Saturday 11 February 2012

What Makes Gatsby Great - Times October 2009

Classic novels are usually classic for good reason: they offer memorable characters, gripping plots, intricate psychology, compelling history, linguistic brilliance. But surely very few novels can claim to have glamour. Actually I can think of only one: The Great Gatsby. First published in 1925, Gatsby continues to dazzle readers today—even to inspire parties, which can’t be said of many novels (try throwing a Bleak House party, or having guests come as their favorite 1984 character). But what exactly makes The Great Gatsby so, well, great?

Gatsby is a connoisseur’s guide to the glamour and glitter of the Jazz Age—but it’s also a nearly prophetic glimpse into the world to come. Writing at the height of the boom, in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald detected the ephemerality, fakery and corruption always lurking at the heart of the great American success story. Four years later, the market would crash—but the age of advertisement that Fitzgerald was among the first to condemn had only just begun. Nearly a century later, his cautionary tale has become all too apt once more, anticipating as it does our own boom and bust, our tarnished dreams and tawdry failures.

Although slight—about 50,000 words—The Great Gatsby is well-known for its style and shimmering beauty. But although Gatsby is a haunting meditation on aspiration, disillusionment, and romantic love, it isn’t just a lovely cipher, the novelistic equivalent of Greta Garbo. It’s also a blistering exposé of the materialism, duplicity, and sexual politics driving what Fitzgerald calls America’s true “business”: “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”

And this is precisely the business of Fitzgerald’s hero, the farm boy who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, who “sprang from a Platonic conception of himself.” Gatsby epitomizes the self-made man; Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, says talking to Gatsby is “like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” Gatsby tries to create his own fortune in every sense—but although he can make money, Gatsby can’t make destiny. What makes Gatsby none the less “gorgeous” to Nick is his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” That heightened sensitivity is shared—and transmitted—by the novel.

It might seem startling that a novel so rooted in time has become so timeless: the story takes place across the summer of 1922, and ends tragically in September, as the leaves are falling and death is in the air. Time is seasonal, suggesting history, mortality, perishability and impermanence. Gatsby wants to recapture the past, recover lost opportunities, even as he chases “the orgastic future” (it is not, incidentally, the “orgiastic future,” as so many editions print it). Fitzgerald sensed even then that the orgastic future would never come: and he was right. What would come were Crash, Depression, World War, and Holocaust—all so catastrophic they would be capitalized. Gatsby may be a product of his age, an American emblem of hope, faith, and self-fashioning—but he is also our tragedy, a universal symbol of the impossibility of those hopes, and the poignant grandeur of splendid failure.

All of which Fitzgerald understood. When he composed Gatsby, Fitzgerald was one of the most successful writers of his era, who had shot to fame with two bestselling novels (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned), and was the highest-paid short story writer of the decade. He’d been young, brash, ambitious; when he became his own success story he won Zelda Sayre and the pair rapidly became legendary for their revels, the incarnation of the “flappers and philosophers” who populated the Jazz Age—the name Fitzgerald himself bestowed upon the era he and Zelda would forever embody.

But Fitzgerald also had serious artistic ambitions, and in 1924 he set out to write “a consciously artistic achievement.” Published in the spring of 1925, The Great Gatsby barely sold out its first printing, and Fitzgerald didn’t live to see its pre-eminence recognized. It received some good reviews, while a few great older writers, including T. S. Eliot and Edith Wharton, recognized its significance. But Gatsby was generally dismissed by its first readers as trivial, an “anecdote,” in the dismissive opinion of influential critic H. L. Mencken.

There were two primary reasons for this critical lapse: first, the novel was so much of its time that its first readers couldn’t see beyond its topicality; it seemed so much ephemera. And second, Fitzgerald was perceived as a popular writer, not a serious artist. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Gatsby began to be recognized as a tour de force, in part because Fitzgerald’s prescience could only be appreciated in hindsight. By then it had become clear that he wasn’t merely farseeing, he was himself an uncanny incarnation of America’s fortunes: just as Fitzgerald rode in on the Boom of the 1920s, he would crash with the Bust, despair in the Depression, and die just as America entered the Second World War.

The greatness of Gatsby derives not only from Fitzgerald’s perceptiveness, however, but also from his astonishing prose. The novel is so vivid in part because its language is so consistently surprising: “The world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.” Only in Fitzgerald do people “twinkle hilariously” on lawns. He is painting with words, using bright shocks of color like a prose Fauvist. In Gatsby’s “blue gardens,” Nick says, “the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher”. A woman whose husband is drunkenly flirting appears at his side “like an angry diamond.” It is world of “triumphant hat-boxes,” and low-slung cars “crouching” in garages—a single word suggesting the danger that cars will pose to the novel’s characters. The almost synaesthetic mixing of sensory effects creates impressionism in prose, evoking an image without getting trapped in the prison of realism—precisely the trap into which Gatsby himself falls.

Bringing objects to vivid life doesn’t just enable Fitzgerald to set the scene—it allies the reader with Gatsby, who inhabits a world of enchanted objects. Daisy is the most important: she represents the lost paradise Gatsby seeks, but however rich he becomes Gatsby will never be able to afford her. The only man who can afford Daisy is her fabulously wealthy and even more careless husband Tom Buchanan.

Viewed cynically, Gatsby is a stalker—he falls in love with his own projections onto Daisy, refuses to accept rejection, and spends his life constructing an elaborate fantasy, trying to force a happy ending. But Fitzgerald aligns cynicism so firmly with the repellant Tom and his unlikeable (if pitiable) mistress Myrtle Wilson, that unless we want to join the likes of Tom and Myrtle, we have to choose romance. When Nick shouts to Gatsby at story’s end that “they’re a rotten crowd” and Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” he speaks for us. The Great Gatsby makes hopeless romantics of us all.

And hopeless romanticism is the book’s great theme: Gatsby’s glorious romance with possibility itself—and the tragedy of wedding such “unutterable visions” to anyone’s “perishable breath”. Gatsby’s dreams may “romp with God,” but they are corrupted by materialism. As Fitzgerald understood, realizing a dream is sufficient to kill it; and so he keeps the novel’s romantic dreams indescribable. Instead of insisting upon the power of communication, Gatsby is littered with words like “unutterable” and “uncommunicable,” sustaining the novel’s romantic intensity through suggestion. Populating the novel with “owl-eyed” characters and giant unblinking eyes on billboards, Fitzgerald invokes vision but also suggests that it can be unseeing, a signboard rather than a sign.

Gatsby dwells in possibility, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson: his visions are fragile, ineffable, numinous; he is destroyed not by the dreams, but by “the foul dust” floating in their wake. Gatsby is a visionary whose world is inadequate to his romantic intensity.

In the novel’s unforgettable ending, Fitzgerald makes clear that if his story is American, it is also a universal tale of human aspiration, of our facility for hope, and for wonder. Nick wanders to the shore and imagines Dutch sailors seeing America for the first time, a moment when man came “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It is his desire to be great, his craving for “the incomparable milk of wonder,” that makes Gatsby great. And it is Fitzgerald’s ability to evoke that incomparable wonder without diminishing its enchantments that makes the novel so wonderful itself. We can, in fact, come face to face with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder once more: when we read the wonder that is The Great Gatsby.

First published in the Times, 1 October 2009. (c) Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Monday 23 January 2012

A Fitzgerald Holiday Poem

Letters of Note has lately been publishing some Fitzgerald letters that the blogosphere seems to be enjoying. They are, in fact, mostly rather well known to Fitz afficionados. Some of my favorites, however, are much less well known, so I am going to try to blog some Neglected Fitz on my Neglected Blog.

Here is an exchange of which I am very fond:

The Fitzgeralds' great friend from Great Neck, Ring Lardner, sent them a Christmas poem one year (Fitz's handwritten annotation at the end dates it in either 1927 0r 1928):

Fitz responded in kind, with one of his many witty poems.

Here is Fitz's rejoinder to Lardner:

You combed Third Avenue last year

For some small gift that was not too dear

—Like a candy cane or a worn out truss—

To give to a loving friend like us

You’d found gold eggs for such wealthy hicks

As the Edsell Fords and the Pittsburgh Fricks

The Andy Mellons, the Teddy Shonts

The Coleman T. and Pierre duPonts

But not one gift to brighten our hoem

—So I’m sending you back your God damn poem.

More Fitz Favorites anon ...

Wednesday 8 June 2011

*Further Information on NCH

After posting the below, I was sent the following article by @carolinepennock on Twitter. It does seem to change the game; I don't have time at present to think through all the implications, but it means that Grayling is indeed doing something new, that may well be meretricious. On the other hand, it may be a necessary step to surviving in an increasingly commercialized world: I'm not sure.

What I am sure of is that Grayling has become another Clegg: a public whipping boy for implementing the repellent policies of David Cameron.

Grayling's quotations in the British press over the last few days have also not lessened my qualms: if he isn't being misquoted, they seem pretty outrageous.

Others have pointed out that the more worrying model is University of Phoenix, not Harvard. I agree, but U of Phoenix hasn't ruined all of US Higher Ed.

Yet. Sigh.

My reservations are growing exponentially by the moment, but I still counsel wait and see.

Thoughts on the New College for the Humanities

As an American who has been an academic in the UK for 12 years, let me see if I’ve got this straight: everyone wants (the right) to attend the best universities that money can buy, but no one wants to pay any money. And when a new college announces that it will charge the rich what it actually costs to attend universities, people are baying for its founders’ blood?

Since the announcement of the proposed New College for the Humanities, Twitter has been awash with righteous indignation expressed with all the depth and complexity afforded by 140 characters and the ease of the retweet, which means you don’t have to do any arguing at all. Academic bloggers have been proposing ‘greylisting’ and boycotting those involved with the project (raising the age-old philosophical conundrum: if you’re boycotted by the unknown will anybody care?). Its founders are accused of being financially motivated, in which case they are stupid: if you want to get rich open an investment bank, not a university.

Take Terry Eagleton’s piece for CiF yesterday: his facile argument was based on a press release, a half-built website, some hasty journalism, a great many unsupported suppositions, and a straw (bogey)man in the shape of the looming spectre of the sinister US education system to terrify us all with the prospect of turning into a country with some of the finest universities—both public and private—in the world.

Eagleton’s argument relies in part upon a gross oversimplification of the US system, which has operated for generations by means of a highly complex mix of private and public funding. The US doesn’t have a two-tier system: it’s more like a 20-tier system. All the tiers charge tuition fees of some kind, and all of them agree to waive varying portions of those fees, for varying reasons and under varying circumstances, while offering and receiving varying subsidies from varying funding bodies; the costs are scaled according to excellence, yes, but also to size, financial need, academic merit, and location, among other factors. Meretricious, isn’t it?

What the US system does have in common with the UK is that most of its state-funded universities are in grave financial difficulty, in part because both nations are populated by those who fervently believe in the principle of universal education and just as fervently object to paying higher taxes or tuition fees.

Nor are the US “private liberal arts colleges” that Eagleton decries (some of which he hasn’t been above working for) the nefarious corporate puppets of his and other similarly cartoonish portraits: they are all funded in great part by voluntary alumni donations from individuals—by no means all billionaires in search of a tax break. Ordinary Americans routinely give back to their universities, when they can, if they choose, because they understand that such educations actually entail huge costs—in both human and material resources. (Anyone who wants to understand the quandaries facing universities on both sides of the Atlantic might better begin with Louis Menand’s surgically precise essay “Debating the Value of College in America” in this week’s New Yorker, rather than Eagleton’s simplistic diatribe.)

There has been an enormous conflation in the coverage of the NCH story among the meanings of "private,” "commercial" and "for-profit." Private universities – just like private secondary schools, such as Eton, Westminster, or St Paul’s - can be publicly inspected, publicly accountable, not-for-profit, but primarily funded by tuition fees. Some people may well feel that the last thing the country needs is more private education on this model, but what Grayling is proposing is hardly revolutionary, or unheard of here. It has been likened to Buckingham, which is just silly: the point about Buckingham, in my understanding (I have no direct knowledge of it, so this is simply hearsay) is that it requires little to no academic qualifications for entry, and simply admits anyone who pays the cash. What Grayling is proposing is not like Buckingham but like Eton: expensive, independent, and high-quality education. People may not like it, but there is a clear and highly functioning model for it in this country.*

And if “private” simply means “independent,” is independence really by definition "odious," in Eagleton’s word—especially in an era when the government is stabbing its own political and economic agenda into the heart of the academy? One of the benefits of such independence is that the government can’t claim the (purchased) right to determine which subjects should be taught, how to teach them, or to set largely useless measurement systems such as the REF (to the tune of wasting about £2 billion of the education budget) or, as in the case of the current government, create incentives in violation of the Haldane Principle for funding bodies to reward those universities that align their research with the government’s “Big Society” initiative. The government’s “public funds” come to universities with enormous strings attached—otherwise known as enough rope to hang ourselves with.

Let’s be clear about one thing: the people selling the study of humanities down the river in this country are not academics like AC Grayling and Richard Dawkins who have devoted their lives to research and education—they are in Whitehall, where it has been agreed on both sides of the political aisle that only the so-called STEM subjects will be publicly funded. The government already plans to withdraw all public funds from the teaching of the humanities and rely solely upon fees-paying students to finance it anyway. So in what way is the NCH the party guilty of “selling out the humanities”? At the very least, it is saying that the study of the humanities is worth paying £18,000 a year for. Terry Eagleton thinks he should get his socks ironed for paying that much money: perhaps that’s because when he got his free education, it was at the expense of thousands of taxpayers in this country who never went to the universities they subsidized him to attend. No wonder he expects to get his boots polished, too.

As far as I can see, the accepted position of principle in the UK today is that every taxpayer should pay to support universities, regardless of whether they or their relatives have ever sought or been granted a university place, in the hopes that they might one day get such a place, or to protect their notional right to access it some day. Meanwhile, as we all know, the reality is that thousands of academically qualified students are currently being denied university places that their families’ taxes have helped pay for.

How is that prima facie a less “odious” system than charging the rich directly to pay for the education they actually receive—especially if (and this is a crucial caveat) that tuition is used to subsidize the educational opportunities of the disadvantaged? How is that less “odious” than the rich receiving a free education and the poor still being boxed out? Rumor has it that the money middle-class parents are currently saving on university fees, after they’ve become accustomed to paying for private schools, is being turned into cash to buy London property, thus further squeezing the poor out of the avenues of access to upward mobility. This “free” education everyone wants has very high costs, but no one wants to admit it.

In 2004 the Times Higher Education Supplement reported a think tank’s finding that it costs £21,000 a year to educate a single Oxford student. Those costs will have risen since—so if its teaching and research are of equivalent quality (again, an important if), the NCH would in fact be offering a discounted rate. Similarly, I am not certain where Eagleton learned that Grayling et al will be “drawing down mega-salaries” from this initiative—all I have seen is that they will be offering academics 25% above the going rate, which currently starts at just over £27,000. By my calculations this means Grayling’s traitors to the cause of education will start with “mega-salaries” of around £34,000. Compare that with GPs, who are being incentivized to manage their own practices, and routinely earn well over £100,000 annually.

Grayling has been quoted saying he intends for NCH to learn from the US model—which doesn’t use fees to enrich shareholders. I have seen no evidence that NCH—a registered charity according to its website—proposes to do so, either. (*NB: This evidence has been shown to me since this writing: see post above.) Let’s also bear in mind that “learning from” a model doesn’t necessarily mean replicating it: it can, and should, mean improving upon it. Grayling has said explicitly that he intends to use the high tuition fees to subsidize the poor and widen access to university study. At present, NCH says 20% of its students will be on financial support, which isn’t nearly enough; when I said so on Twitter, it responded to me that it intends to increase that number, and that it has set up a charitable trust to offer more support. We will need to see just how much support that is. If NCH turns out to be for-profit, or if in practice it admits only the rich and squeezes out the poor, then it will fully deserve condemnation.

But it is also the case that, should NCH only admit the rich, white boys who didn’t get into Oxford and think that’s unfair (if they want to think about injustice, they should consider structural poverty—but then again, they haven’t been admitted to university, so they probably don't know what structural poverty is), there are ways to pressure institutions other than with funding. To wit: if private universities begin to mushroom, the government could refuse accreditation to any university that doesn’t achieve minimum standards of diversity--otherwise known as a minimum standard of decency.

Not that this government has any intention of doing any such thing: their entire agenda has been calculated to create just such institutions as this. Of course they want to privatize universities—but that needn’t be the same thing as commercializing them, and the fact is that there are advantages to independence, as I mentioned above. At the moment, UK universities have the worst of both worlds: all the pressures of fundraising and none of the autonomy to set their own intellectual agenda. In fact, the government rigs the game even more crassly than most people realize, because they cut funds and then limit both student fees and student numbers, and tell us to make up a shortfall. How would we do that, if they won’t give us more money, we can’t charge the students more money, and we can’t admit more students, you ask? Good question. The only way is by getting external funds—of exactly the kind that Grayling is being denounced for having raised. It is what every “public” university in the country is currently scrambling to do anyway. Most universities I know would give their eye-teeth to have venture capital behind them.

There are legitimate questions being asked of NCH about how much teaching its starry professoriate will actually do, and about the apparent lack of diversity among NCH’s big names (as one of my academic friends on Twitter put it, they “look far too male and crusty”; they also look overwhelmingly white). It needs to defend its evident use of the intellectual property of others, including the alleged lifting of syllabi from other institutions. Its relationship to the facilities and infrastructure of publicly funded universities needs to be clarified, and I wish that an institution with aspirations to excellence had given more obvious thought to its curriculum: I’m not convinced by any definition of “Humanities” that doesn’t stretch far enough back to include Classics, or far enough forward to recognize that, for example, “American literature” cannot be apprehended sufficiently in a final-year semester. It will need to clarify the qualifications of its students and the promotion criteria for its staff: what, for example, will the role of research be in Grayling’s brave new world? The importance of funded independent research to the academic excellence of the Ivy Leagues cannot be overstated. Most important, it needs to clarify whether it will in fact just happily accept the children of the rich, and ignore the children of the poor, in which case I will be at the front of the picket line.

None of these questions have yet been answered: nor have we given them a chance to do so. The public outcry over the last few days to the simple announcement of an educational initiative has been characterized by hysteria, inflamed outrage, and reflexive denunciation, and even, Twitter tells me, a protest meeting the other day, which seems a trifle premature, to say the least. What happened to the reasoned consideration of a case on the basis of actual evidence?

Personally, I’m going to wait for such evidence before I draw conclusions. As Mary Beard blogged after the announcement: "I have to confess to some sympathy with this: if there is to be a sustained assault on the humanities, then maybe someone has to get off their ass and take the teaching into their own hands; and if there are to be more and more central demands from central government (many of them tick-box, but still hugely time-consuming), then maybe one simply has to set up a new show outside of all that silliness." She then tweeted that she was going to wait and see, “with reservations.” In the spirit of Professor Beard’s classicism let me just add: Ditto.

Higher education in the UK today is in a parlous state, as no one knows better than those of us who work in it. The NCH is trying something different, and the nation is rushing to judgment. Actually, it is rushing to tar and feather. Maybe what the NCH is doing will indeed prove odious; if they further erode the already fragile state of the study and teaching of the humanities in the UK—and its availability to any able student regardless of financial means—I will oppose them as fiercely as anyone. But shall we learn a bit more about what they’re trying to achieve, and how they propose to achieve it, before we greylist, boycott, or hang them in effigy?

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at UEA. She is also an Ivy-League educated American.

*Since I wrote this piece, on Monday 7 June, further information has been brought to my attention showing that Grayling does indeed intend NCH to be at least partially for-profit. This is a different kettle of fish. I have offered a few quick thoughts and links in the next post, but they are sketchy at best...

Copyright © 2011 Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Friday 24 September 2010

Happy Birthday Fitz

Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald's 114th birthday, and in honor of the event, I want to take the opportunity to refute a story that has become accepted as truth but is in fact a complete myth, the idea that Hemingway told Fitz that the rich are only different from you and me because they have more money.

Here is what actually happened:

In 1926, Fitzgerald wrote a story called "The Rich Boy," which opens: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." The point of the story is to see how extreme wealth can ruin people (and if you think he's wrong, just think about Michael Jackson.)

Some years later, Hemingway was at a dinner with the editor he shared with Fitzgerald, Max Perkins, and an Irish writer named Mary Colum, a woman with a sharp wit. Hemingway said at the dinner: "I am getting to know the rich" (primarily by marrying them, but, hey, that's one way). Mary Colum said to him: "The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money."

In 1936, Fitzgerald published the Crack-Up essays in Esquire, and Hemingway took the opportunity to deride him in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", also published in Esquire later that year, as "poor Scott Fitzgerald," who was in "awe" of the rich and had written a story saying "the very rich are different from you and me," and how "someone" had told him, "Yes, they have more money."

Ever since, Hemingway has been credited with the line but it was used against him. We know this because soon after the dinner Perkins wrote a letter to a woman named Elizabeth Lemmon telling her what had been said at the dinner, because he thought Hemingway's behavior was beneath contempt. Some think Hemingway did it in part because he hated being bested by a woman; certainly his rivalry with Fitzgerald drove him to more and more malicious mythmaking.

The truth of this story can be found in most of the Hemingway biographies, as well as the letters and biography of Max Perkins, and of course the Fitzgerald biographies, for example here.

While I'm at it: no one who knew Fitzgerald well believed that he asked Hemingway to check out his, erm, manhood at a Parisian restaurant to make sure he was properly endowed, as Hemingway claimed in A Moveable Feast. This is pure Hemingway machismo, just the kind of pissing contest he loved to invent. It is just possible that Fitz might have done it if he were very drunk (which of course happened a lot), when he was capable of all kinds of outrageous behavior. But in general he was sexually somewhat prudish and homophobic. He was raised a Victorian after all. So it's possible, but unlikely.

Saturday 31 July 2010

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (Review)

Here is the full text of my review of A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, which was cut for space. (Times 5 June 2010)

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
Review by Sarah Churchwell
A Moveable Feast, first published in 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, opens with a Preface stating: “For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and someone were known by everyone.” Thirty-five years later, Hemingway’s grandson Seán has published what he calls the “Restored Edition” of A Moveable Feast, including exactly those observations and impressions that were left out of the original.
The justification for this decision is that the omissions in the original were not, in fact, “the writer’s,” but rather, the posthumous editor’s. And she just happened to be the writer’s fourth wife, Mary. Given that the memoir tells the story of Hemingway’s Edenic years in Paris in the early 1920s with his first wife, Hadley, and ends with his leaving her for his second wife, Pauline, it is just possible that Mary wasn’t entirely impartial. Unfortunately, neither is Seán—as he is none other than Pauline’s grandson, and has put this “restored” memoir together with the stated intention of correcting its representation of her.
This has provoked some predictable criticism—but the irony is that the restored edition adds little about Pauline, and some of it is even more critical than in the original. Seán claims in his preface that the new book will show how much Hemingway loved Pauline; instead it shows that at the end of his life he remembered a mixture of love, happiness, and unhappiness in a marriage that lasted for thirteen years. This wouldn’t seem to require much proof.
Seán’s preface repeats twice in two pages that “Hemingway thought of his relationship with Pauline as a beginning, not an ending.” In fact, what the draft shows is Hemingway saying that the story of Pauline is properly the beginning of the next book: “I wrote it and I left it out. It is intact and it starts another book”. In other words, the defense of Pauline on display here is that Hemingway intended to write another book about her, but this isn’t it.
The restored version includes drafts, sketches and “fragments” of drafts that the original Feast omitted, but which have long been available to scholars; it re-arranges some sections, but it excises nothing from the original. Instead, it returns to the historical record the (undeniable) fact that A Moveable Feast was very much unfinished when Hemingway died. The resulting book is a looser, baggier, open-ended Feast—rather like a postmodern version of a modernist classic.
For the first two-thirds, one needs to remember the original well to register most of the changes. For example, “A Strange Enough Ending” tells of the end of Hemingway’s friendship with Gertrude Stein. In the original, he attributes it solely to inadvertently overhearing an unpleasant exchange between Stein and her “friend” Alice B. Toklas (speaking “as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever”), which so shocks tough-guy Hemingway that he ends the friendship. The restored version adds a little fillip, which frankly sounds much more like Hemingway, attributing the break to Stein’s literary jealousy: “It never occurred to me until many years later that anyone could hate anyone because they had learned to write conversation from that novel that started off with the quotation from the garage keeper”—that is, the famous statement, “You are all a lost generation” that Hemingway used as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises.
The new version adds a few other occasional sentences, including two moments of jarring prolepsis: Pauline suddenly appears at the races in “The End of an Avocation” (a chapter primarily featuring Hadley), and Hemingway later remarks that Hadley remarried “and is happy and deserves it.” But the main alteration to the original is sequencing: a few chapters are switched around at the beginning, some long passages are shifted from one chapter to another, and the three famous sketches of F. Scott Fitzgerald are moved to the end of the Paris sketches. This means that the book “proper” doesn’t conclude with the deservedly famous closure of “this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy,” but with Hemingway’s jealous and petty erasure of Fitzgerald at the end of “A Matter of Measurements,” which concludes with the bartender at the Paris Ritz knowing Hemingway well but never having heard of Fitzgerald.
Only in the last 50 pages do we get substantially new material (with the exception of “The Pilot Fish and the Rich,” the story of the breakdown of Hemingway and Hadley’s marriage, which has been moved here). This final section is, by any standard, less successful artistically, although it is of biographical interest. It also demonstrates a fair amount about Hemingway’s writing processes—and despair—toward the end. What it doesn’t demonstrate is any great shift in attitude to Pauline, which was supposed to be the volume’s raison d’être. In fact, it includes many draft passages calling Hadley the “heroine” of the book, and Pauline “relentless” in her pursuit of the married Hemingway.
Some of the new sketches are amusing, but pure fiction masquerading as fact, as in “The Education of Mr. Bumby,” an undated anecdote purporting to relate the disapproval Hemingway’s young son, Bumby, felt for Fitzgerald’s inability to hold his drink: “A man should first learn to control himself,” Bumby states. “I thought I could make an example.” This is all very amusing: but Bumby was born in October, 1923 and the Hemingways divorced in January, 1927, Hadley taking custody of their son. Hemingway's friendship with Fitzgerald deteriorated after 1926, and he saw his son intermittently after the divorce; if this episode is supposed to have taken place during his marriage to Hadley than Bumby was no older than three, which makes it a trifle implausible, to say the least. Other sketches are less amusing, if probably more accurate: one is called “On Writing in the First Person,” but written in the second person; “Secret Pleasures” anticipates the posthumously published Garden of Eden with its hair fetish, secret language, and erotic pleasure in twinning—and its mawkish self-indulgence.
In the final “Fragments,” which offers a series of draft efforts at explaining what the memoir is about, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris …that we knew and loved and worked in. That Paris you could never put into a single book and I have tried to write by the old rule that how good a book is should be judged by the man who writes it by the excellence of the material that he eliminates.” Judged by these new inclusions, the material originally omitted was not excellent. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, or that this isn’t a valuable book for “aficionados” of Hemingway. Seán believes this edition offers a “truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.” But does it? In 1960, Hemingway asked his friend A.E. Hotchner to deliver a manuscript of Feast to Scribner’s; both Hotchner and Scribner’s have angrily denounced the restored edition, insisting that the original is the draft Hemingway delivered. What they neglected to mention is that three months before he died, Hemingway wrote to Scribner saying that the manuscript as it stood was unfair to both of his first two wives, and to Fitzgerald. The letter declares that the manuscript "is not to be published the way it is and it has no end". But Hemingway also added in this letter that he felt unable to fix it, as everything he had done since, he contended, made the book even worse. And it is those "worse" drafts that Seán has included and published as the "restored" A Moveable Feast. In the end, the only way in which this is a “truer” Feast is that it has no end.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Review of JD Salinger: A Life Raised High, by Kenneth Slawenski

First published in The New Statesman, 24 April 2010, in abbreviated form, here is the uncut review:

The one thing virtually everyone knows about J. D. Salinger is that his reclusiveness was both combative and controlling, and he absolutely didn’t want anyone else to write about him. It is, perhaps, a worrying sign when a biographer’s failure to respect his subject’s most fundamental wish creates no discernible cognitive dissonance. In this, the first—but not, one presumes, the last—biography to be published since Salinger’s death earlier this year, Kenneth Slawenski has produced an earnest, well-meaning account which is accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

A devoted fan, Slawenski maintains a Salinger website and has spent seven years painstakingly putting together this life. Unsurprisingly, as the biography was researched and written while Salinger was still alive, it received the cooperation of neither the author nor his estate. As a result, Salinger’s own words are minimal and there are no photographs at all; even the jacket cover is a penciled imitation of Salinger’s famous author photograph from the 1950s, a middling likeness at best. And unfortunately, this is one book that can be judged by its cover.

Slawenski has assembled a fair amount of data into a coherent narrative. He is especially successful at marshalling information about Salinger’s service in the Second World War, and his relationship with The New Yorker. But information is not the same thing as wisdom, and the facts of Salinger’s life before he became a recluse in the early to mid 1960s are better known than some might think: born into an upwardly mobile Jewish family in New York City, on New Year’s Day 1919; sent to Valley Forge school in Pennsylvania, which would later be immortalized as Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye; the early ambitions to write, before serving overseas in the Second World War. Slawenski is at his best narrating Salinger’s combat experience, but even there his imagination often fails. For example, Salinger was clearly traumatized by the war: he served at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge; he was there when Dachau and its satellite camps were liberated. (In a touching detail, Slawenski notes that Salinger carried early drafts of Catcher in the Rye with him throughout the war.) He suggests (like Ian Hamilton before him) that Salinger suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome: on V-E Day Salinger “spent the day alone, sitting on his bed, staring at a .45 pistol clutched in his hands. What would it feel like, he wondered, were he to fire the gun through his left palm. … The scene is a macabre one,” Slawenski concludes lamely, “and speaks powerfully of Salinger’s feelings of estrangement and imbalance after the war.” Quite.

The psychological effects of combat may be elusive, but Slawenski is also baffled by Salinger’s relationship to his work. Although he repeats that the young Salinger was always “ambitious,” he thinks that “Salinger’s tendency to ridicule his own works is something of a mystery.” Actually, it was de rigeur for any writer of Salinger’s generation with serious literary aspirations to disparage work sold to the commercial “slick” magazines (Salinger’s idol Fitzgerald did it routinely). He finds it equally “mysterious” that Salinger ever sold a story to Hollywood—before concluding that the “there can be only one explanation … his ambition had imbedded itself so deeply as to become a reflex.” How is reflexive, embedded ambition different from the ordinary kind? There is, actually, another explanation: perhaps Salinger wanted to make some money—and disavowed this desire, after earning enough that he could afford to. Salinger’s intense need for absolute control over his work did not only have artistic consequences, in other words: it had financial ones, too.

Readers who are curious about Salinger’s life can learn some salient facts from this book. But readers who are curious about Salinger’s writing should read it, rather than Slawenski’s numbingly reverential paraphrases. He greatly overstates Salinger’s genius: Franny and Zooey is far from “universally regarded as a masterpiece,” and The Catcher in the Rye is only “the most completely stream-of-consciousness experience offered by American literature” if we don’t count William Faulkner—or Jack Kerouac, or Henry James.

What genius Salinger did possess is inextricable from his tone, which at its best was pitch-perfect. The Salinger who emerges from this book is utterly humorless, but Salinger’s comedy is central to his work—and its popularity. The deservedly classic “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” for example, only transcends sentimentality because it so gracefully blends sardonic irony with a teasing sendup of Esmé’s solemnities. But Slawenski seems tone-deaf: “In writing for Esmé with Love and Squalor” it was necessary for Salinger to reach back into the events of his own past. That this story was written by a veteran who suffered the same traumatic stress as those the narrative addresses gives ‘For Esmé’ a certain moral authority.” Maybe—but moral authority is the least of that story’s virtues.

Any literary biographer who asserts flatly that “the aim of fiction is the re-creation of realism” has a fairly impoverished idea of his subject. Although he acknowledges that it’s a “mistake” to assume that Salinger’s writing is autobiographical, Slawenski also informs us that it’s “inconceivable” that Salinger could have altered the facts in a story he wrote based on an Austrian family he knew; because they die in a concentration camp in the story, they must have died in real life. He then proceeds to treat this speculation as fact—because he finds it inconceivable that a fiction writer might have employed fiction.

This is not what one might call a “critical biography.” It takes Slawenski 240 pages to admit that Salinger might be a trifle “controlling.” He sees no problem, either in literary or biographical terms, with Salinger’s near-obsessive penchant for saintly children as symbols of prelapsarian purity. Even Salinger’s reclusiveness was, to Slawenski, little more than an unfortunate accident, mostly caused by people pestering him. When Salinger took the writer Ian Hamilton to court, Slawenski mentions that Salinger referred to himself as a young man in the third person (as “the boy”) and comments: “Hamilton’s lawyer considered this method of reference odd.” Doesn’t Slawenski? He tells us of Salinger’s mysticism, but not his dabbling with Scientology, or Christian Science, or the occultism of Edgar Cayce. Once the public record fails him, Slawenski’s account just tails off: Salinger’s last forty years are hastily sketched in a couple of chapters. He shares the heartwarming fact that the reclusive Salinger took his two young children on a long-promised holiday to London, but neglects to mention his daughter’s claim in her memoir that he only did so in order to meet a teenaged girl with whom he’d been corresponding. He makes nothing of the fact that, by Slawenski’s own reckoning, Salinger doesn’t seem to have begun a relationship with any woman over the age of 19 until he was in his 70s—when he married a woman 40 years younger. He makes light of the 53-year-old’s relationship with the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard and never mentions any of the other string of adolescent girls in Peggy Salinger’s account, even to refute it.

Slawenski’s analytical inadequacies pale, however, beside his stylistic ones. Verbs become nouns (“the letter rings reminiscent of Whit Burnett and his cajoles for The Catcher in the Rye” and “Salinger’s letters overflowed with recounts of her antics”), nouns become adjectives (“his absence was foreboding”) and verbs are misused throughout: “He swore never again to deal with the slicks, regardless of how much they paid. ‘Let us be broke and obscure,’ he resigned.” And: "'His tragedy,' Faulkner derived, 'was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there." And, oh, the metaphors: “In Bavaria, Salinger’s sinews to normalcy were strained to the point of bursting”; “William Faulkner’s appreciation of [Catcher] brought full circle an inspiration that he himself had unwittingly catapulted.” If Salinger had read this, his sinews to normalcy would have burst, too.

In his story “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger’s narrator dismisses scholars and biographers as a “peerage of tin ears.” One can only conclude, with disappointment, that A Life Raised High would have done little to change Salinger’s mind. © 2010 by Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.