Commentary Magazine


Past Eve and Adam's, by Thomas F. Curley; and An Answer from Limbo, by Brian Moore

Two Novels

Past Eve and Adam’s.
by Thomas F. Curley.
Atheneum 365 pp. $5.95.

An Answer from Limbo.
by Brian Moore.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 322 pp. $5.00.

The novel, which was once concerned with a diagnosis of society, has more and more come to be a cure the physician prescribes for himself. Novels, in other words, which used to be about other people, are increasingly these days about the artist. The artist as hero and/or victim, the intellectual as moral arena or political intersection, the professor as cul de sac—such are the disaffiliated, self-conscious characters who inhabit these all but solipsistic works of fiction. In them the situation of the imagination itself has become more significant than the discoveries it was once expected to make about the world. The artist in action replaces the artist as instigator of action; his own existence becomes the subject of his work, instead of its impetus. The writer is trapped in a mirror and the result is that his erstwhile quarry—the mysterious beasts circling beyond his net (other people, in short)—is never quite captured.

Thomas Curley and Brian Moore both aspire to shatter the mirror, though by different means. Curley is trying to do three things at once: to explore and fix the relations of the past to the present, of the imagination to the spirit, and of the artist to the world. The attempt seems diffuse and over-ambitious, especially in contrast to Moore’s intense, swift shaft driven into his much narrower subject, which is neither more nor less than that staple of literature-about-literature, the danger a writer runs of losing his soul. But though the two books proceed quite differently, and though Curley’s central figure emerges in possession of his soul while Moore’s does not, the novels are not really that different. They are related by their failure, despite incidental accomplishments, to become independent, self-sustaining, unfettered works of the imagination, and this is because in the end both remain too near the data and mechanisms of the artist’s situation.

Their authors are related in more palpable ways. Both are knowing, sophisticated—up on the jargon, cultural catch-phrases, sexual mythology, and the tastes and odors of metropolitan crisis living. Each writes cleanly, although Moore is superior in verbal matters; he is incapable of such falls from literary grace—untypical as these might be—as Curley’s “a cold fury possessed him” or “I went down deeper and deeper into the sordid world of vice.” Both intersperse, like borrowed stars from the big leagues of this genre, major Jewish characters among their predominantly Irish ones. (Moore, who is from Ireland by way of Canada, handles yarmelke, nebbish, and “so eat a little” as though to the seder born; Curley, who is Irish by way of his ancestors, is only slightly less successfully ecumenical.) And finally both introduce, as a subsidiary element in their narratives, a Catholic presence which functions as dramatic agent, but never as a real source of engagement with religious matters.

“Will I be able to revenge myself on the past by transforming it into a world of words?” the twenty-nine-year-old novelist-cautionary figure of An Answer from Limbo asks himself. But he has been here seven years, an Irishman with an American, part-Jewish wife he met abroad, and that preliminary question is superseded by the broader dilemma of situation and identity. “The literary life in New York was a vast charade in which people pretended to be other than they were,” he reflects. “Their ambitions remained private fantasies: they had neither real beliefs nor the courage to implement them. Was I one of them?”

It is the fear that he may be, rather than any ineluctable creative summons, that drives him to finish his novel (characteristically, we are given no indication of what it contains nor any evidence that he is in fact a good writer) and to shepherd it toward publication. To do this he quits his job on a popular magazine, gets his wife to go back to work, and brings his aging mother over from Ireland to take care of their children. The consequences contain no trace of surprise: his book becomes his life, his wife in frustration enters into a degrading love affair, and his mother, a Catholic appalled by her son’s change of gods, dies a horrifying death which is a direct result of his self-absorption.

In the end he is forced to acknowledge that he is lost, having “altered beyond all self-recognition.” But it is precisely the weakness of the book that everything has been so strictly presaged, that his mutilation expresses less the free fate of a character in the imagination than a ritualistic act of exorcism on the part of his creator. It isn’t that such things don’t happen to writers; it is that what happens to writers is only in rare, highly symbolic cases as useful or interesting as what they tell us is happening to us.

_____________

 

Past Eve and Adam’s (the title is from Finnegans Wake) also suffers from an arranged resolution, an imposed destiny. Mr. Curley, in his attempt to understand the past as it shapes the present, has created three major characters who are made to divide among themselves, much too schematically, the possible range of attitudes and reactions. Philip Fay is a Catholic who is searching for his origins, Sid Stein is a Jew who is wholly contained in the present, and Gerald Weems is a Protestant for whom the past is a burden and an enemy. The first two are painters, the other a stockbroker; Fay and Stein are related through simple friendship, Fay and Weems through an involved history that includes Weems’s early love for Fay’s sister and an affair Fay’s father had with Weems’s aunt.

It is Fay’s search for the truth about his father, more particularly for the reasons behind his father’s hatred of him, that provides the novel with its plot and its momentum. The quest is an elaborate one, with many tangents and recoils, but its result is to leave Fay liberated and restored to life—he had been an alcoholic who lived by peddling his pornographic drawings—because he has learned that “facts, what exactly happened exactly when and exactly where, are not exact, are not even definitely there. . . . Facts are more unknowable than God.”

To be free of the tyranny of facts is, Curley implies, to be released into the spirit. For Fay, a mystical but non-practicing Catholic whom another character describes as a “holy fool,” the spirit can now manifest itself in his vocation as a painter. Stein, on the other hand, is a man whose art has always liberated him from the facts; he is a charming primitive who functions in the novel as a kind of “natural man,” for whom trials and struggles for identity are unnecessary. And finally there is Weems, the stockbroker, the non-artist whose life is entirely composed of facts and who therefore remains a victim of the past and of an identity that can never be replenished.

Curley has tried earnestly to make their story work, but though he succeeds along the way in producing moments of beauty and revelation, they are discontinuous and tend to sink back into the novel’s self-consciousness, its atmosphere of diagnosis and coerced meaning. “I wanted art to be in and of the world, and not in the realm of private myth,” Stein says at one point. What is wrong with Past Eve and Adam’s is that it lies somewhere between the two regions, repulsed by the one and mistrustful of the other.

_____________

 

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