very small target and in all probability a Martian space ship would miss it altogether.”

If seeing someone as lesser and/or foreign is the only way for these characters to survive, then this may explain Francis’s protest during a trolley strike in 1901. Francis’s involvement starts off fairly innocuously, lighting kerosene-soaked sheets on an electrical wire. But upon sighting a scab conductor named Harold Allen, he uses his pitching prowess to lob a stone at his skull. Harold becomes “the first man Francis Phelan ever killed.” When the dead Harold starts questioning Francis’s logic, all Francis can say is “I got arguments. I got arguments.”

Twenty-eight years later, Francis beats a charge of political corruption (voting for Democrats twenty-one times at five dollars a pop) on a technicality. The man who persuaded Francis’s lawyer to go easy with the bill is Martin Daugherty, a former neighbor and a newspaper columnist, who has written articles about Francis’s family. Indeed, we learn near the end of the book that one of Daugherty’s relatives, Edward, has written a left-wing play called The Car Burns lionizing Francis’s actions. This suggests that Francis’s actions matter more than he realizes, especially because they are memorialized by writers. The famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) certainly applies. On the other hand, two graveside names that Francis sees toiling at Saint Agnes are DAUGHERTY and KENNEDY. Even those who print the legends eventually die. If death unites all of us, why do we spend so much of our times erecting boundaries? Even in a gloomy novel like Ironweed, there’s a moment in which everybody comes together in a bar to experience “unnatural sociality.” The name of the bar? The Gilded Cage. “Where the old Gayety Theater used to be.”

* — Kennedy describes Gerald’s corpse in the cemetery as one with “a protective web which deflected all moisture, all moles, rabbits, and other burrowing creatures.” Additionally, Gerald’s “ability to communicate and to understand was at the genius level among the dead.” Is there some genius contained within Francis’s scions? Billy Phelan, Francis’s quite living son, says late in the book, “How could I know anything? I’m a goddam genius.” “Genius” may be just as useless a label as “bum.”

Next Up: Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road!

The Magus (Modern Library #93)

(This is the eighth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Wide Sargasso Sea)

Over the course of several interviews, John Fowles enjoyed recycling one particular anecdote concerning The Magus. The then bigshot author once received a letter from a woman who didn’t care for his book. The woman asked Fowles if two of the novel’s characters got together at the end. Fowles wrote back and said, “No.” He received another letter from a New York attorney dying of cancer in a hospital. The lawyer asked the same question, but, unlike the woman, informed Fowles that he enjoyed the book. Fowles replied, “Yes.” In 1986, Fowles would tell a dull interviewer seeking literal-minded answers, “I tell that story because that’s how I feel — I don’t know the answer. And I tend to react as people want, or don’t want it — if they’ve annoyed me — to end.” But Fowles’s story after the story does have me wondering about the novelist’s responsibility. If a novelist leaves his volume open-ended, does he not have some duty to know every aspect of his characters as he knows the back of his hand? On the other hand, if Fowles led his narcissistic schoolteacher Nicholas Urfe to a specific point, perhaps he’s off the hook for anything beyond these final words:

cras amet qui numquam amavit
quique amavit cras amet

Some takes on these closing lines, repurposed by Fowles from The Virgil of Venus (3rd century AD), can be found at the most definitive online place for all things Fowles. Loosely translated, the Latin reads: “Tomorrow let him love, who has never loved; he who has loved, let him love tomorrow.” While this suggests that Fowles wanted the frequently callous Nicholas to love again, the lingering question I had after finishing The Magus was whether Fowles even cared about people. I realize it’s important to separate the novelist from the novel, but I think my impressions were colored by The Magus‘s repugnant first-person perspective:

We both smiled, and we both knew we smiled to hide a fundamental truth: that we could not trust each other one inch.

At the risk of oversimplifying a big burly opus, this is the general timbre in which Nicholas relates to people. People don’t exist to feel. They exist to be used. At one point, there’s the possibility that Nicholas’s actions may have caused another person to commit suicide. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to learn from Eileen Warburton’s John Fowles: A Life in Two Worlds that Nicholas Urfe and John Fowles weren’t terribly far apart. The young Fowles, teaching at the University of Poitiers, was “a shy, self-absorbed young man” who was unable to write much of anything aside from his diaries. Yet even more than a decade after Fowles first talked shit about his friends and colleagues in his wildly bitter journals (collected in two volumes and loaded with the kind of vinegar and vitriol that one expects from a sociopath-in-training), he remains quite singularly absorbed in himself:

11 October 1963 It enrages [Elizabeth Whitton, Fowles’s wife] that my priority isn’t the getting of a house, it enrages me that her priority isn’t giving me the time (or peace) to finish The Magus. So we live at cross-purposes.

Fowles began work on The Magus (originally titled The Godgame) when he was 28, and then dropped the project for ten years. One quotation Fowles relied on during the writing of The Magus was from Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes: “I like the marvelous only when it is strictly enveloped in reality.” And yet the one thing distinct about The Magus is the frequent lack of reality. We are asked to believe that Nicholas, a learned man, would not conduct some serious research into Maurice Conchis, the apparent World War II veteran who charms Nicholas into his manipulative world, after so many inconsistent stories. (To cite just one example, if you are a young and self-absorbed man with poetic aspirations and a man tells you, “Words are for facts. Not fiction,” would you not doubt him?) Nicholas does look into Conchis and his ostensible associates eventually, but only after the terrain has shifted into the ridiculous, with Nazi reenactments and implausible impersonations.

It has been put forth by some critics that The Mysteries of Udolpho was an influence upon The Magus (both books initiate a series of adventures from the discovery of a poem), yet Fowles was to dismiss Ann Radcliffe in a 1956 diary entry: “not much ear, but some pleasant fragments of 1800 delight in batsy gloom and soft despair.” One accidental influence may have been Dickens’s Great Expectations. In a 1980 interview, Fowles was to speak approvingly of one dissertation making this connection, in large part because the student didn’t know that Fowles had taught Great Expectations while writing The Magus. (In a 1959 diary entry, Fowles, who mostly didn’t care for Dickens, called Chapter 29, where Pip returns to Miss Haversham’s house, “one of those remarkable seminal chapters in Dickens which really touch upon something vast and deep.”)

27 May 1964. I cut everything that stands in the way of the narrative thrust; anything that lapses beneath a certain state of tension. Because this seems to me the essence of the novel — the exact harmony between subject-matter (symbolisms, intellectual and stylistic aims) and narrative force (simple old readability). The words on a page have got to life it over. Narrative is a sort of magnetism.

When Nicholas tells Alison, the purported paramour whom he proceeds to treat like dirt, about the tricks that Conchis has been up to, he says, “It’s not that I believe any of these things in the way he tries to make me believe them….It’s simply that when I’m with him I feel he does have access to some kind of power.” And yet Conchis’s magnetism is clearly a load of bunk. When a man you confuse with “an Elizabethan nobleman” sends you a note not to come around again shortly after you have had to cut yourself free from German soldiers who have tied you up (and where did they come from by the way?), only to send you another message through his courtesan, surely there is a point in which you realize your homemade cork needle isn’t bobbing the way that you hoped.

On the other hand, hokum does sustain readability. In a 1971 interview with Daniel Halpern, Fowles would cop to going back to Chandler and Hammett in order to get a handle on craftsmanship. He admired Chandler especially, telling Halpern that “his best paragraphs are absolutely tight and hard. Like good furniture.” Sure enough, The Magus proves to be a learned man’s attempt to simulate pulp. Consider the early hookup between Nicholas and Alison:

“You don’t know what its like waking up with a man you didn’t even know this time yesterday. It’s losing something. Not just what all girls lose.”

“Or gaining something.”

“God, what can we gain. Tell me.”

“Experience. Pleasure.”

“Did I tell you I love your mouth?”

“Several times.”

She stubbed the cigarette out and sat back.

“Do you know why I tried to cry just now? Because I’m going to marry him.”

Hundreds of pages later, we get “I HATE YOU!” in all caps. We have words “spat out like a grape pip.” We have plenty of purple pots boiling: “Her eyes were very direct, so direct I looked down from them.” (These examples were culled from the revised edition, which was the only copy I could find. Yes, Fowles would revise The Magus in 1977, which he would declare the favorite of his novels “in the sense that one might love a crippled child more than normal children.”)

So when we tally up Fowles’s concern for taut narrative, the desperate approximation of tough guy craftsmanship, and the desire to write Dickensian chapters communicating epiphany (but stopping short of that “vast and deep” artistry through gesture; hence all the Jung and the philosophy and the psychoanalytic bullshit), it is especially interesting that he would write novels that weren’t interested in the most peremptory reader wish fulfillment: resolution. (Fowles wouldn’t confine his desire for open and alternative resolutions to his correspondents. His third novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman contains three possible endings.)

Of Anthony Burgess, Fowles was to write in his journal: “It is a mistake when fine minds wear a mask of plebeian coarseness to excuse themselves, even truth can’t pardon that.” I can’t help but feel this way about Fowles, a novelist who preferred the company of readers over critics and who, for a time, received the twin triumphs of unmitigated sales and critical acclaim. But stacked against Jean Rhys’s pith and Iris Murdoch’s layered comedy, for me, The Magus was the reading equivalent to watching an untrained wrestler without confidence attempt to fight himself.

It’s very possible that I was a tad too old to read this book. For many, I suppose The Magus is a bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But I’m certain there were other stumbling blocks having little to do with the philosophy. Self-described centathlete Michael Menche, also working his way through the Modern Library, observed that Fowles shares a quality with Herman Hesse: namely, an inability or unwillingness to make the reader laugh.

What’s especially interesting is that when The Magus came out, it was widely ridiculed in England. But in the United States, it was championed as a masterpiece. Whether trash or gem (and I suspect that Fowles would have agreed with both), I’ll let the novelist have the last words:

Novels, even much more lucidly conceived and controlled ones than this, are not like crossword puzzles, with one unique set of correct answers behind the clues — an analogy (“Dear Mr. Fowles, Please explain the real significance of…”) I sometimes despair of ever extirpating from the contemporary student mind.

Next Up: William Kennedy’s Ironweed!

Wide Sargasso Sea (Modern Library #94)

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

In Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, there’s an essay in which Dyer describes his reading habits. He writes about a late stage wade into Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. “I could make neither head nor tail of the first part,” notes Dyer. “[B]ut, since the book was short and the end in sight almost from the first page, I finished it and realized that it was indeed the masterpiece everyone had claimed.” It’s safe to say that this knowingly superficial take, coming from a man who has offered similarly ridiculous thoughts in relation to David Foster Wallace, is woefully insufficient, even if it does come from a posturing Englishman. To adjust Dyer’s own metaphor into a framework which renders the length of a book extraneous, I think that judging any author against the promise and the propinquity of the last page is the cry of a miscreant, one either disinterested in literature or, as Scott Esposito has recently suggested, trolling so that he can move more units.

As someone who has recently confessed his own blind spots and “allergies” in relation to Jane Eyre (along with a willingness to confront this aesthetic resistance), I feel it incumbent to report that Jean Rhys’s masterpiece placed me in such a great trance that approaching it like some notch to be etched on my belt or miscomprehending the first part never entered my mind. If anything, I wished to comprehend it more. It could very well be that the silly ambition of this project has forced me to become obsessed with some of the individual volumes. But when I read Wide Sargasso Sea a second time, I had to stop myself from reading it a third time.

By contrast, when I read Jane Eyre in January, I felt no such impulse. I wanted to scream very much in the manner of Bertha, throw the book against the wall, and then try to understand why Charlotte Bronte drove me crazy while perfectly amicable and intelligent people continued to enjoy Jane Eyre (and its overwrought cinematic adaptations). It will be at least ten years before I attempt to read Jane Eyre again. Why should this be? I suggested in my Jane Eyre essay that Rochester was my entry point, yet Rochester is an absolute scoundrel in Wide Sargasso Sea. In considering both books, I find myself pitying him in Jane Eyre while loathing him in Wide Sargasso Sea. (It isn’t enough for Rochester to pluck her surname; he must change her first name too. We know this in both books, but the gesture means something different in Wide Sargasso Sea, perhaps because Rochester is there to answer, and often not answer, for his actions.) Yet strangely enough, I can compartmentalize these two feelings, perhaps because Rhys’s book stands as firmly on its own two feet as Bronte’s. Rhys has the benefit of being complementary, but I somehow came away feeling that Jane Eyre was the volume inspired from this one. Bronte’s line of Rochester making Jane Eyre “love him without looking at me” is expanded upon in exceptionally cruel and interesting ways by Rhys. “Look at me,” says the scheming Christophine to Antoinette. “Look in my eyes.” Did Rochester pick up such obeah from Granbois? Was such magic enough for Jane to hear that of Rochester from afar, speaking “in pain and woe, wildly eerily, urgently”? Or were all such women he encountered susceptible to the look? (An idea for a grad student: Rochester as a 19th century Zoolander?)

Unlike Jane Eyre, I found Antoinette is an immensely sympathetic character. I truly believed that she could run away from Rochester, yet I couldn’t believe this of Janet. Antoinette not only suffers terrible abuses (a girl swipes her only dress at a bathing pool for mere pennies, her mother disowns her, she attempts to love her husband and he takes her money), but, if we are to believe her perspective, she is demeaned by nearly every side character. She is called “white nigger,” “white cockroach,” and beke. She is presumed mad by lineage, with her new hubby Rochester one of the biggest boosters of this hysterical theory (on flimsy evidence too). Yet isn’t it a bit mad for Rochester, even if he is suffering from a fever, to echo all of Christophine’s words when he is being rightfully condemned? To call this a double standard is an understatement. Unlike Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea gives us multiple perspectives (the never named Rochester, Antoinette, and the transformed “Bertha”) with which to assess the action. Yet the additional vantage points creates something oblique and tantalizingly incomplete.

But even though this book leaves so many questions, there’s a good deal of potent imagery, much of it startlingly specific. Consider the family parrot, Coco, who tries and escape a fire — the conflagration a case of vengeful arson after Antoinette’s new stepfather (one Mr. Mason) says some impetuous words easily overheard — to the dilapidated home in Coulibri in the book’s first part. Coco’s wings have been clipped by Mr. Mason after he “grew very bad tempered,” even though he sits quietly on Antoinette’s mother’s shoulder. Coco’s death is clearly a sign of things to come:

I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.

We know, of course, that Antoinette will be doing a good deal of screeching herself as Bertha. Coco is hardly the only bird in the book. Later, when Antoinette leads Rochester down a very bad road pushing past the boundary of Granbois, Rochester hears a bird whistling “a long sad note.” He asks, “What bird is that?” But Antoinette is too far ahead to hear his question. Later, Rochester encounters a moth so large “that I thought it was a bird.” Does Rochester see birds (or women he can crush) in every half-feeling being? Once Antoinette is past the point of no return, Rochester has this to offer:

I will listen to the mountain bird. Oh, a heartstopper is the solitaire’s one note — high, sweet, lonely, magic. You hold your breath to listen…No…Gone. What was I to say to her?

That this comes after Antoinette has tried to explain her personal history to Rochester is especially stinging. “You have no right to ask questions about my mother and then refuse to listen,” says Antoinette during one key moment, after Rochester has met with Daniel Cosway about some adulterated family business that may or may not be real. What is Rochester’s reply? “Of course I will listen, of course we can talk now, if that’s what you wish.” Rochester tells us that he listens to Christophine. But he only listens in self-interest, only because what she is talking to Antoinette about is “dangerous.” Long after that, Rochester declares, “Sing your songs, Rupert the Rine, but I’ll not listen, though they tell me you’ve a sweet voice.” It becomes quite clear that Rochester listens only as a scarcely practiced marital obligation. But given the fact that he’s boffing the servant Amelie, he’s hardly a man of duty. (Not especially a gentleman on the subject of getting it on with the missus, Rochester notes, “Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was — more lost and drowned afterwards.”) Alas, as Antoinette learns from Christophine, Rochester has English law on his side. And if that means Rochester sleeping in his dressing room, so be it. Having fleeced the pittance left, Rochester’s view of Antoinette is somewhat akin to the high-pitched voice opening up Swizz Beatz’s “Money in the Bank”: “She ain’t got no money in the bank / She be walking round acting all stank.”

Of course, Rhys had a great deal of time to think about Antoinette. Wide Sargasso Sea was the book she offered to the world after nearly thirty years of anonymity. As it turns out, she wasn’t entirely slacking off during that time. In a letter to her daughter on March 9, 1949 (which I found in Lilian Pizzichini’s biography, The Blue Hour), Rhys was to write:

If I could earn some shekels I’d fly from damp and bloody Beckenham and finish my book. Oh God if I could finish it before I peg out or really turn into some fungus or other!

I think of calling it The First Mrs. Rochester with profound apologies to Charlotte Bronte and a deep curtsey too.

But I suppose that won’t do. (I’m supposing you’ve studied Jane Eyre like a good girl).

It really haunts me that I can’t finish it though.

The above letter counteracts the familiar claim that Rhys took nine years to write Wide Sargasso Sea and that Rhys was commissioned to write the book in 1957. A crass numbers man might do the math. If Rhys was thinking about Wide Sargasso Sea for 17 years, and the result is a 170 page volume, then that’s ten pages a year. How much of the book did Rhys write in her head?

Some early critics of the book expressed their resentment at having to know a good deal of Jane Eyre before “knowing” Wide Sargasso Sea. A critic in the Sunday Times, knowing nothing of Rhys being born in Dominica, hoped that Rhys would return to “an aspect of life she has observed and experienced rather than by annotating” Bronte. Such variegated views tend to undercut the distinct possibility that with great cogitation comes great literature.

Next Up: John Fowles’s The Magus!

Under the Net (Modern Library #95)

(This is the sixth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: Sophie’s Choice)

The movement away from theory and generality is the movement toward truth. All theorizing is a fight. We must be ruled by the situation itself, and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net.

The above sentiment comes from Annandine, a character in a manuscript entitled The Silencer, modeled upon some philosophical chatter between a frustrated translator named Jake Donoghue and an industrialist/sophist named Hugo Belfounder, which is contained within Iris Murdoch’s debut novel, Under the Net. And if all that makes the book sound like a matryoshka doll with endless porcelain layers that need to be opened if the reader has any hope of unraveling the truth (to some degree, it is), then I should also note that Under the Net is also a sprightly picaresque novel. There are dogs, fireworks, giant Roman film sets occupied by socialists, martinets working at hospitals, experimental theatrical performances, and mad searches for people in pubs.

The Complete Review‘s Michael Orthofer called these affairs “a bit too manic” and accused Murdoch’s protagonist of living a life that was “a bit too unsettled.” The latter charge is certainly true. Jake Donoghue does indeed hop from domicile to domicile, often at the behest of a generous woman, seeking rent-free space to sleep and frequently checking his possessions in with a newspaper vendor named Mrs. Tinckham (a working-class Lady Metroland?). But I think the good Mr. Orthofer’s being a bit unfair. The book’s bountiful gallivanting reminded me of similar evenings I’ve had. I may not have plunged fully clothed and drunken into the Thames (although I have thrown my unclothed and inebriated form into the San Francisco Bay), but I have climbed through windows, crashed parties, and found myself locked in rooms. I suppose verisimilitude depends upon the circumstances you invite into your life. For my own part, I have been liberal-minded.

As many know, Murdoch was an Oxford-trained philosopher and a leftist (at one point, a member of the Communist Party, as was de rigueur among the Oxford set), leaving one pondering the real-life origin of the above-cited philosophy. The snippet may have emerged from something Murdoch overheard from two students. Or perhaps it didn’t have any existential origin point at all. At the end of Under the Net, after many journeys in London and Paris, Jake is presented with an observational puzzle. “I don’t know why it is,” he responds. “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.”

This tidy finale suggests that the philosophy presented in this novel is very much about the journey rather than the destination. The “original” Jake/Hugo conversation, which concerns the lofty topic of whether or not language is capable of expressing our true feelings, demonstrates the inherent emotion within the proposition. “There’s something fishy about describing people’s feelings,” says Hugo, who swims in these choppy waters to expound his theory that all statements are falsified from the start. Say that you’re “apprehensive” after the fact, Hugo says, and it doesn’t cut the mustard. That these words are exchanged in an experimental clinic, where both men are sick, says it all.

If language can’t capture every mite of emotional complexity, then the completed volumes contained within Murdoch’s volume matter very much to her effervescent characters. Jake’s translation of a novel becomes an unanticipated instrument of coercion. The Silencer, Jake’s effort at writing a novel (“treated to a few lukewarm reviews”), is also responsible for much of the lack of communication between characters. Because Jake has modeled his novel on his conversation with Hugo, he is reticent to reestablish ties — until, of course, he discovers Hugo’s involvement with a pair of sisters he knows. And even then, he has “really very little idea about what I wanted to say to Hugo.” It is only when Hugo is ensnared in a hospital that Jake can at long last use language to patch things up. But Hugo claims that, despite his singular philosophy from the past, he cannot remember what he talked with Jake about. Later still, Jake locates Hugo’s copy of The Silencer (Murdoch’s novel contains a remarkable amout of breaking and entering), and discovers that Hugo has “underlined passages, put crosses and question-marks in the margin; and at one place there was a penciled note, Ask J.” Is Hugo being coy? Or does he genuinely not remember? And if it’s the latter, where does the point of translation begin?

Why not seek such answers in the protagonist himself? Jake’s main employment comes from translating a hack French novelist named Jean Pierre Breteuli, author of such books as This Wooden Nightingale. But later in the book, Jake discovers that Jean Pierre’s latest volume (which Jake hasn’t yet translated) has won the Prix Goncourt. This merit is enough to confuse poor Jake, who has spent much of his time viewing Jean Pierre’s work (and thus his own labor) with derision:

I had classed Jean Pierre once and for all. That he should secretly have been changing his spots, secretly ennobling his thought, purifying his emotions: all this was really too bad. In my imagination I was already lending the book every possible virtue, and the more I did so the more I felt a mingled rage and distress which drove every other idea from my mind.

Murdoch plays Jake Donoghue in the first person. And it seems prudent to bring this up, given that the two Quentin sisters he encounters are both involved in performance. The younger, Sadie, is a film star, a seeming ingenue who Jake dismisses as childish (despite hanging out with men who enjoy being childish), but who proves more cunning. She asks Jake to take care of her flat, but she locks him in. Still looking for a place to live, Jake meets the older sister, Anna Quentin, who is a former singer six years older than Jake, a past fling, and now something of an experimental theater queen (literally crowned by Jake). Anna’s also as old as Murdoch was when she wrote Under the Net. Jake attempts to reintroduce himself into Anna’s life through a quite eccentric method:

At that time too I had, in a not entirely disinterested fashion, been teaching Anna some Judo, and one of our customs had been that when I came in I would seize her and throw her down into this corner to be kissed. The memory of this rose in me now like an inspiration and I advanced upon her. I took her wrist, and for an instant her eyes wide with alarm, very close to mine, and then in a moment I had thrown her, very carefully, on to a pile of velvet costumes in the corner of the room.

If Anna can be likened to Murdoch, might it be possible to construe this as a character pouncing upon its creator? That’s probably a stretch. Still, Jake has his custom, just as sufficiently transferred through years of singular permutations as The Silence, and it is feeling which causes this physicality. If it so astonishing through physical action, then is it not possible that such fancies are just as astonishing through the linguistic? Jake’s competing with fragments of all types. When Anna eventually leaves, Jake is locked up in the theater and must spend the night in a room amongst a good deal of bric-a-brac. When Jake catches sight of Anna later in Paris, he cannot catch up with her. He is reduced to plucking her shoes from the grass.

Jake is certainly a young man with fussy peculiarities (“I hate entering a crowded room and feeling a whole gallery of faces focused upon me,” “I find that sea voyages promote reflection”), yet one who impulsively declares that he’s a socialist when confronted by a political figure named Lefty Todd. What do politics mean in this book? More of a dog-and-pony show (with a film set subbing in for the pony) than anything else. There is an effort at a political conversation between Lefty and Jake. Jake makes an appointment to continue it, but he never does. If philosophy is something that is transmuted over iterations, then politics resembles more of an endless cycle.

Under the Net is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, and this French comic novelist proved to be such an influence that Murdoch would later cop to copying him as much as she could. One sees Queneau’s Pierrot Mon Ami as one of two novels that Jake leaves behind when he must flee his rent-free home at the beginning. The other book Jake abandons is Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. Despite Murdoch’s dedication, it is with Beckett that the imitative influences are more readily identified. Jake has distant kin named Finn, often confused as a servant, and this is very close to the relationship between Neary and “his âme damnée and man-of-all-work, Cooper” in Murphy. Neary’s pursuit of Miss Counihan might be likened to Hugo Belfounder’s pursuit of Sadie in Under the Net. Where Murphy suffers from heart attacks (although that’s nothing compared to Neary’s ability to stop his heart), Jake suffers from shattered nerves. However, in a possible deference to Neary’s sputtering palpitations, Murdoch does have Jake’s heart “beating out the refrain too late” when locating a taxi. More obviously, in both books, a hospital figures prominently.

In a 1968 interview with WK Rose, Murdoch was to call Murphy “a kind of ancestor to Under the Net.” And in John Bayley’s book, Elegy for Iris, Murdoch’s husband revealed that Murdoch learned about Murphy directly from Queneau himself when the two writers hung out in various Brussels cafes. Jake Donoghue’s account, expurgated, accelerated, improved and reduced, gives off undeniable similarities, yet both books are sui generis.

In assessing Under the Net later in life, Murdoch was to write, “I can see very clearly how bad it is. It is very romantic and sentimental, even what is intellectual in it is intellectual in a romantic way. If anything saves it from complete wreck it is a sort of vitality and joy that lifts it a little.”

But it is this very sentimentality that not only makes the novel so much fun, but that permits Murdoch to use conceptual philosophy as ironic comedy. Aside from the funny methods in which the Quentin sisters lock Jake up, Jake’s cosmic fate serves as a comical counterpoint. He can only be kicked out of a domicile or locked into one. (These incarcerations are interesting involutions of Beckett’s Murphy, considering that Wylie is locked out of his room and our introduction to Murphy sees the layabout tied up by choice in a rocking chair. There is no rocking chair in Under the Net, but there is a rocking horse with “big vacant eyes.” This is undoubtedly a nod to the opthalmically obsessed Beckett, as well as DH Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” (Indeed, there are many winners at the racetracks in this novel.) Murdoch, to her sly credit, provides no homage to chess.

There is also the matter of Mister Mars, a stunt dog owned by the Bounty Belfounder Studio who is encountered by Hugo while locked in a cage. Mister Mars doesn’t quite serve as a Schrodinger-like answer to the Cartesian logic within Murphy, although at one point he does play dead so that Jake can escape an imbroglio. Over the course of the book, the dog is both young and old, worth nothing and worth quite a bit, quiet and boisterous. Yet the many parties feel the need to appraise him. “Sorry to be a business girl,” reads the final message concerning Mister Mars, “but one has to watch the cash, with the cost of living and partly living what it is.” “Partly living” is the key phrase here. Perhaps the young Murdoch, the progressive-minded humanist who eventually liberated herself from the Communist Party yoke (becoming a very hard Thatcherite in later years), was trying to determine if the novel offered a reconciliation point between accurately representing life and some concession to narrative that involved “partly living.” Under the Net succeeds because it is both a series of adventures (akin to The Ginger Man) and reflective of a young person’s intellectual journey. And what better metaphors are locked rooms or diminishing paramours for the divagating and theoretical manner in which we seize every possible scrap and hang on to every possible word?

[UPDATE: I had no idea that another Iris Murdoch biography had been published, but Martin Rubin’s review in the Wall Street Journal (published the day after my essay) sheds some additional light on the connections between Murdoch’s early life and her early novels. Was Jake Donoghue inspired by Frank Thompson? And if Murdoch recruited Thompson to the Communist Party, is it possibly that Lefty’s laughably smooth coercion of Jake in Under the Net is based on this exchange?]

Next: Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea!

Sophie’s Choice (Modern Library #96)

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

In Alexandra Styron’s forthcoming book, Reading My Father, she describes liberating a galley of Sophie’s Choice, a presale unit freshly arrived at the family home, at the age of twelve. It was the spring of 1979. Her plan was to read the mint green paperback between classes. She felt it incumbent “to somehow validate the rumors of his greatness.” Young Alexandra discovers that the novel bores the tears out of her. “The difficult vocabulary and historical references kept eluding me,” she writes, “until finally I began to let them sail by, unchallenged.” Further, upon encountering her father’s libidinous passages, she then becomes embarrassed, wincing “at the liberal sprinkling of words like fucking and horny and lust.” (Here’s the full tally according to Amazon’s Look Inside! feature: “fucking” — 29 counts; “horny” — 4 counts; and “lust” — 20 counts. I am also informed that readers in need of steady doses of the mildly profane are likely to find a good deal more “fuck” and “fucking” in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman books. Miles Davis’s autobiography, published a decade after Sophie’s Choice, contains 672 uses of the word “fuck.” I think it’s safe to say that Styron was pushing the “fucking” boundaries no more and no less than any other writer around the time. Perhaps his striking tone says something about his ability to alarm.)

A good thirty-one years later, The Millions‘s Lydia Kiesling posted a Modern Library Revue installment on Sophie’s Choice. Kiesling, fourteen years older than Alexandra Styron when she first read Sophie’s Choice, wrote, “I’m not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels. However, while I’m not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that ‘mossy cunt’ and ‘undulant swamp’ are not the ideal epithets. I mean, Jesus. Also, it’s just so cheesy — the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasms.” To be fair to Styron, he actually writes about “her moist mossy cunt’s undulant swamp.” Say what you like about Styron, but it takes a rare writer willing to go the distance like this. (Incidentally, “release” gets five counts in Sophie’s Choice according to Amazon and in neither explicit usage that Kiesling claims. In fact, at one point, “release” in the orgasmic context is declared “an odious word” by young Stingo, of whose randiness more anon, in one of his notebooks.) This prompted Emma Barton (not the actress who played Honey Mitchell on EastEnders) to leave a spirited comment in response: “You must have noticed there’s a new generation of us younger feminists coming up who don’t get our panties in such a twist over guys talking about their sexual thoughts, since we’re pretty open about our own sexual thoughts too.”

If Styron’s sexual effrontery is a matter to be settled by the old guard feminists, then we’re in luck. In her essay “Night Thoughts of a Media Watcher,” Gloria Steinem was to offer stronger sentiments. For Steinem, Sophie’s Choice was “like reading a case history by Freud in which he stoutly maintains a woman patient was not really raped by her father as a child, but just made up this story because she had hoped it would happen.” To put it mildly, I don’t think this gets at the complexity that Styron was attempting. But let’s carry on. Shortly after Steinem concedes the possibility that “Styron knew what he was doing,” she writes, “My first hope is that there was no real Sophie, that Styron just made her up completely. Like Freud’s women patients, however, she is just real and believable enough to break your heart; all the more so because she is recorded by someone who describes her but never understands her.” While it is true that Styron has drawn heavily from his personal experience for Stingo (especially for Sophie’s Choice‘s enthralling opening chapter), Steinem’s diagnosis presupposes that Styron wasn’t remarking in some way upon Stingo’s own (and Styron’s own) failure to understand her. Styron alludes to a real-life Sophie in a 1983 interview with Stephen Lewis, but not for the reasons that Steinem imputes:

It summed up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil, which we really had not seen, certainly in civilized society, since history began to be recorded. It seized me so poignantly that I was compelled to write a book about it. I also connected it with something that had happened to me: I went to Brooklyn, in the late 1940s, and met a young — older than I was, but nonetheless young — woman who had been a survivor of Auschwitz, and who had a tattoo on her arm. Her name was Sophie.

So if absolute evil was Styron’s primary focus, how did we get from 29 uses of “fucking” to nebulous Freudian speculation to bright spirits duking it out in the comments at one of the Web’s best literary sites? Whatever it was that Styron was doing, in 2002, it was enough to get the California-based Norwalk-La Mirada High School District to remove Sophie’s Choice from its libraries after a single complaint. The objection? You guessed it. The sexual content. The ACLU intervened after students protested the distinct possibility that their very own First Amendment rights were being violated. The book was eventually returned to the stacks.

* * *

I think it’s remarkable that a brick-thick book from 1979 has continued to get so many people hot and bothered — especially since most novels written in the last decade don’t possess this power. (One cannot imagine people getting this worked up about Jonathan Franzen in 2043.) But now that I’ve finally read Styron’s masterpiece, I’m bewildered by much of the ballyhoo. The objections over the book’s sexual passages would suggest that all this exists independently from the book’s take on the Holocaust. It is almost as if the book’s opponents are incapable of reconciling the two strands, a grave oversight in light of the book’s presentation of tragic relativism, which I’ll get to in a bit. Of the four objections cited above, only Steinem makes a tenuous connection. And even then, she falls into the cliche of accusing Styron of some psychosexual fantasy — as if every impulse an author sets down involves unzipping the pants of the mind.

To get the hot stuff out of the way first, it cannot be stressed enough that we are dealing with Stingo, a young man who isn’t getting any during the postwar epoch, which comes a few decades before American culture has at long last grasped and permitted the reality of teenagers losing their virginity. As Stingo himself explains:

A lot in this way of bilious remembrance has been written about sex survivors of the fifties, much of it a legitimate lament. But the forties were really far worse, a particularly ghastly time for Eros, shakily bridging as they did the time between the puritanism of our forefathers and the arrival of public pornography. Sex itself was coming out of the closet, but there was universal distress over how to deal with it.

Here is a young man so lonely that we see him, in the book’s extraordinary opening chapter, fantasizing about “the Winston Hunnicutts, this vivid and gregarious young couple,” whom Stingo sees from his window in the rotting University Residence Club on West Eleventh Street. Yes, Stingo offers us extraordinary fantasies about the wife, using romantic language (“My lust was incredible…priapic, ravenous, yet under hair-trigger control”). But it is clear that Stingo’s fantasies also revolve around the Hunnicutts’ “enormous good fortune to inhabit a world populated by writers and poets and critics and other literary types.” To some degree, Styron’s fusion of sex with literary aspirations anticipates Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. And yet because Bolaño’s book carries the heft of multiple testimonies to sustain its illusion and Styron confines his interests to a singular first-person perspective, the former is permitted his posthumous genius while the latter is seen as a late middle-aged creep (also dead, by the way) getting his jollies through a young man’s perspective.

Never mind that Styron has taken care to include excerpts from Stingo’s notebooks, which contain prototypical revelations about Stingo’s life, along with wry commentary after these italicized passages: “I am a little mortified to discover that almost none of the above was apparently written with the faintest trace of irony (I actually was capable of ‘somewhat slightly’!”)”

If such provisos aren’t enough. Stingo, who is very aware of his prose style, is fond of embellishing his life story — even decades later — with seemingly robust, manly sentences. One such sentence reads: “I got up and made my way to the men’s room, weaving slightly, aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra of Rheingold, the jolly, astringent beer served at the Maple Court on draught.” Taken out of context, some of the phrasing (“aglow at the edges of my skin with a penumbra”) might be construed as awkward, yet Styron’s “edges of my skin” anticipates how the out-of-practice, out-of-time romantic phrase is no longer used among male writers today. Indeed, in recent years, “edges of my skin” has been used by such highly readable writers as Stephenie Meyer, Alice Sebold (in Lucky, no less), Aimee Bender, Lorrie Moore, and Justine Larbalestier. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single male writer born after 1970 using such a phrase in contemporary fiction.

Stingo’s revelations serve purposes beyond the ostensibly tawdry. Styron is telegraphing a dying language, revealing modernist modes misconstrued today as overly melodramatic. Yet if they are so over-the-top, why then is Styron so willing to have Stingo explain himself? As Stingo notes late in the book, once he has at long last accomplished his effervescent goal (I have blanked out the name to avoid spoilers):

The varieties of sexual experience are, I suppose, so multifarious that it would be an exaggeration to say that _____ and I did that night everything that it is possible to do. But I’ll swear we came close, and one thing forever imprinted on our brain was our mutual inexhaustibility. I was inexhaustible because I was twenty-two, and a virgin, and was clasping in my arms at long last the goddess of my unending fantasies….For me it was less an initiation than a complete, well-rounded apprenticeship, or more, and _____, my loving instructess, never ceased whispering encouragement into my ear. It was as if through a living tableau, in which I myself was a participant, there were being acted out all the answers to the questions with which I had half maddened myself ever since I began secretly reading marriage manuals and sweated over the pages of Havelock Ellis and other sexual savants.

Speaking as a man who was once twenty-two and sexually frustrated (as nearly every kid at that age is), I can assure all parties that Styron accurately describes what it means to sow one’s young oats.

If Sophie’s Choice were merely an itemization of Stingo’s sexual fantasies, then it would not have rightly earned its place in the Modern Library canon. I haven’t even brought up the indelible Nathan Landau, Sophie’s wildly exuberant and psychologically troubled Jewish paramour. He is inarguably worse than Stingo, prone to rages and boasting about cures for cancer, and abusive of Sophie and Stingo. Yet he shares much of Stingo’s autodidacticism. Indeed, it is Nathan’s curious amalgamation of knowledge (one might very well use the 21st century term “mashup”) that is the allure:

His range was astonishing and I had constantly to remind myself that I was talking to a scientist, a biologist (I kept thinking of a prodigy like Julian Huxley, whose essays I had read in college) — this man who possessed so many literary references and allusions, both classical and modern, and who within the space of an hour could, with no gratuitous strain, weave together Lytton Strachey, Alice in Wonderland, Martin Luther’s early celibacy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the mating habits of the Sumatran orangutan into a little jewel box of a beguiling lecture which facetiously but with a serious overtone explored the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism.

What’s especially interesting is how close this self-taught ideal mimics Stingo’s own narrative voice. The key tell here is “the intertwined nature of sexual voyeurism and exhibitionism,” which serves in parallel to Stingo’s own sexual exhibitionism. This is unconsummated for the most part, with even “a remarkably beautiful, sexually liberated, twenty-two-year-old Jewish Madonna lily named Leslie Lapidus” (later revealed to be involved in orgone therapy; Wilhelm Reich, of course, being one of the twentieth century’s great charlatans) just outside his grasp.

* * *

DG Myers has put forth the idea that Sophie’s Choice owes its historical importance not because of its literary quality, but as “a pioneering dissent on the Holocaust.” (While Myers’s 10,000 word essay is well worth reading, especially because Myers offers a very helpful overview of Styron’s developing thoughts on the Holocaust, Myers is curiously prudish about the novel’s sexuality.) I think he is right to observe that Sophie’s Choice is about “the ideological representation of the Holocaust,” with the origins of these thoughts to be found in Styron’s essay, “Auschwitz” (contained in This Quiet Dust). But Myers is wrong to suggest that Styron’s views on Jewish exclusivism — with the non-Jewish Sophie serving as Styron’s ecumenical exemplar — are invalidated by what Myers perceives to be a historical error. Myers cites Styron writing that Sophie “had suffered as much as any Jew,” but there is also this parenthetical (after Stingo has made efforts to reconcile Sophie’s life with George Steiner’s Language and Silence):

(It is surpassingly difficult for many Jews to see beyond the consecrated nature of the Nazis’ genocidal fury, and thus it seems to me less a flaw than a pardonable void in the moving meditation of Steiner, a Jew, that he makes only fleeting reference to the vast multitudes of non-Jews — the myriad Slavs and the Gypsies — who were swallowed up in the apparatus of the camps, perishing just as surely as the Jews, though sometimes only less methodically.)

Here, Styron dares to enter into the tricky realm of genocidal relativism by inclusion. Yet if Styron is going to quibble with Steiner, we must quibble with Styron by his own rules. Stingo has left out the pink triangles, the political prisoners, and numerous other laborers who perished in the camps. If Styron hopes to “sum up the absolute totalitarian nature of this evil,” it is quite possible that no book can truly contain it. On the other hand, when Styron writes of Stingo’s whereabouts on April 1, 1943, he is clearly showing the foolish nature of the comparative enterprise:

I was able to come up with the absurd fact that on that afternoon, as Sophie first set foot on the railroad platform in Auschwitz, it was a lovely spring day in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was gorging myself on bananas.

Stingo is gorging himself on bananas because he needs three more pounds to meet the minimum weight requirement to join the Marines. And yet, at the time, Stingo

had not heard of Auschwitz, nor of any concentration camp, nor of the mass destruction of the European Jews, nor even much about the Nazis. For me the enemy in that global war was the Japanese, and my ignorance of the anguish hovering like a noxious gray smog over places with names like Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen was complete. But wasn’t this true for most Americans, indeed most human beings who dwelt beyond the perimeter of the Nazi horror?

In condemning Styron for his “historical error,” Myers correctly observes that none of the books and records that Stingo quotes is a firsthand source. And yet while Myers is right to point out that Sophie’s testimony to Stingo “secures the narrative authority of Sophie’s Choice,” he fails to observe that even Styron’s fictional firsthand source is suspect, suggesting that “the novel’s case against the Jewish interpretation of the Holocaust depends upon the claim that Jews are ignorant of the historical reality.” But if Stingo himself starts from a blank slate of ignorance, is not the purported case against predicated on an interpretation built atop gentile ignorance? The details here are as much about the lies and the omissions as they are about what is stated and filtered through Stingo. Of one of Sophie’s accounts, Stingo notes, “Her brief observation on the function of Auschwitz-Birkenau….is basically an accurate one, and she neither exaggerated nor underestimated the nature of her various diseases….Why, then, did she leave out certain elements and details that anyone might reasonably have expected her to include?” Later in the novel, Stingo declares, “Would I not forgive her, she said, now that I saw both the truth and her necessity for telling the lie?” Still later, a highly inebriated Sophie exclaims, “Jews! God, how I hate them! Oh, the lies I have told you, Stingo. Everything I told you about Cracow was a lie. All my childhood, all my life I really hated Jews. They deserved it, this hate, I hate them, dirty Jewish cochons!”

This is distressing and prejudicial language. And it certainly points to one interesting takeaway that Myers promulgates: “The only respect in which [the novel’s Jewish characters] remain Jewish at all is in their exclusivist response to the Holocaust.” But can Stingo as narrator be entirely trusted? Is not Sophie’s anti-Semitic outburst, the fissures widened by self-medicating swigs of rye, not pointing to the inherent ugliness within the Enlightenment liberal position?

Sophie’s Choice is many things, but the thrust here may be more emotional than intellectual. Cannot the Holocaust be both ecumenical, as Styron once proposed, and exclusively Jewish? If one is not Jewish, and one feels deep sadness and great contrition for these tremendous atrocities, then Jewish exclusivity presents no other option other than conversion. Thus, Stingo’s romantic language, tailored for crass sexuality, may very well be upholding the folly buried within.

Since Myers was too timorous to consider this angle, I’m going to suggest that Stingo’s sexual longings represent some wishful reconciliation between Jewish exclusivity and universal understanding. For the gentile denied exclusivity, there is the commingling of guilt with passion, even carnal passion. Yet as Leslie Fiedler observed in his take on Sophie’s Choice, “Even when Stingo manages to participate in the action, he proves incapable of influencing its outcome.” So if Myers believes that Styron “fails to understand the sense in which the Holocaust calls into question the left-liberal distaste for Jewish exclusivism,” it would appear that he did not read the following reflective passage near novel’s end, when Stingo is attempting to balance his youthful journal with his adult self:

Someday I will understand Auschwitz. This was a brave statement but innocently absurd. No one will understand Auschwitz. What I might have set down with more accuracy would have been: Someday I will write about Sophie’s life and death, and thereby help demonstrate how absolute evil is never extinguished from the world. Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response.

Next: Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net!

(Image: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

The Sheltering Sky (Modern Library #97)

(This is the fourth entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1. Previous entry: The Postman Always Rings Twice)

When I first discovered the names Kit, Port, and Tunner, my mind instantly concluded that these must be debauched head honchos for some baleful corporate defense firm. This was then followed by a few inescapable jokes that I delivered to walls of books when nobody was around: Tunner getting Kit’s kit off, Port in a storm, and so forth. I am sad to report that the tomes offered no laughs or kind titters in return. Neither, for that matter, did my copy of The Sheltering Sky: a grim and largely humorless volume that did an impressive job filling about six hours of my life with a stupendous sense of dread. (I feel dreadful just remembering the experience of reading this book, even though I simultaneously recognize the book’s virtues and now see just how much Dan Simmons was channeling Bowles with his excellent debut novel, Song of Kali.)

It was especially interesting to see sundry uprisings break out in Africa shortly after I reached the end. It was almost as if world events were responding to my reading decisions! I suppose such a sentiment, however fleeting or half-formed, makes me a smug and clueless First World type. And I apologize to the Libyans, the Egyptians, and the Algerians for this. I cannot help the way my mind careens down certain paths. But then, unlike Kit, Port, and Tunner, I would never venture into unknown territory without bona-fide curiosity, a genuine sense of adventure, and, most importantly, a sense of collective inclusion. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

If you’re unfamiliar with The Sheltering Sky, it follows Port and Kit Moresby (impossible not to smile at the blunt accumulative connotation of this surname, eh? especially with the vapid type of American who, failing to see the magic within the “mundane,” mews out “More!” when asked about future plans and wonders years later why she’s so lonely and unfulfilled), a married couple who, presented with ravaged postwar home turf (both New York and Europe by natural extension), set out to Africa — in large part because they hope to find terrain untouched by global conflict. They are accompanied by Tunner, who isn’t quite as smart as the Moresbys. (“A bore, a bore, a bore!” whispers Port under his breath to Kit when Tunner is in the other room.) But one wonders if Kit and Port are really all that smart to begin with. At one point, when Port is remembering his reasons for the initial hegira, he compares himself to a pioneer: “he felt more closely identified with his great-grandparents, when he was rolling along out here in the desert than he did sitting at home looking out over the reservoir in Central Park.” A grand patriarchal tradition? Even so, Port is willing to travel to a rotting hotel in Ain Krorfa, and his initial check-in features some of the most remarkable putrescence I am likely to read in this Modern Library Reading Challenge:

The fountain which at one time had risen from the basin in the center of the patio was gone, but the basin remained. In it reposed a small mountain of reeking garbage, and reclining on the sides of the mountain were three screaming, naked infants, their soft formless bodies troubled with busting sores. They looked human there in their helpless misery, but somehow not quite so human as the two pink dogs lying on the tiles nearby — pink because long ago they had lost all their hair, and their raw aged skin lay indecently exposed to the kisses of the flies and the sun.

Now I don’t know about you. But my instinct when presented with such a scene — especially if I had a wife carrying all manner of trinkets and dresses, who was not exactly fond of the long-standing pilgrimage — would be to get the hell out of there. Yet Kit and Port stay. Two pages later, they’re eating soup with weevils, “sitting over coffee and waving away flies.” Kit himself pines for the sun. Never mind that he’s just seen what the flies and the sun do to these poor dogs. Not long after that, Port asks Kit the preposterous question, “Do you think you can be happy here?” After some pressing, Kit replies, “How can I tell? It’s impossible to get into their lives, and know what they’re actually thinking.”

Yet it’s very possible for us to get inside the Moresby heads and know what they’re actually thinking. Journeying for them is almost a hollow religion, one stumbled upon because there is little else to do. In the book’s early pages, Kit says, “The people of each country get more like the people of every country. They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture — nothing, nothing.” With kvetching like that, one wonders the conversational industry it would it take to get these folks exploring Lake Victoria in a canoe.

In other words, these characters are selfish jerks who, unlike Sebastian Dangerfield or George Minafer, don’t invite further curiosity into their motivations. “You’re never humanity,” snaps Port to Kit at one point, “you’re only your poor hopelessly isolated self.” Yet Port considers himself to be clued in. And if that means heading down a dicey staircase to partake of a courtesan or rudely ringing for tea at an ungodly hour, that’s what he’ll do to get into the lives of others. Only a few pages into the book, Bowles tells us that Port considers himself a traveler rather than a tourist, with the distinction “moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.” But slowing down in life doesn’t necessarily make you any more receptive than some caffeinated jackal flitting through on a bus (or, in the case of Kit and Port later, using their privileged positions to flee by bus and evade responsibility). The other important distinction, Bowles reports, is that, while the tourist accepts his own civilization without question, the traveler “compares [the new civilization] with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” And yet Port’s “comparison” involves the same superiority practiced by a tourist, such as the moment when he tells a lie about his wife being very sick to buy two bus seats:

He watched the Arab’s face closely, to see if he were capable of believing such an obvious lie. Apparently here it was as logical for an ailing person to go away from civilization and medical care as to go in the direction of it, for the Arab’s expression slowly changed to one of understanding and sympathy.

Now I have no problem with depressing books. I like to be moved to tears as much as I enjoy a few laughs. But when I read about Port, a spoiled American who absconds with common sense when a passport has been lost, and Kit, a spoiled American who commits adultery while her husband is traveling with two insufferable imperialists (the Lyles), and when she ventures into a fourth-class carriage, only to “shake violently” upon her return, and when none of these people can be straight about their feelings (Bowles often has his characters, especially Kit, “talking” in thoughts and words), I have zero sympathy. Still, I suppose it’s somewhat useful to be reminded that passive-aggressive deceit flourished just as much in 1949 as it does in 2011.

As I became more acquainted with this pampered ternion while turning the pages of Paul Bowles’s alleged masterpiece (“It stands head and shoulders above most other novels published in English since World War II,” reports The New Republic on my edition; it’s good for long stretches, but I beg to differ with this hyperbole), I found myself greatly pining for their deaths so that Bowles could continue his indefatigable duties describing the grand North African tableau, with its slanting landscapes and microscopic tents seen through grimy windows. Even the work of Frederic Prokosch, a now regrettably forgotten writer who was working the same beat (see The Seven Who Fled and The Asiatics) and who, like Bowles, favored ornate prose over dimensional character, speaks more on the subject of behavioral nuance.

My initial interest in Bowles’s characters flagged considerably by the time I had reached the second part, especially since Bowles shifted such supporting figures as the Bou Noura lieutenant d’Armagnac — a man who appeared to have more adamantine problems than these three entitled nincompoops:

During the third night of of her imprisonment a gray scorpion, on its way along the earthen floor of her cell, discovered an unexpected and welcome warmth in one corner, and took refuge there. When Yamnia stirred in her sleep, the inevitable occurred. The sting entered the nape of her neck; she never recovered consciousness. The news of her death quickly spread around the town, with the detail of the scorpion missing from the telling of it, so that the final and, as it were, official native version was that the girl had been assaulted by the entire garrison, including the lieutenant, and thereafter conveniently murdered.

Perhaps that passage is a wry reflection upon how difficult it is to convey an apparently exotic experience through narrative. Inevitably, your sense of a place or a person is bound to be vitiated and/or embroidered in the telling.

It’s probably worth pointing out that Bowles — in a letter to his wife Jane (a great writer in her own right) contained in the epistolary collection, In Touch — had planned to kill off Port halfway through the book: “He lingers on in agony instead of dying. But I’ll get rid of him yet, I assure you. Once he’s gone there’ll be only the heroine left to keep things going, and that won’t be easy. Still, it’s got to be that way; there’s no other possible design for it.”

On the other hand, the novel’s obvious conclusive crack about “the end of the line” — belaboring the distinction between “tourist” and “traveler” — made me feel more than a bit conned.

Still, I’m relieved that my understanding of Paul Bowles has become more sophisticated, if only because, up till now, I carried around a superficial understanding. Before The Sheltering Sky, I had not read Bowles. And I had long associated Bowles’s work with the glorious tuft of Debra Winger’s muff. That revelation may earn me a few detractors, but I must be candid. The truth is the truth. I like muffs. And I like Debra Winger (though certainly not just for her muff). You see, Bernardo Bertolucci tried to film the unfilmable back in 1990. And in a largely unsuccessful effort to spice things up, he gave us Ms. Winger’s delightful fur, Amina Annabi’s flesh, and John Malkovich’s hilarious hair. Other than these moments, the film is quite soporific. Even Bowles, in the introduction to a paperback edition, confessed that the film was “a fatal mess.” (Bowles, who also appeared in Bertolucci’s film, may have been sour because, according to a very bad hagiography* written by Virginia Spencer Carr, Bowles didn’t see a dime in royalties beyond the original $5,000 he received for selling the movie rights in 1952. Hurray for Hollywood! Perhaps this explains his appearance in the film. On the other hand, in an October 9, 1989 letter to Regina Weinreich, Bowles writes, “I like all three of the leads, and particularly Debra Winger, whom I go to visit often at her house on the Mountain.”)

That gossip may not accentuate your reading experience, but it does suggest very highly that, unlike Bowles’s fictional trio, Debra Winger is more of a traveler than a tourist.

Next Up: William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice!

Related Link: A Million Grains of Sand — a helpful index to The Sheltering Sky created by Frances McConihe.

* — How bad is Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life? Very bad. Try this: “Bowles’s insistence that he never made plans and that his actions depended unfailingly upon who came along confirms his reluctance to be an initiator of anything, regardless of the act in question.” No skepticism whatsoever? No effort to confirm Bowles’s statements against other sources? The back flap of the hardcover I checked out from the library features a smiling Carr hunched on her elbow with a decidedly unhale Bowles in bed. The message here, undoubtedly subconscious, couldn’t be any clearer.

The Postman Always Rings Twice (Modern Library #98)

(This is the 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 Ginger Man)

When I was a shy stripling new to San Francisco, there were three writers who showed me the way to manhood: James Baldwin, Henry Miller, and James M. Cain. Baldwin was angry for being the other, but with very good reason. Miller was playful (and often indignant) for being the other, but his “other” was narrow and individual. Not a cult of one, but not the kind of guy to easily integrate into a Western Union desk job. Hence, the writing life. Hence, poverty. Bless both gentlemen for their eccentricities. I’m not being hyperbolic when I state that I couldn’t have survived my early twenties without them. And bless the Modern Library for including both of these writers on its list. I look forward to revisiting them.

But I’m here to square things away with the third guy. James M. Cain may have been quieter than the first two, but he was just as interested in those primal emotions hidden beneath apparent equipoise. Cain’s rudderless drifters, often without funds, kept their knowledge and skills to themselves, perhaps because their talents weren’t nearly as great as they figured or, when brushing up against cold hard cash, they simply didn’t blend well. (See, for example, the Mexicali poolroom incident in The Postman Always Rings Twice.) Lacking any direct line to an indispensable quality, these heroes hoped to get by through decisiveness, no-bullshit assertiveness, and clever banter. It helped tremendously that Cain, who came from journalism, was a master of smooth muscular prose. You’d be hard-pressed to find an extraneous word in any of his hard-boiled sentences. (In Postman, “I had her” is the last sentence of the eighth chapter. And I’m guessing that’s likely to be the most succinct sentence I ever encounter in the Modern Library Reading Challenge.) But Cain’s great joke was that this resigned approach often led his heroes into murders, insurance scams, or lustful traps.

Was this punishment? I didn’t see any of this as a Puritanical racket. Still don’t from my more adult vantage point. No need to wear a scarlet A in the Cain universe. You’d get yours eventually if you didn’t appreciate your good fortune. And even if you managed to fool everybody most of the time, there was always someone out there who pulled a faster gun. And who knew how far up the chain it went?

“Chambers, I think this is the last murder you’ll have a hand in for some time, but if you ever try another, for God’s sake leave insurance companies out of it. They’ll spend five times as much as Los Angeles County will let me put on a case.”

Cain was pure opera. It’s there in Postman‘s elaborate explanation of the Pacific States Accident policy:

He told what it covered, how the Greek would get $25 a week for 52 weeks if he got sick, and the same if he got hurt in an accident so he couldn’t work, and how he would get $5,000 if he lost one limb, and $10,000 if he lost two limbs, and how his widow would get $10,000 if he was killed in an accident, and $20,000 if the accident was on a railroad train. When he got that far it began to sound like a sales talk, and the magistrate held up his hand.

In other words, the “sales talk,” the act of setting down the terms (or even outlining the way the world works), is in and of itself an operatic gesture. Yet from the other side of the 2008 economic clusterfuck, Cain’s spiels appear as sensible as a straightforward mom-and-pop lease that’s less about profit and more about everybody getting a fair shake. This may explain, in part, why David Mamet was enlisted to write the screenplay for the surprisingly subpar 1981 Bob Rafelson film adaptation. By the way, I’m not a fan of the 1946 version with Lana Turner, pictured above, and John Garfield. It’s probably because I encountered Cain in books first. On the page, Cain’s intensity, however melodramatic, felt real — in large part because Cain let you in on the mechanics. (It’s not much of a surprise for anyone to learn that Cain did an uncredited rewrite on Out of the Past, another noir masterpiece.) On the big screen, with the exception of Billy Wilder’s extraordinary Double Indemnity, Cain’s books transformed into entertaining but easy camp. One need look no further than Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce to see the problem. (There is presently a Mildred Pierce miniseries being made by Todd Haynes. It will be most interesting to see how Haynes approaches this problem.)

It’s also there in Serenade, a wonderful cultured tough guy novel that doesn’t get nearly the same respect afforded to Postman and Double Indemnity:

There was an outdoor performance of Carmen that night at the Hollywood Bowl, at a dollar and a half top but with some seats at seventy-five cents, so of course we had to go. If you want to know where to find an opera singer the night some opera is being given you’ll find him right there, and no other place. A baseball player, for some reason, prefers a ball game.

Yeah, I know I’m supposed to be writing about The Postman Always Rings Twice. But can you think of any fiction of the time (1937!) that was so transparent about the cultural class divide?

At nineteen, I was quietly angry and vocally playful. I didn’t want people to know what I knew, because I wasn’t sure it had any bearing on what I was supposed to be. (And, boy, was I wrong!) I felt misunderstood, yet I often talked down hotheads from beating each other up and people told me their stories. I was often confused as some guy in his thirties by way of a vocabulary I picked up from books and British friends and from careful listening. So Cain completed the holy trinity when I first read Postman by accident, picked up at random from a library. I was floored by the way Cain laid it out in that famous first paragraph:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border, and as soon as I got up there under the canvas, I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that, after three weeks in Tia Juana, and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave a cigarettes, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat.

Very early in this website’s history (January 15, 2004, to be precise), I rewrote that passage in first person plural to protest the then omnipresence of the McSweeney’s “we.” (Yes, Virginia, there was a time in which Joshua Ferris was just some advertising copy writer.) I’ve since loosened up about first person plural — especially since we are blessed with such great novels as Hannah Pittard’s The Fates Will Find Their Way (published only last week!).

But however you roll on the question of “we,” straight declarative punch — particularly punch that is this compact and that instantly throws you into the story — is never a bad thing. My nineteen-year-old self considered Cain to be fiction’s answer to Samuel Fuller’s filmmaking theory: “Grab ’em by the balls.” Yet Cain got there first. I set out to read everything he’d ever written.

I remember an expedition to the now defunct McDonald’s Books on Turk Street. I walked past transgender prostitutes propositioning me into a redolent and wildly unorganized used bookstore then legendary among a certain cultured underground type that one can no longer find. McDonald’s was a crumbling place with stacks of old magazines you couldn’t find in any library and the stink of old books sullied by bodily fluids from years before. This was not a place for neat freaks or the prissy. You really had to love books. From a hygienic standpoint, one had to be careful. But I found several volumes of Cain here. This included a hardcover called The Baby in the Icebox, which I still have. Any guy writing a story with that title was jake with me.

My Cain mania caused me to read the man’s canon again after I read through it once before. “I don’t think there’s ever been a man so moony that a little bit of chill didn’t come over him as soon as a woman said yes,” wrote Cain in Serenade. Being shy at the time, especially in relation to women, and not having a father figure, it was a revelation to see these feelings, which embarrassed me, presented in such a bold and confident manner. And I remain convinced that, had it not been for Cain, I would not have the effrontery that I have now.

But that was many years ago. Until the Modern Library Reading Challenge, I hadn’t thought to read Cain again, although I did buy a number of his books for nervous younger friends. A few weeks ago, I picked up the beat-up paperback for the first time in fifteen years.

“Rip me! Rip me!”

I ripped her. I shoved my hand in her blouse and jerked she was wide open, from her throat to her belly.

Eat your heart out, Harlequin. I was amazed that I had forgotten much of this. And yet within the novel’s context, it works. For Frank Chambers, the drifter skipping around the nation (“Kansas City? New York? New Orleans? Chicago?” “I’ve seen them all.”), isn’t strictly a primal lowlife who starts working at a gas station and contrives to kill Nick Papadakis (the owner) because he wants to get Cora Papadakis’s pants. This template has been repeated a thousand times over, but many of the hacks who ripped off Cain forget his nuances. Frank has a respect for Papadakis. “He never did anything to me,” says Frank to Cora early on. “He’s all right.” Yet despite this rational thinking, Frank allows lust to overcome him. (Good Lord, did I actually use The Postman Always Rings Twice as an example when, at the age of twenty-two, I talked with a married man who was trying to figure out why he remained more committed to his adulterous affairs? I did.) Even when Frank gets away with murder, he has a self-sabotage streak. He rolls out of town and chases tail. He protests some beer developments that makes the roadside gas station money. Why is lust such a draw for Frank? Is it because he’s easily bored? Because he doesn’t know how to settle down?

This time around, I found myself looking at Postman more from Cora’s perspective than Frank’s. What isn’t Frank telling us about Cora? For a woman who protests about Nick so much, why doesn’t she just leave? After all, isn’t that just as easy as carrying on an affair with some stranger coming in off the road?

“I loved you. I would love you without even a shirt. I would love you specially without a shirt, so that I could feel how nice and hard your shoulders are.”

If Frank is tinkering with his memory (and, given the final chapter’s revelation, he’s certainly in a rush to tell his story), then, even accounting for the intense language exchanged during vigorous banging, this dialogue from Cora seems more like an unreal fantasy. Especially since Frank is careful to inform us at an inquest that he’s telling “a cock-eyed story I was going to take back later on, when we got to a place where it really meant something.” But if Cora is being idealized, then does Frank’s story within Postman “really mean something?” Perhaps the story means more in what it doesn’t tell us.

The best rereads are those books that cause you to recognize certain changes within yourself. If you have nearly the same reaction years later, chances are that the author didn’t have much in the way of ambition. After reading Postman for the third time, I’m now wondering who Frank Chambers will be when I read him fifteen years from now.

Next Up: Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky.

The Ginger Man (Modern Library #99)

(This is the 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 Magnificent Ambersons)

I feel morally obliged to point out that I am hardly the only person attempting to read all of the Modern Library titles. When I first considered this project, I was completely unaware of Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue — despite being a fairly regular reader of The Millions (and trivial contributor). I was also pleasantly surprised to discover a blog called The Modern Library List of Books run by a mysterious Canadian woman named Devon S., who now lives in New York City (after a stint in Paris). Devon is also reading the Modern Library from #100 to #1, and is now at #87 after a little more than a year. I’d also be remiss to dismiss Rachael Reads. Rachael, like Lydia, is reading the Modern Library titles out of order. I smiled a long while over the Connecticut Museum Quest’s slower but very noble efforts to read three Modern Library books a year — which, by my math, works out to about 40 years for the 121 books. This seems to me a very sensible long-term commitment. Still, if you can’t read them all, you can always just take on the authors more reflective of 21st century enlightenment.

The Modern Library list has only been around for thirteen years. Yet already people are happy to share their reading adventures and their unanticipated epiphanies. Evelyn Waugh becomes a “bi-curious hipster boyfriend.” (I hope to respond to that intriguing proposition when I eventually hit #80, assuming hipsters — and Michael Cera’s career — still exist by the time I get to Brideshead.) Midnight’s Children reminds another of “the many Englishes in the world.”

For my own part, Sebastian Dangerfield, the wonderfully monstrous protagonist of J.P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man, recalled Johnny (Donleavy’s first name) in Mike Leigh’s Naked. In fact, in Leigh’s film, the sadistic landlord Jeremy G. Smart identifies himself as “Sebastian Hawk.” Apparently, I wasn’t alone in making this association. An interviewer named Gineen Cooper, writing for a literary magazine called The Pannus Index, even asked Donleavy if he had seen Leigh’s movie. (Donleavy hadn’t.) I don’t know if I buy Ms. Cooper’s theory of the “anarchic Dionysian rhetoric which underlines both characters’ personalities” — in part because ideology is the wrong method with which to consider both Johnny and Dangerfield. Also, in Dangerfield’s case, we are dealing with a character bifurcated on the page. (More on this in a bit.) For both characters, surely the behavior here is fascinating enough. But when Donleavy’s Sebastian said to his mate, “I’m twenty-seven years old and I feel like I’m sixty,” I couldn’t help thinking of Mike Leigh’s Johnny being misidentified as forty while stating his age as twenty-seven.

Irrespective of these parallels, The Ginger Man turned out to be a grand hoot — very aggressive and funny, certainly more interesting and stylistically daring than The Magnificent Ambersons in its exploration of youthful hubris. (And what is it with the Modern Library books and prickish protagonists so far? I certainly hope that the behavioral spectrum expands in the next several books!) The Ginger Man is the kind of novel you give to a finger-shaking dogmatist who insists that some modest behavioral infraction on your part, talked out through apologia and attentive listening, instantly transforms you into an asshole. Sebastian Dangerfield, like Humbert Humbert, is one of the great assholes of 20th century literature: he is charismatic, he somehow talks women into bed (but not all of them), he is tolerated by many despite his boorishness, and he is more than a bit sociopathic. Dangerfield carries the redolent stench of entitlement. Here is a young man purportedly studying law at Trinity College, one who has great responsibilities to his wife Marion and his kid. Yet he thinks nothing of plundering the last stash of cash and blowing it all on stout, much less taking up an affair with the very woman who sublets the room. And if that isn’t degenerate enough for you, Dangerfield leeches off his friends, even after his friends have become paupers:

I have discovered one of the great ailments of Ireland, 67% of the population have never been completely naked in their lives. Now don’t you, as a man of broad classical experience, find this a little strange and perhaps even a bit unhygienic. I think it is certainly both of those things. I am bound to say that this must cause a good deal of the passive agony one sees in the streets. There are other things wrong with this country but I must leave them wait for they are just developing in my mind.

That’s a portion from Dangerfield’s letter in response to his friend Kenneth O’Keefe, who has written to Dangerfield a few chapters earlier of his dire straits in France. O’Keefe is hungry “enough to eat dog,” rationing himself twelve peas for every meal, claiming impotence, and, most importantly, counting upon the money that Dangerfield promised he would pay him back. But Dangerfield would rather offer a foolish philosophy than own up to his responsibilities as both friend and debtor.

His truly unpardonable behavior even gets him into the newspapers (“His eyes were given as very wild,” reports the broadsheet, suggesting a descriptive shortsightedness from the witnesses, the reporter, the police, all of Ireland herself!), and yet this Ginger Man is strangely capable of getting away with much — defying the Irish Guard, flouting the drinking curfews, terrifying bartenders and train passengers, and even stringing naive young girls along and persuading them to spend their hard-earned cash on him.

Donleavy is quite clever in the way he invites the reader to figure out why Dangerfield is so loutish. Dangerfield never quite tells us what he wants. (In the letter I quoted above, we see the way that Dangerfield tries comparing his troubles to those of Ireland. First-class narcissism. But even this still doesn’t entirely answer the question of why he behaves this way.) When Dangerfield talks with a sketchy man named Percy Clocklan, Dangerfield asks him, “What would you like out of life, Percy?” Is the aimless Dangerfield merely passing the time? Is he tolerated because of this apparent flattery?

On the other hand, the book is working from a highly stylized interior monologue. Donleavy swaps between first-person and third-person — often in the same paragraph and very frequently in clipped sentences (the latter is almost a neutral mediator, a voice somewhere between Dangerfield and narrator):

Sebastian crawled naked through the morning room into the kitchen. Turned the key and scrabbling back to the morning room, waiting under the table. Through the mirror on the opposite wall he saw he saw the cap of the mailman pass by. I’ve got to see the postman. Get a blanket off Mrs. Frost’s bed.

That passage comes later in the book, when Dangerfield’s house (rented from a landlord named Egbert Skully) has fallen into slovenly disrepair and funds aren’t coming anytime soon. Which means, of course, that Dangerfield is on the run. His strategy is to carry on being a shit. The mirror imagery, omitting the reflection of our narcissistic hero, may suggest that one of Dangerfield’s main problems is a profound inability to see what he does. This self-delusion is further suggested by the way in which Dangerfield’s first-person interventions begins to take up a greater portion of the story as both the book (and Dangerfield’s life) carries on.

Yet for long stretches of the book, this ignoble beast evades nearly every punitive fate. How does a guy like Dangerfield get away with this crassitude? Another clue be found in Donleavy’s excellent dialogue (it’s hardly an accident that Donleavy had the chops to adapt this novel into a play), suggesting that our hero’s primary skill is the right combination of witty quips and backhanded compliments:

“My dear Chris, you do have a lovely pair of legs. Strong. You hide them.”

“My dear Sebastian, I do thank you. I’m not hiding them. Does that make men follow one?”

“It’s the hair that does that.”

“Not the legs?”

“The hair and the eyes.”

Dangerfield does get some form of comeuppance near the end (he lives for his inheritance, but he learns that his inheritance has been planned around the way he lives), yet within the safety of the novel, this titular Ginger Man, running from Dublin to London, can’t be caught. “You’re a terrible man, Sebastian,” says one character late in the novel. “Merry fraud,” replies Dangerfield, in a bit of wordplay directed to two serious victims (Marion, his wife; Mary, a girl he runs off with).

It’s worth pointing out that this was pretty hot stuff back in 1955, skirting the line between literary comedy and perceived obscenity. After The Ginger Man was rejected by nearly every major publisher, Maurice Girodias of The Olympia Press agreed to publish it. Unfortunately for Donleavy, Girodias published The Ginger Man as part of its Traveller’s Companion Series, listing it as a “special volume” with such titles as Richardson’s The Sexual Life of Robinson Crusoe, Lengel’s White Thighs, Van Heller’s Rape, and Jones’s The Enormous Bed. The Ginger Man was published as pornography. This may seem tame in 2011, but in the mid-20th century, writers, often going by pen names, could be blacklisted or even arrested for such associations. It didn’t help that Girodias had expressly violated the terms that he and Donleavy had agreed to. As The Ginger Man garnered global renown, there were years of litigation and disputes over the rights. Eventually Girodias went bankrupt, giving Donleavy a chance to buy up the Olympia Press rights He found himself in a courtroom suing himself.

Donleavy, it turns out, is still alive. Last August, the Independent tracked him down — under the proviso that the newspaper would host a picnic and provide all the food and drink. He didn’t say much. In The History of The Ginger Man, Donleavy wrote about what his friend, the bestselling (and now largely forgotten) novelist Ernest Gebler, told him about what authors do when they get rich:

“Mike, they buy binoculars, shotguns, sports cars and fishing rods, and a big estate to use them on. And then outfitted in their new life, along with new bathrooms, wallpaper and brands of soap, they make a fatal mistake and change their women. To schemingly get toasted and roasted on glowing hot emotional coals, and subjected to a whole new set of tricks and treacheries. Which leaves that author spiritually disillusioned and minus his favorite household implements.”

Donleavy, who has seen 45 million copies of The Ginger Man sold (the book has never gone out of print), still lives cheaply despite his success. He seems to have followed Gebler’s advice.

Next up: James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice!

The Magnificent Ambersons (Modern Library #100)

(This is the first entry in the The Modern Library Reading Challenge, an ambitious project to read the entire Modern Library from #100 to #1.)

By all reports, Booth Tarkington was hot shit sometime in the early 20th century. It is quite possible that he was the kind of man who entered a room and announced with his very presence: “Do you know who I am?” How do we know this? Well, he won the Pulitzer Prize twice (for Ambersons and Alice Adams). He had family members who were politicians (his uncle, Newton Booth, was the eleventh Governor of California and a United States Senator) and Tarkington himself was elected to the Indiana State Legislature.

I have consulted a hagiography written by someone named Robert Cortes Holliday, a “biographer” who appears to be just as dead as Tarkington. Holliday informs us that Tarkington was very precocious as a child: “His oddities, one gathers, were even more odd than is usual with odd children.” Which begs the question of what “even more odd than is usual” meant in 1873. Did it mean that Tarkington was a pyromaniac? A toddler who tortured ants through a burning-glass? I shall leave these questions to the scholars. What’s particularly strange about this description is that Holliday, apparently grabbing direct quotes from the mack daddy himself, claims that Tarkington was “not precocious at all” after the age of four. Since most of us don’t really remember much before the age of three, there remains the vital question of whether Tarkington was the right man to remark upon his own precocity. A critic named Eleanor Booth Simmons (a Booth related to Booth Tarkington?) has this to say in the now forgotten periodical The Bookman: “Mr. Tarkington has that peculiar artistic sensitiveness which leads him, whether consciously or unconsciously, to meet each new subject with a new and subtle and fitting change of mood.”

All this talk of precocity and artistic sensitiveness led me quite naturally to Orson Welles. I must confess that before reading this book, I had not read Booth Tarkington before. I had obtained an ancient hardcover edition of Seventeen (with an impressive green cover!) at an estate sale, but hadn’t bothered to dig in. I had only been familiar with Orson Welles’s film version of The Magnificent Ambersons and, perhaps more prominently, the sad story behind it. RKO sent Orson Welles off to Brazil to work on another project. Since Welles relinquished his right to final cut, RKO took the opportunity to sandbag him, reshooting Welles’s ending to make it happier and removing about 40 minutes of material.

But I doubt very highly that the man who directed the Voodoo Macbeth (or RKO, for that matter) would have allowed any of those 40 minutes to mimic the remarkable racism contained within the novel:

“A cheerful darkey went by the house, loudly and tunelessly whistling some broken thoughts upon women, fried food and gin.”

Can Tarkington’s oddness and precocity before the age of four excuse such an ugly description? Probably not. There are some good reasons why Tarkington’s novels aren’t so easy to find. And in light of the present NewSouth scrubbing of “nigger” from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s important to remember that there were novelists like Tarkington who were much worse. The above description is hardly the least of Tarkington’s sins. Consider Ambersons‘s many “comedic” moments involving George Minafer’s servants.

George swore, and then swore again at the fat old darkey, Tom, for giggling at his swearing.

“Hoopee!” said old Tom. “Mus’ been some white lady use Mist’ Jawge mighty bad! White lady say, ‘No, suh, I ain’ go’n out ridin’ ‘ith Mist’ Jawge no mo’!’ Mist’ Jawge drive in. ‘Dam de dam worl’! Dam de dam hoss! Dam de dam nigga’! Dam de dam dam!’ Hoopee!”

Elsewhere in the novel, there’s “Old Sam,” who seems to share the same physical qualities and racist stereotyping as Tom. This leads me to wonder if Tarkington was so racist (precocious?) that he couldn’t even remember whether his servant was named Tom or Sam:

Old Sam, shuffling in with the breakfast tray, found the Major in his accustomed easy-chair by the fireplace—and yet even the old darkey could see instantly that the Major was not there.

It appeared that my initial foray into the Modern Library Reading Challenge was off to an inauspicious start. Particularly since none of this racism contributed much to the story.

Yet the novel gripped me. In much the same way that the equally racist D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation (released three years before the publication of Ambersons), had gripped me. George Amberson Minafer, the rich and spoiled young man foolish and inexperienced enough to believe that his family legacy will live on forever, is entertaining because his despicable nature is so widely tolerated. At the age of nine, Tarkington describes young Minafer as “a princely terror.” At the age of ten, Georgie tells a reverend to “go to hell.” Georgie is part Little Lord Fauntleroy, part Julian English. He’s hardly innocent of such boorish behavior. “Lawyers, bankers, politicians!” Georgie says early in the book, “What do they get out of life. I’d like to know! What do they ever know about real things? Where do they ever get?”

Georgie’s not entirely off-base with this hubris. As we see later in the novel, being on top of the emerging trends (namely the automobile) is the only way to make some serious money. The problem here is that Georgie wishes to assume a privileged life as a yachtsman rather than use his status to innovate or profit. So it’s quite hard for us to elicit much sympathy. Still, part of the novel’s fun comes from trying to understand why George’s douchery would be so wildly tolerated.

And, oh, dearest woman in the world, I know what your son is to you, and it frightens me! Let me explain a little: I don’t think he’ll change — at twenty-one or twenty-two so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which forty sees are nothing but disappearing miasma. Forty can’t tell twenty about this; that’s the pity of it! Twenty can find out only by getting to be forty. And so we come to this, dear: Will you live your own life your way, or George’s way? I’m going a little further, because it would be fatal not to be wholly frank now. George will act toward you only as your long worship of him, your sacrifices — all the unseen little ones every day since he was born — will make him act. Dear, it breaks my heart for you, but what you have to oppose now is the history of your own selfless and perfect motherhood.

These sentiments (written in a letter) come from Eugene Morgan, the man who is meant to be with George’s mother, Isabel. Isabel feels utterly compelled to mother the hell out of Georgie. And, of course, George is naturally distrustful of Eugene — in part because he’s confused about Eugene’s daughter, Lucy Morgan, whom he doesn’t quite have the stomach to accept. (There are several embarrassing points throughout the book where George is reduced to stuttering. Even George’s proposal is cringe-worthy: “Lucy, I want — I want to ask you. Will you — will you — will you be engaged to me?”) Tarkington is smart enough to give us a few clues about why Isabel is so protective of her son. Back in the day, Isabel had a choice between two husbands: one who accidentally busted up a bass viol (Eugene) and the other who proved too safe and sane (Wilbur). Guess who Isabel married?

Wilbur, the natural bore keen on a very conservative approach to business, ends up kicking the bucket. Small wonder, one presumes, that Isabel ends up hot to trot for Eugene after the mistake has expired.

Is playing it safe the ultimate vice that Tarkington is exploring? In the novel’s first chapter, Tarkington offers a panorama of the manner in which an unnamed town has changed. We learn of vanished customs like “the all-day picnic in the woods” and a remarkable uptick in embroidering. We learn that houses were more commodious yet unpretentious, offering plentiful space and additional purpose for rooms. Much of this is quite interesting. Unfortunately, racism is also an ineluctable part of Tarkington’s vision:

Darkies always prefer to gossip in shouts instead of whispers; and they feel that profanity, unless it be vociferous, is almost worthless….They have passed, those darky hired-men of the Midland town; and the introspective horses they curried and brushed and whacked and amiably cursed — those good old horses switch their tails at flies no more. For all their seeming permanence they might as well have been buffaloes — or the buffalo laprobes that grew bald in patches and used to slide from the careless drivers’ knees and hang unconcerned, half way to the ground.

It’s safe to say that Tarkington, despite his astute eye for progress, wasn’t much of a progressive. This is especially strange, given Amberson‘s astute potshots against backwards thinking:

“I’m not sure he’s wrong about automobiles,” [Eugene] said. “With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization — that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us expect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men’s minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; Just how, though, I could hardly guess.”

If Tarkington was so on the money with technological change, why then was he so out to lunch with his racism? A Booth Tarkington fan site, responding to Thomas Mallon’s criticisms in 2004, writes, “Any charge that the Penrod books were actually racist would have to take into account the entire body of Tarkington’s work.”

Fair enough. James Rosenzweig, another literary adventurer reading his way through all the Pulitzer Prize winners, reports that Alice Adams is also racist — using similar stereotypes when writing about a cook and a waitress. And he reports that none of these stereotypes help to elucidate the family’s character. Jonathan Yardley’s introduction to Penrod observes additional stereotypes that are worse than either Ambersons or Alice Adams (“beings in one of those lower stages of evolution” and an orchestra erupting “like the lunatic shriek of a gin-maddened nigger”), and he concludes that “the reader of the early twenty-first century will pull up short at the appearance of offensive material, and some readers — understandably and legitimately — will simply refuse to continue reading.”

I don’t think any of Tarkington’s descriptions were ironic or satirical. A simile connoting a “gin-maddened nigger” is hardly necessary to advance the story. But I cannot deny that, despite my deep disgust at Tarkington’s stereotypes, there were large sections of The Magnificent Ambersons that captured my interest.

When an automobile unsettles the streets, I liked the way that Tarkington used antediluvian language to demonstrate how incongruous and monstrous it appears to George:

It was vaguely like a topless surry, but cumbrous with unwholesome excrescences fore and aft, while underneath were spinning leather belts and something that whirred and howled and seemed to stagger. The ride-stealers made no attempt to fasten their sleds to a contrivance so nonsensical and yet so fearsome. Instead, they gave over their sport and concentrated all their energies in their lungs, so that up and down the street the one cry that shrilled increasingly: “Git a hoss! Git a hoss! Git a hoss! Mister, why don’t you get a hoss?”

What’s interesting here is that Tarkington uses verbs instead of nouns to show us why George can’t quite parse the beastly motorized vehicle before him. The internal rhyme with the adverbs (“vaguely” and “surry,” “street” and “increasingly”) feels as if Tarkington, a man who was involved in theater while at Princeton, is about to confront the modernist revolution of short declarative sentences waiting in the wings.

Yet since we are forced to contend with both Tarkington’s racism and his natural gifts as a novelist, perhaps we have a truer sense of 1918’s ideological incoherence than the weak-kneed politically correct type hoping to scrub out the ugliness. Books like The Magnificent Ambersons are uncomfortable and test the disposition. Would Jonathan Franzen have ended up like this, if he had been born ninety years earlier? Would Franzen (bigshot social novelist of his time) have hated black people as much as Tarkington (bigshot social novelist of his time) did? Perhaps. Perhaps Faulkner’s maxim applies: a writer is congenitally unable to tell the truth and that is why we call what he writes fiction.

Next up: Donleavy’s The Ginger Man!