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Literary Blog

Votaries of the Snake

The novelist Robert Cohen, whom I have described as perhaps the best prose stylist of any American now writing, pulls together his own entertaining thoughts on narrative style in “Going to the Tigers,” an essay in the latest issue of the Believer (h/t: Matt Hunte).

Cohen makes the case for prose that leaves “lyricism and shapeliness behind” — more Philip Roth and less John Updike. On one side is the American habit of “rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism” (represented in the American novel by Hemingway); on the other, an almost religious faith in language and its capacity to rival if not to replace the world. Sola lingua, the doctrine might be called, though Cohen doesn’t call it that (it’s represented in the American novel by Fitzgerald). Cohen recasts the antagonism as a “tug-of-war” — nouns and facts versus adjectives and beauty.

Much of what is now classified as “literary fiction” aspires to gasping beauty. Cohen has had enough, and he speaks for a lot of contemporary readers:

Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels.

He’s got a point. Here, for example, taken more or less at random, is a passage from Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning novel The Tiger’s Wife, which has been praised for its “weird beauty” and “luxuriant style.” The tiger has come to the grandfather’s village in an unnamed Balkan country:

Galina, meanwhile, had gone nervously about its business. The end of the year was marked with heavy snowstorms, knee-deep drifts that moved like sand in and out of doorways. There was a quiet, clotted feeling in the air, the electricity of fear. Snow had buried the mountain passes, and, with them, any news of the war. Somewhere nearby, high above them in the dense pine forests of Galina ridge, something large and red and unknown was stalking up and down and biding its time. They found evidence of it once — the woodcutter, reluctantly braving the undergrowth at the bottom of the mountain, had come across the head of a stag, fur matted and eyes gone white, the spinal column, like a braid of bone, rolling out gray along the ground — and this . . . sufficiently persuaded them against leaving the village.

Snowstorms like sandstorms! Clotted feeling! Twenty-five words on the head of a stag! Please don’t make me read any more! (Sorry, there’s another 228 pages to go.) And the overattentive prose does not even begin to address the “elaborate riddle and evasion” at the heart of Obreht’s novel: namely, how can the narrator describe in close-up detail things that she can only know at three removes, things that were not witnessed but only described to her grandfather, who was a small boy at the time?

A contemporary novelist can get away with “foregrounding the rendering” (as Cohen puts it) if and only if his prose style is the visible dance of his thought, if and only if the action of his novel is in the thought, and if and only if his thought is wild and wonderful. That is, only William Giraldi seems capable of writing like that at present.

Cohen prefers a “middle style” — halfway between an earth reduced to nouns and an empyrean clotted with adjectives (to pluck a word out of the air). “The middle style is clear, clear, clear,” J. V. Cunningham taught his classes on the history of criticism. Cohen goes further: what he has in mind is a writer’s “willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose” — all for the sake of loosening his tongue and saying at last what is on his mind.

Auden says somewhere that a writer must occasionally write badly in order to write well. I’ve always took him to mean that exactitude of statement, a stubborn devotion to truth, may occasionally require a writer to swear off elegance and roundness and the lilt of tender consolation. Cohen associates this variety of the middle style with Jewish writers: Philip Roth, of course, but also Leonard Michaels, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel. Non-literary Jews may “incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim.” The Jewish writers for whom he reserves praise, by contrast, are votaries of the snake. And Cohen himself is one of them.

If his own novels are not yet as entertaining as his prose, the reason is that he has not yet learned to trust his own irascibility, his aging impatience with literary politesse, his what-the-hell impulse to tell truth and shame the devil. On the evidence of his essay in the Believer, though, Robert Cohen’s next novel should be something special to read.