Monday, March 29, 2010

The Passover Haggadah

Passover, which begins at sundown this evening, is similar to most other Jewish holidays in being organized around a book. It is unlike Yom Kippur, however, which is concluded when the 800-page mahzor is read, mostly aloud and in a singsong chant, over twenty-four hours. At least in the Diaspora, the Passover Haggadah is read twice straight through on back-to-back nights—one time on the first night (tonight), a second time on the second night (tomorrow).

The Haggadah announces its theme about a third of the way through: “In every generation let each man look on himself as if he came forth out of Egypt.” The ideal is that the Passover seder, using the Haggadah as a dramatic script, should be a reenactment of the Exodus story. The central part of the book, then, is the maggid or retelling.

Instead of reciting the biblical narrative, though, the maggid is principally built up from Mishnaic texts. The plagues, for example, are introduced by means of a rabbinical commentary on Exodus 14.31, which expands upon them in a series of hyperboles. “How do we know that the Egyptians were struck by ten plagues in Egypt and fifty at sea?” Yossi the Galilean asks—increasing the number of plagues sixfold. “How do we know that each and every plague that God visited upon the Egyptians was equal to four more plagues?” Eliezer asks, adding another forty to the number. “How do we know that each and every plague that God visited upon the Egyptians was equal to five more plagues?” Akiva asks, boosting the total to exactly a hundred.

The Haggadah is heavily mediated by Jewish literature, in other words, creating a chain of commentators (that is, literary critics) which links the living to the rabbis and, through them, to the Israelites who escaped to freedom. At the conclusion of the seder, the linkage is extended into the future. L’shanah habaah b’Yerushalayim: “Next year in Jerusalem!” the Jews shout joyously. It is a shout that assumes an extra poignance in the current political climate.

Friday, March 26, 2010

“Reading skeletons”

I very much like Tim Davis’s notion of “reading skeletons.” These are not the same as guilty pleasures. They are the books and writers you will never confess to: those that cause, not merely embarrassment, but a deep moan of shame.

Guilty pleasures are the “popular” or even “trashy” books and writers that a “serious” reader must bar from entering his permanent collection, but that he reads on the sly—a thriller like The Day of the Jackal, say, or a sex-boiler like Forever Amber. These you can cough up, under prolonged interrogation, with a caught-in-a-lie grin.

Reading skeletons, though, are those books and writers that make you ashamed of yourself. Like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I read one hot and beach-blanketed summer to impress a California girl. Or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the philosophical pretensions of which amazed me when I was a pretentious college senior.

All of us have skeletons in our reading closets. We do not confess to them, because we do not want to be arrested. We want to move on with our reading lives.

Update: Patrick Kurp assures me there is no shame in having read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “It was mildly readable at the time . . . but even then I knew it was, in effect, a one-night stand. There’s no shame in that. We must read junk to recognize it and flush it from our systems, like a toxin that carries its own enema.” But here’s the difference, Patrick. You immediately recognized “Robert Pirsig’s pretentious little bestseller” as a “one-night stand.” I didn’t. I was prepared to forsake all others and be faithful to Pirsig as long as I lived. And for that I am unspeakably ashamed.

Plot and pattern

It is certainly true, as my critics protest, that there is more than one way to hold a novel together. There is, for example, the dramatic monologue—boring, and cut off from the main stream of the novel’s history, but available to all would-be “experimental writers.” Trickier to pull off, but also more promising, is what A. S. Byatt calls, with rather more of a verbal shrug than one would expect from a first-rate novelist, “poetic form.”

In the Introduction to the Oxford Classics edition of Middlemarch, Byatt writes that the novel is “held together . . . by a web of metaphors, interlinked and constantly developing and modifying each other, of which the web itself is a central example.” After connecting the dominant image of the web to “the image of eyes and light,” and after tracing Eliot’s dancing pattern of webs and eyes, Byatt concludes: “Such connections are mode than decorative or instructive; they are a form of discovery and creation, a mode of knowledge and the medium of art.”

Perhaps Daniel Green would prefer Byatt’s critical language, or at least her authority. But Byatt is not really saying anything much different from what I have been holding about plot.

The novel is a pattern art; the pattern, usually a plot but occasionally (rarely) a substitution for it, is the intellectual element in fiction; not Aristotelian dianoia but intellectual patterning, customarily by means of an ingenious plot, is where a novelist’s thought is to be found.

The rest of Green’s objections to my case can be easily dispensed with.

“If plot is not a logical structure,” he asks, “how can it serve the same purpose as argument?” Because argument is the organizing principle in philosophy. Logic is the method by which philosophical argument is conducted: it is peculiar to philosophy. Plot is (almost always) the method by which a novel’s “argument” is conducted. It is fiction’s answer to philosophy.

“Why is it assumed that every novel has a ‘central theme’?” Green goes on. “Don't some novelists work without the assumption of a ‘theme’?” To answer in reverse order. No, and because, as in music, novels operate by means of announcing the theme and then developing and varying it. You will notice that I am using the term theme in its Nabokovian sense. Theme is not dianoia; it is not, that is, simply the novelist’s speech. It is an element, the central element, in the novel’s pattern.

All of the remainder of Green’s questions (“How do we decide which [theme] the plot is validating?” “How do we know that [The Age of Innocence] was written to ‘verify’ this theme?”) can be answered with a single word. By argument. The critic is related by marriage to the philosopher. He must present a case for his assertions. I recommend that Daniel Green try it some time.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In blog news

Kevin Neilson, who for the past eight months has hosted Between the Lines, a blog specializing in literary interviews, has now started his own book blog. Called Interpolations, it offers an account, among other things, of why Winesburg, Ohio is Neilson’s favorite book—he has read it, he says, eleven times. Today he lists his favorite “looped” books (I’ll let Neilson explain). Definitely something to add to your blogroll.

Meanwhile, today is the eighth birthday of Baseball Musings, the definitive baseball blog, written by my chum David Pinto. (David operates the Washington Senators franchise in my computer baseball league.) His blog has attained a level of authoritativeness that we book bloggers can only drool over. If you like blogs and have always wanted to make yourself over into a baseball geek, David’s Musings are the place to start.

I’ve got to brag

In his appreciation of Lewis Carroll in the March 22nd issue of National Review, Theodore Dalrymple writes:

The protean nature and appeal of the Alice books, achieved by goodness knows what alchemy, is illustrated by the joyful verbal pedantry of many of the exchanges between Alice and the other characters. Carroll knew that children delight to catch their elders and betters out by means of verbal trickery: What is cheek, if it is not a child’s exposure of a flaw in an adult’s attitude or argument, and what child does not congratulate himself on his cleverness on a piece of well-executed cheek, even should it bring retribution, often all the greater the more logical the child has been?At the parent-teacher conference to discuss how my three-year-old son Isaac is doing in preschool, his teacher told of introducing the class to her rule that the students must never say anything about a person (“Johnny is a stinker”), but only about what he or she has done.

Isaac raised his hand. “But Miss C—————,” he said, “what if I want to tell you you’re beautiful?”

“Cheeky little boy,” she remarked in her South African-accented English, “but I had to admit that he’d got me.”

I like to tell friends that Isaac will inherit the family business.

“Experimental writing”

My defense of plot as the intellectual element in prose fiction “leaves out nearly every experimental writer and giddy rule-breaking novelist,” Edward Champion complains.

Well, maybe. It is not entirely clear what Champion means by “experimental writing.” (As for the “giddy rule-breaking novelist,” there is no such creature—unless he is giddy at the prospect of his own failure as a novelist. As I observed in this space earlier, the novelist’s job is generally to write a good novel, but inter alia that entails keeping faith with the particular and self-determined rules of his own particular novel. To break those rules is to screw up the job.)

Experimental writing, though, is different. The term was first used by Émile Zola, who advanced it as a synonym for naturalism. “The return to nature, the naturalistic evolution which marks the [nineteenth] century,” he wrote in 1880, “drives little by little all the manifestation of human intelligence into the same scientific path.” An up-to-date novel that was organized on the latest principles of human intelligence, then, would be written according to the “experimental method.”

What Zola understood by the “experimental method” is neither here nor there, because Champion is obviously talking about something else altogether. In the sense in which he probably means the term, it was first given any critical attention by Warren Beck, a first cousin of the New Critics, in a College English essay from 1943. Beck attacks the class distinction between “little magazines,” praised by their champions for having “fostered literary experiment,” and the “prosperous popular magazines,” smeared by their detractors for being afraid of “innovation”:

These distinctions, while honoring progressive achievement, seem to have reinforced clumsy and obstructive prejudices in the minds of certain editors, writers, and readers, who allege that the experimental fiction is utterly esoteric. Yet the vexatiously named “literary short story” is scarcely a separable species. In trade jargon, the quality magazines and little magazines publish literary short stories, slick paper magazines and pulps do not; but, though commerce approximates such classifications, no sharp technical line divides the literary short story itself and the popular short story—nothing like a jurisdictional and cultural boundary between different nations—it is more a matter of natural zones, of gradation in a typical landscape and climate. However, men have always been able, in art as well as in so-called “civil life,” to make war along the border without knowing just where the border is or whether there is one. The opposition of such fighting words as “literary” and “popular” guarantees an exchange of snubs and sneers.[1]Because his quick-witted abuse of my ideas on plot was clearly intended to be little more than a snub and a sneer, Champion merely reinforces the non-existent difference demolished by Beck above.

There is no such thing as experimental writing. With all the respect due to Zola’s historical views, novelists are not capable of engaging in the “experimental method.” The necessary and sufficient condition of scientific experimentation is the replication of results. By contrast, a successful “experiment” in fiction, if I may briefly drop into language of which I am deeply suspicious, would by definition never need to be tried again. (If it were, the result would no longer be “experimental,” but, alas, utterly conventional.)

Here is the proof to my claim that experimental writing is a cryptid. I challenge Edward Champion to name an “experimental writer” from a generation or more ago who is still being read, who is still influencing other “experimental writers,” today. The first “experimental” novelist in Champion’s sense of the term, and the only one who passes the test of my previous sentence, is Ronald Firbank. (Brigid Brophy’s marvelous biographical study of him, Prancing Novelist (1973), offers the best possible defense of something that might be called “experimental fiction.”) But I defy Champion, or anyone else outside the narrow precinct of Firbank scholarship, to pass an oral examination on his fiction—now, this minute, without rereading it.

The fact is that “experimental writers” disappear from critical view long before they have died. Don’t talk to me about John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, and William Gaddis (I am not convinced of their staying power, anyway). Let me hear from the fans of Robert M. Coates, Louis Marlow, P. H. Newby, Richard Bankowsky, Rayner Heppenstall, J. P. Donleavy, B. S. Johnson, Ann Quin, R. C. Kenedy, Nicholas Mosley, Mack Thomas, William Eastlake, Alan Burns, Gil Orlovitz, Christine Brooke-Rose, Rudolph Wurlitzer, Robert Coover, John A. Williams, Ronald Sukenick, Stuart Evans, Gilbert Sorrentino, A. G. Mojtabai, Richard Brautigan, Gordon Lish, Eva Figes, Ron Loewinsohn, Frederick Ted Castle, Deena Linett, Harry Mathews, D. M. Thomas, and Tom Marshall. Each of these writers was praised by critics as “experimental.” Who remembers their novels? I rest my case.

Or perhaps I don’t. Let me give the last word to the British poet and novelist Robert Nye. He says something that I have tried many times to say, but Nye says it better: “There is really only writing that is alive, and writing that is half alive. Writing that is alive is what we call eccentric (if in English) or experimental (if in French).”[2] I prefer the eccentric, both as style and epithet. It is sound practice, in fact, to avoid French critical terms altogether and stick to a native English.

[1] Warren Beck, “Art and Formula in the Short Story,” College English 5 (November 1943): 56. Italics in the original.

[2] Robert Nye, “The Future of the Experimental Novel in English,” Guardian (Sept. 10, 1970): 10.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Witte Arrives

Elias Tobenkin was the first Jew in America to write a novel celebrating radical politics, but if Witte Arrives is any example, radicalism did not bring the Jews much happiness. Published in 1916 by Frederick A. Stokes, Tobenkin’s lively episodic book chronicles the experiences of a first-generation Russian immigrant who “arrives” in two senses of the word—on American shores, at the door of professional success—without ever managing to overcome his anxiety about either one.

As the novel opens, Emil Witte arrives with his mother and two siblings in Spring Water (a fictional Madison, Wisconsin) to join his father Aaron, who had made the same journey four years earlier. Unlike the other immigrants in town, Aaron has not abandoned his religion. “To stick to orthodoxy here meant to step out of the race for prosperity,” he knows perfectly well, but Aaron refuses to work on the Sabbath, even though it is the most profitable day of the week. He is a man of Jewish learning who gave up a chance at the rabbinate when he married for love instead of advantage. While the other immigrants advance in business, opening their own stores, moving into better homes, he remains a ped­dler.

His son does not commit the same mistakes—or at least not right away. Something of a Talmudic prodigy back in Russia, Emil impresses his American teachers as a student who “simply absorb[s] things.” Everyone predicts a great future for him—especially his uncle Simeon, who escapes the Czar’s prison in Siberia and makes his way to Wisconsin. He presents Emil with a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and urges him to become a writer so that he can record the “struggles between the masses and their masters.” Simeon explains:

In America you don’t hear much about Socialism yet, but you will before long. Yours is still a young country. Your resources are still ample and afford every one a comfortable living and a fairly secure old age, even under the iniquitous system of private property. But a time will come will the present opportunities will be limited, when the resources will be absorbed by a few. Your land will be grabbed by “cunning men,” who instead of becoming political kings will become economic masters. They will control your industries and clip the wings of your freedom with the sword of economic supremacy.If he is not much of a prophet, Simeon is a strong influence upon his nephew. In due course, Emil becomes a reporter, covering the “Labor World” and writing features about the human warmth and dire poverty of the Jewish ghetto. He moves up from a medium-sized newspaper in a medium-sized city not unlike Milwaukee, where Tobenkin got his own start as a reporter, to the biggest daily in Chicago. (Tobenkin made a name for himself on the Chicago Tribune. The novel contains an unflat­tering fictionalized portrait of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the Tribune’s famous editor.)

Uncomfortable with a reporter’s question why Jews do not drink very much, Emil becomes a drinking man. Embarrassed by the realization that the derelicts in a flophouse are “men like himself, like his father, like his friends,” he becomes a combination of muckraker and sob sister, banging out front-page stories full of “immense pathos” and “consuming tragedy” about the “drowning world” of Chicago slum life. His articles gain such a following that “richly gowned ladies” are soon driving their limousines through “tenement lanes” in search of the families he writes about. Needless to say, his journalistic triumph does not succor him.

Emil seeks an escape from his inner sense of failure by marrying. Naturally, he chooses a fellow socialist to be his bride. Helen is a Jewish girl who had been arrested for revolutionary activities in Lithuania. Better yet, she owns a well-thumbed copy of the revolutionary pamphlet written by his uncle Simeon. “I want you to treat me as a comrade,” she tells him—“I will not be a millstone about your neck.” He has no idea how serious she is. When she finds that she is pregnant, she undergoes an abortion rather than interfere with his important work. In anger, Emil confronts the physician, who informs him that Helen would have committed suicide if he had not yielded to her plea. “Many self-respecting physicians, like myself, perform such operations not because we relish war on the unborn,” he says, “but in order to save those already living.”

When Helen dies of Bright’s disease a few years later, after delivering a stillborn child, Emil is convinced that the “violent and unnatural operation” which had ended in the “wanton destruction of what should have been their first-born” is really to blame. He fantasizes of suicide, but the thought of his aged father, now widowed in Spring Water, stops his hand. Instead, he returns home to write a book—a book not unlike Witte Arrives, from the sound of it. His publisher, a Boston brahmin, describes it as a “book of life.” “You must have gone through a lot,” he says—“you must have suffered a lot to be able to write such a book.”

In gratitude, Emil marries the publisher’s daughter. She is a Christian, of course—or at least a Unitarian. (When American Jewish novelists have their protagonists marry a Christian, they choose a Unitarian to soften the blow.) “Yes,” she says, “there is a way out. . . . If men would only see it”—a way out of inner emptiness. “Love—that is the way out,” she croons. “We must all follow the voice of love. . . .” And Emil follows the voice, straight into a different way of life altogether. The sequel finds him writing articles with such an “Emersonian flavor” that none of his readers “would have suspected that they were written by any one not of American birth.”

When it was first published, Tobenkin’s novel was compared favorably to The Promised Land, Mary Antin’s famous autobiography of immigration, published four years earlier. But Witte Arrives is neither so fervent in its affirmation of the American dream nor, finally, about immigration all that much. The Los Angeles Times came much closer in calling it a newspaper novel.

“Many of the news­papermen in town are Socialists,” Emil’s first editor observes. And then as now, socialists just could not believe that the American dream had anything whatever to do with professional success, especially if they were Jewish socialists, especially if they were Jewish socialist writers. They preferred failure and a gnawing dissatisfaction, which at least enabled them, like Emil, to identify with the “poor and disinherited . . . the misunderstood, submerged people of the slums.” In that respect, Witte Arrives is the first testament in American literature to the roots of Jewish radicalism—not in social consciousness, but in social self-consciousness.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Surrendering to responsibility

Struggling to understand my appreciation of Chang-rae Lee’s Surrendered, Mark Athitakis wonders whether I am giving Lee “credit for some of the more allegorical work he’s done in the book.”

I wouldn’t put it like that. As I told Mark privately, The Surrendered strikes me as belonging to atrocity literature. Each of Lee’s three main characters—June Singer (née Han), who bore a son to Hector Brennan, the American soldier serving in Korea, and Sylvie Tanner, the missionary adored by both—have been scarred by the evil done by man.

Mark stipulates that I am right—but only so far as the novel’s classification is concerned. June, he acknowledges, “has lost her family to an atrocity, and she responds by spending her life shutting herself off emotionally, an effort that has made her wealthy but separated her from the people close to her—a worn-out theme if there ever was one.” Meanwhile, Sylvie is an “addict trying to blank out the brutality she witnessed years before in Manchuria. The emotional resonances of those experiences are clear,” he concludes, “but there’s no broader thematic value in them.”

That is precisely what I dispute. From the start of his career, in Native Speaker (1995), Lee has been absorbed with the individual’s negotiation with culture and history. Henry Park, the first-generation Korean-American narrator in his first novel, speaks for himself and all other immigrants when he says:

The forever is my burden to bear. But I and my kind possess another dimension. We will learn every lesson of accent and idiom, we will dismantle every last pretense and practice you hold, noble as well as ruinous. You can keep nothing safe from our eyes and ears. This is your own history. We are your most perilous and dutiful brethren, the song of our hearts at once furious and sad. For only you could grant me these lyrical modes. I call them back to you. Here is the sole talent I ever dared nurture. Here is all of my American education.The forever is my burden to bear. Hector says something similar to Sylvie when she announces her intention of leaving the orphanage. He has finally figured out why she gives the impression that, although she offers “hope and goodness and love” to others, she accepts help from no one: “Because you know in your heart that once you’ve come here you can’t give up anyone. Because when you do, you leave every last one of us.” That is the burden she bears, and it is endless.

Lee’s people are in the business of dismantling every last pretense of distance and limited responsibility. If this makes them seem “simplistic,” they can probably live with that.

The damage is done

Seven years ago, when the Democrats in the U.S. Senate filibustered several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, Republicans floated the idea of using a parliamentary maneuver to confirm them by a simple 51-vote majority. It was called the “nuclear option,” because of its power to cause havoc.

Republicans were frustrated. “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to vote on nominees,” the White House said, adding that the process had become “worse than it’s ever been before.” Minority leader Tom Daschle (D–S.D.) denied that this was so. “If it ain’t broke,” he said of the Senate’s 60-vote rule, “don’t fix it.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.) agreed, placing the blame for the impasse on the President: “When the White House wants to show some degree of moderation, the system works well,” he said.

On May 27, 2003, the New York Times warned of the damage that would be caused to democratic legitimacy by such a change:

Republicans, who now control all three branches of the federal government, are not just pushing through their political agenda. They are increasingly ignoring the rules of government to do it. . . . These partisan attacks on the rules of government may be more harmful, and more destabilizing, than bad policies, like the $320 billion tax cut. Modern states, the German sociologist Max Weber wrote, derive their legitimacy from “rational authority,” a system in which rules apply in equal and predictable ways, and even those who lead are reined in by limits on their power. When the rules of government are stripped away, people can begin to regard their government as illegitimate.Two years later, without having detonated the option, Republicans backed down. Led by Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.), they fashioned a bipartisan compromise by which some of Bush’s nominees would be brought to the Senate floor for a vote (and some would be forever held up), avoiding the damage of “ramming them through.”

Fast forward seven years. What the Republicans either lacked the political audacity or showed the political diffidence not to do (depending upon your opinion of them), the Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama have now done, passing a deeply unpopular “health care” scheme by changing the rules to do so. Megan McArdle of the Atlantic writes:Are we now in a world where there is absolutely no recourse to the tyranny of the majority? Republicans and other opponents of the bill did their job on this; they persuaded the country that they didn’t want this bill. And that mattered basically not at all.McArdle is terrified by what the Republicans may now do when (as, inevitably, they will) regain the majority. Victor Davis Hanson says much the same thing:In the future when the Republicans gain majorities (and they will), the liberal modus operandi will be the model—bare 51% majorities, reconciliation, the nuclear option, talk of deem and pass, not a single Democrat vote—all ends justifying the means in order to radically restructure vast swaths of American economic and social life.I hope both McArdle and Hanson are wrong, and I hope that Republican cowardice or restraint during the Bush years (again, depending upon how you view it), is the past that is prologue to future Republican “control.”

But the point is that, in Sen. Schumer’s words, the system worked well. The American public made itself heard through opinion polls, meetings, marches, petitions, and three elections in which Republicans handily defeated their Democratic rivals, in one case—the special election in Massachusetts to fill the term of the late Edward M. Kennedy—in which the Republican candidate explicitly campaigned to become the senator who would deny the Democrats sixty votes for “Obamacare.”

And as McArdle says, in the end none of it made any difference. Instead of showing “some degree of moderation,” the White House went nuclear. And whatever the harms that will be caused by “Obamacare”—the Wall Street Journal is particularly good on that question this morning—they will shrink to nothing, I fear, in comparison to the damage that was done last night to our democracy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Psychology and lost legs

Yesterday Mark Athitakis offered some astute and provocative reflections on Chang-rae Lee’s massive new novel The Surrendered, which I have barely begun.

So far I like the novel—a lot more, apparently, than most other critics. James Wood, for example, concludes that it is “commendably ambitious, extremely well written, powerfully moving in places, and, alas, utterly conventional”—but only after unreeling some eighteen hundred words to complain about utter conventionality. As if this were the worst, the absolute worst, you could conclude of a novel.

Unfortunately, Athitakis is inclined to agree with Wood. The basic problem with The Surrendered, he says, is that Lee’s characters are “simple expressions of simple motivations.”

Although I have yet to finish the novel, I am tempted to rise to its defense—in large part because, in his characteristic rush to stir Lee’s book into his seething cauldron of erudition, Wood has misjudged it. (Wood is the most intelligent critic now writing, no doubt about it, but here as elsewhere in his criticism, he is more interested in arranging his own knowledge, in airing his own views, than in focusing attention on his author.)

Athitakis’s error is more generous, because at once less jaded and less self-important, but it is an error nonetheless. His remarks about Lee’s “characterization flaw” remind me of something that J. V. Cunningham once said:

To our modern question, What is Hamlet’s tragic flaw? or, In what way are we to construe his final death as issuing out of the depths of his personality? we answer: His tragic flaw is Claudius and Laertes. He was cold-bloodedly murdered by means of a contrived diabolical plot.The disdain for characters who are “simple expressions of simple motivations” is a mutation of the same modern virus. (Tellingly, Athitakis opens by quoting the psychotherapist-turned-novelist Amy Bloom.) The modern reader, thoroughly schooled in what Wood calls the “grammar” of modern realistic fiction, expects psychology instead of plot.

But what if The Surrendered is not a work of realistic fiction? What if Wood’s postmodern yearning for something a little more unconventional in beside the question? What if Lee is less concerned with psychology than with plot?

Athitakis finishes The Surrendered feeling as if, for four hundred pages, Lee has been “arguing for a world without legs.” But perhaps that is just exactly the case. Perhaps the complaints about utter conventionality (“alas”), or what Athitakis prefers to call Lee’s “simplistic noises,” have misled the critics to hear the wrong case, to miss altogether what Lee is saying about a “world without legs.”

After all, we modern and even postmodern readers are a product of what Philip Rieff liked to call a therapeutic culture. We want to know how a person goes on living after he has lost his legs. Lee is more interested in the world that wants to cut them off.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

“Believable character”

My best male students have been pestering me to go see Martin Scorsese’s new film Shutter Island, a cop thriller with Leonard DiCaprio playing the lead role of U.S. marshal Teddy Daniels. Conveniently enough, the latest magazines to arrive at the house carried reviews of the film.

“This is a movie that requires audiences to care, and care deeply, about what’s happening in poor beleaguered Teddy Daniels’s brain,” Ross Douthat writes in National Review. “His psychological problems are the film, in a way—but Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t the man to make you believe in them, or him.”

In the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz asserts the reverse. The Dennis Lehane novel upon which the film is based is so excessively long, he says, that “one’s ability to suspend disbelief is taken to the breaking point and beyond.” The movie version would be an utter flop “were it not for DiCaprio’s extraordinary performance, which (unlike the plot) only seems to get better the more you think about it.”

The coincidence of two critics reaching diametrically opposed conclusions in very nearly the same terms set me to thinking. Bill Vallicella, as I recalled, had also used the same terms. “A good novelist,” he proposed, “has the ability to set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character. . . .” Believability, on this showing, seems inseparable from whatever a good novelist is good at.

At all events, critics say this kind of thing all the time (“the character comes to life,” “the character just never seems real”), but only now do I realize that I have no idea what they mean. Podhoretz’s opinion is the most respectable, because it is attached to something outside his opinion: most people would agree that a 400-page thriller, written in “indifferent prose,” would be a strain on more than disbelief. But the conventional form of the critical plaudits and disapproval seems little more than the interjection of a mood.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ingenuity in plotting

“What about the idea that plot should be ingenious, complicated,” Elizabeth Bowen wondered—“a display of ingenuity remarkable enough to command attention?”

Although an ingenious plot is not a logical structure, it serves the same purpose in fiction that argument serves in philosophy—and may even rival philosophical argument in brilliance. The trouble, or the glory, is that literary critics have never devised a notational system for reducing the plot to its necessary causal sequence. Indeed, critics have an allergy to reducing a novel to its plot. So much else about it seem so much more important!

But the plot is what gives the “so much else” its importance. And when it is airtight, the plot succeeds in establishing, I would hold, the validity of the novel’s central theme.

Consider one of the most brilliantly plotted novels of all time—Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence (1920). The novel is written, as I have argued before now, to verify a “tragic view of marital duty.” The verification is accomplished by the plot, which I now proceed to reduce to a sequence of necessary steps.

(1.) Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action,” joins the Mingotts, his fiancée’s family, in their box at the opera, where they have brought the disgraced cousin Ellen Olenska, a “young woman with a history,” into public for the first time since she left her Polish husband and returned to New York.

(2.) When his own family criticizes Madame Olenska at dinner the next evening, a “spirit of perversity” moves Archer to defend her. “She’s ‘poor Ellen’ certainly, because she had the bad luck to make a wretched marrage,” he says; “but I don’t see that that’s a reason for hiding her head as if she were the culprit.”

(3.) The Mingotts plan a “formal dinner” at which Madame Olenska will be reintroduced into New York society, but no one accepts their invitation; and so Archer, “aflame at the outrage,” goes to the van der Luydens, the most important family in the city, socially speaking, and asks them to host a dinner in Ellen’s honor. They agree.

(4.) At the dinner, Archer dissents from the general agreement that Madame Olenska had “lost her looks”; they converse at some length for the first time, talking (a little dangerously) about love; when he rises to leave, Ellen touches his knee with her fan (“it thrilled him like a caress”) and instructs him to visit her tomorrow.

(5.) Archer arrives at her house to find Madame Olenska gone; she returns in the company of Julius Beaufort, a notorious roué. Alone together at last, Archer tries to explain what the van der Luydens and her aunt Mrs Manson Mingott have done on her behalf. Ellen understands; they want to help her, but only “on condition that they don’t hear anything unpleasant.” She bursts into tears: “Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” Archer comforts her.

(6.) After leaving her house, Archer stops at a florist to send “the daily box of lilies-of-the-valley” to his fiancée May Welland. His eyes light upon yellow roses, and he is struck by their “fiery beauty.” On impulse, he sends them to Madame Olenska—anonymously.

(7.) Two weeks later, Archer is asked by the head of the law firm in which he is an associate partner to look over Madame Olenska’s divorce papers. The Mingott family, he is given to understand, should like him to persuade Ellen not to go ahead.

(8.) Archer goes to see Madame Olenska. While discussing the divorce, he becomes convinced that the gossip surrounding her is true after all—she is the culprit. Unwilling to speak the truth, he pleads with Ellen to drop the divorce: it will only cause unpleasantness, “a lot of beastly talk.” “But my freedom,” she protests—“is that nothing?” Archer replies that the people who are fondest of her judge divorce by a different standard (“Our legislation favours divorce—our social customs don’t”). Ellen agrees to drop the divorce, saying that Archer is right.

(9.) Meeting several evenings later at the theatre for a performance of Dion Boucicault’s Shaughraun, Madame Olenska and Archer are both struck by the melodramatic scene in which two lovers must part. “Do you think,” Ellen asks, “he will send her a bunch of yellow roses tomorrow morning?”

(10.) Three days later, Archer receives a note from Madame Olenska. She has fled to the van der Luydens’ house Skuytercliff in the Hudson Valley. “I ran away,” she writes, “the day after I saw you at the play, and these kind friends have taken me in.”

(11.) Archer goes to Skuytercliff. He finds Madame Olenska, but while talking to her, he sees Julius Beaufort coming up the drive. He leaps to the conclusion that Beaufort is arriving for an assignation. “I didn’t know he was here,” Ellen says, but Archer draws away from her and calls out to Beaufort in greeting: “Madame Olenska was expecting you.”

(12.) Four days later, back in New York, Archer receives a note: “Come late tomorrow: I must explain to you. Ellen.”

(13.) Instead, Archer jumps on a boat for St. Augustine, where his fiancée May has gone for the winter with her family.

(14.) In St. Augustine, Archer pleads with May to move up the date of their wedding. She gazes at him with a “despairing clearness” and asks why. “Is it—is it because you’re not certain of continuing to care for me? . . . [I]s there some one else?” May offers to release Archer from his promise to her. “I couldn’t have my happiness made out of a wrong—an unfairness—to someone else,” she says. Archer denies there is anyone else, and swears that he wishes to move up the date of their wedding out of disgust for submitting to “foolish conventionalities.”

(15.) Returning to New York, Archer goes to see Madame Olenska. He tells her that May had guessed the truth. “There is another woman,” he says. “[Y]ou are the woman I would have married if it had been possible for either of us.” Ellen is astonished. “[I]t’s you who’ve made it impossible,” she says. It was Archer who dissauded her from divorcing, “to spare one’s family the publicity, the scandal.” Ellen only agreed to drop the divorce because her family would become his family when he married May. “I’ve made no secret of having done it for you!” she cries. Archer confesses his love for her, but Ellen says that “it’s too late to do anything but what we’d both decided on.” Why? It was Archer himself who had taught her gratitude and loyalty to the people who had worked so hard to make possible her social acceptance. Ellen had watched him closely, and had seen that he “hated happiness bought by disloyalty and cruelty and indifference.” Everything he had asked her to do had underscored that lesson. To run away with him now would be to undo all the good that he himself had accomplished; it would be, as she puts it much later, to destroy the lives of those who helped her remake her own; it would be to achieve happiness by means of disloyalty and cruelty and indifference. “I can’t love you unless I give you up,” Ellen concludes.

(16.) Archer and May Welland are wed.

(17.) Archer looks into his future, “and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

(18.) Much happens, including a sad reunion between Archer and Madame Olenska, but nothing happens that is necessary to the plot until, many weeks later, Mrs Manson Mingott suffers a stroke. Ellen is summoned back to New York to take her place at the deathbed. Archer is assigned the task of fetching her from Union Station. They exchange the usual expressions of deep feeling, and agree to meet at the Metropolitan Museum. Archer tells her that he wants them to be together. “Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress,” Ellen says—“since I can’t be your wife?” Finally, several days later, she asks if she should come to him once and then return to Europe. In despair, Archer tells her to come to him once—tomorrow.

(19.) Before the assignation can occur, however, May tells her cousin Ellen Olenska that she is pregnant with Archer’s first child.

(20.) Madame Olenska returns the hotel-room key that Archer had sent her, and after a farewell dinner for her arranged by May, she departs for Europe.

And with that the plot is complete. What is striking is how ingeniously Wharton arranges for Newland Archer, “impelled to decisive action” and moved by “a spirit of perversity,” to do the very things that later make it impossible for him to achieve the happiness he so desperately longs for. He himself plotted, behind the scenes, to remake Ellen Olenska’s life, and his plot comes back to haunt him.

So too his mistakes. He lies to Ellen about the reasons she ought not to divorce. He is afraid of the scandal, because he believes her to be a wanton; and in his own rush to assume the worst about her, he embraces the very “social customs” that condemn Ellen to loneliness—the refusal to tell the truth, the insistence upon pretense. And he lies to May Welland too, when she, in a generosity of spirit, offers to release him from his promises. When he cannot bring himself to tell May the truth, the iron doors of his promise swing shut, trapping him forever.

Newland Archer himself has brought about the tragedy of an “endlessly empty” life—through plots and errors. Only at the very end of the novel does he learn, from his son Dallas, that May had known all along about his passionate desire for Ellen. Even though she had guessed the truth, she had “spun” the story differently to their son, telling Dallas on her deathbed that “when she asked [him] to, [he had] given up the thing [he] most wanted.” Only when it was too late, that is, did Newland Archer understand the depth of character in his wife, and the fullness she might have provided him—if only. . . .

In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton does not build an intellectual case for the tragedy of marriage. She lays it out—by plots and errors moved. And in so doing, she puts on abundant and satisfying display how the greatest novelists think.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Refutation in verse

Thomas Hardy’s Hap is also an argument in verse, although it is not a syllogism but a simple modus ponens:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
   From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
   That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
   Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
   Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
   And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
   And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
   These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Here the argument is negative—a refutation of a popular inference—but still a valid argument. If P (= God creates suffering) then Q (= the poet will endure it). But ~P (= God does not create suffering). Instead of stating the conclusion, however (therefore, ~Q [= suffering is not to be endured]), Hardy extends the argument by correcting ~P. The true P is “purblind Doomsters,” not God, are the source of suffering.

The correction of ~P gives Hardy four lines to write.

Update: In light of Brandon Watson’s friendly low-marking of my own logic, it strikes me that Hap takes the following logical form:

If P1 then Q
But ~P1
Rather, P2

Where P1 is “some vengeful god” and P2 is the “purblind Doomsters.”

The conclusion is different, though, in this different light. If the cause of suffering is accidence then the suffering itself is accidental: it could as readily have been bliss. It’s not that suffering is not to be endured. (Watson is right. That conclusion is invalid.) Rather, suffering can be endured by understanding that it is entirely a matter of chance.

An alternative modus ponens is implied, but not fully worked out.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Argument in verse

In his comment to my reflections on plot and thought, Brandon Watson suggests, without developing the idea further, that one of lyric poetry’s “intellectual strengths” is its use of “poetic syllogisms.”

The father of the thought, of course, is J. V. Cunningham, whose “Logic and Lyric,” originally published in Modern Philology in 1953, argues that the structure of the syllogism is one means to organize a poem, “a way of disposing of, of making a place for, elements of a different order.” His example, which changed the course of its interpretation, is Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress with its clear argument:

Major premise
Had we world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime. . . .

Minor premise
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near. . . .

Now, therefore,
. . . . . . . .
Now let us sport us while we may. . . .

At the risk of being heretical, though, I would venture to say that there may be no poet in the English language better than Cunningham at constructing arguments, philosophical arguments, in verse. Here is one of my favorites:


Passion is never fact
And never in a kiss,
For it is pure unact,
All other than the this.

It is love’s negative,
Love’s furious potency,
Distinct from which we live
In the affirmed to be.

And as love’s passive form
Is not this form I see
But all the loves that swarm
In the unwilled to be,

So in this actual kiss,
Unfaithful, I am true:
I realize in this
All passion, act, and you.
Aside from the riddling content and the further evidence of what he means by certain terms that are central to his verse (“the this,” the error or perhaps the evil of actual choice), the poem shamelessly lays bare its syllogistic structure:

Major premise
Passion is never act. . . .

Minor premise
       love’s passive form
Is not this form I see. . . .

So in this actual kiss,
Unfaithful, I am true. . . .

The argument is that passion—the ardor that is suffered in passivity—can only realized in a human contact (“kiss”) that dispels the passion, because human contact demands action, the opposite of passionate passivity. The lover has a choice: to remain faithful to the experience of passion, and never love; or to his lover, and reject passion forever.

It is an argument for marriage.

Update: There are also those who observe that Ulysses is structured as a syllogism. They note the printing convention used in the old Modern Library Giant edition of the novel, with its 360-point initials at the beginning of each division in the novel:


Part II. MR


S–M–P, the terms of a syllogism.

Of course, I learned this from a teaching assistant at Santa Cruz who also believed that Freud and Joyce were connected by the meanings of their surnames. So make of the observation what you will.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Plot and thought

On Saturday, as if replying in her own way to Bill Vallicella’s argument on the relative merits of philosophy and fiction, the novelist Rebecca Goldstein (who is also an academic philosopher) listed the five best novels of ideas.

Two names on her list were entirely expected. Saul Bellow is better perhaps than any other fiction writer at putting human intellect on exhibit. Goldstein picked Herzog (1964) as his best, as the best, although she could as easily have picked Mr Sammler’s Planet, Humboldt’s Gift, or even Ravelstein (2000). The last would have been the most tantalizing pick, not only because it was his last novel, written in his eighties (suggesting the endurance of Bellow’s own intellectual powers), but also because its eponymous hero, modeled upon Bellow’s lifelong friend Allan Bloom, is himself a philosopher.

Similarly, the name of Iris Murdoch was no surprise. Murdoch was herself a philosopher, Oxford-trained; she even sat in on Wittgenstein’s lectures for a time. The Black Prince (1973) was Goldstein’s pick for third spot, although (again) a number of Murdoch’s books would have stood out nicely on the list. And, again, had it been me, I might have selected The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), if only for its portrait of John Robert Rozanov, the philosopher (sometimes said to have been modeled upon Michael Oakeshott).

But the coincidence of Vallicella’s reflections and Goldstein’s list got me thinking. In reconsidering Nabokov’s Bend Sinister a couple of weeks ago, I called Adam Krug, the central figure in the novel, “[o]ne of the few successful portraits of a deeply intelligent man in American fiction.” What are the others?

Well, there is The Unpossessed (1934), in which Tess Slesinger catches a group of Jewish intellectuals in the act of founding a radical magazine. There is O My America (1980), in which Johanna Kaplan focuses on just one of the type—a Jewish man of letters who comes to be known more for his political than his literary views. Two novels from 1983, Cynthia Ozick’s Cannibal Galaxy and Arthur A. Cohen’s Admirable Woman, are built around the figure of Hannah Arendt. In John and Anzia (1989), Norma Rosen invents (or reinvents) a love affair between John Dewey and the Jewish novelist Anzia Yezierska. Published the same year, Goldstein’s own Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind features a philosopher who lectures on the “futility of the passions” and longs to be reduced to a state of pure reason (she gets her comeuppance, of course, in a love affair with a younger man).

But the more I think about it, the unhappier I become. It strikes me that the whole question of philosophy and fiction—philosophy in fiction—has been mishandled. The tendency has been to identify the intellectual element in fiction with a character or characters. And it’s hardly astonishing, then, when the “intelligent” or “intellectual” figure begins to spout off in more or less “intelligent” or “intellectual” ways. Even in Vallicella’s original example, Zorba the Greek, the “Zorbatic” approach to life is largely a matter of what Zorba says. “I have so much to tell you,” Zorba says to Basil.

Intelligence in fiction, then, is usually conceived as a variety of Aristotelian dianoia:

Under Thought [dianoia] is included every effect which has to be produced by speech, the subdivisions being: proof and refutation; the excitation of the feelings, such as pity, fear, anger, and the like; the suggestion of importance or its opposite. Now, it is evident that the dramatic incidents must be treated from the same points of view as the dramatic speeches, when the object is to evoke the sense of pity, fear, importance, or probability. The only difference is that the incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in [speech] should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech. For what were the business of a speaker, if the Thought were revealed quite apart from what he says? (ch XIX, trans. S. H. Butcher)What, indeed? Thus intelligence in fiction stands apart from the action; it belongs exclusively to character. For Aristotle, after all, the characters of a drama were “universal propositions, existing independently of the particular series of incidents that the drama presents.”[1] And what the characters say, accordingly, is merely the articulation of the universal that they really are.

But since this conception of character no longer determines modern fiction, the Aristotelian understanding of Thought must be discarded. There is a reason that the free nations dominate the world’s fiction: individualism cannot be repressed, bought off, or charmed away there. But is there, then, a more adequate notion of intelligence in fiction?

But what is the intellectual aspect of a fiction if not its plot? The plot is fiction’s answer to argument in philosophy: it is what connects up and advances the whole. If an argument is the setting forth of the proofs (reasons and evidence) for an assertion, then a plot is the setting forth (that is, the narration) of the events that lead to a catastrophe, the final turn that brings everything to an end.

Indeed, it is in the ordering of events that novelists often display their greatest ingenuity. The most intelligent novels, I am almost tempted to claim, are those that are the most brilliantly plotted, in which every piece locks into place with an audible and satisfying click, and you are persuaded that no other ending is even possible. And that fewer and fewer novelists waste much thought on plot may explain the decline of intelligence in contemporary fiction.

[1] O. B. Hardison Jr., Aristotle’s Poetics: A Translation and Commentary for Students of Literature (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 243.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The literary fuzzhead

Bill Vallicella is not impressed by the novelist John Gardner, who once claimed that “at their best, both fiction and philosophy do the same thing, only fiction does it better—though slower.”

Although it is unclear why he is wasting his time on Gardner, Vallicella says some interesting things at the poor writer’s expense. He ends by treating the author of The Sunlight Dialogues and Nickel Mountain (novels that I culled from my library decades ago) as quite typical of the literary mind in its disdain and misunderstanding of philosophy at a high level. “The literary fuzzhead cannot help but think that philosophy done seriously, with patience, rigor, and clarity, is just abstract bullshit,” he concludes.

As someone who has done his share of serious thinking about literature, I naturally take offense. Not all literary minds are fuzzy, I want to protest. But instead of trying to establish the philosophical fides of far better writers than Gardner, perhaps it would be well to examine Vallicella’s own thinking—on fiction.

“It would have been nice,” Vallicella says, “had Gardner told us what the same thing is that both fiction and philosophy do or try to do.” Unfortunately, when he tries to do just that, he himself stumbles badly.

“A good novelist,” he proposes, “has the ability to set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character who illustrates a certain set of values or a certain modus vivendi.” His example is Zorba the Greek, although he “quotes” the 1964 film out of Twentieth Century Fox and not the eighteen-years-earlier novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.

Nevertheless, “the sensitive reader must ask himself whether perhaps Zorba’s way is the way to live,” Vallicella says, attributing to Zorba the view that “Life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble!”

Now, as it happens, the great philosopher Hilary Putnam has said something strikingly similar, although perhaps more rigorously and clearly thought through. (Disclosure: I quoted Putnam’s remarks in the Afterword to The Elephants Teach.) Putnam argues that, even though the “psychological insights” of a good novelist cannot be described as empirical knowledge, because they have not been tested, fiction can yet achieve knowledge of a different kind:

[I]f I read [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night [1932] I do not learn that love does not exist, that all human beings are hateful and hating (even if—and I am sure this is not the case—those propositions should be true). What I learn is to see the world as it looks to someone who is sure that hypothesis is correct. I see what plausibility that hypothesis has; what it would be like if it were true; how someone could possibly think that it is true. But all this is still not empirical knowledge at all; for being aware of a new interpretation of the facts, however repellent, of a construction that can—I now see—be put upon the facts, however perversely—is a kind of knowledge. It is knowledge of a possibility. It is conceptual knowledge.[1]On Putnam’s showing, the “sensitive reader” does not ask himself whether “Zorba’s way is the way to live.” If the novel is any good, he comes to understand how “Zorba’s way” would look and feel if it were “the way to live.” He understands it as a possibility.

The difference between Putnam’s account of fiction and Vallicella’s is immense. The trouble with Vallicella’s account is that it is limited, although it may not seem so at first. Many novelists do in fact “set before the reader in concrete and memorable terms a believable character who illustrates a certain set of values or a certain modus vivendi,” but not all novelists do. The proposition does not account for Nineteen Eighty-Four or Darkness at Noon, for example, two novels in which the “believable character” is harried by a totalitarian modus vivendi until he voluntarily abandons his own “set of values.”

And the proposition is far too simple to explain the effect of Lolita, in which it is not his way of life but Humbert’s atonement that is “illustrated” (wrong word!). Or Ulysses, in which the modus is everything that happens in twenty-four hours and the vita is an entire city’s. Or Invisible Man, in which the character is not “believable,” at least to the other characters in the book. Or Pictures from an Institution, in which the character is not a character at all but, well, an institution.

Putnam comes closer to an all-embracing (and true) proposition about fiction, when he defines its modality, not as the illustration of a way of life, but as possibility. Some philosophers deal with possibilities too, but this hardly means, pace Gardner, that they are doing the “same thing” as novelists. Philosophers want to show that a possibility is valid; novelists try to make it plausible. The distance between validity and plausibility is the distance between philosophy and fiction, but it does not follow that the one is sharp while the other is fuzzy. They are, instead, as Putnam suggests, merely different approaches to knowledge.

[1] Hilary Putnam, Meaning and the Moral Sciences (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 89–90. Emphasis in the original.

Friday, March 05, 2010

10 rules for criticism

Fifteen British writers have inscribed their rules for writing, ten or fewer, taking Elmore Leonard’s as a point of departure. I might as well give the ten rules of criticism:

(1.) You are not a makeup artist. You shouldn’t be applying anything, least of all someone else’s “system.”

(2.) In fact, give up the dream of a system altogether. There is no general system or theory of literature; there is only the particular text, with its own particular system of law, which demands a particular respect.

(3.) Nor are there any authorities in literature—not even the author. Especially not the author! After she has written her book, she is in no better a position than you are to judge it. (You are interested in her because of her book, though. Best not to ignore her altogether.) Otherwise quote other critics only to abuse them. Other criticism must always be read with hatred in the heart.

(4.) As small a technical vocabulary as possible. Some terms of the trade are unavoidable, but they should be established by wide usage, over the course of many years, and by many parties. Nothing coined by anyone writing in French since the Second World War, in short.

(5.) Specify the genre or tradition to which the work belongs. Comparisons to other authors, however, are Halloween masks for critical thought.

(6.) Assume that your reader has not read the work under criticism. Summary may be an onerous duty, but it is necessary, like listening to your children.

(7.) Distance yourself from the style of the author you are writing about. This is doubly true if you are writing about Nabokov or Bellow. No one who thinks that he can write like Nabokov or Bellow has anything intelligent to say about them.

(8.) Supply at least one extended sample of the author’s prose or verse. Wayne Booth is probably right that quoting from your author will burn holes in your own essay, but you must offer sufficient evidence for your reader to arrive at an independent judgment of your reliability.

(9.) A critical essay is not a mystery novel. Signal your decision early. Leave your reader in no doubt where you stand.

(10.) Disregard any or all of the foregoing rules if doing so will make you a better critic. The one rule of criticism that stands beyond repeal is that it too has a rightful place in literature, along with Faust and Middlemarch, and the critic is under the same moral obligation as any other writer.

Barry Hannah, 1942–2010

Barry Hannah, novelist and story writer out of Mississippi, has died of a heart attack in Oxford, Miss. He was sixty-seven.

Hannah started fast with two bangup novels, Geronimo Rex (1972) and Ray (1981), and a collection of influential stories, Airships (1978), before he was forty. After that, he seemed—at least to me—to be running on creative fumes. His later books recycled characters and plot devices, and he never seemed to outgrow a young man’s fascination with horrific pointless violence.

When Ray was published to great fanfare (in the New York Times Book Review, Benjamin DeMott characterized it as “the funniest, weirdest, soul-happiest work of fiction by a genuinely young American author” that he had read “in a long while”), Hannah looked every inch his generation’s outstanding writer. He surrendered that title when his development stalled.

The first three works are still worth reading, although they no longer stand out as they once did, but the real question hanging over his life is what became of Hannah’s early promise?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Fugitive

My “retrieval” of Ezra S. Brudno’s 1904 apostasy novel The Fugitive, published in 1904 by Doubleday, Page, appears this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.

The novel is a 400-page Bildungsroman on the theme “Once a Jew always a Jew.” Although born in Volozhin, home to the “mother of yeshivahs,” Brudno had become thoroughly secularized by the time he came to write The Fugitive in his late twenties—an expert in case rather than rabbinical law.

For Brundo, then, “once a Jew always a Jew” means that a Jew can assimilate into the vernacular culture, and can even marry a Christian, and still remain a Jew. Indeed, in his close knowledge of Jewish religious and literary tradition—his references range from Mishnah and even Tosafot to the classics of Haskalah literature—he himself is obviously comfortable in his Jewishness.

What never occurred to him is that a generation might arise without a similar knowledge of Jewish tradition. And for that generation, “once a Jew always a Jew” would not be so obviously a given.

That’s why I say, in my review, that the novel’s effect outruns its conception. Its effect is to underscore the necessary dependence of Jewish identity upon Jewish knowledge.