Wednesday, December 04, 2013

`Front, Side, Back, Inside and Outside'

“A kind of touchstone of the highest or most living art is seriousness,” Hopkins writes to Robert Bridges in 1886, “not gravity but the being in earnest with your subject – reality.” 

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.

1 comment:

  1. "Novels are 'useless.'" What a wonderful statement. Now that's irony in its most concentrated form!