Doing West

Nathanael West: The Art of His Life

by Jay Martin
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 435 pp., $10.00

Nathanael West
Nathanael West; drawing by David Levine

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 The West archives have not yielded to Martin any unpublished or uncollected writings which might substantially enlarge that body of work.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…

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