Commentary Magazine


Some Recent Novels

Fiction and “Literature”

The Dark Arena.
by Mario Puzo.
Random House. 308 pp. $3.50.

A Ghost at Noon.
by Alberto Moravia.
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. 309 pp. $3.50.

A World of Love.
by Elizabeth Bowen.
Knopf. 244 pp. $3.50.

The Innocent Sailor.
by Anne de Tourville.
Farrar, Straus & Cudahy. 309 pp. $3.50.

The Trap.
by Dan Jacobson.
Harcourt, Brace. 122 pp. $2.95.

 

The constant struggle in so-called creative writing is between fiction and “literature,” or imagination and conformity. “Literature”—or The Same As Before—nearly always wins, unfortunately, and then, putting that book down, we all lean back in disappointment and boredom and wonder when the real thing will come along. I may be a pessimist, but I have begun to suspect that “literature” has just about won the battle for keeps. For what started out, centuries ago, as a means of extending the reader’s (or listener’s) vision and experience, and heightening his total sense of awareness, has become, except in the rarest cases, dead repetition, “art,” or out-and-out journalism.

These five recently published novels illustrate my points.

We can begin with the real beginner of the group, Mario Puzo. In his first novel, The Dark Arena, Puzo tells the story of an ex-GI who, out of an inability to adjust to civilian life back in the States, returns to Germany and the inevitable sensitive, tragic girl friend of the occupied country, and tries to make a go of things there among the ruins, both animate and inanimate. I am not entirely certain that by now this familiar “idea,” or situation, can be brought to life, or made fictionally valid, even by a first-rate talent. But in Puzo’s writer’s-workshop hands, it becomes a bleak homage to every literary and middlebrow cliché imaginable. In fact, I had the surrealistic feeling at times that I was really reading an example of automatic group writing, with the participants—Alfred Hayes, Hemingway, Remarque, Irwin Shaw—dreamily pouring out their simplest and cheapest images of pseudo-experience.

I tried in vain to discover Puzo in all this. Certainly something must have happened to him—the book seems to be more or less autobiographical—that was unique and had nothing to do with literary notions and poses. Somewhere in himself he must really be himself, not a fantasy identification. If so, he is certainly keeping it a secret. Why do beginning writers like Puzo allow themselves to be buffaloed by standard performances, to a point where it would have been just as easy for them never to have undergone their original “experience” and, instead, have written their book in the library after a little research? Maybe the simple answer is they don’t have any talent in the first place. Again, I suspect that the fear of “not making it” is so intense among young writers that before they even allow themselves to react, say, to a given situation or stimulus, they first check it in their minds with something they read, to be sure that it is all right.

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Alberto Moravia has become one of the world’s slickest literary writers. He publishes book after book and seems to have an endless source of material for his novels—confessions of whores, love-sick little boys, feeble, degenerate aristocrats, etc. In spite of all this, I have never been quite convinced that he is a genuine fiction writer, or even really feels content with the medium. He has always seemed torn between making intellectual statements and inventing dramatic situations, to the eventual enfeeblement of both. This latest book of his, A Ghost at Noon, though it is executed with what is termed “literary skill,” is a perfect example of this ambivalence, and as a result the reader is left with a dazed, cheated feeling.

Using the first-person technique (which here lacks so much immediacy as actually to seem third person), Moravia lets us in on a domestic tragedy: a serious writer becomes a movie hack and in the general process loses the love and respect of his simple-type wife, who finally is attracted to her husband’s brutal employer. This could be very interesting, as plots go, but Moravia, the ill-at-ease imaginer, insists on delivering long speeches about the complexities of life and love (as if everybody doesn’t already know them for himself) and then goes to the length of dragging in a peculiar mythical parallel with the Ulysses-Penelope story, to give his own story more “depth” and “meaning,” I suppose. But all it really does is tire you and at the same time make you suspect Moravia was simply evading the fiction writer’s primary responsibility of inventing his own “myth.” I don’t think Moravia has one; in its place he has technique. And what could be more journalistic?

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Of all contemporary English writers—include the Americans too, if you like—the one most flagrantly guilty of what may be called the “vanity of sensibility” is Elizabeth Bowen. In her work “sensibility” tends to become a sly substitute for thought, talent, story, imagination—in short, everything that truly creative writing is supposed to have to start with. There is no doubt that Miss Bowen has talent as a fiction writer (though I don’t feel a very large one, or a very “pertinent” one) but her urge to display her sensibility makes reading her a chore. Novel writing was never meant to take the place of poetry or painting or music, but Miss Bowen won’t concede this.

A World of Love is a pretty flimsy story to begin with: two women can’t seem to live very successfully in the present because of the memory of a dead man whom they both loved. Then there is a hummingbird-acting young girl who slowly discovers herself, in some vague way, and who suddenly falls in love in the very last sentence in the book. Love is all over the place, in the honeysuckle, in old letters, in half-hidden smiles, in cocktail glasses. But is this enough for a novel?

All of the faults of this kind of writing are carried to a truly awesome height—or depth—by Anne de Tourville in her novel The Innocent Sailor, which was brought over from the French. Beyond this point it is impossible to go (I hope). Sensibility and artiness and pseudo-magic—or literature—that is what the novel actually is about, and not, as the jacket copy would have you believe, a lusty wandering sailor and his wondrous exploits. He is just an excuse to get the other stuff oozing out, but nothing lives.

I tried to understand what Miss de Tourville was talking about, in her almost free-associational way, and the only thing I could put my finger on was that she was attempting to dramatize, or re-create, certain regional myths, superstitions, or dreams. This is, of course, a very high-class literary and cultural idea. Unfortunately, it is also dead, phony, and the antithesis of real art. You ask yourself, then, why does such stuff get published in this country, where even local, familiar fiction is, nearly all of it, a financial risk to publish? The depressing answer must be that a lot of people in publishing are still frightened out of their judgment by anything European that looks like culture.

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Dan Jacobson’s short first novel, The Trap, is by far the most enjoyable (which is what fiction is supposed to be, incidentally), least depressing book of the lot. But even Jacobson, a lyrically gifted writer, seems to have been slightly victimized, or befuddled, by literary notions and goals. The Trap centers around a well-meaning, but stupid young South African Dutch farmer and two Kaffir Negroes who work for him. He is duped by one of them—a scheming, obsequious foreman—into kicking the other one—a mild, childlike drunk—off his farm by the lying accusation that the man is a menacing homosexual. Bad luck, more betrayal, violence follow in the wake of this stupid act.

For the most part Mr. Jacobson (whose short stories were first published in this country by COMMENTARY) is original and impressive. He moves in this short form with ease (not glibness) and authority, and he manages throughout to impart a delicate nasty suspense and surprise to the story without resorting to cheap tricks. He makes you feel the newness of his talent. But at a certain point he loses himself in literary conventions. His descriptive writing, which in a small quantity is sharp and communicative, is overdone and distracting and, finally, arty. (It seemed at times that Georgia O’Keefe was directing his pencil.) He seems to be showing you how well he can write when this just isn’t necessary (he writes very well indeed). This tendency slows the true action—or feltness—down and gives the book an inauthentic, chic tone which is alien to Jacobson’s speed of vision.

Jacobson is such an interesting, assimilable talent that it is to be hoped that in his subsequent work he will discover himself “outside” literature, and come upon a way of expressing himself—or conveying his vision—that is truly fictional and not literary. To be sure, this is an extremely difficult thing to do these days—impossible for most people—but unless it is done, and unless one asks it of the few gifted writers around, creative fiction is kaput—as the other four novels here reviewed too amply demonstrate.

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