Several years ago, I spent a summer traveling back and forth between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to visit the Ralph Ellison papers stored at the Library of Congress. I had long been enthralled by Invisible Man, Ellison’s seminal 1952 novel of race and identity in the waning years of Jim Crow. But I wasn’t taking the train into the nation’s capital twice a week because of anything he had published during his lifetime. I was there to immerse myself in the26 folders containing the thousands of pages of drafts and notes for a second novel Ellison had spent 40 years writing but never completed.
Ellison began work on the untitled novel (long excerpts of which were published in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting . . .) less than a year after the publication of Invisible Man. He had envisioned it as a sweeping tragedy of race in America centered on the story of a boy named Bliss, whose skin appears white but whose parentage is ambiguous. Adopted by a former black jazz trombonist turned preacher named Alonzo Hickman, Bliss would eventually discover the protean power of racial ambiguity and reinvent himself as a white, race-baiting United States Senator from Massachusetts. Years after his ascent to political prominence, he would deliver an improvised speech on the Senate floor that would be cut short when his estranged son attempted to assassinate him from the balcony. After being shuttled to a local hospital, Bliss would confront his own tragic past alongside the man who had raised him.
Shortly after Ellison died in 1994, his wife, Fanny, implored Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, to tell her whether her late husband’s second novel had a beginning, a middle, and an end. As Callahan sifted through the reams of writing that filled Ellison’s home office, he found only fragments, some of which were virtually novels unto themselves.
As I sat in the Library of Congress’s reading room poring over drafts swamped with marginalia, paragraphs for episodes that never materialized, and ephemera scribbled on the backs of grocery store receipts and old envelopes, I was alternately entranced and dismayed. Amidst this thicket of sentences and ideas, I had hoped to discover a plan, an ending, or—better yet—an explanation for why this writer of the first order hadn’t completed what he was certain would be his magnum opus. I never found any of these. Instead, I was given an inside view of artistic struggle stretched across decades that had resulted not in the conquest of an author over form but in a sprawling curiosity cabinet of literary possibilities.
The duration and singular focus of Ellison’s work on his second novel seemed to me without parallel in literary history. Even Robert Musil, who had spent two decades laboring over The Man Without Qualities (still only half the time Ellison spent), managed to publish two volumes of the work during his lifetime. Ellison’s failure to finish his novel struck me as something for the record books, unintentional though it may have been. The thrill I felt in living in Ellison’s unfinished world—where a scrawled note or a stray revision could shuttle me down a new intellectual rabbit hole—was distinct from my experience with completed novels. It was more collaborative, more free-wheeling, more alive with—for lack of a better word—novelty. And it led me to wonder if unfinished novels constituted a genre of their own and, assuming they did, whether it would be possible to assemble a canon of literary catastrophes.
After scouring archives and bibliographies in search of this canon, it became clear that not all unfinished novels are unfinished in the same way. The most familiar type, I discovered, were those left unfinished at an author’s death that would have almost certainly been completed had the author lived a year or two longer. This is especially true of unfinished novels from the Victorian era, a period known for prolific writing. Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Wilkie Collins’s Blind Love, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters are just a few examples. Later in the 19th century, Gustave Flaubert died while writing Bouvard et Pécuchet. And more recently, the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño managed to produce a fair-copy manuscript of his masterpiece, 2666, before he died of liver failure in 2003 at the age of 50.
Some novels left unfinished by authorial death are also haunted by mortality, which makes their unfinishedness feel more fitting. Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon, about a group of hypochondriacs languishing at an English health resort, is such a novel. Its obsession with illness infects the narrative, enervating the central courtship plot. According to the critic D.A. Miller, the novel’s prose is similarly depleted, which led him to quip that Sanditon is the sole Austen novel to feature a death, that of the author as inimitable stylist.
There are occasions, too, when an author, anxious about the fate of their unfinished work, seeks to destroy it before it can be made public, incineration being the preferred method. Franz Kafka asked this of Max Brod in the 1920s and Vladimir Nabokov of his wife and son in the 1970s. Nikolai Gogol took it upon himself to burn most of the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in 1852. In 2016, the late fantasy writer Terry Pratchett told his friend Neil Gaiman—in what I take to be a wry commentary on this trope of literary obliteration—that he wanted all his unfinished projects “to be put in the middle of the road and for a steamroller to steamroll over them all.” This request was executed last fall in Salisbury, England, by a steamroller named Lord Jericho.
But the most interesting unfinished novels, to my mind, are those whose authors strived tirelessly to complete them but who, finally, couldn’t.
The term we often hear used to describe this vague condition is “writer’s block.” This pseudo-psychological diagnosis is so common as to be immune from critique. Yet it profoundly mischaracterizes the turmoil and energy that are elemental to literary failure. It implies immobility and obstruction when, in fact, unfinishedness is often a consequence of overflow and excess. Mark Twain wrote multiple iterations of his unfinished novel The Mysterious Stranger, Nathaniel Hawthorne aborted three romances in as many years at the end of his life, and David Foster Wallace generated heaps of prose for The Pale King before he committed suicide in 2008.
A more accurate term, I think, is “agony.” Although the word now denotes intense mental suffering, the Greek word agonia originally meant a “struggle for victory,” and the combatant who did the struggling was called an agonist. The agony of authors like Ellison, Twain, and Wallace, along with others like Truman Capote, combined these senses. In their unfinished novels, we bear witness to a contest between an author and their work beneath which flows a current of psychological anguish. This palpable sense of friction is one of the chief beauties of unfinished novels.
Ralph Ellison’s agony was visible in the ebb and flow of his writing process. Periods of concentrated forward momentum were followed by periods of furious revision and, occasionally, of inertia. What he produced is a work that stretches both up (via his obsessive rewriting of episodes) and out (the sequences he wrote in his later were sometimes hundreds of pages long) as he ceaselessly searched for a coherence that ultimately evaded him. Although Ellison continued to assure even his closest confidantes that he would complete his novel, certain episodes he composed late in life betray his own suspicions that the work might, perhaps, be unfinishable.
In a particularly poignant sequence from the 1980s, the elderly preacher Hickman spies a tapestry depicting Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” in the lobby of a Washington, D.C., hotel. Breughel’s original painting imagined the grand tragedy of Icarus’s hubristic flight to the sun within a medieval world whose daily rhythms of commerce and labor reduce the boy’s fall to insignificance. The painting is so alive with the mundane activities of normal folk that Icarus is but a dot in the distance, unacknowledged by the painting’s occupants and barely visible to the viewer. As Hickman ponders the tapestry and teases out its many meanings, Ellison seems also to be reflecting on how his own novel had become a picture frozen in time, its central tragedy overwhelmed by the elaborate world he had built around it.
Although Ellison never capitalized on this insight into his own work, one can hypothesize an alternate universe in which he had embraced the unfinishability of his novel and published it as a fragmentary narrative without conclusion. Such a decision wouldn’t have been without precedence either.
In my ambles through the history of literary failure, I discovered that not every unfinishable novel is as tortured as Ellison’s was. Indeed, many embrace unfinishability as an aesthetic virtue. This is certainly true of postmodern novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which revel in their potential endlessness, but earlier centuries had their partisans of the unfinished, too. Herman Melville concludes a chapter of Moby-Dick, for instance, with the declaration, “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
One of the most famous examples of this kind of work is also among the earliest. Laurence Sterne’s rollicking 18th-century comic novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, begins with its titular narrator declaring his intention to relate the story of his life only to get hopelessly lost in digressions that derail any narrative momentum. Like Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights, he writes to defer death, every digressive thread extending his life by a few pages. Sterne published the novel in parts between 1759 and 1767 (about two volumes every two years) with the hope that he would never stop. “The whole machine,” observes Tristram, “shall be kept a going [for] forty years.” The fact that the ninth and final volume ends four years before its narrator’s birth proves just how long Sterne could have kept this up. He died in 1768.
Ellison never wrote an ending to his second novel. In the four decades he worked on it, he jotted only a few scattered notes hinting at the aftermath of his tragic hero’s death. As it stands, the novel abruptly ends in a small hospital room in Washington, D.C., with the old preacher resting beside the nearly lifeless body of his adopted son as the latter prepares to draw his last breath. That he never does leaves readers on a narrative precipice with neither catharsis nor resolution to comfort them.
That Ellison never finished his novel does not diminish his achievement, but it does alter our view of it. Unfinished novels prod us to relinquish conventional approaches to reading and to seek literary pleasure elsewhere than narrative unity. They demand that we attend to dead ends as well as to false starts, to charged silences as well as to verbal excesses. They ask us to see what meanings can be gleaned from a process that has not yet hardened into product. Though their plots may be arrested, this fact does not make them any less arresting.
Image Credit: LPW.
This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
I respond to sun, but then I come from Minnesota and had years of being disappointed by northern California with its indeterminate weather and freezing surf. I’m overdetermined for life in Africa. I love the sun bursting up every day of your life like some broken mechanism.
—from Mating, by Norman Rush
In her introduction to Stephen Twilley’s new translation of short works by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, recently released by New York Review of Books Classics, Marina Warner writes of the “sensuous plenitude…encrusted and sumptuous” in Il Gattopardo — Lampedusa’s only novel, and the masterpiece for which he is best known. Of “The Professor and the Siren,” the title story of the new collection, Warner writes:
Lampedusa is placing himself as the heir of an imaginative literary legacy running back to the pagan past, when Christian repression and hypocrisy did not exercise their hold but instead life was bathed in a luminous intensity and heightened by guilt-free passion.
I wrote about Il Gattopardo a few years ago and considered what it was that drew me to it — the story of an aging Sicilian nobleman, a dying breed caught between old and new worlds. At that time, I attributed my affinity for both the novel and Luchino Visconti’s well-known film version to the Prince of Salina’s independence of soul — a “certain energy with a tendency toward abstraction, a disposition to seek a shape for life from within himself and not what he could wrest from others.” After reading “The Professor and the Siren,” I see now that it was also the Prince’s lust for life — sensual pleasures, feminine splendor, the sweltering sloth of his wild and rugged Sicily — and his sense of loss with the coming of more pragmatic times that captivated me.
Like the narrator ofNorman Rush’s Mating, who was “overdetermined” for life in Africa, you could say that I — product of an evangelical Christian upbringing and Korean heritage of stoic endurance — was overdetermined for Lampedusa. His elevation of natural appetite as an ideal, and his vision for unity between body and spirit in their fullest expressions, radiate from the page. When I read Lampedusa the sun bursts up indeed, thawing all of that deeply seeded “puritanical horror,” as Warner puts it, and reconciling life forces that, as Lampedusa attempts to show us, were never meant to be opposed.
The tragedy of his literary late blooming is now the stuff of legend: Lampedusa, himself the last prince of a noble Sicilian family (Il Gattopardo is based on his great-grandfather), began writing in his later 50s and died of lung cancer at age 60 before Il Gattopardo’s publication. The novel had been rejected by publishers while he was still alive, and thus Lampedusa died under the impression that his art was mere trifling, the failed scribblings of a dilettante.
An earlier translation of “The Professor and the Siren,” entitled “The Professor and the Mermaid” and collected with a short memoir and the opening chapter of a second novel (a sequel to Il Gattopardo that he did not live to write), was published by Pantheon in 1962. The memoir, Places of My Infancy, was written at the prompting of his wife, a psychotherapist; she suggested the project as a way of mourning the loss of his treasured childhood home, which had been destroyed during the 1943 bombing of Palermo.
In his introduction to the 1962 collection, E.M. Forster called “Places of My Infancy” exquisite — perhaps not surprising coming from the author of Howards End. I admit that I found the piece initially off-putting: it puts so much distance between the author and the common reader as we get young Giuseppe’s impressionistic vision of his idyllic, rarefied kingdom:
On the veranda, which was protected from the sun by great curtains of orange cloth swelling and flapping like sails in the sea breeze…my mother, Signora Florio (the “divinely lovely” Franca), and others were sitting in cane chairs. In the center of the group sat a very old, very bent lady with an aquiline nose, enwrapped in widow’s weeds which were waving wildly about in the wind. I was brought before her; she said a few words which I did not understand and, bending down even farther, gave me a kiss on the forehead…After this I was taken back to my room, stripped of my finery, re-dressed in more modest garments, and led onto the beach to join the Florio children and others; with them I bathed and we stayed for a long time under a broiling sun playing our favorite game, which was searching in the sand for the pieces of deep red coral occasionally to be found there.
That afternoon it was revealed that the old lady had been Eugénie, ex-Empress of the French, whose yacht was anchored off Favignana.
But to be fair, Lampedusa wrote these reflections for himself only; they were never revised, and he did not intend them for publication. He felt free to recall the fullness of his privilege: “For me childhood is a lost paradise. Everyone was good to me — I was king of the home.” Beginning with the sensory richness and extravagant security of childhood was his way of exploring love and loss, the two most universal experiences.
For some though, it may be hard to resist lacing Lampedusa’s biography with light mockery: “[W]hat on earth was he doing with his life anyway, and why didn’t he get down to writing earlier?” Julian Barnes’s imagined interlocutor posits in a 2010 article in The Guardian. “The non-literary answer: not very much.” What Barnes means by “not very much,” however, is that Lampedusa spent most of his adult life (aside from strolling to Pasticceria del Massimo for breakfast in his tailored English suits then stopping in at Flaccovio booksellers before finally settling in for the day at Café Mazzara) immersing himself in literature — reading, studying, discussing with friends, teaching. By one account he made over 1,000 pages in notes to prepare a year-long English literature course for his nephew and a friend.
Lampedusa’s eventual success at portraying a layered, multi-caste society at a time of great social upheaval is testament to the power of literature to shape the imaginative and emotional capacity of a devoted reader, no matter how sheltered his daily life. Much like Chekhov — who, unlike Lampedusa, did have direct experience of various social strata — Lampedusa’s narrative eye is both convincing and impressive as it roves among each segment of Sicilian society, from royalty to upstart revolutionaries to the new-moneyed precursors of the Mafiosi.
The short story “Joy and the Law,” for example, is a taut gem of a tale, the effects of which echo Chekhov’s best stories about peasants and functionaries (Gogol’s “The Overcoat” also comes to mind): in the days leading up to Christmas, an unnamed accountant brings home to his family an enormous, fancy loaf of sweet bread, bestowed upon him by his employer. Ramping up to epic proportion the acuteness of aspirational want, Lampedusa portrays the accountant’s fog of self-deceit as a necessity for survival:
[E]uphoria now welling up inside him, rosy and bright…What joy for Maria! What a thrill for the children…His personal joy was something else entirely, a spiritual joy mixed with pride and tenderness…And nothing could have dampened that invigorating sensation…nothing, not even the abrupt realization deep in his consciousness that it had come down to a moment of scornful pity for the neediest among the employees. He truly was too poor to permit the weed of pride to sprout where it could not survive.
It is the wife, Maria, who matter-of-factly bursts the accountant’s bubble: she states the obvious, that the pannetone is “nothing but charity,” and deems that it must be sent to a lawyer to whom they owe a token of gratitude. The man must now spend additional money to courier the sweet bread to the lawyer, and on top of that, the package becomes lost. The reader grows as desperate as the accountant, filled with the anguish of futility and injustice. Will the universe so cruelly dash the protagonist’s hopes? the reader wonders. Then, the last lines of the story:
After Epiphany, however, a visiting card arrived: “With warmest thanks and holiday wishes.”
Honor had been preserved.
The reader exhales momentarily, only to realize the bait-and-switch that Lampedusa has so skillfully performed: Honor? When did the story become about honor? When The Law entered, that’s when — in the form of proper social commerce. The cost of this honor was joy, and the story conveys beautifully and tragically the universal right of the human soul to “spiritual happiness mixed with pride and tenderness,” not to mention “a respite from anguish.” Despite his privileged life, Lampedusa did not, it would seem, take such simple joys for granted.
Thus the decision on the part of NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank to collect “Joy and the Law,” but not “Places of My Infancy” in this volume results in a different impression of the author from the earlier volume. The new collection effectively counters what Archibald Colquhoun, translator of both the original English-language version of The Leopard and the 1962 Pantheon collection, described as a less-than-full embrace of Lampedusa’s success in its time —
On the members of the new Italian literary establishment the book has had a different impact; it has become a bogey, for the success of Il Gattopardo, so different in outlook from most Italian postwar literature, seems to them a sign of decadence —
as well as a 1998 article in The Economist:
Italian Marxists saw his aristocrat heroes as evidence that the novel was right-wing and its author a man with no sense of progress. Much of the literary Left condemned the novel as worthless because it was neither progressive nor avant-garde.
(I posed the question of curatorial selection to Frank in an email, and he revealed that his intention was simply to collect all of Lampedusa’s short fiction, which meant excluding the memoir.)
Whether or not literary readers today are as concerned with an author’s socio-political outlook as they were in the early 1960’s, there will surely be much in Lampedusa’s short work that appeals to the contemporary reader — for example the way his voracious literary autodidacticism is reflected in the “mashup” quality of “The Professor and the Siren,” which, Warner points out, brings together elements of Greek myth, the poetry of Keats and Dante, Sicilian folklore, and perhaps too Boccaccio and One Thousand and One Nights.
The eponymous professor of the NYRB collection’s centerpiece story is Rosario La Ciura, world-renowned scholar of Greek literature, longtime Sicilian senator, and author of Men and Gods, “recognized as a work of not only great erudition but of authentic poetry.” The narrator is Corbera di Salina, a journalist and, incidentally, sole surviving descendant of Lampedusa’s lusty Prince, il gattopardo. When the professor and the journalist meet, La Ciura is 75 years old and Corbera a young man. The seedy café in Turin that the two misanthropes frequent sets the stage for Lampedusa’s otherworldly tale:
It was a sort of Hades filled with the wan shades of lieutenant colonels, magistrates, and retired professors…submerged in a light that was dimmed during the day by the clouds and the arcade outside, during the evenings by the enormous green shades on the chandeliers…It was, in short, a most satisfactory Limbo.
Corbera is the pre-formed, peripheral first-person narrator that readers will recognize — the Nick Carraway, the unnamed narrators of Bolaño’s “Sensini” or Sherwood Anderson’s “The Other Woman.” Over a period of months, the two develop a friendship of sorts — La Ciura rails on subjects ranging from the “rubbish I happen to be reading” to the “squalid aspirations” of young men like Corbera vis-à-vis the female sex; Corbera attempts to speak his mind while also suspecting the great man’s profound unhappiness. One day, the professor summons the younger man to his home, where Corbera sees a photograph of the professor in his youth — “with a bold expression and features of rare beauty…The broken-down senator in a dressing gown had been a young god.” Corbera then invites La Ciura to his own apartment, where he serves the old man fresh sea urchins, about which La Ciura had previously ranted:
They are the most beautiful thing you have down there [in Sicily], bloody and cartilaginous, the very image of the female sex, fragrant with salt and seaweed…They’re dangerous as all gifts from the sea are; the sea offers death as well as immortality.
The professor prepares to depart for a conference in Portugal and summons Corbera for a final visit; here we begin our ascent to Lampedusa’s allegorical summit. “I’ll have to speak in a low voice,” La Ciura says, and we appreciate his — and Lampedusa’s — theatricality, as the young journalist and the reader are drawn deeper into both comprehension and mystery. “Important words cannot be bellowed.”
The peak — of La Ciura’s earthly existence, of the story, of all spiritual incarnation, Lampedusa proposes — is one of pure eros: purely sensual, youthful, uncivilized. The professor’s beloved is Lighea, a siren, as much animal as human and monstrously beautiful, serene, insatiably loving. She comes to him one summer in his youth from the Sicilian sea. Their consummation lasts three weeks, and during that time the professor becomes enlightened to true pleasure, “devoid of social resonance, the same that our solitary mountain shepherds experience when they couple with their goats.” La Ciura dares Corbera to be put off by the comparison, such repulsion revealing only that “you’re not capable of performing the necessary transposition from the bestial to the superhuman plane.” Lighea is all body and all spirit, powerfully attuned:
From her immortal limbs flowed such life force that any loss of energy was immediately compensated, increased, in fact…She ate nothing that was not alive. I often saw her rise out of the sea, delicate torso sparkling in the sun, teeth tearing into a still-quivering silver fish, blood running down her chin…
Not only did she display in the carnal act a cheerfulness and a delicacy altogether contrary to wretched animal lust, but her speech was of a powerful immediacy, the likes of which I have only ever found in a few great poets.
As Marina Warner points out, Lampedusa is not interested in supplanting reason with passion, but rather reclaiming a native unity. “Lampedusa aims to fashion a coincidentia oppositorium at many levels,” she writes. “[S]upernatural and natural, unreal and material, monstrosity and beauty, animal and human, ideal love and lubricious delight.” And this is evident throughout the story in his language: beauty and blood, “insolence” and “detachment,” the professor’s gnarled hands which caress with “regal delicacy” a page in a magazine that bears the image of a Greek statue. When Corbera serves the sea urchins, the professor “consumed them avidly but…with a meditative, almost sorrowful air.”
The story’s interests are thus transparent, its purposes straightforward — though, to my mind, no less affecting for it. Lampedusa’s passion for unity of soul and body startles and moves us; in hearing the professor’s tale, Corbera in part lives it and is changed, as are we.
But will the general reader agree? Perhaps it depends on one’s pre-determinations. The narrator of Mating in the above epigraph likens the African sun to a “broken mechanism.” But as they say, one person’s junk is another person’s treasure: “broken” if four distinct seasons is your norm, perfectly functional if you’ve come from extreme cold and gray.
In Lampedusa’s case, we can deduce that his own deepest longings were for what he had known and lost — the magic of his childhood — as well as for what, as he wrote this last story, he had not achieved: transcendence via entry into the pantheon of literary artists. The result, in “The Professor and the Siren,” is a tale at once pessimistic and optimistic: La Ciura can find no worthy pleasure or meaning in earthly life after his experience with Lighea, and yet in the end he joins her, answering her call to the underwater world deep below, “where all is silent calm…in the blind, mute palace of formless, eternal waters.”
Light and darkness seem also to color Lampedusa’s literary stature: Il Gattopardo won Italy’s Strega Prize in 1959, two years after his death, and has sold well over 3 million copies worldwide; but we’ll never know what the second novel, Il Gattopardo’s sequel, might have been. The fragment published in both the 1962 and current NYRB collections under the title “The Blind Kittens” does reveal that Lampedusa’s eye continued to focus on Sicilian society and the epic desires of common men. Colquhoun opined on the possibility that Il Gattopardo itself was a kind of lesser preview of the real novel Lampedusa meant to write — would have written — had he started sooner: “Is the novel peaks, in a more or less continuous range, of a vast submerged book that was never completed?”
Broken or functional, incomplete or fully realized, decadent or democratic…I am glad for Lampedusa’s sumptuous, if scant, work, so nearly kept from us by both Lampedusa’s late start and publishers’ tastes. And while the professor’s vast book collection “slowly rots” in a university archive following his descent into the sea, Lampedusa’s small body of work bursts up like the sun, reviving those of us primed to respond.
Click here to read an interview with NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and translator Stephen Twilley.
It would seem that Ray Bradbury’s sole association with the Middle East was the spurious allusion to his most famous novel in the title of Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary screed against the Iraq War, Fahrenheit 9/11. (Bradbury abhorred the allusion, even calling the left-wing film-maker a “screwed a-hole.”)
Little did Moore know that Bradbury’s bond to the Middle East was actually a strong one, especially to Baghdad, the city his imagination inhabited. “We must be,” he often liked to say, “tellers of tales in the streets of Baghdad.” According to the best known study on Bradbury, Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, this was “the central notion of his authorship.” Bradbury saw himself in the same tradition as the fantasy storytellers of Baghdad, of The Thousand and One Nights.
Most critics will find the notion that Bradbury’s stories owed anything to the Arabic literary tradition as startling as the stories themselves. But Bradbury’s self-definition as an Arab storyteller mustn’t be ignored. Indeed, the science fiction tradition to which he by all rights belonged arguably began with a story by the medieval Arabic physician Ibn al-Nafis, whose 13th-century novel, translated as Theologus Autodidactus, is cited as the first science fiction novel, not to mention the science fictive attributes of the Theousand and One Nights themselves, as noted by writers from Robert Irwin to Gilbert Adair.
Their imprint on Bradbury’s work is little-noted and buried beneath subtle allusions. Unlike his colleagues in the canon, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein , or Isaac Asimov, little of Bradbury’s narrative concerns futuristic, dystopian descriptions, preferring, as Gerald Jonas puts it, “cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors” — which happens also to be a succinct summary of the Arabic oral tradition Bradbury claimed for himself. The Martian Chronicles narrated the conquest of Mars with little technological detail — as one astute blogger notes: “He didn’t focus on the engineering, his rocketship stories were clearly more influenced by the Thousand and One Nights than by the moon landings.” Bradbury acknowledged this debt more openly in his short story collection, The Illustrated Man, which adopts the frame narrative of the Nights, weaving unrelated short stories together, all told by the eponymous protagonist’s talking tattoos; the Illustrated Man, of course, is a re-invention of Scheherazade.
But like The Thousand and One Nights, his stories were no mere fantasies; they pretended to entertain, all the while scabrously censuring not just the societies its characters inhabited, but those its audience inhabited too. Be it Scheherazade in the ancient past or Guy Montag in the distant future, they are concerned with abuses of authority in the present. Guy Montag’s role as a book-burning fireman was once most relevant to a McCarthyite America whose censorship of dissident views began to resemble the totalitarian tendencies it supposedly opposed. That was the 1950s. Today, Fahrenheit 451’s lessons are less relevant to America than they are to another region, a region close to Bradbury’s heart.
Michael Moore so angered Bradbury because the film Fahrenheit 9/11, with its provocative subtitle, “the temperature at which freedom burns,” trivialised his warnings. Bradbury believed America had truly recovered from her perturbing past proclivities. “I don’t believe that any of the governments of the past 60 years, including the current one, are guilty of using war to aggrandize their power.” he once said. But the film’s concern with the Iraq war did edge the novel’s relevance towards the region where those perturbing proclivities are these days most widespread.
For it is the Middle East that now has most to learn from Bradbury. I don’t mean his whimsical solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “to create a new Jewish homeland in South Florida,” even if many in the region are likely to sympathise. The Middle East remains by far the most censored place on earth with more banned books than the library of a Roman Catholic parochial school. Where flag-burning and cartoon-burning are well-documented, the escalation into book burnings is a justified fear.
This refocusing of Bradbury’s relevance is only to be expected. When writing Fahrenheit 451, he was in fact thinking of the Middle East all along: “I wasn’t thinking about McCarthy so much as I was thinking of the library of Alexandria 5,000 years [sic] before.” In the Egypt I inhabit “5,000 years” later, voters are currently faced with a choice between Islamist repression or repression of Islamism, two authoritarian candidates with little appreciation of freedom of expression. No one has advocated book-burnings, but book-bannings — a less gruesome cousin — remain the order of the day, many politicians even calling for the infliction of that fate on Egypt’s own greatest novelist, Naguib Mahfouz. No wonder that a few years ago a cultural exchange promoted by the National Endowment for the Arts picked Fahrenheit 451 as the focus of reading groups in Cairo and, unmissably, Alexandria.
My Middle Eastern memorial to Ray Bradbury may seem an unorthodox one, but it is the one he doubtless desired. When asked how he would like to be remembered, he gave an answer that sadly none of the obituarists have recalled:
“Arriving in Baghdad,” he instructed, in Conversations with Ray Bradbury, “walk through the marketplace and turn down a street where sit the old men who are the tellers of tales. There, among the young who listen, and the old who say aloud, I would like to take my place and speak when it is my turn. It is an ancient tradition, a good one, a lovely one, a fine one. If some boy visits my tomb a hundred years from now and writes on the marble with a crayon: He was a teller of tales, I will be happy. I ask no more than that.”
Of course, like a medieval jester in Baghdad, he pretended to be a mere teller of tales. Let us in the Middle East not forget that he was also a teller of truths.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed. This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done. There’s no shame in this. Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers. The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.
All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”
I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious. Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer. Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors. One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place. Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.” What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.
It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition. From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it. I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke. Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.” But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”
This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”
The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience. Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American. Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon. He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions. Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle. He muses, too late, that he should have known better: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise. Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.
While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor. And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact. His epic poem even becomes a hit. It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.
While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods. A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story. For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story. This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.” She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.
And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor. “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer. “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”
This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries. A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago. (What was I thinking to wait so long?) Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.” For once, the fawners nailed it.
And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes. For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece. The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life. Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books. It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.
And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment. I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.” That sounded promising. So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans. While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels. Books find us as often as we find them. I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last. “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output. “Unbearably queer perhaps.”
Or perhaps not. In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters). Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom. On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it. We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.
In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music. None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago. Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.” When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries. (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)
Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism. Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years. “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”
He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain. Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.
John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life. It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.” Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us. And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.