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Chapter 7 - The Common Reader as Critic
The ‘meaning of life’ is really the center about which the novel moves.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
Reading the best criticism is important and worthwhile, but you cannot rely on the word of experts, because the experts do not agree. George Steiner asserted that a consensus would never be reached, because profound art works are so different that it’s simply impossible for one person to like them all. As an extended example, his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky argues that a person can deeply admire Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but not both of them. I find this to be true, as I consider Dostoevsky among the greatest novelist in history (Proust, Rand and Cervantes being the other three in the top rank), and while I enjoyed War and Peace, in the end I considered it little more than a good historical novel.
Every thinking reader will prefer a different set of works, and in different ways, than anyone else. It will never be aesthetically ‘wrong’ to like or dislike a particular novel; politically wrong, perhaps, or even socially or ethnically wrong, but never aesthetically. As Rand wrote, “…it’s every man for himself—and only for himself.” (1)
It is helpful for a writer to explicitly identify his or her own critical criteria: it could be based on any number of things: beauty, politics, religion, philosophy, personal values, a particular aesthetic vision, individual ‘sense of life’, a favorite region, a specific sensibility, poetics, technical accomplishment, plot, character, other-worldness – anything. What gives the greatest pleasure, and why? What is distasteful to read? Developing a clear understanding will help replicate the admired effects, and avoid distaste.
Criticism is not the warm expression of sentiment but the cool exposition of a man standing back and viewing with relatively cold eyes the object upon which he is to descant. Indeed, in its final depths, criticism is the explanation of the appeal made by a work of art to humanity. The critic—and the literary historian must be critical—must make a constatation, not primarily of the merits of the work but of the nature of its appeal. He must not say—at any rate, primarily—whether he likes a subject or not. Here is Dante; he has millions of readers. For hundreds of years his fame has endured and shows no trace of failing. The critic must analyze the causes for that appeal. It is only when he throws off his robes of office that he is at liberty to become a man and to state his preferences. (2)
Somerset Maugham’s list of the ten greatest novels: (3)
I will leave the academic and literary historians to address the reasons particular works remain classics in our culture. For me, it is time, in Ford’s words, to ‘throw off’ the robes and state preferences.
The critical judgments that follow are not definitive, and the reader is not expected to be convinced. Instead, they serve as an extended example of how one working writer applies a particular critical paradigm to specific works. At some point, every novelist should be able to do the same, albeit with different results.
I return again and again to great novels, either to read or simply to contemplate. They become part of my world – the characters, the events, the drama, the thematic substance. I read, in Harold Bloom’s words, “to confront greatness.” (4) I want to imaginatively experience the wonders of a potential universe, one with no limits, to travel to the ends of human creation. To see, to think, to wander, to wonder. I want to be surprised and pleased; impressed and fascinated; entertained and captivated. I want it all; love, war, absurdity, wit, intelligence, grace, courage, friendship, tragedy, redemption, victory and defeat. And if it’s done well, it becomes part of my human universe, part of my soul, like the closest of friends, ones that live next door and can be visited at any hour, any day, for as long or as briefly as I please.
Works I dislike I don’t wish to revisit at all. I have no desire to re-encounter Joe Christmas, or spend a boring evening with the mildly pathetic Leopold Bloom. Why wander Pynchon’s post-WWII Europe again? Once is plenty.
I demand more from prose fiction—and novels in particular—than from poetry or pure expository prose. Meaning resides in what people say (dialogue), do (plot/action), and think. Who they are. When the text breaks the connection between language and what takes place, we either get gibberish or poetry. Thomas Wolfe, with his poetic prose, comes close to breaking this connection in his novels, while Faulkner breaks it altogether in the literary parts of The Bear (the sections that do not relate to the actual hunt). Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow never establishes it.
It goes almost without saying that gibberish—or something that at first glance looks like gibberish—is one of the most interesting things an artist can create. That statement will not seem curious to the experienced reader, but it is interesting and a little surprising to notice that hacks and primitive artistic dabblers—always so quick to steal true art’s devices—almost never use gibberish. It veers too close to true poetry, to the absolute seriousness of the divinely mad. For true poetry it has always been one of the noblest inventions, now riddling, now oracular, now heightening a dramatic effect in Dostoevsky, Dickens, or Melville. Shakespeare made it his specialty, not only in the ravings and ramblings of characters like Lear and Hamlet, the pointed lunacy of fools and bumpkins, but also in more out-of-the-way places, like the syntactically blurry underwater song “Full Fathom Five.” In modern fiction seeming gibberish provides some of the most moving and thought-provoking passages in the work of Joyce, Dos Passos, Anderson, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, William Burroughs, John Hawkes, William Gaddis, and Joyce Carol Oates—to name only the most obvious. (5)
I would agree with Gardner if he consistently treated the word ‘gibberish’ synonymously with ‘poetry’, as we give full literary license and impose no constraints on the poetic use of language. But gibberish, by common agreement, means something very different. Poetry can utterly revel in language; its meaning can be deeply veiled, or entirely personal; we prohibit no images; insist on no particular structure, syntax, grammar or vocabulary. We can call Finnegan’s Wake one long poem, perhaps the finest ever written (I am not qualified to say), but we cannot consider it a good or successful novel because we cannot understand what takes place, or is intended to take place, in Joyce’s fictional world. “I shall never believe in the success of a school of literature that expresses difficult thoughts in an obscure language,” (6) Proust writes. Let alone scrambling simple thoughts to make them difficult, obscuring little worth revealing:
Finnegan’s Wake is less an example of the inscrutable ways of genius than an instance of genius having run out of raw material, an artist who found himself with nothing but his own works on his hands. Through technique Joyce endeavored to make it new. I believe this is why it will largely remain impenetrable—not because it seems so verbally opaque, but because it conceals so little of interest…Little new has been added but the difficulty. In solving the puzzle the reader has solved nothing else. (7)
Language for its own sake is not enough. Impressive technical/special effects in no way compensates for lack of character, plot, coherence, or discernable aesthetic design:
The writer must guard against reflecting excessively upon language, must avoid making it the substance of his obsessions, must never forget that the important works have been created despite language. A Dante was obsessed by what he had to say, not by the saying of it. (8)
Pure gibberish, as opposed to poetry, doesn’t mean anything – not to the writer, not to the reader. Some of Gertrude Stein’s work may serve as an example. A miscellaneous jumble of words strung together without explicit intent. Sort of like Jackson Pollack’s approach to painting. It would take a miracle for something worthwhile to emerge from such a process.
A novel, on the other hand, begins with words, and ends in something far more. Take the word ‘river’. The dictionary defines it as
a natural stream of water of fairly large size flowing in a definite course or channel or series of diverging and converging channels.
Now let’s put the word ‘river’ into a particular context:
This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four miles an hour. We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn’t ever feel like talking aloud, and it warn’t often that we laughed—only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all—that night, nor the next, nor the next. (9)
Now the word ‘river’ is invested—within the context of Huckleberry Finn—with meaning that is broader and deeper than the Mississippi itself, meaning that can neither be precisely defined nor adequately paraphrased. Mark Twain puts you on that raft with Huck and Jim, and you experience their simple peace and freedom as they drift downstream—utterly the wrong direction, as it turns out, for a runaway slave. In the following paragraph we encounter another river, yet under considerably different circumstances:
Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps. (10)
In this case, instead of purposelessly drifting downriver like Jim and Huck, Marlowe deliberately travels against the natural flow in order to confront the enigmatic Kurtz, a journey that penetrates into the heart of civilized humanity, the African river as central to the story as the Mississippi in Huckleberry Finn.
In the end, a good novel means something more than the sum of the words used within it. Something entire must emerge, in the best novels, something that can only be expressed in the writing of it, and understood in its reading. This might be, according to Milan Kundera, “What the novel alone can discover: man’s being.” (11) In addition, a novel should be an integrated whole, where every paragraph and scene contribute to the overall effect, and where in the end, we, as the reader, understand why every element happened just like it did.
Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities is one of the few exceptions to my critical requirement that a novel stand as an ‘integrated whole’. Most of what happens takes place in Ulrich’s head, or within a more or less domestic environment. Musil never finished this wonderful book, so there is no final meaning, no coming together in the end of all the fictional threads that have been woven in the narrative, no holistic theme. Yet I am compelled by this novel, every page and every paragraph, even the unfinished material at the end. I don’t believe that he ever would have completed it, based on the substance of these notes. Perhaps he didn’t even understood how it should end.
Musil is one of three authors—Proust and Powys are the other two—whose world I love to visit just for the sake of the language, substance, characters and sensibility. Proust and Powys, though, provide more narrative completion and thematic purpose than Musil, making their novels, I suppose, ‘better’. John Updike expressed something similar to Schopenhauer when he wrote:
I distrust books involving spectacular people, or spectacular events. Let People and The National Enquirer pander to our taste for the extraordinary; let literature concern itself, as the Gospels do, with the inner lives of hidden men. The collective consciousness that once found itself in the noble must now rest content with the typical. (12)
I am guilty of writing books involving ‘spectacular people’ and ‘spectacular events’. Regardless of my personal proclivity to write such novels, I take general exception to resting ‘content with the typical’ and leaving aside ‘the noble’. This may be the key for my distaste with Ulysses (see below) and my appreciation for Rand. She pursues the noble, and explicitly attempts to portray an ‘ideal man’. She means this gender-specifically, believing that a woman could never attain the ideal. This leads to an ironic critical judgment: while I contend that she partially failed in her portrayal of John Galt—her model of human perfection—she succeeded in creating one of the greatest female characters in literary history in Dagny Taggart. Updike, on the other hand, contents himself with tracking the life of Rabbit Angstrom, the epitome of the common man. I have read five thick volumes of Updike’s commentary, and enjoyed every word. He is a near-great writer, a wonderful wit, an acute literary and artistic observer with a wonderful sensibility—when he writes about the art of others. His novels, however, seem to conform to his statement above (although Witches of Eastwick seems fairly ‘spectacular’, if the movie is any indication) leaving me uninterested in pursuing his fiction further.
Aside from the common/noble distinction, it seems that speculative fiction in general, including fantasy and science fiction, get little critical respect. Yet many works within the canon are pure fantasy, or close to it: The Odyssey, Gulliver’s Travels, The Divine Comedy, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, Midnight’s Children, The Metamorphoses, just to mention a few. “Yet what could be more enduring than certain works of fantasy?” Valery writes. “The untrue and the wonderful are more human than the ‘real’ man.” (13) Speculative fiction presents endless possibilities for the novelist, along with deeper challenges:
And then of course as science fiction came out of the pure monster and robot phase and started to do other things, it became a very efficient vehicle for both social satire, and for investigation of the human character in a different way from the straightforward novel: humanity’s character considered as a single thing, rather than the characters of individual begins reacting on one another. Of course many science-fiction writers aren’t equipped to tackle these rather grand themes, but I think it might well happen. So in one way science fiction is more ambitious than the novel we’re used to, because these great abstractions can be discussed: immortality, how we feel about the future, what the future means to us, and how much even we’re at the mercy of what’s happened in the past. All these things it can do. (14)
While most SciFi/Fantasy is forgettable genre fiction (but then again, most fiction is) I admire the classic Sci-fi writers Heinlein, Herbert and Clarke. I am less familiar with recent writers, but found Alastair Reynold’s novels Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, and Absolution Gap very good. They were well written, wonderfully imagined, deeply structured with well-drawn characters. As an astrophysicist, Reynold’s injects interesting speculative science throughout.
Tolkien is a good example of a fantasy author with many admirers who has not yet been embraced by the literary community. I think John Gardner has it right when he writes:
The longer we look at it, the more impressive The Lord of the Rings becomes; and the more we see of Tolkien’s other work, the more miraculous it seems that the powers should have granted him that great trilogy….The Lord of the Rings looms already as one of the truly great works of the human spirit…rich characterization, imagistic brilliance, powerfully imagined and detailed sense of place, and thrilling adventure. (15)
Here is a good example of how two people can like one thing, yet totally disagree on another. Where John Gardner and myself consider The Lord of the Rings deserving of more respect, I consider Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 the finest American novel written in the latter half of the 20th century (I now consider Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as the best American novel in the first half). John Gardner thinks that
For all its popularity a few years ago, we need not say anything now about Catch-22. It was in its moment interesting and amusing, but it reads now like old news, still funny in many places but remote, nostalgically curious.
…Heller refuses to take any bold, potentially embarrassing moral stand. (16)
This statement baffles me. In the same effective manner that Picasso depicted the evil bombing of an innocent village in his painting Guernica, Heller expressed the utter ridiculousness of organized mass destruction in Catch-22. In modern war, horror overwhelms the heroes; suffering engulfs and smothers the glory; absurdity trumps respect and decency. My respect for this novel stems from my own disgust with human warfare, its utter uselessness, and how Heller successfully renders the terrible human truth of it.
Heller is no stylist. His prose is simple and unadorned. The novel’s strength lies in its patchwork structure, as many narrative threads weave forwards and backwards in time, one hilarious encounter after another, the mosaic constructed piece by ridiculous piece. And through it all runs ‘Snowden’s secret’—the one sequence that progresses chronologically throughout the novel, until its final, terrible, inevitable conclusion, triggering Yossarian’s epiphany.
Gardner takes issue with Heller’s refusal to “take any bold, potentially embarrassing moral stand,” yet it seems to me that Heller’s statement is unequivocally moral. Orr decides, bravely. So does Yossarian, eventually. Heller’s morality is potentially embarrassing with respect to an entire tradition, beginning with Homer, one that glorifies war and the men who conduct it. I believe that Catch-22 is a uniquely American novel, one that couldn’t have been written by anyone else, from any other literary tradition. It stands uniquely alone, for better or worse. For me, very very good. For John Gardner, forgettable.
I am reminded of the Marquis de Sade, that famous sexual rebel, that supposed martyr to the cause of sexual freedom—when one actually opens his books, he turns out to be not a rebel at all but a fantasist whose idea of sexual pleasure is always something so extreme, perverse and complicated that only the mind can imagine it—as only the mind can stage it. (17)
While we differ on Heller, we find common ground when John Gardner writes “Shakespeare at his worst is better than de Sade at his best.” (18) Not a difficult judgment to make (although according to some experts, Shakespeare can be pretty bad at times) but an interesting one. The Marquis de Sade engenders a surprising amount of respect, given the nature of his work. According to Susan Sontag
it was the discussion of Sade after 1945 that really consolidated his position as an inexhaustible point of departure for radical thinking about the human condition. The well-known essay of Beauvior, the indefatigable scholarly biography undertaken by Gilbert Lely, and writings as yet untranslated of Blanchot, Paulhan, Bataille, Klossowski, and Leiris are the most eminent documents of the postwar re-evaluation which secured this astonishingly hardy modification of French literary sensibility. The quality and theoretical density of the French interest in Sade remains virtually incomprehensible to English and American literary intellectuals, for whom Sade is perhaps an exemplary figure in the history of psychopathology, both individual and social, but inconceivable as someone to be taken seriously as a “thinker.” (19)
It’s quite possible that I don’t possess the cultural context necessary to fully appreciate Sade, and while I have read Bataille and Klossowski (in translation) I haven’t made a comprehensive study of Sade’s work, and don’t intend to. With this qualification of my lack of qualification, I would assert that if Sade actually achieved what his commentators claim, that is, had he effectively depicted pure evil, seriously undermined traditional morality, or upset the foundations of western culture, than perhaps he would deserve the attention. Bataille summarizes as follows:
De Sade seems to reason somewhat after this manner: the individual of today possesses a certain amount of strength; most of the time he wastes his strength by using it for the benefit of such simulacra as other people, God or ideas. He does wrong to disperse his energy in this way for he exhausts his potentialities by wasting them…He grows feeble by spending his strength in vain and he spends his strength because he thinks he is feeble. But the true man knows himself to be alone and accepts the fact; he denies every element in his own nature, inherited from seventeen centuries of cowardice, that is concerned with others than himself; pity, gratitude and love, for example, are emotions that he will destroy; through their destruction he regains all the strength he would have had to bestow on these debilitating impulses, and more important he acquires from this labor of destruction the beginnings of true energy. (20)
He goes on to write that “The remarkable thing is that de Sade starts from an attitude of utter irresponsibility and ends with one of stringent self-control.” (21) I find myself unconvinced by Bataille. Sade’s novels would be unbearably horrific had his characters and their behavior been plausibly rendered, say by Dickens or Dostoevsky, and that might have made them aesthetically worthwhile. But Sade is a terrible writer, and a superficial thinker. “There is no personal consciousness,” Sontag writes, “except that of the author, in Sade’s books.” Further:
Sade’s express train of outrages tears along an interminable but level track. His descriptions are too schematic to be sensuous. The fictional actions are illustrations, rather, of his relentlessly repeated ideas. (22)
His novels are so stupidly laughable that it’s not possible to take them seriously:
People often die in Sade’s books. But these deaths always seem unreal. They’re no more convincing than those mutilations inflicted during the evening’s orgies from which the victims recover completely the next morning following the use of a wondrous salve…. (23)
The sensibility of his novels is juvenile, as if two imaginatively disturbed 14-year-old boys got together and listed, between themselves, characters and scenarios intended to shock their parents and teachers. While Henry Miller wrote about Sade with respect, and indicated how “enormously” excited he got reading anything “for or against” the man, he admits that “I have actually read very little of all he has written, and this little I read without much pleasure or profit.” (24)
While I actively dislike many canonical novels of Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy and Updike, I greatly respect the authors, and would never turn anyone away from their work. These writers appeal to many intelligent and sensitive readers, and I perceive in their work sincere aesthetic intent. Sade, on the other hand, adds nothing to literature, art or philosophy, and can safely be avoided. He is not even good pornography.
With my complete sympathy, John Gardner takes issue with Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:
We may defend Gravity’s Rainbow as a satire, but whether it is meant to be satire or sober analysis is not clear. It is a fact that, even to the rainbow of bombs said to be circling us, the world is not as Pynchon says it is. That may not matter in this book—the reader must judge—but it would be disastrous in a book impossible to read as satire. (25)
That the aesthetically sensitive Gardner doesn’t know how to read Pynchon’s novel speaks volumes against it. Gore Vidal hit the critical nail on the head when he wrote that
Eventually, the text exhausts patience and energy. In fact, I suspect that the energy expended in reading Gravity’s Rainbow is, for anyone, rather greater than that expended by Pynchon in the actual writing. (26)
And yet prior to Gravity’s Rainbow Thomas Pynchon wrote the wonderful novel The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa Maas is one of the most fascinating characters in modern American literature, and I found, as a long-time resident of the Golden State, his depiction of California culture compelling. I am hoping to find his early novel V. more like the latter and less the former.
Perhaps the most eccentric critical judgment of mine (aside from my appreciation of Ayn Rand) concerns Hemingway. Most critics prefer his early work, in particular The Sun Also Rises and his early short stories. A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls are reasonably well liked, while Across the River and into the Trees, and To Have and Have Not are rightly dismissed as inferior. My favorites though, are two novels he wrote in the 50’s: The Old Man and the Sea (commonly considered a minor masterpiece, so nothing controversial in my appreciation) and Islands in the Stream, a novel edited by his 4th wife and published posthumously. Here’s what John Updike had to say about it:
Islands in the Stream (1970) was a thoroughly ugly book, brutal and messy and starring a painter-sailor hero whose humanity was almost entirely dissolved in barroom jabber and Hollywood heroics. (27)
As an American writer in the 20th century, I was drawn to Hemingway, both by his fiction and his biography. Few writers have had such an impact on both literature and popular culture, and little written in English today escapes his influence. He developed into a massive personality: writer, fighter, wounded ambulance driver, big-game hunter and fisherman, correspondent, bullfighting aficionado, admirer of pre-Franco Spain, resident of pre-Castro Cuba, Key West, Ketchum Idaho, among the first to liberate Paris in 1944, literary stylist, Nobel Prize recipient, victim of his own cult of personality, suicide…
After reading practically everything Hemingway wrote, along with several biographies and his letters, I developed an appreciation for his strengths and weaknesses, both as a man and an artist. In my reading of Islands in the Stream, Hemingway fictionally atones for many of his flaws and some of his mistakes, including:
Not that any of this justifies my appreciation for the novel—I simply enjoyed reading and re-reading it, and all this critical perspective came much later. However, if you must take someone else’s critical opinion for your own, my suggestion would be to follow Updike, as he has far more credibility. Or you could read Hemingway and decide for yourself.
Sometimes you can discover interesting literary insights without the help of critics. When I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey, they struck me as oddly different. I felt that it was unlikely that they were authored by the same person, and wrote a paper making the case. Years later I read this:
It points to a conviction which many readers have held from the start. The two epics are profoundly different; different in tone, in formal structure, and, most important, in their vision of life. The Homeric question, therefore, goes beyond problems of authorship and text. It must deal with the literary and psychological relations between the Iliad and the Odyssey. (28)
Even though my insight wasn’t original, it was to me, and as Schopenhauer has pointed out, those personally realized insights are particularly rewarding:
The difference between the effect produced on the mind by thinking for yourself and that produced by reading is incredibly great. (29)
There is one major aspect of the Odyssey, though, that I have never read (although I am sure it exists somewhere). Every fantastic creature and supernatural occurrence in the poem has something in common, including the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis, Circe and his journey to Hades. None of these scenes takes place within the narrative, but instead, occur within stories told—ala Conrad—by Odysseus. And unlike Conrad’s reliable narrators, we have direct evidence, within the text itself, that Odysseus is a pathological liar.
When he finally returns to Ithaca ten years after the war, he tells an elaborate tale to the swineherd, a story we know is false. This story-telling might be considered tactically justified, given the circumstances, but later, after he has regained the throne and rejoined Penelope, the only thing left to do is tell his father the good news. Once Odysseus finds the old man, instead of saying something like “Dad, I’m home!” Odysseus pretends to be somebody else, and needlessly tells his father a tall tell, one that entails the death of his son, bringing tears to the old man’s eyes. There is no reason to lie, but Odysseus can’t help himself, even when it causes needless pain.
So, Odysseus not only lied to Polyphemus (he told him his name was ‘Nobody’); he lied about lying to Polyphemus. The Cyclops never existed, at least not in Odysseus’ experience. He lied about everything. That being the case, it is surprising that all the commentary—both classical and modern—takes his fantastic adventures seriously, as if they actually take place within the narrative.
The fact is, we don’t know what happened to Odysseus. All we know is that he left Troy after the war with a full crew and arrived in Ithaca ten years later alone. We don’t know what happened to his crew, and we can’t trust Odysseus to tell us, yet for some reason most readers do.
If you consider Proust’s In Search of Lost Time one novel, then it ranks as the greatest novel in Western Literature. If, however, you consider In Search of Lost Time as seven novels, and compare it to Dostoevsky’s principle works (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, Poor Folk, Notes From Underground) and Ayn Rand’s major novels (Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, We the Living and Anthem) than the three authors match up pretty even in my mind, despite their drastically different style, sensibility and thematic content. I would be hard pressed to pick one of them as the greatest Western novelist. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, also in my top rank, would fair favorably against any one novel of these three authors, but not their entire oeuvre.
Reading In Search of Lost Time is like living the sensitive narrator’s entire existence, one far richer than my own. There is more feeling, substance, perception, irony, intelligence and humor than any other single novel, and the great sweep of lived experience through seven volumes and some 3000 pages forms a wonderful whole, a completion to Marcel’s life, one that comes full circle, from his ruminations in Combray, through his return to society after a long illness, an absence that provides the perspective (both his and ours) to note what changes, and what never does. His creative remembrance assembles an understanding that can never be achieved in any one moment, but takes an entire lifetime.
A beautiful work of art—Proust’s [In Search of Lost Time]…—is better than its creator but also is its creator, Marcel Proust transmuted from neurotic and spiteful invalid to heroic man. The beauty of the book in turn infects the reader, whose increase value glorifies the book. (30)
The novel is criticized for its length, for the uninterrupted paragraphs that go on for pages, and the long, complex sentences that fill the volumes and bores some readers. This is a fair criticism—it took me a long time to get through the first half of the first volume, as nothing really seemed to happen. But once I reached the second half (Swann in Love), I was hooked, and after re-reading the entire novel, found myself completely enjoying the first part of Swann’s Way. I admire all of it, even the disdained 5th and 6th volumes, and while some argue that much of it can be skipped, I wouldn’t recommend it.
I always enjoy immersing myself within the text, as Proust is perhaps the finest stylist in literature. Schopenhauer once wrote that, “The first rule, indeed by itself virtually a sufficient condition for good style, is to have something to say.” (31) Proust always had something to say. His long, meandering sentences were lengthy because he packed so much meaning into them: substance in every line. No gibberish. Nothing unnecessary or unimportant. And I think that’s what distinguishes his work from ‘pure’ stylists, authors who expect to be enjoyed for the poetic combination of words they assemble, and not necessarily for what those words mean.
When I first read Proust many years ago, I knew nothing of his novel and had no idea what to expect. While I don’t consider myself a particularly sensitive reader (which is one of the reasons I like Dostoevsky and Rand so much—there is nothing subtle in their work) I marked the following passage as something special:
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate than a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on one the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? (32)
Without knowing it at the time, I had discovered the principle passage, and the central idea, to the entire novel. Once I understood the basic structure, and some of the thematic intention, I found reading In Search of Lost Time endlessly compelling.
But, as Somerset Maugham has pointed out, “even the greatest novels are not perfect.”33 In Search of Lost Time is no exception. Gore Vidal relates a glaring discrepancy in a major character:
As it turned out, each [Edmond Wilson and Thornton Wilder] had been reading the new installment of Proust’s novel and Wilson was delighted to find that Wilder thought Saint Loup’s homosexuality unjustified. (34)
Not only unjustified, but completely arbitrary. Assuming that people are born with their sexuality intact, that it doesn’t suddenly change, and is not freely chosen (at least by most of us), under no possible circumstances can Robert be gay. In the first place, his affair with Rachel is far too passionate and convincing to be feigned. Secondly, Robert never makes advances on the narrator, even when the two spend intimate time together. If he did, we would know it, in the same way we know that Charlus made such attempts. I suspect Proust meant to say something like ‘If Robert can be an “invert”, anybody can, and that makes it okay.’ And while it’s certainly okay for someone to be gay, we can’t accept Robert’s homosexuality, and remain unconvinced.
No two names have been more connected in 20th century literature than Proust and Joyce:
Has this man read Proust? If anything, Proust is the culmination of a long literary tradition known as ‘the novel,’ arguably the epitome of the tradition. Since Proust, the novel has gone many directions, Joyce in one extreme, Hemingway in another.
Lumping Proust in with Woolf and Joyce is senseless. There is nothing confusing in Proust, nothing uninterpretable or ‘hazy’.
More accurately, with Proust the traditional novel reaches its full potential, whereas with Joyce entirely new directions are taken.
Here are a couple from Alfred Kazin’s Contemporaries:
This comment seems very applicable to Proust, but not to Joyce (of course, you can say just about anything about Joyce and nobody can conclusively refute it).
Proust wrote the deepest, most profound traditional novel in history. There is nothing experimental about it, whereas Joyce experimented continuously in Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake.
This linking the names of Joyce and Proust would be inexplicable if it happened even once, let alone the near ubiquity of the reference. A tremendous aesthetic gulf separates these two authors. They cannot be meaningfully compared, other than to demonstrate an immense literary contrast. Proust is a literary master, while the novels of Joyce (as characterized by Borges) ‘vast’ and ‘unreadable’, a daunting combination that renders them negligible and beneath serious consideration. The only legitimate sentence (other them the one that begins this paragraph) containing the two authors should read something like ‘No two contemporaneous authors could possibly be more different than Joyce and Proust, and every gratuitous pairing of the two names should be stricken from the language.’
Terry Eagleton delivers this devastating assessment of Joyce:
Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are examples of high literature which are also subversive assaults on it—monstrous, unreadable anti-novels crammed with obscenities, chunks of popular culture and offensives against syntax and grammar… (43)
Not an assault on a particular society, mind you, or convention, violence, war, the abuse of power, the plight of women in the Islamic world, but instead, an assault on the very means—literary art—that may serve as an agent of positive change and enlightenment (although this is not the purpose of literary fiction).
From this common reader’s point of view, Joyce’s novels are drastically over-rated. Ulysses was ranked as the Board’s selection for the top novel written in English in the 20th century, with Finnegans Wake coming in at number 77. (Joyce’s first novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, was ranked in the third spot. While this seems high to me, I have no major quarrel with it. Written in a traditional style [we understand what takes place], it is a respectable account of a young man losing his religion and finding art. Even so, it’s not particularly noteworthy, and I actually prefer Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, a novel with a similar theme. In any case, these general remarks do not apply to it.)
After reading Ulysses (and re-reading it prior to completing this essay), sampling Finnegan’s Wake and perusing various critical works over the past fifteen years, including Stuart Gilbert’s book on Ulysses, I have found nothing that justifies the critical appreciation of these two novels. Quite the contrary. Most commentators pass along some general remark like Bloom’s (see above), a passing reference to Joyce’s genius, indicating, I suppose, their adherence to the literary canon, marking themselves as sophisticates saluting ‘the master’. For example, Erica Jong (a literary giant in her own right) indicates that
As with Ulysses, not a page fails to amaze; not a page fails to reward the most diligent rereading. (44)
Bloom actually writes extensively and appreciatively of Joyce, with apparently sincere admiration. Very few of them, other than Bloom, offer any substance to support the generalization. It makes me wonder how many commentators admire Joyce simply because they are expected to admire him.
Elizabeth Hardwick makes an insightful comment when she asserts that “Joyce is difficult because he has more knowledge, more language, more rhythmical musicality than the reader can easily summon.” (45) Being difficult doesn’t make something bad (or good). I consider Henry James difficult, but worth the effort. However, as Terry Eagleton points out
You can be difficult without being obscure. Difficulty is a matter of content, whereas obscurity is a question of how you present that content. It is true that there are some ideas, not least in science, which cannot be adequately simplified. Not all wisdom is simple and spontaneous. ‘The secret of all great art is its simplicity’ is simplistic nonsense. Yet it is possible to write clearly about some esoteric issues, just as some theorists manage with heroic perversity to write esoterically about plain ones. (46)
If you changed the word ‘theorists’ to ‘novelists’ in the last line, you could apply this comment directly to Joyce, as his subject matter is incredibly plain:
Joyce’s work stands out among the other great modernist writers in several ways. It has, to begin with, the quality of being magnificently commonplace. Not just banal, trivial and prosaic, but triumphantly, remorselessly so. Rarely has so poetic a writer had such a prosaic imagination. (47)
Harold Bloom echoes Eagleton:
Since Joyce is an astonishing master of what most would consider trivia, we certainly know more details concerning Poldy than we know of Hamlet or Falstaff. (48)
John Gardner writes that “Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses is as it is because it cannot be otherwise and mean what it has to mean.” (49) I can respect this judgment – unfortunately this is just about the best that can be said for the passage. Who wants to get lost again within Molly’s rambling daydream, one that lasts 41 pages without one comma or semi-colon to provide aesthetic pause, let alone a period? But perhaps that is the problem:
Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses makes perfect sense, a renowned Joycean once assured me, if you put in the punctuation which Joyce left out. (50)
Actually, it makes sense enough, it just isn’t worth reading.
Harold Bloom insists that “Ulysses is a pleasure, difficult but available, for the common reader of intelligence and goodwill.” (51) I don’t know about intelligence (perhaps that’s my problem), but certainly mountains of goodwill are required to get through it once, let alone to willingly re-visit any of it. George Orwell makes an effort to explain the value of the work, and how it might be considered a ‘pleasure’:
Joyce actually is more of a “pure artist” than most writers. But Ulysses could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with word-patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is “Here is life without God. Just look at it!” and his technical innovations, important though they are, are there primarily to serve this purpose.
He goes on to indicate why all this mundane detail is worthwhile:
The truly remarkable thing about Ulysses, for instance, is the commonplaceness of its material. Of course there is much more in Ulysses than this, because Joyce is a kind of poet and also an elephantine pedant, but his real achievement has been to get the familiar onto paper. He dared—for it is matter of daring just as much as of technique—to expose the imbecilities of the inner mind, and in doing so he discovered an America which was under everybody’s nose. Here is a whole world of stuff which you have lived with since childhood, stuff which you supposed to be of its nature incommunicable, and somebody has managed to communicate it. The effect is to break down, at any rate momentarily, the solitude in which the human being lives. When you read certain passages in Ulysses you feel that Joyce’s mind and your mind are one, that he knows all about you though he has never heard your name, that there exists some world outside time and space in which you and he are together. (52)
I find the reference to ‘America’ interesting, as neither Joyce nor Orwell were Americans (unless he means by ‘America’ an undiscovered or undeveloped country, or perhaps one dominated by the mundane). And my lack of sympathy prevented the kind of author/reader connection he mentions, discounting its literary value for me. Julia Kristeva takes a different tack, when she insists that we must
listen to Celine, Artaud, or Joyce, and read their texts in order to understand that the aim of this practice, which reaches us as a language, is, through the signification of the nevertheless transmitted message, not only to impose a music, a rhythm—that is, a polyphony—but also to wipe out sense through nonsense and laughter. This is a difficult operation that obliges the reader not so much to combine significations as to shatter his own judging consciousness in order to grant passage through it to this rhythmic drive constituted by repression and, once filtered by language and its meaning, experienced as jouissance. Could the resistance against modern literature be evidence of an obsession with meaning, of an unfitness for such jouissance? (53)
I admit to being obsessed with ‘meaning’, and perhaps unable to ‘grant passage through’ my own ‘judging consciousness’ of the ‘rhythm’ and the ‘polyphony’ of Joyce’s work. I do believe, though, that often, if not most of the time, we enjoy an art object without knowing explicitly why. (Rand would vehemently disagree, and insist that every emotional response is subject to rational explanation: “No human emotion can be causeless,” she writes, “nor can so intense an emotion be causeless, irreducible and unrelated to the source of emotions [and of values]” (54)). We don’t need to justify the pleasure we take in something. If Harold Bloom truly enjoys reading Ulysses (he is the only writer I can recall saying so) I believe him. His extensive commentary, though, remains unpersuasive. Even Borges, who writes about Ulysses with respect, admits that “I (like the rest of the universe) have not read Ulysses…” (55)
As mentioned earlier, Somerset Maugham provides a guideline for evaluating novels. A ‘good novel’, he writes, is one having
a widely interesting theme, by which I mean a theme interesting not only to a clique, whether of critics, professors, highbrows, truck drivers or dish washers, but so broadly human that it is interesting to men and women of all sorts. (56)
In keeping with the general difficulty of Ulysses, identifying a specific theme proves problematic. George Orwell writes that the “one great fault of Ulysses”
is that it is impossible to be completely certain what it is aiming at. It may be first and foremost an attempt to portray life as it actually is, or an attempt to denigrate the present by comparing it with the past. Probably the second motive predominates, otherwise it is difficult to see why this tale of Dublin in 1904 should be so laboriously stretched on to the framework of the Odyssey.
Every episode in Odysseus’s wanderings reappears in some dwindled and ridiculous form.
He goes on to characterize the novel as follows:
Parts of Ulysses aren’t very easily intelligible, but from the book as a whole you get two main impressions. The first is that Joyce is interested to the point of obsession with technique….With Joyce you are back to the conception of style, of fine writing, of poetic writing, perhaps even to purple passages….And apart from this technical obsession, the other main theme of Ulysses is the squalor, even the meaninglessness of modern life after the triumph of the machine and the collapse of religious belief….What you do feel all through, however, is the conviction from which Joyce can’t escape, that the whole of this modern world which he is describing has no meaning in it now that the teachings of the Church are no longer credible….But finally the main interest of the book is technical. Quite a considerable proportion of it consists of pastiche or parody—parodies of everything from the Irish legends of the Bronze Age down to contemporary newspaper reports.
…If Joyce is definitely saying any one thing he appears to be saying, “Just look how we have deteriorated since the Bronze Age!” But some of the incidents are tiresome and unconvincing, and again and again the story is overwhelmed or diverted by mere literary cleverness. (57)
John Aldridge writes that “we read Ulysses and we read an ironic satire on the petty heroism of modern man.” This seems like an overly generous reading to me, but even if we grant this judgment merit, the scope of Joyce’s satire appears fairly trivial. “Joyce resorted to the Homeric myth for the same reason that he resorted to interior monologue,” Aldridge writes, “to give the maximum scope and structure to the expression of what he already had to express.” (58) So much technique to express so little meaning.
The theme of a good novel, as Maugham indicates, should have a wide appeal, one not limited to ‘critics, professors, highbrows’.” Ayn Rand agrees when she writes “The greater a work of art, the more profoundly universal its theme.” (59) Yet according to David Daiches, “Joyce is being comic, not profound.” (60) As far as Ulysses is concerned, who could possibly be interested in ‘literary cleverness’ alone (Orwell), or the ‘magnificently commonplace,’ (Eagleton) other than ‘critics, professors, highbrows’? Remember, ‘Not just banal, trivial and prosaic, but triumphantly, remorselessly so.’ Most of us live immersed in the prosaic—we don’t wish to encounter it within the finest literature. A good novelist uses detail and trivia to build a greater aesthetic synthesis, not to reduce the reader’s focus to the insignificant:
Yet [Ulysses] is also genuinely fascinated by these workaday details, and considers in its cosmically accepting way that nothing is too humble, trivial or outrageous to be fit material for art. (61)
When Joyce makes the novelistic statement ‘Here is life without God. Just look at it!’ what are we expected to see? Has he no vision of what human life could be? He presents only the banal, the common, and nothing of beauty, courage, nobility, fineness of character—anything that might engage us common readers. It seems that Joyce, while wallowing in the mire of everyday existence, violates “The most important principle of the esthetics of literature,” according to Rand, one “formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because ‘history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.’” (62)
Terry Eagleton, certainly an authority on English Literature, writes that “Readers, while dutifully laboring their way through this distended mass of materials, are at the same time uneasily aware that there may be some con trick at work here—that the book’s ‘meaning’, if it has such a thing, lies altogether elsewhere.” (63) Given this assessment, is there any reason to consider Ulysses a ‘good’ novel based on having a widely appreciated theme? A good novel, according to Maugham, should have a story that is
coherent and persuasive; it should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning. (64)
Once again, Ulysses fails by this criteria, as there is no sense of dramatic structure, no concern by the reader about what happens next. Molly’s soliloquy seems an inadequate ending given the arbitrary beginning. Anthony Burgess makes a telling comment when he writes that with Joyce
The realism overcame the symbolism. This usually happens when the novelist possesses, which Joyce did not, a genuine narrative urge. (65)
On the other hand, Joyce excels in creating fictional “creatures” with individuality whose “actions…proceed from their characters.” The only difficulty for the reader is that we are not particularly interested in knowing them on such intimate terms:
Ulysses…is conceived primarily in a comic spirit, but even where it ought to be moving it is not. The would-be hero, Stephen Dedalus, whose problems at least seemed real in the earlier book, Portrait of the Artist, is by general consent completely intolerable in Ulysses, and even Leopold Bloom, sympathetic though he is, somehow does not evoke much pity even when his situation is pitiful. (66)
Maugham indicates that the dialogue in a good novel
should neither be desultory nor should it be an occasion for the author to air his opinions; it should serve to characterize the speakers and to advance the story. (67)
Joyce satisfies the first half of this requirement, as he invests his characters with an impressive dialogue without burdening it with his explicit views. Even so, little is done to advance a story that largely doesn’t exist. He fails utterly, though in the penultimate criteria:
The writing should be simple enough for anyone of ordinary education to read it with ease. (68)
As indicated earlier, nobody with an ordinary education can enjoy reading Ulysses, let alone read it “with ease,” which is why
only English teachers read [Joyce], though maybe he was the best writer since Shakespeare. (69)
The best writer since Shakespeare? Here is an example of Joyce’s prose, taken pretty much at random. Is this ‘good’ writing? Judge for yourself:
Bloom askance over liverless saw. Face of the all is lost. Rollicking Richie once. Jokes old stale now. Wagging his ear. Napkinring in his eye. Now begging letters he sends his son with. Crosseyed Walter sir I did sir. Wouldn’t trouble only I was expecting some money. Apologise. (70)
Jeanette Winterson makes it plain why only English teachers read this:
Joyce’s freemasonary of language delights scholars, because it gives them something to do, but there is a danger that it appeals only to the acrostic elements in most readers. Fathoming Joyce is fun, if you have that kind of mind, but if you do not have that kind of mind, what is fathoming Joyce for? (71)
As Alfred Kazin puts it, “Undergraduates can get the same pleasure from taking apart a ... passage from Joyce that they get from working on a car.” (72)
If Joyce’s effort has a meaning to the writer who will never approach him in technique, it lies in the demonstration that technique is not enough. (73)
Ford Madox Ford gets it right at the very beginning when he writes that “in our own day we have had the phenomenon of Mr. Joyce whose content is of relatively little importance, the excitement in reading him coming almost entirely from his skill in juggling words as a juggler will play with many gilt balls at once.” (74)
“Finally a novel should be entertaining,” Maugham writes. “It is the essential quality, without which no other quality is of any use.” (75) Does Ulysses possess this quality? Martin Amis asks “What, nowadays, is the constituency of Ulysses? Who reads it? Who curls up with Ulysses? It is thoroughly studied, it is exhaustively unzipped and unseamed, it is much deconstructed. But who reads Ulysses for the hell of it?” (76) Nobody reads it, as there is nothing entertaining or enjoyable about it for the common reader. We leave the final word to George Orwell:
James Joyce…was a technician and very little else…some passages…are terribly boring…Ulysses has every merit except those that a novel ought to have… (77)
As for Finnegan’s Wake, John Gardner characterizes it as “pretentiously exclusive, turgidly self-indulgent, and awesomely unreadable.” (78) George Orwell had this to say about it:
There is no emotional interest, and no attempt at any, and the entire book is written in a private language which Joyce has evolved by telescoping together the words of many tongues, living and dead.
…the book as a whole is unreadable unless one regards it as a sort of word game. (79)
Borges didn’t like it either:
Finnegan’s Wake is a concatenation of puns committed in a dreamlike English that is difficult not to categorize as frustrated and incompetent. (80)
Harold Bloom, a most sympathetic reader of Joyce, reaches the following conclusion:
A half-century of reading the Wake (or more accurately, in the Wake) has convinced me that it never will be fully available to even the uncommon reader… (81)
Surely this is enough testimony to have it permanently removed from serious literary consideration.
As far as Naked Lunch goes, this book by William Burroughs is more a cultural curiosity than good reading. Martin Amis characterizes Burroughs in the following way:
The truth is that for all his sophistication Burroughs remains a primitive, extreme, almost psychotic artist. His work is in many respects impenetrably clandestine, and frighteningly personal. (82)
“Like many novelists whose modernity we indulge,” Martin Amis writes elsewhere, “William Burroughs is essentially a writer of ‘good bits’. These good bits don’t work out or add up to anything; they have nothing to do with the no-good bits: and they needn’t be in the particular books they happen to be in. Most of Burroughs is trash, and lazily obsessive trash too—you could chuck it all out and not diminish what status he has as a writer.” (83)
My nomination for the most underrated novelist in the English language, John Cowper Powys. Key titles include Glastonbury Romance, Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands. Henry Miller provides the following tribute to Powys:
I had gone there expressly to pay a flying visit to John Cowper Powys, a man now in his eighties. Here was an Englishman (of Welsh blood) who had spent over thirty years of his life in America, “popularizing culture,” as people fondly say….Here is a man who gave the best years of his life to America, who exerted a considerable influence over many of our contemporary writers and artists, and who come fifteen years or so ago returned to his native heath, to a tiny, remote village which none of the great world figures ever penetrate. Here, year after year, he has been turning out one profound, beautiful book after another, most of the, I blush to say, unknown to our compatriots. In this ripe spirit I found a man of letters who is indeed an honor to his calling, one of the few writers alive, I might add, who can be looked upon as an example to other writers. I can truly say of him that he is the youngest, the most alive spirit I have ever encountered. He has evolved a philosophy of his own—a philosophy of solitude or a philosophy of “in spite of,” as he calls it—which he practices and which keeps him literally “as fresh as a daisy.” He radiates joy and well-being. He acknowledges as his sources of inspiration Homer, Dante, Rabelais, Goethe, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman. He introduces their names frequently in his conversations and never tires of quoting their words. He is not only the most tolerant and gracious individual I ever met but, like Whitman himself—for whom he has the highest reverence—a man who has flowered from the roots. Though he exudes culture and learning, he is at home with children, nobodies and idiots. His daily routine is so simple as to be almost primitive. It begins with a long morning prayer for the protection of the creature world against the sadistic men of science who torture and vivisect them. Without wants, he has become free as a bird, and what is more important, he is acutely aware of his hard-won freedom and rejoices in it. To meet him is an inspiration and a blessing. And this man, who has so much to give the world, who has already given abundantly, indeed, is hardly known, hardly ever mentioned, when the subject of letters comes up. It ought to be written over his door, as coming form the Lord Jehovah himself: “I am the one who fished you out of the mud. Now you come here and listen to me!” (84)
Powys' novels and his artistic sensibility stand uniquely alone in 20th century literature, and he should be better known and more widely appreciated than he is.
Critics would be useful people to have around if they would simply do their work, carefully and thoughtfully assessing works of art,
calling our attention to those worth noticing, and explaining clearly, sensibly, and justly why others need not take up our time.
John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
Notes for Chapter 7 – The Common Reader as Critic