Tuesday, December 03, 2019

'Literature Says Most Things Itself'

A friend writes about the death on Nov. 24 of John Simon: “I never had any trouble believing his words were from his heart, that he was sincere. He just had high standards. He was too good for this mediocre culture of ours.”

Clive James died on the same day, and my friend writes: “He was an old-fashioned writer, one with superlative talent . . . a supremely intelligent man with manifold interests, an abiding curiosity about the world, blessed with talent but at the same time dressed in the trappings of a regular guy.”

Their deaths leave some of us suspended in midair. I’ve been reading Simon for fifty years. He defined that almost extinct species, the man of letters. He would never be mistaken for “a regular guy” but his criticism, especially of movies, was always amusing and acute, even when you disagreed with him. This is excerpted from his review of Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, a film I enjoy more than Simon ever could:

“As one who touted and defended The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, I am particularly disheartened: Peckinpah clearly doesn’t lack talent; what he lacks is brains. Every one of his dubious old chestnuts resurfaces here (civilization is just corruption of instinctual nobility, simple Mexican peasants are the salt of the earth, even the best women crave rape by beasts, a man with a mission can mow down dozens without, etc.) and there is nothing sadder than watching so much technique at the service of ideas which, for all their rehashing, remain half-baked.”

All true, and yet I periodically watch it and all of Peckinpah’s preceding films except for Straw Dogs. The subsection of Simon’s criticism that seems to get the least attention is books. Some of it is collected in The Sheep from the Goats: Selected Literary Essays (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989) and Dreamers of Dreams: Essays on Poets and Poetry (I.R. Dee, 2001). In his introduction to the latter, Simon writes a sort of critical credo:

“It may sound presumptuous, or even preposterous, to assert that there can be music in the review of some humdrum movie or run-of-the-mill play. But if you choose your words lovingly, pay attention to rhythm and cadence, know how to use simile and metaphor—not to mention other tropes—you can enrich and enliven your prose. What you write may still be hogwash, but at least it will be attractive hogwash.”

James had a more populist sensibility. He seemed capable of reading and evaluating almost anything in print (or on television). Some of us still cherish his review of Judith Krantz’s potboiler Princess Daisy (1980), which he describes as “a work of art [that] has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks.” James is aware that criticizing such a novel is too easy, and he goes on to defend its readers:

Princess Daisy is not to be despised. Nor should it be deplored for its concern with aristocracy, glamour, status, success and things like that. On the evidence of her prose, Mrs. Krantz has not enough humour to write tongue-in-cheek, but other people are perfectly capable of reading that way. People don’t get their morality from their reading matter: they bring their morality to it. The assumption that ordinary people’s lives could be controlled and limited by what entertained them was always too condescending to be anything but fatuous.”

The Krantz review is collected in From the Land of Shadows (Jonathan Cape, 1982), about a third of which is devoted to Russian and Soviet literature (James taught himself Russian in order to read Pushkin). In his introduction to that volume he writes:

“Most of the criticism that matters at all has been written in essay form. This fact is no great mystery: what there is to say about literature is very important, but there just isn’t all that much of it. Literature says most things itself, when it is allowed to.”   

My friend, after grieving the loss of Simon and James, expresses my thoughts precisely: “Is Joseph Epstein the last great critic left, the last sublime man of letters, the last defender of excellence and taste?”

It sure looks that way.

1 comment:

joel.m.gershowitz@gmail.com said...


Some time in the late '70s I wrote a fan letter to Simon. He replied with a critique of my letter--a favorable one, I'm pleased to report. He reviewed the letter both for quality of writing and cogency of the points made. I doubt very much that he would have hesitated to light into me if he had found the letter wanting, notwithstanding that its sole purpose was to praise him. The man seems to have been constitutionally incapable of relaxing his critical disposition. But whatever. I learned more from Simon about high critical standards, the need for them, and how they should be applied than from any other critic of that period. I will miss him. As your friend suggests, Epstein is probably the only critic left who does the hard work of judging a work of literature, in Edmund Wilson's phrase (or was it T.S. Eliot's?), "under the aspect of eternity."

Joel Gershowitz