One day back in grad school my advisor, a savvy and successful novelist whose books meant a great deal to me, whom I had just gone five grand into debt and traveled three thousand miles to work with, called me into his office and sat me down to talk about the chapter I had submitted from my novel in progress. His expression was purposeful, intense; he seemed eager to get down to business. Clearly the work I’d submitted had impressed him in some particular way, elevated me a little from the other surly, miserable students in the workshop. I could all but feel him weighing the manuscript in his hand, as if deliberating how much postage to apply when he sent it to his agent.
“Look,” he said, and I did, at a piece of parchment bond paper so capillaried with red marks it might have been the face of a stroke victim, “cut the crap, okay? Enough with these F. Scott Fitzgerald sentences.”
This was, on one level, the nicest, most fulsome compliment the man would ever give me. After all it was my love for Fitzgerald and his sentences that had inspired me to write in the first place. If every writer, as Saul Bellow once claimed, is a reader moved to emulation (and my advisor wasn’t so hot on Bellow’s sentences either), then to be accused of writing the kinds of sentences that had made me want to write those kinds of sentences? On one level it was very nice to hear.
Unfortunately my advisor didn’t mean it on that level. He meant it on a different level, a lower level. He meant that being enthralled as I was to lovely, thrilling, Daisy Buchanan-ish prose was an infatuation I had to grow out of fast, lest my work wind up face-down in an abandoned pool. He himself was a rough-and-tumble realist, streety and sharp—a Redskin, in Philip Rahv’s famous phrase. Already he had me pegged as a member of that wan lesser tribe, the Palefaces, those cerebral, overly refined aesthetes who hung out in cafes, reading French poetry and doodling precious bon mots in overpriced notebooks. Moi! That this judgment was ludicrously unfair, presumptuous, and reductive did not make it, alas, any less true. I hurried out of his office that day like the kid in Joyce’s “Araby,” the soft underbelly of my assumptions exposed, my face burning, my hands clenched, shadow-boxing with shame.
All of which took place many years ago now. Just another once-humiliating, now-comic anecdote one shares with one’s peers over a shitload of drinks, the Paleface equivalent of a war story. In other words, though I often refer to it, I don’t often think about it.
But maybe I should. Because there arrives a point in every vocation where the efficacy of one’s long-distance path through the dark woods of Time comes into question, where it becomes necessary to consider the choices one has made—whether or not one is aware of having made them—along the way. An interlude of mid-career self-scrutiny, in which all the old, now-calcified assumptions are held up against the light and examined for flaws. What would we change, if we had the chance?
Like most people, I would often prefer to be someone else. Ideally, the prose this other self would write would not be like mine at all. This other self would not write lyrical and elongated sentences that unfurl like a garden hose, spritzing dewily over every bush, thorn, and flower. No, the prose of this other person would be coiled and sharp, deadly as a snake. But here’s the thing: you can’t just choose to be a snake. There are issues of temperament involved. Of culture and nurture. Arguably, to be Jewish, for example, is to incline, more or less from Eden onward, less toward snakes than snakevictims. With a few notable exceptions (Babel, Mailer, Mamet) Jewish writers tend towards the indoor, the psychological, the Paleface; they lack that mind of winter, that cold equipment, that steely, scrupulous will to violence we see in Flannery O’Connor, Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy, and the other Catholic Redskins. Then too there are limits to our stylistic elasticity. The rubber band of sensibility can only stretch so far. Even the most strenuous reexamination of our own linguistic patterns is conducted within the confines of those patterns, the patterns of those patterns. You can wind up feeling encircled by funhouse mirrors, unable to see beyond the freakishly elongated reflections of your own head.
Nonetheless: it’s important to try to get past our own heads, which, however busy and capacious, can only take us so far. The same is true of literary style. “As you get older,” says Thomas McGuane, a recovering “word drunk” by his own admission,
you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best. . . .You want something that is drawn like a bow, and a bow is a simple instrument. A good writer should get a little bit cleaner and probably a little bit plainer as life and the oeuvre go on.
For all its plain good sense, this strikes me as a fairly radical take. Most young artists resist imperatives and prescriptions; they don’t like being told what’s real and true, let alone what they should or shouldn’t do about it. But McGuane’s “winnowing down” is the product of a longer view of time, a moral and aesthetic response to the realities of middle age, that war of attrition. The shadow of all those attended funerals may not change what he chooses to write about, but it changes how he sees, and how he writes too. There’s no equivocating here, no epistemological dithering about how terms like “truth” and “the real” are just silly premodern artifacts tarnished by years of rough treatment by lawyers, politicians, and humanities professors with French surnames. No, the writer’s outlook is stony and clear, absolute. If experience—or let’s just go ahead and say death—teaches us what’s real and what isn’t, then to pretend otherwise, whether in substance or style, is a cowardly evasion, a shirking of the writer’s fundamental responsibility to find words that distill conditions of being. The rest is just so much commentary scribbled in the margins.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” goes the Zen teaching, “in the expert’s few.”
Another expression of this can be seen in a late essay by Natalia Ginzburg, “My Vocation”:
We are adult because we have behind us the silent presence of the dead, whom we ask to judge our current actions and from whom we ask forgiveness for past offences . . . we are adult because of that brief moment when one day it fell to our lot to live when we had looked at the things of the world as if for the last time, when we had renounced our possession of them and returned them to the will of God: and suddenly the things of the world appeared to us in their just place beneath the sky, and the human beings too.
This same “language for the real,” this winnowing directness, underlies and often overlies the work of Chekhov. His lyric effects are dispensed sparely but tactically, like a Japanese meal. They hit a quick, distinct flavor note and then flit back to the kitchen with a pellucid lightness of manner that’s both an artistic and (if his letters are any indication) behavioral ideal. “You may weep and moan over your stories, you may suffer together with your heroes,” he tells one correspondent, “but I consider one must do this so that the reader does not notice it. The more objective, the stronger will be the effect.” That there’s no such thing as “objective” writing—that literary prose is always a manipulated impression, a trick of subjective light—is too obvious a point to bother over. It’s how to achieve that impression that obsesses Chekhov. His style is a kind of anti-style, its effects arising casually, indirectly, often prosaically. “He goes to parties,” observes Nabokov, “clad in his everyday suit . . . the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème de menthe epithet, these were foreign to him.” Chekhov’s scorn for the lyrical, like a former smoker’s scorn for a patch, is as knowing as it is severe. It’s as if lyricism is a bad habit he’s forever struggling to put behind him for good. The beauty arises not despite his lack of interest in mere beauty but because of it. Beautiful, not beautiful—in Chekhov these and all such binaries are exposed as facile and irrelevant, vaguely vulgar. Things are never either/or, but both/and. To discover that each moment, when it arrives, is no longer simply itself, solo and unencumbered, but comes freighted with cumbersome bags of memory, loss, and regret . . . this is the wisdom of maturity, a wisdom most of us would prefer to do without.
The conflict between lived facts and imposed lyricism can also be viewed in grammatical terms: as a tug-of-war between adjective and noun. The lyric writer’s affinity and/or weakness for the adjective is at once endearingly earnest and embarrassingly insistent. It represents a kind of religious faith—first in the power of the adjective to do right by a specific noun, and secondly in the ability of language to do right by its noun (reality, I mean) in all its latent and subordinate depths. (“The total and unique adjective,” Robbe-Grillet snorts, “which attempts to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things.”) Or maybe it’s a lack of faith, a frantic insecurity about language’s ability to adhere to the real, that inspires some writers to press too much of it upon the page, like a stoned teenager Scotch-taping the unruly corners of a Hendrix poster to his bedroom wall. Either way the stuff won’t quite stick. Even as we struggle to affix language to the world, we only manage to obscure it, fogging up the window with the huff and puff of our own breath.
Point being, a tendency to render something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something, can get old fast. Reading a novel that feels overly protracted and finessed makes us antsy, peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels. They really are just words, aren’t they?
And so we turn with relief to the noun. Nouns are modest by nature; they make few claims on our emotions, request no special treatment or favors. Next to the noun’s rugged, Gary Cooper-ish laconicism, the adjective can look sweaty and undignified, like Peter Lorre in Casablanca, pleading for special favors it hasn’t earned. We’re tempted to step away, wipe the stain of its corruptions off our sleeve, and get on with our business. Clear this away, says the overseer of the hunger artist’s limp, useless corpse. Give us the real thing, the panther, vivid and unmediated. Show us his claws.
And yet even real-thingness, taken to its extreme—did someone say Robbe-Grillet?—can begin to seem a bit fussy and mannered in its own way. Which is only to say that whichever direction you take, you can wind up in the same place. You say tomato, I say red round seed-spilling fruit; what matters is the force and penetration of the perception, and the musical intensity of its expression. The concrete implies the abstract, the simple implies the complex. Even McGuane’s directness, his hostility to rhetorical posturing, is itself (he’d likely be first to concede) a kind of rhetorical posture, not plain at all.
If every style is an argument with its own opposite, its shadow, its fraternal twin, whether the terms of the argument should evolve over time is a question we’re all likely to answer, as McGuane does, in the affirmative. But how?
Edward Said, in his unfinished but influential On Late Style, finds in the late works of Beethoven, Strauss, Lampedusa, Visconti, and Thomas Mann not McGuane’s plainspoken, winnowed-down “real” thing but something like the opposite: a landscape of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Said is out to interrogate, as they say, the whole notion of maturity, and not just in the arts. What if age doesn’t yield the serene perspective of “ripeness is all”? What if instead of harmony and resolution we find only “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness,” a “devotion to the truth of unreconciled relations”? What if our apprehension of the real is undermined by a growing awareness that reality itself—the self itself—is shot through with holes? If so, then perhaps some new, messier vocabulary is necessary. “A catching fire between extremes,” Adorno calls it, “which no longer allow for any secure middle ground. In the history of art,” he concludes, “late works are the catastrophes.”
Death in Venice, though hardly a late work for Mann, reads like a very late work for man. We all know the story: Aschenbach, a man given to fastidious brooding in expensive rooms, arrives in Venice at a creative impasse, his ends out of synch with his means. As the narrator coolly observes, “His work had ceased to be marked by that fiery play of fancy which is the product of joy.” And so to Venice, “that wild, presumably unrestrained region where desires are realized and fantasies fulfilled.” Aschenbach, like all imperialists, wants to gain something for nothing and then make good his escape. He craves the heat of the orgy, as Norman Mailer used to say, but not its murder. “He would go on a journey,” he tells himself, “Not far—not all the way to the tigers.”
But in the end the tigers get him anyway. The ever-receding ideal of beauty embodied by his homoerotic fixation, Tadzio, leads him deep into a darkness and disorder from which there is no possibility of return. Like Gurov, he’s so bored with his own detachment, his halfway measures and patterned, systemic ways, that he deliberately, miserably, ecstatically succumbs to something larger and more powerful, shedding all hard-won qualities of mind, will, discipline—all the tools of a culture fighting off its discontents—along the way. “The hostility to civilization,” Freud reminds us, “is produced by the pressure that civilization exercises, the renunciations of instinct which it demands.” And so with Aschenbach. In the end he blows his top—spewing the hot, spasmodic stream that is his genuine, if latent, self—and collapses in an ashen heap, truly spent.
If Venice seems an apt staging ground for this apocalyptic drama, that may be because it’s not ground per se at all, but a kind of swampy hybrid, a geographical and imaginative interzone. Land and water, east and west, north and south…in Venice, the beauties of Paradise and the corruptions of the Inferno are inextricably twined. With its bad smells, gorgeous art, and crumbling walls, over-ripeness is all. Solid things perch precariously above the sea, as if secretly longing to merge with it, to lose definition in the heat and then trickle away like so much runny hair dye. Prominent among these melting forms is Mann’s own shapely, cerebral style, which like a lot of modernist art seems to revel in the spectacle of its own destruction.
What if knowledge and form don’t play so well together after all? Say that artists’ obsession with beauty does not make them wiser and more dignified with age, but increasingly vulnerable to the intoxications of desire and despair, increasingly prone “not to excellence but to excess.” In the war between beauty and pride, beauty, that blue angel, always wins. What good is pride anyway? In the long run it’s a non-sustainable fuel; sooner or later the wells run dry. We may as well learn to do without it now, strip it away, expose ourselves to the murk below. As Aschenbach groans, with a certain helpless excitement, “We cannot pull ourselves together, we can only fall apart.” A point with which Fitzgerald would reluctantly agree.
John Cheever, who knew a thing or two about stripping down, has some penetrating passages about Fitzgerald in his journals, which double as reflections upon certain tendencies of his own:
The writer cultivates, extends, raises and inflates his imagination, sure that this is his destiny, his usefulness, his contribution to the understanding of good and evil. As he inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety, and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that can only be allayed by lethal doses of heroin or alcohol.
Anxiety for Cheever is yet another form of excessive beauty, another spark thrown off by the imagination’s lonely, maddening, ever-grinding wheel. To write, after all, one must sit alone in a room for many hours, mumbling to oneself and conjuring “plots.” How closely this practice resembles mental illness—or yields to it—is something we prefer not to think about.
But how can we help thinking about it, when we confront the late, deliriously involuted work of a Melville, a James, a Woolf, a Joyce? Here the trajectory over the years is not a paring down but a ramping up, a fidgety, groping prodigiousness, an ornate and often wildly arcane laughter in the dark. A friend likens the experience of listening to late Mahler to watching a man pour gravy not just over the meat but over the potatoes, the green beans, the salad, the cake, and the table and floor too. You’d think a man would get sick of all that gravy. But suppose the only way he has to express that sickness is by means of, well, gravy?
God knows maturity, in art as in life, is rarely in any conventional sense attractive. The saggy flesh, the wild eyebrows, those unruly ear and nose hairs and runaway moles . . . no, let’s face it, maturity ain’t that pretty at all. Shakespeare knows this: he and his characters grow increasingly less felicitous as his career goes on, their diction wilder, more concentrated, more obscure. “It is as if, having achieved age, they want none of its . . . amiability or official ingratiation,” Said writes. “…Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality.”
And isn’t that the hope of us all, that as we go on living and working, the point of our departure and the point of our arrival might converge at last under the weight of the ultimate necessity, Truth? After all, the meter of mortality is ticking. Whither should we bend our steps? Who knows what work we might be capable of if, like the Grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s story, there was someone there to shoot us every minute of our lives?
These are of course rhetorical questions. For a rhetorical answer, let’s turn to a writer whose own style—in its eerie plainness, its dogged devotion to paradox, its refusal of lyric consolation, its lack of interest in any unifying theory or stance or proclamation—seems so consistently and mysteriously “late” as to approach the posthumous.
“Every limb as tired as a person.”
“Let the bad remain bad, otherwise it will grow worse.”
“Does my larynx hurt so much because for many hours I have done nothing with it?”
“So the help goes away again without helping.”
These are literally the last words Kafka ever wrote. They’re taken from the brief notes, or “conversation slips,” he’d jot down to his nurses, friends, and doctors in the Kierling sanatorium as he lay dying of tuberculosis. No other form of communication was possible; his larynx had shut like a door. Aptly enough, he was proofreading the galleys of “A Hunger Artist” at the time, that painstaking fable of a self closing down, doing without. And yet for all his suffering and deprivation there is no bitterness or rage to be found in these notes, only his usual modest and immaculate courtesy, and maybe a somewhat keener than usual observance of (and doting regard for) the struggles of the various life forms around him, increasingly precious as they recede from view. Is there a line in his stories more poignant than the note he writes, in his last days, after a glass he’s knocked over shatters on the floor: “You’ll have to warn the girl about the glass; she sometimes comes in barefoot?” Did he—did anyone—ever write anything more raw and more refined, more fancy and more plain, more simple and more complex, more true to the ecstasies of life in all its sentience, beauty, and appetite, than this glimpse at the flowers dying on the windowsill beside him:
“How wonderful that is, isn’t it? The lilac—dying, it drinks, goes on swilling.”
From Going to the Tigers: Essays and Exhortations by Robert Cohen. Used with permission of University of Michigan Press. Copyright © 2022 by Robert Cohen.