Wednesday, May 18, 2022

'A Kitten Who Doesn’t Wish to Be Caught'

“Both Hemingway’s tight style and D.H. Lawrence’s sloppy one are now in the attic. Neither had any sense of humor whatsoever; this tells a lot. The Terribly Serious writer is serious in relation to his age, and the eternal verities wear very different clothes from one age to the next.” 

We seldom get a chance to congratulate our younger selves. More often they stir embarrassment but part of growing up is forgiving our former callowness and learning from it. I’m proud to have seen through Hemingway and Lawrence from the start. Their reputations, as understood by this adolescent reader, were for manliness and borderline smut, respectively. I hadn’t expected their gifts for dullness. Some of Hemingway’s early stories were worth reading once, but his style – the subject-verb-object flatness of the prose, so many sentences strung together with and’s, the gross sentimentality – quickly wore thin. I hadn’t expected to find The Sun Also Rises so boring, and I’m with Max Beerbohm when it comes to the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Poor D. H. Lawrence. He never realized, don’t you know — he never suspected that to be stark, staring mad is somewhat of a handicap to a writer.”


Guy Davenport is writing to James Laughlin on this date, May 18, in 1993. The letter begins with Davenport’s mention of Delmore Schwartz, “who had a great deal of originality as well as a heaping measure of the poets of his time.” He continues:


“It’s curious how differences and resemblances stand out only after an epoch is over. The famous patina of ‘period’ or junk (which can become charmingly Antique). There’s no way of getting Aesthetics out of history. Art of the highest order is exempt from aging—Joyce, Proust, EP [Ezra Pound], [Gerard Manley] Hopkins.”


That’s debatable. Pound’s Cantos are a disordered junk shop of archaisms, undigested learning and incoherence, and very much of their time. The self-consciously modern tends to age badly. Then consider, for instance, Laurence Sterne and Charles Lamb. In a blindfold taste, a seasoned reader could readily date them, yet their humor, their appreciation of sheer silliness, their psychological acuity and the texture of their prose often feel “modern,” even contemporary. Hemingway, father of the so-called hard-boiled school, comes off as corny and stilted, and Lawrence is the sort of guy we’re warned not to make eye contact with. In contrast, Davenport writes:


“The most interesting trajectories in time are those whose initial shine goes dull in a generation (I’m thinking of Kipling, Booth Tarkington, and O. Henry), lies low, and then emerges bright and fresh.”


I can’t speak for Tarkington but the others remain endlessly rereadable, the finest writers of short stories after the Russians and Isaac Bashevis Singer. One of the qualities I most admire in Davenport is his dismissal of fashion, literary or otherwise. He doesn’t recognize it. It might as well not exist. He writes elsewhere:


“We trust seriousness to be the firm ground beneath our feet while knowing full well that it is ultimately dull and probably inhuman. . . . Comedy is a free spirit, full of fun, and has no intention of explaining herself. In fact, much of her charm is in her mystery, in eluding the serious as successfully as a kitten who doesn’t wish to be caught.”


[You can find Davenport’s letter in Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, W.W. Norton & Co., 2007.]


John Dieffenbach said...

Thanks for reinforcing the right to think independently, critically and, when appropriate, iconoclastically. So few people today do the hard work of making up their own mind. My own initial experience with Hemingway was similar. I read "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "The Sun Also Rises" and "A Call to Arms" in succession when I was in my early 20s. At a used book sale, I found them stacked together and felt I had hit the jackpot. When I finished the first book, I thought, "I must be missing something. Hemingway is great!" By the time I finished the third, I said, "It's not me, it's you." That's not to say that all "great" artists have clay feet. Rather, it reflects that art is personal, not universal, and it's OK to have our own opinions.

Craig said...

I remember my enthusiasm to read "The Rainbow" and "Women in Love", the later after watching the Ken Russell movie adaptation. I also remember the subsequent struggle to finish either book, so dull and badly written they seemed. Never has inner turbulence been so boring.
I just put it down to my own limitations at the time. However, I've since learnt that my reservations are not mine alone.

Jack said...

I read a lot of Hemingway and some Lawrence in college many years ago and have never felt any reason to return to either. I don't know how well the "modern" writers of that period have aged. My son is now about the same age as I was then and I won't be recommending either. I suppose the reason is that I don't know that either writer has much insight into the world we live in today. Or at least that is the way I remember them.