Friday, February 26, 2016

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.


nnyhav said...

Thanks for putting me on to this, not quite as wowed but not quite understanding how it faded so. Was it Peter Grandbois' review of Clark Davis' bio that put you on to it?

BRIAN OARD said...

@nnyhav: No, actually I spotted the title on a 'favorite books' list by a young writer whose name escapes me at the moment, and since I didn't recognize it (all the other titles were the obvious usual suspects) I checked it out. Glad I did. I still have a hard time believing that a book this experimental could be published as s first novel... 70 years ago, publishers took risks no publisher would dream of taking today. Indeed, if Cormac McCarthy were starting out today, he'd probably have to self-publish The Orchard Keeper.