gall and gumption

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Winning myself more friends

This is old. One reason why I don’t blog regularly is that I do a lot of writing outside the house in those black composition notebooks you buy at drug stores for a dollar or two. In those I don’t use a fountain pen -- I use a black Bic for speed. I write in the composition books because it’s a little bit more loose, plus I get some satisfaction out of the simple sensation of the pages filling up, the crackle of the paper and the texture it gets from the impress of the pen.

So there is a lot in those notebooks that I should have blogged, meant to blog, but never actually transferred to the blog. I wrote this little review after reading on one of the book blogs where the writer said that Francine Prose was the best writer in the U.S. today. I couldn’t find the blog now. After reading that comment I decided to read the book.

The book in question is Prose’s “Blue Angel,” a big seller, a National Book Award finalist, no less.

Swenson is a man whom it is impossible to like, who moves, by a not quite believable sequence of appalling decisions, towards being seduced by a female student. The disastrous consequences to his career and personal life follow quickly. This student from her first appearance is not, to any sane person, worth the trouble. Trouble! It’s like the word is flashing on a freeway-sized billboard over her head.

Swenson has failed to become the next Norman Mailer and has let his talent moulder away in the easy academic life. He is living on reduced artistic expectations ( he wrote one big book and hasn’t done much since) and reduced expectations of his students who are mostly uninspired. Somehow everything in the setup of the writing class scenes rings false to me. Now, I know from years of experience how bad students can be; but if they knew everything they wouldn’t be students! But these are very dull and predictable students.

I am going to hazard a guess that Prose has ample experience of writing classes and workshops. Books like this don’t get written without them. And I would tend to agree that most writing workshops will have the faults that she lays out in these scenes: irrelevancy, phoniness and a horror of hurting people’s feelings.

If you are really lucky you can have a workshop audience that acts like a real audience and not a therapy group. A real audience that brings its whole sensibility to the workshop and says what it thinks and has spirited conversation about all kinds of things.

The futility of Swenson’s writing class is a reflection of the failure of his talent -- or so we are to understand. But it is worse than that. Swenson is a bad teacher because he doesn’t believe in what he’s doing; it is as if his whole brain is being slowly consumed by his sense of his unpaid just deserts. He mouths all the useless writing workshop pieties, and internally he stokes his vanity with the conviction -- which the reader is meant to share -- that all this is beneath him.

Swenson gets excited about one student who, he thinks, shows real talent. This student, Angela, writes a story about a high school student who has an affair with her teacher. Swenson is so grateful for the spark of energy that is to be inferred from Angela’s overwrought writing (are we supposed to think it’s overwrought? sadly, I don’t think so). He begins to take a more personal interest in her.

I am reading a scene further along, in which the professor, Swenson, is having lunch with his (apparently) one friend on the faculty, a poet named Magda. They are having lunch in a restaurant, a steakhouse in the town not far from the college. The waitress is gruff and homey. Well, that’s to be predicted. It’s also predictable for the waitress’s gruffness to be only there for the point of setting the atmosphere. She has been said to be gruff and she will be gruff for just long enough for the reader to see that she is so but her gruffness has no meaning or connection to anything. You can hear someone in the workshop pipe up and say, “Why not make the waitress gruff?” Similarly, the details of the two professors’ food orders are tediously elaborated, all in the service of the scene’s perfunctory versimilitude.

Perfunctory because these two people sitting down with their gruff waitress and their lunch specials, then proceed to have a conversation in which they miss everything that is of any actual importance. The inconsistency between the two versions of Angela’s personality doesn’t trouble them. There is plenty to indicate that Angela is, if nothing else, a liar, a manipulator and a petty thief. These indications have not come to the reader behind the backs of these two characters; they themselves have brought the evidence to the table and are discussing it. It beggars belief that two people can be so -- well, stupid.

Magda tells him that in her poetry class, Angela had written a series of sexually explicit , not very good poems and then strong-armed the librarian into taking a bound copy of them as a donation. Hearing from Magda the story of how the student stole another student’s books and then lied about having them, Swenson remarks, “A minor crime.” Well, Montaigne would not have thought so. Neither would Anthony Trollope, and if he handed two of his characters a big fat clue like that, the characters would know what to make of it. If they failed to do so, this failure would require an explanation -- which Trollope would provide. I cannot think of one serious novelist who would allow this to pass. What are we to believe? That it is a minor crime? That it’s okay for Swenson to think it is? Swenson’s subsequent actions, the taking Angela on a trip to buy a computer, his reading her dirty poems and becoming flustered to discover he’s aroused by them (don’t they have pornography in Vermont?) and finally, his allowing himself to have sex with her all depend on this remark.

Is my objection to the “minor crime” remark merely a difference of opinion about the significance of petty crimes? I don’t really think that’s entirely the issue, though it’s part of it. I brought up Montaigne because Montaigne’s philosophy and life prove that a higher standard of probity is possible than Swenson’s. Swenson’s remark reveals him to be unreflecting and undiscriminating. Certainly he spends most of the time reflecting on himself. His main movitation in life is vanity, the vanity of the once famous writer, the vanity of the man who gets a lot of great sex with his earth-mother wife, the vanity of the professsor who students have to show respect to, the vanity of the once-good-looking white man comfortably bedded into a prestigious job. He is completely self-referential in his motivations and reflections.

The scene when Swenson is reading Angela’s poems in the library is, I suppose, meant to be terribly liberal and daring and funny. Here’s a way to have your pornography and eat it too. It is left ambiguous whether Swenson is aroused by the thought of Angela writing the poems or by the poems themselves. Is there really anything so shocking about a man being aroused by the poems? So is it the thought that Angela is the person who wrote them? But the comic intent of the scene is at the spectacle of Swenson dealing with his guilt at being aroused. This is surely a very low level of farce, on a level with the wicked landlord having to dress up in women’s clothing. While we are to side with Swenson against the “politically correct” anti-sexual regime a the school, we are also, illogically, given a representation of his sexual feelings as prurient and nasty. Again, all we can think is that Swenson is very foolish. Is there anyone in this book who isn’t foolish? As it happens, no..
When Swenson says that Angela’s theft of another student’s books is a minor crime it is proof that he has never thought about such things at all. What does he think about, then? What does Francine Prose think about? The reader is owed some reason why we should be interested in such an uninteresting man, why we should watch him proceed, witlessly and helplessly, to his own destruction. We never do get an answer to this question.

It’s a breakdown on the level of characterization and it would have been better to spend some time on this rather than on describing the deliberations over the steak and mashed potatoes.

But this breakdown pervades the entire book. No one ever seems ever to come to the point. Except for Swenson, no one has more than a few identifying marks; gruffness and homeyness here, torn jeans on that one, an English accent there, prissy gayness over yonder.

Each of Swenson’s fellow academics is identified by one or maybe a couple of such annoying summary tics, and all these tics achieve their fullest expression in the inevitable disastrous dinner at the dean’s house, a sort of ensemble piece of bleak and pitiless bitchiness for several voices. Every academic novel must have one of these dinners of the damned, or else the terrorists will have won. I feel certain that a critic -- a critic with academic leanings -- chortled over the dinner in “Blue Angel” and then called it a “bravura performance.” If there is a God who answers the prayers of Kia that critic is fighting off an unaccountable and unexpected irruption of boils.
Hmmm. I sound rather grumpy meself.

I’ll just mention in passing that all the literary references in this novel are to authors who do not deal with convention. “Blue Angel” mentions Poe, Charlotte Bronte, Dostoyevesky, Chekhov, Stendhal and Flaubert. I’d like to suggest that these are all writers of sensibility, of amplified subjectivism, post-Romantic. Somehow this preference does not surprise me.

Let’s take a little divagation to where history and literature meet. Novelists of convention are authors like Austen, Trollope, Richardson, Wharton. To these authors, living in social convention is like living in oxygen -- a necissity for their characters. Outside of convention life is unpleasant. And yet all these writers would acknowledge that convention tends to constrain people from acting spontaneously as themselves, or as they would like. The interest of these novels is -- at least in part -- how character expresses itself in relation to convention. Convention is Necessity Lite, and, importantly, it has a pedigree.
(Look, if this is making you nervous -- and it is a lot to bear on such a trifling novel -- I will just point out that this is just a working classification. The novelists of convention all address the subject of passion and sensibility at one time or another. The most passionate character in “Clarissa” is Clarissa.)

So the unfair comparison I’m making is to Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa,. What stretches that novel to its monstrous length is the existence of convention. If you break with convention the novel elaborates exhaustively, you will no longer be who you were. Clarissa could get away from her family troubles by scuttling off to the estate she inherited from her grandfather, but she takes a very exalted view of the convention of subjection to her father’s will. This convention she examines to its first principles. She explains, in terms that really transcend the language of convention, the basis of her choice in what are, to her, essential moral values. These are the basis of the conventions.

Through Clarissa, Richardson demonstrates a belief that there is no goodness without propriety. But propriety is rich and complex, in his view, and its warrant, ultimately, derives from tradition and religion.

That conception of convention, which is sustained all the way through Trollope’s work in the next century, has not really survived into our time. in a second I could sound like some neoconservative Jeremiah, lamenting secular humanism and the loss of community etc. But I won’t. Ha. many things conspired against that notion of propriety: capitalism, the spread of Romantic ideas. Displacements of populations owing to capitalism. Intimations of disintegration -- well, rather more than intimations -- appear in Balzac’s novels. They tell the story of the defeat of propriety before simple amoral greed and vindictiveness in the yeras after Napoleon. It was the bourgeois that destroyed it, after the Revolution
It’s the bourgeois that destroys, like nothing else. In Los Angeles black people rioted after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and after the verdicts in the Rodney King beating trial. These riots flared up among the poor, violence and looting occurred, they blazed for a few days until law enforcement regained control of the neighborhoods. For months after the Rodney King riots ended, various spokespersons and wise folk took the position that the riots had no political significance. For those people, the looting of TV sets and the beating of Reginald Denny were proof that the disenfranchised had no political sentiments worthy of consideration. Look at the way they behaved! was the message. And the rioters went back to their little houses and crappy apartments and there they remain to this day. That’s what the really poor do.

No, it takes people who aren’t desperate, the middle class, the people who envy, to sustain a grudge, pitilessly, over a long campaign, to wait until the moment when they can tear down every decency with the intent of keeping it down. It takes the energy of the self-righteous and power-mad. There’s a whole story here but I won’t tell it now.

When I am tempted to get sentimental about lost worlds, Trollope’s little villages full of irascible clergy and blue-blooded squires, I indulge in it, I love those characters, I love the verities and indestrucitibiliies of their comfortable world. But then I also read Edith Wharton, a woman whom you could not remotely describe as any kind of a political or social radical. The House of Mirth, in which poor Lily Dale is crushed by those conventions that our moralists are so hankering after. Lily is beat not by justice, but by thoughtlessness, selfishness and hypocrisy. That’s what binds her little society together. “I am not a useful person,” she says in her last, defeated speech as a member of society, a speech that always makes me feel a bit weepy, before she wanders off to obscurity and death.

Is there a more telling portrait of poverty than Wharton’s short story “Bunner Sisters?” You would have to look in Chekhov to find its equal. It’s a far, far cry from Richardson.

A system of social norms so heartlessly observed and, it must be said, so infused with bourgeois spite, would sooner or later collapse under the weight of its own stupidity and cruelty. The First World War did the business for it, it was the last big attempt to hold on to power, and the fascism that sprouted up afterwards was the rage of the defeated, a fatal combination of mass-marketed cheap nostalgia for half the truth, and one hundred percent malice. Those who could make for the exits -- out of convention into the modern world, simply did.

It is a bit embarrassing to bring all this to bear on this trifling novel, but when the reader of Blue Angel is asked to believe that some overpowering social convention keeps all the characters at the dean’s dinner, the whole cast of characters in effect, so limp and mean, the reader has the right to wonder “What conventions?” Prose must surely know that we can unsubscribe voluntarily to them all. The people around that dinner table have no dignity. But what really damns them is the author’s irony. This irony has no referent. And with these characters irony has no teeth; you might as well be ironic about turtles in a pond. They are imbeciles. Is this the condition of everybody? Where do the smart, brave, generous people hang out? What do they do with themselves?

As I hope I have made clear, the breakdown of convention was not the end of the world; it was only the end for many people of one way of living in it, of the argument that you had to live in it in this way. You could up sticks and move to somewhere more congenial: another social milieu, another country, find a setting that suits you better or stay right where you are and build around you the friends and interests that sustain you and give you some belief in the possibility of living by the lights of your own seeking mind and heart. That’s why God invented California.

What keeps the characters all together in this place, other than their own choice to park their carcases somewhere comfortable? They go through the motions of teaching, but they don’t believe in what they are doing. They show no sign of intellectual curiosity. It isn’t the place that does it to them; what could be more confined than some of the little towns in the Barchester novels? Or Jane Austen’s little villages? Yet in such places we find an Archdeacon Grantly, an Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott.

Swenson takes the student shopping for a new computer, they return to the dorm and they have quick, unsatisfactory sex. To emphasize that such sex could not possibly be fun, just at the moment of penetration, Swenson, in an excruciating (to the reader) agony of self-consciousness, his inner yap just never shuts up, clenches his jaws and somehow manages to crush a rotten tooth. That sort of puts an end to the whole moment.

It is revealed, over subsequent weeks, that Angela is using Swenson to get at his literary agent. Swenson takes her poems to show him, having nothing of his own to show. Now, a day late and a dollar short his conscience begins to bother him. He doesn’t actually hand the manuscript over to the agent, and this failure on his part precipitates Angela into her campaign for revenge which is even more relentlessly pursued than her campaign to seduce. I don’t know, we are supposed at this point to believe that Swenson is a victim of the predatory Angela and his narrow-minded colleagues. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for him except that in the winding down of the novel his colleagues and his wife reveal themselves to be even more horrible than he is. Even the marvelous sexy earth motherly gourmet cooking wife leaves him without a backward glance, so much for their deep affection which we’ve been hearing about all the way through. The words with which a person might call foul on the hypocrisy, selfishness and wilful ignorance and so much in evidence don’t seem to exist for Swenson or anyone else in the world of Blue Angel. Swenson submits to his defeat as if somehow that’s the dignified thing to do. Why the hell not fling a couple cuss words at their heads as he departs?

I know from experience that there are such people; English departments are full of them. And as a subject they shouldn’t be off limits. But I don’t see anything in the book that indicates that the author thinks that it’s possible to act otherwise. We see everything through the eyes of the feckless Swenson. Swenson who can’t put two ideas together. Swenson who reads without understanding. Swenson who thinks his students are stupid (this isn’t even a thought, it’s the last reflexive mental twitch of the academic hack, pass a magnet over a dead one and he will emit this signal). Swenson who has never, apparently, seen pornography before and is thrown into panic and guilty confusion by his response to some dirty student poems. Swenson, who, finding himself suddenly unmoored by his own vanity from these voluntary, shallow and pointless social conventions, does what any of us would do, right? Nudge Nudge Wink Wink. Acts like a sex-crazed ferret.

Well, there goes nearly one hundred years of exploration of sexual feelings and experiences. There goes D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, William Carlos Williams, Hemingway, there goes Bessie Smith and Fellini and Celia Cruz, Balalnchine, whole boatloads of Cuban music, Marvin Gaye. Is anyone having any fun in this blighted world?

In Blue Angel, passion is revealed to be prurience and not worth fighting for. Self-righteousness and hypocrisy hold up the civilized world. This unexamined Puritanism, the intellectual poverty at the heart of its insider know-it-allness, cannot be blamed entirely on the breakdown of social conventions in the history of the modern world. I blame it on the author. I suspect that her writing teachers were all Swensons.


At 8:56 PM, Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

This is very rich, starting hares in all directions. Not having read the novel in question, I am fascinated by how what it seems to concern itself with seems so morally scrawny, but might not actually seem that way to someone raised on, say, "Little House on the Prairie."

The memory of good novels has to be invoked because it is not, apparently, much in evidence.

Re the novel of convention: I happened recently to see Huston's Asphalt Jungle, and what seemed odd to me at the time was, it had a quality of summoning up a world of convention, a world of known vices and humors - a shared realm of inherited attitude toward the soul. Until reading your review, however, I didn't quite know what to do with my impression of the film. Now I see it stands out from the pack by virtue of trying to offer a Hollywood noir successor to Trollope.

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