Tuesday, December 30, 2008

`One is Not Compelled to Choose Sides'

When Daniel Fuchs’ trio of novels from Auden’s “low dishonest decade” – Summer in Williamsburg (1934), Homage to Blenholt (1936), Low Company (1937) – was reprinted in one volume in 1961, the poet Howard Moss reviewed it in The New Yorker. Moss had served as the magazine’s poetry editor since 1950, and the following year he would publish The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust, still one of the best books about the French master. Besides Proust, Moss’ tastes in fiction ran to Henry James, Chekhov and Elizabeth Bowen. He might not be expected to write enthusiastically about a virtually forgotten novelist-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter whose fictional bailiwick was the Brooklyn of poor Jews during the Great Depression, but here is the final paragraph of Moss’ review, “Homage to the Thirties,” collected in Writing Against Time (1969):

“Fuchs, who has been writing for the movies since the early forties, is that rare bird, a writer both witty and loving. He is free of malice at one end of the spectrum and free of sentimentality at the other. At a time when no one had a viewpoint and everyone took a stand, Fuchs was talented and intelligent enough to be an exception. His three novels, buried in the thirties, rise up in the sixties and shine.”

This comes at the end of 12 pages of close, sympathetic but not uncritical reading. Moss describes Low Company, the most accomplished of the three novels, as “admirable but imperfect” (like some human beings, certainly some of Fuchs’). Only once does Moss refer, even obliquely, to another writer or book (Jay Gatsby, to little effect) – a standard reviewer’s gambit, as in “reminiscent of middle-period James.” There’s good reason for this: Fuchs is legitimately, without straining, unlike any other writer of fiction. Bellow comes to mind occasionally – his big shot characters like Einhorn or Cantabile – but Bellow wasn’t yet Bellow in 1937. What I admire in Moss – a formal, rather fussy poet – is his critical elasticity. He’s almost omnivorous, able to enjoy, admire and articulate his enjoyment and admiration for works as various as The Third Policeman, Ship of Fools, The Golden Bowl and Homage to Blenholt.

I remembered Moss and his Fuchs review as D.G. Myers and I exchanged posts and e-mails over his “Best American Fiction, 1968–1998” list at Amazon.com. Both of us, I think, share some of Moss’ capacity for ignoring the tribalism and exclusivity endemic to the world of books. We generally evaluate works and writers on their merits, not their pedigree. And we respect each other’s quirks of taste. David includes a Philip K. Dick title on his list and I find Dick head-achingly unreadable. I suggested the inclusion of two books by Peter Taylor – for my money, one of the half-dozen best story writers we’ve produced. For David he is a “minor writer.”
More to the point, David includes two historical novels (The Killer Angels, Black Robe), a Jules Verne-style adventure (The Balloonist) and an avant-garde satire (Mulligan Stew), not to mention the Dick title that inspired the movie Blade Runner. My suggestions are probably more homogeneous than David’s, but no list that includes Berger, Cheever, Singer and Welty can be described as monolithic. I’ve stated this theme before – the reader’s right to be independent and even inconsistent with his affections. In a post from more than two years ago I wrote:

“In art, fortunately, one is not compelled to choose sides, one poet at the expense of another. Milosz and Larkin are not mutually exclusive loves. Aesthetic love is promiscuous without being unfaithful. I feel no compulsion to be rigorously consistent in matters of artistic taste. I can love Proust and Raymond Chandler, Schoenberg and Johnny Cash. Only in that sense, I think, is art democratic.”

And I haven’t even mentioned how one’s tastes evolve over a lifetime devoted to reading. There was a time when I adored Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, particularly Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, Aberration of Starlight – and Mulligan Stew. What happened? Life and its demands. I grew up.

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