Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Saul Bellow

The apostolic succession

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Ever since I began working as a biographer—which is one of the few acceptable ways of earning a living as a private eye of culture—I’ve naturally become interested in what other writers have had to say on the subject. My favorite example, as I’ve noted here before, is Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which isn’t just the best book that I’ve read on the art of biography, but one of the best that I’ve read about anything. James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden offers an engaging look at the profession from the inside, even if you sometimes get the sense that Atlas wrote it mostly to settle a few old scores relating to his biography of Saul Bellow. And there are certain loose, baggy monsters of the form that can’t help but comment on their own monstrousness. A book like The Life of Graham Greene by Norman Sherry functions both as a straight work of scholarship and as a bizarre mediation on its own creation, and by the last volume, the two elements become so unbalanced that you’re forced to confront the underlying strangeness of the whole biographical enterprise. Such hybrid books, which read like unwitting enactments of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, tend to have three qualities in common. One is the biographer’s extensive use of the first person, which allows him to insert himself into the narrative like a shadowy supporting player. Another is the inordinate amount of time or wordage devoted to the project, which usually occupies multiple decades or volumes. And the last, which should probably serve as a warning, is that this tendency is often most pronounced when the biographer is investigating the life of another living writer, which leads to insidious problems of identification, admiration, and resentment. As Sherry said of his biography of Greene to the New York Times: “I almost destroyed myself. By the time I had finished, my life had been taken from me.”

Which brings us to Anthony Burgess by Roger Lewis, which combines all of these ingredients into one of the strangest books I’ve ever seen. It first caught my eye over a decade ago, with its striking cover inspired by Philip Castle’s poster for A Clockwork Orange, but I’m glad that I’m only reading it now, when perhaps I have a better understanding of the emotions that it expresses. After describing his first encounter as a young man with Burgess, whom he compares to a baboon with “vampiral” red eyes,  Lewis writes:

My need to know about Burgess twenty years ago: what lack or absence in me was being compensated for? I was youthful, full of ambition and ideals; he was a constellation, larger than life-size, a writer’s writer, crammed with allusions. He was, as Carlyle said of Danton, “a gigantic mass of ostentation,” and the piratical swagger was alluring and I had an abiding affinity with it. The facets which you are taken in by when you are young—the languages, the apparent wide knowledge—genuine academics and professionals, people in the know, see it as so nonsensical, it’s beneath them to contradict Burgess’s bluster. His success came from impressing people who didn’t quite know better; he was left alone by those who did. He fell into that gap, and made a fortune for himself.

If it isn’t abundantly clear by this point, Lewis goes on to explain that his feelings have curdled toward his old mentor, whom he later describes as a “pretentious prick” and a ”complete fucking fool.” But Lewis also adds incongruously: “Twenty years on from my days as a student prince, if I’m allegedly repudiating the lion of my late adolescence, it’s no doubt because deep down I continue to feel close to him.”

Not surprisingly, many reviewers regarded the book as an act of “character assassination,” as Blake Morrison put it in The Guardian, or a case study in the pathology of hero worship. But the tangled lines of influence are even weirder than they seem. Lewis’s real mentor wasn’t Burgess, but Richard Ellmann, his thesis adviser, the biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde who is generally regarded as the greatest modern practitioner of literary biography. He played a similar role in the life of none other than James Atlas, who devotes many pages to Ellmann in The Shadow in the Garden, writing of his first encounter with the man who agreed to supervise his work at Oxford: “Steven [sic] Dedalus had stumbled upon his Leopold Bloom.” In a lengthy footnote on the very first page of Anthony Burgess, Lewis uses almost identical language to describe their relationship:

Ellmann was my supervisor (though he didn’t do much supervising) for a doctoral dissertation on Ezra Pound, of which I wrote not one word. We became friends and used to dine lavishly at the Randolph…We were both aware of a Bloom/Dedalus dynamic in our relationship. I was immensely cocky and callow, Ellmann wholly lacked the Oxford way of people being interested in each other only for their own advantage.

It was probably impossible to be mentored by Richard Ellmann, of all people, without thinking of the surrogate father and son of Ulysses, but in Lewis’s case, the Joycean labyrinth was even more twisted—because it was through Ellmann that Lewis met Burgess in the first place. His biography opens with an account of the evening of May 7, 1985, when Ellmann and Lewis picked up Burgess at a train station and gave him a ride to Oxford: “We all went to find Ellman’s rusty, seldom-washed car…Ellmann took us through the city, turning corners by mounting the kerb, grazing bollards and scattering cyclists.” And all the while, Lewis informs us, Burgess had been “murmuring to Ellmann about Joyce.”

And it gets even stranger. One of Ellmann’s other students was the biographer Henry Hart, who later wrote an essay on his mentor titled “Richard Ellmann’s Oxford Blues.” Hart is also the author of the biography James Dickey: The World as a Lie, another book full of mixed feelings toward its self-mythologizing subject, of whom he writes: “To my great relief, Dickey expressed little animosity toward my project. But he obviously had worries, the main one being the way I would address the romanticized versions of his life that he had aired so free-spiritedly in conversations and publications.” Hart addresses these problems in depth, as the full title of the book indicates. (The subtitle, he claims, was Dickey’s idea.) And I’m fascinated by how Richard Ellmann, the author of perhaps the most acclaimed literary biography of all time, produced three separate protégés whose work—Atlas on Bellow, Hart on Dickey, Lewis on Burgess—all but explodes with ambivalence toward their subjects, their own ambitions, and the whole notion of biography itself. Thinking of Ellmann and his literary progeny, I’m reminded, as many of them undoubtedly were, of Stephen Dedalus’s famous speech in the library scene in Ulysses:

A father, Stephen said, battling against hopelessness, is a necessary evil…Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten…Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

That uneasy succession, which assumes unpredictable shapes in its passage from one generation to another, must be as difficult for biographers as for anyone else. And Ellmann may well have had other students whose names I don’t know yet. There’s obviously a good story here. Somebody should write a book about it.

The Big One

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In a heartfelt appreciation of the novelist Philip Roth, who died earlier this week, the New York Times critic Dwight Garner describes him as “the last front-rank survivor of a generation of fecund and authoritative and, yes, white and male novelists…[that] included John Updike, Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow.” These four names seem fated to be linked together for as long as any of them is still read and remembered, and they’ve played varying roles in my own life. I was drawn first to Mailer, who for much of my adolescence was my ideal of what a writer should be, less because of his actual fiction than thanks to my repeated readings of the juiciest parts of Peter Manso’s oral biography. (If you squint hard and think generously, you can even see Mailer’s influence in the way I’ve tried to move between fiction and nonfiction, although in both cases it was more a question of survival.) Updike, my favorite, was a writer I discovered after college. I agree with Garner that he probably had the most “sheer talent” of them all, and he represents my current model, much more than Mailer, of an author who could apparently do anything. Bellow has circled in and out of my awareness over the years, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to figure out what he means to me, in part because of his ambiguous status as a subject of biography. And Roth was the one I knew least. I’d read Portnoy’s Complaint and one or two of the Zuckerman novels, but I always felt guilty over having never gotten around to such late masterpieces as American Pastoral—although the one that I should probably check out first these days is The Plot Against America.

Yet I’ve been thinking about Roth for about as long as I’ve wanted to be a writer, largely because he came as close as anyone ever could to having the perfect career, apart from the lack of the Nobel Prize. He won the National Book Award for his debut at the age of twenty-six; he had a huge bestseller at an age when he was properly equipped to enjoy it; and he closed out his oeuvre with a run of major novels that critics seemed to agree were among the best that he, or anyone, had ever written. (As Garner nicely puts it: “He turned on the afterburners.”) But he never seemed satisfied by his achievement, which you can take as an artist’s proper stance toward his work, a reflection of the fleeting nature of such rewards, a commentary on the inherent bitterness of the writer’s life, or all of the above. Toward the end of his career, Roth actively advised young writers not to become novelists, and in his retirement announcement, which he delivered almost casually to a French magazine, he quoted Joe Louis: “I did the best I could with what I had.” A month later, in an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, he expanded on his reasoning:

I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration—it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time…I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore…I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.

And on his computer, he posted a note that gave him strength when he looked at it each day: “The struggle with writing is over.”

Roth’s readers, of course, rarely expressed the same disillusionment, and he lives most vividly in my mind as a reference point against which other authors could measure themselves. In an interview with The Telegraph, John Updike made one of the most quietly revealing statements that I’ve ever heard from a writer, when asked if he felt that he and Roth were in competition:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

I think about that “list of admirable novelists” all the time, and it wasn’t just a joke. In an excellent profile in The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpoint memorably sketched in all the ways in which other writers warily circled Roth. When asked if the two of them were friends, Updike said, “Guardedly,” and Bellow seems to have initially held Roth at arm’s length, until his wife convinced him to give the younger writer a chance. Pierpont concludes of the relationship between Roth and Updike: “They were mutual admirers, wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game: Picasso and Matisse.”

And they also remind me of another circle of writers whom I know somewhat better. If Bellow, Mailer, Updike, and Roth were the Big Four of the literary world, they naturally call to mind the Big Three of science fiction—Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. In each case, the group’s members were perfectly aware of how exceptional they were, and they carefully guarded their position. (Once, in a conference call with the other two authors, Asimov jokingly suggested that one of them should die to make room for their successors. Heinlein responded: “Fuck the other writers!”) Clarke and Asimov seem to have been genuinely “thrilled to have each other in the world,” but their relationship with the third point of the triangle was more fraught. Toward the end, Asimov started to “avoid” the combative Heinlein, who had a confrontation with Clarke over the Strategic Defense Initiative that effectively ended their friendship. In public, they remained cordial, but you can get a hint of their true feelings in a remarkable passage from the memoir I. Asimov:

[Clarke] and I are now widely known as the Big Two of science fiction. Until early 1988, as I’ve said, people spoke of the Big Three, but then Arthur fashioned a little human figurine of wax and with a long pin— At least, he has told me this. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me. I have made it quite plain to him, however, that if he were to find himself the Big One, he would be very lonely. At the thought of that, he was affected to the point of tears, so I think I’m safe.

As it turned out, Clarke, like Roth, outlived all the rest, and perhaps they felt lonely in the end. Longevity can amount to a kind of victory in itself. But it must be hard to be the Big One.

The ghost story

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Back in March, I published a post here about the unpleasant personal life of Saul Bellow, whose most recent biographer, Zachary Leader, has amply documented the novelist’s physical violence toward his second wife Sondra Tschacbasov. After Bellow discovered the affair between Tschacbasov and his good friend Jack Ludwig, however, he contemplated something even worse, as James Atlas relates in his earlier biography: “At the Quadrangle Club in Chicago a few days later, Bellow talked wildly of getting a gun.” And I was reminded of this passage while reading an even more horrifying account in D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, about the writer’s obsession with the poet and memoirist Mary Karr:

Wallace’s literary rebirth [in the proposal for Infinite Jest] did not coincide with any calming of his convention that he had to be with Karr. Indeed, the opposite. In fact, one day in February, he thought briefly of committing murder for her. He called an ex-con he knew through his recovery program and tried to buy a gun. He had decided he would wait no longer for Karr to leave her husband; he planned to shoot him instead when he came into Cambridge to pick up the family dog. The ex-con called Larson, the head of [the addiction treatment center] Granada House, who told Karr. Wallace himself never showed up for the handover and thus ended what he would later call in a letter of apology “one of the scariest days in my life.” He wrote Larson in explanation, “I now know what obsession can make people capable of”—then added in longhand after—“at least of wanting to do.” To Karr at the time he insisted that the whole episode was an invention of the ex-con and she believed him.

Even at a glance, there are significant differences between these incidents. Bellow had treated Tschacbasov unforgivably, but his threat to buy a gun was part of an outburst of rage at a betrayal by his wife and close friend, and there’s no evidence that he ever tried to act on it—the only visible outcome was an episode in Herzog. Wallace, by contrast, not only contemplated murdering a man whose wife he wanted for himself, but he took serious steps to carry it out, and when Karr heard about it, he lied to her. By any measure, it’s the more frightening story. Yet they do have one striking point in common, which is the fact that they don’t seem to have inspired much in the way of comment or discussion. I only know about the Wallace episode because of a statement by Karr from earlier this week, in which she expressed her support for the women speaking out against Junot Díaz and noted that the violence that she experienced from Wallace was described as “alleged” by D.T. Max and The New Yorker. In his biography, Max writes without comment: “One night Wallace tried to push Karr from a moving car. Soon afterward, he got so mad at her that he threw her coffee table at her.” When shown these lines by a sympathetic reader on Twitter, Karr responded that Wallace also kicked her, climbed up the side of her house, and followed her five-year-old son home from school, and that she had to change her phone number twice to avoid him. Max, she said, “ignored” much of it, even though she showed him letters in Wallace’s handwriting confessing to his behavior. (In his original article in The New Yorker, Max merely writes: “One day, according to Karr, [Wallace] broke her coffee table.” And it wasn’t until years later that he revealed that Wallace had “broken” the table by throwing it at her.)

There’s obviously a lot to discuss here, but for reasons of my own, I’d like to approach it from the perspective of a biographer. I’ve just finished writing a biography about four men who were terrible husbands, in their own ways, to one or more wives, and I’m also keenly aware of how what seems like an omission can be the result of unseen pressures operating elsewhere in—or outside—the book. Yet Max has done himself no favors. In an interview with The Atlantic that has been widely shared, he speaks of Wallace’s actions with an aesthetic detachment that comes off now as slightly chilling:

One thing his letters make you feel is that he thought the word was God, and words were always worth putting down. Even in a letter to the head of his halfway house—where he apologizes for contemplating buying a gun to kill the writer Mary Karr’s husband—the craftsmanship of that letter is quite remarkable. You read it like a David Foster Wallace essay…I didn’t know that David had that [violence] in him. I was surprised, in general, with the intensity of violence in his personality. It was something I knew about him when I wrote the New Yorker piece, but it grew on me. It made me think harder about David and creativity and anger. But on the other end of the spectrum, he was also this open, emotional guy, who was able to cry, who intensely loved his dogs. He was all those things. That, in part, is why he’s a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.

Max tops it off by quoting a “joke” from a note by Wallace: “Infinite Jest was just a means to Mary Karr’s end.” He helpfully adds: “A sexual pun.”

It’s no wonder that Karr is so furious, but if anything, I’m more impressed by her restraint. Karr is absurdly overqualified to talk about problems of biography, and there are times when you can feel her holding herself back. In her recent book The Art of Memoir, she writes in a chapter titled “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader”:

Forget how inventing stuff breaks a contract with the reader, it fences the memoirist off from the deeper truths that only surface in draft five or ten or twenty. Yes, you can misinterpret—happens all the time. “The truth ambushes you,” Geoffrey Wolff once said…But unless you’re looking at actual lived experience, the more profound meanings will remain forever shrouded. You’ll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter that convenient first take on the past. A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or to pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.

Replace “memoirist” with “biographer,” and you’re left with a sense of what was lost when Max concluded that Wallace’s violence only made him “a really fascinating guy and an honor to write about.” I won’t understate the difficulty of coming to terms with the worst aspects of one’s subject, and even Karr herself writes: “I still try to err on the side of generosity toward any character.” But it feels very much like a reluctance to deal honestly with facts that didn’t fit into the received notions of Wallace’s “complexity.” It can be hard to confront those ghosts. But not every ghost story has to be a love story.

An awkward utilitarianism

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A biographer should write the history of this passage to freedom, should see that a superior soul with superior gifts has to be accounted for. It is an elitist assumption, no doubt; but without such an assumption the biography of a great writer leaks away its rationale. [Saul] Bellow’s “sins”—how he treated his wives, and how self-regarding he was—were committed in the process of creating an imperishable body of work. It is not so much that they should be “forgiven,” whatever this means, than that they must be judged in the light of the work of which we are the beneficiaries. An awkward but undeniable utilitarianism must be in play: the number of people hurt by Bellow is probably no more than can be counted on two hands, yet he has delighted and consoled and altered the lives of thousands of readers.

James Wood, in The New Republic

Quote of the Day

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In the greatest confusion there is still an open channel to the soul. It may be difficult to find because by midlife it is overgrown, and some of the wildest thickets that surround it grow out of what we describe as our education. But the channel is always there and it is our business to keep it open, to have access to the deepest part of ourselves—to that part of us which is conscious of a higher consciousness by means of which we make final judgments and put everything together.

Saul Bellow, in the introduction to The Closing of the American Mind

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October 31, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Monroe Doctrine

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[His] secret ambition, after all, had been to steal Marilyn; in all his vanity he thought no one was so well suited to bring out the best in her as himself.

—Norman Mailer, Marilyn

Are writers in direct competition? Any reasonable person—who, by definition, probably isn’t a writer—would have to conclude that they aren’t. The road to publication can be brutal, and there are plenty of ways in which it punishes or ignores deserving talent, but the existence of a specific rival who is consuming resources that might otherwise be allocated to you probably isn’t one of them. Any barriers to entry or success have more to do with luck, timing, and other impersonal forces than with peers who are trying to do the same thing as you. Even prizes, teaching positions, or fellowships are less about writers competing with one another than about their separate confrontations with larger systems, in which the only sustainable solution is to work together. And critical rankings can be rightly dismissed as irrelevancies, or, at best, the byproducts of a different game with incentives of its own. As the novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed wrote:

When a reviewer says that Malamud is second only to Bellow, it means he really isn’t thinking about either of them. When he’s reading Malamud he’s thinking about Bellow, and when he’s reading Bellow he’s thinking about Roth. This is the essence of the ratings game: distraction. Children play it all the time. “Is this the biggest bridge in the world?” “No, it’s the third biggest.” “Oh.” They lose all interest in the bridge.

But you could also argue that writers are effectively in competition, if only because nearly all the authors who have ever lived have behaved as if they were. When asked by an interviewer from the Telegraph if he thought of himself and Philip Roth as rivals, John Updike replied:

Yes, I can’t help but feel it somewhat. Especially since Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry as far as I can tell. I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow. But since Bellow died I think Philip has…he’s certainly written more novels than I have, and seems more dedicated in a way to the act of writing as a means of really reshaping the world to your liking. But he’s been very good to have around as far as goading me to become a better writer.

Saul Bellow himself wrote, “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” while Gore Vidal was even more blunt: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Elsewhere, I’ve written at length about why novelists seem particularly susceptible to what I’ve called the Colonel Cathcart complex, after the character in Catch-22 of whom Joseph Heller says: “He could measure his own progress only in relationship to others, and his idea of excellence was to do something at least as well as all the other men his own age who were doing the same thing even better.” And you could make the case that this kind of competition is good for literature as a whole, as Norman Mailer observed to The Paris Review, after noting that writers were as competitive “as star athletes”: “You say, Well, if he’s doing it, I can do it.”

But there’s another factor at work here. The most memorable consideration of literary envy I’ve ever read is Mailer’s essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” which I first encountered as a young teenager and practically memorized. Mailer speaks frankly of his competitiveness with James Jones and William Styron, as well as his uneasy sense of relief when their novels Some Came Running and Set This House On Fire turned out to be artistic nonevents. But here’s the language that he uses when he describes their relationship to the muse, or, as he calls her, the Bitch:

If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war…it would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, I would have had to try to win her back. But the failure of Some Came Running left me holding onto a buttock of the lady—if she had many lovers, I was still one of them…[While reading Set This House On Fire] I would think, “You don’t catch the Bitch that way, buster, you got to bring more than a trombone to her boudoir.”

In Mailer’s imagination, the muse seems to have taken the form of Marilyn Monroe, whom he secretly felt he might have married if Arthur Miller hadn’t gotten there first. Monroe was the ultimate unrenewable resource, and an emblem of the prize to be won. Which raises the question of how, exactly, Mailer imagined how such a rivalry might look to a writer who happened to be a woman—although it doesn’t even seem to have occurred to him that this might be a problem. He spends the rest of his essay discussing ten contemporary novels, from Henderson the Rain King to Franny and Zooey, in an attempt to figure out the pecking order. All were written by men. And it’s open to debate if Mailer even thought that women were playing the same game.

It’s hard not to connect this kind of exclusion to the conception of literature as an economic activity defined by a scarcity of resources, or, if you like, as a contest between suitors. One of the worst manifestations of this sort of competitiveness, in art as in life, is the disqualification of potential competitors who don’t look like you, which winnows the field to the benefit of those who are already on the inside. Assuming that the pool of rewards is finite, it’s rational to limit your chosen rivals to people who fit the right profile, even if it results in a twisted Monroe Doctrine—James, not Marilyn—in which any incursion is seen as an act of hostility. If any outsiders break in, you can claim that they benefited from an unfair advantage, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, or you can pick up your toys and go home. We’ve seen this clearly in the Hugo Awards, but it isn’t unique to science fiction, which just happens to be a place where a structural weakness allowed these impulses to become visible. Over the last few years, we’ve repeatedly seen how psychological or economic insecurity on the individual level can turn to resentment of otherness on a mass scale, and writers are no different than anyone else. (If anything, they’re worse, because their insecurity is universal, and they get to set the rules of the game they’re playing. Among other things, it leads to the curious belief that newcomers need to justify their presence, when by any rational standard it should be the other way around.) Every writer ends up assembling his or her private list of rivals, and if this excludes some while including others, we can excuse this as a necessary survival mechanism in a profession that needs all the help it can get. But it’s a different matter in public. There’s no honor in winning, or even in competing in, a game that won’t accept all players. And if you don’t agree, you’ll inevitably find that you’ve been your own worst enemy all along.

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on December 17, 2010.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of the word “alright.” Most seductively of all, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time.

Take the five in the graph above, for instance. It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a modest spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we’d suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value. And it’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

“Thanks, Mom. I know…”

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"Activity is the genius of this church..."

Note: This post is the seventh installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 6. You can read the earlier installments here.)

For the most part, I’m proud of my work as a writer, but I’m also aware of one flaw that my published novels all share: they’re about individuals, most of them psychologically isolated, and they have little to say about larger social units. None of the primary characters in these books are married. Most don’t seem to have interesting personal lives outside the bounds of the story. Ilya is an orphan—both his parents died while he was in Vladimir Prison—and we learn next to nothing about Maddy’s family or life history. When a more conventional relationship is introduced, it’s largely to advance the plot, as when Maddy and Ethan briefly drift together and fall apart in The Icon Thief. And the books are almost entirely lacking in sex. Needless to say, I’m far from the only suspense novelist to focus his energies on a narrow slice of human experience: even someone like Frederick Forsyth, who can otherwise write about anything, fumbles when it comes to talking about men and women. You could even argue that isolation is a necessary aspect of the conspiracy thriller, which tends to pit its individuals against the world. But in terms of my own growth as a writer, and of my ability to treat subjects and stories that don’t fit into the neat confines of the plots I’ve made, it’s a limitation, and a serious one.

I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself why my books are so emotionally constrained. Part of it, as I’ve just mentioned above, has do to with the way in which they’re structured: these are intricate plots that need to move quickly from one story point to the next, so there isn’t a lot of time to take in the emotional landscape outside the frame. Another factor might be my own life situation when I conceived the book that set the template for the series. When I wrote The Icon Thief, I was in my late twenties, living alone in New York, and still several years away from marrying and becoming a father. You write what you know, consciously or not, and at the time, I knew a great deal about being single in a big city and not much firsthand about anything else. It’s also possible that my approach to fiction in itself made it difficult for me to construct convincing relationships. Writing about Saul Bellow in Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer observes:

Bellow’s one major weakness…is that he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet…It is possible that the faculty of imagination is opposed to the gift of grasping relationships—in the act of coming to know somebody else well, the point of the imagination may be dulled by the roughness of the other’s concrete desires and the attrition of living not only in one’s own boredom but someone else’s.

"Thanks, Mom. I know..."

Now, I’m not about to compare myself to Bellow, and the passage above probably tells us more about Mailer in any case. But I can’t help finding a distant echo here to my own situation. I approach writing as an act of imagination, and particularly of invention: I take pride in my ability to come up with intricate plots and complications. This is an inherently solitary activity, and even as I treat fiction as an excuse to explore the world, the impulse remains one-sided, even mercenary. When I look at a location or an idea or another person, the writerly part of my brain is asking: “How can I use you?” Everything is turned into material to be worked out later, in private, which doesn’t lend itself well to unpacking human relationships. I tend to use fiction to create problems—to generate complexity—and not to untie the knots of ordinary interaction that I see around me. For the most part, I’m content with this: all writers evolve along certain lines, picking and choosing which battles to fight. The work informs the personality as much as the personality does the work, and I like constructing my little puzzles. But whenever I can, as much for the sake of my own growth as for the story itself, I try to inch a bit further toward those aspects of life that I’ve left underexplored.

You can see a few tentative stabs in this direction in City of Exiles, which is the first novel I wrote in full awareness of how emotionally constrained these stories had become. Later on, we’ll meet Powell’s father for the first time, in a chapter that comes as close as anything in these novels to providing a window on character for its own sake—and the result is one of my favorite scenes in the series. First, though, we’re introduced to Wolfe’s mother, as a voice on the other end of the phone in Chapter 6. At first glance, their interactions function as comic relief, and I like the juxtaposition between Wolfe’s conversation with her mom and the work she’s doing: she begins the chapter by tracing the weapons found at the murdered armorer’s apartment and ends it with the revelation that Ilya is back in the city, all while fending off her mother’s questions about how often she goes to church. But it also gets at something important about Wolfe’s character. Rachel Wolfe is in transition, caught between two stages, and her mother’s voice on the phone reminds her of how hard it is to let go of the past, even as she moves into something less defined. Like most of the other players in the story, she’s a lonely atom, an exile, but being alone isn’t her natural state, as it is with Ilya. It’s a path she’s chosen. And for once, we’re given a sense, at least as far as these books can manage, of what she’s left behind…

Written by nevalalee

November 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

Honor among writers

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Philip Roth

Writers, by nature, are highly competitive. In principle, writing isn’t a contest, but it certainly feels like one, and in practical terms, you find yourself competing with other contemporary writers for all sorts of things that seem available only in finite amounts: attention from editors, book sales, awards, an intangible sense of where you rank in the literary pecking order. Near the top, among the handful of great novelists in any generation, the sense of being a member of a tiny club—in which the old guard is periodically pushed out to make room for the new—can turn into a weird kind of office politics. And don’t think that the authors themselves aren’t acutely conscious of where they stand. Shortly before his death, John Updike, speaking of Philip Roth, said this to the Telegraph:

Philip really has the upper hand in the rivalry, as far as I can tell…I think in a list of admirable novelists there was a time when I might have been near the top, just tucked under Bellow.

It’s an illuminating glimpse of what Updike thought of Roth, but I also like that offhand reference to a “list of admirable novelists,” to which Updike seems to have devoted a fair amount of thought.

I found this quote in Claudia Roth Pierpont’s recent piece in The New Yorker about the friendships between Roth and his contemporaries, including Bellow, Updike, and others, with material drawn from her acclaimed new Roth biography. (At this point, Pierpont might as well legally change her name to “Claudia Roth Pierpoint, no relation.”) The picture we get from the profile is that of a circle of astoundingly talented writers who were pleased to have rivals worthy of their time, but who weren’t always entirely comfortable in one another’s company. You get a sense what it must have been like for two ambitious writers of the same age—Updike was “a year and a day” older than Roth—to rub elbows from Roth’s description of Updike’s “leaping, kangaroo-like energy” as a younger man, followed at once by the wry observation: “I was not un-kangaroo-like myself.” It’s hard for two kangaroos to share a room, especially at a New York dinner party, and for all their mutual admiration, there was also an underlying wariness. Roth referred to the two of them as “friends at a distance,” and when asked by the Telegraph if he and Roth were friends, Updike responded: “Guardedly.”

John Updike

Much the same went for Roth and Saul Bellow, at least in the early days. Ultimately, their acquaintance blossomed into a lasting friendship, but Bellow seems to have initially held the younger writer—eighteen years his junior—at arm’s length. Harold Bloom has famously written of the anxiety of influence, that almost Oedipal ambivalence with which artists regard the predecessors whom they admire and long to imitate, and when two authors are alive at the same time, it runs both ways: a literary mentorship often has less in common with Finding Forrester than with All About Eve. In time, Bellow warmed up to Roth, thanks in part to the influence of his wife, Janis Freedman Bellow, whom Roth imagines saying: “What’s the matter, this guy really likes you, he really admires you, he wants to be your friend.” Freedman Bellow demurs: “I had that conciliatory gene. But it’s not like I was kicking him under the table.” (Bellow’s guardedness toward Roth reminds me a little of how Maxim Gorky described Tolstoy and another rival: “Two bears in one den.” In Tolstoy’s case, the rival was God.)

Yet this kind of rivalry is essential for the cause of art, since it forces the writers themselves to operate at a higher level. Pierpont compares Roth and Updike, fruitfully, to Picasso and Matisse, “wary competitors who were thrilled to have each other in the world to up their game,” and it’s a feeling to which many authors can relate. In his essay “Some Children of the Goddess,” Norman Mailer memorably recalls his feelings about James Jones, one of the few novelists he seemed willing to consider as a peer, and the failure of Jones’s novel Some Came Running:

I was in the doldrums, I needed a charge of dynamite. If Some Came Running had turned out to be the best novel any of us had written since the war, I would have had to get to work. It would have meant the Bitch was in love with someone else, and I would have had to try to win her back.

Artistic rivalry can be murder on the writers themselves—Updike and Roth eventually had a disagreement that led them to break off contact for the last ten years of Updike’s life—but it’s undeniably good for readers, even if the immediate result is what Bellow himself once observed: “Writers seldom wish other writers well.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2013 at 8:47 am

Survival of the envious

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Gore Vidal

“I believe that nothing completely satisfies an imaginative writer,” wrote Frederick Locker-Lampson, “but copious and continuous amounts of unmitigated praise, always provided it is accompanied by a large and increasing sale of his works.” I’d like to say that this is a humorous exaggeration, but really, it’s pretty much the truth. Writers, by nature, are insecure creatures: they’ve chosen a trade that offers few visible rewards for years on end, often in the face of justified skepticism from their family and friends, and even those who make it into print generally only do so after much rejection. Once they’ve been published, they’re likely to find themselves confronted with an entirely different set of problems: the fact that their work is freely available to public opinion leaves them perpetually skinless, to use Walter Murch’s memorable phrase, and these days, a writer who wants to obsess over sales figures and reviews can do so in real time, a prospect that might have made even Locker-Lampson’s head explode.

And the amount of information available to contemporary writers only magnifies their natural tendency to emphasize bad news over good. No matter how well things might be going in other respects, there’s always a lukewarm reader review, a dip in sales rank, or a list of award nominees that glaringly omits the writer’s own name. Worst of all is what I like to think of as the Colonel Cathcart complex, in which a writer can’t be altogether happy if there’s another author out there somewhere, his age or younger, who is doing ever so slightly better in the same general field. Few writers, no matter how emotionally healthy they might be in other respects, can bring themselves to view their own success in absolute terms: it’s always the relative measure that stings. Which is really just a particularly ingenious way of guaranteeing that no writer can ever be entirely content. “Writers seldom wish other writers well,” Saul Bellow says, in a slightly softened version of Gore Vidal’s more pointed observation: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”

Philip Roth

None of these observations are new, of course; even if they hadn’t been confirmed by other writers, they’re facts that any writer can verify just by consulting his own feelings whenever another record-breaking advance or movie deal is announced. And all the evidence implies that such dissatisfaction is a permanent part of the writing life. If you had a laboratory in which you could assemble a perfect writer, one whose career followed a perfect trajectory—early acclaim yielding to massive mainstream success and a second golden period in old age—you’d end up with Philip Roth, whose unhappiness with his own life’s work is a matter of record. But the most terrifying truth of all is that these feelings aren’t an undesirable side effect of a writer’s existence, but an essential element of it. Any writer who survives to produce more than a few good books is a creature who has been forced to evolve under considerable environmental pressure, and the one common trait that lies beneath all great careers is the refusal to be satisfied.

In an ideal world, this kind of professional envy would concentrate solely on matters of art: it’s natural and presumably healthy to want to write better books than any of one’s peers. (Like most writers, I’d like to believe that if the books I wrote already existed, I’d be content just to read them, and leave the hard work to someone else.) Yet this obsession with the quality of one’s craft shades naturally into the less positive characteristics that are equally central to a writer’s identity. A writer is like a show dog who has been bred for certain desirable characteristics that happen to go hand in hand with chronic, sometimes crippling problems, like a pekingese whose flat face leads to trouble breathing, or a great dane with hip dysplasia. For writers, the desirable qualities are perfectionism and obsession with craft; the side effects, sadly, are insecurity and jealousy. As far as treating the condition goes, a steady drip of praise and good sales is one answer; drugs and alcohol are another; but the best cure, inevitably, is work, as Norman Mailer once said with regard to his own bad reviews:

[They] put iron into my heart again, and rage…and so one had to mend, and put on the armor, and go to war, go out to war again, and try to hew huge strokes with the only broadsword God ever gave you, a glimpse of something like Almighty prose.

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March 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

Wooing readers from distraction

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Saul Bellow

Writers, poets, painters, musicians, philosophers, political thinkers, to name only a few of the categories affected, must woo their readers, viewers, listeners, from distraction. To this we must add, for simple realism demands it, that these same writers, painters, etc., are themselves the children of distraction. As such, they are peculiarly qualified to approach the distracted multitudes. They will have experienced the seductions as well as the destructiveness of the forces we have been considering here. This is the destructive element in which we do not need to be summoned to immerse ourselves, for we were born to it.

Saul Bellow, It All Adds Up

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March 10, 2013 at 9:50 am

How much description is enough?

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He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an earring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble.

This description of a character’s appearance appears early in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, one of my favorite novels of recent years. For our purposes, it doesn’t necessarily matter who the character is. (For the record, he’s the thuggish older boyfriend of the student who is having an affair with the novel’s protagonist.) The description isn’t particularly detailed or specific—it sees the character only on the surface, and is really just a record of a first impression—but it more than serves its purpose. We see this character clearly enough to retain a consistent mental image of how he looks, and, more importantly, how he appears to our protagonist. Like just about every sentence in Coetzee’s novel, this is good, concise writing, economical and concrete. Given the character’s significant but ultimately secondary role in the story, that’s probably enough. Or is it?

James Wood would say no. In a pointedly skeptical review of Coetzee’s book—of which he says “It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel”—Wood uses this particular description as an example of the limits of Coetzee’s tight, compressed style. No real person is ever really adequately described in just a few sentences, Wood argues, and Coetzee’s refusal to look at this character more closely is a sign of authorial coldness, or even resistance to reality. (He says elsewhere that elements of Coetzee’s style “would not be out of place in a mass-market thriller,” which he clearly regards as a devastating insult.) Wood, famously, is a devotee of Saul Bellow, one of the great writers of character descriptions, and when he criticizes Coetzee for not going deep enough, one suspects that he’d rather see a description like this one in Humboldt’s Gift:

Rinaldo was extremely good-looking with a dark furry mustache as fine as mink, and he was elegantly dressed…His nose was particularly white and his large nostrils, correspondingly dark, reminded me of the oboe when they dilated. People so distinctly seen have power over me. But I don’t know which comes first, the attraction or the close observation.

But is there a right or wrong way to describe our characters? The difference between the styles of Coetzee and Bellow—between the concise signifier of appearance and the luxuriant jungle of personal description—strikes me as pretty fundamental, and every writer will tend to come down on one side or another. In my own case, as a writer, yes, of mass-market thrillers, I prefer to describe characters in the compressed Coetzee fashion, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. This is partly because I think it’s closer to the way we actually tend to see the people around us, in a sort of nonverbal shorthand. When I read the riot of noticing in authors like Bellow or Updike, I’m impressed and delighted, but not quite convinced that this is really how their characters would see the world. And even if I grant the author the freedom to notice things more deeply, a detailed physical description often makes a character seem less real and distinct to me—I have trouble seeing them through the flurry of adjectives.

My own ideal, which isn’t for everyone, is a kind of fictional transparency, with as little as possible interposed between the reader and the story—and if that means I need to stint on specificity for the sake of momentum, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. In The Icon Thief, I devote maybe a sentence to the looks of each main character: I provide a few tags—like Powell’s “thick glasses and alarmingly high forehead”—and trust the reader to supply the rest. And different characters require different approaches, even within the same novel. In The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, Thomas Harris describes Hannibal Lecter at length—his red eyes, his head sleek like a mink’s—but I don’t think there’s a single line of description for Clarice Starling. (“She knew she could look all right without primping” is the most we get.) It’s easy to see why: Lecter is seen from the outside, while we spend most of the novel inside Clarice’s head. And even if we aren’t told how to picture her, she’s still utterly real. Not bad for a mass-market thriller.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2012 at 10:19 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 3, 2011 at 7:22 am

Posted in Quote of the Day, Writing

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London and the voodoo of location

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Yesterday I got back from my trip to London, where I spent a week looking at locations for Midrash, the sequel to Kamera. For just over six days, I lurked around neighborhoods like Shoreditch, Holland Park, Stoke Newington, and Golders Green; studied landmarks like the Olympia Exhibition Centre and the Old Bailey; and even indulged in a six-hour side trip to Brussels. I kept good notes, took a lot of pictures, and seriously destroyed my feet—next time, I’m bringing better shoes. And I came away not only with a substantial trove of information for my novel, but also some reflections on the role of location research in the writing process itself.

At first glance, it might seem that direct experience of a novel’s setting is essential, especially for a story supposedly based on careful research. A location contains crucial information—sights, sounds, smells, and human interactions—that can’t be acquired in any other way: I know from experience that an hour in Bombay will teach you things about India that you’d never learn from a lifetime of reading. And there’s little doubt that a novel would benefit from what Werner Herzog, according to Roger Ebert, calls “the voodoo of location” in movies—the idea that locations “seep into performances and photography and give a special texture to the film.”

Yet the issue isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. Atmosphere is no substitute for story, and excessive use of location research can burden a novel with inessential detail, as we sometimes see in late Michener. And many good or great books have been written without the benefit of actual travel. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King without going to Africa, at least as far as I know, and more recently, Scott Smith produced the very good horror novel The Ruins without setting foot in Mexico, although it couldn’t have been hard to make the trip. And the number of classic films not shot on location is impossible to count—after all, nobody on Casablanca got anywhere close to Morocco. (Although it’s hard to imagine The Third Man being shot anywhere but Vienna itself.)

For both movies and novels, the “truth” of a location lies between reality and illusion. No matter how heavily researched a novel’s setting may be, there will always be rooms, houses, and streets constructed entirely from the author’s imagination. The same is all the more true for film, where even the most convincing locations often turn out to be made of spit and cardboard. Some of my favorite cinematic locations are from Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going!, which makes extraordinary use of the Inner Hebrides. Yet the movie’s male lead, Roger Livesey, never came close to Scotland: he filmed all of his scenes in the studio, with a double for long shots, and the movie often cuts between set and location from one angle to the next.

What matters, in the end, is the work itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere about other kinds of research, location work isn’t about factual accuracy, but about furnishing the imagination. The author’s inner eye can play quite profitably in the locations where the novel itself will take place—for Kamera, I spent many happy days haunting the boardwalks of Brighton Beach—but there’s also ample material for dreams in the pages of an atlas, especially when it’s out of date. Sooner or later, at some point in the process, real locations fall away, leaving only what remains on the page. And as much as I loved my trip to London, I’m also aware that it’s only now, back at my desk, that the real location work can begin.

Googling the rise and fall of literary reputations

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As the New York Times recently pointed out, Google’s new online book database, which allows users to chart the evolving frequency of words and short phrases over 5.2 million digitized volumes, is a wonderful toy. You can look at the increasing frequency of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, for example—not surprisingly, they’ve all become a lot more common over the past few decades—or chart the depressing ascent of “alright.” Most seductively, perhaps, you can see at a glance how literary reputations have risen or fallen over time. Take these five, for example:

It’s hard not to see that, for all the talk of the death of Freud, he’s doing surprisingly well, and even passed Shakespeare in the mid-’70s (around the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, as Woody Allen’s creative peak). Goethe experienced a rapid fall in popularity in the mid-’30s, though he had recovered nicely by the end of World War II. Tolstoy, by contrast, saw a spike sometime around the Big Three conference in Tehran, and a drop as soon as the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. And Kafka, while less popular during the satisfied ’50s, saw a sudden surge in the paranoid decades thereafter:

Obviously, it’s possible to see patterns anywhere, and I’m not claiming that these graphs reflect real historical cause and effect. But it’s fun to think about. Even more fun is to look at the relative popularity of five leading American novelists of the last half of the twentieth century:

The most interesting graph is that for Norman Mailer, who experiences a huge ascent up to 1970, when his stature as a cultural icon was at his peak (just after his run for mayor of New York). Eventually, though, his graph—like those of Gore Vidal, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow—follows the trajectory that we might suspect for that of an established, serious author: a long, gradual rise followed by a period of stability, as the author enters the official canon. Compare this to a graph of four best-selling novelists of the 1970s:

For Harold Robbins, Jacqueline Susann, Irving Wallace, and Arthur Hailey—and if you don’t recognize their names, ask your parents—we see a rapid rise in popularity followed by an equally rapid decline, which is what we might expect for authors who were once hugely popular but had no lasting value.

It’ll be interesting to see what this graph will look like in fifty years for, say, Stephenie Meyer or Dan Brown, and in which category someone like Jonathan Franzen or J.K. Rowling will appear. Only time, and Google, will tell.

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