Novels by and/or about teachers of literature can be a tiresome subgenre which, since it’s hard to imagine anyone else being interested, seems usually intended for teachers of literature. The assumptions that the scholastic life somehow represents life itself or that it qualifies one to practice literature aren’t ones that dentists or bus drivers or shoe salesmen seem to make about their own professions, a modesty that ought to be encouraged. Still, it is a pleasure to find pieces from the academy with life in them.
The stories in The King’s Indian allow John Gardner to put on a variety of narrative masks, from that of teller of hip fairy tales about anxiety, madness, and marital strain to jaunty impersonations of Poe, Kafka, Melville, and John Gardner. And of course the beauty of masks is that they can come off whenever an effect is required. For example, “John Napper Sailing Through the Universe,” a tale of la vie bohème centered on an artist with the same name as the illustrator of Gardner’s Sunlight Dialogues, is told by a narrator named—like a good many other people in the book—John, a college teacher who like Professor John Gardner lives on a farm in southern Illinois and is writing an epic poem about Jason and Medea. Or consider the moment toward the end of the novella “The King’s Indian,” when the pretense that a Yankee-style Ancient Mariner is recounting his strange adventures turns out to be yet another hoax in a story of hoaxings compounded:
This house we’re in is a strange one, reader—house or old trunk or circus tent—and it’s one I hope you find congenial, sufficiently gewgawed and cluttered but not unduly snug. Take my word, in any case, that I haven’t built it as a cynical trick, one more bad joke of exhausted art. The sculptor-turned-painter that I mentioned before is an actual artist, with a name I could name, and what I said of him is true. And you are real, reader, and so am I, John Gardner the man that, with the help of Poe and Melville and many another man, wrote this book. And this book, this book is no child’s top either—though I write, more than usual, filled with doubts. Not a toy but a queer, cranky monument, a collage: a celebration of all literature and life; an environmental sculpture, a funeral crypt.
That does seem quite a lot for a book to be.
Here, I suppose, Gardner is thinking less of Poe and Melville than of someone like the John Barth of Chimera and “The Literature of Exhaustion.” In any case, I wish Gardner weren’t so eager to join the game of self-conscious fiction. Insisting on the arbitrariness of illusions puts all the cards in the novelist’s hand, and I feel a little surly about Gardner’s assumption that I, the reader, am safely “real” (how can he be so sure?) while letting me see that “John Gardner the man that…wrote this book” is just another disguise of a trickster who, like any teacher, has reserved the real power for himself.
It’s not inevitably a bad thing for a novelist to teach in a college and know a lot about literature and modern thought. One of the best stories here, “Pastoral Care,” takes place in a college town in southern Illinois beset by revolutionary student unrest. To be sure, the troubled protagonist is a clergyman, not a teacher, but the professions have their resemblances. Elsewhere the voices are those of a literate country doctor, a medieval monk, a prison administrator, a smart parent amusing his kinds with more than they’re likely to grasp; and in all these clerkish voices one hears an academic man trying out hypothetical other selves in situations in which a literary education can exercise itself to greater effect than it usually does on campus.
Gardner’s Grendel and Sunlight Man were deracinated professors, too, speculative minds placed in situations whose hostility or indifference provided a splendid tragi-comic stage for eloquent failure. And Nickel Mountain, his most restrained and best novel, has fine moments in which “ordinary” people are granted the emotional equivalent of intellectual subtlety, moments that work because self-consciousness and self-irony are not attached to them.
Nothing in The King’s Indian matches these successes. The recurrent motif is craziness, not the depressing madness of the real world but in the more amusing sense of “crazy” that in bookish conversation (like “marvelous,” “incredible,” and “unbelievable”) simply means exciting and imaginative. A country doctor who has read a great deal of Poe takes refuge from a tornado in an old farmhouse inhabited by a mad geneticist, long thought dead, who has perfected a technique for duplicating living creatures; the geneticist turns out to be a clone himself, and after he’s destroyed by the tornado the doctor finds, and true to his science and his humanity preserves, several repulsive child-clones of the original Hunter. In another story, a pious monk is beset by the anarchic whispers of freedom and crime of Brother Nicholas, a philosophical relative of the dragon in Grendel (“Your rules are absurd. The order of the world is an accident. We could change it in an instant, simply by opening our throats and speaking”). In another, a bewildered functionary tries to keep a Kafkaesque prison running as the mysterious Warden grows silent and invisible. And so on.
Much of this is made tolerable by Gardner’s great gifts for language and moral atmosphere. But only in the title story, “The King’s Indian” (referring, appropriately, to a chess gambit), is there anything like the amplitude of form and conception needed to keep Gardner’s eloquence from swamping the fable. Young Jonathan Upchurch (who, in one of Herbert L. Fink’s handsome illustrations, looks rather like the author) plans to leave Boston for (yes) southern Illinois; but at a tavern he falls in with pirates (whose captain is called Pious John, evidently another form of “Jonathan Upchurch”) and drunkenly buys from them an unsound small boat, the Jolly Independent, with the money he’d saved for a farm. Enraged and humiliated, he sails recklessly into the Atlantic and is rescued from his not so jolly independence by the whaler Jerusalem, bound for the South Pacific with (oddly) slaves below deck. Jonathan, a resourceful youth of the kind that pervades American fiction, becomes a member of the crew and tutor to the ravaged Captain Dirge’s intriguing daughter Augusta, with whom he promptly falls in love.
I won’t attempt to summarize the elaborate reality games that follow, except to say that, a time-loop being suspected, the Jerusalem may be the ghostly double of the Jerusalem that may have gone down with all hands off the Vanishing Isles some years before; the Captain may be—no, wait, is—the mesmerist Flint who performed in Boston with his daughter Miranda in Jonathan’s childhood, but it takes a while to locate the real Flint among his clockwork surrogates, especially since he’s a master ventriloquist and hypnotist, and there are distracting mutinies, murders, and rapes going on all around. But we get an upbeat ending, in which Upchurch and Augusta-Miranda set sail for the seacoast of southern Illinois while Old Glory flutters overhead:
“—Homewards, my sea-whores,” I shouted from the masthead. “—Homewards, you orphans, you bandy-legged, potbellied, pigbrained, belly-dancing killers of the innocent whale! Eyes forward [Upchurch himself is wall-eyed], you niggers, you Chinese Irish Mandalay Jews, you Anglo-Saxons with jackals’ eyes! We may be the slime of the earth but we’ve got our affinities! On to Illinois the Changeable!”
Academic vaudeville can be good fun, and Gardner in these stories does play with classic American uneasiness, the mixture of fascination and mistrust toward portentous appearances, the yearning to strike through the mask even as you fear that there will, after all, be nothing much behind it. But The King’s Indian is irksome in its reaching for the outrageous, the crazy, the (I’m afraid it must be said) cute, and I can only hope that it has done this immensely gifted writer some good to get these things out of his system.
Next come two novelists who are new to me, though between them they’ve published seven books of fiction. Diane Johnson’s The Shadow Knows is told by a woman known to us only as “N.,” a kind of Impatient Griselda who may hold at least the West Coast record for ill fortune. N. is a graduate student of linguistics, recently divorced by an infantile lawyer, stuck with four children in a shabby housing project in North Sacramento, fearful that she’s lost her lover (a colleague of her husband’s), harassed by obscene phone calls from Oscella, the deranged black woman who had been her housekeeper, worried about money, possible pregnancy, qualifying exams, and life in general.
As if all this weren’t enough, she begins to suspect that someone is out to get her. Her door is hacked and smeared with some vile substance (“like a mixture of blood and vomit and crankcase oil”); there are noises and maybe faces at her windows at night; her present housekeeper’s underpants are stolen off the line and de-crotched; phone calls that may not be from Oscella begin arriving; a strangled cat is left on her doorstep; Ev the housekeeper is attacked and beaten in the laundry room; the tires on N.’s car are slashed; she finds Ev dead in bed (pancreatitis or murder?); she has a miscarriage in the Sears parking lot; her friend and confidante Bess visits her with a hunting knife in her purse; finally she’s raped in her dark garage by an unidentifiable assailant.
But Feminist Gothic, women victimized by a congenitally malevolent male aggressiveness, isn’t exactly what The Shadow Knows is up to. Understandably, N. would like to know who’s doing all these bad things to her, if only to be sure that she’s not making it all up. And since we also wonder if she may not be doing that, we share her desire for knowledge. The history of her suffering is a kind of mystery story, with some of that genre’s suggestion that even banal crimes involve philosophical and moral puzzles as well as the practical ones of apprehension and punishment. N. senses this herself as she fantasizes a “Famous Inspector” who might be able to solve not only her case but her life.
The horror resides not in the acts perpetrated against N., which even she can’t be sure are connected in the person of a single enemy, but in the appalling multiplicity of suspects. There are so many people who might have it in for her: Gavin the ex-husband; Oscella the lunatic moralizer, convinced that N. is a harlot; one or another of Oscella’s or Ev’s men friends, balefully black at least to N.’s anxious white imagination; figures of casual conflict, like the Mexican supermarket checker she recently insulted; Bess the envious, resentful “best friend”; her lover’s wife or even the evasive lover himself; the detective who takes what seems to be an ambiguous interest in her problem.
As a fable about the paranoia that modern life so amply invites, The Shadow Knows makes good sense. N.’s fears are more than the product of her personal misfortunes, the sexual, social, and monetary anxieties of her changed station in life. They also involve culturally imposed confusions, about sex, race, status, intellect, personal style, that she can hardly be blamed for not being able to handle. And it’s a sign of the novel’s tough independence of outlook that N.’s experience should culminate in an act of casual rape that’s treated not as the ultimate affront to her womanhood but as a curious source of relief, showing N. that enmity is real, not imaginary, and also probably impersonal:
I feel better. You can change; a person can change. I feel myself different already and to have taken on the thinness and the lightness of a shadow, like a ghost slipping out of his corporeal self and stealing invisibly across the lawn while the body he has left behind meantime smiles stolidly as usual and nobody notices anything different. You can join the spiritually sly, I mean. Well, maybe I’m making too much of this. I mean your eyes get used to the dark, that’s all, and also you learn to look around you when you get out of your car in a dark garage.
Spiritual slyness may not be enough compensation for ceasing to live solidly within the self one presents to others, as N. has hoped to do, but the change predicts a continuation that’s worth something. If that’s all that one must suffer, one may yet come through.
My difficulty with this novel, here at the end and throughout, has to do with style. N.’s narrative is often poised between a bright sophistication and a colloquialism that nervously denies that anything very important is being said: “You can join the spiritually sly, I mean“—Holden Caulfield has a lot to answer for. I see why N. has to be a graduate student, and why Diane Johnson, herself an English professor, wants to give her heroine a subtle consciousness—without it, The Shadow Knows would sometimes seem like soap opera. But the idiom in which N. speaks and the more sophisticated awareness behind her voice do tend to clash, not violently but with a slight effect of misadjustment that makes N. less credible than she is interesting.
The heroine of Gail Godwin’s The Odd Woman is an English teacher at a midwestern college, thirty-two years old, untenured and unsure of reappointment, insomniac (she reads medieval mystics during her long nights and worries about the “Enema Bandit” who’s terrorizing the area with his odd ministrations), unmarried but in the midst of an affair with Gabriel Weeks, an art historian who teaches elsewhere and whom she sees only infrequently, at MLA meetings, for example. Jane Clifford is a decidedly bookish woman, given to seeing her life through literature:
Once her friend Gerda had accused her of saving her best sympathies for characters in novels, never for real people…. Was that true? Perhaps. She admitted that she had spent more hours of her life mulling over the destinies of Isabel Archer and Gwendolyn Harleth (what had those two done with their lives?) than over the majority of real people she had encountered. Except for herself, of course. She could not be said, even by Gerda, to be lacking in sympathy for Jane Clifford. What was to become of that personality, her constant companion, ephemeral as the dew on a morning rose under the perspective of eternity, but what about the next forty or fifty years?
We’re aware of Jane’s imaginative vice because she’s aware of it, and her ruefulness is both true to the professorial character and a warning against its tendency to let irony substitute for conclusive thinking.
Jane’s aptitude for converting experience into stories has, however, a history that’s more than literary. Behind her stand the lives, reduced to anecdote, of the women of her family, against which she tries to assess her own life as an “odd woman” (she gets the phrase from a novel of Gissing’s), one who does not make a pair with anyone else. There was her great aunt Cleva who in 1905 ran off with a touring actor but came home ten months later in a coffin, followed by a baby girl whom the family raised. Against that story of tragic freedom is the story of Jane’s mother. Also a teacher, she lost her husband, Jane’s father, in World War II, missed marrying her true love (an English professor) through a series of mishaps, and settled for one of her students, Jane’s stepfather, now grown into a tyrannical good provider who gives his dogs names like “Rommel” and “Bismarck.” Though Kitty, the mother, once almost ran away to the English professor, she finally accepted the simpler life she already had.
Jane’s own love for Gabriel, who keeps his emotions compartmentalized so that his feelings for Jane needn’t be related to his life with his wife, is seen in the light of these histories. Meeting him again in New York, Jane is struck anew by how his strength and gentle patience are aspects of his maddening predictability, overpunctuality, and hyper-discretion. On her last night, he agrees to have dinner with a colleague who might otherwise suspect his reason for being there, and Jane persuades herself to break things off without seeing him again.
She soon finds that she can no longer connect her life through stories which allow her to see herself without despairing. She meets an old actor whom everyone had supposed to be her great aunt’s betrayer and discovers that the villain was almost surely someone else; and she quarrels with Gerda, her oldest friend, now a bitterly militant feminist, who tries to deprive her of any illusions about Gabriel:
“I’m so sick of your avoidances and evasions and illusions and your cringing little refusals to see the truth, to see things as they are! You just can’t face the fact that you have to cut through all the crap and the shit if you want to live…. You can’t bear the smell of reality. You spend all your time making up lovely old nineteenth-century lies to cover up what is just one big crock of shit! Your so-called ‘beautiful love affair’ with Gabriel Weeks—you want me to tell you what it is, or was, or whatever the hell you’re kidding yourself about its present status? Fourteen furtive fucks over a period of two years. How’s that for alliteration?”
Back at school, Jane tries to accept the necessity of living by and for herself even as we see her vaguely reaching out for new stories in which she can live. There’s an almost hopeless black student to whom she’s given a compassionate C and who has signed up for her next term’s course, Women in Literature—if she can get the girl through Daniel Deronda, who knows? We leave her surviving spinsterish terror at the thought that the Enema Bandit may be on her roof, and listening to “the barely audible tinkle of a soul at the piano, trying to organize the loneliness and the weather and the long night into something of abiding shape and beauty.”
I hope I have at least suggested how very good The Odd Woman is, how sharply Gail Godwin’s quiet, canny writing presents the awareness of an intelligent woman without sentimentalizing it. Jane Clifford happily isn’t just a generalized Woman but a particular person, and the book’s academic atmosphere is simply the setting of her awareness and not a cryptic invitation to make more of it than is there. I’m persuaded that Jane thinks and feels for no one but herself.
Like Jane Clifford, F.X. Enderby is uneasy with the styles of contemporary life, academic or otherwise. In The Clockwork Testament or Enderby’s End Anthony Burgess brings the hero of two earlier novels to America, where, while teaching “Creative Writing” at the University of Manhattan, he must test his devotion to personal squalor and ideal beauty against American food, politics, education, and mass entertainment. This effort is quite literally the death of him.
Enderby has been rescued from North Africa by the success of a film, The Wreck of the Deutschland, for which he provided the “idea” (though Hollywood chose to set it in Nazi Germany, changed the Hopkins character’s name to Father Tom, and put in some semi-explicit sex scenes). But because the film has set off a wave of nun-rape and -murder overseas, Enderby’s association with it brings him abusive letters and phone calls and invitations to appear on TV talk shows. He tries to finish his long poem on St. Augustine and Pelagius, while planning his next project, The Odontiad, “a poetic record of dental decay in thirty-two books.” But he must also cope with his loathsome students, a series of small heart attacks, the challenge of making healthful stews with American ingredients (“two cans of corned beef, frozen onion rings, canned carrots, a large Chunky turkey soup, pâté, a dollop of whisky, Lea and Perrin’s, pickled cauliflowers, the remains of the spongemeat and the crinkle-cut potato bits”), and a poignant sense that the political climate makes disinterested devotion to high art rather hard to bring off.
Ill nature is Enderby’s forte:
Most of the Serious Calls came from what was known as the Coast and were for his landlady. She was connected with some religiolesbic movement there and she had neglected to send a circular letter about her sabbatical. The insults and obscenities were usually meant for Enderby. He had written a very unwise article for a magazine, in which he said that he thought little of black literature because it tended to tendentiousness and that Amerindians had shown no evidence of talent for anything except scalping and very inferior folkcraft. One of his callers, who had once termed him a toothless cocksucker (that toothlessness had been right, anyway, at that time anyway), was always threatening to bring a tomahawk to 91st Street and Columbus Avenue, which was where Enderby lodged. Also students would ring him anonymously at deliberately awkward hours to revile him for his various faults—chauvinism, or some such thing; ignorance of literary figures important to the young; failure to see merit in their own free verse and gutter vocabulary.
If Enderby sometimes sounds like the Don Rickles of British Letters, he is touchingly sure that attacks on him are also attacks on high art itself, which, in its indifference to immediate social and moral issues, seems to the Yahoomentality somehow to blame for the recalcitrant imperfection of human nature.
Enderby is a failed Catholic yearning for the hard-minded doctrines of the faith, and Burgess keeps the strain between true religion and secular optimism steadily in view. When, his mind gone blank from fear of cardiac arrest, Enderby has to resort to “Creative Literary History” in one of his classes, he lectures with considerable aplomb on an imaginary Elizabethan dramatist with the nunnish name of Gervase Whitelady (1559-1591), author of A Priest in a Whorehouse. On the subway he fights off with his sword-cane a gang of young muggers who menace (among others) a nun in new-style civvies. In the Algonquin Blue Bar he encounters the drunken actor who played Father Tom and who claims that his own grandfather, when a bugle boy at Cowley Barracks, was seduced by Father Gerard Hopkins (a story which, to Enderby’s horror, does seem to explicate “The Bugler’s First Communion”). And Enderby finally expires, after a sexual bout with a madwoman from Poughkeepsie determined that he shall urinate on his own poems, while watching what seems to be a film about Augustine and Pelagius on the Late-Late Show, the final, unendurable example of the plagiarism that has always dogged him.
The strain between Pelagian free will and Augustinian predetermination comes to a climax in Enderby’s debate with a behaviorist (Professor Man Balaglas of Stations of the Cross University, author of The Human Engine Waits) on a talk show, given in an imperfect transcription from the unshown video-recording. Balaglas is a cruel approximation of the Pelagian case, advocating “positive rain forcement (?)” to eliminate the violence that writers like Hopkins and Shakespeare encourage in us. Enderby, who believes in original sin and insists that art only imitates the evil already in existence, vehemently objects to this doctrine of perfectability through conditioning—“Man was always violent and always sinful and always will be”—and the show collapses with his drunken, enraged recitation of stanza 27 of The Wreck of the Deutschland, his (and Hopkins’s) answer to those who would deny to art and faith the suffering that “fathers that asking for ease / Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart.”
I would judge that Burgess has a lot invested in Enderby, maybe more than Enderby can quite sustain. The ending of The Clockwork Testament, in which the time-traveling schoolchildren from the earlier novels are assured by their teacher that the dead Enderby “is not out of it at all,” risks a sentimentality that Enderby alive would have known how to discount. (After quoting Hopkins herself—“Let him Easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us”—the teacher also tries to discount it: “I go too far, perhaps.”) Certainly the book seems thinner, more local, than the splendid Inside Enderby or even the less assured Enderby Outside, where the pleasure of writing well took precedence over the pleasure of scoring points.
But Anthony Burgess is one of our best, and most serious, fictional comedians, and if the comedy of The Clockwork Testament is sometimes too close to a kind of transatlantic farce that others do almost as well, it’s also a stirring denunciation of the trivial, the second-rate, the mindless, and a continuously entertaining reminder of how much this marvelously generous—and for all his learning, unacademic—writer has given us in the past two decades.
February 20, 1975