Criticism As Literature Itself

“One doesn’t have any business writing about literature unless one’s business is literature,” writes William Giraldi in his fascinating treatment of critic Adam Kirsch’s new book on Lionel Trilling, Why Trilling MattersGiraldi notes that Kirsch himself is a throwback to critic-as-intellectual and calls him:

“An Ideal critic of the Coleridgean mold, he possesses a swift command of how history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology inform works of imaginative literature.”

Giraldi references a 1963 essay by critic Stanley Edgar Hyman who believed that a critic must maintain an active engagement with the predecessors of today’s writers. In other words, literature is not simply a product of social inequities or power relationships in the culture, but that writers engage with the great works that came before them; an argument that critic Harold Bloom has been making for years in books like The Western Cannon.

There has been talk for years that Trilling was a frustrated writer. As a professor at Columbia University, Trilling had the young poet Allen Ginsberg in class and was apparently envious of his “Byronic energies” (Giraldi, who is no fan of Ginsberg, asserts he “was start to finish a second-rate poet, his celebrated Howl the sophomoric and technically inept rant of a solipsist.” I’m not sure if it has ever been said better). Kirsch puts an end to speculation that Trilling wanted to be a writer; he accepted in his heart that his métier was commentary, not literary creation.

Allen Ginsberg in 1985.
Giradli writes that for Trilling, reading was everything, and “the literary life was not only an occupation but a way of being in the world, a personal and social commitment to understanding who we are and how we fit.” Indeed a heady and elevated view of literature that should be resuscitated for our own fractured time.

A New York Literary Salon

The New York Times profiles a group of literary twenty-somethings in New York who–in despair over the lack of publishing jobs–have founded their own online journal The New Inquiry. They also meet on a regular basis in an Upper East Side apartment to forge their own community of ideas and books.

Hompage-The-New-Inquiry-Website

I admire their desire to form a literary community like the one we grew up reading about in Paris in the 1920s, but one also gets the impression that the project could quickly devolve into a journal of political advocacy, which would quickly make the journal no different from dozens of others like it online…Best of luck to them.

Critic Maud Newton Recommended My Essay On Catholic Writers

The noted literary critic and blogger Maud Newton recommended my essay on Catholic writers in The Millions. She wrote:

I recommend Robert Fay’s essay about the end of the Latin Mass — and Catholic “drama of salvation” novels — even though I strongly disagree that “the Christian faith [has] been in full cultural retreat since the 1960s.”

In addition to Newton’s blog post, the essay has generated a certain “buzz” across the Internet.

The venerable Commonweal Magazine blogged about the essay, saying in part:

Over at the Millions, Robert Fay has an essay with the provocative title, “Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?” Fay tells a story of decline, arguing that there has been a profound falling-off in both the quantity and quality of Catholic writers since the mid-century.

Over in the UK, The Catholic Herald UK linked to the story, but took a curious approach, citing me as the source that writer David Foster Wallace considered becoming Catholic before his death:

Robert Fay says that novelist David Foster Wallace considered becoming a Catholic before he took his life.

It was not me, but Evan Hughes in his New York Magazine story, which I mention and link to in the essay.

I also had the privileged of emailing with the writer Gregory Wolfe (publisher of the journal Image) about the issue of Catholic writers. He left a comment on The Millions where he recommended his own 2008 essay on the same topic.

A Few Gems from Henry James

To move from a contemporary novel to a book by Henry James is like leaving a meadow and stepping into an ancient bamboo grove where the surroundings are undoubtedly exquisite, but the trees are packed together, and if you’re careless, you’ll quickly lose your way.

Henry James’ The Ambassadors (1903) is stocked with gems worthy of close inspection. James recommended readers stop at five pages a day, so they could adequately absorb his ambition. To be fair, the book is guilty of what critic Edmund Wilson identified as James’ tendency for only “one vocabulary and one cadence for the whole cast of moods and characters.” But what a singular cadence it is!—it’s enough to make an ordinary writer bleed with envy.

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Lambert Strether, a conservative New Englander, is sent by his fiancée to Paris to bring home her son Chad Newsome, who they fear is with a less-than-virtuous lady. While staying in Paris, Strether undergoes an awakening, and glimpses a life he might have lived while young. He ultimately counsels Newsome to remain in Paris, and urges him not to let “the moment” get away:

“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what HAVE you had?…What one loses one loses; make no mistake about that. The affair—I mean the affair of life—couldn’t, no doubt, have been different for me; for it’s at the best a tin mould, either fluted and embossed, with ornamental excrescences, or else smooth and dreadfully plain, into which, a helpless jelly, one’s consciousness is poured—so that one ‘takes’ the form as the great cook says, and is more or less compactly held by it: one lives in fine as one can. Still, one has the illusion of freedom; therefore don’t be, like me, without the memory of that illusion. I was either, at the right time, too stupid or too intelligent to have it; I don’t quite know which. Of course at present I’m a case of reaction against the mistake; and the voice of reaction should, no doubt, always be taken with an allowance. But that doesn’t affect the point that the right time is now yours. The right time is ANY time that one is still so lucky as to have…”

Paris, la Seine et Notre-Dame
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Everyone has met the married couple where the husband has checked out and handed over the business of living to his wife. Newsome’s sister Sally Pocock is the 2nd “ambassador” of the book: sent to Paris to accomplish what Strether could not. Her husband Jim is supposed to be on board, but Strether learns he’s there only for kicks:

“Jim in fact, he presently made up his mind, was individually out of it; Jim didn’t care; Jim hadn’t come out either for Chad or for him; Jim in short left the moral side to Sally and indeed simply availed himself now, for the sense of recreation, of the fact that he left almost everything to Sally. He was nothing compared to Sally, and not so much by reason of Sally’s temper and will as by that of her more developed type and greater acquaintance with the world. He quite frankly and serenely confessed, as he sat there with Strether, that he felt his type hang far in the rear of his wife’s and still further, if possible, in the rear of his sister’s.”

The city of Paris exerts as much influence on Strether as some of the characters do. James illustrates the inescapabilty of the city’s charms by its invasive presence even indoors. In two passages he begins inside and then effortlessly moves the description out onto the streets of the city:

“The glazed and gilded room, all red damask, ormolu, mirrors, clocks, looked south, and the shutters were bowed upon the summer morning; but the Tuileries garden and what was beyond it, over which the whole place hung, were things visible through gaps; so that the far-spreading presence of Paris came up in coolness, dimness and invitation, in the twinkle of gilt-tipped palings, the crunch of gravel, the click of hoofs, the crack of whips, things that suggested some parade of the circus.”

And again, in a similar vein:

“The occupants hadn’t come in, for the room looked empty as only a room can look in Paris, of a fine afternoon when the faint murmur of the huge collective life, carried on out of doors, strays among scattered objects even as a summer air idles in a lonely garden.”

The lovely alliteration using the letter “c”: “the crunch of gravel, the click of hoofs, the crack of whips,” so evocative, and then in the 2nd passage, the beautiful phrase, “a summer air idles in a lonely garden.”

Why I Won’t Read Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights”

I was late to the party when it came to reading Joan Didion. For years I had the vague sensation that Didion wasn’t for me. It was one of those unapologetic prejudices people have for certain writers, a prejudice that ended when I picked up a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking. It was evident from the start why Didion was held in such high regard—she was good. And yet, because I’d read Magical Thinking and its meditation on her husband’s death, I decided to pass on Blue Nights, her new memoir about the death of her 39-year-old daughter.

The Year Of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

If it’s a truism that a critic should always review the book in hand, and not the book they wish had been written, then I’ve eagerly crossed the line. My own “magical thinking” involved—not denying the death of writer John Gregory Dunne, as Didion initially did—but wishing that his death and her subsequent grief wasn’t the focus of the book. I found myself skimming over passages about the Beth Isreal ICU or long meditations on grief to find those where Didion recalls her marriage and life in Los Angeles in the 1960s and ‘70s.

she took us to venice
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I wanted to hear about two writers living a blessed life of work and play in a California that no longer existed. I wanted it to be LA in 1971 when Didion wore oversized Rachael Zoe-like sunglasses and chain-smoked cigarettes as if they were elixirs. I wanted to go back before all the dying:

 “One summer when we were living in Brentwood Park we fell into a pattern of stopping work at four in the afternoon, and going out to the pool. (John) would stand in the water reading  (he reread Sophie’s Choice several times that summer, trying to see how it worked) while I worked in the garden….Just before five on those summer afternoons we would swim and then go into the library wrapped in towels to watch Tenko, a BBC series, then in syndication, about a number of satisfyingly predictable English women…..At seven or seven thirty we would go out to dinner, many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer. There were always shrimp quesadilla, chicken with black beans.”

You get the idea. There are similar passages capturing life in Malibu and stays in Hawaii. It’s the writer’s life as well as the life of a marriage, rendered simply by a great writer.
“…many night’s at Morton’s. Morton’s felt right that summer.”  What a beautiful line. It’s worth reading an entire book just to hit upon such a line.

Yet the book is not a memoir of marriage, but a book about death and loss. And in her confrontation with grief, Didion soldiers under a strict scorched-earth policy, burning down any hint of solace or false comfort in her way.

“Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone,” Didion writes, “The connections that made up their life—both the deep connections and the apparently (until they are broken) insignificant connections—have all vanished.”

After reading Magical Thinking I can only assume Blue Nights will be even more punishing. A recent review by writer Rachel Cusk in The Guardian confirms this suspicion:

“Didion’s strategy, or rather her instinct – the instinctive response to chaos – is to repeat herself. She struggles to revive the form and style of her earlier book, to make it live again; she repeats anecdotes, and often sentences, word for word; she creates repeating prose patterns whose effect, in the end, is to confer the author’s own numbness on the reader.”

 

The Five Most Neglected Novels of the 20th Century

The first half of the 20th century is littered with so many classic works of fiction that one would need two lifetimes to both read and re-read all the major works of those first five decades, let alone explore the minor and underappreciated novels of the period.

All of the novels in my list were published after the Second World War; it is not a list of unknown or unread books, but of books that haven’t received either the critical praise and/or the lasting readership they deserve.

1. The LeopardGiuseppe Di Lampedusa (1958)

Mount Etna
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Arguably the greatest Italian novel of the post-war period and the only book Di Lampedusa ever wrote. The novel ushers readers into the richly detailed world of a decadent aristocratic family in steep decline in 1860s Sicily. It’s an absolute travesty that more people don’t know this novel. Critic Rachel Donadio writes “it reads more like the last 19th-century novel, a perfect evocation of a lost world.”

2. The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles (1949)

Bowles was one of the lesser-known Beat writers, partly because he was an expatriate who lived in Tangier, Morocco his entire adult life, but mostly because he was a classical composer by training, as well as an iconoclast by nature. The Sheltering Sky is the one of the most horrifying accounts of American innocence abroad. The book follows the North African travels of three Americans—a husband and wife and their male friend—as they move past the comfortable margins of their experiences. Like The Leopard this is also a perfect book: not a word or sentence is out of place.

3. Vanity of Duluoz, Jack Kerouac (1968)

I’ll admit this book is a bit of a wildcard, but it is a charming little novel by a writer whose career was uneven at best. This straight forward, semi-autobiographical telling of his youth in small-town Massachusetts, football at Columbia University and his service in the Merchant Marines is told with a joyful nostalgia for a lost 1930s and ‘40s America. The book confirms that Kerouac, far from being the bohemian of lore, always considered himself a French-Catholic boy from a Massachusetts mill town.

4. Time’s Arrow, Martin Amis (1991)

The novel works on a conceit: the narrator is a Nazi doctor and we follow his life in reverse chronological order, beginning with his death and ending with birth (think the recent movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Amis so artfully portrays this alternative universe that you’ll find yourself marveling that cars in your city drive forward, instead of bombing along in reverse, and food goes in your mouth instead of quickly leaving it.

5. The Easter Parade, Richard Yates (1976)

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Until the recent film version of Richard Yates’ masterpiece Revolutionary Road came out, Yates was the most underappreciated great writer in American letters, dying in complete obscurity in 1992. Now that Revolutionary Road had gotten its fair due, it may unfairly over-shadow The Easter Parade, Yates’ sad, masterful tale of two sisters—the Grimes sisters—as they live out their lives under the canopy of life’s disappointments.

Honorable Mention: A Far Cry From Kensington, Muriel Spark (1988)

The narrative voice in this novel is intoxicating. Sparks is such a talented writer that it is a crime her name doesn’t come up in more “great writer” discussions. This novel, written toward the end of Spark’s stellar career, chronicles the rooming house existence of war widow and editor Mrs. Hawkins in 1950s London.

Can Literature Save Us?

As a writer, former editor and lover of books it pains me to admit that literacy (or literature for that matter) doesn’t—and never will—make one a “better person.” Cambridge professor Liz Disley in her Guardian review of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature is equally skeptical that The Enlightenment opened up new vistas of empathy and understanding in the souls of men with a resultant decline in violence since 1700 (Was the wreckage of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin and Mao not taken into consideration I wonder?).

New York Public Library
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Disley’s approach to Pinker’s thesis is to label it an “elitist” one. She lays out her charge by citing a familiar analysis: literature in the last 300 years consists primarily of works penned by middle-class European and North American men. These elite individuals, the argument goes, generally ignore worldviews, cultures and classes they are unfamiliar with—therefore, the opportunity for literate Europeans to learn more about the mores of Egyptian women, for example, has been stifled.

When it comes to viewing literature in this light, I cop to being a Vladimir Nabokov disciple. In his lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov notes:

“Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeois. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world…”

Instead of Disley’s approach, I might simply point out that sociopaths like Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein were proud “literary men.”

Nazi propagandist Goebbels studied philosophy, history, literature and art and earned a PhD. As a young man he dreamed of being a writer, and he completed an autobiographical novel and two plays. Then there was Hitler, of course, who was the author of an infamous screed that is still in print to this day.

Most recently we have the example of the bard/dictator Saddam Hussein. In a 2003 Atlantic Monthly article Mark Bowden wrote:

“Saddam has literary aspirations himself. He employs ghostwriters to keep up a ceaseless flow of speeches, articles, and books of history and philosophy; his oeuvre includes fiction as well. In recent years he appears to have written and published two romantic fables, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle; a third, as-yet-untitled work of fiction is due out soon.”

To quote Nabokov again: “Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction.”

Where Soldiers Come From

When I was a young boy I saw the movie The Deer Hunter on television for the first time. Although I didn’t have the emotional maturity or the historical knowledge to put it all in perspective, I was deeply moved by the film and the actors (Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken). It spawned an enduring interest in the Vietnam War for me and also gave me a stellar template to judge films and acting against ever since.

The very idea of a group of friends from a small Pennsylvania coal town joining the Army together, fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, and then returning home to their friends and family as vastly different human beings is riveting drama. Yet It turns out that the story in The Deer Hunter is not too far from what is happening right now in Michigan.

A new documentary titled Where Soldiers Come From is now in limited release across the country and it tells the story of 9 boys (men) from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—a rural area along the Canadian border— who joined the Army National Guard as a group and ultimately served in Afghanistan together. What intrigues me about the film is that the director was able to spend four years following the men, including being with them before they joined the Army so we can see into what one critic called “the enclosed world of youth.”

Here is the trailer: