Wednesday, September 30, 2015

`More or Less a Substitute for Nail-Biting'

Without comment, an unknown reader suggested I read Chapter 13 of An Autobiographical Novel (1966, the year Capote published his own “non-fiction novel”) by Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982), a once popular Beat fellow traveler, prolific follower of fashion and arrested adolescent read largely by others of his kind. Think Thomas Wolfe with brains. My reader’s suggestion struck me as unlikely enough to follow. I knew only that Doubleday appended Novel to the title to forestall libel suits. In Chapter 13, the narrator is still a teenager and living in Chicago, which means Rexroth has already devoted 110 pages to the life of a child. This is unforgivable unless you are Marcel Proust or Anne Frank. I almost gave up after three or four pages, until I came upon this:  

“. . . somewhere around my twelfth year I acquired the questionable accomplishment of being able to read absolutely anything.  Perhaps this is a vice or neurosis, the symptom of some serious lack in real life. Maybe, but I still have it.”

The polite word for Rexroth is “garrulous.” He reminds me of Henry Miller, another self-besotted teller of tall tales. He loves the sound of his own voice, and one is forever assaying the veracity of his words, Novel or no Novel. But what impressed me was that I acquired a similar “vice or neurosis” around the same age, and had never heard anyone else self-diagnosis the malady. I’ve been in partial remission since my mid-twenties. Today, I’m eager to not read many of the books I encounter, and have no compunction about closing volumes prematurely. But back then I was an omnivore and largely uncritical, guilt-ridden when I failed to finish reading a book. I no longer regret this, because it’s an efficient way to develop and hone critical standards and skills – through application, not theory. Then Rexroth makes a curious observation:

“This omnivorous appetite for reading things in sets and subjects [he has just described reading books of science and psychoanalysis] stood me in good stead, because it meant I got most of the world’s important fiction out of the way in adolescence where it belongs. I would take the Constance Garnett Chekhov, Turgenev, or Dostoevsky, the Archer Ibsen (a dreadful translation), the New York Edition of Henry James, or the mail-order sets of Joseph Conrad and Jack London, start with Volume I, and read straight through. I’m not proud of this. It seems to me now to be more or less a substitute for nail-biting.”

Why would one wish to get fiction “out of the way in adolescence where it belongs?” That’s a serious undervaluing of novels and stories. Not all fiction is science fiction. Most of the fiction I read today I’ve read many times before (including James, Chekhov and Conrad). One reading is never sufficient with a good book, fiction or otherwise. Rexroth starts sounding like a compulsive womanizer or competitive eater trying to break the hot dog-swallowing record. The notion of a book deepening across time, maturing with its reader, seems utterly alien to him. In his next sentences, Rexroth gives us a clue as to his real motivation:

“However, it purged me of a taste for nondescript fiction and indiscriminate light reading. I have read very little fiction except detective stories and science fiction since. A few years later, when I began to frequent bohemia, I discovered that I was marvelously well equipped for impressive name-dropping and deep critical analysis of the Russian masters in perfect studio-party style.”

There’s Rexroth’s big secret: chicks dig Goncharov. If you require further insight into Rexroth’s sensibility, try this:

“When I meet friends today who teach American literature and who are capable of long articles in PMLA, or even whole courses, on the moral problems of James Fenimore Cooper, I always feel like I’m being kidded. American fiction, even Hawthorne, even Melville, to this day seems to me to be absolute trash.”

1 comment:

George said...

Better writers than Rexroth have said hard things about the PMLA, and Mark Twain seems to me have seen Cooper more clearly than Yvor Winters did. Having said that, the one novel of Rexroth's I read (or tried) to read wasn't good.