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High Style and Desperate Love: On the Life and Work of Eileen Chang

Everyone has her own Eileen Chang story. For many readers, the story crystallizes in a single horrifying detail. First you gasp. Then you thrill. When I mentioned Chang’s name to a Chinese friend, she smiled wickedly: “In one of her stories, there is a woman so thin, she can slide her jade bracelet up to the elbow.”

Before Joan Didion, there was Eileen Chang. A slender, dramatic woman with a taste for livid details and feverish colors, Chang combined Didion’s glamor and sensibility with the terrific wit of Evelyn Waugh. She could, with a single phrase, take you hostage. Chinese readers can’t forget her; most Western readers have never met her. This year, on the 20th anniversary of her death, the recent NYRB edition of Chang’s Naked Earth provides an opportunity for new readers to fall in love, and for converts to renew what you might call (borrowing a tongue-in-cheek title from her oeuvre) Half a Lifelong Romance.

Chang was born in Shanghai in the 1920s, the daughter of violent extremes. Her mother was an elegant socialite, the product of a Western education; her father was a violent opium addict, descended — ironically enough — from the anti-opium crusader Li Hongzhang. After her father took a concubine, her mother fled for Western Europe, where she skied the Alps in bound feet. Chang was five years old.

After her father’s near-fatal overdose, her mother returned home to direct her children’s education. Her father promised to end his relationship with his concubine and his opium. Neither promise panned out. After the divorce, Chang and her younger brother lived with their father. Their mother fled again to France, studying art. She would not return for nearly a decade. Meanwhile Chang’s father beat her, raged at her; when she contracted dysentery, at the age of 18, he confined her to her bedroom. She was trapped for six months, until she colluded with a nurse to escape to her mother’s apartment.

From an early age, Chang understood that she would survive through her style. Almost immediately after her escape, she published an account of her incarceration in the Shanghai Evening Post. Later in life, Chang famously recycled and reframed her own memories; see Little Reunion, The Fall of the Pagoda, and The Book of Change. But really, all of her work was a series of little reunions with the past. She was always attentive; it was always present. As she wrote in her essay “Notes on Apartment Life,” “I am astounded by how extraordinarily clearly one can hear street noises from the sixth floor, as if it was all happening right beneath one’s ears, resembling the way people’s memories of trivial incidents from their childhood become increasingly clear and close the older and more distant they become.”

Chang’s relationship with her father would seem to be the defining tragedy of her life. Much of her later fiction captures the painful claustrophobia of their relationship; in Fall of the Pagoda, her stand-in, Lute, lives in the family compound, penned in with luxury and the stench of opium. Her story “Heart Sutra” reads like something out of Alfred Hitchcock (and, perhaps, the cinematically inclined brother of Sigmund Freud): towering apartments; broken elevators; a girl who falls madly in love with her father, while he runs away with a classmate who looks just like her.

But Chang was more wounded by her mother’s betrayals. “I had always loved my mother with a passion bordering on the romantic,” Chang later wrote. And in Fall of the Pagoda, Lute says to her mother, speaking of her father, “He never hurt me because I never loved him.”

Chang often downplayed her mother’s influence; she once claimed that the only tendency she inherited from her mother was a love for the color greenish blue. Still, her sense of style — and style’s importance — seems to have descended from the maternal line. As she later recalled, “Because my mother was inordinately fond of having new clothes made, my father once muttered under his breath, ‘People aren’t just clothes-hangers!’ One of my earliest memories is of my mother standing in front of a mirror, pinning a jadeite brooch onto a green, short-waisted jacket. Standing to one side, I looked up at her, awash with envy and unable to wait until I grew up.” In middle school, Chang used her first earnings — five dollars, for a cartoon she submitted to the Shanghai Post and Mercury — to buy a tube of lipstick. Above all, the girl was a stylist.

Chang’s sensitivity to style was an outgrowth of her extraordinary attention to detail. She swooned after smells, sounds, colors. In her writing, the result is cinematically crisp, and phantasmagorical. Take this scene, from the opening pages of The Golden Cangue: “It was almost dawn. The flat waning moon got lower, lower and larger, and by the time it sank, it was like a red gold basin. The sky was a cold, bleak crab-shell blue. The houses were only a couple of stories high, pitch-dark under the sky, so one could see far. At the horizon the morning colors were layers of green, yellow, and red like a watermelon cut open—the sun was coming up.” I don’t know anyone with a palette quite like Chang’s. She had the lunatic sensibilities of Marc Chagall, married to a Henri Matisse-like elegance.

This sensory acuity made her vulnerable. For all her father’s abuse, Chang’s most precise, terrible childhood memory was being forced to wear her stepmother’s hand-me-downs. The indignity felt like a physical assault. One dress, she wrote, was “the color of chopped beef, and I wore it for what seemed like forever, looking as if my whole body was covered with chilblains, and even when winter had passed, the scars from the sores remained — the gown was that hateful, that shameful.” During the most productive period of her life, which coincided with the Japanese Occupation, she published her first collections of essays and fiction, her masterly novella The Golden Cangue, and the short stories and novellas now known as Love in a Fallen City. But she was also making her own clothing and operating a design firm. She had finally achieved a measure of self-determination.

In her attention to fashion, Chang was alternately a menace and a non-entity. Japanese authorities regarded her writing as unthreatening; after the Communist Revolution, her work — with its emphasis on haute couture, sex, and envy — was considered “bourgeoise.” Even today, critics tend to describe Chang’s work as touchingly concerned with life’s “trivialities.” Of course, life is nothing but. “Man’s joie de vivre,” Chang announced, “is solely to be found in life’s irrelevancies.” She never quite understood “the Art of Living” as her mother wanted her to — how to properly pare an apple, or remember her own telephone number. “What I knew how to do…was listen to bagpipes, sit in a wicker chair enjoying a faint breeze, eat salt-boiled peanuts, admire neon lights on a wet night, reach out from the upper level of a double-decker bus to pluck leaves from the treetops.”

And Lord, could she pluck. In her fiction, as in her essays, Chang knew the details that would appall, vivify, and stun. So it is that a trivial, bourgeoise writer produced some of the Occupation’s most masterful journalism. “From the Ashes” narrates her experiences as a university student in Hong Kong when the Japanese invaded. “When we first heard that war had broken out,” she recalled, “a girl in my dormitory started panicking. ‘What am I to do? I’ve nothing to wear!’” When a bomb landed nearby and the students were evacuated, another student insisted on packing her best clothes into a leather trunk, which she dragged downhill through gunfire. Fashion had always been an arms race; now actual war had upped the ante.

“From the Ashes” confirmed Chang’s reputation as a consummate stylist, practical but pleasure-minded. It was a kind of sensual fortitude. “After Hong Kong fell,” she remembered, “we scoured the streets in search of ice cream and lipstick.” Her polished wit is enchanting, but critics often find a coolness to her high style. And something horrific does live in Chang’s eloquence. She describes “the cantankerous landlady whose crossed eyes stuck out like a pair of taps,” “the young wife whose neck and head could have been the blow dryer at the hairdresser’s.” Reading Chang, you have a sense of intimacy that can be easily revoked. Her eyes might lift suddenly from the page and describe you. One critic pointedly asked, “Can someone who does not connect with people be a writer?”

But she did, and she was. Chang was seduced by colors, but fell as readily for men. (In Classical Chinese, the words sex and color are, in fact, identical.) By the age of 25, already the literary darling of 1940s Shanghai, she fell disastrously in love with Hu Lancheng. Hu was an accomplished journalist. He was also a serial, and simultaneous, womanizer: At the time of their wedding, he was still married to his third wife. Hu left Chang repeatedly — first for a 17-year-old nurse, then for a 40-year-old widowed concubine. The marriage lasted three years.

In fiction, too, her high style was met by high romance. Her famous Love in a Fallen City suffers from a baffling mistranslation: this is, rather, a love that destroys cities. It’s a reference to a classical allusion — the kind of femme fatale who upends cities and nations. Her women fall in love with married men, spies, their own fathers; they dash themselves against passion and beauty; they make desperate, romantic suicide pacts with lovers who leave them to drink their poison alone. They topple cities; they topple themselves.

While the fall of Shanghai could not disrupt Chang’s output, the Communist Revolution ultimately did. In 1952, Chang moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a translator for the United States Information Service. She had always been an accomplished English writer; her first published essay was written in English. Now she rendered American giants like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ernest Hemingway into Chinese. Naked Earth, written first in Chinese and then translated into English, was commissioned by her employer as anti-Communist propaganda.

Naked Earth, one of Chang’s most overtly political works, is one of her least appreciated, particularly in mainland China. The book is not quite characteristic Chang. Its Chinese title, often rendered as Love in Redland, sounds like a mashup of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Colleen McCullough. The English title, with its echoes of The Good Earth, seems built on the preposterous assumption that Chang would ever allow anything to leave her pen naked, uncolored by her particular style. And then there’s the provocation of naked political ideologies. As Chang herself observed years earlier, in “From the Ashes,” “Regardless of whether they were political or philosophical, world views which are too clear-cut are bound to provoke antipathy.”

Still, the commission shouldn’t undercut the novel’s artistic merits. Recent revelations about support from the American government certainly haven’t undermined the legacy of Boris Pasternak. Like Dr. Zhivago, Naked Earth jolts and arrests almost immediately. Inveterate Chang readers won’t be disappointed. There is high style here, and desperate love. (Two university students caught in a secret romance. A doomed commune. Deadly backstabbing. You do the math, comrade.) The question is whether this new release of Naked Earth can attract new readers.

That’s still an open question. Despite her renewed popularity at home, and the international success of Ang Lee’s adaptations, Chang’s fiction, like Chang herself, has run into trouble in its later years. For me, the definitively chilling Chang detail comes from “My Dream of Being a Genius:” “Life is a dazzling gown covered with lice.” It’s a terrifying foreshadowing of Chang’s final days in Californian exile, moving constantly from motel to motel to avoid the lice that trailed her. She was found in her Westwood apartment several days after her death, the victim of an apparent heart attack. Her ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. This last request is pure Chang: a grand, futile, romantic gesture. I hope Naked Earth can cross coasts. But that’s almost beside the point.

Alive with Disagreement and Dissent: On A.O. Scott, Politics, and Art

1.
In 1943, Dwight MacDonald, one of the co-founders of the literary journal Partisan Review, lost an internal power struggle over its editorial direction and left to found a new magazine, Politics, that better suited his vision. The reasons for MacDonald’s split with the other PR founders, Phillip Rahv and William Phillips, are complex and have been examined at length elsewhere, but in principle they involved both a difference of opinion regarding the participation of the United States in the war against Germany and Japan (which MacDonald opposed) and the question of whether Partisan Review would be principally a journal of leftist politics (as MacDonald wished) or one equally committed to independent-minded literary and cultural criticism. After MacDonald’s departure, Partisan Review did not abandon politics, but it remained known as a journal open to distinguished work even from those who differed from the editors ideologically. Before finally closing in 2003, PR would go on to publish criticism — by fellow travelers (Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin) and ideological enemies (Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren) alike — that set a standard that other journals of opinion still strive to match.

Ancient squabbles at a now-defunct literary magazine, involving a good deal of now dated Marxist cant, are not inherently very interesting. But the Partisan Review, both in its high editorial standards and in its struggles to resolve inherent tensions between the domains of politics and art, continues to be a point of reference in our literary culture. The founders of n + 1 have cited PR as an example, even as they have produced a journal with a hipper, more contemporary voice; several of the core PR critics, including Lionel Trilling, remain culture heroes; and New York Times critic A.O. Scott maintains what amounts almost to an obsession with PR, citing its writers in his work, contributing an admiring introduction to a collection of essays by another PR stalwart, Mary McCarthy, and undertaking a book project surveying the American novel since World War II that seems consciously to invoke Kazin’s landmark study of the preceding period, On Native Grounds. It is Scott’s fascination with PR and its fusion of ideology and culture that I wish to discuss here, along with the broader question of how the contemporary American novel ought to engage with politics.

Here is Scott in a recent Times essay:
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, I’ve been waiting for The Grapes of Wrath. Or maybe A Raisin in the Sun, or Death of a Salesman, a Zola novel or a Woody Guthrie ballad — something that would sum up the injustices and worries of the times, and put a human face on the impersonal movements of history. The originals are still around, available for revival and rediscovery and part of a robust artistic record of hard times past. But we are in the midst of hard times now, and it feels as if art is failing us…Much as I respect the efforts of economists and social scientists to explain the world and the intermittent efforts of politicians to change it, I trust artists and writers more. Not necessarily to be righteous or infallible, or even consistent or coherent; not to instruct or advocate, but rather, through the integrity and discipline they bring to making something new, to tell the truth.
This is a stirring statement of purpose for the arts, but one that should be parsed carefully. In this and a series of previous essays published over the last several years, Scott makes two related claims: (1) that our culture no longer makes a strong demand upon us morally or intellectually, but instead treats us simply as consumers whose expectations must be met; and (2) that a false dichotomy has arisen between our political and cultural lives, such that artists have abdicated their responsibility to examine the ideological structures that we are governed by and have instead been content to describe the compensatory mechanisms we have evolved to survive within them. What Scott wants is a more serious, more politically engaged culture, one more alive with disagreement and dissent.

Some of what Scott says, particularly on the subject of politics and the American novel, seems to me a little “pushed,” in the sense that he risks asking the wrong things of writers, or perhaps weights engagement on his terms too heavily, and imputes a didactic purpose to the novel as a genre that it cannot support.  My purpose here is not to quarrel with Scott, however, but to explore some of the tensions that inhere in the novel of politics, and relatedly, to assess the extent to which the critical attitude that Scott has embraced remains salient in an era of very different cultural values. The sense of crisis to which Scott has addressed himself is no doubt real. Suddenly, everything seems to be up for grabs again in our political life. It is natural to hope, even if that hope is somewhat against the weight of experience, that artists can light the path ahead.

2.
The Partisan Review sensibility was in part a product of historical and biographical forces, to wit, the world of Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to New York in massive numbers over several decades beginning in the 1880s. Irving Howe, Phillip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and Leslie Fiedler all belonged to this world; Howe memorialized it in World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made:
For about thirty or forty years, a mere moment in history, the immigrant Jews were able to sustain a coherent and self-sufficient culture. It was different from the one they had left behind, despite major links of continuity, and it struggled fiercely to keep itself different from the one they found in America, despite the pressures for assimilation. Between what they had brought and half preserved from the old world and what they were taking from the new, the immigrant Jews established a tense balance, an interval of equilibrium.
Scott is an inheritor off this culture through his mother, the historian Joan Wallach Scott, who grew up in a Brooklyn Jewish family, moved away from home, got a Ph.D., married a Protestant, and had little Tony. Other forces have acted upon him, too, of course: one could just as easily say that he is a product of the academy (his father, Donald Scott, teaches at CUNY); of Harvard (Class of ’88); or of the newspapers where he has worked for 20 years. It might seem odd or even de trop to claim that there is a Jewish intellectual style and that Scott works within it, except that he makes little pretense otherwise; his work is studded with references to the PR critics (not all of them Jews, of course), men and women all now dead and to some extent forgotten — so much so, in fact, that what at first looks like interest begins gradually to seem more like obsession. While the PR critics are not Scott’s only touchstones, they seem to embody for him the highest possibilities of the critical form.

There are good reasons to think that the PR intellectual style is outdated. First, because of the collective experience of the Holocaust, the Cold War, and McCarthyism — the extraordinary cataclysm of the middle of the 20th century, in which ideology threatened not just to eclipse civilization but to extinguish it — the PR critics did not draw sharp distinctions between politics and culture. For them, all cultural products referred to and derived from a system of relations that they saw in Marxist, philosophically materialist terms. Today, by contrast, we tend to regard culture as a semi-autonomous sphere, independent and self-justifying. Second, the PR critics wished above all to be thought of as serious, and their conception of seriousness, which they linked to cultural traditions inherited from Europe, is likely to seem anachronistic to us today; American culture has lost its last vestiges of self-doubt and become, at least in commercial terms, a dominant brand. Few critics today, even very cosmopolitan ones, think of Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as salient points of reference when they talk about the form and potential of the novel. Third, the PR critics wrote in a mandarin style of intellectual assertion that hardly seems possible in an age in which critical authority is on the run in all spheres of intellectual life. We no longer assume that a Columbia professor like Trilling has the right to tell us how to read or what belongs in the canon.

On the other hand, there is a good deal that remains admirable and relevant in the PR style, despite its occasionally risible self-importance. An air of political crisis seems to have returned to American life, creating space for both reasoned dissent and all manner of charlatanism; there exists a new sense of possibility that is both exciting and terrifying. If that is so, then a somewhat artificial distinction between political and cultural life begins to look not just specious but irresponsible; we need our artists to remind us of who we are. And while the culture continues to become flatter, there is also a countercurrent of interest in what is authentic and best in the culture rather than what is given to us by media monopolists. The flattening of our culture should not be confused with its democratization, however determined Apple might be in its advertising campaigns to conflate the two. To dismantle or, at least, to interrogate structures of political and cultural power begins to look like pretty urgent work. At the end of this chain of propositions, Trilling, Fiedler, and especially Howe wait for us. Perhaps Scott chose his heroes better than one might have thought.

Scott’s admiration for the PR critics also rests on values more narrowly literary. There were several gifted stylists in the PR crowd: Howe, who delivered opinions of undisguised vehemence in long sentences gentle on the inward ear; Trilling, Jamesian, diffident, balancing his long, erudite essays on a single concept or turn of phrase; MacDonald, whose essay “Masscult and Midpoint” finds a perfect equipoise between an unrepentant cultural snobbery and a sighing regret that such thoughts must be expressed. It is this fusion of political and aesthetic values that seems to interest Scott, the dream of a critical mind both free and disciplined. Scott is first and last a writer, a man who wants to get himself fully expressed on the page. His prose style is not flashy, and it takes sustained exposure to his work to realize that he is a very good writer indeed, one who has resisted the slackness that can creep in when you have multiple pieces due week after week, the diminished expectations of daily journalism. While Scott colors between the lines, rarely reaching for heightened rhetoric or memorable coinage, his steadily intelligent prose constitutes a quieter kind of intellectual heroism. He is less interested in providing that he is right about a particular work than in defending his aesthetic values or, more fundamentally, the importance of establishing aesthetic values and judging works of art, even popular art, by those standards.

3.
American literature has always been more wary of ideology than its European counterpart. Here we take our politics light, and with a good deal of artificial sweetener. Leslie Fiedler (another PR contributor) said that all American novelists were stunted, unable to accept their role in the culture at large, returning always to the intense, private, unmediated experiences of youth. Fiedler intended this as an indictment, at least in part, but the innocence of the American writer may not be entirely a bad thing. Europe in the 20th century suffered so grievously from excessive ideological passion, both in its politics and in its letters (Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Paul de Man, Günter Grass), as to constitute a potent negative example.

Today we are inclined to think that a novelist whose primary purpose is narrowly didactic is likely to produce work that is date-stamped; but there are counter-examples strong enough to give one pause: Charles Dickens often wrote with a political purpose; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attacked the Soviet state with The Gulag Archipelago; and then there is the irrefutable case of George Orwell. Of course, the American novelist may have had less need to confront the state than her counterparts in other places and times, since the twin rhetorics of liberty and equality have always been part of our official discourse; an artist-provacateur like Ai Weiwei is a necessary figure in China — a sort of dramatist of state repression — but perhaps less so in the West. It may be the case, however, that the relation of the artist to the state has changed in America in the last decade with the gross expansion of the national security apparatus, which along with rapid technological change has shrunk the once generous zone of personal autonomy that we came to take for granted. If that is true, it may be time for certain creative work that cuts a little closer to the bone.

A criticism that attempts to take account of politics runs into an immediate paradox, which is that those novels that deal least directly with ideology tend to be the ones in which the strongest ideological assumptions are made; the preconditions of social life are so self-evident to their authors that they need not be stated. A Jane Austen novel is strongly concerned with domestic life and family relations, almost to the complete exclusion of ideological questions; and yet without the stable substructures of marriage and property on which it depends for both its plot and its social texture, it would falter on the first page. Unlike the plastic arts, the novel can never be wholly apolitical, given that even in its most experimental forms it seeks to refer to the world. Still, it would be a crude critic indeed who opted to “take on” the assumptions of these novels; he would almost be making a category error. Austen is a writer for all time; that she required a certain stability of society and manners has not proved disqualifying. Indeed, Henry James thought of this stability as virtually a precondition of the novel, or at least of his own. The novelist must sometimes have the freedom merely to take the world as he finds it.

The idea of the political novel is also somewhat in tension with the generative process that leads to the impulse to write. The political imagination seeks to solve problems, even to extinguish them. The violent political imagination seeks to extinguish false consciousness, which can only end in the extinguishing of human beings. The literary imagination is content to present problems, of whatever sort, taking the world as it finds it; in that sense it is conservative, even as it attempts the radical gesture of creation ex nihilo. The novel classically begins in the writer’s mind with a character or a situation, not with a political structure, a legislative event, a party congress. “An idealistic young doctor and poet seeks stability, meaning, and honor as his country descends into violence” is at least potentially Doctor Zhivago; “a series of events in imperial Russia leads to the demise of the Romanov dynasty and the creation of the Soviet Union” is something else entirely. Of course, a novel that begins with character may effloresce to become the story of a revolution, as with Zhivago. But what distinguishes the novel from the forms with which it has vied for space (biographies, narrative histories, religious texts) is its concern with private experience and, beginning with the modernists, interiority. The inner life observed is the lodestar of the modern novel: Mrs. Dalloway in her kitchen. The political novel, by contrast, seeks to link the individual’s destiny to the mass society that conditions him and against which he struggles for autonomy.

However much faith we are inclined to place in our artists, we should acknowledge that the crisis that Scott asks art to explain, or at least to narrate, was (among other things) an event in economic history, arising out of very deliberate and identifiable policy choices made over the course of several decades by intelligent but apparently rather blinkered individuals. Sustained engagement with that history actually is important to understanding what happened. A novelist may be able to “tell the truth” about the sense of dislocation and free-floating anxiety felt by a laid off mortgage banker; or about how a family’s life might unravel after the loss of their home; but she probably cannot explain the chain of causation that started with the invention of securitization and led to the jumbo mortgages that led to the building of that house that the family paid too much for, struggled to keep up, and eventually surrendered to the bank. John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, not Agricultural Practices in Northeast Oklahoma, 1926-1935, and while The Grapes of Wrath is an essential document in the record of our national experience, you would not want to consult it as a guide to farm policy. The novel as a genre gains strength and resilience from its engagement with the social sciences, but we should not confuse it with social science itself; the division of labor between the two exists for a reason and is essential to the vitality of both.

I do not think that Scott actually means to suggest that a novel is inherently a more trustworthy document than a Fed white paper or that the purposes of the two are coextensive. One assumes that a novelist may be as blinkered as the social scientist she meets in the faculty lounge. What we might legitimately ask a novel of the financial crisis to do is to speak to the moral imagination of the reader, to invigorate it, and to extend its reach to people and things that are not customarily the objects of her concern. That is part of its genre work. And is that not a enough?

Lionel Trilling both believed in the salience of literature to political thought and cautioned against asking the novel to do too much. Here he is in his most famous work, The Liberal Imagination (1950): “To the carrying out of the job of criticizing the liberal imagination, literature has a unique relevance, not merely because so much of modern literature has explicitly directed itself upon politics, but more importantly because literature is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty.” But in 1946, in an introduction to The Partisan Reader that was published shortly after the MacDonald schism and might be read as a commentary upon it, he had struck a more cautious note: “Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind, we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.” Trilling, like Orwell, is a writer in whom ideologues of all stripes seem to find support for their views; most recently the neo-conservatives have sought to claim him as their own. But Trilling’s work seeks an autonomous space for literature and rejects a philistine criticism that would assess works primarily for their ideological correctness.

Scott himself clearly belongs to the political left, and the novel of politics he asks for is implicitly one that would vindicate his concerns. We generally think of the political novel as having a progressive or reformist purpose. It is well to remember, though, that two of the most influential political novels in the history of the West, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, were written from the right — and continue to animate conservative politics today. Another species of political novel, the anti-communist novel — Darkness at Noon, Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago — is not rightist in origin per se (Orwell, for example, described himself as a democratic socialist) but is strongly anti-utopian. Indeed, the novel as an art form is inherently anti-utopian, inasmuch as it seeks to point us to conflicts within the individual, and between the individual and society, that are inherently intractable. A political novel’s happy ending usually does not mean the end of war — which, be it literal or figurative, is with us always — but with the protagonist’s achieving a separate peace.

4.
If I am right that, among other things, the political novel faces a problem of scale — national politics tends toward the totalizing vision, while narrative fiction wants to be intimate — then the solution may be for the writer to deal with a small bore problem that can nonetheless be “scaled up:” a part that will stand for the whole. Ideology, in both its grainier and more sweeping senses, is at the center of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a somewhat archly ironic account of American political values in the aughts. Franzen engages politics directly, in that several of his characters are actively trying to shape policy, and more subtly, in dramatizing how ideological tropes seep into private life and affect the choices we make in our homes and neighborhoods. Freedom extends themes present in Franzen’s earlier novel, The Corrections, but it takes on conservative political values more directly and with markedly less sympathy for their representatives. As such, Freedom was dealt with critically as a political novel (at least in part), though less in terms of whether the reviewer shared Franzen’s politics than whether Franzen’s attempt to bring ideology to the center of a domestic novel was prima facie legitimate.

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of a biography of Whitaker Chambers and a narrative history of the conservative moment in the United States, hailed Freedom as “a masterpiece of American fiction;” B.R. Myers, the author of A Reader’s Manifesto and a professor of North Korean politics (and therefore a man who knows something about the dangers of ideology) called it “a monument to insignificance.” Myers seemed to feel that Franzen was writing a kind of socialist realism, with his characters acting as representatives of certain tendencies in national life rather than vital individuals; he also found their diction and their inner lives banal (perhaps he has lived outside the country for too long to recall what we are actually like). Tanenhaus and Myers are both strong critics, and their radically different responses to Freedom suggest an ongoing lack of critical consensus regarding how politics should be dealt with in narrative fiction. Some critics demand that the author’s politics be entirely soluble in the narrative, while others find a plainer statement of ideological assumptions bracing. This lack of consensus is not necessarily a matter for concern — chacun â son gout, after all — but it does leave the writer who has a sustained interest in ideology with a hard problem.

Freedom occasionally suffers from the impatience of its author with the very narrative techniques that Franzen employed to such extraordinary effect in The Corrections. While in the latter novel, Franzen’s use of free indirect style was masterful in bringing to life each of the members of the Lambert family, in his presentation of Freedom’s Berglunds, Franzen hovers rather too close by, over-managing our interpretations. Freedom sometimes descends into a hectoring tone, holding forth rather than narrating. Its author seems burdened by the responsibility of telling us things we already ought to know. But a novel is not meant to be a substitute for watching PBS Newshour; it is not a discourse on citizenship. This is not to say that Freedom is not an excellent novel — only to suggest that Franzen did not manage the problem of blending his aesthetic and didactic purposes perfectly. There is something in the reader that wants to resist Freedom even as he admires its art and recognizes the world it creates.

Amy Waldman’s The Submission deals not with the financial crisis that is Scott’s immediate concern but with other signal event of our recent politics, the 9/11 attacks. The Submission starts with a high concept: the jury judging the anonymous submissions for a Ground Zero memorial unwittingly chooses an American of Middle Eastern descent, a slick, arrogant, and thoroughly secularized product of the Yale School of Architecture named Mohammed Khan. The choice of Khan activates opposition, some of it ugly, from a coalition motivated variously by religious animus, opportunism, and survivor guilt. Others rally to Khan’s defense in the name of tolerance, civic order, and aesthetic values. The ensuing struggle over the meaning of 9/11 and what might constitute an appropriate response to such a spectacularly successful act of political violence is a portrait of New York in that raw and tumultuous period that registers the change in mood and understanding created by the attacks.

The Submission was published to enormous acclaim, and it is in many respects a worthy novel, but three years later it already feels dated. Waldman’s model was clearly Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and The Submission answers Wolfe’s call for a less effete and more epistemic account of what actually goes on at the street level of our livid cities. While Waldman is a writer of patience and skill, the result still feels like a kind of super-journalism. The people in The Submission succeed as representatives of their social environment, but they never quite escape their representative status to succeed as individuals; as such, they are not literary characters at all, in the sense of seeming to possess autonomous selves. It is important to remember, as Wolfe has often failed to do, that while the techniques of fiction and newspaper reporting may seem similar, their purposes are very different and their truth-value depends on different claims. The Submission by its very conception carries a very heavy documentary burden, which necessarily inhibits the imaginative freedom of its author.  Imagination is the faculty in which Scott places his final measure of trust, but imagination is often precisely what suffers when the novelist seeks to fulfill a didactic purpose.

5.
Literature is naturally against the grain of ideology. Ideology seeks to impose a pattern on historical experience, sometimes by violence; the patterns of literature perform gentler acts of persuasion, and they emerge only gradually. To get to the place where the pattern coheres and the author’s meaning emerges (assuming that we are in the realm of novels that seek to perform in this way), the reader must pass through the slough of ambiguity. The pattern is the novel’s purpose, but the ambiguity is its basic condition. While the novelist may be God in the universe of his narrative, he accepts that his effect on the world is diffuse and indirect.

In asking that American novelists engage more fully with the political dimension of our national life, Scott is asking them to risk something of the freedom of thought and expression they enjoy, derived from their very unworldliness, that gives their work (for Scott) a unique truth-value. When the novelist becomes just another person who wants to sell us something, her moral status suffers, and so perhaps does her claim on our attention. So we should be careful about what we ask novelists (and poets, and filmmakers) to do.

Taken more broadly, however, Scott’s recent attempts to diagnose why our culture is so persistently, noxiously trivial, even as our claims regarding our special status in world affairs become more grandiose and deluded, seem both honorable and timely. This is not say that Scott is a cultural pessimist per se; indeed, he rightly regards a renewable capacity for enthusiasm as a necessary part of a critic’s equipment. He is not despairing, but he is disappointed. Like the PR critics, who as the children of immigrants were both in love with America and perpetually disappointed by it, he is inclined to think that we ought to do better. “Doing better” might start with demanding art that demands more of us.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jaime Martínez-Figueroa

Pineapples in a Hothouse: Writing Culture in ‘Dear Committee Members’ and ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’

1.
In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring.

“A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.”

Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.”

The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever.

The protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students’ and colleagues’ “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet.

Some of the targets of Schumacher’s piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university’s idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar.

But Fitger’s letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish’s courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist’s life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children.

Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn’t allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He’s still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger.

At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression…is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer’s life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.”

2.
Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.”

Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor.

Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer’s organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.)

During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer’s union, Griboyedov’s House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature.
“You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!”

“Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth…

“And a sweet terror clutches your heart when you think that at this very minute the author of a future Don Quixote, or Faust, or, the devil take me, Dead Souls may be ripening inside that house!”
If Bulgakov’s fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare’s fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren’t doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends.

Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov’s novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia.

Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence:
Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn’t write ‘Next morning he left’ because ‘next morning’ for him meant in six months’ time.
Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny:
Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel…and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing — or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells.
Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare’s mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare’s own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate.

Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes:
All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning.

Doctor…Doctor…the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor…Doctor…Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up.
Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize.

Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me — or rather, for my country.”

The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors.

Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, “a writer who had no idea whether he was ‘historical’ or ‘ahistorical.'” (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating ‘absolute writing’ or of paying homage to ‘pure art,’ or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.”

Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”

One Stay in the Life of an Olympics Journalist

When it comes to this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s almost Biblical: in the beginning there was Twitter, and the tweets were about toilets. Whether as a result of poor planning and corruption — or whether as a call-back to the uniquely Soviet production quota issues that led to backwards high heels and sticky raincoats — the facilities in Sochi have been the butt of jokes across the internet since the first reporters touched down weeks ago. The issues are legion: there are missing pipes; there are innovative seat covers; and everywhere there are reminders that privacy is a lie.

(Of course, these superficial issues belie much more systemic and widespread problems, and I hope that the journalists decrying the last-minute paint jobs are going to be equally vocal about Russia’s deeply unsettling human rights issues.)

Yet and still, I’ll admit that my Millions colleague Janet Potter and I have indulged our affinity for Schadenfreude by cataloguing some of the more outrageous entries popping up on our Twitter timelines. (The best typically bear the hashtags #SochiProblems and #RatchetOlympics.) All the while, I’ve found myself subconsciously pairing the absurdities with their analogues from the canon of Russian literature. And as I’ve come to learn, the Russian masters saw the writing on the wall well before the Olympic torch made its way to the Black Sea’s coast. Below, I offer a brief compendium of classic quotations paired with some of the more incredible and regrettable sights that Sochi has to offer.

 

“Such complete, absolute ignorance of everyday reality was touching and somehow repulsive.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

 

“Death can only be profitable: there’s no need to eat.” – Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle

 

“There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

 

“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” – Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General

 

“By words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.” – Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?

 

“’No strangers allowed. Go away.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn’t that so? Now go away.’” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future

 

“Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
to shine—
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!” ― Vladimir Mayakovksy, “An Extraordinary Adventure…

 

“In fact, I’m beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

 

“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

 

“Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism; other men die
But I am not another: therefore I’ll not die” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire 

 

“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.” – Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don

 

“And everything that he saw before him / He despised or hated.” – Mikhail Lermontov, “The Demon” (Note: Russian)

 

“—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.” – Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue

 

“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

“If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth that are aching.” – Anton Chekhov, “Life is Wonderful” *

* Alternate: “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground

 

“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” – Alexander Pushkin, “The Hero” (as quoted in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”)

 

“…as I was sifting through a heap of old and new ‘identity cards,’ I noticed that something was missing: my identity.” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

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