F. W. Dupee once wrote of a character in Henry James as falling out of the world and into the universe. Something of this kind has happened to narrative literature: it has fallen out of the novel and into fiction, out of detailed circumstance and into escalating hypotheses. We no longer have a purchase on the social world which is the ground of the novel, and we respond to this by creating vast, simplifying theories of conspiracy, which put us in touch with a rich universe of speculative myths but will not give us Julien Sorel or Anna Karenina or Balzac’s young men.
The patient and multifarious resistance of reality to our wishes no longer seems a major theme: we are more worried about reality’s designs on us, or about its sheer unintelligibility. It is not a question of regretting our losses, of course, but of understanding our condition—the universe of myth may yet give us an Oedipus or an Odysseus of our own anyway. The three books under review, different as they are, come together well enough to tell us what it feels like to fall, or to have fallen, out of the world.
Christina Stead’s House of All Nations, first published in 1938 and a best seller then, is definitely a novel, and a remarkable one. But it is a novel about a disappearing place, curiously lightweight for all its 800-odd pages, a record of the chatter of Europe as it went under, as the pound sterling went off the gold standard, as the Japanese invaded Manchuria, as Hitler began his menacing, unbelievable ascent. It is a novel suspended in air, the earth pulled out from beneath it, caught by the writer the moment before the crash, both of the old genre and of its home and origin, became complete.
Randall Jarrell, writing about Christina Stead’s next book, The Man Who Loved Children, published, to a poor reception, in 1940 and reprinted, belatedly, as a minor classic in 1965, said that an occasional fault in Miss Stead’s writing was “a kind of vivacious, mechanical over-abundance”:
…the observation and invention and rhetoric, set into autonomous operation, bring into existence a queer picaresque universe of indiscriminate, slightly disreputable incidents. Reading about them is like listening to two disillusioned old automata gossiping over a cup of tea in the kitchen.
This is even truer of House of All Nations than it is of The Man Who Loved Children, but the pejorative note is out of place here. The book is too long, flounders a bit in its profusion somewhere just before the middle, but generally it is just this sense of a world rattling on without any kind of control or supervision that makes the novel work the way it does. If its characters don’t move us and haunt us as those of The Man Who Loved Children do, it crackles with epigrams which evoke a whole civilization awash in its wisecracks: “Life is only sordid if you’re looking for something else”; “You can tell how sane a man is by the number of crazy ideas he has”; “Every man has his price and will take sixty per cent off for cash”; “The great impediment in her career was her expression: she looked as calculating as she was.”
The story, such as it is beneath the sparkling chatter, concerns a private bank in Paris, described to a bewildered client in this way:
“Richard, this is a telescoped bank, a private luxury bank: here we do things on the first floor that they do on the fiftieth story in a fine New York bank, that’s all. This is a bank between friends.”
It is a bank for rich but flighty people who want to become richer, and its name, significantly enough, is the Banque Mercure. Its mercury is both a means of measuring the temperature of Europe and that Mercury who had winged heels and a habit of stealing, patron god of commerce and theft. His name in this case is Jules Bertillon, owner of the bank and gilded pickpocket, as he says: “and believe me, a pickpocket has to have twinkling ankles.” Jules believes in his luck and his charm and his style, and most of the time he is right. But he is also obstinate and jumpy. He bets on the pound when the pound is a poor bet; knows he has made a mistake, but won’t go back on his gamble; loses money, and finally skips out to Estonia, leaving his creditors and clients to haggle over whatever they can find behind the elegant and sober façade of the Banque Mercure. The book ends on a picture of Jules as the charming bandit, a pirate of finance, loved even by his enemies, but a page or two before that we are given, through the eyes of Jules’s cautious brother, a darker vision:
He saw him also in a flash, for years ahead, an irritable anxious baffled impish vampire, using his charm and his connections to no purpose, flying out in a dozen illegal ways, sitting presently in some birdlime of the law.
Jules is a “child of his age,” Christina Stead says, and his age is between the wars, a time when the market was spiraling down, when a man with the right temperament could make a fortune out of other people’s unwillingness to believe what they saw. “The history of everything is down from now on,” Jules’s chief counselor insists. “The only investment now is in a crash.” “You’re betting on a funeral. Everyone’s sure to pass out….” Jules himself, advising a client, says the same thing in his own style:
“Bet on disaster, Comtesse. The world’s like an old pope: it’s dying with a hundred doctors in attendance. It’s dying of everything at once, because they kept it alive too long….”
Jules’s bookkeeping is a gamble on the pope’s decline. He sells when others are buying. He doesn’t buy what his clients ask him to buy. Since they would lose if he did, he is saving them money; but if he were to be wrong; and the clients’ supposed stocks, unbought, were to rise after all, he wouldn’t be able to pay up. Out of shock at this state of affairs an employee of the bank goes frantic and brings the house down in confusion.
The title of the novel suggests that the bank is a brothel, and Jules himself underlines the idea: “I sleep with my own wife, true; but I sleep with other people’s money.” But the bank is also described as a merry-go-round, a beehive, a version of Shelley’s Tower of Famine, an asylum, and above all, a hall of dreams, a “strange palace of illusion, temptation, and beauty.” It is a place that drives men mad, that leases out, as Jules’s brother puts it, the open spaces in people’s heads. It is a figure for the disarray of Europe in the Thirties, for the lure of riches when they really can’t be had. “Poor Aristide,” the narrator comments on a character trying to blackmail Jules, “sailing to prosperity on a death ship.” The image is perfect, except that Jules, unlike Aristide, really does sail the ship to prosperity. Miss Stead means us to see the attraction of this man of the times, even if the times are desperate. The more so since behind that poise and that perfect pitch we can see, as Jules’s brother does, the specter of what Jules will become when the times are too bad even for him, when he is no longer their man: Mercury turned baffled vampire in a spreading Transylvania.
In such a graceless second incarnation, Mercury might well appeal to John Barth. A touch too sinister, perhaps, since Barth’s heroes in Chimera are flaccid, simple fellows, mythic heroes past their best, picked up at forty and sent out on fresh errands: Perseus, in the second of the three novellas which make up Chimera (“a vague monstrosity in three parts, obscured from clearer view by the smoke of its own respiration”), to face a resurrected and restructured Medusa; Bellerophon, in the third, to ride a middle-aged Pegasus to heaven, only to fail and fall through the centuries to Maryland, where he becomes his own story and is metamorphosed into the third part of a book called Chimera.
Or if you really want the facts of the fiction: Bellerophon is metamorphosed into his old tutor Polyeidus, who has taken on the form of Bellerophon-as-narrative-of-his-life, a story written by John Barth through the intermediary of the voice, or voices, of Polyeidus, who is masquerading as Bellerophon-as-narrative, and so on. Bellerophon, however, is not really Bellerophon but his dead brother, or rather the brother we all thought was dead when it was really Bellerophon that was dead. In a sense, though, he is Bellerophon after all, because he has lived Bellerophon’s life as well as living his life as Bellerophon. Still with me?
Chimera is, as its own closing words laughingly have it, a “beastly fiction,” “a kind of monstrous mixed metaphor,” a creature fallen well clear of the world of the novel, and out into the universe of myth. It is a maze of bad jokes, false clues to its own meaning, stories within stories, stories that begin in the middle of an action, turn into flashbacks as they reach the middle of the story, and leave their characters at the end stranded in the middle of their lives. In the Perseus novella Perseus tells Medusa his whole story, including the story of his telling his story to a girl called Calyxa, an eager student of mythology. In the first of the three novellas Dunyazade, the sister of Scheherazade, having spent a thousand and one nights listening to her sister and interrupting her strategically at cockcrow, now tells her sister’s stories to her new husband, as well as the story of the stories (including in this story an unscheduled genie horribly resembling John Barth, who wafts in from the twentieth century to chat with Scheherazade, or Sherry as her sister calls her, about narrative technique and the intimate analogies between sex and storytelling). What is she to tell her husband now that he has heard everything?
Barth is not simply playing around, there are meanings in these mazes, metaphors, for example, for a life seen as a labyrinth made up of too many crowded stories, buried beneath a surfeit of tales, trapped at the end of a cultural road. The trouble with Chimera is not its intricacy or its frivolity or its abstraction—all those things pay off with what they are meant to portray. The trouble is a thorough deadness in the language, which belies all the book’s apparent mental activity, makes it seem a fraud. Barth seems to have something like an unwillingness to write, as distinct from simply publishing.
I had always thought that Barth’s mind was more interesting than any of his books so far—it was perceived through the books, of course, but it could be perceived as being let down. Chimera makes me think this is precisely the impression the books have all set out to create. The texts suggest an author who, for all his narrative meddling and jugglery, is aloof from them, better than they are, and the clumsy gags and the frequent silliness only confirm this feeling. All intentional, an aristocracy of bad taste, a disdain for the world’s terms. The mannerisms, whether in The Sot-Weed Factor or in Giles Goat-Boy or here, work the same way. Perseus alliterates compulsively, for example: “She flipped my flunked phallus”; “Andromeda wailed from her perished paramour dead-dadward.” In case we should think this is just a bad habit, Barth gives us a conversation on the subject:
“I wonder about one or two things. The alliteration, for example?”
“No help for that; I’m high on letters.”
Chimera has endless tiresome jokes based on academic allusions, a young Greek getting an alpha-plus in Mythology I, Bellerophon being given the Memorial Throne of Applied Mythology. The odd thing is that when some of these gags actually seem funny—a tutor is taken on by a king on the strength of his performance in several other myths, Bellerophon comes home to see his mother, admits he’s been a poor son in some respects and apologizes for not getting in touch with her for twenty years—it is as if something had gone wrong, as if Barth’s determined dullness has cracked. The rest of the fun is mainly elephantine anachronism: a letter sent airmail by Pegasus, a hero getting back from a task by cocktail time, Zeus referred to as Big Z, a woman insisting on her sexual dues by saying “frig we must.”
Barth is not obscure or difficult, and he can be very funny. He writes comic knockabout scenes as well as anyone else, and better than most—I’m thinking of a battle Perseus has in Joppa among the stone remains of the people he petrified the last time he passed through, a worthy sequel to the good things in Giles Goat-Boy—and the moral dimensions of his fiction by no means disappear in the trickiness. He is suggesting in Chimera, for example, that love is a terrible risk, an almost certain loss, given our own and others’ experience in the matter, but that the risk can be redeemed by the quality of spirit with which it is taken. We don’t win, but we do something better than losing, or sitting back and not taking the risk at all, or taking it shiftily, hoping to lose.
But Barth won’t take this kind of risk with his writing: won’t free it and won’t master it, won’t let it loose from the safe zones of pastiche. It is as if he would rather not know where the limits of his talent lie, were happier with the thought of being a brilliant man repeatedly betrayed by his books. He treats his work in the way that the heroes of Chimera, confronted with Amazons and other liberated ladies, learn not to treat women. He is a narrative chauvinist pig.
The Sunlight Dialogues makes a good standard of comparison for Barth, since John Gardner seems as determined to bury his book in purple prose as Barth is to keep his dull. The difference is that Gardner doesn’t succeed, and the bad writing thus becomes a perverse measure for the tremendous authority and distinction of the work: a book that can carry such a freight of flaws and stay afloat is a major achievement. I don’t mean the writing is bad throughout, and the book saved by something else. The writing is remarkable at times, precise, eloquent, intelligent, and is part of the book’s achievement. I mean that there is enough bad writing in it to turn a moderately sensitive reader off for good, and that would be the reader’s loss.
It is a hugely pretentious work, littered with quotations from unlikely but swinging sources, like Timon of Athens and the Mahabharata, and has a whole section called Nah ist—und schwer zu fassen der Gott. There is a lot of straining for deep meaning and pathos, a great deal of high color, but the most marked trick of style is the windy, empty simile, of which the book has literally hundreds. People laugh “like circus people in time of pestilence”; a truck turns over “like an elephant falling dead with a heart attack”; a man rises “slow and ponderous as an elephant waking from a dream of swamps”; a woman’s mind is “dark, ancient and terrible as a stone tower under stars of ice”; stars are “motionless and perfect as the infinite span between the heartbeats of God.” This is language absolutely cut loose from meaning, fluency without a mind, and here one really thinks of Randall Jarrell’s remark about Christina Stead and the automata gossiping over a cup of tea.
Nevertheless, when Gardner’s mind is there it is fully there; an impressive mind working impressively. The Sunlight Dialogues, like Chimera, is fiction fallen out of the novel, a myth of the Fall, but then unlike Chimera it ironically reconstructs itself as a novel, makes itself look and feel like a novel for its own purposes. There is a lot of circumstantial detail, rooting the book in a particular place and time: Batavia, New York, 1966. There is a large cast of characters, all given minds and past lives. There is a vast, complicated plot in which everything falls into place at the end. Gardner uses the form of the novel, I think, because his book is about a family, and the novel was, supremely, the form for writing about families. It is a broken family, that of a patriarch scattered into his sons, shattered into specialties, as Gardner says, but then it helps that we should feel, with our hindsight, that the form has broken too.
The flavor of the old-fashioned novel also makes 1966 seem a long way back. Viewed in this way, it looks like the nineteenth century. The coherence of the complicated plot both mocks the scattered family, the newly shattered world, and mirrors the family’s and the world’s former state. It is as if Gardner had accidentally taken up the aftermath of what happens in House of All Nations, for his book is a reading of the ruins of the world which came asunder with World War II, or just before, a world decayed, as he says, to ambiguity:
Religion declines, and patriotism; law and justice become abstruse questions of metaphysics; the younger generation grows dangerous and irrational, shameless, selfish, anarchistic….
…From this point forward there’ll be Hitlers for a thousand years.
The voice speaking is that of Congressman Hodge, the patriarch, a stubborn but wise old man who embodied the world before it broke, who “understood that nothing devoutly believed is mere error, though it may only be half-truth.” The broken world, on the other hand, believes it can hunt out error, but has lost its belief even in half-truths. The battle is on between a stupid, self-serving order and a liberated but mindless chaos. If a cop is like a philosopher, a character in the book muses, then a robber is like…a magician.
The dialogues which give the book its title take place at intervals between a literal cop and a literal magician, between the Batavia chief of police and the patriarch’s wandering son: now calling himself the Sunlight Man, his face scarred by fire, his career in pieces, his wife mad, his children dead, and himself arrested for writing “love” in large letters across two lanes of a city street; guilty, although the police don’t know it yet, of murder. He is half-mad, a cross between Christ and shaman, and desperate to talk. He makes his policeman a philosopher, delegate of a God who is order:
…a God in whom, as in the universe itself, the ends meet and all seeming contradictions form an order, or so we prayerfully trust—an order merely too vast for human understanding.
He himself is the universe’s clown, the man of particular cases, an accepter of confusion, a resenter of the pettiness of rule. He tells the police chief a brilliant version of Plato’s myth of the cave, involving a black man run down by a diaper truck in St. Louis and kept crippled in darkness for years, while his jailer tells him the sun has gone out. It hasn’t. When he is released he staggers out into the sunlight, crawls around for a while, then returns to his darkness and dies. The book as a whole is full of prisons and darkness, both literal and figurative, and the suggestion is always that order is darkness but that sunlight is too much for us. “Not the sunlight but the sunlight entrapped in the cloud.” That is what we can manage. Yet we can’t live contented with our order, can’t stop dreaming of the sun.
Thus the writer to the Hebrews on the subject of Faith: an outreaching of the mind beyond what it immediately possesses. Self-transcendence. But the reach did not imply the existence of the thing reached for. One knew it even as one reached.
Or in another context and another formulation: “She had been right to ask for help, merely wrong in imagining that anyone could give it.” In any case the view attributed to the policeman is simply wishful: if the order of the universe is too vast for human understanding, how do we know it’s order at all?
These are preoccupations which evoke the other end of Christina Stead’s Europe: Kafka’s Prague, Wittgenstein’s Vienna. But The Sunlight Dialogues gives them their American form. This is the death or withdrawal of God again, but where Europeans in that absence lost a range of certainties, scientific and metaphysical, Americans lost grace, lost the belief that the world was with them, or at least could be talked to. In Grendel Gardner set up order and waste as rival principles caught in conflict. The order of society was a pathetic fence against the profounder truth of the monster Grendel, the devastation and loss which underlie and undermine all human action.
But here, in The Sunlight Dialogues, waste is no longer the enemy of order but the result of brave attempts to break out of order’s limitations. Love, for example, is a glimpse of the sunlight, but too much to bear for long, and too much for society to bear at all. The Sunlight Man, having freed captives and brought magic to a stifling place, having tried to tip the world into the universe and having caused the deaths of three innocent people in the process, faces Millie, his brother’s wife and an old foe and admirer of the patriarch and the whole family, and receives the hard truth from her:
“It’s terrible,” she said softly. “What your loving people has done to you, I mean. That’s it, isn’t it.”
And not only to him. Gardner ends his chapter with his focus on the once-beautiful Millie:
She was ugly as a witch, and could not be beautiful again. She was ugly, and the father-in-law she had too much admired was dead, his house in ruins. The war was over.
She had underestimated love.
I find I haven’t given any sense of how well The Sunlight Dialogues works as a novel, in spite of its inflation; how powerful its characters’ troubles and memories and doubts are; how well drawn the members of the patriarch’s family, or the Batavia police force, or the inmates of the Batavia jail. Yet the essential feature of the book’s success is not its realism—although its portrayal of rural and small-town life in western New York in the Sixties seems fine as far as I can judge, which is not very far—but its creation of a climate in which leaps into and out of metaphysics will not seem extraordinary, indeed will not seem to be leaps at all.
In one of the dialogues the police chief answers a dazzling tirade from the Sunlight Man about sex, society, and politics in ancient Babylon and contemporary America with the question: “Can you honestly say you’ve got no feeling whatever for your country?” The degree of irrelevance—and relevance too, since beneath the whirling philosophies it is America the Sunlight Man is attacking—is just right. Not how a police chief might really talk; and not a stylized or sent-up version of his manner. Simply how he has to talk here, what he has to say, in the world of this novel, the universe of this fiction.
October 19, 1972