At the Crossroads
The Fencing Master
Yes From No Man’s Land
These three books are written in puzzled indignation at the prospect of the ominous, unchartable wilderness of life in our times. If they don’t come to any terms with it, they do at any rate break into occasional fits of a tonic gallows humor. There are no rewards of plot, few of character; instead the reader is chiefly confronted with the personality of the writer and its response to the incomprehensible: Connell’s tentative cruelty, Rogin’s luscious self-pity, Kops’s artless anger.
The most cerebral of the three writers is Evan Connell. A polished, practiced, and precise stylist, he has turned out two novels (one, Mrs. Bridge, a pleasing, plotless best seller), other short story collections, and a stultifying book-length poem. At the Cross-roads is a fresh collection of short stories. Three of them work through, in close detail, by means of interior monologue, certain episodes in the life of Muhlbach, a fortyish widower; three others, again written with an almost maniacal sense of detail, are nonevents in the lives of two feckless young men, Leon and Bébert; the remainder is a miscellany of brief, arbitrary, and on the whole negligible stories, with tricky plots and nasty subjects.
Muhlbach, with his drugged grief for a recently deceased wife, his urgent sexual desires, his somewhat sarcastic tenderness toward his children, his dutiful but numbed attempts to pursue conventional relations with neighbors and acquaintances, and his controlled distaste for the world he lives in, suggests a manly figure big enough to hold together something more ambitious than these calligraphic exercises. So long as he must withhold himself from a life to which, admittedly, no sane man could commit himself wholeheartedly, there seems little more to say about him than Connell does in these three episodes. Others could be accumulated in number; the result could be called a novel (as Mrs. Bridge was) but it would add up to nothing more than a wry question: So that’s a man’s life; is that all there is, then?
For example, Muhlbach goes to a party on Christmas night. The host and hostess are observed with fastidious revulsion: he is always wondering how and why such people have roles in his life. But he remains discreet and correct: on the outside he is a conventional person; only within an appalled judge keeps account. The children of his hosts, he notes, are “growing toward cruelty with the approval of their father” (catching seagulls on baited fishing lines). He makes conversation with a snotty young beauty, a deplorable spinster who hopes he will marry her, an exasperated, foulmouthed old novelist, a lustful diplomat. He communicates with no one. He is alone with his appraising thoughts:
What have I done? he asks himself. What forces have met to build such a nation as this? Is it my fault that the pleasure of the trip has been destroyed? Of what am I guilty? He stares at his hands, mildly folded in his lap, regarding himself as the most respectable of men. I have violated nothing, he thinks. All my life I have represented civilization, now I am threatened…
The formally exact prose in which Muhlbach addresses himself, the distorting distance he puts between himself and the people he is observing—after all, with a certain cruel relish—as if they were pinned specimens, produce the ludicrous, sorry effect in this story and the others as well. “I accept the madness of our time,” Muhlbach thinks. And he does; apparently because one must. His propriety, the very ordinariness of his life are his means of making do. So his reflections are always meticulous, wry, and clever, but they have a sort of stately complacency too; even the tenderness toward his children seems to be fed, through delicate roots, by cruelty. Muhlbach is a nonparticipant—except insofar, of course, as he attends conscientiously to all his social responsibilities—but his disinclination to participate on a level where everything is risked, seems not to be as he might have it, because the world he lives in has lost touch with civilized values; but because of a cold and deep-seated apathy in himself. Observation from such sources is often drastically amusing, but of course alarming too.
Connell is an uncomfortable writer. Though a miniaturist, he has much intelligence, wit, a ghoulish sense of the absurd, a nice ear for speech. He is certainly not unaware of the cost of failing to live through the heart; but he dwells on the alternative with so ruthless and cool a sense of consequence that it is hard to tell which side he is on.
Gilbert Rogin is a suave and fluent writer whose stories, from Vogue and The New Yorker, are gathered in his first book, The Fencing Master. His protagonist, though the name changes, is usually a sardonically rueful, youngish man (evidently Jewish), engaged or married to a woman (evidently not) with children by a former marriage. Toward the children he is apprehensively tender (they are people who may be hoped not to pronounce judgments), toward the woman premonitorily remorseful, toward himself luxuriously self-reproachful. He feels cut off from life, is haunted by a sense of futility and imperfection, but is too fearful of the pain of other people—and his own ability to inflict pain—to be willing to approach nearer.
For example, take “Judging Keller,” a story about guilt and pity, with several bewildering levels of reality: is Keller a father whose son and daughter possess various child oriented products (patents of their status as consumers if not as human beings)? Or is he a childless man marooned on a South Pacific atoll with a native child dying of meningitis in his arms? It is hard to tell. There is less doubt, however, that he was once the lover of a woman who committed suicide after he refused to marry her.
Keller came to blame himself for Sylvia’s death, a position that was not without an element of self-gratification; it gave him, like the fur and skeleton of the slain mouse in the owl’s crop, a substantive ache around which he could wind and justify his doubt and discontent. The owl shortly coats and eliminates this sharp, indigestible relic, but Keller preserved his memory of Sylvia as though, in a secret and uncharted crypt, she and his shameful forbear, the sterling young man, lay side by side.
The fine ear, the elaborate—and rather unenlightening—simile, the self indulgence, both verbal and moral, are all characteristic of Rogin’s manner. What the story has to say about the cost of involvement is plain, but he goes to excessive trouble to find radical images to represent his meaning. The feverish overtones of Conrad and Golding seem to be there only to make an arbitrary and wholly “literary” ambiguity seem to have a point. But that it does have seems doubtful.
Rogin has read his Bellow too. When he writes in that master’s manner (as in “Chico King Popular Singer”) the edge gets harder, there is manic comedy and even some tenderness which is neither mocked nor overamplified. But for Rogin, unlike Bellow, the whole absurd and awful business of living a life reduced to a series of slogans passed back and forth between people ends up more pathetic than savage.
Three stories in the collection, in which Rogin’s sorry young man is named Howard Lesser, have something in addition to the rewards of a fine mimetic ear. A real and loved human being, Lesser’s father, brings to them a resonance which the other stories have not. It is no mean accomplishment to describe a good person, and though Lesser often proclaims his father’s goodness in extravagant terms, the reality of it comes out with moving simplicity in the old man’s conversation and diary. (Lesser asks his father: ” ‘When you see these photographs, do you remember who you were?’ ‘I don’t,’ his father said, with no apparent regret.”) Once a feeling and cultivated young man not so unlike his son, the father has grown into a patient, cheerful old age. Lesser cannot expect to attain such poise. He perceives life from too many viewpoints, he is too anxiously conscious of appearances, he dramatizes—even his father’s goodness. Much as he knows about human relationships, he can’t help feeling that if you give you are diminished. But the reconciling presence of the father, with his imagined virtues (“Prudence! Justice! Temperance! Fortitude”—Lesser half-ironically sees them as noble abstractions) and his demonstrable gracious human kindness, brings passages of order and truthful simplicity to a display of writing full of grace and intelligence, but often puzzling and disappointing.
Bernard Kops wrote an interesting autobiography two years ago called The World is a Wedding. With vigorous feeling and unabashed curiosity he described growing up, the son of immigrant Jews, in London’s East End during the Depression and the Blitz; the later attrition of the tight family circle; and a life after the war of floundering headlong through a series of Bohemias in search of an identity. He is such an energetic person, so absorbed in the adventure of his life, so imbued with the Jewish tradition, and so transported by the discoveries made in breaking away from tradition, that this pounding, steamy narrative is fascinating, persuasive, even touching.
The novel he has now written, Yes from No Man’s Land, makes use of the autobiographical material, but on this second time round to poor advantage. Joe Levene, an elderly Jew who came to the East End from Poland in his youth, is dying in a Catholic hospital. At his bedside are gathered, one evening, a dutiful daughter, an undutiful son who has pulled away from the parental world in becoming a successful architect, and his fiancée, a schiksa. The whole novel happens in the course of the one visit; and since this imposes severe restrictions on activity, most of it goes on, laboriously, in flashbacks from the old man’s memory and petulant reflections by the son.
Kops, the hero of the autobiography, is a rather engaging fellow, but as protagonist of his novel he is sullen, unkind, and uneasy. In the autobiography he remarks, “I always believed that parents owed their children everything and children owed their parents nothing. Like the birds of the air the parents’ joy was to see the fledgling fly away, vigorous and happy.” This is a sensible view, but in the novel it becomes graceless and sour. The autobiography, though it could only be that of a working-class London Jew, born in the Twenties, is not suffocated by the problem of being such a Jew; a great deal of common life breaks in. But the novel is swamped by the difficulties of belonging to two worlds: the anxiety to abandon one of them and the insoluble difficulty of doing so.
A Jew in America was an American Jew, but a Jew in England was a Jew who lived in England. A Jew who lived on the surface of England and not within it. And so they built a ghetto on the surface. He wanted to smash down the self-imposed ghetto. He wanted an out from the Burden of Zion. He did not want to shudder and feel shock and shame when anyone Jewish did something that wasn’t quite nice.
This is shrewd enough observation, but the histrionic puppets who demonstrate the problem do nothing to bring Levene’s deathbed to life. Kops is more concerned with ideology than people, but since he is an emotional, unschooled thinker, his ideas are rather unsophisticated and turbulent. All the same, his autobiography is so full of life and Kops so full of himself that it is well worth reading. This novel is only a chilly shadow of it.