The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken
Conrad Aiken is one of the Saturnians, the giants who bring their golden ages with them, who are consequently, in their venerable years, always being hailed as the last of the last, the last true Bostonian, the last full-scale man of letters. Graham Greene calls him “perhaps the most exciting, the most fully satisfying of living novelists.” Aiken is thoroughly New England in the Hawthorne sense—says “yes/O at lightning and lashed rod,” knows as well as Hopkins that “the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall/Frightful, sheer, no-man fathomed. Hold them cheap/May who ne’er hung there”—but R. P. Blackmur’s somewhat funereal Introduction to this most welcome collection of Aiken’s five novels is considerably more so, more grimly, mytho-psychologically New England than the novelist, as if the least fearful lineament of this atra cura of the northlands were too precious to be overlooked or undervalued. So be it; Blackmur has his own authority as critic of an old friend whose work he generously admires. He writes excellently of “the finding, declaration, and loss of the self or psyche among the melodramas of love and jealousy, death and immolation, personal power and the frustrate abyss which in their fragments assault his sensibility.” The essential form of the novels, Blackmur finds, is the journey. “It is the combination of the form with the material that makes the innovation. The form is the picaresque, the material that of psychology or the conditions of life which a particular psychology points at. Let us call the combination the Psychological Picaresque.”
This is good, and would be better if Blackmur were a little less eager to assure us that Aiken has done something respectably strenous—one remembers that R. W. B. Lewis also made a sort of moral calisthenics out of the Picaresque. In an innocent-looking passage, Blackmur flashes his steel: “It is conscience not consciousness that can make or follow a pattern; and it is conscience that estimates the lies we tell in our search for the truth of self or love in our blue voyage along the great circle of conversation.” Now this is really dynamite, because Aiken has always advertised himself as one of the high priests of Consciousness and Blackmur is making a desperate, last-minute attempt to get him back to the high safe ground of The Great Moral Tradition. These words are always getting overloaded. In the Thirties, consciousness was dressed up in a blue shirt and a lunch-pail and called Awareness. But when you recall how very many times the word appears in the Jameses and in Aiken himself, you see that Aiken is throwing everything he has against New England moralism, however refined, however humane.
Not that he ever tried to kill his own active, generous and excitable conscience—who more scornful of the conscience-killers than he?—but rather that this thin mentalistic word “consciousness,” for better or worse, was to be his sign of everything generous, adventurous, dramatically, vigorously, and cleansingly outrageous. I think you must admit this to “get” Aiken, the man who successfully crossed the abyss between Santayana and Freud, who sometimes did in fiction what William James thought he was doing in philosophy and psychology, what Henry James kept assuring his brother he was always doing but actually only attempted in a few late novels, notably The Spoils of Poynton, What Maisie Knew, and The Awkward Age—making so bold an imaginative leap forward into the materialization of the world that conscience and consciousness become one. I find Aiken’s fiction much more interesting than the nouveau roman, but attribute this more to the quality of his performance than to a difference of method. The younger novelists are catching up to Aiken and acting a lot more solemnly about it. Aiken is deeply, soul-stirringly amusing—as Finnegans Wake would be if we could understand it without a trot. His “vaudeville of the psyche” enlists, in spurts and flashes, every kind of gusto that fiction has known.
King Coffin, a novel that takes a young Nietzschean of Cambridge through all the phases of enlightened megalomania into madness and final suicide, is a perfect abstract of Aiken’s technique. The hero’s every move, as he plans to murder an insignificant little advertising man, is actually a response to some outside stimulus, so that while he supposes himself to be eliminating a futile symbol of his world’s futility, in fact his world is murdering him. Not only that; in his enthusiasm for cutting a picturesque figure he scatters clues that would certainly have hung him had he gone through with the crime. No closer collaboration of mind and circumstance could be imagined. Forgive me, Mr. Blackmur, but Jasper Ammen is not “a good companion on the domestic scene for Gide’s Lafcadio…Stavrogin…Vautrin…Felix Krull…” He is an elaborate joke, he is really mad, no companion for anybody—the reductio ad absurdum of Aiken’s strategy of total immersion.
King Coffin is a parabolic link between the novels, a cruelly affectionate satire on those candle-lit Beacon Street debating and esthetic societies that Aiken and Blackmur shared in their youth, whose aura of glittering badinage surrounds all of Aiken’s heroes. Just because it provides “the best local topography” it’s as frightening a picture of the trapped consciousness as you will find outside of Dostoevsky. One skips and goes back, mesmerized. So much is involved of Aiken’s unwilling explorations of the borderlands of sanity; yet it is just a farce after all. Gerta is Gerta so that she may have a Gertadaemmerung; Ammen means amen.
King Coffin is mostly action, Blue Voyage is mostly talk, soliloquy and dream, but its radical clowning is the fullest practice of the method that King Coffin offers as schematic farce. All I need observe of this well-known novel—which still seems the best of the five—is how much more cheerfully Aiken contemplates the foolishness of his ship of fools than Katherine Anne Porter does hers. O tempora, O mors deploranda artis!
Great Circle takes us through the course of a week-long analysis, heightened and accelerated by whiskey, of a middle-aged Bostonian who returns to Cambridge to find that his wife has been unfaithful with a mutual friend. If there is a poetry and a metaphysics in the overcoming of jealousy, this is it. Aiken makes a little too much of everything, but his very excess is part of the novel’s catharsis, if you stay with him, and contributes to the hard, clear, definite beauty of the Sanders Theater episode at the end.
Conversation is another tour de force, the two contrary contrapuntal voices of which combine more easily in one’s later reflection on the book than they do in the harsh but fascinating act of reading. The plot is nothing less than an endless, bitter, book-long quarrel between a spectacularly mismated painter and his priggish New Bedford wife who feels neglected and thinks her daughter cannot go to the local public schools. Aiken was never more New England than in attempting to transmute all this nastiness into something beautiful through a therapy of bitterness. But the counter-plot is an admirable lyric evocation of autumn on Cape Cod, enriched by the painter’s charming banter with his little daughter and the arrival in town of some wonderfully horrible types from Greenwich Village. If you find Marquand and the other little Marquands too bland, try this—if you have the courage.
A Heart for the Gods of Mexico doesn’t quite deliver what its title promises. The Mexican episodes are disappointing compared with those in Ushant. It has two good features—a gusty evening amongst the eateries and drinkeries of downtown Boston, and a painfully sardonic train trip by day-coach from Boston to Cuernavaca. I will skip the extraordinary Bostonian moral gymnastics that bring this about. Suffice it to say that a book need not be a real novel to be good Aiken.
If I haven’t suceeded in bringing Aiken-the-novelist into focus, as any talented undergraduate could bring Joyce into focus with a New-Critical-analysis of The Dead, it is because his joie de vivre is always—except in parts of Blue Voyage and most of Ushant—bursting out of the plot which his experience suggests and swirling about in long, exuberant, entertaining eddies of talk that look pretty dangerous on the page. He is a dangerous man.