Writers in Revolt
The jacket of The Island speaks of it as “Robert Creeley’s long-awaited first novel,” by which I suppose the publishers mean themselves and Creeley’s friends, because it was by no means obvious from his extremely laconic poetry that he had it in him to write as sustained, coherent, and generally good a novel as The Island. The poetry would lead one to expect a novel about the trials and rewards of marriage among writers, which it is, and one would expect the same guarded, rather grim, ruminative, mutedly messianic humanism of the semi-bohemian fringes. One would expect, too, a studied choppiness of style, liberal in commas, hiatuses, hesitations, brief sunbursts of plain statement, and deep feeling—a skillfully varied, occasionally muddy, and somewhat truculent inner monologue:
And, it isn’t a big or a little, or an ironic, or any, meaning. It is. Let’s all meet, somewhere, where only the dead won’t come. Only the dead won’t be there. Let’s make it any time, but have just that one thing true, just be alive and there.
That the people in The Island are unquestionably alive and there I don’t think can be doubted. Their vitality springs from the sensible way Creeley has limited himself to the themes that energize his poetry and his willingness to let the minor people dangle, to let them go, when they no longer serve. This is a late first novel and Creeley has the situation well in hand; he wants to write a thoroughly American, post-war sequel to D. H. Lawrence’s epics of eros in exile. He keeps a remarkably firm footing between the bold necessities of his parable, which requires a certain amount of the sun-sea-and-sturdy-peasantry kind of thing, and a grimly funny, unsparing self-knowledge.
The unidentified island is probably Majorca. The antagonists are John, a Creeley-like young writer, his wife Joan, and their three small children. The money is Joan’s, but might as well be a foundation grant. John is both himself and all the conscience-stricken artist-husbands of the Eisenhower years who oscillated, painfully, between Freud and Lawrence, between the hope of a full, Fiedleresque geniality and the higher togetherness-inseparation of Mediterranean exile. He and his English writer friend readily acknowledge themselves to be no more in their wives’ eyes than “little mannies”:
…the shrinking figures of men slipped through doors, shadows, little stone stubbornnesses to put on the table along with the knitting. Give them a real man, he thought, but what did he know of it. His own were vagaries of heroes as much King Arthur as the stumpy fishermen he saw on the beach. He didn’t really want anyone at all to blow a bugle.
This, then, is what the Hamletism of the artist-novel has come to, and a good thing it is; because the heavily indoctrinated, stubborn, conscientious, servantless exertions of this latest breed of Hamlet to see his women and children in their true emancipated colors kills off …