by Richard Howard
Writing an essay, nearly three decades ago, in which I attempted to present some account of Merwin's achievement in the first fifteen years of his art -- six volumes of poetry, four verse plays, many translations, and a number of prose texts, the latter more often travel pieces than criticism -- I happened to invoke Tennyson as a "punctual" exponent of contemporary feeling comparable to Merwin; now it seems to me that my analogy would have been more answerable had I waited thirty years -- and another six volumes of poetry -- to cite the earlier poet: "The hills are shadows and they flow / From form . . . ." For Merwin's new book of 64 linked poems -- linked by theme, tone, trope, and fastidiously evolved style -- is certainly the closest any modern poet (by which I mean a poet committed as Merwin has so faithfully been to the energies of fragmentation, erasure, and all those energies we identify as negative) has come to that glorious invention of Tennyson's which was to have such a remarkable progeny in the next century, the poetic sequence published, anonymously, in 1850, In Memoriam.
Not even Thomas Hardy, I venture, so loyally worked his visions of landscape together as Merwin has done in this new poem (I make it out to be one poem in 64 sections, which, though they have titles, have no punctuation; they flow from form, indeed, yet they offer the reader no difficulty whatever, so magisterial has Merwin's control of lyric syntax, and narrative order become), and the consistency, the inclusive and transforming vitality of the work makes it the crowning achievement of Merwin's long -- and extremely diversified -- career.
Of course there has been what Emerson has called a long foreground within Merwin's own oeuvre -- the last six poems of his previous book Travels (1993) are evidently studies for this chain of meditations, and the three prose narratives gathered in The Lost Upland (1992) are a sort of spell laid upon the ground the poet will cover so fluently with what the French call the nappe of his undeterred apprehensions.
And there are literary "exempla" -- not sources but signposts in the work of other writers of site and habitation to which Merwin has been attentive: Turgenev's "Byezhin Meadow" (from the Sportsman's Sketches), and even more congruently, Chekhov's patient rhapsody "The Steppe": It is no accident that these Russian occasions seem so immediate, for Merwin has always ransacked world literature for the means to his realizations, never more fruitfully than in the undeviating splendor of this landlocked sequence.
There is, as in Tennyson's poem, a repeating formula which keeps the reader aware that what he has read will be echoed in what awaits; not a recurrent rhyme scheme but a temporal structure almost as insistent as the great Victorian's: Sections usually begin with a notification that the experience has already occurred, ab illo tempore. There will be an opening phrase such as "once," or "at the beginning," or "this was the day when," or "in the long evening of April" -- sometimes extended to constitute an opening line, as "one dark afternoon in the middle of the century," sometimes condensed to no more than a decisive phrase, such as "long after" or "all that time ago." Then comes the argument, in the operatic sense of that word, a sort of struggle the poet has with himself to endure whatever loss or loosening he has to report concerning this region of southwest France. And then the sign-off, the removal of his consciousness from the circumstance which is perceived to be one that will continue without him, an energy or just a propriety, a tempering that transcends anything so dubious, so mythical as "self."
Whereupon the difference, indeed the discrepancy from my likening of The Vixen to In Memoriam is made flagrant: Tennyson's poem is a drama of accommodation to the loss of a beloved person, whereas Merwin knows no others (except insofar as the occasional peasant, an emanation of the land, refuses to acknowledge him) -- his poem is concerned with presences, rather, and always with processes, often heartbreaking in their acknowledgment of failure and degradation, but stoic too in their discovery of that ongoing current or energy which the poet, in his destitution, can merely acknowledge as beyond him. Not over or beneath, but in every sense past.
I choose, for illustration, the section named "Completion" from the middle of the text; this seems to me almost diagrammatic in its statement of what the poet is doing (or not doing), and finely representative (it even has the vixen in it) of the imagery that bears the entire text to its memorable departure (it never really concludes):
Merwin (nearing 70) argues with himself about the possibility of time's being not a matter of sequence -- one damned thing after another -- but of immediate realization. Perhaps there is no "way it all looks from afterward" but only what it means in an eternal Now; he risks inconsistency from section to section with all the bravado of Whitman (or indeed Tennyson). Fourteen pages after "Completion" -- placed so critically in the middle of things, rather than at the end -- he observes with a sort of sour satisfaction in "Distant Morning": "none of it could be held or denied or summoned back / none of it would be given its meaning later," and offers himself the only comfort he can take -- the imminent realities of earthly life, presences indeed, miracles of fastidious noticing, the tawny owl clenched in the oak, the nuthatch prospecting, the gray adder gathering itself on its gray stone "with the ringing of a cricket suspended around it," the hedgehogs sleeping in the deep brush, the badgers and foxes in their home ground, the bats high under the eaves. . . . This poet, ages ago so convinced, so won over by the vocabulary of silence, of emptiness and absence, is now the laureate of observation, of exactitude and accountability. Who once was, as he writes in the title section, "sibyl of the extinguished" has made himself, by a certainly religious process of attending, warden of time's river, "bearing the sense of it / without questions," sense now being a word of the richest ambiguity, the most diverse gifts.
I should like to end by recurring to the virtuosity of Merwin's sentences which no longer break off, or down, or even up as they used to do in his books of ecstatic impoverishment. Now the unpunctuated lines of 12 to 15 syllables make use, rather, of enjambment as their only markers, the rest, or rather the restlessness being left to an unbroken voice patiently weaving its account of presence, almost carelessly alluding to Ovid or Hoelderlin, flashing back to the poet's childhood "being taken home from the circus / late at night in the rumble seat of the old car," and forward to the depredations of la chose allemande, as De Gaulle used to call World War II, but always closing with the delicacies and brutalities of those French stones, those iron implements, and especially "the eyes of animals upon me they are all here". . . . Life sentences. No American poet since Whitman has kept better faith with the one genius of Tennyson's poetic sequence which constitutes the one poem, the elegy which is restoration, the lament which is custody.
by Donald Revell
Poetry is the elective act of an instant, a precarious balancing act upon the edges dividing body from soul, ecstasy from sense, wild frontier silences from slow words. Our lyrics are singular instances of poise. Chosen by Heather McHugh for publication in this year's National Poetry Series, Karen Volkman's wonderful Crash's Law continues the precarious election to poems American not only in name, but in querulous, precipitous, instantaneous location. Like Dickinson before her ["Ruin is formal -- Devil's work / Consecutive and slow -- / Fail in an instant, no man did / Slipping -- is Crash's law." (from poem #997)], Volkman cherishes contradiction. She accepts risks. She poises her words upon sharp antitheses, improvising the moments of her freedom upon the brink of ruinous form.
Her opening poem, "Internal," begins "Is it better to die by the hand of an intimate / or to die by the hand of a stranger?" The resignation is enormous. But so, in its fast way, is the question too. And in the moment of the question, defiance dazzles extinction. We may, at least, distinguish one disaster from another in choosing our precipices and choosing the direction of our disappearances. "Infernal" ends "I stay close to the water, / you stay close to the shore." A distinction intangible but absolute. A matter of life and death.
It is Volkman's particular gift to find a common precipice along her own most private edges, and vice versa. Before its first fall, America balanced upon the edge dividing allegory and actual history, Shining City and manswarm. In " The Gold Book," Volkman describes an allegory of her own that leaps into and out of her real life, as heedless as America of any merely earthbound middle-way.
It told the story of a runaway rose
Out of a children's book, allegory hurries towards history and towards the sprawl of misremembered detail. The little golden book is unbalanced by the real child. Memory tears it. "The inevitably violent end" obscures its story. The "clarity of detail" visible from the blithe high places is forgotten in a fall. The rose abandons its mountain. The Shining City tumbles. What was the rose's name before the soldiers called it Betty? In the place of forgotten knowledge "The Gold Book" imagines a "heap" (wonderful American word, heap; Ahab cursed The Whale, saying "he heaps me"), "democratic in some dank / chaotic attic." Yet allegory somehow rises from the heap. Even forgotten, the childhood we never had and the Shining City we never made lure us to the precipice of further speculation. "The Gold Book" concludes:
Now you wonder that all you've forgotten
Wonder walks on air and tipples air. "Songs rise" in the balance between carelessness and struggle.
Struggling out of death (the most democratic heap of all) Nature profuses. Between unconsciousness and instinct, it produces flowers. In "Tulips," Volkman expresses the fact of profusion splendidly.
The immoderate righteousness of tulips coming into bloom places them ever just beyond the reach of words and interpretations. Volkman positions her language here so as to emphasize the unnatural discriminations of language. Reading "Tulips," we find acknowledgment of a perfect paradox: i.e., that poetry itself is an instantaneous action of language out of language, just as the tulip is the action of earth out of earth. Poetry, "the pure indiscretion" of words, has nothing to say and much to do. As "Tulips" ends, indiscretion abandons even poetry and so escapes.
Through spaces opened by Volkman's indiscretion -- between kisses and science, between flowers and the explanation of flowers -- Nature escapes. The tulips are gone. "Posed austerely" in their place stand only ceramic impostors. Nature struggles on carelessly at some site more becoming than a book.
The energy of escape rhymes with the reckless shape and force of fire. Near the center of her book, Volkman offers "Combustion," a poem detailing what may be called the "physics" behind (or inside) Crash's Law.
In my wrist
A poem is a location and action, a material thing in its soul. The spirit of matter meets the weight of matter on a poem's line. It is a fiery force that tips the balance and sends poetry over the line, out of syntactic captivation. Here the fire includes the poet herself consumed to fuel the poem. The physics of "Combustion" and of Crash's Law poises upon the brink of metaphysics. Out of control.
Through the factual efficacy of Volkman's angels, Crash's Law ends not in the empty furnace of Daniel but in Revelations' wild eternity of change. In "New Heaven, New Earth," Volkman announces the end of knowledge and the neverending resurrection of things balanced and ablaze.
Beyond the mythic balances of syntax and simile ("a world much like this one") there appears an immeasurable omnipotent Now -- "this Thursday's blizzard" -- balanced on turbulence alone. Poetry ends likeness and acclaims revelation.
After a turbulence of similes, "analogy" loses "its manners" and all the habits of poetry are blown away. Falling objects achieve their greatest velocity at the instant of crash. In "New Heaven, New Earth," Crash's Law speeds to its last words:
In revelation's renovation of every thing we can see "moon broke to blossom," and seeing so far, so fast, so high, we begin to see a further edge -- Volkman's brightest innovation -- "keen and shine."
by Bin Ramke
There are many reasons for the publication of a Selected Poems, chief among them the renewed availability of the poems themselves. Yet while none of Jorie Graham's books has ever gone out of print, no poet in recent memory has been so well served by the publication of such a one-volume compendium. There has been no doubt as to the significance of Graham's place in the troubled arena of American poetry since World War II -- her poems were noticed by major critics well before she won this year's Pulitzer Prize -- but we had nothing to chart the intensity of her progression over the past 20 years until the appearance of this book. And its title, like the titles of each of her books, is full of new-critical irony as well as astonishing forthrightness. As with the unified-field theorizing of physicists, should the dream hovering behind these pages ever be realized, then the act of dreaming would have exceeded its human dimension.
Oddly enough, it's the future that this collection suggests, rather than the mere reciting, or recanting, of a past. Jorie Graham's work makes constant reference to the world outside itself, insists on her own poems as readings of other, sometimes horrifying, historical contexts and texts. If read as an aesthetic statement, a poetics, then the following passage from Jonathan Schell's The Fate of The Earth might account for some post-wars poetry (i.e. the World Wars, and for Americans of Jorie Graham's generation, Vietnam):
A nuclear holocaust is an event that is obscure because it is future, and uncertainty, while it has to be recognized in all calculations of future events, has a special place in calculations of a nuclear holocaust, because a holocaust is something we aspire to keep in the future forever, and never to permit into the present. You might say that uncertainty, like the thermal pulses or the blast waves, is one of the features of a holocaust. Our procedure, then, should be not to insist on a precision that is beyond our grasp but to inquire into the rough probabilities of various results insofar as we can judge them, and then to ask ourselves what our political responsibilities are in the light of these probabilities. This embrace of investigative modesty -- this acceptance of our limited ability to predict the consequences of a holocaust -- would itself be a token of our reluctance to extinguish ourselves.
"Investigative modesty" and "our reluctance to extinguish ourselves" are phrases applicable to Jorie Graham's project. Note that even my use of the catch phrase "poetic project" contains a hidden calculation of futurity. And Graham's is a poetry whose concerns cling to time, fearfully or boldly by turns. When the world thought its greatest threat was of destruction by nuclear weapons, tacticians and strategists considered merely delaying the use of such weapons to be a victory. While their ultimate banning might have been desirable, the world meanwhile remained livable by means of delay. Further, by implying that "events" might be "obscure" because "future," Schell suggests the centrality of delay to recent history, including recent poetry.
Delay is a concept central to poetry and art. The arrow of time is inexorable, and the danger of dynamism is corruption and dissolution, which one can only delay, not deter. Perhaps the Grecian Urn suggests the possibility of an ultimate deterrence, and perhaps Eliot's Still Point feels available to some believers. But the famous pace of modern life (one can measure Modernism from the 18th century if one chooses) forces us to confront change with such ferocity that strategies for delay are commonplace, even subconscious. One of Graham's early poems refers to how ". . . this astounding delay, the everyday, takes place" ("The Geese"). In such a line, Graham suggests that the everyday, in which we live, asserts itself slyly, not by assuming dominance, but by negotiating a little space for the human in the shadow of the threat of the future. "Self Portrait as Hurry and Delay" is a poem from her crucial third book, The End of Beauty (note the importance, and the potential irony, of titles again). Aside from the need for delay to provide a space within which lives can be led, there is the need to delay in order to examine; there is the examined life to consider, but also the examined art.
Jorie Graham described in a 1992 Denver Quarterly interview a sense that even the making of a poem is merely a momentary stay against the inevitable dissolution of the genre, of poetry itself:
I feel like I'm writing as part of a group of poets -- historically -- who are potentially looking at the end of the medium itself as a vital part of their culture -- unless they do something to help it reconnect itself to mystery and power. However great their enterprise, we have been handed by much of the generation after the Modernists -- by their strictly secular sense of reality (domestic, confessional), as well as their unquestioned relationship to the act of representation -- an almost untenably narrow notion of what that in between space is capable of.That "in between space" is part of the project of delay, of rediscovering the present before the ravages of the future.
This renewing collection allows us, for instance, to read from Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts in the light of Materialism. What Graham's skill shows is not so much a renewal as a salvation of the earlier poems by enriching their context. Just as we can hardly read the early Yeats while pretending ignorance of the greater, later works, those of us who knew best the more recent large and complex Graham poems are now invited to reread the earlier, and to see in them, perhaps for the first time, their full complexities and compulsions. For instance, consider how a later poem, "Notes on the Reality of the Self" (the second one) from Materialism, begins:
The drama of this poem is in part a re-envisioning of a poem from her first book, including its title:
I Was Taught Three
The earlier poem's formality was "well bred," while the more recent exhibits a nervousness "on the verge of being / anarchic." Yet the sacred naming, and the trinity of names, and the conversation with the things of this world, and the urgency beneath the elegance of language, these qualities were strengths early and late. In each poem the world opening into the window, through the window, becomes a world of light and leaves, and yet the tiny ironic "joke" (an O'Henry allusion? -- the last remaining leaf that saves the life of the hospitalized little girl by providing a symbolic focus through the harsh New York winter...) turns into barbarism (note the mimetic origins of the word barbarian), the barbarism of conformity, of a world in which light is appalling / paling, and the wind and sun conspire to form (which is perhaps the same as deform) the self. Both poems are appallingly beautiful, as they touch, lightly, everywhere at once. Graham was taught three names for a tree in part because she grew up in Italy, was educated in France, and of course spoke English with her American parents. It is only clichéd thinking that assumes such a situation implies three "worlds," or that chaos must ensue from such an absence of unity. This trinity of languages, like the god of Catholicism, achieves a singularity not by suppression of any two languages' implications, but by accepting, in Helen Vendler's words, "an unembarrassed range of cultural and linguistic reference, which she does not censor."
Jorie Graham has said that for her, each book is a critique of the previous. She has also spoken of the need she felt in her poems to respond to the pull of closure, to resist its devastations. The Dream of the Unified Field demonstrates how each book successively (and successfully) re-opens the previous, and proves (and improves) the ability and need of the poem to delay, to resist, to digress and progress. As she wrote in "The Visible World":
Graham's politics, if you will, involve her in a severe sense of "truth": of language and earth and family and nation being as clearly seen, as uncompromisingly loved, as is humanly possible. As the threat of nuclear holocaust has diminished from Western imagination, Jonathan Schell's analysis of the centrality of uncertainty and delay remains vibrant and formative. In a previous time, one assumes (or pretends), it was possible not only to profess the world without end, Amen, but also to believe and behave accordingly. More recent experience suggests we must love even inconstancy itself as the very medium through which our lives travel, as ether was once the medium through which everything moved. Jorie Graham has taken inconstancy, which earlier had been angst and anxiety producing, and made an art from it. Others have, too, but none in the same ways out of language. She questions Christian eschatology over and over, cyclically, throughout this book. If she resists closure, it is because Apocalypse is a dangerous desire, an excuse for inattention to the present. And while throughout this collection we find retellings of myth and märchen, we find that each telling resists summary as each becomes enactment rather than monument. In spite of the "difficulty" of much of her work, this collection, read beginning to end, read as a kind of novel, as a roman, is breathtakingly clear, crystalline, and compelling:
The moving on, and the modesty, are responses to -- and implicit in, one hopes -- the fate of the earth.
My Soul to Keep
by James Hynes
What makes a ghost story literary? The conventional answer is that a "literary ghost story" isn't really a ghost story at all. The ghosts in Henry James, the argument goes, are not actual ghosts, but the hallucinations of sexual repression (in "The Turn of the Screw"), or metaphors for jealousy ("The Friends of the Friends") or unrequited love ("Sir Edmund Orme"). This saves the story for literature, rescuing the serious reader (and the serious writer) from the embarrassment of believing in the supernatural.
This misses the point. As Brad Leithauser notes in his splendid introduction to The Norton Book of Ghost Stories, literary ghost stories come in two types, both of which might be called "Jamesian." The Henry James variety is a "two-tiered story" in which the psychological explanation for the haunting is as plausible as the supernatural. But, Leithauser says, James's point is that the situation is ambiguous, not that it is easily explicable. James is not concerned to leave the literal-minded reader an escape hatch: The ghost might just as well be a ghost. Either way, it must be mysterious and disturbing; it must partake of what Leithauser calls "the hunger for the infinite."
The other sort of Jamesian ghost story is plot-driven and takes after what are arguably the best ghost stories in the English language, the compact and diamond-hard little tales of the Edwardian academic M. R. James (no relation to Henry). In this James's stories, the characterization is rudimentary, with nothing deliberate in the way of subtext, but the stories themselves work wonderfully as models of economy, wit, and finely observed detail. And there's no question of ambiguity: M. R. James's ghosts are real, though he would never say whether he believed in them or not.
The work of American novelist Judith Hawkes combines the best of both traditions, walking the knife edge of the literary ghost story with apparent effortlessness, balancing a fine novelist's appreciation of character with the tale teller's instinct for the expertly calibrated shock. Her first book, Julian's House (1989), is an almost perfect novel, its success made more remarkable by the hurdles Hawkes places in her own path, and then leaps over effortlessly. The story has several elements that might first strike us as clichés: a large, Victorian haunted house in a small New England town; a pair of eager young parapsychologists equipped with the latest in ghost-busting electronics; a century-old family secret that no one wants dredged up. She makes this new with no postmodern sleight of hand, but with unobtrusively elegant prose, a gift for atmosphere, and rock-solid storytelling. Her greatest gift, though, is for creating real and vivid characters. The two parapsychologists are also a young married couple, with a complex and heartbreaking set of professional and personal difficulties. Quite apart from the presence of the supernatural, the book gradually becomes a marital horror story of conflicting motivations and desires.
But the heart of the story is the haunting, and the various ghosts reflect and amplify the investigators' personal problems, each situation ratcheting up the other to an almost unbearable pitch. It's as psychologically acute as any mainstream novel, but it's also wonderfully spooky. There are a couple of terrifying set pieces in Julian's House a la M. R. James, and the ending is chillingly ambiguous in the best Henry James manner.
Hawkes's approach in her new novel, My Soul to Keep, is more straightforward. A successful New York fashion photographer named Nan Lewis retreats from the city and her failing marriage to rural Tennessee with her young son, Stephen. She has recently inherited a remote farmhouse from a favorite aunt. Though she has not been there in twenty years, she sees it as a refuge from the ruin of her marriage. This is in spite of the farm's painful association with her past: Twenty years ago, as a young girl, she spent several months living here with her aunt, and made friends with a local boy her own age, Tucker Wills. In the midst of a harsh winter, Tucker died in an accident on a frozen pond, with Nan as the only witness. She remembers only that it happened, having long since blocked out the details of that day.
It doesn't take an intimate acquaintance with the tradition of the ghost story to see who the ghost is here and what consequences are liable to ensue. But once again, Hawkes takes an unoriginal situation and invests it with wit, passion, and surprise. The strengths of the book are vivid and compassionately evoked characters and an almost palpable sense of the supernatural. As in Julian's House, the haunting complicates and is complicated by sexual passion, in this case Nan's compulsive affair with her distant cousin Sky, a local farmer and handyman.
Both Nan and Sky are beautifully drawn. Nan is impulsive, funny, and neurotic, a little out of her depth in the rural community, where she is both frustrated by the slower pace of life and touched by the locals' easy acceptance of her and her son. Sky is an immensely attractive character -- imagine Gary Cooper or Sam Shepherd -- lanky and charming and witty, but, even to Nan, a little too easygoing and helpful to be trusted. Which doesn't stop her from ending up in bed with him, of course. Hawkes writes about their couplings with an unforced and powerful sensuality, conveying all the various complications and permutations of their affair. Indeed, some of the book's most frightening moments have nothing to do with ghosts, but with the way lovers discover, in the midst of passion, that they are suddenly in the arms of a stranger.
Other moments of terror in the novel are linked to the land, belying the very word "supernatural." The rage and pain of Tucker Wills' ghost is as much a part of the natural world as the hills and pines and running water. In one scene, after Nan and Sky's affair has begun to sour, they make love hurriedly near the old quarry where Tucker died, and suddenly the summertime landscape around them twists into something menacing:
The reflected trees hung upside down, suspended from the water's surface, their branches etched in spidery tracings against a submerged sky. Nan kept staring at them, then at the leaf-laden branches of the actual trees above, comparing the two. They didn't seem to match. But that wasn't possible. Her mind, confronted with the anomaly, continued to chug and churn like some machine that had run up against a wall, wheels turning but getting nowhere.
The leisurely pace and rich atmospheric detail of Julian's House stands in contrast to the efficiency of its composition; My Soul to Keep is equally rich in detail and just as leisurely, but less efficient. This time, Hawkes leaves a little too much time for readers to wonder why a smart woman like Nan takes so long to figure out things that they guessed pages before -- first, that there is a ghost, and then its identity. And not quite all the pieces lock into place by the end, leaving readers to wonder why certain subplots or minor characters were included at all. But this is the fault of too much ambition, not too little. My Soul to Keep is a psychologically acute and wholly entertaining novel. The ending is less ambiguous than that of Julian's House, but just as shattering, loose ends notwithstanding. Along the way it provides some purely literary pleasures -- a wry and affectionate account of a White southern community, a passion for the landscape -- and some perfectly judged frights, including one particularly nasty shock that is as unexpected to the reader as it is to the characters.
In the end, what makes a ghost story, and Judith Hawkes's novels in particular, literary is what makes any narrative so: a compassionate and sophisticated understanding of what drives a character, careful storytelling, fine writing. But these are not good books in spite of the ghosts; the presence of the supernatural in these novels adds to their achievement. In the golden age of the ghost story -- the last turn of the century -- the ghost was allowed to vent rage, passion, and guilt in a way the living were not supposed to. It isn't just the return of the dead that made these stories frightening; unbridled emotion is terrifying in itself. Judith Hawkes's accomplishment comes from her understanding that a hundred years after Henry James, in a therapeutic and self-indulgent age, we're not nearly as free of repressed emotion and uncomfortable secrets as we like to think. All of her characters are deluding themselves about something, and only the relentless fury of the dead forces them to face the truth. And she understands that even the modern reader is subject to fate and accident: that our own passions and rages have consequences that may extend even beyond the grave, and that a moment of heedlessness, or an instant's hesitation, might change our lives for-ever. These are matters of the profoundest literary import.
by Edwin Frank
Begin -- where else? -- at the beginning of the book, or before that even, with what's right out there for everyone to see, with what, by now, almost everybody must know, the title: The Information. That's a teaser, isn't it? This book will answer questions you never even thought to ask, tell it like it is, give you the inside dope. Because Martin Amis, you know, is one hard- boiled chap -- a tough guy, and a thoughtful one too (once he even wrote about the Nuclear Threat). So maybe this is serious. Philosophical even. Anything, after all, is information, so long as it tells us something. Information, in other words, is everything, or can be. And hey, we realize, this is an ambitious book. A book about life. That's why we heard about it before it even hit the shelves.
But no, Martin Amis is too dark, too disabused, too ironical, too self- conscious for that. Something here doesn't add up. Or so Amis hints on page after page and tells us right out at the end: "And then there is the information, which is nothing, and comes at night." Because this is an English book, we'll go with A.J. Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic rather than Heidegger's Being and Time and say that if the information is nothing, then there's simply no information. And that's true. Because after all the publicity that preceded it, and after all the poses it strikes, much of The Information is pretty thin stuff.
But if you can't inform the reader's understanding, you can at least perform, and no matter how little he may have to say, Martin Amis's will to perform is unflagging. Thanks to that, he has pulled off an at least intermittently spectacular comic turn, a story of literary shenanigans, wonderfully far- fetched, mixed up with some mid-life crisis stuff. The main characters are two writers joined by an equal lack of talent (not of course that either of them sees it that way), but separated by success: Richard Tull, a would- be modernist great who can't write a readable book (one of Amis's comic conceits is that anyone who even cracks the covers of Richard's latest ends up in the hospital), and Gwyn Barry, internationally be- laureled and bestselling author of Amelior and Amelior Regained, sentimentally sanctimonious visions of ideal community. They have been connected since college by the tolerable bonds of shared obscurity, male competition, and struggling snobbery, but now Gwyn can't speak without making the papers and turning a profit, while Richard reviews (The Soul's Dark Cottage: A Life of Sir Edmund Waller, Robert Southey, Gentleman Poet, 700 pages, 700 words, one week), edits a little magazine called the Little Magazine, and reads for a vanity publisher, Tantalus Press, all at what his increasingly disenchanted wife estimates to be an average rate of 60p. per hour. Sick with jealousy, Richard decides "to mess Gwyn up."
The Information is built around Richard's ever more elaborate schemes to get Gwyn, and their predictable and abject failure. It is "the history of increasing humiliation" that Richard, trying to cadge an advance, once projected as a title for a history of literature (from Homer to Tull), or was it the universe, and though of course he never got around to writing anything of the kind, he is very busy living it. On the skids from the start, when, on the eve of his 40th birthday, he wakes as always at six in the morning to work -- "He needed no alarm clock. He was already comprehensively alarmed. . . He was in a terrible state: that of consciousness" -- by the end of the book no humiliation has been spared him. Amis knows Richard with a terrible unremitting exactitude. He owns him:
For an hour (it was the new system) he worked on his latest novel, deliberately but provisionally entitled Untitled. Richard Tull wasn't much of a hero. Yet there was something heroic about this early hour of flinching, flickering labor, the pencil sharpener, the White- out, the vines outside the open window sallowing not with autumn but with nicotine. In the drawers of his desk or interleaved by now with the bills and summonses on the lower shelves on his book cases, and even on the floor of the car (the terrible red Maestro) swilling around among the Ribena cartons and the dead tennis balls, lay other novels, all of them firmly entitled Unpublished. And stacked against him in the future he knew were yet further novels, successively entitled Unfinished, Unwritten, Unattempted, and, eventually, Unconceived.
Amis's paragraph swoops with predatory precision from "deliberately but provisionally" to the conclusive "firmly" of Unpublished. It is funny and seems merciless, but like the best satire, it shakes us not only with laughter, but with pity and fear.
Amis is a hyperbolic writer, never happier than when going over the top, and Richard is no ordinary failure; he is superhuman, a master of defeat. Stewed, hacking with smoker's cough, rotating black eyes as plot after plot recoils on him, staggering under the weight of books to review and of his own massive Untitled, published at last by the distinguished American firm Bold Agenda, he is a cartoon character, the pieces of him rising to stumble onward after every explosion. Amis knows that the peculiar integrity and even grace of comic characters, as well as the comic novelist's obligation to those characters, require that they repeat their failings ad infinitum, and though at several points he almost flinches from Richard's predicament, sentimentally suggesting some redemptive reconciliation with the wife and kids might be at hand, ultimately he resolves to dish out disgrace after disgrace with relish. And Richard sits and eats, verging in the end on a ridiculous saintliness.
But not really, or only (as always) by contrast to Gwyn, whose endless successes simply show up at the door (helped a little by Richard), and who is insulated from the predictable problems of the successful by, what else, his success. Gwyn isn't at fault for his depredations any more than Richard can ever hope to be let off the hook for his. Even when Gwyn turns positively diabolical towards the end of the book, he is just realizing one more opportunity available to the truly blessed. The only trace of justice for Richard, and of comeuppance for Gwyn, is that this is after all Richard's book; Gwyn is just a foil. Small comfort, reminding us only that we are all finally dupes of circumstance.
At its best The Information is brilliant black comedy, and like all good comedy has a serious edge. Failure after all is one of the great and inevitable facts, transcendental and yet commonplace, of human existence, and the History of Mr. Bad Writer, engaging as it does our desperate desire to transform the substance of our lives, is a smart way to allegorize it. The only problem is that Amis hasn't been able to leave it at that. He wants to do something bigger and better; he too wants to show us that he feels our pain:
Why do men cry? Because of fights and feats and marathon preferment, because they want their mothers, because they are blind in time, because of all the hard- ons they have to whistle up out of the thin blue yonder, because of all that men have done. Because they can't be happy or sad anymore -- only smashed or nuts. And because they don't know how to do it when they're awake.
This is awful, worthy of Gwyn Barry himself. The thoughts behind the mechanical rhetoric may be dark rather than anodyne, but they are no less trite for that. Unfortunately this stuff is all over the book. We are treated to Amis's reflections (first person) on man's place in the universe (nowhere, man), and on the sad yellow dwarf he sometimes runs into on the street, whose pain he really feels, especially since he's short himself, and, you know, the sun too is just a big yellow dwarf. We also get a subplot about criminals which is supposed to illuminate such deep subjects as pornography and child abuse and the void in the heart of man -- void as the vast universe itself -- but which serves primarily as a pretext for Amis to display his fluent lowlife lingo. Because even if Amis feels our pain, he wants us to know he's not some kind of chump. All in all, there is something hopelessly adolescent about The Information's noisy rhetoric (not to mention the inflatable rubber female characters), its mixture of mawkishness and toughness: a need to be noticed, a need to impress, at once bellicose and on edge. Are you looking at me?
There's a good and very funny little book inside The Information, but Amis seems to think that's not enough, that he owes us, or himself, not just a brilliant performance, but a large book full of significance. And because of that misplaced, oddly unsophisticated conviction, he has almost buried his small book in the wreckage of a never- quite- conceived big one: a vision of the modern world so broken at heart that not even Martin Amis can put it together again; a cri de coeur from the depths of his riven middle-aging soul, white-faced before the onrush of oblivion; or, inevitably, the big book about the impossibility of writing a big book any more. You have to ignore all that, or you'll come away from this book with no information more edifying than that Martin Amis feels sorry for himself -- and that saying "Richard Tull, c'est moi" and sobbing all the way to the bank just won't make you Flaubert.
by Marc Romano
Andrzej Szczypiorski first attracted attention outside his native Poland with his novel The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, a multi-layered group portrait of the heroes (reluctant or otherwise) and the cowards who inhabited Warsaw in the dreadful last year of the Second World War. Szczypiorski was widely compared to the great figures of postwar European writing, and some critics expressed the hope that he was the first in a new wave of Polish writers who would, one day, rival Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, whom Poland had lost to Western emigration after the crushed anti-Soviet revolt of 1956.
Szczypiorski's second novel to be translated into English, A Mass for Arras, appeared here in 1993 but had in fact been written between 1968 and 1970. It did not cause nearly as much of a stir as Mrs. Seidenman, although in its way it was as cogent a description of a certain time and place (in this case, Poland as it was permitted to exist under the Brezhnev Doctrine) as its predecessor had been. Nominally a retelling of the vauderie d'Arras, a brief and brutal outburst of anti-Semitic mob violence in a Flanders town early in the 15th century, it was a chillingly accurate reflection of the mass paranoia that gripped Poland during the late `60s and early `70s.
In both books Szczypiorski took up themes that almost come off as Polish clichés: the sense of literary obligation to Western Europe, omnipresent anti-Semitism, the shackles and comforts of Catholicism, the fragility of faith (in God, in others, in oneself), and the complexity of moral obligations in a country that has, for a century, been almost continuously occupied by foreigners.
But these are no mere clichés. The incumbent Pope, a Pole, is more conservative than any in the last century. The newly elected Polish president, ex-Communist Aleksandr Kwasniewski, ran his campaign on suspiciously exclusionary sloganeering. Moreover, Szczypiorski's novels are each at best an homage, and at worst a copy, of various West European forebears: Heinrich Böll's Group Portrait with Lady for The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman and Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon for A Mass for Arras. And the ethical vagaries and inner doubts of the people who try, respectively, to betray the Jewish Mrs. Seidenman to the Nazis and to save her from them, or that emerge among the citizens of Arras who lynch their Jews and then beg God's forgiveness for doing so, are as profoundly Polish as the black Madonna of Czestochowa.
If Andrzej Szczypiorski has been playing the canary in the Polish coal mine, it is no doubt in part because he experienced so much of 20th century Polish history first-hand. In the summer of 1944, when he was 20, he took part in the abortive Warsaw Ghetto uprising; in 1989, when he was sixty-five, he saw the Communists voted out of power. It is fitting, then, that Szczypiorski's third novel to appear in English, Self-Portrait with Woman, written in a post-Communist Poland that seems to have lost its moral compass, does away almost entirely with the irony that leavened Mrs. Seidenman and the self-criticism that fueled Arras. As a venture in storytelling it is an abject failure. Its chaotic, unlikely narrative is marked by endless run-on sentences (the prose is not helped by Bill Johnston's overly slangy translation), and its morbidly self-involved narrator holds forth at such irritating length that the reader often wishes he would simply shut up. But this, I think, is the point of the novel. By presenting us with such an empty fellow, Szczypiorski makes it clear that the canary has smelled something rotten in the "new" Poland.
Self-Portrait is the story of Kamil, a Warsaw sociologist in his early sixties who has just been invited to Switzerland, where a radio station is compiling an oral history of the Soviet era. For Kamil the invitation is opportune. He has just been questioned by the police about the murder of Irena Bem, the latest of his inconstant mistresses. By chance Kamil has something of an alibi -- another man was with Irena the night she died. Kamil had even seen him on the stairs to her apartment: "a big, broad-shouldered black man in a long, stylish overcoat and a yellow foulard scarf . . . his face was covered in perspiration, the whites of his eyes gleamed, he had a penetrating, foreign smell. This is a dream, thought Kamil."
In Geneva Kamil meets his interviewer, Ruth Gless, and in the course of his monologues the two fall in love. ( Here this novel's own European homologue is apparent: Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) When Ruth's superiors express dissatisfaction at the very personal version he is providing of the "events of immense historical significance" he has been asked to relate, Kamil's response is insufferable:
You share the view, universal here, that people such as me, who have been ground in the merciless mills of totalitarian regimes, have through that torment come to enjoy some kind of extraordinary wealth in their inner lives . . . . There is in you . . . a desire to try your strength against the suffering you were spared . . .But this is precisely what Kamil does believe: that as a Pole he has been run through the wringer of 20th century European history, and that this is what differentiates him from the complacent Swiss.
The novel's only real dialogues take place in Kamil's inner pandemonium. These feature, most notably, the Black man who may have done in Irena Bem (he shows up in Geneva wearing his yellow scarf, and he looks at Ruth "brazenly, only blacks and Poles look at women like that, no one else is bold enough"), as well as Kamil's alter-ego "Schubert," an ex-Nazi whose very name evokes the ordered ideal of Europe that Kamil at once admires and despises. These figures make it clear that Self-Portrait is not the author's own archly veiled confession, but rather an attempt to echo the inner rumbling of a nation. The "self" around which it revolves is prone to generalizations and shows of provincial prejudice that are hard to reconcile with the persona of Andrzej Szczypiorski but easy to read as the unconscious of a humiliated country: the sense of martyrdom, the conviction of being misunderstood, even the implicit racism of seeing as one's mirror inverse that same Black man with the scarf.
[His] white teeth could be seen, he looked like a cannibal or a famous prophet, or a famous gangster, he'd suddenly acquired some sort of stateliness and foreignness.
This enigmatic person has perhaps killed Irena Bem. When he appears in Geneva, his intentions toward Ruth Gless are at least eroticized, if not overtly violent; in addition, he is depicted as sharing a sort of psychic union with Kamil, who in several instances has expressed a desire to kill Ruth and who certainly implies that he himself might have killed Irena. What does it mean, the implicit violence against an idealized femininity that lies at the heart of Self-Portrait with Woman?
One hint lies in the word "woman" -- and not "women" -- that is used in the novel's title. Another classically Polish theme is that the national soul is a bruised beauty whose favors are granted to the (usually male) writer only at the cost of pain and heartbreak. In Self-Portrait, all Kamil's women share an ultimate unavailability. He can have as many women as he wants, but never, it seems, the one metaphysical "woman" he knows it is his birthright to possess.
If Mrs. Seidenman was the testament of the war generation, aware of good and evil but painfully conscious of the danger implicit in binding oneself too closely to either, and if Arras was the picture of a people that had sunk so profoundly as to feel regret for the almost-honest betrayals of the Second World War, when at least one was killed under an open sky, then Self-Portrait expresses a condition beyond even these. The novel's absent center, the "woman" of its title, is Poland's bruised and absent soul.
In Self-Portrait with Woman, Kamil does find a brand of closure. Having lost touch with Poland's soul, he casts in his lot with Ruth, the ersatz soul of Western Europe. Read The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman and A Mass for Arras, Szczypiorski seems to be implying, to see what it is like when everyone is trying to drain the spirit out of you; read Self-Portrait to find out what it is like when that spirit is finally drained.