Fiction Matters

Pritchard, William H

As A YOUNG MAN, the now rather forgotten Thomas Hill Green, a Christian Hegelian philosopher whose influence as an Oxford don exerted itself on numbers of students, wrote a strongly-argued essay, “The Value and Influence of Works of Fiction.” The main claim of this polemical piece was that while poetry-by such as Milton or Wordsworth or Green’s contemporary Matthew Arnold-provided ideal alternatives and corrections to what Arnold in “The Scholar-Gypsy” called “this strange disease of modern life,” novelists and novels encouraged us rather to see, as Green put it, “our own sickly experience modified in an infinite variety of reflections,” until we fancy that this disease is instead “the proper constitution of God’s universe.” For Green, summing up, “Novel-reading thus aggravates two of the worst maladies of modern times, self-consciousness and want of reverence.”

Before dismissing Green’s youthful effort as the outpouring of a moralist insufficiently acquainted with, say, Jane Austen, we should remind ourselves that his words have direct application to 90 percent at least of the fiction reviewed each week in Publishers Weekly, often in glowing terms. The commentary that follows, directed at nine novels and two volumes of stories from a period of a few months, represents a serious winnowing out from the total output of that period. Whatever qualifications, reservations, or dissatisfactions expressed about individual titles should be prefaced by the admission that each is serious about itself as an artistic product and each is at least comparable to the best work being done currently in Anglo-American fiction.

This may seem an improbable claim to make for a first novel by a writer hitherto known only for his nonfiction treatments of aspects of American life (baseball, nature, jazz). But Frederick Turner has brought off something more than commendable in his “novel of the jazz age,” centered on the rise and fall of the cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke.1 Beiderbecke’s story is juxtaposed with various doings of Al Capone’s outfit (an invented character named Herman Weiss connects the two narratives), and the places associated with Bix and his cohorts in the Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman bands-Hudson Lake, Indiana; Hollywood; Davenport, Iowa and others-are vigorously sketched in. Turner provides fine vignettes of what might have happened the night Beiderbecke met his idol Maurice Ravel, or how he came through a sexual experience with Clara Bow, the “It” girl, or what words Bix and Louis Armstrong might have exchanged when they jammed together. But Turner is most impressive in imagining convincing voices for band sidekicks like Bing Crosby, Frank Trumbauer, Hoagy Carmichael, or Whiteman himself, and his inwardness with Beiderbecke’s recordings (trust me) is superb.

In the following outburst to Crosby-stimulated by meeting Ravel and flaring up in self-contempt at the large amount of Whiteman schlock he must endure to have his occasional solo- Bix tries “to work up through the gin towards something he senses is serious”:

“You think I want to spend the rest of my career-my god-damned life, for Christ’s sake-thinking up different ways to play In My Merry Oldsmobile? Felix the Cat? Dolly Dimples? Too Much Banjo? By The Waters Of The Minnetorika, for God’s sake! Baby Face? Five Foot Two? Makin’ Whoopie? They call for this crap night after night, and it’s getting worse . . . Japanese Mammy! Krazy Kat!-Krazy Kat! You think I want to end up a forty-year-old geezer with bad teeth playing sophomore sock-hops for a bunch of brainless, beaver-coated, pimple-pussed college kids? O, come on, Bix!'”

And he proceeds to mimic the college enthusiasts. There’s not great variety of tone in Turner’s presentation overall, but it’s filled with excellent and finally chilling glimpses of its hero.

Although Zoe Heller, a Brit living in New York City, has published a previous novel, I know her only through a very mordant and funny review she did in The New Republic of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. So I wasn’t prepared for the ease with which I swallowed in two gulps her novel subtitled “Notes on a Scandal.”2 What Was She Thinking? has as its subject a dishy English comprehensive schoolteacher named Bathsheba Hart, married with children, whose affair with one of the schoolboys, a rather luggish fellow named Matthew Connolly, brings her disgrace and prurient notoriety in the papers and elsewhere. This would be dreary stuff if Sheba’s story were not told through the extremely interested person of her colleague, an older spinster Barbara Covett, who covets the glamorous younger woman though she remains covert about her sexual preference. Covett’s animus, directed in the early pages at rivals among the other teachers for Sheba’s affections, gives Heller the excuse to indulge herself in some very funny, mean-minded reflections. Here she is on a colleague named Sue Hodge (referred to by Barbara as “Fatty Hodge”) who is pursuing Sheba:

There was something of a froideur between us, dating from an occasion a few years earlier when Sue had caught me sniggering over one of her class work sheets entitled “Dem Bones: The Cultural Roots of the Negro Spiritual.” Sue is a frightfully pretentious womanalways making the children do expressive dances to Pink Floyd and singing “American Pie” with them, playing her horrid little banjo.

Underneath her hippie pretension, Sue is really “the most awful prig”:

the sort of woman who wears Lady-Lite panty liners every day of the month, as if there is nothing her body secretes that she doesn’t think vile enough to be captured in cotton wool, wrapped in paper bags, and thrust far, far down at the bottom of the wastepaper bin. (I’ve been in the staff toilet after her and I know.)

In her unpleasant, extremely effective sensory and cultural detection equipment, and in her generally soured but much engaged take on the teaching life at a comprehensive school, Heller’s Barbara adds up to a voice it’s hard to stop listening to, and that makes something original out of the sensational subject matter.

A friend of mine, an accomplished reader of novels, said that she sat down with Penelope Lively’s new one and read it straight through.3 I didn’t do that, but just about, since like Zoe Heller’s “scandal” The Photograph presents no resistance to the reader, is so absolutely easy of possession that it makes us wonder how substantial it is as art (by contrast think Melville, think Henry James). Lively’s sixteenth work of fiction is a wholly professional job, moving seamlessly among the characters of its painful little drama. At the outset, Glyn, a landscape historian searching among old papers for something, finds to his surprise-in an envelope marked “Don’t Open-Destroy”-a photograph of his dead wife Kath in which she’s holding hands with another man, and not just any man but Nick, the husband of Kath’s sister Elaine, herself a garden designer. The chords of jealousy are well evoked, and Glyn proceeds to question Elaine and other characters drawn into the web (like Oliver, the man who wielded the camera). Did they know about Nick and Kath? Did Kath have other men in her life? Elaine, whose marriage to Nick (a shiftless if charming screwup) is close to being on the rocks, eventually kicks him out of the house her money is paying for. As you can see from this beginning of a summary, one thing does very much lead to another, and Lively glides among her different narrative centers so effortlessly as to make the book almost unquotable. Its back cover compares her to Iris Murdoch and Ian McEwan, but there’s nothing in her prose comparable to the densities of McEwan’s Atonement, and nothing so outrageously unrealistic as the plot curve in any one of Murdoch’s entertainments. Taut is the word for The Photograph, even more so than with other Livelys I’ve read; we admire the expertise with which it’s all brought off, even as we remain comfortably outside it.

Both John Banville and Graham Swift have fully arrived, and any novel by either will be reviewed widely and respectfully.4 Their latest products however fall short of their best efforts. Banville’s The Untouchable, his novel of a few years back “about” the art historian and traitor Anthony Blunt, was a gripping piece of work; this time his story of a Belgian scholar, Axel Vander, whose distinguished career has been constructed upon a series of ingenious falsehoods, has moved some readers to think of Paul de Man. Having known de Man, I can vouch for the lack of resemblance to Vander in any but the crudest outline (yes, de Man concealed and lied about his past). But what’s truly off-putting about the novel is its claustrophobic, humorless, and almost conversation-less style. The deadpan narration feels as if it would rather be dead, as it tonelessly recites grim sensations: “His brow and upper lip were stippled with beads of sweat, and there were dark patches of damp on his jacket under the armpits and down the back. A man with carrotcoloured hair went past. He was wearing a blazer and a dirty yellow shirt and soiled running shoes.” I stopped reading before I found out why the book is titled The Shroud (it’s set in Turin, but still). All in all a pleasureless journey.

One might also wonder about the fate of pleasure in Graham Swift’s carefully contrived tale of a day in the life of a private investigator, George Webb, who was approached, two years before the narrative begins, by a woman, Sarah Nash, whose gynecologist husband John has been having an affair with a young Croatian woman the Nashes took under their wing. Webb is hired by Sarah, with whom he is immediately smitten, to follow husband and lover to Heathrow where she is to board a plane to take her back to Croatia and out of the Nashes’ lives. This is indeed what happens, except that when Nash returns to the homeplace he is stabbed to death by Sarah, who has just prepared a marvelous coq au vin neither of them will ever eat. Two years later, on the anniversary of the murder, George is preparing-as is his habit-to visit Sarah in prison, after bringing flowers to her husband’s grave. This is essentially the story, but the telling of it counts even more than usual, since Swift has opted for a flat, laconic minimalism that wrings the neck of all eloquence in the service of … what, exactly? Here is George at the cemetery, asking one of his innumerable questions:

How can you hate the dead? Absurd. As absurd as supposing the dead can feel fire. But I do, I can, even after two years. Look what you’ve done to her, look where you’ve put her. I stand here and hate him and never tell Sarah. Yes, I’ll take flowers. If he were alive I could kill him.

This is a highly risky style to embrace for the 300 odd pages it takes Swift to get his story told. James Wood, a critic one thinks twice about disagreeing with, finds the risk pays off-that the book “teaches you the art of reading slowly and carefully.” One sees what he means; one admires, as always with Graham Swift, the painstakingly intelligent narrative construction. Yet even the Booker prize-winning Last Orders (Swift’s version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) seemed to me to interest itself more in the doing than in what finally gets done. I felt such inanition even more with The Light of Day. But readers are advised to check me up on this, and they may find, along with Wood, that the novel offers what another English reviewer called “a master class in narrative.”

Let us leave England for the moment by noting that its expatriate son mentioned above, James Wood, has published his first novel.5 Considering the number of fictionists living and dead Wood has harshly criticized (Updike, most of Roth, Tom Wolfe, DeLiIIo, Toni Morrison for starters), one might have expected some lying-in-wait by reviewers ready to announce that the emperor has few clothes. Wood protects himself against overreaching into the realms of high solemnity by writing a comic novel of ideas, whose hero, a reckless fellow named Thomas Bunting, is supposedly doing a Ph.D. at University College, London but is actually scribbling a large opus to be titled The Rook Against God. Bunting takes on writing commissions he doesn’t fulfill, is a chronic and inventive liar-especially to his wife Jane, a classical pianist and font of good sense who eventually kicks him out. The richest sections of the book involve Thomas’ visits, past and present, to his parents-his father is a theology professor turned clergyman in a town near Durham, the city where Wood himself grew up-especially the intellectual and religious exchanges between father and son.

The novel has had mixed reviews, with two prominent ones (in The New York Times Book Review and The Neiv York Review of Books) taking Wood to task for not being serious enough about the “ideas” explored-of falling far short of the realism he admires in Gogol, Chekhov, D. H. Lawrence, and other writers of the last two centuries. But why should we expect a novelist to “live up to” his own intransigent critical principles, and would we want him to anyway? The writing throughout this novel is vigilant, devoted to avoiding lax formulations and making particulars feel fresh, newly-minted. So from a high window in Tom’s Islington flat (before he is kicked out) “you could see a piece of the policeman’s helmet of St. Paul’s dome, and further on a glimpse of Parliament, and its loyal river, obeying the crowded banks, selflessly flowing.” Or we hear a workman speak in accents of the north: “The part of it is, Vicar, me da’s not been champion these last few days. he says nowt, never speaks to us except he says ‘good morning’ when he gets up. Rest of the day he’s dowie, he just watches TV like it was all the one fil’m.” When Tom and Jane walk in the rain on a country road near Durham, they encounter some cows who, after sighting the humans “pricked a swaying wonder over the sucking mud, came to the fence and snorted faint figures of steam. Their mooing noises buzzed deep down in their unemotional throats. We dripped at the cows and they dripped back at us.” D. H. Lawrence with some humor. However feckless and deficient as a human being Thomas Bunting proves to be, he is provided with consistently lively tropes of observation. And there is a page of dialogue between Bunting and his pianist wife that contains as savvy a commentary on great pianists-Schnabel, Pollini, Kempf, Richter, Michelangeli -as I’ve encountered in any novel. Which is to say no more than that the book crackles with disciminating wit and is something more interesting than a book against God.

Returning to these shores and two excellent performances by novelists of much resource, Thomas Berger and Louis Begley.6 Berger’s novel is his twenty-second; he remains, except for Little Big Man, a relatively undiscovered country, even after Belushi and Ackroyd made a movie of Neighbors. Berger is-inadequate word I know-a Sport, and in novels like The Houseguest, Changing the Past, Being Invisible, and Meeting Evil he devises exquisitely embarrassing situations in which to embroil his characters. He’s especially good at depicting the attempts of decentthinking people to deal with sneaky ones (Sneaky Peoples another of his novels) and the tortuous effects that result. In Best Friends the best friends are an unmarried rich dealer in fancy sports cars, Roy Courtright, and Sam Grandy, an enormous eater, improvident with his finances, and married to a splendid career woman named Kristin. In an enormously complicated plot that keeps us thoroughly off balance, Kristin and Roy get involved, Sam has a heart attack, the best friends fall out, and things get tied up smartly at the end. As with Berger’s other novels-at least the ones I’ve read-there’s nothing here to touch the heart, no more than in Ben Jonson’s plays that T. S. Eliot praised for their art of the superficies. Likejonson, Berger’s superficies is very solid indeed; there’s nothing richly suggestive in individual sentences, but they fit together to make up a coherently satisfying whole.

Louis Begley’s remarkable career continues with his seventh book since Wartime Lies (1991). Once again, as in Mistler’s Exit and his two novels about Albert Schmidt (About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered), we are invited inside the head of a garrulous but unillusioned man, this one a writer named John North. In a transparently provocative narrative move, North introduces himself to the unnamed, uncharacterized, almost wholly silent listener (it’s only in the final pages that he asks a couple of salient questions) who is remarkably like North in appearance and demeanor. North and his listener consume large amounts of whiskey at a fairly unspecified bar, L’Entre Deux Mondes, while North tells his tale of an extended adulterous relation with a young French journalist, who interviews him about his most recent novel and carries on from there. This is the first time North has betrayed his almost unbelievably perfect wife Lydia, with whom erotically and in other respects he has an excellent time.

Begley’s recent protagonists have been highly charged sexually: Schmidt, after his wife’s death, rediscovers pleasure in the arms of Carrie, a much younger woman and a waitress at his favorite restaurant; Mistier, dying of liver cancer, goes to Europe and takes a lover; John North seems ready and able at all moments to have it off with the younger Lea, and their erotic engagements are charted with clinical detachment. More than once North reminds us of Nabokov’s Humbert, and although his tastes lie in a more conventional direction, he shares with Humbert a tone of haughty irritation-as in an account of sex with a college girl friend whom he remembers

screwing [her] during a game of chess we were playing in her parents’ den, both of us fully dressed, I sitting on a straight chair and she astride, going up and down faster and faster, her face pressed against my shoulder, the father’s bowling trophies displayed on a bookshelf directly in my line of vision.

It’s those bowling trophies that Humbert would have noticed. Or consider the tone of the following:

There were also the sessions atop a pile of coats in a tutor’s spare bedroom during a cocktail party, and in a little clearing in the woods, observed by one of her deplorable cousins who was imperfectly hidden behind some ferns. This was the boy who had initiated her at the age of twelve, and set a standard for performance I could never match.

We are reminded of Charlie, the lad who initiated Lolita into the mysteries at summer camp.

As with Albert Schmidt, Begley gets good mileage in the new novel out of North’s prejudices. When his wife asks him to accompany her to Japan (she is going there to speak at a nephrology conference in Kyoto), North in his admitted “obstinacy and sour pettiness” refuses to go along, since he has watched too many Japanese

in their bizarre versions of Western casual attire swarming over every tourist attraction . . . and at the other luxury and power-play end, tight little groups of Japanese businessmen in lobbies of the best hotels, bowing interminably to one another or sleeping on armchairs, heads thrown back and mouths open.

Such “field observations” lead him “to the unshakable conclusion that the Japanese were a people I could never understand or want to understand even if that were possible. Why should I, in that case, expend a great deal of effort and cash to find myself in their midst?” Once again Begley has managed to make us, along with the mysterious interlocutor in the novel, listen and assent to all sorts of deplorable attitudes and indefensible behavior. The experience is invigorating.

After the intricacies of Berger and Begley-and indeed considering the largely satiric presentations of human behavior surveyed in this chronicle, let us end with three instances of American writers who, for all their wit, invite us to engage more unguardedly with some human truths.7 Having read Joseph Epstein’s essays over the years, I was prepared to encounter the comic spirit in his second collection of stories. And indeed on just about every page Epstein’s command of idiom and passion for jokes endow his “fabulous small Jews” (the words are from a Karl Shapiro poem) with local habitation and name. The habitation is of course Chicago and environs (“Nor had I ever been invited to his house in the suburb of Glencoe, or what the old anti-Semites on the North Shore used to call Glen Cohen”). The jokes are made of good, wise-ass material, as when Artie Click (in “Artie Click in a Family Way”) tells his woman he’s seeing a shrink:

“Oh,” she said. “Jewish golf.”

“Jewish golf?”

“Psychotherapy is what Jews have instead of golf,” she said. “Gentiles try to improve their backswing, Jews their past.”

Or when an older man muses on the limitations of younger women: “It felt odd to sleep with a woman and, the next morning, over breakfast, discover that she had never heard of Mussolini or Claudette Colbert or Louis Armstrong.”

Epstein’s excellent memory for sports heroes pays off when one of his characters admits to having made a lot of money over the years, betting on the Oakland Raiders “because of Fred Biletnikoff. Biletnikoff could catch a bobby pin in a hurricane. I made out so well on him I used to send him a giant-size tube of Stick-Um and a card on his birthday.” It’s wonderful to read a writer who repeatedly makes you smile, but I was unprepared for the affecting quality of some of the stories, especially ones in which the small Jews come up against The Human Condition-cancer, retirement homes, death-and become actors in fable-like dramas. In “Felix Emeritus,” the suicide of his friend at the retirement home evokes a poignant response from Felix Arnstein. And the most touching of the stories, “A Loss for Words,” about a father’s descent into “word-retrieval failure,” still has room for sardonic description brought in to conduct the father’s memorial service: “a young man with a dark beard, wearing Hush Puppies with his black suit.” There are stories to be read here more than once, but they are immediately hospitable to everyone-Jew or non-Jew-with quick wit and just a touch of reverence for life.

Like Joseph Epstein, Donald Hall is not mainly a writer of short fiction; and since I missed his earlier collection (six of them are reprinted here), it was good to encounter a temperament sympathetically observant and graceful, like the one we meet in his poems and nonfiction prose. These are mainly small-town stories where the family is central, parents and grandparents involved along with the children. In “The Figure in the Woods,” a divorced father takes his son back to his old farm in western Massachusetts; the father hopes to interest his bookish son in matters, like fishing, outside the printed page, also to commune with his own past. The discovery is of something quite different than expected. In “Christmas Snow,” a grandson awakes at his grandfather’s on the morning of Christmas Eve to what he thinks are the sounds of grownups talking:

Slowly I realized that it wasn’t that at all; the mound of my grandfather and grandmother lay still in their beds under many quilts in the cold room. It was rain falling and rubbing against the bushes outside my window. I sat up in bed, pulling the covers around me, and held the green shade out from the frosty pane. Flakes of snow mixed with the rain-large, slow flakes fluttering down like wet leaves.

He falls back asleep and wakes again to find nothing visible, the sky “a dense mass of snowflakes, the ground covered in soft white curves.” Nothing exceptional here, or in the calm declarative prose in which the other stories are told. Jokes are few and far between, and there are few stylistic “effects” that call attention to themselves. Hall’s touch is delicate and firm; he desires no more than to convey the feel of life as it impinges on a consciousness. In the title story, “From Willow Temple,” this is done most delicately, through the recollections of a girl growing up on a farm in Michigan in the 1930s, a decade Hall is especially good on-and why shouldn’t he be, since he was a child of the era? Along with Life Work and his books about living at Eagle Pond, these stories make up a fine testament to American lives long gone but recoverable in imaginative memory.

In conclusion, a note on Gail Godwin’s tribute, in the guise of a novel with a married couple named Christina and Rudy, to her husband Robert Starer who died two years ago. It’s a lovely and sad 100-page or so remembrance of their times together, particularly at the cocktail hour when was heard “the cavalier slosh of Bombay Sapphire over the ice shards.” Now Christina, alone, can hear the “fsstas he loosened the seltzer cap and added the self-respecting splash that made her able to call it a gin and soda.” They drank together, one on each side of the fireplace, talking about how their day’s work had gone (Rudy was a composer); now Christina must come to terms with her remorse-he died in the hospital at night when she had expected to see him in the morning-and with the fact that drinking alone, evenings at five o’clock, has become a bit more perilous. This physically tiny book, with illustrations by Frances Halsband of the couple’s domestic surroundings-their studies, living room, bathroom, and refrigerator “with gin reserves and ticker-tape glass”-quite simply and directly touches the heart.

1 1929, by Frederick Turner. Counterpoint. $25.00.

2 WHAT WAS SHE THINKING?: [Notes on a Scandal], by Zoe Heller. Henry Holt and Co. $25.00.

3 THE PHOTOGRAPH, by Penelope Lively. Viking. $24.95.

4 THE SHROUD, by John Banville. Alfred A Knopf. $25.00. THE LIGHT OF DAY, by Graham Swift. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.00.

5 THE BOOKAGAINST GOD, by fames Wood. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.00.

6 BEST FRIENDS, by Thomas Berger. Simon & Schuster. $24.00. SHIPWRECK, by Louts Begley. Alfred A. Knopf. $23.00.

7 FABULOUS SMALL JEWS, by Joseph Epstein. Hough ton Mifflin Go. $24.00. WILLOW TEMPLE, by Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin Co. $24.00. EVENINGS AT FIVE; by Gail Godwin. Ballantine Books. $14.95.

Copyright Hudson Review Winter 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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