Neither solemn and humorless nor lazily ironic – an artistic stance rare today and probably always. Among our writers we sense a failure of will or conviction. We can identify its presence easily enough retrospectively – Tolstoy had it. So did Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen and Primo Levi, to pick an odd bunch, sticking strictly to novelists. In his just-published life of Levi, Berel Lang suggests placing him “in the company of moralist or edifying writers.” With Montaigne and Thoreau, Lang says, Levi shares a commitment to “looking at each human being, each person, as if that person were indeed a whole—front, side, back, inside and outside.” On Twitter, David Myers refers to a 1981 interview in Ploughshares the novelist John Williams, author of Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus, gave to Dan Wakefield. In it, Williams says:
“I love the novel because it’s a form that’s imprecise, in flux, and it takes advantage of every known literary form that’s gone before—poetry, the essay, drama. I think the novel is in a sense `A Life.’ The birth, living and death doesn’t have to be explicit in the novel, but I think it has to be about birth, living, and the death. I think any good novel ends with a kind of death. It doesn’t mean that the hero has to die at the end, but it should be `A Life.’”
I thought of Chekhov’s great story “My Life” (1896), which begins satirically and turns, with the reader hardly noticing, mutedly tragic and, because it’s Chekhov, comic. The hero marries a wealthy young woman who, like one of our own countercultural heroines, develops a hankering to live off the land. They convert her estate into a working farm, and after several months of filth, hard work and illiterate peasants, she flees to London to study singing. From there, she writes our hero, asking for a divorce. She tells him she has bought a ring engraved in Hebrew, “All things pass away,” and it will serve as her talisman against future infatuations. The jilted husband observes: “If I wanted to order a ring for myself, the inscription I should choose would be, `Nothing passes away.’” Later in the interview, Williams tells Wakefield:
“You know, novels are `useless,’ really, we don’t have to have them, like food or shelter, but we make them anyway, and making those `useless’ things, that’s what separates us from the animals.”
Only a writer who has written a great novel, one who is “being in earnest with your subject,” is permitted to talk that way.