Nathanael West: The Art of His Life
Mr. Jay Martin is described on the jacket of this book as a thirty-four-year-old professor of English at a California university and the author of two earlier books, one on Conrad Aiken, the other on American literary history from 1865 to 1914. The writing of this biography of Nathanael West has obviously cost him a lot of work. In a Preface he lists the many persons whom he interviewed in taped sessions, or in sessions on which he took notes, or by correspondence. Included also is a list of no fewer than thirteen more or less prominent people who have read and criticized his manuscript in its several drafts. Finally he has had access to papers in the possession of S.J. Perelman and his wife, Laura, West’s sister. The book thus comes to us well documented and thoroughly sponsored. It is probably as candid a book as anyone could have written at this time, when many of West’s friends and relatives are still living or only recently dead. Nathanael West: The Art of His Life is a useful book.
I have nevertheless found it hard going. The book is, at a cautious guess, longer by a third than the volume containing the four short novels that make up the Collected Works. The West archives have not yielded to Martin any unpublished or uncollected writings which might substantially enlarge that body of work. Even the letters of West from which Martin quotes, on the whole quite sparingly, fail to suggest that there might be gold in those hills. (Whether Martin had the unrestricted use of a representatively sizable portion of West’s correspondence is unclear. Perhaps he did, and perhaps West just wasn’t an interesting correspondent.) By way of literary “finds,” there are only the movie scripts which West labored at, mostly for low-grade, low-paying Hollywood studios, often without ever seeing them produced. From Beauty Parlor (1933) to Amateur Angel (1940), their literary and cinematic value was, as West knew, nil.
Contributing to the bulkiness and, alas, the tediousness of the biography is the zeal with which Martin has “researched” the historical and literary background of West’s life and work. He writes as if West were John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, or some other writer in whom the historical consciousness has been acute. Glanced at here and there in the book, though generally ignored, is the fact, as it seems to me, of West’s double life. Outwardly, he was a man of the world; intricately witty and moderately dandified in dress and manner; somewhat Frenchified in his literary tastes; attracted by, and attractive to, certain women of a “superior” social class: happy in the company of amusing people and successful writers: the Perelmans, Dorothy Parker. Lillian Hellman; sufficiently eager for money to enroll himself among the screen writers of Hollywood; coveting the life of a squire complete with the huntin’ and fishin’; sorely disappointed when his books, though esteemed by the best critics, proved to be commercial failures.
Inwardly the picture seems to have been quite different. It consisted in a secret communion between some afflicted creatures in West himself and the afflicted creatures of the world, each of them no more than the sum of his deformities of mind and flesh. For them, and perhaps for their counterpart in West, there was no real redemption; there was only, as for the ironic savior in Eliot’s poem, “The notion of some infinitely gentle/Infinitely suffering thing.” West had, says one friend, “a furious hunger for a different humanity.” He was, another friend says, “the most pessimistic man I ever knew.” (Both friends are quoted by Martin.)
What, then, was this tormented creature in West who at once despised and loved his counterparts in the world around him and who, in his novels, made such aching comedy out of the relationship? Was it the (to him) unredeemable Jew in West, who was born Nathan Weinstein, a second-generation American of Lithuanian-Jewish descent? If so, much of his conduct as described by Martin (and by Stanley Edgar Hyman in an admirable pamphlet-length study of West published in 1962) becomes more or less intelligible, almost inevitable, given his imagination, audacity, and humor. The pattern of his conduct was something like this: he aspired to certain forms of status while failing in them, or cheating on them, in such a way as effectively to mock those aspirations and to mock himself as the aspirant.
So, as a youth, West gets himself into, and through, sedate Waspish Brown University by a series of daring impostures and impersonations, not to mention a lot of plain bluff, while attending few classes and doing almost no academic work. So, after graduation from Brown, he earns the reputation of being an old Paris hand on the strength of spending a few weeks in Paris. Still later he becomes a conscientious hotel manager while giving rooms gratis to more or less indigent literary friends and while steaming open and reading letters addressed to certain of the hotel’s paying guests. Still later he industriously writes his movie scripts while professing to have no interest in movies apart from the mercenary one. Always he was given to an intense, often vocalized, fantasy life, fabricating for himself exploits in love, sports, or whatever—exploits so transparently imaginary that they imposed on the credulity of almost no one.
Finally there was his peculiar, and in the long run fatal, attitude toward that great indigenous institution, the motor car. Behind a car’s wheel he blithely directed remarks, gestures, and glances at the companion beside him, as if both were securely seated on a sofa. His record of narrow squeaks was alarming. Certain friends refused to ride with him behind the wheel. In March of 1940 West and his wife of a few months (the former Eileen McKenney) were killed when he speeded past a stop sign and his car collided violently with another car. An accident is merely an accident. Yet the manner of West’s death contributes, if only metaphorically, to the impression that, given his subjective torment and apocalyptic vision, he was somehow fated to end accordingly, a tragic figure of modest scale—which is to say, a man whose life one cannot wish to have been different from what it was.
Martin’s biography recounts all these episodes and many more besides. It nevertheless persists in dissolving the inward-looking West into a “background” made up of imperfectly assimilated historical material. Unaccountably, the background even makes room for Floyd Olson and the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, remote though these phenomena of the 1930s were from the Westian scene.
Similarly with the literary background. Mr. Martin naturally tries to define West’s work by relating it to that of other writers, past and present, American and European. For West was exceptionally well read. But his relations to this or that writer or tradition were elusive. Mr. Martin seeks to overcome the elusiveness by casting his critic’s net wide and helter-skelter over the literary waters. His pages swarm with writers’ names; one feels trapped in some timeless literary cocktail party to which all the names have been invited and few have failed to come. Names are brought together to form conglomerates as inscrutable as this one:
The wit and satire of Sinclair Lewis and George S. Kaufman, the anger of James T. Farrell and Dos Passos, the pity and sympathy of Dreiser and O’Neill, the stoicism of Hemingway—compared to these [these what? writers? attitudes? works?] West’s work [it was works!] shows a power of beauty and bitterness which places him in Yeats’s “great tradition.” His true peers [equals? affinities?] were writers like Sherwood Anderson, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Faulkner and Williams.
The sloppy “writers like” formula is obsessive with this biographer. “Like Melville’s confidence man….” “Like Henry James he had courted popularity….” “The central theme of The Day of the Locust, like that of Pound’s Canto XLV, is contra naturem…” “Like Albany in King Lear, West understands that humanity may at last ‘prey on itself/Like monsters of the deep.”’ The “writers like” locution is occasionally replaced by the “writers unlike” locution, accompanied by multiple negatives: “…unlike Donald Ogden Stewart and others, he [West] offered no apologies for not conforming to Party recipes for literary production.” One must conclude that Mr. Martin’s reading has been more extensive than discriminating, like that of Bartlett, the Syntopicon, and Emma Bovary but unlike that of Erasmus, T.S. Eliot, and Hamlet.
These excesses might have been avoided by a biographer who possessed more feeling, pro or con or both together, for Nathanael West in all his suffering gaiety. Martin’s feelings, which I don’t doubt exist, seem unable to break through his stark factuality and inflexible prose—a prose that is incapable of registering so much as an approving grin or a censorious frown, not to mention an ironic wink or a despairing sigh. Does a Ph.D.-minded biographer have to be so implacably dull? As a rule, yes.
All these objections apart, Martin’s biography remains indispensable for future studies of West, if any are needed. On West’s manner of composing his best-known novels, Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, Mr. Martin is especially instructive. He has had access to the manuscripts of the several drafts of those novels and is able to show how West, who had the data before he had the idea, labored to make the data intelligible, shifting from character to character in his search for the one who would best serve as the center of consciousness. Should the center be the cynical Shrike or—as he finally decided—Miss Lonelyhearts himself? In The Day of the Locust, the choice was between the cynical screen writer Claude Estee and the more soulful painter, Tod Hackett. Finally choosing the latter, West made last minute efforts to fill out his portrait of Hackett as artist in order that the novel might end, à la Proust, with the triumph of art—in other words with Hackett’s getting ready to execute his projected, and putatively great, painting, The Burning of Los Angeles. Whether all this works or not is doubtful. Hackett seems to me an improbable creation, and the art business thinly synthetic. Miss Lonelyhearts is perfect but The Day of the Locust is only dazzling.
The difference may be partly traceable to matters of narrative form. Miss Lonelyhearts is an achieved attempt at literary abstraction. The characters and their motivations are as thoroughly simplified as the New York settings are. This lets West concentrate his own baffled compassion in the half-sympathetic, half-ridiculous figure of Miss Lonelyhearts, who seems to have been the original of all those morally and sexually ambiguous creatures who have since haunted—for better or worse, mostly worse—the black humor mind. The simplification also frees West to indulge, though within limits, his wonderful talent for seemingly improvised fantasy. I mean those descriptive flights which every critic enjoys quoting, such as the passage about the “sea sounds” made by Doyle as this strapping female hulk peels her clothes off preparatory to landing in bed with Miss Lonelyhearts.
Of course there is a lot of this beautiful improvisation in The Day of the Locust, too. The language is sharper; taken scene by scene, the novel is more richly inventive; the cock fight scene, with its overtones of grotesque parody of Hemingway’s sporting world, is really classic; and discontinuous as the action may be, connections are inconspicuously made here and there, to the further delight of readers. There is, for example, Earle Shoop, the Hollywood cowboy, who, when first observed by Tod, is wearing very long trousers which seem to have nothing inside them. But later, during the wild party following the cock fight, when the enraged dwarf climbs Earle’s legs and excruciatingly squeezes his testicles and Earle howls, Tod’s impression is proved false, at least in details.
Yet The Day of the Locust does suffer as a whole from various discontinuities. Reportage, rather than abstraction, seems to have been the model form here and the data tend to dissipate the idea. The character of Tod Hackett, with his Yale degree and his ineffably Yankee name, is confused by the triple role assigned to him. First he is our guide to the Hollywood freak show; second he is a participant in the show by way of his passion for Faye Greener (she is marvelous); and third he is the artist whose work redeems the time. Thus overloaded with functions, Hackett is more the sentimentalist than he is either the convincing man of ironic compassion or the convincing artist. To visualize his chef d’oeuvre, The Burning of Los Angeles, as West meticulously obliges us to do, is, I fear, to shudder.
One of Martin’s scholarly discoveries about The Day of the Locust is politically fascinating in the light of West’s efforts, well-known at the time and now fully detailed and documented by Martin, to keep his uniquely tormented spirit intact amid the exhortations of those Stalinized screen writers who were his friends and coworkers. (Following his marriage to Eileen McKenney he did consent to receive “instruction” from a Party official and, his doubts persisting, he was even tentatively scheduled to consult further with His Holiness, Earl Browder, in New York—a potentially interesting encounter which West’s death made unnecessary). Martin’s discovery is this: the final version of The Day of the Locust originally concluded with a sort of epilogue in which Tod Hackett seeks explicitly to moralize and politicize the events of the novel and the cruel riot they lead up to. Tod remarks that the riot, made by “screwboxes and screwballs” of Southern California, would spread to similar groups in other parts of the country. There would be civil war. “Only the working classes would resist.” West finally deleted this epilogue. His doing so signifies the triumph of his art—and of his prophetic soul—over the proletarian pieties of Hollywood Stalinism.