Commentary Magazine


The Benefactor, by Susan Sontag; and Nickel Miseries, by Ivan Gold

A Survey of Recent Fiction

The Benefactor.
by Susan Sontag.
Farrar, Straus & Company. 274 pp. $430.

Nickel Miseries.
by Ivan Gold
Viking. 224 pp. $3.95.

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Susan Sontag and Ivan Gold have in common their birth in New York within a year of each other and their very considerable gifts as writers. These gifts result in such radically different kinds of fiction that I thought their mere juxtaposition would make a sufficiently interesting thesis, without further elaboration by me.

If Susan Sontag, in her first novel, The Benefactor, has written a Marius the Epicurean for the 1960′s, it must be said that she has done so with a rapt and thorough awareness of what she was about. And also with an even-tempered, cheerful, business-like candor. Anyone who knows the brilliant ancestry of this kind of novel (see the chapter “Axel and Rimbaud” in Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle) will appreciate how well she has adapted her sources to her own temper and how right she was to paraphrase and allegorize this background into dream and aphorism, to avoid assigning Hippolyte, her Des Esseintes-type narrator, any literary ambitions, and, finally, to avoid falling into the high vatic style of late 19th-century reactionary aestheticism, even by way of parody. She is also to be commended for having resisted the going version of the Tragic View of Life, so quickly recognized by alumni of Hum. 2a and, in most cases, as quickly forgotten.

The Benefactor is an intricate, ambitious fantasia on themes suggested by European literary modernism roughly up to and including Simone Weil (her speculations on grâce and pesanteur) and Jean Genet (his deliberate choice of inauthenticity as a pretext for action in a hypocritical world) as seen through the eyes of someone deeply committed to the philosophical and psychological premises of the “cool” world of the 60′s, European and American. (I mean the word in no derogatory sense.) Not the mores or the latest jargon, but the idea and essence of the Cool is what she is after; her narrator’s crisis straddles the war-time 40′s, but she herself is closer in spirit to Robbe-Grillet and Uwe Johnson than to Weil or Genet. It is the prosy, circumstantial deliberateness of what might easily have been merely another flashy exercise in neo-surrealism that strikes one at first. Hence the peculiarly neutral “translator’s English” of her by no means dull prose and her oddly spotty documentation, meticulous in many details, wholly vague in others. The novel, indeed, is very American in its combination of bookishness, philosophical literalness, and moral hypochondria. No concert of styles and jokes, like Lolita, but a highly sober, imaginative investigation of the conceivable roots of inaction.

Hippolyte, a Parisian rentier who cultivates his dreams until they merge with his dreamlike waking life, like the good existentialist he is, turns Descartes upside down: “Only because I existed—in other words, thought—did the problem of certitude arise. To reach certitude is to learn that one does not exist.” But Hippolyte’s existentialism is only a stage in Miss Sontag’s quest for the surest foundations of the Cool; her novel, like Pound’s engagement with Confucius, is a dramatic meditation on the nature of equilibrium, the Confucian “unwobbling pivot”; in other words, on the positive resources of phlegm. And it is elegiac because science and politics are left out.

As fictional realism of the Mailer, Baldwin, and Heller variety gives itself up to ever subtler ramifications and involutions of conscience, there is much to be said for so uncompromising an antidote as The Benefactor especially when written by a woman; for if the realists shortchange anything, it is usually the “feminine” principle of Sufficient Reason. The good-hearted whores and noble companionships of their quasi-military world are not much less abstract, in the last analysis, than Miss Sontag’s dream figures out of Kafka and Cocteau. They have, certainly, the gathered force that comes of swimming with the current, while Miss Sontag has much more self-justification to engage in before she can acquire any substance or momentum at all. But her critique of the “European” inversions of humanitarian realism, that so often lurk like a secret vice in the shadows of our breeziest American realism, is both affectionate and skeptical. Her hero is feminine without effeminacy, in the continental tradition, and a quite vigorous raisonneur. She assaults him with every temptation and every conventional surrogate for Fulfillment—sadism, egotism, inversion, insanity, promiscuity, bourgeois marriage, and gratuitous social service—bringing him through diminished but relatively intact: “You may imagine me in a bare room”—the novel’s last lines—“bundled in many sweaters, my feet near the stove, my black hair turning grey, enjoying the waning tribulations of subjectivity and the repose of a privacy that is genuine.” Voilà que j’ai touché l’automne des idées! Perhaps only a very young novelist could compose this elegy with such gentle and playful solemnity. Certainly few have known more clearly what they were leaving behind.

Nickel Miseries is also a first book, a collection of two novellas and three short stories, by a Columbia graduate for whom Lionel Trilling has predicted a future as “one of the commanding writers of our time.” After three readings of the book over a period of months, I see no reason to quarrel with Trilling. Gold has unusual power, extraordinary finesse, and an ease, a breadth, and subtlety of feeling that remind one of early Faulkner. But I must admit that as a hardened reader of fiction, especially the sort that yields up most of its essence on a first reading, I resisted not only the inevitable blurbs of Trilling and Mark Van Doren, presumably his teachers, but also the whole Faulknerian ambience, that fairly leaps at you from the page, of neatly plotted violence, army low life, exotic whorehouses, and diagrammatic social significance. Italicized inner monologue, frightful sex, smashing fists, poetic desolation—on a hasty reading it all looked too much like another standard product of that Midwestern Faulkner factory where James Jones cut his teeth.

But I was quite spectacularly wrong, and offer my experience as another homily on the extrinsic value of time in the mundane career of any good art. It is easy to forget that when a good novelist makes “his own world,” he also sets his own pace by an infinite variety of subtle adjustments, and that the growing obliquity or eccentricity of fiction in the 20th century virtually guarantees a distinct new tempo for each new writer of any stature. Ivan Gold’s stories are deceptive because they follow, to the edge of parody, the conventions of the well-made story as taught in the fiction workshops; the “closed” story, in other words, where irony and coincidence help each other, pari passu, up the ladder to Vision, and where our interest in the characters is exhausted by the action; the beau idéal of contemporary naturalism.

But a peculiar thing happens in these stories. You swallow the violence—Bobbie Bedmer’s one hundred sixty-fold rape in “A Change of Air,” the Negro Pfc.’s crucifixion in “The Nickel Miseries of George Washington Carver Brown,” the smashing of the narrator’s face by a madman in “All You Faceless Voyagers,” sundry other crashes, smashes, and fornications in the two Japanese stories—you acknowledge what Trilling calls “the bold originality of [the fiction's] moral conception”; namely, that Gold will yield to absolutely nobody in his insistence on the possible grimness of things—and then you suddenly find yourself caught by a current that flows just under the surface of these all-too-recognizable conventions ; you realize that this skeleton of horror and grimness, essential and edifying as it is, can be provisionally forgotten and the stories read again for their amazing fullness of life, only for this, as one can read Gogol and Chekhov. The tempo is much slower and more expansive than it appears at first.

In the Negro crucifixion story, for instance, there is an Italo-American sergeant, Divino, who acts as the real pivot of feeling, whose humor and humanity would carry any story. He has no authority over the harried victim and plays no obvious role in the moral dialogue. But he is one of Gold’s happiest successes, a vessel of the complex “horizontal” play of emotion in these otherwise fiercely “vertical” stories. The most ambitious of the novellas, “Taub East,” concerns the futile efforts of a fat, ugly, priggish young Jewish cantor to scratch up a minyan, the “ten-man cachet,” for his services at an American army base at Hara, the Japanese town where Fenollosa was buried. As a foil to Taub and his hyper-Jewishness, Gold gives us a chronic Pfc. and elderly delinquent called Popkin, whose only motive for attending services is to keep tabs on his pretty Japanese shack-up, Reiko. To say that every flicker of pathos and humor is extracted from this situation, which is true, is still to be unprepared for Gold’s gratuitously wonderful Japanese whores and their surgical use of GI smut. James Jones never had an ear like this. Atmosphere nearly overwhelms the fable.

The precocity of the balance that Gold strikes in his first book between the formal requirements of storytelling and the sense of life that provides continual pleasure and surprise, once you have measured his stride, makes his future secure.

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About the Author




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