I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
It seems fitting to begin a reflection on the late David Foster Wallace in a fit of anxiety about reception – about the propensity of words, sentences, personae, to falsify or to be misunderstood.
For example: I know this seems fraudulent and fanciful and like the scratching of some deep narcissistic itch, to write publicly about a famous person’s death. And also: I want you to know I know, and to make sure you know I want you to know I know, so that you don’t mistake me for someone less intelligent, original, precise, and self-critical than I am. Because I am terrified of the ethical misstep, of solipsism, and above all of getting things wrong.
So, I think, was my subject, for whom the vicious regress sketched above could go on infinitely, each new confession forcing a confession about the rhetoric behind that confession. Indeed, in his later work, as in the short story “Octet,” David Foster Wallace found a way to make the regress feel infinite. Some readers saw in this a kind of heroism – a commitment to representing philosophical truth, no matter how ungainly. Others saw it as evidence that Wallace had hit some kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac. Some even saw it as both: a heroic cul-de-sac. But it seems to me that Wallace’s manic sincerity was merely the obverse of our age’s reflexive irony. Each was an expression of deep suspicion of abstractions like “trust” and “faith.”
Which makes Wallace’s achievement even more impressive. Ultimately, his characters and narrators managed to push beyond paradox and to risk saying something about what used to be called the human condition. In honor of those risks – and with the preliminary apologiae more or less in place – let me try here to risk saying something about David Foster Wallace.
David Foster Wallace was a large, shaggy, uncomfortable, funny person who once held me and 75 other people hostage for over an hour in a basement room in St. Louis. He was reading from his new book, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. I was 19, and when the reading was over I squeaked out something like, “Infinite Jest really meant a lot to me,” and he said something like, “Do you want me to sign your copy?” and I said something like “I checked it out of the library” and then I ran away.
That is, Wallace was a person I did not, in any respectable sense of the word, know, though I am currently feeling a dreadful temptation to pretend otherwise, to insist on a connection between reader and writer, to assert some rights over the body, and over the life, and over the work. Then again, in another sense, I knew him – I did. I heard the critic John Leonard say one time that the great writers, the ones who matter, are “friends of the mind,” and David Foster Wallace was mine. Simply put: his work has mattered more to me, and for longer, than any other writer’s, and when he killed himself last week at age 46, I felt like I had lost a friend. His voice is still in my head.
I came to that voice in high school, when I first read Infinite Jest. This was immediately and not incidentally prior to my discovery of literature per se. I read the thousand-page book more or less continuously for three weeks (as would be my habit every few years) and I felt like someone was speaking to me directly, in my language, about people I knew, or had been. “Like most North Americans of his generation,” Wallace wrote, in a passage that hooked me early on, Hal Incandenza
tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency.
The secret power of this voice, as Wallace would discover in his essay “Authority and American Usage,” lay in its immense ethical appeal. Although his descriptions of Hal’s life at a tennis academy, and of pharmaceutical habits or Eschaton, did not stint on arcana, Wallace was perfectly willing to admit that certain things were “hard to say.” Moreover, there was the seeming correspondence between the authorial persona and the real person I glimpsed through the interstices of the fiction, and, later, nonfiction.
That person was like an extreme caricature of many generational traits: polymathic, ironic, brilliant, damaged, and under intense pressure to perform. The difference was that DFW (as I came to think of him) had performed. Unlike so many of the other great minds of our time, he had made good on his promise, less by virtue of talent than through moral courage and hard work. I still think the elucidation of Gerhard Schtitt’s tennis philosophy in Infinite Jest is some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever read: “How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.” Wallace somehow managed to pay attention to everything.
Of course, nothing is so unforgivable in postmodern America as an assertion of one’s own value, and in various large and small ways, Wallace’s critical reception would be dampened by schadenfreude. The surest way to marginalize the literary high-water-mark of the 1990s would be to exaggerate its (considerable) length and difficulty. “Sure Infinite Jest is great,” the logic went, “but does anybody actually read it?”
Similarly, I think, it would be both inaccurate and reductive to blame the burden of following up a masterpiece for driving Wallace to his death. In the 10 years that followed Infinite Jest – which might have been a perfectly reasonable gestation period for another long novel – Wallace published five books, for a more than respectable average of one every two years. The short stories “Church Not Made With Hands” and “Good Old Neon,” and the essays on the porn industry and John McCain in Consider the Lobster would be among his best work.
Furthermore, it was impossible to read about the Depressed Person in “The Depressed Person” and not to understand that the author had known depression on the most wrenching and intimate and long-term terms. The suicide that now hangs shadelike over the Wallace corpus in fact predated it, at least as a potentiality; think of The Sad Stork and Kate Gompert and “Suicide as a Sort of Present” and the narrator of “Good Old Neon.”
Or don’t, because revisiting Wallace’s work is liable to offer more questions than answers. E.g.: How can someone with so much going for him have felt so bad? How could such an ambitious communicator have settled for this final muteness? And what, in the end, can we say about it?
We can say, first of all, that David Foster Wallace’s death is a historic loss for readers. To me, the self-annihilating qualities of “Octet” and “Mister Squishy” and “Oblivion” didn’t read as fictional dead-ends, but as attempts to solve, once and for all, the preoccupations of Wallace’s youth, prior to some astonishing new novel.
And we can remember that that book would have reflected a side of David Foster Wallace his critics didn’t often acknowledge: the metaphysician. In retrospect, Wallace’s belief in something larger than logic is everywhere: in Schtitt’s philosophies, in the prayerful ending of “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” and in “Good Old Neon,” where a suicide suggests that “all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life [turn] out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward.” Indeed, it offers some solace to recall that Wallace imagined death, in Infinite Jest, as a restoration, a
catapult[ing] home over fans and the Convexity’s glass palisades at desperate speeds, soaring north, sounding a bell-clear and nearly maternal alarmed call-to-arms in all the world’s well-known tongues.
This lovely image of connection posits death as the antithesis of depression, whose cause and effect, as Wallace diagnosed them, was the ontological problem of aloneness. Wallace revisited the proposition again and again, most recently in a soon-to-be-minutely-parsed commencement address at Kenyon College:
I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of what your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
But on this point, Wallace, who got so much right and saw so much so clearly, fell prey to a junior-grade fallacy, which now deepens into irony. As he himself put it in Infinite Jest: “sometimes words that seem to express really invoke.”
Even as Wallace’s darkest images expressed the anguish of existential solitude, the act of writing fiction, of writing it so well, was itself an invocation of community. His finest creation, Don Gately (the Leopold Bloom of Infinite Jest) bodies forth the possibility of true empathy, and we learn, through a series of hints, that he will try to lead Hal Incandenza out of the prison of the self.
Gately’s secret? He has come to understand that there is no proof, that some things one simply takes on faith. And as Gately observes, it works. David Foster Wallace’s death looks, from where I’m sitting, like a failure of communication. But his life, and his work, are an affirmation of it. Death is not the end.