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.
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?
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.
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 must be made.
There are two obvious ways to put together a book such as the one Kazin wants to write, and had Kazin refused either of the two he could have justified himself easily enough, but instead he has refused both. The first way is like Lawrence’s in his book on American literature: sustain all opinions and differences in authors by means of a vision of the country and its history. Kazin refuses this, on grounds of temperament or prudence, and with the sure knowledge that most people who try to do it Lawrence’s way end up with what in academic circles is called an “idea” but what is really a gimmick, a way of sacrificing authors for the sake of scheme. The second way is to look only at those authors about whom one has strong feelings, and really go at them with all the intensity and freshness one can muster. This is the way, say, of Leavis’s The Great Tradition, or of Kenner’s books on modern authors. Kazin refuses this, too, presumably because he wants to avoid the appearance of making contemporary fiction into his sandbox of favorites.
Having made these choices, however, for whatever good reasons, Kazin seems not to have seen what an odd book would be the result. Here are, besides the authors mentioned above: Faulkner, Taylor, McCullers, O’Connor, Percy, Mailer, Jones, Heller, Vonnegut, Cozzens, O’Hara, Cheever, Salinger, Pynchon, Malamud, Roth, Porter, Sontag, Plath, Lurie, Oates, Didion, Capote, Baldwin, Ellison, Burroughs, Barthelme. I want to offer some comment later about that list, but certainly it is not one that can be faulted on grounds of crankiness or parochialism; the only obvious omissions are Hawkes and Barth. But thirty authors in a book of three hundred pages, about each of whom one tries to say the most important things, means in effect that it is authors that are treated, not books, and authors treated rather summarily at that.
It is one thing for Kazin to assume we have read all these books, another to assume we all agree on what is in them, and that Kazin need not describe, or evoke, or lean on the books. There are precious few quotations here—and unfortunately they are set off in tiny italics so as to resemble the words on tombstones—and that has the effect of making Kazin only a summarizer, only a writer of capsule sentences. It’s as though quarrels, worries, doubts, quirks, preferences about contemporary fiction were all behind us, as though literature were not something that always must be looked at freshly.
Furthermore, because of this encapsulating habit and the lack of any unifying web or tissue, a chapter called “The Absurd as a Contemporary Style,” to take one example, begins with Ellison and goes on to “black humor” and its usual accompaniments, but by the time we get to Barthelme (“We have been cut off by the words hanging over our heads; our poor little word-riddled souls are distributed all over the landscape”) and Pynchon (“The key to Pynchon’s brilliantly dizzying narratives is the force of some hypothesis that is authentic to him but undisclosable to us”) we have totally lost Ellison. I tried to construct that last sentence to indicate the kind of effect that is achieved; here is a subject, and everything is seemingly in place, but the conveyor belt quality of its sense of place prevents anything from staying in the mind after it has been dropped from immediate attention.
What is asked to serve as construction here, as connecting tissue, are the all too obviously arranged chapters: “The Secret of the South,” “The Decline of War,” “Professional Observers,” “The Earthly City of the Jews,” “Cassandras.” Though Kazin intends nothing of the sort it is almost an insult to his writers to put them in such slots, so that we know the moment we are done with Bellow and Malamud we are soon to be on to Roth and Mailer; finish Cozzens and can O’Hara, Salinger, and Updike be far behind? It might have worked better had Kazin really taken these categories as anything other than conveniences, had he sought to come up with something new about Southern or Jewish or absurdist or WASP fiction. But he doesn’t because he isn’t interested in the categories so much as in the authors, with being good about them. Except, to come back to that, they don’t have time enough to breathe and be themselves as they are hustled along down the conveyor belt.
Since I’d hate to treat Kazin as summarily as I’ve just accused him of treating his authors, let me offer one extended quotation:
Bellow has found fascinating narrative forms for the urgency of his many thoughts. He has been clever in finding a distinct style for so much silent thinking—from Joseph’s diaries in Dangling Man to Herzog’s equally incessant meditations and finally old Mr. Sammler’s haughty soliloquies, where the style is one of the lightest, featheriest, mental penciling, an intellectual shorthand (here involving brusque images of the city) that answers to the traditional contractedness of Jewish thought. The favorite form for Jewish sages has always been the shortest, and Bellow’s best fictions are his shortest. V.S. Pritchett, who admires Bellow for powerful descriptions of city life rare among “intellectual” novelists, thinks that in his long books Bellow “becomes too personal. There is a failure to cut the umbilical cord.” Bellow’s more lasting fictions will probably be those whose personae are not exactly as intelligent as he is—The Victim and Seize the Day.
Let me praise Kazin’s “clever” as a signpost that it is precisely not the discovery of styles for silent thought that he admires most in Bellow; praise too the “haughty” and “mental penciling” that describes Sammler; praise him for not going on long about the favorite form for Jewish sages, and for the Pritchett quotation; praise him, most, perhaps, for an opinion which I do not share, but which is suggestively offered and may well turn out to be right.
But what do we get next but one paragraph, about the length of the one just quoted, on The Victim and Seize the Day. That is simply a terrible misappropriation of space and energy. We are left with the outlandish notion that these novels must be Bellow’s best because the forms for Jewish sages have always been the shortest; with logic like that, who needs grubby novels, Leventhal and Wilhelm? Of course Kazin does not need to try to prove his assertion, but he should treat it honorably, being both his and interesting, instead of going on from his pathetic handful of sentences about these “best” novels to Sammler, to which he gives more space than he gives to these two combined, and then on to Malamud, whose “best” novel is The Assistant and Kazin will give it only one paragraph too.
At one point Kazin offers us the accurate statement that “novels seem more expendable these days than ever, but novelist is still any writer’s notion of original talent.” Here he is accounting for Capote’s strange desire to call In Cold Blood a novel, and the situation he describes is, however true, deplorable, as he well knows. Yet if he is not going to treat the novels he most admires with any more care than he has done in Bright Book of Life then it’s no wonder that people of less intelligence and with less interest in fiction are going to end up chattering away about novelists whose works they have read only casually and partially.
That such a thoughtful and scrupulous critic can be accused of such oversights as these seems odd, I know, and I wish I knew how to account for it. My only suggestion is that we might return to Kazin’s original choices for subjects and note the almost antiseptic absence of quirks in it. At one point he offers us two pages about William Eastlake’s The Bamboo Bed, at another two on Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, and those are the only places where he looks, however cursorily, at writers who wouldn’t necessarily be on one’s list of those one had to discuss if one meant to give a complete account of contemporary fiction.
The point is not that Kazin has only read books he had to read, and the point certainly is not that he somehow hasn’t read enough. It is, rather, that contemporary American fiction is for him already a received subject, something he has lived with for so long, perhaps, that he cannot work with it except in his thoughtful, summarizing way. If he seems to have no enthusiasms of his own among the countless other writers he might have allowed to intrude into his company, he seems to have lost or mislaid his enthusiasm for The Victim, Seize the Day, The Assistant, and other books about which he wants to say they are their author’s “best” or “most brilliant” and have done.
Could it be that this is what happens to someone who makes contemporary literature into his main subject of interest? That he teaches and writes and lectures about it so much that he finds it difficult to get back into that frame of mind in which he originally read because it was a novel and he was a man alive? If so, then it is a powerful argument indeed against letting “contemporary literature” be a subject to teach or be the subject of wise retrospective lead essays in journals. The last thing one needs in dealing with any literature, but especially our own living literature in its own most vital parts, is grayness, and I’m afraid that for all its intelligence and its author’s care Bright Book of Life is a gray book.
March 21, 1974