A literary biography ought to possess a voice and attitude that reflects and complements the literary voice and attitude of its subject. Leon Edel's life of Henry James is prim and probing, with an energy that gradually accumulates into stately magnificence. Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac is passionate, melancholy and fitful. This is how it should be, but this implicit rule must have been daunting to Adam Begley when he began writing Updike, the first comprehensive biography of the great fiction writer and critic John Updike, who died in 2009.
John Updike was, after all, one of the most confident and erudite prose stylists of his era, and an immensely likable writer. Fortunately, Adam Begley rises to the challenge in this enjoyable and perceptive biography, and while Begley doesn't attempt sentences of Updikian beauty and complexity, he does follow the master's lead in conjuring buoyant revelations from ordinary situations. Like a good Updike novel, this book captures the richness of one person's well-lived life.
As Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic begins, a hapless 80s-era hipster in South Africa named Neville Lister is listing badly:
Just when I started to learn something, I dropped out of university, although this makes it sound more decisive than it was.
He works a brainless job, pretentiously puffs on a tobacco pipe, argues bitterly with his racist neighbors while they mouth off about blacks. Neville's father happens to know a famous South African photographer named Saul Auerbach, and casually arranges for his son to spend a day on a photo shoot with him.
I'll never forget where I was and how I felt when I read the closing pages of Paul Auster's City of Glass, the first and most crucial part of his New York Trilogy, and a formative book for me as a reader and writer.
City of Glass was a mock mystery novel. It opened with a noir-ish phone call that led a vulnerable narrator into a drama involving cruel language experiments that had been performed on a newborn child by a diffident and crazed professor. The child was now an emotionally disabled adult, permanently traumatized into an infantile state, and the professor was threatening to terrorize his victim again.
As the novel proceeded, the boundaries between the key characters began to bend and morph. Words were the mechanism of torture; the professor was trying to discern what natural or spiritually pure language an infant deprived of human contact would eventually speak. Words were also the breaking point of the novel's thrilling facade, as the disconnected mind of the professor's victim began to reveal itself in the narrator's own increasingly disconnected tale. The moment that most knocked me out in this book, I remember, was at the very end. The narrator has lost track of the desperate man-child he is trying to protect. He sits alone in an empty room, now lost beyond logic and sanity himself, and discovers without surprise that some mysterious person is laying out food for him to eat. This impossible but perfectly placed shift in the story completes the narrator's trajectory towards his own state of infantile helplessness -- a plot twist so unexpected but yet so perfect that I as a reader felt the room spin around me as I read it. I must have muttered incomprehensibly as I burned through these final paragraphs; I may have fallen off the couch where I was splayed out, gripping the book like a bungee cord over the chasm of existence. The infantilization described in the novel's final pages felt so powerful to me that I felt I had become infantalized myself for an infinitesimal blip of time.
By the time I crawled through the final pages of this poundingly satisfying first novel in a trilogy, I was a Paul Auster fan for life, even though I would discover that the remaining two novels in the New York Trilogy felt like a coda to the first. Ghosts and The Locked Room nicely complemented and completed City of Glass, but they didn't punch nearly as hard. I continued to eagerly read new Paul Auster novels as he published them -- Moon Palace, Leviathan, The Music of Chance -- and I liked them all, but gradually began to feel that all the novels after City of Glass were explorations into the beauty of random pointlessness, demonstrations of literary serendipity, easy and pleasant enough to read but lacking in definite reward.
(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
1922 was a special year for modernist literature. On February 2, James Joyce was the shy guest of honor at a small publication party for Ulysses in Paris. Sylvia Beach showed Joyce the book for the first time that day, thus establishing 2/2/22 as its Joycily pleasing official publication date.
Ulysses is one of two pillars of 20th century modernist literature, and the other is The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, a long and strange poem that arrived to the wastrel world eight months later on October 16, 1922, neatly printed within the debut edition of The Criterion.
Both Ulysses and Waste Land were mash-ups of ancient heroic literature, regurgitated through a pained awareness of the plight of Europe in the age of industrialized war, revolution, capitalism and fast society. The milieu of European urban high culture that produced Ulysses and The Waste-Land in 1922 -- a vast set of personalities that includes Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Andre Breton, W. B. Yeats, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Benito Mussolini, Vladimir Lenin, Mohandas Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence, E. E. Cummings, Wassily Kandinsky, Virginia Woolf, George Gurdjieff, and of course Gertrude Stein -- is the subject of Kevin Jackson's ingeniously simple Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One.
The book is ingeniously simple because it is written as an annotated calendar, moving forward in brisk anecdotes from January to December, constructing a found story along the way. Some entire days are skipped, while other days present enjoyable juxtapositions, like June 30, on which Franz Kafka retired from his job, T. S. Eliot wrote a letter and young Eric Arthur Blair applied to the India Office for a position that would take him to Burma, one of many eventual stops towards his future as George Orwell.
It must mean something that Marcel Proust died on November 18, 1922, one month after Waste Land came out (though it is not known whether or not Proust read Eliot's poem). This was the same month that Howard Carter discovered and plundered the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Egypt, the same month that Crown Prince Hirohito became the new emperor of Japan.
It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.
Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.
In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.
I'm trying real hard to find a way to love Traveling Sprinkler, the new Paul Chowder novel by Nicholson Baker, who is just about my favorite writer in the world, but whose books I increasingly can't stand.
I say "the new Paul Chowder novel" the way one might say "the new Hannibal Lecter novel" or "the new Rabbit Angstrom novel", but the sad truth is that few Nicholson Baker readers were clamoring for a sequel to the first Paul Chowder novel, The Anthologist (which I reviewed and played a song from in 2010). Both Anthologist and the new Sprinkler are narrated in an arch voice by Crowder, a middle-aged literary oddball with a wayward attention span, a childish sense of humor and a wistful yearning for a woman named Roz.
The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.
Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.
But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.
Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this: