The jacket of The Island speaks of it as “Robert Creeley’s long-awaited first novel,” by which I suppose the publishers mean themselves and Creeley’s friends, because it was by no means obvious from his extremely laconic poetry that he had it in him to write as sustained, coherent, and generally good a novel as The Island. The poetry would lead one to expect a novel about the trials and rewards of marriage among writers, which it is, and one would expect the same guarded, rather grim, ruminative, mutedly messianic humanism of the semi-bohemian fringes. One would expect, too, a studied choppiness of style, liberal in commas, hiatuses, hesitations, brief sunbursts of plain statement, and deep feeling—a skillfully varied, occasionally muddy, and somewhat truculent inner monologue:
And, it isn’t a big or a little, or an ironic, or any, meaning. It is. Let’s all meet, somewhere, where only the dead won’t come. Only the dead won’t be there. Let’s make it any time, but have just that one thing true, just be alive and there.
That the people in The Island are unquestionably alive and there I don’t think can be doubted. Their vitality springs from the sensible way Creeley has limited himself to the themes that energize his poetry and his willingness to let the minor people dangle, to let them go, when they no longer serve. This is a late first novel and Creeley has the situation well in hand; he wants to write a thoroughly American, post-war sequel to D. H. Lawrence’s epics of eros in exile. He keeps a remarkably firm footing between the bold necessities of his parable, which requires a certain amount of the sun-sea-and-sturdy-peasantry kind of thing, and a grimly funny, unsparing self-knowledge.
The unidentified island is probably Majorca. The antagonists are John, a Creeley-like young writer, his wife Joan, and their three small children. The money is Joan’s, but might as well be a foundation grant. John is both himself and all the conscience-stricken artist-husbands of the Eisenhower years who oscillated, painfully, between Freud and Lawrence, between the hope of a full, Fiedleresque geniality and the higher togetherness-inseparation of Mediterranean exile. He and his English writer friend readily acknowledge themselves to be no more in their wives’ eyes than “little mannies”:
…the shrinking figures of men slipped through doors, shadows, little stone stubbornnesses to put on the table along with the knitting. Give them a real man, he thought, but what did he know of it. His own were vagaries of heroes as much King Arthur as the stumpy fishermen he saw on the beach. He didn’t really want anyone at all to blow a bugle.
This, then, is what the Hamletism of the artist-novel has come to, and a good thing it is; because the heavily indoctrinated, stubborn, conscientious, servantless exertions of this latest breed of Hamlet to see his women and children in their true emancipated colors kills off most of the now boring rhetoric of isolation, as Lawrence well knew, and lets in that much more of the world. It is an especially hard struggle for Americans, and Creeley spares us few of the agonies; The Island closes with a splendidly conclusive smashing of John’s typewriter by an enraged Joan, and John’s return home after a night of searching the town for a supposedly suicidal Joan, to find her, of course “…holding Jennie, looking down at them, asking incredibly with everything as it had been, what it is, John. What’s the matter.”
So this is how it must have been; no comic extravaganza like The Ginger Man or Billy Liar but the repressed laughter that lets go after several dozen postponed catastrophes, the reflux of water over eroded soil. The pleasures of recognition support the pleasures of discovery. John is as wary of commitments as he is hungry for intelligent company; being American he is ticketed generous but thinks himself merely weakly accommodating. His English friend, married to a long, cold, pregnant drink of water called Marge, sponges on him with a charming mixture of craft and conscience. John’s moral eye-sight being unusually clear, whatever his motives, the island life is equally well drawn, as it enlarges the main preoccupation with love. A “famous writer” (Graves?) hovers in the background, in another town of the island, and John’s carefully held distance is another side of his difficult independence—to be electric in the free American way, to compound a style from Gertrude Stein, W. C. Williams, Lawrence, Hemingway perhaps Stendhal, and undoubtedly a half-dozen others, which shall serve in its own muted, precise, forceful fashion the needs of a new way of seeing.
The Island is unlikely to become a howling best-seller but it ought to be read beyond Creeley’s immediate circle. The very least of its virtues is to supply a thread of continuity missing in the poetry, a happy marriage of “New England” conscience (Creeley was born in Arlington, Mass.) to Beat ambitions that should strengthen its author’s position as one of the fathers of his tribe.
Writers in Revolt is a shrewd and self-effacing exercise, by three (I suppose) Beat editors, Richard Seaver, Terry Southern, and Alexander Trocchi, of the anthology ploy. You take a dozen excerpts from acknowledged but sometimes obscure masterpieces, like Sartre on Baudelaire and Genet, or Iris Murdoch on Sartre, from Dostoyevsky, Hesse, Artaud, Malaparte, Miller, Durrell, Dahlberg, Mencken, Genet, Burroughs, Ionesco, and Beckett, preface it with Parts I and II of Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and then rub the mixture vigorously against works by some private enthusiasms of your own called Chapman Mortimer, William Gaddis, Evan S. Connell Jr., Charles Foster, and Hubert Selby Jr., and see if a Thesis jumps forth. The editors have included no works of their own, a form of asceticism rarely practiced in academic circles, but they have written an Introduction whose impenetrable murkiness clearly promises the indigestion bound to sink anybody who tries to absorb all this stuff at once.
Two friendly remarks can be made about the collection. If all these great and deep thinkers belong in the Beat hagiography, well and good; they stretch the mind about as far as it can still be stretched; they surround the poor bourgeois and mow him down. Even in such snippets, together they make a brilliantly scary crew. Good to have all of Artaud’s important essay, “No More Masterpieces,” an excellent essay by Durrell on Henry Miller, and some of Murdoch’s essay on Sartre included among the more available pieces.
The other compliment is to say that that three of the “new” pieces are very good; a long excerpt from Gaddis’s The Recognitions, a strangely memorable, very young first novel published in 1955, that foreshadows in its humor, warmth, and elaborate youthful nihilism much of the later “beat” fiction: a perfect short story by Evan Connell, “The Fisherman from Chihuahua”; and a depressing but well written excerpt from a novel by the Englishman Chapman Mortimer, Young Men Waiting, that takes the bleak Montparnasse of Tropic of Cancer several steps down the ladder into narcissism, inversion, and boredom. I found Charles Foster’s story, “The Troubled Makers.” a bit too fey to endure. As for the story “Tra-la-la” by Hubert Selby Jr. that caused the big dust-up in Provincetown in August of 1961—when Allen Tate made his eloquent deposition in favor of literary freedom and “the Christian scheme of morality”—I guess I will admit it is powerful. But shocking Provincetown seems to bring in diminishing returns. The time will soon be at hand when not shocking it will be the harder undertaking.
November 14, 1963