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Experiments in Folly

The Secret Swinger

by Alan Harrington
Knopf, 235 pp., $4.95

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel

by Marie-Claire Blais, translated by Derek Coltman, Introduction by Edmund Wilson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 145 pp., $4.50

In the Preface to The Princess Casamassima Henry James speaks up for a commanding intelligence at the center of a novel. “I confess I never see the leading interest of any human hazard,” he says, “but in a consciousness (on the part of the moved and moving creature) subject to fine intensification and wide enlargement.” If we grant him this concession, he is prepared to admit in his novel as many fools as we want. “The gross fools, the headlong fools, the fatal fools” will play their parts, provided they are “mirrored in that consciousness.” It is a genial arrangement. James will object only if we propose to put a fool in the central position, grossly commanding the novel with his folly. In art, as in life, fools are probably an unavoidable necessity: in both genres a certain amount of muddle is a constant force. But the fact is that fools do not command our interest. “We care,” James says, “our curiosity and our sympathy care, comparatively little for what happens to the stupid, the coarse, and the blind; care for it, and for the effects of it, at the most as helping to precipitate what happens to the more deeply wondering, to the really sentient.” We may think of this as a chilling sentence, and in life we may try to extend our charity a little further, saying Thou to every fool we meet. But in the novel James is right: Nothing loses our interest so quickly as a fool in the center of things.

The novels under present review try to circumvent this law, and it is perhaps strange that the attempt should be made. If there is something worth seeing, it is curious that the novelist avoids putting there someone capable of seeing it. “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake says, and a wise man’s tree seems a more fitting object of concern. True, Blake goes on to say that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,” and we know what Blake means. But this is a prophetic folly, not the common kind. Meanwhile, it seems, we do not trust the commanding intelligence. Or perhaps we think its report lacking in humanity. So we invent a hero like Dr. Edwin Spindrift in The Doctor Is Sick.

A MINOR LECTURER in linguistics, Dr. Spindrift is in a hospital suffering from a brain tumor and a general failure of will and nerve. He smells cloves as if they were peppermint, and thinks the difference between “gay” and “melancholy” is that one is monosyllabic, the other tetrasyllabic. His wife Sheila is faithful in her fashion, meaning that she is constantly promiscuous. Escaping from the hospital, Spindrift rushes about London looking for the wretched girl and encountering, as inadequate substitutes, a collection of subterranean misfits. The theme which holds these adventures together is the ambiguity of life and words. Spindrift is the name of a detergent, it is also the name of a film: the word appears in poems by Kipling and Hart Crane. The general notion is that people who are skilled in words are innocents abroad in life. Mr. Burgess works this theme for more than it is worth, pointing up the rift between Spindrift the word-mat, and Spindrift the fool, thief, liar. Roaming around London, Spindrift finds that the dirty magazines on offer feature titles taken from Hopkins’s “The Windhover”: “Brute Beauty,” “Valour,” “Act,” and “Oh!”. He goes into a restaurant called Jung. He meets a sandwich-man called Ippo, thereafter described as the unsavory meat in the sandwich. His wife’s name, Sheila, loses its capital letter and becomes the occasion of a fight in a Soho dive. At the end, the hero is cured, well rid of Sheila, and there is promise of a new job in wine. He has left words and the academic world, it seems, for good.

Mr. Burgess is a lively writer, though the quality of the life is not the highest. One of the more innocent pleasures of the book consists in spotting the sources, other novels invoked for imitation. Basically, it is a Lucky Jim book, with comic incidents sometimes indebted to Our Man in Havana. And there is the inevitable touch of Ulysses, partly because Mr. Burgess’s head is full of Joyce and partly because it is hard to write at length about a little man roaming the nighttown of a modern city without having Ulysses rub off on your fingers:

Wonders of philology,” said Edwin proudly. “Take this here dog, for instance.” He held up struggling Nigger, wearing a fish-head like a false nose. “This is really a Spade, you see. Give a dog a bad name. Call a spade a spade. All done by kindness.” He put docile Nigger down with a flat metal clank. “Wooden haft had a bark when it was on a tree. Dogs’ affinity for trees. All ties up.” He looked up at the sky-ceiling to see Les walking on the grid. “World tree withers,” sang Les. “Gods gormless ghastly. Skylight in the gods, see? For flying Dutchmen.”

Spindrift’s days are full of adventure, but, being stupid and blind, he cannot see enough. So he rushes from one incident to another to find his wife and to keep the novel going. This is one of the many differences between Spindrift and Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. James says that Fielding’s Tom Jones has so much “life” that for comic purposes it is almost as good as having a mind; and besides, Fielding “has such an amplitude of reflexion for him and round him that we see him through the mellow air of Fielding’s fine old moralism, fine old humor and fine old style, which somehow really enlarge, make every one and every thing important.” Joyce’s fool is similarly enhanced, we might say, but the saying would no: help Spindrift, who is largely abandoned in his folly.

ALAN HARRINGTON’S experiment is to write a novel about a bore. George Pectin, a journalist in New York City, is forty-one years old, suffering from genetic fatigue, contemplating divorce. He has an unwritten novel about a character as shabby as himself. He sits in Shannon’s, drinking, recalling the bric-a-brac of his boring past; characters only less boring than himself. These include Bill Genovese, an exhibitionist Bohemian fortunately killed in a subway accident, Gretchen, in love with her father, George Muchnik the poet, Serena the girl, Mae the attendant monster. George’s grandmother dies, hence a trip to Cape Cod because this is a Herzog novel. The climax comes when Serena takes George in hand, gives him an unspecified drug, and brings him dancing off to Washington Square. According to the publisher, Mr. Harrington is working on a book, nonfiction, about ways and means “to turn men into gods.” There is talk of this in The Secret Swinger when George, now a patient in a mental asylum, tells his doctor: “I want to live forever, and be a god, and at the same time I want to be rendered helpless, humiliated, disgraced and destroyed.” The doctor says, reasonably enough, “Stay with us.” The chapter and this conversation end: “Over a carpet of immature people like me hanging on death’s barbed wire, men will storm the ramparts of impossibility and become gods.” This aim seems to be achieved in the dancehall, with Serena, after the drug (“Not L.S.D. Something new, Much better”) has begun to work: “And he began weeping and laughing because he knew that we never die, and the dance was endless.”

It would be possible to take this seriously if we could take George seriously, to begin with. But even Martin Buber would find this impossible. George is stupid, coarse, and blind, fulfilling James’s requirements for indifference. The only character who gains my interest in this book is an anonymous “candy butcher” whom George accosts on a train. The usual interminable monologue is enacted. George pouring his troubles. “The candy butcher was going through a series of gestures. His shoulders went up. He thrust his hands out, lifted his eyes to heaven, and made a sound like: ‘Ech!’ ” This seems to me fair comment. In life men like George are always with us, obscenely intimate in bars and railway club cars: we go to books largely to escape them. On the page they are tolerable only if their author suffuses them with his own light and if that light is strong enough. We come back to Fielding and Tom Jones, that old “amplitude of reflection.” There is nothing of this in The Secret Swinger. Indeed, it is just as hard to take the prose seriously as to keep up an interest in fool George:

At that time an old longing had come back to George Pectin: the voluptuous nightmare of the woman, dark, strong, and menacing as Calypso, who was going to envelop him. Unexpectedly she came out of the summer night. As he had in his crib, he woke up frightened, shrinking from her presence. Yet there was nothing he wanted more than to be caught and held in the cave. Even when he lay fully awake in the dark, there remained the indistinct menace and joy of this woman with bright eyes and great heavy limbs watching him expectantly.

This turns out to be Vivian. There is more talk of caves and rebirth at the end.

MARIE-CLAIRE BLAIS’s fool is a child, an infant, Emmanuel, the latest arrival in a Canadian family inordinate in arrivals and departures. The vision ascribed to this infant goes far beyond the probable. When James tackled this problem in What Maisie Knew, he consoled himself with the thought that “small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary.” But Maisie has over Emmanuel the advantage of some years and some intensity of consciousness. This would matter to Marie-Claire Blais’s book if probability mattered. But it hardly does. I am surprised that Edmund Wilson presents the work as if it were a realistic novel, with something to say about “the turbid and swirling sediment of the actual French Canadian world.” He speaks of the book as if it were a comment on Canada, religion, and the folly of large families. The book would fail, I am afraid, read in this way: The characters are incredible, the reported conversations between Jean-leMaigre and Number Seven highly improbable, Canada like nothing on earth. If a book is a realistic novel, the picture must stand up to close attention in these points. But Mile. Blais seems to me to have written an entirely different book, a Gothic romance. It is no more realistic than The Crock of Gold or Watt. In fact, the chapters about Héloïse invite comparison with Miss Lonelyhearts, and should be read in the same spirit. I make this point with some insistence because, read in the light of this tradition, the book reverberates, in a sustaining context, the presence of other romances. Reading it as a romance, we see why the most vivid chapters are dreams and reveries, where the prose is lyric, unrooted in fact. Héloïse’s dream in Chapter 5 is remarkable, and remarkably beautiful, because of the freedom of its imagination and the intimacy with which the convention of romance is realized. When Mlle, Blais submits herself to that convention, allowing it sufficient force to contain the feeling, she writes with great power, and the prose is exhilarating. Jean’s fantasy in Chapter 4 is a classic occasion, certainly the finest thing in the book. When Mlle. Blais falls below this splendor, the reason is that she has thrown aside the governing convention, borrowing another which does not suit the occasion. Often the borrowed instrument is realism, and this compounds the problem by making the book lurch between two idioms.

PERHAPS the difficulty begins with Emmanuel. The first page of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is baby-talk, an attempt to render a little “vessel of consciousness” by allowing it to speak a prompt vocabulary of its own. Mlle. Blais does not try this line. Working on James’s assumption that the child’s apprehension is strong, she gives him a producible vocabulary and the freedom to use it. Indeed, she goes further, bringing into consciousness those stirrings which are, in the nature of things, primitive and formless. The effect is far beyond realism. When the infant, a couple of months old, is lying in the parental bed, we are to believe that he understands the marital noises and finds the words for his Freudian resentment. It is perhaps enough to remark that the strategy of the book is daring, precocious, and too difficult to be practiced with safety. The trouble is eased when Mlle. Blais shifts the center of consciousness to Jean and Héloïse, but even then she has the problem of coping with fools, however engaging in their folly. The clear way out is to supply the difference, within reason, by her own intelligence, as Fielding makes up for the fact that Tom hasn’t a grain of imagination, supplying an imagination entirely and graciously his own. But there is always risk in the gap between Mlle. Blais’s imagination and those smaller imaginations which she ascribes to her deprived characters.

I hope I have suggested that A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is, in the way of romance, an exceptional book; vulnerable between success and failure, it is a beautiful thing. Wherever it is possible to choose between the hard way and the easy way, Mlle. Blais chooses the hard, and often she lives to regret it or to pay the cost of the choice. But she is sustained by her sense of life, her native humanity, her eloquence, her feeling for the possibilities: We may say, paraphrasing Yeats, that she sets her chisel to the hardest stone. The Muses protect such writers, as she protects her fools. The book ends in early spring, the snows melting, the sun shining on the land. Grand-mère Antoinette rocks Emmanuel in her arms as he emerges from the dark. “Jean-leMaigre won’t be with us this year,” she says, but on the other hand, “it’ll be a fine spring.” James speaks of “the sense of pulling at threads intrinsically worth it—strong enough and fine enough and entire enough”; and again of “the rich little spectacle of objects embalmed in her wonder.” It seems appropriate to quote these phrases, to lay them beside Mlle. Blais’s romance, in admiration.

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