Monday, February 29, 2016

Dickstein contra Wood: rescuing a 10 year-old letter to the NYT

This morning, while reading Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence (a highly readable and interesting grab-bag of that estimable novelist's occasional nonfictions), my eyes caught upon a lengthy quotation from critic Morris Dickstein that impressed me with its almost metaphysical right-headedness. (And that's surely just a roundabout way of saying I agreed with it.) Seeking context, I keyed a few of Dickstein's words into the Googlemonster and discovered that Lethem lifted them from a 2006 New York Times letter to the editor. Here is the original--and admirably concise--letter in full:

The House of Fiction

 To the Editor:

 I very much appreciated James Wood's insightful account of Flaubert's technique (April 16), as I always enjoy his fine essays. But does Flaubert's impersonal narrative manner, with its camera eye for visual detail, really make him "the originator of the modern novel"? There's no question of his influence, but Flaubert's ambition to write "a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style," is scarcely typical of novelists of any era. His obsession with form, with finding le mot juste, drove the author to frenzies of self-flagellating, lifedenying effort, and it would prove sterile to the few who tried to emulate it. Tolerant of inconsistency, the best novelists have always remained more open to memory and experience. Flaubertians like Joyce and Nabokov outdid themselves and transcended their concern with style when they found real subjects, as Flaubert himself did only in "Madame Bovary" and "Sentimental Education."

The house of fiction, as Henry James once said, has "not one window, but a million," and hence no single aperture gives access to what James called "the need of the individual vision and the pressure of the individual will." Different novelists look to different models. Fielding, Sterne and Stendhal set the pattern for the ironic or self-conscious novel, flaunting its own narrative devices. Balzac became the great exemplar of the social novel, as Scott and Manzoni did for the historical novel. Tolstoy's deceptive simplicity transformed style into a transparent window on the real. Kafka's metaphorical novels and stories turned fiction into fable or parable. Each of these writers depends on exact circumstantial detail, but the strength of their fiction comes not from the phrase, the sentence, the metaphor, as critics like Wood would have it, but from how they actualize larger units of scene and theme, plot and character. It can be misleading to approach fiction primarily through its language, a technique better suited to the study of poetry.

The 20th century is full of major novelists, beginning with Dreiser, who wrote "badly" on the sentence level, as well as others who wrote elegant sentences but whose fiction lacks vitality, narrative energy or any real purchase on experience. Sophisticated writers and critics long patronized Dickens as a popular entertainer, though his stylized characters positively leap off the page, just as James denigrated the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as "loose baggy monsters" and "fluid puddings." But James's systematic pursuit of a more rigorous technique did not make him the greater writer. It's part of the eclectic nature of fiction that it tolerates contradictions and discontinuities, and resists being hemmed in by form. Its slapdash qualities, which Flaubert and James tried to cure, are part of its opening to the chaotic and fluid abundance of life itself.

New York
The writer is a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Friday, February 26, 2016

LA PLACE DE L'ETOILE by Patrick Modiano

Febrile freneticism is a fittingly fun and appropriately alliterative characterization of the style of Patrick Modiano's debut novella, La Place de l'Etoile. The book is a, yes, frenetic Voltairean-Petronian satire of French fascism and collaboration that reads at times like Nathanael West, at times like Thomas Pynchon, and at times like a psychedelic rock n roll cover of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus composed during a Benzedrine binge. Surprisingly, I didn't enjoy it very much. The novella might have impressed me more had I read it in the 1968 of its original publication, when it was a subversive soixante-huitard event, a fearless first airing of French high culture's merde-stained fascist underpants. Encountered today, as a recent Nobel laureate's first book, it seems thin and juvenile, cartoonish, too much a righteously angry young man's hyperactive attempt to rub France's face in everything he knows about its disavowed history in less than 120 pages. Voltaire could've pulled this off; Modiano at 23 was probably too young for the job. The book's targets seem too obvious today, and its style too reliant on pastiche. These things might have bothered me even in 1968, or, on the other hand, I might have understood them as literary equivalents of Godardian cinema (which they surely are), and I might have taken a big bong-hit and, exhaling after an indecent interval, pronounced the book, "Groovy, man. Better than acid."

THE HOUSE OF BREATH by William Goyen

That three-letter exclamation sums the contents of my consciousness upon finishing my first reading of William Goyen's 1950 debut novel, The House of Breath. This is a major novel, at least as impressive a first novel as John Hawkes' The Cannibal, Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper or William Gass's Omensetter's Luck. One wonders why Goyen and this great book are not at least as well known. This novel, like Wright Morris's The Field of Vision (a kind of American nouveau roman) and Malcolm Braly's On The Yard (the prison novel as high art), deserves more than its spot on the list of unappreciated classics of American Late Modernism. It deserves to be read, widely and wisely. Open The House of Breath at any page and you will find sentences of nearly perfect balance and beauty:

But in the deep winter the brown Indian skin of ice lay over the pond and a bird might walk on the water like an apostle. (p.25)

"...Passionate love is a conspiracy to tell each other's truth to each other--that I am like this and you are like that, and together, in a joining, we make a moment's truth of what each is." (p.104)

And you hear the wind that lopes like a spectral rider round and round the house, whirls down the flues and chutes into the woodstove and thrashes the ashes and blows a wild little horn in the hollows of the stove. (p.54) [That "thrashes the ashes" is a bit much for me now, but in context it almost works.]

The vultures of this greed hover and plane over us all our lives, waiting to drop down. (p.55)

This wonderful novel--which would surely be too avant-garde for any major publisher to touch today (the edition I read was published in 1999 by Northwestern University Press)--is an entrancingly lyrical, hypnotically beautiful series of prose arias, wordsongs in several voices. There's an obvious artistic debt to Faulkner, Woolf, Wolfe and Proust, but as I read I was reminded of a book from south of Goyen's Texas border, Juan Rulfo's classic Pedro Paramo. (This resemblance is especially uncanny since Rulfo's novel was written a few years after Goyen's; maybe this confirms Gabriel Garcia Marquez's idea that the writers of the American South have more in common with the writers of Mexico and the Caribbean basin than with writers from, say, Massachusetts.)  Regardless, The House of Breath is a work strong enough to subsume its influences and seem sui generis, a book unlike any other in our literature, a great work of art written in a prose with the power to sing us into its dreams. It is masterful. I think it's one of the great 20th-century American novels.

Bonus bit of celebrity trivia: The actress Doris Roberts, best known for playing Ray Romano's mom on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, is William Goyen's widow.

Why We Shouldn't Even Try to Meet our Favorite Writers

The extremely common desire to meet an artist we admire--to sit down with Tom Pynchon and talk Benny Profane over a beer, to share a bottle of tequila with Gabo or a big fat blunt with Roberto Bolano, to accompany W. G. Sebald on a train out of Liverpool Street Station or to meet Samuel Delany in a dank Times Square pornhouse, (fill in the blank with your own favorite literary daydream)...--this desire we have all felt at one time or another is not a desire to meet the flesh-and-blood historical individual who authored the works that have enthralled us. Rather, it's a desire to meet the artist implied by those works, a fictional character constructed by the reader that may bear only a ghostly resemblance to the actual coughing, spitting, farting, griping author of genius. This is why it's more than just a bad idea to meet the writers we admire: it's positively impossible, because those writers exist only in our heads. The writers we imagine are idealized figures cobbled together from their own best artistic moments, while the writers we actually meet are embodied and embedded in the conflicts and contradictions of mundane existence. They, like us, are lesser, merely human, beings. Yes, you can stand in line for an hour and spend a few seconds exchanging banalities with big names at book-signings, or you can go to an SF convention and have an actual conversation with Delany or Gene Wolfe or Harlan Ellison, or you can go to Princeton if you're rich and take a class from Toni Morrison, but the people you meet will probably differ greatly from the writers you admire, and that difference will almost certainly disappoint.

Revisiting THE HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE by John Irving

More than thirty years after my first disappointed (and abortive) reading of The Hotel New Hampshire, I decided to give John Irving's widely disparaged fifth novel another chance. Perhaps, I reasonably reasoned, my teenage brain missed something brilliant in The Hotel; perhaps the general consensus on this novel was as direly incorrect as general consensuses usually are. Accordingly, I approached the novel with a mind wide open and mental fists readied to defend the book against persistent memories of its negative rep. Part of me wanted to prove that bum rep a bum rap. Part of me just wanted to be surprised by a novel that was better than expected. Sadly, both parts were quickly disappointed. I found the general consensus wholly confirmed in Irving's very first chapter. If The Hotel New Hampshire were a musical composition, it would've been titled 'The Garp Variations.' It reads more like a series of variations on themes from The World According to Garp (a book I liked very much and still value) than an independent imaginative creation. A strained attempt to make lightning strike twice, it's as similar to Garp as one lightning rod to another. So it was surely just what Irving's publisher ordered, and that's another part of the problem: the novel seems yet another example of that very 1980s phenomenon, an unnecessary sequel to a blockbuster. To this reader--as to my teenage self all those years ago--it reads like a rerun. (It does, however, seem to have decisively influenced that most Irvingesque of filmmakers, Wes Anderson, whose Grand Budapest Hotel, while explicitly citing the work of Joseph Roth, probably also owes something to this novel.)