On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure: It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town. When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered. But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books. After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time -- after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today -- consumerism, consumption -- and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example. In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley's own interest in "reform eugenics" at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book -- one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women's sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel -- and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint -- they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power. I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves -- these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor. There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study. We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term. Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline -- the "savage meeting civilization" -- that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre -- what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification -- Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.” Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins: This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I've never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face. Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children...he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.” I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort -- it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel. So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance -- that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed -- and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy -- that which brought Donald Trump to the White House -- at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it. People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
1. On July 17, I walked down the hill from my office to the train station at the end of the work day. It was one of those days when all of the news was bad. The airliner had been shot down with 298 people because some monstrous clown, some flak jacket-clad cretin with a weapon bigger than his brain, had picked the wrong dot on the radar screen. Israel had invaded Gaza; the preceding day’s New York Times showed the mangled doll’s body of a little boy on a beach. I am not normally a person who is unduly affected by the news, mostly because to date I have had the good fortune not to be the news. Events happen swiftly and far away and are immediately knitted into the infinite scarred and knobby human carpet, forgotten by people who are lucky enough not to get knitted up with them. But that was a day when the news was bad enough, and coming fast enough, and seemed so dictated by stupidity and malevolence and bad luck, that it occasioned one of those low, dark, what-is-the-fucking-point afternoons that even people who enjoy a supremely placid existence can sometimes experience. It’s now hard to recapture the profound sense of dejection I had as I crossed over the moribund little creek that bounds the campus where I work. But I don’t think I will ever forget the moment, as I considered what shit things are--what everloving, unjust, miserable shit--when I had what I can only think of as a religious experience for the reading unbeliever. Instead of Mary or Jesus or anybody, I suddenly thought only of Anthony Powell, whose beautiful Dance to the Music of Time I was then rereading, and felt an overwhelming sense that this is really all we get--that if everything else is taken away, the beauty of someone’s vision of the world is our meager but abiding solace for being in the world. Powell himself understood the feeling, I think, when he concluded his masterpiece with a passage from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, or towns taken, cities besieged, in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, etc., daily musters and preparations, and suchlike, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, strategems, and fresh alarms. What had I been feeling that day, but the fatigue of those ordinary rumors, those massacres and meteors and fresh alarms? Days later I read the poet Edward Hirsch on the loss of his son, and found a solemn counter to my religious experience: “People are irreplaceable, and art, no matter how good, doesn’t replace them. It took this tragedy for me to feel that.” A revelation like mine is undoubtedly a luxury of unruffled circumstance, like not being the news. But after working my way through Dance to the Music of Time, and then through Michael Barber’s biography of Powell, I do feel that there was something appropriate about the vision of St. Anthony that visited me that dark afternoon. 2. The great Islamic historian Marshall Hodgson, who began the magisterial Venture of Islam and expired at 46 before he could complete it, inscribed a theory of humanity in an essay about his mentor, the Viennese Orientalist Gustave von Grunebaum. According to Hodgson, a fiercely devout Quaker, the beauty of whose ideas was often obscured somewhat by the thickets of his prose, people fell into three camps. There were the militaristic ones, “those who look to glory, to honor—to a noble death. Such will rather see Plataea destroyed altogether than yield to Thebes.” Then there was the “Party of Culture." For these people, "a greater tragedy than the defeat of Athens at Syracuse was the powder explosion in the Parthenon.” Finally, there was the "Party of Justice," the party which, "from Hebrew times on, has felt the community tainted by a single act of iniquity.” Hodgson believed that the Culture people were interested in justice and fairness only so much as those things were "the natural functions of a highly cultivated human being." But the Justice people were the ones for whom "the essential is the citizen, the son of Israel, the individual soul—however stupid, however narrow-perspectived he may be." Although, like everything Hodgson wrote, it takes a few turns with the essay to understand what he’s talking about, I don’t think I’ve read a more apt division of the main strains of human temperament. I’ve never recognized myself so fully, at any rate; I’m the Party of Culture all the way--I like heritage preservation, elegant talkers, and people who stand to the right on escalators. The good guys, the ones who never turn away from a homeless person, the ones who get out the vote and speak truth to power and read the news and do something about it, those are the Justice guys. (The Military guys are the stand-your-ground types.) And for us Culture people, us shallow feelers, those for whom profound religious sentiment and unconditional love of fellow man are elusive, for whom exquisite artistic expression represents the pinnacle of human achievement, Anthony Powell is an ideal patron saint. Powell, of whom one critic said there was “no pity and very little indignation," is remembered by some for snobbishness and bloodlessness and conservatism--he "blamed the ‘tiresome Edwardian Liberalism'" of Forster and the Bloomsbury Group "for the sorry state, as he saw it, of the modern world." In this he differed from his friend George Orwell, a Party of Justice man if ever one there was (artists are not always Party of Culture people--consider Dostoevsky, O'Connor, Gaudi). Powell's unofficial biographer, Michael Barber, quoted Julian Symons in describing the way that Powell and the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge would lure Orwell into “wild flights of political fancy" over their regular lunches, goading him to express opinions they found absurd, e.g., that the Labour Government should "try to convert the British electorate to the idea that they should accept a lower standard of living in order to get rid of the evils of colonialism.” Powell wasn't a Culture man only because he married a wife with a title and lived in a house with a drive. While he was known as an unrepentant Tory who admired Margaret Thatcher and disdained reflexive bearded leftists, his books indicate that his artistic politics were always more deeply felt than his mundane ones--that people with humor and style and humanity would always be greater allies than anyone who simply occupied the same end of the political spectrum. And the novels of Dance are overwhelmed with evidence of his supreme reverence for art. The way his narrator Jenkins sees the Belgian allies with whom he works, in the context of a Flemish painting. Or his long, playful, intense, cherished conversations about books and music and paintings with his friends Barnby and Moreland and Maclintick. Powell's deeply-felt devotion to the meaning and importance and self-fulfilling majesty of art was manifest in his lifelong interest in the written and visual art of yesteryear and, most of all, in his own gargantuan series of books. “Art is the true adjudicator," he once wrote, "in its complicated relationship with taste.” And Powell's art, like his taste, was impeccable. There's really no better company than these novels (Marjorie Hakala contributed a nice writeup of their virtues to The Millions a couple of years ago). Philip Toynbee accused Powell of “immense circumlocutory facetiousness," but I think his sentences are perfect. Writing about Powell invites block quotes--like this one, Jenkins's description of his wife's enormous family: There is something overpowering, even a trifle sinister about very large families, the individual members of which often possess in excess the characteristics commonly attributed to "only" children: misanthropy: neurasthenia: an inability to adapt themselves: all the traits held to be the result of a lonely upbringing. The corporate life of large families can be lived with severity, even barbarity, of a kind unknown in smaller related communities: these savageries and distillations of egoism often rendered even less tolerable if sentimentalised outside the family circle. Even his short descriptions, the one-offs, are magnificent. Here's Sunny Farebrother, one of the recurring characters in the books: There was a suggestion of madness in the way he shot out his sentences; not the kind of madness that was raving, nor even, in the ordinary sense, dangerous; but a warning that no proper mechanism existed for operating normal controls. The comic aspect of Powell’s novels is often emphasized; Evelyn Waugh famously blurbed Powell as a comedic Proust. And Powell is enormously funny, although in his books humor and profundity shared the same territory: Another long silence fell, one of those protracted abstinences from all conversation so characteristic of army Messes--British ones, at least--during which, as every moment passes, you feel someone is on the point of giving voice to a startling utterance, yet, for no particular reason, that utterance is always left pending, for ever choked back, incapable, from inner necessity, of being finally brought to birth. An old tin alarm-clock ticked away noisily on the dresser, emphasising the speedy passing of mortal life. 3. Contemporary book culture roils with arguments about whether it is parochial or pointless to record only the narrow worlds occupied by a small group of homogeneous writers. A recent comment on an essay at this site asserted, “Any time an author seems more than willing to adorn his or her work with the trappings of a [modern] period piece, I begin to wonder just what kind of artistic ambition he or she has.” Reading Powell, you see the intrinsic possibilities of writing about a life that you are more or less living, even if to some people that life seems narrow and unsympathetic. In fairness, this is mostly because Powell was operating within an echelon of talent that renders arguments about parochialism totally irrelevant, and this is obviously an echelon to which very few people can aspire. In Dance to the Music of Time, most people are privileged Etonians or wannabees, power-mad or at least ruthlessly pragmatic. The artists and leftists are delightful or zany, but not really sympathetic, and rarely good. But Powell makes all of these characters beautiful in his rendering; they, and the complicated dance they perform, assume a sanctified quality, like a leper cleansed by Jesus: Afterwards, that dinner in the Grill seemed to partake of the nature of a ritual feast, a rite from which the four of us emerged to take up new positions in the formal dance with which human life is concerned. At the time, its charm seemed to reside in a difference from the usual run of things. Certainly the chief attraction of the projected visit would be absence of all previous plan. But, in a sense, nothing in life is planned--or everything is--because in the dance every step is ultimately the corollary of the step before; the consequence of being the kind of person one chances to be. And yet Powell's novels have been accused of a certain parochialism since their publication. As Terry Teachout put it, "Even his most ardent admirers have been known to suggest on occasion that Dance might be too closely tied to the facts of Powell's own life to flourish as a fully independent work of art." (Heaven knows what these admirers, among them Philip Larkin, would have made of Karl Ove Knausgaard.) But even when writing about highly specific milieux, Powell manages to touch upon the universal. Describing the inside-baseball world of mid-century London writing and publishing, he conveys an impression of some age-old aesthetes' fraternity; you can imagine the Flemish painters sitting around the bar and shitting on one another using similar rhetorical codes. "I expect you have heard of a writer called St John Clarke," she said, almost as soon as she had sat down. This supposition, expressed by some of my friends, would have been a method of introducing St John Clarke’s name within a form of words intended to indicate that in their eyes, no doubt equally in my own, St John Clarke did not grade as a sufficiently eminent literary figure for serious persons like ourselves ever to have heard of him. The phrase would convey no sense of enquiry; merely a scarcely perceptible compliment, a very minor demonstration of mutual self-esteem. (I especially like this one: “Shernmaker represented literary criticism in a more eminent form. Indeed one of his goals was to establish finally that the Critic, not the Author, was paramount. He tended to offer guarded encouragement, tempered with veiled threats, to young writers….”) It's a world that doesn't seem so remote, in its backbiting and intrigue, from literary communities today, although I don't want to overextend that comparison. Imagine if a new war was announced tomorrow--another new war, I should say, the kind that was called a war--and Keith Gessen and Chad Harbach and everyone else with a magazine or a book immediately signed up and began training in mobile laundry units and fighter planes, and about a quarter of them died. Imagine if the rockets started falling on Brooklyn, and the two halves of some couple about town were killed in one night, in two different dive bars: As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted. If the squabbles and anxieties of artistic types are timeless, the world that Powell describes--the particular texture of its massacres and meteors and fresh alarms--is specific to its historical moment, and his depictions the more valuable for it. 4. There are certain conditions, totally unique to themselves, that seem to last an eternity even while they have finite beginnings and ends. Pregnancy is one. Twelve-volume novels series are another. Both have the effect of coloring your whole sense of things and self for the time that you are in them. Who was I this summer? I was pregnant, and I was re-reading the twelve-volume masterpiece of Anthony Powell. I am still one of those things, although only for another seven weeks. I am sure that pregnancy contributed to my blue spell that July afternoon, when I felt sad that things were bad, and Anthony Powell appeared and told me I couldn't do anything about it but read novels and count my blessings. They say when you give birth you feel bereft, even lonely, as one stage ends and another begins. The taciturn but cherished companion you carried around for nine months becomes a separate, sometimes hostile being with complex demands. Finishing Dance to the Music of Time likewise required an adjustment; it left me feeling lonely. But at least I can always go back to the novels, make a pilgrimage the shrine of St. Anthony--succor of us who like things to be beautiful, even when they are not good.
I borrowed Howards End from my local university library, an early edition in a sturdy and narrow-margined library binding. Pages from these kinds of books don’t tear -- over half centuries and quarter centuries of tugging and smoothing and creasing by grubby fingers, they achieve a fine cloth-like texture that no e-reader can hope to replicate. I think that libraries are worth our patronage for the feeling of these pages alone. They are the impressions worn by feet on the path to the Parthenon. They are the pig’s teeth wedged in a wych-elm by superstitious peasants. People who love books are always telling high school students that reading opens doors, that old books will surprise you with their sudden relevance, the startling light they can cast onto your own life. This is such a true thing about reading that it feels stupid to say of one or another book that it reminded you of a feeling you’ve had, or that its themes resonate in the present day. On this front, Howards End should have lots to say to me. Like its Miss Schlegels, I am a bookish, opinionated lady with claims to progressive values. Like that of the Schlegels, my imperial nation is rife with inequality, class division, and economic precarity for the Leonard Bast class of people with aspirations but no advantages. Even the search for a suitable lodging is familiar: "We are reverting to the civilisation of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty." There is much to which I can relate. But Howards End makes me think instead about things that are different and gone -- farmland and buildings and ideals and ways of thinking and kinds of conversation and styles of beautiful writing. There is a painful, almost superfluously beautiful quality to Forster's writing that attracts me to this book even while I find that Forster’s class sensibility, fine as it is and perfect in Passage to India (revued here), ultimately can't do the necessary and make Leonard Bast a real person. He dies, as he lived, a silly, pitiful, and unprepossessing little man. (This may be a failure of imagination on my end, but it is difficult to see how Helen Schlegel could be so susceptible to his obscure charm as to succumb utterly to it in a hotel sitting-room.) But if Passage to India showed Forster at his most pointed about people, Howards End is his ode to places (and not only the place for which it is named): Shropshire had not the reticence of Hertfordshire. Though robbed of half its magic by swift movement, it still conveyed the sense of hills...Having picked up another guest, they turned southward, avoiding the greater mountains, but conscious of an occasional summit, rounded and mild, whose colouring differed in quality from that of the lower earth, and whose contours altered more slowly. Quiet mysteries were in progress behind those tossing horizons: the West, as ever, was retreating with some secret which may not be worth the discovery, but which no practical man will ever discover. Forster's writing mixes poetry and aphorism in a way that makes whatever he writes sound totally convincing and meaningful, even if, for all I know, it is nonsense. Of Margaret Schlegel's gradual retiring from society, he writes, "It was doubtless a pity not to keep up with Wedekind or John, but some closing of the gates is inevitable after thirty, if the mind itself is to become a creative power." Of life he writes, "It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty." People write in all kinds of good ways, but it is a tragedy that nobody writes like this anymore. Howards End, published 1910, is technically a pre-war novel in the WWI sense, and it frequently invites you to think of it on those terms ("the remark, 'England and Germany are bound to fight,' renders war a little more likely each time that it is made, and is therefore made the more readily by the gutter press of either nation"). A few years later, the stolid Wilcox men who form the upstanding backbone of British society in Margaret's perception would be largely unavailable for theoretical debates with liberated young women; they would likely be dead, along with nearly a million of their compatriots, or maimed, along with the rest. That said, another book in my pile this spring had me thinking about a different war. Just after Howards End I read W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, a book whose construction around a portentous negative space has the effect of drawing all neighboring books into its central darkness, like a dying star. Everything becomes tinged with this darkness. (I have also been working through the novels of Anita Brookner, many of which feature Jews so thoroughly English that their eastern European origins signify only as a piece of ponderous furniture or a grandmother’s accent, and I began to wonder if these novels, too -- if all novels -- are actually about the Holocaust.) And yet Austerlitz and the second World War seemed to form a fitting complement to Howards End -- the latter’s interest in civilization and the built environment and the natural world and material culture slotting into Sebald’s voids in the same realms. The character Austerlitz has spent in his life in "investigations into the history of architecture and civilization," and the novel Austerlitz is full of symbolic architectural monstrosities -- "the accumulation of stone blocks" -- and spaces stuffed with meaning. The novel's narrator describes London, its "districts...crisscrossed by innumerable streets and railway lines, crowding ever more closely together as they marched east and north, one reef of buildings above the next and then the next, and so on, far beyond Holloway and Highbury..." I was reminded of Margaret Schlegel's similar impression of London as she puzzles through her sister Helen's disappearance: "The mask fell off the city, and she saw it for what it really is — a caricature of infinity..." She searches in St. Paul's, "whose dome stands out of the welter so bravely, as if preaching the gospel. But within, St. Paul's is as its surroundings -- echoes and whispers, inaudible songs, invisible mosaics, wet footmarks crossing and recrossing the floor. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: it points us back to London." I didn’t see clearly what a tender and hopeful book Howards End is until I read Austerlitz. And a sad one. It's a prelapsarian mirror image. How devastating Forster's observation about the "civilisation of luggage" becomes when you consider the eventual mounds of plundered luggage sitting in warehouses around Europe. Or Mrs. Wilcox's lament: "Can what they call civilisation be right, if people mayn't die in the room where they were born?" How poignant half-German Margaret is, with her belief in the "salvation that was latent...in the soul of every man." How sad to contemplate her mantra, "Only connect," in the context of Austerlitz's dead mama and papa and his abrupt transformation to a little Welsh boy. How sentimental Forster seems when he writes that: London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilisation which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they once exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task! I have always found there to be something lumpy and friendly and comforting about Howards End -- it's like a big, old sweater. But I see that there is something a little weird about that. I yank it away from Austerlitz’s gravitational pull, and I don’t quite see now why it should feel like such a hopeful, tender, happy novel, when it leaves a dead man and an imprisoned man and a crumpled man in its wake. Perhaps because it's sort of a feminine triumphal. Fighting for her right to spend the night with her pregnant sister in Howards End, Margaret Schlegel delivers the most just and crushing indictment of misogyny and the double standard ever written. And she gets her way, and the dead Mrs. Wilcox gets her way, and the men die or are locked up or have a nervous breakdown, each condition divesting its victim of all former imperiousness and other unsavory qualities. The women win, and they get their beautifully cozy pastoral unwed mothers’ commune, an easy distance from London. They found a Home, and they will "create new sanctities" in it. It does sound nice. In my sturdy library copy, generations of readers have penciled their notes and little stars. I tip my hat to the analytical one, a Marxist no doubt, who helped me to see that Leonard Bast's ignorance of the Sunday paper signified "commodifying, economizing knowledge at every turn!" I raise a glass to the one who wrote of Leonard's meager dwelling that it is "projected fake, shallow, comme moi!" I applaud the one who pointed out succinctly on the penultimate page that Margaret's husband "becomes a pussy." We are all more alike than we are different. Only connect, and all that.
I recently read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, in which she spoke with American Communists past and present (1977), and asked what they had to say about it all. Her accounts described people who were perpetually waiting for “the revolution around the corner”; eventually, the revolution proved to be too long in coming. In Gornick's book, the power that Communism offered its adherents really came through, sometimes in a creepy way, as people described a willingness to abandon spouses and families in service of the party’s aims. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that better conveys the sheer ordering power of ideology, any ideology, than Invisible Man, wherein the advent of Communism, christened “The Brotherhood” by Ellison, actually has a perceptible effect on the novel’s form. The first half of Invisible Man is meandering chaos as the narrator encounters people who hugely affect his movements in the near- and the long-term. Casting an eye around your frame of reference, you reach for comparable narratives, like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, where itinerant heroes have adventures, or bump into people and listen to them say astonishing things at length. But Invisible Man has something else going for it, a nightmarish sense of powerlessness. This is partially a function of events; nothing goes the way it is meant to for the narrator and, by extension, his reader. He is invited to deliver his graduation speech to a gathering of white town fathers, and instead gets thrown into the boxing ring with a bunch of other terrified black boys. At college, he is assigned to ferry around an important white benefactor, and by solicitously catering to the man’s whims, ends up in a black dive full of rioting mental patients and prostitutes. In this interlude I felt that molasses-like feeling characteristic of bad dreams. The narrative brilliantly impels anxiety through its disjointed quality, which it shares with one of Ellison’s great influences, “The Waste Land”: "What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?" the tall one said. "A man’s dying outside!" I said. "Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky." "He’s got to have some whiskey!" "Oh, that’s different," one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. "A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!" The narrator is then duly punished for letting the benefactor go astray. He is sent to New York, gets a job (no thanks to his evil college president), gets blown up, gets electrically lobotomized, and gets discharged back into the world without knowing his ass from his elbow: Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him -- my mind and I -- were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blond nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem. And then the Brotherhood appears, to bring order to the chaos. Discovering the narrator’s remarkable powers as an orator, they send him for his training in the science of social change. Maybe I'm imagining it all, but once I arrived at this point in the novel, I lost my sense of anxiety and impotence. Not only the substance of the narrator's life, but the text itself, took a form I could more easily follow. That's the beauty of Marx's ideas; a man can get control over his own story. Sooner or later, though, he will realize that someone else is writing the story for him: “The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.” Soon, like many people in the twentieth century, the narrator finds that for all their science, the Brotherhood is thinking at a scale that has ceased to be relevant to the particular circumstances of men like him, or his Harlem neighbors, who worry about getting evicted or shot by the police. The people he calls "the transitory ones": ...ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood -- birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents. We who write no novels, histories or other books. Reading Invisible Man, I thought about The Adventures of Augie March, which was published a year later, and which also describes meandering and haplessness in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Bellow and Ellison were friends and roommates, and their novels form a pair of sorts. But Bellow’s meanderings seem so often to lead to opportunity; they can be described as “rollicking.” In America it is the privilege of the white man to rollick, even if he is a poor Jew born into moderate squalor. The black man, in this novel at any rate, can only be fucked around; his hope, in this novel, is to discover his own way of doing things. I say "man" because a woman in this novel can only be fucked, full stop; she does haven't much hope of decent treatment, by the novelist or anyone else. Too obscure for learned classification, women are chattel and bait. I felt Ellison's novel invited me to compare its narrator to Augie March and feel sorrowful for the injustice inherent in American life, but Ellison may have protested this. In his great essay "The World and the Jug," a riposte to the critic Irving Howe, Ellison criticized Richard Wright for his belief in the novel as a weapon. "True novels," Ellison wrote, "even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject." And Invisible Man does end, somehow, on an affirmative note, even though the narrator is living underground and philosophizing from some kind of vast coal scuttle. The reader's chaos and disorientation returns, but this time, things seem like they are in hand: In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived...Thus having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge. As with American Communism, there is something of a pall over Ellison's legacy -- a sense of things left undone, a general wanting in his solidarity with other black writers and intellectuals. He repudiated the influence of Wright on his literature, when Wright gave him his first leg up as a young writer. He is said to have taken a dim, threatened view of later generations of black writers. But it seems to me that Ellison, as a black writer, was never quite allowed, by himself or others, to relax comfortably into the quirky individuality, even dickishness, that was the birthright of his white authorial contemporaries. Invisible Man was Ellison’s only novel, his other work a smattering of stories and essays. Among his essays, he is chiefly remembered for the aforementioned stirring and dramatic exchange with Howe, a white man who, evidently, was not expecting pushback when he praised, with offensive qualifications, Invisible Man in an essay about Richard Wright and James Baldwin: What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country -- I say 'apparent' because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book's admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter. Howe's assessment of Black writing, as something dictated by the social conditions that "formed a constant pressure on his literary work...with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove," prompted an exchange that would go three rounds and would lead Ellison to lob this stinger: “Many of those who write of Negro life today seem to assume that as long as their hearts are in the right place they can be as arbitrary as they wish in their formulations.” Referendums on the relative fairness of Ellison's and Howe's remarks continue to be published today. I thought of Ellison when reading a modern-day exchange about race between public intellectuals -- Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Coates refutes the belief, shared by conservatives and progressives, in some derelict streak in black culture, and points instead to white supremacy as one of the "central organizing forces in American life." In the context of Coates's argument, Ellison might seem to willfully downplay this force, emphasizing in his response to Howe that his own influences took the form of Marx, Freud, Eliot, Pound, Stein, and Hemingway, books which "were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” But in Coates's piece I heard strong echoes of Ellison's rejection of white attempts to universalize and pathologize the black experience, as here: Oddly enough, I found it far less painful to have to move to the back of a Southern bus, or climb to the peanut gallery of a movie house -- matters about which I could do nothing except walk, read, hunt, dance, sculpt, cultivate ideas, or seek other uses for my time -- than to tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it...I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs. While Ellison evidently wanted to be remembered more for his fierce advocacy of the individual and the artist and his need for representation -- “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority," he once told The Paris Review -- his writing to Howe here is a resonant comment on the right of people to say who they are, rather than be told. In this he speaks even for the obscure birds, those men out of time, about whom the Invisible Man asked in his thrilling final line: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you"? And still today, people do not hear. The review of Invisible Man in the New York Times began, amazingly, "Ralph Ellison's first novel, 'The Invisible Man,' is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read." Ellison never completed his gargantuan second novel, Juneteenth, which was Frankensteined and published after his death to thin reviews. For whatever reason, he paid the cost of being, as he put it “an individual who aspires to conscious eloquence.” But if Invisible Man is the most fully-realized embodiment of your conscious eloquence, that's a hell of a legacy. How else might that Times review have begun? "The most impressive work of fiction by an American"? It would not have been an audacious claim.
I have tried several times to read The Wings of the Dove and always stalled somewhere around page 30, when Kate Croy and Merton Densher meet in Kensington Gardens. A couple of months ago, after spending my summer reading back-to-back Stephen King novels, I was restlessly scanning the bookshelf for something new and experienced the intellectual version of the thing where anemic people yearn to eat dirt. I had surfeited myself on easy reading; my brain, sensing the slow atrophying and death of its parts, compelled me to reach for Henry James, and together we chugged right through the gate of Kensington Gardens and all the way to the end. When you’re ready, you’re ready. I was so ready to read The Wings of the Dove that it caused me to have a mystical experience of the sort typically associated with psychotropic drugs. Let’s say that my previous efforts with this book were equivalent to the disappointing herbal cigarette from a store called Groovy Vibes, or a bag of mulch obtained at the concert from someone’s questionable cousin. But this time I got, so to speak, the good shit. You eat the Henry James mushrooms, you look upon his dense thicket of sentences, his plodding parade of commas, and suddenly the text, and the entire world, come into insane focus. The mere act of securing myself a sour-smelling BART seat and opening the paperback was enough, for the two weeks it took me to finish the novel, to return me to this heightened state. As it happened, reading The Wings of the Dove coincided with a breakthrough in my note-taking. Rather than trying to hold my book and write out long quotations on the train, rather than snapping acid-weakened corners with excessive dog-earing, I realized that it’s possible to take a picture of the choice passage with my spiffy phone. Since discovering this tactic I have used it to very good effect with some books. However, when my consciousness-elevating sojourn with Henry James ended, I was confronted with nearly a hundred photos of pages -- a mute and largely meaningless mosaic of text and image like an ill-considered senior art project. Looking at them now is like reading the mad scrawl of someone who has actually taken drugs. Perusing these “notes,” all I can hope for are a few good flashbacks. Flipping hopelessly through the Henry James digital photo album, I find that some of my choice passages retain the startling magic that I felt during my trip. Some of them, in fact, leave me with the distinct impression that there is actually something a little bit trippy about Henry James. Kate’s beau Merton Densher, a journalist without enough money to be a suitable husband, is offered the chance to go to America and write a series of society dispatches for his paper; the advent of this opportunity is described as an “imprisoned thought” that “had, in a word, on the opening of the door, flown straight out into Densher’s face, or perched at least on his shoulder, making him look up in surprise from his mere inky office-table.” I see the imprisoned thought like a friendly little pterodactyl, the inky table, Densher looking up with a charming startled look on his guileless face (specifically, I see a young Daniel Day Lewis, as directed by Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola). (If Henry James wasn’t the originator of the vision of hope as “the thing with feathers,” he certainly made something of it with all his lovely winged things. Here's Mrs. Stringham, the companion of a young heiress named Milly Theale, when they first form their connection: “But this imagination -- the fancy of a possible link with the remarkable young thing from New York -- had mustered courage: had perched, on the instant, at the clearest look-out it could find and might be said to have remained there till, only a few months later, it had caught, in surprise and joy, the unmistakable flash of a signal.”) As far as I know, the major complaint about Henry James is that he is insanely boring. But if you look at him the right way you understand that he is just relentlessly attuned to the dimensions of moments and thoughts, like people on drugs, or teenagers, or neurotic adults. It is easy to miss this when you are busy being grumpy about the incomprehensible passages that pop up all over: Not to talk of what they might have talked of drove them to other ground; it was as if they used a perverse insistence to make up what they ignored. They concealed their pursuit of the irrelevant by the charm of their manner; they took precautions of a courtesy that they had formerly left to come of itself; often when he had quitted her, he stopped short, walking off, with the aftersense of their change. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but squinted at in just the right way, some passages reminded me a bit of Tao Lin’s Taipei, a book I am on the record as finding abhorrent. Here, when Kate thinks about her sister, who made an undistinguished marriage and is now saddled with undistinguished widowhood: “She was little more than a ragged relic, a plain, prosaic result of him, as if she had somehow been pulled through him as through an obstinate funnel, only to be left crumpled and useless and with nothing in her but what he accounted for.” How, when I loathe the style of Tao Lin, can I see him preordained in a book I found so stirring? Some of it is merely coincidence, the deployment of similar analogy and rhythm, as here in Taipei: “He imagined his trajectory as a vacuum-sealed tube, into which he’d arrived and through which — traveling alone in the vacuum-sealed tube of his own life — he’d be suctioned and from which he’d exit, as a successful delivery to some unimaginable recipient.” I think, though, that while there is a universe separating their prose, Henry James wields a real-time emotional barometer in the way that Tao Lin strives to do. The difference is that Tao Lin’s project is concerned only with the measurements of one person. Perhaps this is a more honest project, if we are to concede, à la Conrad, that life is ultimately a solo enterprise. But this can be such a limiting approach. In The Wings of the Dove, James devotes his prodigious abilities to the group, so that we feel, more or less, the preoccupations of Kate, of Merton, of the mysteriously ailing Milly, of her anxious minder Susan Stringham. James also manages to show the gulf that exists in human consciousness between certain hard revelations about the self and deeper, damning truths still unplumbed: [Kate] saw as she had never seen before how material things spoke to her. She saw, and she blushed to see, that if, in contrast with some of its old aspects, life now affected her as a dress successfully "done up," this was exactly by reason of the trimmings and lace, was a matter of ribbons and silk and velvet. She had a dire accessibility to pleasure from such sources. Kate sees this, but she doesn't see the way that this relatively common and redeemable "accessibility" to material things will cause her in the end to do something irredeemable. James scrupulously describes his characters while still managing to leave the impression of a final veil separating each person from what they really think of themselves, and one another. Another key difference between James and Lin is that, if James, like Lin, has you living so much in the moment and inside the minds of his characters, his moments are all of them in service to a story. James strikes me as very bold and modern in his approach to the novel, but he does not abandon plot as a critical component of the form. When we learn about Kate’s knowledge of her own weakness for the finer things above, it is as critical a plot-point as Milly’s wealth, described inimitably thus: ...it was in the fine folds of the helplessly expensive little black frock that she drew over the grass as she now strolled vaguely off...it lurked between the leaves of the uncut but antiquated Tauchnitz volume of which, before going out, she had mechanically possessed herself. She couldn’t dress it away, nor walk it away, nor read it away, nor think it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn’t have lost it if she had tried -- that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be the thing you were. And the plot is a real doozy. Poor Kate with a dead mother and unsuitable father, taken in by a rich aunt, who forbids her marrying poor Merton even as the aunt finds Merton a charming companion. Merton goes to America, meets heiress. Heiress falls for Merton, which may or may not be a result of Merton’s excessive attentions. Heiress meets lady writer. Lady writer falls for heiress. Heiress and lady writer go to England, and meet Kate and Aunt. Heiress is discovered to have unnamed fatal disease with very few symptoms. Kate convinces Merton to woo heiress, even to marry her, so as to get her money. Merton demands sex in exchange for his promise. How did these nice people go so wrong? How will it end? Another surprise, considering my earlier struggles with Henry James: this is actually a very sexy book. It’s a canard of old people that entertainment of yesteryear had a kind of chaste sexiness that you just don’t see today, when TV is a riot of exposed jugs and racy language. Usually I am inclined to disagree; the old movies that are allegedly sexy always just leave me feeling desolate over the thinness of Grace Kelly or Ingrid Bergman, unmoved by Cary Grant, and wondering if people used to go all the way to fourth base while exclusively doing close-mouthed kissing. But Wings of the Dove is such a suggestive book that if two characters had even the briefest conversation I fancied that they then ravished one another on a credenza. As Merton returns to London from New York, he yearns for Kate: “His absence from her for so many weeks had had such an effect upon him that his demands, his desires had grown; and only the night before, as his ship steamed, beneath summer stars, in sight of the Irish coast, he had felt all the force of his particular necessity.” Once Kate and Merton are reunited, this "particular necessity" remains unmet in a spicy way: If Kate had consented to drive away with him and alight at his house, there would probably enough have occurred for them, at the foot of his steps, one of those strange instants between man and woman that blow upon the red spark, the spark of conflict, ever latent in the depths of passion. She would have shaken her head -- oh sadly, divinely -- on the question of coming in; and he, though doing all justice to her refusal, would have yet felt his eyes reach further into her own than a possible word, at a time, could reach. When Merton finally understands the full extent of Kate’s plot -- that he should lay hold to Milly’s fortune by marrying her before she dies, he is by then so full of unrelieved passion that he will do anything: ...he passed his hand into her arm with a force that produced for them another pause. "I’ll tell any lie you want, any your idea requires, if you’ll only come to me." "Come to you?" She spoke low. "Come to me." Very few people really come out well in this novel, but there is still sympathy to go around. How awful to be Kate and belong to the chattel sex; for your earthly comfort to be tied up with the whims of your benevolent relative; how awful to have been brought up with fancies and expectations you can ill-afford, ill-equipped to earn a living. How sad for sex to be your only bargaining chip, so that when it's gone you've got nothing left to trade. How sad to be Merton Densher, with an excess of chivalry deployed only when it's too late. And how sad, of course, to be Milly, to be so young and rich and lovely, and dying and preyed-upon. Just like you have to exercise your idiom when you’ve spent the summer devouring beach reads, you have to exercise your emotional register. When you are in a state of placidity, you must remind yourself of the way that it is possible to feel like a giant, throbbing nerve. But if mushrooms leave you fetal in a corner, if you're too old for MDMA, thrill-seek with Henry James. He is there to remind you that every conversation, every interaction shared among human beings, is multidimensional and freighted with meaning.
1. Like many people with at least some superficial veneer of culture and erudition, the books I read when I was a child fall into two main categories. First, I read the books that were just the kind of thing that come your way if you're a young person surrounded by people who care: Newberry winners, ALA Notables, and books about the spirited young ladies of the past, who reside in places like New Moon, Silver Bush, and The Limberlost. Next, I read the books my parents had around the house. With a talent that stays with me today, I became adept at picking out the novels from among Loeb editions and other things that boded ill for my entertainment (although my strategy was not foolproof: I still give The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony the side-eye when I see it on the shelf). We can all map our humanity by the oddities and accidents of our youthful bookshelves (or the absence of said shelves), but that's outside the scope of this revue. The point is that I remember being lured by The Good Soldier because of its child-friendly size and obvious fiction-ness. Skimming through it, I had no idea what was going on. Clearly, though, it was something creepy. (I believe I had the idea that "cut his throat" was an expression meaning to be really upset about something, which is not totally inaccurate.) The next time I read the Ford Madox Ford novel was in its incarnation as The Saddest Story, in crisp pink facsimile copy of Blast prescribed in a college course on Anglo-American Modernism. I was very taken by Blast as a concept, a look, a typeface, during what might be considered my most revolutionary period, which might also be considered the least revolutionary revolutionary period ever experienced by a person. I latched on to The Good Soldier then because it was far more comprehensible to me than almost anything else we read during Anglo-American Modernism (or indeed, Blast). This text was carrying some artistic ideology, we were taught, but it was written in sentences I could understand. The Good Soldier is probably the best book to teach in an English class that I can imagine, covering all the hot formal and contextual bases. (First of all, forget Turn of the Screw -- here we have our unreliable narrator sans pareil.) Who is this man? An American. Who is his author? An Anglo-German. Where was this published? Blast? And when? Why, just before World Blast I! What a narrator! To read him is to hear a 100-year-old joke and get it, even if the terms on which you get it are slightly out of kilter from the original. Right off the bat, Dowell, this placid American, describes for us the Ashburnhams, the male half of which will disrupt everyone's existence with wandering heart and loins: "They were descended, as you will probably expect, from the Ashburnham who accompanied Charles I to the scaffold, and, as you must also expect with this class of English people, you would never have noticed it." What else does Dowell, this Quaker with pudding where his balls should be, not notice? That the Ashburnhams don't speak to one another; that while he ferries his non-invalid invalid wife to healthful spas at Nauheim and elsewhere, Captain Ashburnham is ferrying her vigorously to Pound-town. Talk about creepy. All slices of underdone beef and quiet chats around the bridge table and a particular shade of blue tie, while coursing through it is illicit sex, death, madness, and strong religious feeling. 2. The Good Soldier has often been lauded as a formally perfect novel, a sentiment with which I am inclined to agree, but do not feel quite up to proving, when Julian Barnes has already done it. But I did want to revisit Blast (that "great MAGENTA cover'd opusculus," as Ezra Pound described it, with characteristic bombast). What a strange, sad, vital text, and how curious it seemed to me that Ford's story should be in it. Next to Wyndham Lewis's aggressively experimental "Enemy of the Stars" and Rebecca West's psychosexual vignette "Indissoluble Matrimony," The Good Soldier seems formally rather bloodless and Edwardian, suddenly becoming, at its end, positively Gothic (Eunuch and Madwoman: table for two). However, while I found The Good Soldier a beacon of intelligibility among the experiments of the Vorticists, Theodore Dreiser, Ford's contemporary, found the non-chronological narrative provocative and disorienting -- bad modern Art. Ford did not sign the manifesto part of issue 1, and his relationship with the Vorticists (the name for Lewis and the other people behind Blast) is a matter of some discussion, I gather, after reading several scholarly essays in an effort to understand the period. He was a Modernist, but also an Impressionist. He dabbled in Imagism, which is a kind of Modernism. The Vorticists disliked the Futurists. They all may have been nascent Fascists. So many currents and tributaries to movements -- 100 years later, Modernism seems like a biggish tent. But really, it's about as descriptive a term as "sandwich," and reading the learned essays invoked, in my crude mind, a long-running argument that my friends have about what is or is not a sandwich. Is a taco a sandwich? A hotdog? It is all a darkness. Looking back, the particulars of the day's debates are not clear. But, set as they were against the great cataclysm of World War I, it is easy to focus on the irrelevance of a hotdog's being a sandwich or not a sandwich, when we know now that millions of people were preparing to die in terrible circumstances. That's the saddest story! Not some horny, deceitful woman! Even while I admired the aesthetic on the page of the Vorticists, there is a kind of awfulness in all of it, as they celebrate, in a queerly un-celebratory way, those things that will soon blast them all to pieces. (It is worth checking out the searchable PDFs on Issuu, where both numbers are available in their entirety.) The only way Humanity can help artists is to remain independent and work unconsciously WE NEED THE UNCONSCIOUSNESS OF HUMANITY-their stupidity, animalism, and dreams. ... We do not want to change the appearance of the world, because we are not Naturalists, Impressionists or Futurists (the latest form of Impressionism), and do not depend on the appearance of the world for our art. WE ONLY WANT THE WORLD TO LIVE, and to feel it’s crude energy flowing through us. ... The Modern World is due almost entirely to Anglo-Saxon genius, -- its appearance and its spirit. Machinery is the greatest Earth-medium: incidentally it sweeps away the doctrines of a narrow and pedantic Realism at one stroke. The rest of The Good Soldier/Saddest Story didn't appear in the second and ultimate issue of Blast, the "War Issue," because the novel had already been published by John Lane. Meanwhile, Ford Madox Ford had gone off to war, which he wrote about in a poem for this second issue. The Vorticist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska, who rebelled against classical forms, died in action, not before sending this dispatch for the new number: I HAVE BEEN FIGHTING FOR TWO MONTHS and I can now gauge the intensity of Life. HUMAN MASSES teem and move, are destroyed and crop up again. HORSES are worn out in three weeks, die by the roadside. DOGS wander, are destroyed, and others come along. WITH ALL THE DESTRUCTION that works around us NOTHING IS CHANGED, EVEN SUPERFICIALLY. LIFE IS THE SAME STRENGTH. THE MOVING AGENT THAT PERMITS THE SMALL INDIVIDUAL TO ASSERT HIMSELF. THE BURSTING SHELLS, the volleys, wire entanglements, projectors, motors, the chaos of battle DO NOT ALTER IN THE LEAST, the outlines of the hill we are besieging. A company of PARTRIDGES scuttle along before our very trench. IT WOULD BE FOLLY TO SEEK ARTISTIC EMOTIONS AMID THESE LITTLE WORKS OF OURS. 3. Another short book that sat on my parents' bookshelves was Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, with which I also struggled upon a youthful first read. This week, fresh off a week of reading Blast and trying to plumb its truths, I had a moment of serendipity when I went to see the play for the first time. Parallels abound. Stoppard's play is about waging war on the styles that came before you -- in this case the Romantic rejection of the Classical, with Mr. Noakes the landscape architect rejecting, like Gaudier-Brzeska, the smooth geometry of the Greeks. It's about the great X factor that sex plays in the human enterprise. It's about Art, Science, Math, and Machinery. It is also about looking back at the past and not totally understanding things because you are missing key documents and truths, and also see what you want to see. In one play, we cover the impulse behind the Vorticists, the root of the tragedies in The Good Soldier, and my own fumbling around for sandwich metaphors. At the pinnacle of the play, the young heroine Thomasina laments to her tutor Septimus the wanton weakness of the "Egyptian noodle" Cleopatra, who allowed the great library of Alexandria to burn. For Thomasina, as for Dowell the American, a lady being horny and deceitful -- her good soldier being such a fine, fatally weak fellow -- wrecked things forever. When Thomasina, thinking of all the lost books in the library, asks Septimus, "How can we sleep for grief?" He replies in a great moment of literature and humanity, giving us the softer side of Gaudier-Brzeska's dispatch from the front: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady. You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Tom Stoppard wrote the dialogue for Parade's End, Ford Madox Ford's other best-known work, which was lately made into an HBO miniseries. I don't know what he thinks about The Good Soldier, Blast, or the rest of it, but he is humming on that creative frequency. The first issue of Blast asserted: "The moment a man feels or realizes himself as an artist, he ceases to belong to any milieu or time. Blast is created for this timeless fundamental Artist that exists in everybody." We die on the march, yes. But we have our consolations. Et in Arcadia ego.
1. This week marks four years since I began the Modern Library Revue, and herewith its 32nd official installment. I began the project the way I think people must begin training for a marathon, or eating like a caveman, or going to church: I felt some inner restlessness, some fullness, that needed exercising and exorcising. I chose the Modern Library list for my spiritual Nordic Trac because I had read one or two novels less than half the novels on it, and thought quite sensibly that this would give me a good head start. At first, the entries tumbled out of me as fast I could write them. And in these four years, I've managed to read another 30 titles from the list. But somehow, here we are at a mere 32 Revues. At this pace, it will be another eight years, God willing, before I finish the enterprise. (And oh, the party I'll have.) Despite my initial aspirations and productivity, I have found that the familiar books have been the hardest to interpret, the most likely to hamstring me over a period of weeks or months. Always they require rereading, and sometimes something more drastic. I've been stalled on Tender is the Night since October, which befuddled me to the extent that, not only did I have to reread it a third time, I had to reread all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels and meditate on them before deciding that I know less, possibly, than I did before. I used to feel that the novel output of Fitzgerald was like the literary version of the Myers Briggs test: whichever one a person favored was some fundamental indicator of his or her personality. Roughly it followed that ordinary and banal people liked The Great Gatsby, snotty, effete types liked This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned was for the discerning and unconventional (I'll let you guess in which camp I numbered myself). Tender is the Night was sort of an unknown quantity, preferred by dramatic people, maybe, or people who take pills. This fall, in a classic Modern Library Revue time-suck, I revisited my youthful prejudices, all in service of understanding Fitzgerald's last, strangest novel. I can't say that revisiting my youthful prejudices has confirmed them -- This Side of Paradise crept up in my estimation, while The Beautiful and Damned moved slightly down, even while retaining the coveted corner office of my heart. However, to venture onto a tangent, I can say that The Great Gatsby still remains for me the least stirring of Fitzgerald's novels. Perhaps it's due to some wellspring of hipster haterade that must deem things played out, or perhaps The Great Gatsby is so great that it has actually managed to play itself out. After all, it's as familiar now as the noble bombast penned by Fitzgerald's own relative, the green light like the rocket's red flare, the pier at East Egg like the ever-stalwart rampart, the boats beating on like liberty itself. I feel that The Great Gatsby is the most together, the most surgically artistic effort of a novelist who was more exciting when he was not trying to contain the hot, maudlin, meandering mess of his own talent. (For the record, I also sense something phony about Gatsby's very phoniness -- for me the only convincing poor person Fitzgerald wrote was one who lost his fortune, not one who made it. Fitzgerald's poor people were like his black people or his Jews--all characteristics, no character.) 2. If The Great Gatsby represents the nadir of said hot mess, Tender is the Night is its sprawling apotheosis. It's hard to know what to say about this sultry dream of a book. Aesthetically it is very beautiful, the most impressionistic of Fitzgerald's novels. A paragraph about Gausse's Riviera beach makes me want to disport myself in the wine-dark sea, and ruin my skin in the sun wearing pearls and a marcel wave. There is a striking amount of color: the first two pages features a "tan prayer rug of a beach," the "pink and cream of old fortifications," a "purple Alp," a man in a blue bathrobe, a girl with pink palms. The first half of the novel is all a bright haze of color, sensation, perception, personality. The revelation that the life events of the novel's motley crew of upper-crusters might have anything to do with something like a plot is a surprise when it comes, about a third of the way through the novel. As a plot, it's an odd one, full of a kind of fruitless drama and portents that somehow portend both nothing and everything. Only the flimsiest motives are provided to explain why a man like the superhero Dick Diver, with his jaunty striped shorts and bathing cap, should piss away his life, trade in his professional credibility and crazed beautiful wife and Riviera idylls for a ruined liver and thwarted attempts at grab-ass in sleepy villages along the Hudson. Even fewer reasons are provided for why we should care. The demise part is okay -- that's a theme in all the novels past This Side of Paradise. But Dick and Nicole Diver are the sort of unlikable corollaries of Anthony and Gloria Patch of The Beautiful and Damned, which is a great, old-fashioned morality tale with implacable logic. I think it's a shame, how it works out for the Divers, but they never seemed like very fine people to me. I found an explanation for the novel's strangeness partly in a 1962 New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins about Sara and Gerald Murphy, the original inspiration for Dick and Nicole Diver. The novel started out to be about the Murphys, and turned, says Tomkins, into a book about the Fitzgeralds (who were also the models for Anthony and Gloria Patch). These Murphys were real Somebodys, who knew everybody and lived artfully in Paris and on the Riviera, which they actually discovered as a summer destination. Tomkins's profile, which is well worth reading, has its own, dare I say, novelistic logic. I spent the first half of the piece feeling a certain savagery toward the Murphys. Page one (of thirteen) makes Tender is the Night out to be a turd on the porcelain of the Murphys' impeccable lives: "I didn’t like the book when I read it, and I liked it even less on rereading," Sara said. "I reject categorically any resemblance to us or to anyone we knew at any time." Gerald, on the other hand, was fascinated to discover...how Fitzgerald had used "everything he noted or was told about by me" during the years that the two couples spent together...Almost every incident, he became aware, almost every conversation in the opening section of the book had some basis in an actual event or conversation involving the Murphys, although it was often altered or distorted in detail. I found both positions deeply suspect -- the vehement denials and the faux naivete about artists, from people who surrounded themselves with artists (Hemingway, Stravinsky, MacLeish, Dos Passos, etc.). This strain of philistinism was as alienating to me as the impeccable lives: Those closest to the Murphys find it almost impossible to describe the special quality of their life, or the charm it had for their friends. An evening spent in their fragrant garden, looking out over the water toward Cannes and the mountains beyond, listening to records from Gerald’s encyclopedic collection (everything from Bach to the latest jazz), savoring the delicious food that always seemed to appear, exquisitely prepared and served, at the precise moment and under the precise circumstances guaranteed to bring out all its best qualities (Provençal dishes, for the most part, with vegetables and fruits from the Murphys’ garden, though there was often a typically American dish, such as poached eggs on a bed of creamed corn); the passionate attention to every detail of his guests’ pleasure that gave Murphy himself such obvious pleasure; Sara’s piquant beauty and wit, and the intense joy she took in her life and her friends; the three beautiful children, who seemed, like most children who inhabit a special private world, to be completely at home in adult company (Honoria, who looked like a Renoir and was dressed accordingly; Baoth, robust and athletic; Patrick, disturbingly delicate, and with a mercurial brilliance that made him seem "more Gerald than Gerald") -- all contributed to an atmosphere that most people felt wonderfully privileged to share... And then came their singing of the "American Negro spirituals." (All this, even the title of the profile--"Living Well is the Best Revenge"--made me want to throw their smug lives in their faces. Revenge against what? Against the horrible smashup of the Fitzgeralds -- one drunk, one crazy -- one who died choking on blood, the other on smoke, both before they reached 50?) Tomkins's society-page raptures notwithstanding, somewhere around the middle of the thing I began to defrost. First, there's the death of two of the Murphys' children -- pain that cannot be extinguished by any amount of exquisite living. Then, in the excerpts of letters to and from the Murphys and Fitzgeralds, the real depth of their friendship (relationship, better to say), was revealed. I cannot imagine a relationship of my own bearing so much volatility -- surrendering my home to an unhinged friend, placating my other guests when friend flings figs and ashtrays, putting up with his barbs and his staring and his weird questions about money, finally reading myself in his unedifying novel as the beautiful mental patient, the incest victim, the involved but unloving mother. It would be a lot. Tomkins's descriptions of the Murphys' collective life are very like the tableaux Fitzgerald creates in Tender is the Night. Here, in the novel, the young film actress Rosemary is entranced by the Divers on the Mediterranean shores: Rosemary felt that this swim would become the typical one of her life, the one that would always pop up in her memory at the mention of swimming. Simultaneously the whole party moved toward the water, super-ready from the long, forced inaction, passing from the heat to the cool with the gourmandise of a tingling curry eaten with chilled white wine. The Divers' day was spaced like the day of the older civilizations to yield the utmost from the materials at hand, and to give all the transitions their full value, and she did not know that there would be another transition presently from the utter absorption of the swim to the garrulity of the Provencal lunch hour. What is missing from Tomkins's account is the resentment that runs through Tender is the Night, the resentment I instinctively felt myself for the Murphys' Mediterranean menage. Seen thus, the novel is almost a revenge against the Murphys' good lives, a preemptive retribution; right around the time that Fitzgerald started to die in Hollywood, Gerald Murphy--whose own melancholy spells Tomkins mentions only in passing--took up the family business, a little outfit called Mark Cross, and did a thriving trade for two decades. Perhaps the novel even adds some necessary balance to Tomkins's fulsomeness. But as the character of Dick Diver transmutes to Fitzgerald himself, the resentment takes on a strange key. In a novel partly about psychoanalysis, what does it mean that Abe North, the drunk creative type clearly modelled on Fitzgerald, is kicked to death on a spree in New York, a moment that roughly marks the start of Dick Diver's slow, similarly gin-soaked decline? (Nicole Diver was raped by her father in her lonely adolescence, an event that led to her nervous breakdown. And yet somehow Dick Diver's Gendarmo punchout, when his Fitzgeraldian side is ascendant, is five-fold more awful.) The novel even suggests, with Fitzgerald's characteristic attention to money, that Dick's demise is a tied to his unmanning financial dependence on Nicole. More resentment, class bitterness transferred. Tender is the Night is no Gatsby, with everything nailed down tight as a coffin-lid at the end. When the novel is over, Dick is still shunting around doing God knows what and living off of Nicole, who has been transferred part and parcel to another, less cerebral man. There's nary a moral to be had between this novel and its characters. Yet curiously, even with its multiple lives clumsily conflated -- extraordinary lives, furthermore, with outsize amounts of talent, privilege, and misfortune -- there is something true and lifelike about this flawed, lovely, befuddling book. Writing well may not be the best revenge, but a few decades later, it comes pretty close.
I bought my copy of Midnight's Children in a book shop in Pondicherry in 2006 during an earnest personal campaign to read things about India while in India -- a gesture of a piece with a ladies' auxiliary "around the world" evenings or literary dos where participants discuss To the Lighthouse and eat boeuf en daube. Before Midnight's Children, I read A Suitable Boy, and read it while sleeping on trains with my pants tucked into my socks against forward bugs. (This made for evenings of psychic dissonance roughly analogous with reading Edith Wharton on a cross-country Greyhound bus. The difference is that no Greyhound bus depot is as nice as any Indian train station of my limited experience.) Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one's guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one's hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me -- the gift of going places and seeing things -- to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor? Re-reading Midnight's Children this summer was such a transporting experience, however, that I am compelled to mention those days on the road, when Saleem Sinai revealed a world beyond the dingy windows of unremitting buses and trains. Dunya dekho, "see the world," as the dugdugee man Lifafa Das cries, with his postcard peepshow of Indian wonders. I traveled with two friends, and we dutifully cultivated our up-for-anythingness. In Mumbai, picked up off the street in a routine roundup of foreign faces, we had our hair combed and -- with Hungarians, with Kenyans, with Finns -- played the Nascar fans of Bollywood's imagining. We trudged across Chowpatty beach and up the Malabar hill and looked solemnly in the direction of the Tower of Silence, entrance barred the non-Parsi. There in the valley of the shadow of death, we spent our filmi proceeds on Pizza Hut and felt bad about ourselves. We saw Don in the cool movie theater. We sweated and itched through the night in gender-segregated wings of the Salvation Army. Our strategy was speed and distance, and we were up for anything in New Delhi and Pushkar; Agra and Varanasi; Kerala and Munnar and Madurai. By Bangalore, we were no longer up for very much -- that's when we saw The Departed. In Chennai, we were like limp rags. Throughout our peregrinations, the feeling was not all we had seen, but all we hadn't. The map was big enough for years of days of train rides and new towns, different holidays and seasons. When you go somewhere new, without the funds to elevate you to the echelon of luxury that is its own country, inevitably there comes a moment when you look around and realize that you have no idea what the fuck is going on. In these moments my Indian book club of one succored me, gave context to the long days of new sights and sounds. My companions protested when I disappeared into my book at train platforms, abandoning them to the stultifying boredom and endless mini-backgammon of extended travel. I suppose it was bunkum, methodologically speaking, but Midnight's Children was Lonely Planet and spiritual Baedeker. Pondicherry was all bicycles and sea breeze, but from the pages of Rushdie's novel I gazed back-to-Bom and imagined what it might have felt like to understand the secret dimensions of those afternoons, "hot as towels," when we felt tired and bewildered and alone. We had come to India, in a route that makes us sound much more cosmopolitan then we are, via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia I had been astonished and soothed by the discovery of an immense and flexible web of cognate Turkic languages. With middling Turkish, it seemed a miracle to be able to pay a taxi driver, to find Exits and Entrances, to identify the Interrogative Mood, if not the nature of the interrogation. Reading Midnight's Children, another web asserted itself. From Salman Rushdie I learned about what I now think of as the Janum trail, a Persianate path circling a third of the earth, demarcated by the term of endearment meaning "my life, my soul," which made its way into every language the Iranic tongue touched. Midnight's Children was peppered with other words I knew, carried across around the continent in their original Persian or Arabic: words like dunya (world) and hamal (porter), the booze-prescribing Doctor Sharabi (from wine). Just a few little words, but they packed a wallop. Reading this novel I realized for the first time that language is a map of history, and wondered how it had been drawn. And better than any guide book, Midnight's Children suggested the extreme variety, the multitudinous tongues and what the anthropologists call "lifeways" of India. Saleem Sinai, he of the classy Lucknow Urdu and the topographical face, who wanders into the language riots, whose mind is a cacophony of children's polyglot voices--if language is a map, he is the compass rose. More methodological bunkum, but I'm on the record as getting 70 percent of my history learning from novels. And talk of history! Some greater percentage of Rushdie's allegories remain obscure to me, but some things are clear: India was chaos, Saleem tells us, and yet its artificial rivening was a profound human tragedy. Across a new line on the map, Saleem's interior radio can no longer broadcast the voices of his compatriots. In an abandoned battlefield in contested territory, he runs across a talking pyramid, the mutilated remains of his old playmates from the Methwold estate. The tragedies pile up; the people in charge make criminal, monstrous errors. There's history on history. The great polymath Sir William "Oriental" Jones went to India and to him was revealed the Indo-European language family, a discovery which would later pave the way for the racialist theories of the blood, the traits and so-called purity thereof. What's in Saleem Sinai's blood, besides snake venom and chutney? He's the the natural child of a be-toupeed Englishman (ba-toupee and be-toupee, if I may venture a modest Urdu pun) and a cuckolding Indian wife; unnatural grandson of German-educated Kashmiri-turned-Indian; faux Mughal (which is really a kind of Turk); soldier in the Land of the Pure. In the words Mary Pereira, a Bombay Goan ("those Anglos," tuts Saleem's mother): "Anything you want to be you can be: You can be just what-all you want." Until Indira Gandhi steals your balls, that is. Saleem Sinai looks back on his narrative finds his dates don't add up. I looked through my emails -- with ticket stubs and postcards, my only record of the period -- and there is one mention of this novel, an unfavorable comparison to The Tin Drum. How can this be? How could I have been so ungrateful after all Midnight's Children did for me? What else have I gotten wrong in my own recollections, inconsequential as they may be? (Did I even know the word hamal back then? It seems unlikely.) No matter; I see it all clearly now. Another thing I learned from this transforming novel: To write the past, you "have to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet."
The epigraph to All the King's Men is from Purgatorio, which happens to be my personal favorite stop on Dante's guided tour of the celestial realm. It is so favorite a favorite that I had one of its scenes, a somewhat impressionistic rendering of a Doré rendering, tattooed on my forearm in a fit of youthful bravado. (If I have any regrets about this, they are that I have only a dwindling supply of bravado, and only two arms, and only one life to encounter moving things and be altered by them for the duration.) Anyway, it's an exceedingly helpful epigraph for reading this novel; once Dante has been invoked, he has a way of suffusing everything and providing a theme and trajectory to the work: down, and then up, up, up. The Divine Comedy has a lot of politics in it, Guelphs and Ghibellines and so forth, because Dante was a political animal who went through the wringer and finally lived out his days in exile, a self-described "party of one." After centuries, most of us read the poet's verse and the footnotes prepared by dedicated historians and have only the vaguest sense of who everyone was. Still, we know that they are meaningful in their perdition or their grace. Robert Penn Warren's tortured narrator, Jack Burden, was a party of one if ever one there was: a failed law student, historian, journalist, henchman, ungentlemanly Southern gent. Like Dante, he is prone to sudden sleep and wandering into error. Warren evidently protested the designation, but I'll allow that All the King's Men is a novel about politics in the Dantean sense -- politics happens in the story, Guelphs and Ghibellines and hicks and state power and porcine Duffy and inscrutable Stark. But it's not Willie Stark who makes the lasting impression in this novel. It's Jack Burden, party of one, who midway through the journey of his life finds himself in a dark wood, the right path lost. He is here to tell us about several generations of honor and shame, about soiling your good name and living, or not living, with the results. There is no one in this novel, save perhaps the long-suffering Lucy, who does not stain him or herself with some kind of wrong. Dante was a party of one, but he was also a patriot, if we can try and understand the word outside of that dubious 19th-century invention, the nation state. Dante was a Florentine who loved his city; he celebrated and indicted it in his lovely poem in his beloved language. Reading All the King's Men, I thought a lot about patriotism. This novel is written so beautifully, so stylishly, and feels so American -- with all the muddled greatness and shittiness that descriptor implies -- that my decrepit patriotism pricked up its ears like it sometimes does when I read a stunning novel about America, in fine American English. After two foreign wars and all manner of troubling happenings on the domestic front, the thinking American, even while she tells herself that states are a construct, can find herself looking wistfully for uncontentious and productive symbols of homeland pride. In these moments, I settle on rock 'n' roll, because I believe that is a genuinely good American invention, one that people from other countries (with the exception of the squares and grumps who turn up in any society) have taken up with great gusto and badass results. But then, if we work past the hugely powerful instinct to take national ownership in a thing, pride must be tempered by the fact that this American cultural good arose from an indelible stain upon our history. Put very simply, there would be no rock 'n' roll, no jazz, if there were no slaves in America. So you recalibrate your patriotic enthusiasm -- rock music is a great good with a great evil woven into its roots. All the King's Men is a novel that puts shame front and center -- personal shame, familial shame, state shame. And see in this novel, that other, larger shame: it's a novel with "nigger" on the first page, its world reels from the sin of a woman sold down the river. Maybe it's because the hot, schismatic South has ever had some kind of weird claim on Americanness, but there is something about All the King's Men that like rock 'n' roll seems profoundly American, something paradoxical that makes a person feel like holding up her head about the accident of her citizenship to say, "We made this, so we can't be all bad," even while the thing in question in fact confirms that we can be and are that bad -- on the national scale, on the universal scale, we're that bad. We're that bad -- but some of us can really write. Can Robert Penn Warren ever write. He's a poet, and his prose is full of poetry and swagger. It's not a style I thought I favored; I think of my literary tastes, ironically, as running prim and anglophilic. But perhaps it's not a style I favor only because it is often imitated, unwittingly or the reverse, with such excruciating results. There are rioting metaphors on every page; cliches lurk around every corner. A hometown hero, a depressive journalist, a yellowing diary, a buried secret, a war, a zaftig bivalvular ex-wife, all written so beautifully I can hardly stand it. My copy is dog-eared the whole way through, the better to find the remarkable passages that proliferate therein. We had taken lots of swims in the rain, that summer and the summers before when Adam had been with us. We would no doubt have gone that night too, if the rain had been falling a different kind of rain, if it had been a light sweet rain, falling out of a high sky, the kind that barely whispers with a silky sound on the surface of the water you are swimming in, or if had been a driven, needle-pointed, cold, cathartic rain to make you want to run along the beach and yell before you took refuge in the sea, or even if it had been a torrent, the kind you get on the Gulf that is like nothing so much as what happens when the bottom finally bursts out of a big paper bag suspended full of water. But it wasn't like any of those kinds of rain. It was as though the sky had sagged down as low as possible and there were a universal leaking of bilge down through the black, gummy, dispirited air. They flow like this, one after another, in a manner that sometimes sounds free-wheeling and unconstructed, like a drugstore poet shooting the breeze between sips from his soda pop. But try to write a letter and sound like Robert Penn Warren. Try to write a story. I rejoice in this great American novel, a reminder of people's capacity for those universal states, perdition and grace. Jack Burden says "what we students of history always learn is that the human being is a very complicated contraption and that they are not good or bad but are good and bad and the good comes out of bad and the bad out of good, and the devil take the hindmost." Jack Burden asks if we are only as a good as the worst thing we've ever done and we have to concede it is so. It is so, but there's a chance of heaven yet. Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde.
The much-quoted, perhaps less-read British novelist L.P. Hartley began one of his novels with a line so killer it reliably appears in at least one news lede per week, whether, like one's bath, it is needed or not: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Add me to the ranks of those powerless to resist the pithiness of this line, which, conveyed to me by a history professor who spoke highly of its utility, indeed proved instrumental in guiding me through Theodore Dreiser's great American novel. The past is a foreign country, and Sister Carrie is our travelogue, with all that document's power to illuminate and obfuscate. We get a map of the country's major cities -- Chicago and New York -- a glimpse at its public transit systems, a review of its restaurants with a sampling of their menus, a glimpse inside its bars and lodgings from the swanky to the squalid. We see the sights and customs: the Elks theatrical, the Broadway promenade, the line of homeless men waiting for twelve-cent beds. The natives eat steak fried in butter obtained on credit from the Gansevoort Market (where the prices are better). We even accustom ourselves to the currency, so that when young Carrie -- a small-town girl who makes it big in New York City -- signs a theater contract for 150 dollars a week, we remember her four-fifty per week at the Chicago shoe factory, her 28-dollar-a month apartment on Thirteenth Street, and know her velocity. For one Chicago-residing female reading of another a hundred years prior, there is much to beguile. There is also much to bewilder. In a state of temporal foreignness, it is not always easy to read the signs of the previous century. I am not so inured to the libertinism of the day that I can't see it wasn't quite the thing for young Carrie to wantonly do it with a feller she met on the train -- the first of two fellers with whom she so cavalierly trades her feminine goods for a square meal, a place to stay, and some new clothes. It's not really the thing now, actually. And I can see how Hurstwood, the second of her squires -- the one who steals the money from his employers' cashbox and carries her off to New York under false pretenses -- is a Bad Sort. Between this light woman and foolish man, between the shirt-waists and the occasional lumpy old-fashioned quality of Dreiser's prose, between all this and my misapprehension that to be old is to be God-fearing, I was prepared for the inevitable smiting. But rather than this profane couple being crushed by the clock tower falling off a church or some such, it is only Hurstwood who comes to a bad end after an excruciating slide to perdition: a self-administered smiting. With an obvious symmetry that is nonetheless quite elegantly carried off, Carrie winds up a successful actress at a fabulous address. Being a youngish lady myself, and feeling both the lure of nice things and the anxieties of achieving financial security in an uncertain world (the headline of Hurstwood's newspaper reported 80,000 unemployed New Yorkers), it doesn't seem so very dire to me when famous Carrie sits in a rocking-chair in her sumptuous apartment and dreams "of such happiness as [she] may never feel." Maybe I should think of her as an early Marilyn Monroe, destined for despair, but as the novel closes I feel like Carrie did pretty well. Even Dreiser paints her finally as a seeker of the Good and the Beautiful: "Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring." It's not much of a smiting, at any rate. Since we cannot be dual citizens of the past and present, I have no idea if my relatively sanguine view of Carrie's circumstances at the end of the novel is the result of my morally bankrupt 21st-century status, or because Dreiser was a master of writing the perfect ordinariness of sinful behavior. I think both; Dreiser tells the story in such a way that you can't hear a mattress creak or smell a hint of brimstone, and I'm a modern miss who finds it normal and unprovoking that things should be so. Evidently the critics of the early twentieth century, disciples all of what Dreiser called the "genteel tradition," were provoked. It is instructive to read Dreiser's foreword to the 1927 Modern Library edition, which describes how the novel was published only at the urging of Frank Norris, another great American writer and shit-disturber, who worked as a reader at Doubleday. According to Dreiser's foreword, the ink was barely dry on the contract before Mrs. Doubleday herself, a "a social worker and active in moral reform," insisted that the book be withdrawn. However, Dreiser may have been doing his own myth-making with an apocryphal do-gooding harpy; an article by Jack Salzman for the Journal of American Studies somewhat vindicates Mrs. Doubleday. We know at least that Doubleday in fact sold several hundred copies of the book and that Dreiser was paid accordingly. Regardless of the veracity of the avenging missus, it's easily ascertained that American critics found the novel distinctly unedifying. One New York Times reviewer tutted that it was "a frankly realistic story...a photograph of conditions in the crude larger cities of America and of the people who make these conditions and are made by them. There is no attempt to complicate the facts as they are with notions of things as they should be morally...It is a book one can very well get along without reading." (The past is a foreign country. Last month I read Dennis Cooper's The Marbled Swarm, a novel in which myriad youngsters are graphically raped to death in baroque prose, and of which it is said in The New Yorker in a truly masterful bit of economy and understatement: "Cooper's interest in exploring the darkest corners of the human experience -- here including incest, rape, and cannibalism -- has not dimmed with age.") Sinclair Lewis said of his friend Dreiser in his own Nobel lecture, "in [his] world, men and women are often sinful and tragic and despairing, instead of being forever sunny and full of song and virtue, as befits authentic Americans." This was a problem. From what I gather, a novel of Dreiser's day should either be moral (presumably with smitings), or it should be peppy, and Sister Carrie is neither of these things. Even so, the critical position was not without pushback -- there are two letters subsequent to the Times review of June 1907, from readers who scolded the reviewer for missing the point. There are probably many points that I likewise miss about this novel, and it was comforting to read Donald Pizer's essay on the long, twisted road of Sister Carrie's critical reception, wherein we learn that the scholars took decades to agree about what this novel even is. I wonder what it would feel like to read Sister Carrie as a citizen of the country it describes. We foreigners are lucky to have this novel as window onto the exotic past. I really like Sister Carrie, for its well-drawn sets, its vibrant cities, its views of the territory. I like the charming accent of its old-fashioned prose. If anything shocks me about this novel now, it is not that Dreiser put two men inside of Carrie's pants, but that he put himself inside her slow-moving brain. The idea that a novelist cheerfully set out to map the interior of the lower classes and perceived lesser intellects -- that is what is shocking today, when social realism is largely restricted to the the author's own immediate territory, and many novels seem like an elaboration of what authors might share with their therapists. Today, I contemplate the sheer balls of writing: Sister Carrie...was possessed of a mind rudimentary in its power of observation and analysis. Self-interest with her was high, but not strong. It was, nevertheless, her guiding characteristic. Warm with the fancies of youth, pretty with the insipid prettiness of the formative period, possessed of a figure promising eventual shapeliness and an eye alight with certain native intelligence, she was a fair example of the middle American class...A half-equipped little knight she was, venturing to reconnoitre the mysterious city and dreaming wild dreams of some vague, far-off supremacy... With these same balls, Dreiser clearly writes himself into the story as the young, superior Ames: She felt as if she would like to be agreeable to this young man, and also there came with it, or perhaps preceded it, the slightest shade of a feeling that he was better educated than she was -- that his mind was better. He seemed to look it, and the saving grace in Carrie was that she could understand that people could be wiser. I don't think we write books like this anymore. There is something frank, transgressive, awful, and attractive about this liberated language. For what it's worth, that's the really scandalous thing about this book, the custom that simply doesn't do in our own country.