Saturday, January 16, 2016

`I Should Like for My Work to Be Human'

“There are already so many artists whom one admires more than he likes. Am I the only reader who finds in the achievement of James Joyce something that is – well, a little obtuse? Who sees Chekhov as being in some intimate way not only better, but greater?”

Growing up is an act of unending re-education, though not in the Maoist sense. I mean shedding callow enthusiasms and questioning cherished assumptions, many of which we adopt when too young and malleable to make decisions worthy of grownups. We disregard the influence of fashion and peer pressure on our values and tastes. We labor to appear sophisticated, proclaiming appreciation of Naked Lunch while secretly savoring the Chronicles of Barsetshire. Much of literary life, including the bookish precincts of the blogosphere, is pretense, posturing and angling for approval from critics real and imagined. The passage above is from Fred Chappell’s “A Pact with Faustus,” an essay first published in the Mississippi Quarterly in 1984 and reprinted as the afterword in The Fred Chappell Reader (1987). In it, Chappell, a poet and novelist, recounts his early love for Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a novel he read as a boy growing up in the mountain town of Canton, N.C. (“pop. eternally 5,000,” now 4,259).

Take Chappell’s example, James Joyce. When I was young he was the ultimate litmus test of literary hipness. Having read Ulysses, or at least having pretended to, was a prerequisite for admission to the club. It meant you were smart and admirably avant-garde in your tastes, or at least smarter and more avant-garde than most other people. Nothing has changed, and if you claim to have read Finnegans Wake, you enter the sanctum sanctorum and get in line for bibliophile beatification. Now, when I return to Dubliners, I conclude that Joyce attained his artistic zenith in Rome in 1907, when he finished writing “The Dead.” Chappell writes:      

“In my case adventurous experimentation with form seems to lead to overintellectualization, to desiccation, of content. I have got to where I should like for my work to be human, and I do not much care if it even becomes sentimental. Perhaps it would be nice if a few artists in our time decided to rejoin the human race, and I think that I would be glad to do so, however much I disagree with its politics.”

Chappell isn’t telling anyone what he ought to read or write. If you settle on the joyless novels of Joseph McElroy, be our guest. Put it this way: If you could choose between spending time with an intelligent, personable companion, one with a sense of humor and a gift for conversation, or a humorless, droning, disapproving drudge, ever reminding you of your inadequacy for the task at hand, who would you pick? Chekhov, of course. Chappell is no philistine. He knows the good stuff. He’s just more honest and less concerned with making an impression, good or bad:  

“New heroes come to me, figures I wish I had known how to long to emulate as a lad. Spinoza is a lovely and brilliant man; there is more worth for me in Robert Browning than in a platoon of John Berrymans; I don’t see how Carl Ruggles can be much less a composer than Mann’s imaginary figure [composer Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus]; Chaucer is a supreme artist, full of grace and light and wisdom and humanity. Is he really so much less a poet than Dante? Is consistent System so much greater a good than superabundant spirit?”

Literature ought to foster independence of thought, not ant-like critical conformity. Around the time Chappell was working on “A Pact with Faustus,” he was also writing
I Am One of You Forever (1985), the first novel in his Kirkman tetralogy. His narrator, Jess Kirkman, recalls his father retelling the Iliad:

“He found a magazine photograph of Betty Grable and propped it on the mantelpiece by the gilt pendulum clock and said that Miss Grable was Helen of Troy and had been stolen away by a slick-hair cowboy named Paris. Were we going to stand for that? Hell no. We were going to round up a posse and sail the wine-dark seas and rescue her. He flung himself down on the sagging sofa to represent Achilles loafing in his tent, all in a sulk over the beautiful captive maiden Briseis. He winked at me. `These women sure can cause a lot of trouble.’ The account ended ten minutes later with my father dragging three times around the room a dusty sofa cushion which was the vanquished corpse of Hector.”

Like any honest kid, Jess is thrilled by the story and grudgingly proud of his father. His is a family of storytellers, notably Uncle Zeno, of whom Jess says: “Stories passed through [him] like the orange glow through an oil-lamp chimney.” After hearing his father’s inspired version of the Iliad, Jess does what any enthusiastic consumer of stories would do:

“His excitement enticed me to read the poem in a Victorian prose translation, and I found it less confusing than his redaction, its thrills ordered.”

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

It’s a pleasure to disagree with you, since you’re so clear about what you like and don’t like and why.
Ulysses is a great book, and as human as Dubliners and Chekhov – you just have to skip the “Ulysses in Night Town” section (about ¼ of the book), which is just an artless variant of crazy Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The rest of Ulysses, Bloom’s perambulations and adventures around Dublin, is as touching as anything in Chekhov (although in a different style, different styles, of course) and deals with the same small ordinary day-to-day anxieties and crises that beset Chekhov’s characters. And it is incredibly well-written. Try it again.
All I can say about Finnegan’s Wake is that from time to time I read, try to analyze, rather, a paragraph of it, and find it brilliant, but not as literature – more as something that would belong on the puzzle page of the MLA Journal if it had one.