“[F]or me love of life—no simple Rotarian optimism but love of life in all its vast complexity--is the ultimate test of a writer’s worth. What is more, I inevitably find that those who love life are the writers I most love.”
I wish I had written that. Joseph Epstein, as usual, beat me to it. Please, don’t misunderstand. No one is proposing a nihil obstat of sweetness and light for literature. Rather, the best writers accept the contradictory nature of humanity and go on loving it. We are silly, vain, baffling creatures but we make pretty good company. Epstein cites Dickens, Tolstoy and Mencken as writers in whom “joy in life is evident from the outset.” These thoughts are drawn from his introduction to Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985), one of the books I bought on Saturday at Kaboom Books here in Houston.
The customer ahead of me as I stood at the register was buying a paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (1979). He was a young man, not yet thirty, and he asked the owner of the shop, John Dillman, and me if we had read the novel and what we thought of it. As a bookseller, John offered an admirably diplomatic answer. I said the book contained the funniest scene I know in literature involving watermelons. The young man pushed it: What was our favorite McCarthy novel? John answered without answering and I figured it was time to gently ’fess up. I told him I don’t care for McCarthy, that his books are refried Faulkner. I left out the part about nihilism. The young man took it well and asked who I did like. I gave a quick, honest answer and said Nabokov.
The conversation with the young man supplied me with a ready-made illustration of Epstein’s thoughts expressed at the top of this post. McCarthy gives every indication of hating his fellow humans, which is one of the reasons his novels are so tedious. As in much of Faulkner, McCarthy’s work has a pulpy, cartoonish core. We wait for the next outrage to occur, invariably in overheated prose. Contrast this with Nabokov’s celebratory love of life in all of his work, as in this passage from “The Creative Writer,” an essay he wrote in 1941, not long after arriving in the United States from Europe:
“I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles — no matter the imminent peril — these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.”
Along with Epstein’s essay collection I bought another book I have already read: a first edition of Hugh Kenner’s The Counterfeiters: An Historical Comedy without a dust jacket but with illustrations by Guy Davenport. Also, a book by Epstein’s pal Frederic Raphael: A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus (Pantheon, 2014).
[You can find “The Creative Writer” in Nabokov’s Think, Write, Speak: Uncollected Essays, Reviews, Interviews, and Letters to the Editor (2019). It was originally written as a lecture delivered at Wellesley College. An incomplete version, retitled “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” was published in Lectures on Literature, 1980.]