Wrestling With Fiction

Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer

by Alfred Kazin
Atlantic-Little Brown, 317 pp., $8.95

Yes, the bright book of life indeed, not just the novel, as Lawrence said, but the American novel of the last thirty years, as Alfred Kazin now says. It has all the necessary qualities of a great form gaining and sustaining its energy in an historical period, like the Elizabethan drama or the eighteenth-century satire in couplets: it is distinct, it has produced some great works, it has proven sufficiently powerful and attractive that many minor writers have been given a voice they might otherwise not have had.

Here is Kazin, too, who has been following the American novel the entire time, offering us one good capsule sentence after another of its best known practitioners: of Hemingway:

The circumscribed narrow world, the tightening of nature to design as in painting, the handling of weapons, the prize ring, the arena, the making and unmaking of camp, the use of any moment to show only the ultimate responses to life, the line of words in Indian file that is exciting because it conveys the ordeal of consciousness to itself.

of Updike:

Brightness falls from the air, thanks to the God on whose absence we sharpen our minds…. The world is all metaphor. We are not sure who is thinking these brilliant images in Rabbit, Run. Need Updike’s fine mind be so much in evidence?

of Bellow:

The process of self-teaching thus becomes the heart of Bellow’s novels, and the key to their instructiveness for others. One could compile…a whole commonplace book of wisdom in the crisis era that has been Bellow’s subject and opportunity.

of Nabokov:

Its self-celebration slops all over the planet. Nabokov has certainly not saved himself. Nor has he wanted to. But he has saved us from being always at the mercy of the age.

One need not agree, of course, in order to see that Kazin is constantly at work, trying to state in these capsules what is characteristic and central in each of these writers. It is not reviewing, but it is the fruit of reviewing, of forcing oneself to try to say it all, or most of it, in a few sentences or a paragraph. There are good sentences on more than a dozen writers in Bright Book of Life, and on one or two the best I’ve seen. Even on Hemingway, about whom few people want to hear any more for a while, the sentence above seems to me as precise about what makes him appealing and limited as any writing on him that I know of.

So here is a fine subject, apparently, the contemporary American novel, perhaps just now becoming capable of coming into focus, and here is Kazin, a thoughtful and patient observer and a writer of some fine sentences. The sad shock is that the book is terribly disappointing, not dull, but enervating, self-defeating. It’s hard to say just why without seeming merely to outline the book one would have written oneself, but the effort …

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