In the face of a worldwide recession, the literature industry proceeds apace. While the market for trade books grows more enfeebled, academic publishers show no sign of cutting back on their recondite lists. Despite the dwindling number of jobs in universities (and why else are some of these books written except to secure or keep a job?), scholars continue to turn out the daunting titles advertised in literary magazines: Milton and the Postmodern, Allen Tate and the Augustinian Imagination, Myths and Texts: Strategies of Incorporation and Displacement. The one question rarely addressed is: who reads these books and what purpose do they serve?
I can imagine looking up a name in James Hart’s fifth edition of The Oxford Companion to American Literature. Updated to include ‘authors not yet born when this book was first begun’, it offers abbreviated commentaries on such newly arrived figures on the scene as Diane Wakoski (1937-; cited here as ‘Wakowski’), Annie Dillard (1945-) and Ann Beattie (1947-). Heavy in the hand, the Companion makes for pretty light reading: Joan Didion is helpfully described as the author of ‘nonfictional works on contemporary life’; the ‘Beat movement’ as ‘a bohemian rebellion against established society which came to prominence about 1956’; David Ignatow’s poetic idiom as ‘Brooklynese speech’. But at least it doesn’t pretend to be more than it is – a ‘companion’, not a history.
I wish I could say the same for the season’s lot of general surveys, which look so authoritative to the casual eye. The authors have credentials, the titles sound important, the back pages are crammed with appendices, footnotes, bibliographies. Malcolm Bradbury includes a ‘Select Bibliography’ and a ‘List of Major Works’. Frederick Karl offers up columns of elaborate notes. Marshall Walker supplies a ‘chronological table’ that correlates authors and titles with events (Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone the same year that Henry James published Roderick Hudson; Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems coincided with Coca-Cola’s adoption of its ‘distinctly shaped bottle’). Still, naturalists have their molluscs, entomologists their butterflies: why shouldn’t literary critics indulge the taxonomic reflex?
The contents pages reflect this impulse to tidy things up and put them in categories. Professor Walker proposes to discuss ‘Realisms’ and ‘Modernisms’, ‘Pilgrims and Puritans’, ‘Reality and Imagination’. Malcolm Bradbury pairs off ‘Naturalism and Impressionism’, ‘Realism and Surrealism’, ‘Art-Style and Life-Style’. But neither of them can match Professor Karl’s inventive dichotomies: ‘American Space and Spatiality’, ‘The Persistence of Pastoral’, ‘The Possibilities of Minimalism’. A mania for dates is much in evidence. Karl goes by decades (‘The Counterfeit Decade’, ‘The 1970s: Where we are’), while Bradbury begins with fractions of decades (‘Artists and Philistines: 1912-1920’), only to end up calibrating by the score (‘Liberal and Existential Imaginations: The 1940s and 1950s’, ‘Postmoderns and Others: The 1960s and 1970s’).
How else deal with such a vast, unmanageable subject as American literature? Critics have to endow it with some kind of order. Yet as I made my way through these ambitious surveys, I felt a shock of unrecognition. What was Malcolm Bradbury, with his talk of ‘contrastive impressionism’, ‘numinous external significances’, ‘transhuman forces’, really getting at? What would a college freshman cracking open The Modern American Novel make of the notion that in James’s ‘late phase’ ‘consciousness severs itself from the world’s materiality, changing the entire grammar of fiction’? Or that in Faulkner’s novels of the Twenties and Thirties ‘modernist pluralisation begins to occur, arising from temporal disjunction and the broken relation between “social” and “subjective” consciousness’? So that’s what he was up to!
Could this be the same Malcolm Bradbury responsible for those very funny novels of academic life, Stepping Westward and The History Man? I wondered, pondering his claim that in Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire, the old woman who claims to have been Kafka’s whore ‘concentrates the tense problem of the modern muse and the sexual prompt of modern art’, or that John Updike is largely concerned with ‘the revelation of form, the moment of aesthetic revelation in the contingencies of life’. Bradbury is just going through the motions, hastening from name to name, reciting worn-out academic phrases, too bored even to trouble over grammar: ‘In 1976, Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, reinforcing the sense of many that he was the leading American writer of his generation, recognising, too, the power of his defensive humanism.’
If there’s an ‘argument’ in Bradbury’s book, it’s that American fiction has become the dominant force in contemporary literature since the 1950s – or, as Bradbury puts it in his Latinate way, ‘has moved from marginality to centrality’. A straightforward proposition, and one worth advancing: but why does Bradbury have to cloak it in such tortuous rhetoric? The version of literary history he offers up is fanciful, contrived. Like Marshall Walker’s dutiful assemblage of notecards (‘Arthur Miller studies the relation between society and the individual in terms of three clearly identifiable themes’), it assumes an orderly progression of influence, of decades and periods, of regional writers and schools and themes, of a ‘usable past’ (whatever that is).
I suppose the genre demands it. The Modern American Novel is an ‘Opus Book’ (General Editors – Keith Thomas, Alan Ryan, Peter Medawar) intended for students. The Literature of the United States is a volume in the Macmillan History of Literature. But no Oxford undergraduate could get by with generalities like this aperçu of Professor Walker’s: ‘Jewish novels are psychologically persuasive, sociologically apposite, linguistically beguiling.’ Or Bradbury’s unwittingly comical redaction of the current literary scene: ‘It [I haven’t omitted the antecedent – there isn’t one] was also a question as to whether the various experimental gestures had much in common, since they displayed widely different preoccupations and could be defined in many ways – as a literature of silence or a literature of noise and redundancy, as a minimalist process or one of free and open creative invention, as an art of deconstruction but also an aleatory art, as an art of philosophical absurdism but also as an art of hopeful provisionality.’ When Bradbury refers jokingly in his acknowledgments to having perpetrated ‘critical fictions’, it’s hard not to concur.
Disheartened by these listless surveys, I turned to Frederick Karl’s ‘Comprehensive History and Critical Evaluation’ with a mild surge of hope: at least he seemed to have a thesis. But all I found there was a laboured exposition of the academic party line: that the works of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, John Hawkes and other ‘experimental’ writers constitute our authentic ‘literature’. (He’s the one who keeps putting these words in quotes, not me.) What Karl means by ‘literature’ is hard to figure out, except that it’s somehow different from ‘writing’ or ‘novel-making’ – from what ‘entertainers’ like Bellow, Styron or Updike engage in. Karl’s dreary premise is that writers who win popular acclaim are somehow suspect, creations of what he variously calls ‘the media’ and ‘the marketplace’. Modern and Post-Modern literature is often ‘inaccessible and even disagreeable’, he cautions, but it’s the real stuff. A book like John Barth’s Letters ‘does what literature is supposed to do, which is to probe new modes of perception, however tedious the process’. No one said it would be fun.
Karl labours away at this questionable thesis for six hundred pages of eye-numbing, two-column type, doggedly summarising hundreds of novels by ‘novel-makers’ and practitioners of ‘literature’ alike. What he seems to be saying is that the American novel possesses a great undiscovered vitality, but that our culture is too philistine to appreciate it. Time magazine, television, movies, ‘staff reviewers’ and hack journalists: these are the enemies of art. ‘What the artist could always count on’ – Karl doesn’t say when – was ‘a regard for the art object as separated from the culture that gave it form and support’.
How utterly wrong this proposition is. The great art of every era has been an expression of the culture that produced it, and has reflected back to that culture a recognisable image of itself. The trouble with the ‘experimental’ writers Karl touts is that the Modernist movement they’ve declared themselves the heirs of has long since exhausted its legacy. The so-called ‘postmodernists’ Karl promotes aren’t ‘ingenious borrowers of European forms’ but sterile imitators of those forms. To argue that Donald Barthelme, Ronald Sukenick, William Gaddis and company belong to some contemporary American avant-garde is to rationalise the fact that they have no audience. Karl cites as instances of writers misunderstood in their day the case of Melville, condemned to an obscure life as a customs official, and that hoary anecdote about Gide failing to appreciate Proust’s novel: but most of the great novelists – including the Modernists Karl is always dragging in to support his argument – won recognition during their lives and were prominent figures in their society, however outlandish or ‘difficult’ their work. ‘What is needed is not a further dismissal of the old ... but modes in which the dialectic can dissolve, reform and defamiliarise,’ Karl declares. ‘As this occurs, the novel survives the marketplace, assimilation, and its critics.’ Especially its critics.
How account for the proliferation of these dreary textbooks? I think the cause is more demographic than literary. During the late Thirties and the Forties, American literary culture had been largely concentrated in New York, where an informal constituency of writers and critics came and went. Literature was a vocation in those days, not a profession. For Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz and Randall Jarrell, disciples of those exemplary teacher-critics John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, criticism was an essential component of a literary career. And for the critics, the obverse was true: Lionel Trilling wrote fiction, Harold Rosenberg wrote poetry, Alfred Kazin wrote his memoirs. They weren’t just critics: they were writers. With the rise of mass education after World War Two, the demand for English professors grew, more university presses were established, and increasing specialisation occurred as graduate students and professors combed the field for new subjects on which to become authorities. The dispersal of writers away from New York and their concentration in universities eroded the literary community that had produced such shrewd, sophisticated criticism in the pages of Partisan Review and other important little magazines. As the influence of these magazines dwindled, criticism became a kind of minor preoccupation, a job handed over to mediocrities. Novelists had better things to do.
The situation I’m describing goes some of the way towards explaining why there are so few literary critics of any stature in America now – or, for that matter, in England, where the university system has become nearly as much a feature of the literary life. Criticism has been divided up among academics and journalists who hold each other in contempt. To set up as a literary critic now is like becoming a blacksmith or a cobbler: it’s an archaic profession. How heartening it is, then, to have a critic like John Updike, whose reviews have acquired such a distinctive authority over the years. Effortlessly learned, he wears his erudition lightly, approaching Cervantes, Fielding, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, a Harvard Lampoon anthology and a volume called Church Dogmatics, Robbe-Grillet and a book on the Xingu Indians, with the same diffident curiosity. His critical voice is utterly natural; whether he’s reviewing Giacomo Joyce in the interrogatory mode of the Ithaca chapter of Ulysses, or describing what it was like to read Proust as a young man living on Riverside Drive and working for the New Yorker, Updike gives out a relaxed confidence around other authors, as if he’s known them forever. He is gracious, even-tempered, gay, an urbane and witty host introducing his favourite books to the readers he’s invited over.
That note of informal authority pervades his third collection of prose, and makes what would otherwise seem a dauntingly – even vainly – thick volume read with the ease of a novel. Again, the range is imposing – Raymond Queneau, Roland Barthes, E.M. Cioran, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Bruno Bettelheim, Peter Gay’s Art and Act, The New Oxford Book of Christian Verse – the casual erudition much in evidence. Updike is a master at summing up careers: from the letters of Kafka, Joyce, Flaubert and Hemingway he assembles what amount to brief critical biographies, interpreting the life and work with the intuitive sympathy of a fellow practitioner. After all, Updike himself has been turning out novels and short stories at the prodigious rate of a volume a year, and knows the business from the inside. Genial but strict, he assesses his subjects as if they were people he knew, noting Whitman’s ‘good humour’, Joyce’s ‘tireless self-regard’, Edmund Wilson’s ‘dogged honesty’. In a coy foreword, he pretends to be diffident about his criticism (‘Another book. Another slain forest’), and sets himself up as an amateur, dabbling in criticism to pay his alimony. But for all his good-natured modesty, he can be the fiercest of critics. His demolition of Harold Pinter’s Proust Screenplay leaves that ludicrous enterprise in ruins, and he shows no hesitation about declaring Gunter Grass’s recipe-crammed novel, The Flounder, to be pretty thin fare; his own consumption of it, he confesses, was ‘spurred on by no other hunger than the puritanical craving to leave a clean plate’.
Up until now, Updike has generally stayed away from his American contemporaries, confining himself to safely dead precursors or novelists of other nationalities, as if it would be rude to train such a considerable intelligence on the competition. But lately he’s been looking over the work of potential challengers – and without a trace of that competitive territorial urge that has driven Norman Mailer to his occasional bullying evaluations of ‘the talent in the room’. Discussing Bellow’s two most recent novels, Updike radiates a calm assurance; his tone is deferential but unsparing, and he shores up his objections with examples that make his case seem irrefutable. Comparing the opening sentences of Humboldt’s Gift and The Adventures of Augie March, he scarcely interprets what he’s quoted, but the difference is there for all to see: the powerful declamatory style giving way to diffuse rhetoric, the fierce dignity of Augie March giving way to the hectic garrulity of Charles Citrine ... Bellow’s a marvellous, vivid writer, Updike assures us, a passionate moralist, a large-souled guy. He just has a couple of minor complaints: all of Bellow’s characters sound the same; the plot is implausible; his ‘omnipresent, amorphous, self-regarding narrator’ is a tiresome fellow; and Bellow’s hopped-up prose – ‘a static of human busyness’ – gets in the way of his ideas. I doubt whether anyone who reads these tolerant but damaging reviews will ever feel quite the same about Bellow’s later work again.
It’s commonplace among reviewers to say that Updike is our greatest critic since Edmund Wilson (I’ve done it myself, according to the flap copy on the American edition). But they really have very little in common. For all his obsessive thoroughness, Wilson was somewhat insensitive to language: what he cared about was the plot, the background, the personal history behind the book in hand, and how it compared with the author’s other books. Updike is almost preternaturally aware of words, registering Iris Murdoch’s repetition of ‘terrible’ and ‘terrible terrible’; Wilson’s persistent recourse to the mildly revolting adjective ‘meaty’ in his repertoire of sexual imagery; Bellow’s fixation in The Dean’s December on the muscularity of his characters. And where Wilson’s critical prose was brusque and matter-of-fact, Updike’s is subtle and finely worked. Of Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature, he concludes: ‘Tinted windows overlooking seven masterpieces, they are as enhancing as “the harlequin pattern of coloured panes” through which Nabokov as a child, while he was being read to on the porch of his summer home, would gaze out at his family’s garden.’ And of Flaubert’s masterpiece: ‘Madame Bovary is like the railroad stations erected in its epoch: graceful, even floral, but cast of iron.’ Updike is so conscious of balance, proportion, aesthetic effect that he even scrutinises the physical properties of the books under review. Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies is an ‘oversize, unhandy volume’, and the offset-printed text ‘lacks the memory of metallic impact and its warmth’. A collection of tributes to W.H. Auden is faulted for its ‘embalming opulence’, a volume of Kafka’s letters for its pricey bulk: ‘the print seems small and the price big; soaking the captive audience of the college libraries also dampens those few devotees who wish to come privately to the Kafka chapter.’
This textual attentiveness and literary grace has always been a feature of Updike’s criticism, but Hugging the Shore has a weightiness about it that doesn’t derive from its heft alone, a substantiality belied by the self-deprecating foreword and the cover photograph of the smiling author in bermuda shorts, sitting in a dinghy. The essays on Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman especially reveal a new depth. At once scholarly and informal – they were originally delivered as talks – they summarise the authors’ works; allude to the religious attitudes and historical events that touched their lives; and, by venturing to speculate on their inner natures, make them real to us, once-living men. To convey the full import of Melville’s disastrous literary career to a contemporary audience, he estimates what his sales figures would be today. Discussing Leaves of Grass, he marvels at the modern references to baseball and photographs – and, even more surprising, that phrase out of the personal columns, ‘well hung’. And when he reminds us that Hawthorne believed ‘man’s spirit matters, that the soul can be distorted, stained and lost,’ he states it not as some 19th-century idea, but as a conviction of his own.
Melville ceased to write, Updike surmises, because ‘he had spent the artistic capital laid up in his youth.’ Updike’s own career has luckily gone in the opposite direction. He thriftily let knowledge accrue until it could be redeemed as wisdom. In these lectures he’s tacitly measuring himself against the great 19th-century Americans whose legitimate heir he’s now become.
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