Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin

The Master

Colm Toibin

(2004, Scribner, 338 p.)

In The Master, Toibin, an Irish writer, takes on the great Irish-American writer Henry James (1843 – 1916).  In one scene, this subtle, but self-conscious nationalism shows. As James rubbed elbows with the Anglo elites, his Irish heritage could not help but be noticed. With one English officer stationed in Ireland, he had this exchange:

“Mr. James, are you going to visit any of your Irish kinsmen while you are here?” “I have no plans of any sort.” … “Bailieyborough in County Cavan. That is where you’ll find the seat of the James clan.” Henry noticed [his hostess] blushing and turning her eyes from him.

Toibin's turns of phrase, combined with his use of actual quotes from Henry and William James, makes for an experience like reading James himself, only indirectly and updated in modern prose. Beginning with the disastrous opening night of James's only play Guy Domville, Toibin makes James appear unmasterful indeed. But shielded by his family money, and the Atlantic ocean – which protects him from the brutal derision of his brother William – James is shown to be master of his world. In reality, James became a British citizen and was awarded the Order of Merit before his death in 1916.

I found the relationship between Henry (named after their father) and the elder William (named for their grandfather) poignant – the high-achieving Jameses were the original Kennedys. At one point, William confronts his brother about the subject of his novels, suggesting Henry write about Americans rather than the English class system “which you know nothing about.” Considering the number of BBC adaptations of James’s twenty novels, Williams’s assertion is shocking indeed. In one scene, a handsome, young and admiring sculptor (reminiscent, in retrospect, of one of James’s earlier characters), exclaims “you’ve written a whole library.”

Toibin, who is openly gay, insinuates that James was homosexual (actually, bisexual) but never directly. The unfulfilled love of his life was Constance Fenimore Woolson, granddaughter of James Fenimore Cooper. In a typical scene revealing the sources of many of his stories, Woolson expresses her amazement that James placed her in the house and with the family depicted in Portrait of a Lady. Balking, she asks if she can expect to feature in a future novel. Her suicide is one of the few dramatic moments in an otherwise quiet life. James's love of solitude, in fact, may have contributed to Woolson's suicide. This effeminate solitude, which contrasted with the ideal of masculinity depicted in Kim Townsend’s Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others, may have been a cause of William's nearly endless derision. But as the brothers age, William seems to grudgingly come to respect his younger, less manly sibling (Henry, for example, did not fight in the Civil War due to some unnamed ailment). The subtlety with which this ailment presents itself (as a concern of his mother) and then subsides, is a case of the subtlety of thought of both the family and their novelistic biographer. Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, a biopic on Virginia Woolf, said it best: in his eulogy to James, Toibin has "come shockingly close to [describing] the creative process."

Saul Bellow: Highbrow and Growling Low

umi perkins

 

In the prologue of his collected nonfiction writings There is Simply Too Much to Think About, Saul Bellow asked:

What was it, in the Thirties, that drew an adolescent in Chicago to the writing of books? How did a young American of the Depression period decide that he was, of all things, a literary artist? I use the pretentious term literary artist to emphasize the contrast between such an ambition and the external facts [of the] colossal industrial and business center ... heavy, growling, lowbrow Chicago.

Throughout his storied career as a literary artist, one of Bellow's immense strengths was his illustrations of this very contrast between the lowbrow and the high. My first reading of Herzog, which featured the contrast at its most stark, was a revelation. That someone could capture both the life of letters as well as his decline – including physical decline – showed something uniquely human. When the cerebral, but vain Moses Herzog buys a pair of pants before travelling to visit (and impress) some friends, the salesman:   

… was a trifle rude to Moses, for when he asked his waist size and Moses answered ʻThirty-four,’ the salesman said ʻDonʻt boast.’ That had slipped out, and Moses was too gentlemanly to hold it against him. His heart worked somewhat with the painful satisfaction of restraint.

Herzog is the semi-autobiographical story of a washed up scholar, whose ex-wife Madeline runs off with her therapist and their daughter. He spends much of the book alternately obsessing over her and berating himself for his own infirmaties, weakness and even impotence. In a scene with a mutual confidant, Zelda, all of this  is brought into the open:

            ʻYou’ve been reckless about women.’

            ʻSince Madeline threw me out, maybe. Trying to get back my self-respect.’

            ʻNo, while you were still married.’ Zelda’s mouth tightened …

            He muttered, ʻShe made it tough for me, too. Sexually.’

            ʻWell, being older … But thatʻs bygones,’ said Zelda.

Herzog writes letters, which he never sends, to everyone; the philosopher Heidegger (notably a Nazi):

Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by your expression ʻthe fall into the quotidian.’ When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?

The President:

 Dear Mr. President, I listened to your recent optimistic message on the radio and thought that in respect to taxes  there was little to justify your optimism. The new legislation is highly discriminatory … more adolescent gangs will dominate the underpoliced streets of big cities. Stresses of overpopulation, the race question…

Phillip Roth writes that “this book of a thousand delights offers no greater delight than these letters, and no better key with which to unlock Herzog’s remarkable intelligence and enter into the depths of his turmoil over the wreckage of his life.”

Bellow dug beneath the surface to show that his cultured characters (and self) were only one generation removed from bootleggers and Jews who scraped a living in a Dickensian underbelly, usually of Chicago. And they suffered. This may be the primary theme in Bellow’s writing: the suffering, with or without worldly success. Bellow himself worked his way through college in Chicagoʻs industrial backyards:

Of course coal was paying my way through college and so I had to work behind the scales in a semi-industrial neighborhood where there was light industry, poultry markets, wholesale markets all around and railroad people coming in, It was actually a better education for me than the university.

Bellow’s conflicted view of himself continued through adulthood. In his introduction to Herzog, the writer Phillip Roth noted:

 Bellow once told me that ʻsomewhere in my Jewishness and immigrant blood there were conspicuous traces of doubt as to whether I had the right to practice the writer’s trade.’ He suggested that … this [was] because ʻour own Wasp establishment, represented mainly by Harvard-trained professors,’ considered a son of immigrant Jews unfit to write books in English. These guys infuriated him.

The New Yorker notes the irony of his identification in the opening line of The Adventures of Augie March: “ʻI am an American, Chicago born.' begins the famous first sentence of ʻThe Adventures of Augie March.' The author of that sentence was actually an illegal immigrant, Canada born, and the words were written in Paris.” Unlike Herzog, Augie March is a frantic story about a decidedly lowbrow kid, but shows the rich, frenzied inner mental life of such characters, always on the take, always up to some scheme. Not all critics appreciated the high-low contrast. The critic Ron Rosenbaum wrote that Bellow:

strains too hard to yoke together two somewhat contradictory aspects of his being and style. There's the street-wise Windy City wiseguy and then—as if to show off that the wiseguy has Wisdom—there are the undigested chunks of arcane, not entirely impressive, philosophic thought and speculation. Just to make sure you know his novels have intellectual heft.

Perhaps because his other identities (American, Chicagoan) were never quite fixed, like his characters, Bellow could never escape his Jewishness (nor did he want to). The critic Martin Greenberg wrote that “Bellow had succeeded in making Jewishness ʻa quality that informs all of modern life . . . the quality of modernity itself.’” Like Gore Vidal (who features as a minor rival in Bellow's published letters), Bellow was part of that generation of the literary egoiste:

Recognition magnifies idiosyncrasies ... A characteristic of Bellow’s mentioned by nearly everyone who knew him was his touchiness. He cut people who commented critically on drafts he sent them for comment, and he imagined conspiracies operating behind negative reviews or press coverage that he regarded as less than flattering. He broke with old friends after political disagreements over dinner. These reflexes did not serve him well out in the arena. After he got in trouble with multiculturalists for asking an interviewer “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans?,” he published a Times Op-Ed piece in which, while attempting to distance himself from the remark, he called his critics Stalinists. This did not clear the air.

Recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, gave an answer to Bellow’s provocative question, which posits a universality of literature: “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.”

Bellow's characters seemed to closely, but never entirely, mirror his life. Like Humboldt, he taught at Princeton for a year, but didn’t want to be "tied down" by an academic post. His very public divorce from one of his five wives mirrored Charlie Citrine's divorce in Humboldt's Gift, showy and expensive. The therapy that preceded it, in which both sides had the same psychotherapist, is reflected in Herzog, where his therapist marries his ex-wife (and tells him not to be so neurotic about it). Bellow later found out that his own therapist, Jack Ludwig, was having an affair with his wife.

Bellow’s writing seemed to capture something universal. He is the only writer to win three National Book Awards as well as the Nobel Prize for literature.

Late in life, Bellow became even more expressive about his art. In a 1965 interview in Paris Review, he noted:

I wonder whether there will ever be enough tranquillity under modern circumstances to allow our contemporary Wordsworth to recollect anything. I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness that characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.

The New Yorker compares Bellow to, of all people, Jack Kerouac - at least The Adventures of Augie March, which it likens to On the Road. Both books are also “revolts into style,” protests against the formal and moral prudishness of highbrow culture. One could be forgiven for the comparison with frenetic passages like this:

Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vaultlike rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there's a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.

Never a postmodern multiculturalist, Bellow said he did owe something of his literary sensibility to radicalism. A former Marxist, he was present at the death of Trotsky in Mexico:

We asked for Trotsky and they said who are you and we said weʻre newspapermen. They said Trotskyʻs in the hospital. So we went to the hospital and we asked to see Trotsky and they opened the door and said heʻs in there, so we went in and there was Trotsky. He had just died. He had been assassinated that morning. He was covered in blood and bloody bandages and his white beard was full of blood.

In the epilogue of Too Much to Think About Bellow questions American artists' sense of belonging to the great (read: European) artistic tradition. Through an examination of the critic Hilton Kramer's remarks on popular American artists Jackson Pollock and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Bellow, by extension, explores his own membership in the tradition of letters. In response to Kramer's view that "Pollock stands to Picasso as Ginsberg (a ʻpoet of small, fragmentary accomplishment') stands to Whitman and Pound: provincials aspiring to a status which their intrinsic gifts deny them," Bellow asks "Why not?" "Were Pound of Idaho ... Eliot of Missouri [and] Whitman of Long Island less provincial than Jackson Pollock of Cody, Wyoming?" Bellow's sense of place has here a double purpose: by bridging the lowbrow and the high, he means to find a place, as a Russian-Canadian Jewish immigrant, to call home, and to find one's place among the artists, literary and otherwise, in the Western canon.

Walter_Kirn_on_The_Virtual_Memories_Show.jpg

Blood will out

Walter Kirn’s latest book, Blood Will Out, has been compared favorably to that classic of New Journalism, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. In fact, it’s not just been compared—it’s been equated. When Capote heard about how Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in less than a month and on long rolls of teletype paper he famously quipped, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” Interestingly, Kirn’s prose feels more like Kerouac’s than Capote’s (who apparently was paid $14.80 per word, or $14 million for the book), or like a sportswriter's, with a preference for one-word sentences.

Kirn’s style actually varies between the literary, the lucid and the languid, perhaps reflecting his Ivy League training and Midwestern upbringing and the conflict between them, which our Mr. Rockefeller exploited mercilessly. The book is the true story of the “friendship” between the writer and the grifter, who, like the talented Mr. Ripley, assumed the identity of an eccentric but brilliant scion of America’s most storied Gilded Age clan. But the book is equally about Kirn himself and his own self-delusion. With remarkable candor, Kirn dissects his own complicity, insecurity and collaboration with a man who turned out to be a psychopath who killed “in cold blood,” for no reason other than to play out morbid fantasies.

One of Kirn’s strengths (he has weaknesses) is his ability to trace the source of these fantasies: books and movies—especially movies. “Clark Rockefeller,” who we find out has many other aliases, acts out at least one murder scenario, and its aftermath, from the silver screen. Holding a garden party on the grave of his victim, Rockefeller recreates the famous murder in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope. This seems to satisfy a sense of power that Rockefeller (real name Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, real nationality German) enjoys exercising over those “without brains.” His victim, one John Sohus, a reclusive fellow trekkie, was of that species of “inferior being” that Rockefeller preyed on.

In interviews, Kirn states that there were designs on his own life, but in the book he only hints at them. It is this exposition of the nature of psychopathy that is among the book’s great strengths. The other is its expose of Americans’ susceptibility to pure surface impression. Kirn said on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air that “the right haircut and clothes will get you in anywhere.” So, it seems, will a credit card with the name Clark Rockefeller on it, fake as it may be. Another “inferior being,” Gerhartsreiter’s timid first wife helped him acquire this all-powerful calling card.

When pressed for his secret—the secret of manipulation—Gerhartsreiter says “vanity, vanity, vanity.” He reflects his victims’ best impression of themselves back to them, adding a gloss of American ruling class status, allowing him to ensnare them in a game that would otherwise be transparent. It is quite unbelievable how Kirn fell for the act for over a decade, despite inconsistencies that appeared from day one. Gerhartsreiter’s tales seemed to grow taller over time, finally reaching a level of fantasy that included international intrigue vis-à-vis China. Kirn was never introduced to any family members and, unbelievably (from the perspective of a genealogist), never inquired as to his relation to the well-known members of the Rockefeller family, such as Nelson Rockefeller, former Governor of New York. These are not wealthy recluses whose anonymity would explain their absence.

Chalk it up to Midwestern politeness, but Kirn never pressed him on these matters, worried that it might strain their relationship. Kirn attended Princeton and felt that he was not treated well there; remaining unplugged from the Princeton elite circles (its version of Yale’s semi-mythic Skull and Bones club). As if he could pick up on this, Gerhartsreiter-as-Rockefeller granted Kirn the illusion of a kind of acceptance to those ruling circles that eluded Kirn at Princeton. His credentials seemed to be sealed in Kirn’s mind by the paintings in Rockefeller’s New York apartment—Rothkos and the like—which turn out to be fakes.

There is a connection between the paintings and Rockefeller himself, both convincing imitations, and Kirn notes Rockefeller’s penchant for sequels over originals. In fact, he is completely unoriginal, as Kirn shows that nearly all of his activities, stories and “background” trace to film and books, notably Star Trek and Hitchcock. Some of these sources are ludicrous, such as his New England mannerisms and accent, traced (incredibly) to the wealthy patrician Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island. Absurd as those sources may have been, they were stunningly effective in duping scores of people—a fact that should cause Americans to question their ambivalent status anxiety.

Kirn is hard on himself, though perhaps at times not hard enough. Describing an encounter at an exclusive club, where fawning waiters hinged on Rockefeller’s every move, Kirn notes in retrospect that “the only Ivy Leaguer there was me … I’d had it all backwards … I, the fawning aspirant, should have been the one conferring status.” Is this not the very problem at the heart of the story—the need to have status conferred by association?

Despite these strayings, Kirn convincingly shows Rockefeller’s membership in a long lineage of “the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature,” of which Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is the most famous representative. In demonstrating this, Kirn does—as the Boston Globe critic Eugenia Williamson noted—get to “universal truths about … the American Dream itself.”

This review was originally published in Summit magazine.