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An Exchange on Fiction

Dear Elizabeth Hardwick:

I address you personally because I have for years considered you to be a sympathetic and a watchful presence on the literary landscape and because your comments on the novel in “A Sense of the Present” (NYR, November 25) gave me an uneasy sense of estrangement. I write you as an enthusiastic novelist. To begin with I was alienated by your swift declension through the loss of guilt as a useful emotion to the contemporary universality of paranoia. Who can you be speaking of? The appeal to a sense of original sin remains in my experience universal. When you speak of the difficulty of ruin I expect you mean that our literary equipment is unable to master heroic ruin but we do find moving ruin in the fiction of Faulkner, R.P. Warren, Walker Percy, Mailer…the list is too long. Surely in our own lives we apprehend the taste and menace of ruin as we do in the lives of our friends and lovers.

The diagnoses of the death of the novel one leaves to boors. You and I know that the form counts upon iridescence for its vitality. That the complexities of contemporary life have overwhelmed the novel would be claimed only by someone who knew nothing of the history of the novel and of the novel’s dependence upon change. Our experience with history is not singular. How must the Russians have felt on hearing about the assassination of Alexander the Second? How far from Pushkin and Lermontov I have come—Dostoevsky may have thought—as he dressed for his execution. That the times are parlous and overwhelming is the gist of the conversation in every fourth-rate saloon. This petulance seems to be the consummation of a society given to expansion and purchase and blessed with a free press. When I return from Eastern Europe with its censored news it is weeks before I can comprehend the astonishment and naïveté with which The New York Times reports that venerable judges, esteemed doctors and Princes of The Church accept bribes, fornicate and spit on the floor. Where has The Times been? That it is man’s nature to be nostalgic we know, and the opportunities for nostalgia are abundant, but we can no longer, for example, claim to be disconcerted by the world of airports. These forests of trees with plastic leaves, lunatic murals, continuous music and populations of uprooted men and women carrying the baggage and wearing the clothes of their faraway homes has been a part of our lives for forty years. I think not that the novel has been overwhelmed by the complexities of contemporary life; I think the novel is the only art form we possess that has approached any mastery of this storm.

When you speak of the obsolescence of contrivance I think I know what you mean. We have lost the purloined letter, we have lost the Maltese Falcon, we have even lost the plans to the nuclear submarine. But by contrivance we mean merely a lapse of the writer’s persuasiveness. Observed contrivance is not a value but a transparent display of incompetence and has never had any place in an estimable novel. When you mention the three-act play—the three-act life—some academician will track this art form back to manners—the Promenade and the urinary tract—but I think you speak of the mystery and the power of numbers in all our concepts of form. This is an ancient and a beautiful preoccupation and embraces the Holy Trinity and the nine-inning ballgame.

One never, of course, asks is it a novel? One asks is it interesting and interest connotes suspense, emotional involvement and a sustained claim on one’s attention. I was delighted that you mentioned Pynchon and Gogol at the close of your remarks and mentioned them as honorable men although you do suggest some competitiveness in our choice of which to read. It is all quite simple. One reads Pynchon on Monday and Gogol for the rest of the week. But what truly delights me is that Dead Souls, in the vastness of its incompletion, should remain one of our favorite books. It is an example of the magnanimity and power of the form.

John Cheever

Ossining, New York

To the Editors:

Elizabeth Hardwick’s essay “A Sense of the Present” may have reached new heights in critical literature through the extraordinary beauty of its language and perceptions. My very admiration for it leads me to take issue with one minor argument of Hardwick’s which I feel would benefit from a more contemporary feminist perspective.

Hardwick writes: “Novels that are profoundly about fornication have a way of ending on accidents, illness or death.” She goes on to illustrate her theme with Updike, Heller and Gray (which I found very flattering but a bit reductionist, for to label Rabbit Run, Something Happened and Lovers and Tyrants as being “profoundly about fornication” is rather like saying that The Red Badge of Courage is “about soldiers.” But that is beside the historical point I wish to make.)

The issue I do wish to raise is that fornication is not the central causal factor in the tragic fate meted out to literary heroines who transgress the rules of society. The “accidents, illness or death” Hardwick refers to are equally meted out to women who transgress conventions other than sexual. I am thinking of Kate Chopin’s Edna Le Pelletier, who is innocent of so much as one adulterous thought, and simply desires to live alone in a cottage by the side of her husband’s house. Of Cat in Farewell to Arms, who dies upon giving birth to an illegitimate child after a quintessentially “pure” relationship with the man she loves: Of the protagonist’s illness in Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, which I take as a symbol for the risks a woman faces when finding freedom outside the confines of her family.

Mutilation of these three heroines and of countless others occures in novels that can not in any sense be said to be “profoundly about fornication.” We deal here, as everywhere, with a double standard. Radically unlike men, women in literature tend to be punished for biting into the apple of experience, sexual or other. Thus, in analyzing the theme of mutilation in fiction, the fates meted out to bad-girl, drop-out or promiscuous females who assault the confines of society must be rigorously differentiated from the fates of bad-boy, drop-out or promiscuous heroes. For such male heroes, from Huck Finn to Jack Kerouac, have been idolized for precisely the same transgressions, and come out more than okay at novels’ ends.

In raising this issue I am doing no more than heeding the advice of George Eliot, who urged women to perpetually employ “accurate thought, severe study, and continuous self-command.”

Francine Gray

Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut

Elizabeth Hardwick replies:

My puzzled reading and puzzled living make it hard for me to answer objections to my puzzled comments on recent fiction. However, I can say to John Cheever that I do not feel inclined to back down on “guilt.” His wanderings with his lantern in search of the guilty man are more successful than mine. He seems in every way much more in tune with the eternal than I am. I know it is commonplace to speak of enormous changes in our inner life brought about by the collapse of the structure religion gave to human beings’ experience of their destiny, by the expansion of the dominion of the unconscious, and so on. Still the working out of these changes in art and in individual character is not commonplace.

Every generation experience its history as a series of surprises and yet I do not think our surprises are even generally the same as those felt by Pushkin and Lermontov. As for the never absent corruption in society, I do not, for instance, see the sale of indulgences in the late fifteenth century as have exactly the same shape and meaning as the Lockheed payoffs to Prince Bernhard. The moral and personal assumptions of the societies are different. Martin Luther and Ralph Nader are not just insistent reformers in the flow of history. Luther’s intense concern for his own salvation, his belief in faith over works, committed him to a painful range of sufferings and to particularized anxieties which made of him a “character” quite at odds with the “character” of our own time.

In speaking of current fiction and in calling my article “A Sense of the Present,” I was assuming that it was valuable to try to get some idea about what these writers were doing and what they weren’t doing in the matter of creating characters, plots, behavior, and motivation. Formalistic descriptions are easy enough, but much more intriguing to me was the thought that a number of writers do not appear to believe that we are “characters” and certainly do not see our lives are a “story.”

About contrivance I was not thinking of purloined letters but rather again questioning the idea that a life is a story with its connections flowing away and returning, its decisions bringing results beyond the power of improvisation.

Indeed one reads this writer and then another writer, but I cannot agree that what one gets from that is the simple pleasure of the banquet. Books are agitating, almost unbalancing, and having found one good or bad, interesting or dull is just the beginning of the work they impose upon the mind and the feelings.

Francine Gray’s letter insists that no book is about one thing, in this case fornication, and of course that is true indeed of any extended prose work. On the matter of punishment, I am afraid that in my puzzling about the punitive endings for splendidly active addicts of experience I came up with the idea that the experience was for the author and the punishment a sort of gift to the reader, telling him not to envy the author. In the matter of the heroine’s hysterectomy in Lovers and Tyrants I cannot see the development as an instance of “contemporary feminist perspective.”

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