Novels and Other Writings by Nathanael West
Novels and Other Writings
by Nathanael West edited by Sacvan Bercovitch
Library of America. 829 pp. $35.00
At the time of his death in a car wreck in 1940, Nathanael West was thirty-seven years old and had written four short novels, a play, and a number of movie scripts. The novels had not sold, and the play closed after two performances. “I once tried to work seriously at my craft but was unable to make even the beginning of a living,” West (who was born Nathan Weinstein) wrote to the critic Edmund Wilson in 1939, explaining why he was then in Hollywood. But things were not so bad during the last few years of West’s life. He had his admirers—Wilson, William Carlos Williams, Aldous Huxley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald among them—and he was making enough money as a screenwriter to buy himself time to try his hand at another novel.
Then West ran a stop sign, and the novel never got written. As for the four that did, almost no one read them until they were reprinted in the late 1950’s, when they enjoyed a considerable success. West’s reputation has grown ever since, and it was inevitable that he should be marked with the sign of supreme native literary achievement and accorded a place in the Library of America. Sacvan Bercovitch, a professor of English at Harvard, has edited this volume, which fattens a slender accomplishment: besides the four novels, the book includes Good Hunting, a play about World War I; a screenplay, Before the Fact, which was extensively reworked by others and became the Hitchcock movie Suspicion; a couple of movie outlines; a handful of brief essays; some inane short stories; one of the silliest poems ever written by a grown man; and letters.
What makes West a classic, according to the Library of America’s publisher, Max Rudin, is that he is like us: “West’s blend of manic farce, despair, and compassion feels very contemporary, as does his fascination with the literary possibilities of pop culture.” To put it more bluntly and more precisely, vulgarity was the main theme of West’s writing. But it was also his medium. He wrote about emotional, moral, and spiritual coarseness, and, notwithstanding his considerable learning, style, and wit, he wrote about them coarsely.
West’s first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), is a work of the cloacal modernist imagination, and is almost unendurably bad. Balso, a poet, comes upon the Trojan horse and enters it by way of its anus, which proves to be the business end of Western civilization. A tour guide appears, points out “a beautiful Doric prostate gland swollen with gladness,” tells a dirty joke about Moses and the burning bush, and engages Balso in a burlesque debate that touches upon Picasso, William James, C.M. Doughty, George Moore, Alphonse Daudet, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Henri Bergson, and Paul Cézanne. There is plenty more of this sort of thing; even at 50 pages, Balso Snell is far too long.
A Cool Million (1934) is about twice that length, and no less excruciating. Debunking what he sees as the insidiously vulgar American myth of success (as typified by the tales of Horatio Alger), West makes it out to be the sinister work of homegrown fascists. The smalltown innocent Lemuel Pitkin heads off to New York City to make his fortune. While chasing his star, Lemuel proceeds to lose his teeth, an eye, a thumb, a leg, his scalp, and finally his life when he is gunned down by a nefarious fat man who works for both Wall Street and Moscow. Norman Mailer once observed that the novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote like the smartest fifteen-year-old ever; in this antically trifling novel, West writes like a fourteen-year-old, and neither writer nor reader knows, to quote Mae West, just whom is fooling whom.
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) is a much better book, although it too suffers from an irony that cannot stop itself. The title character, a young New York newspaperman who writes an advice column, finds himself overwhelmed by the pain of the people who appeal to him: a girl born without a nose, a boy whose deaf-and-dumb sister has been molested, a woman afraid that her eighth pregnancy will kill her. The compassion Miss Lonelyhearts feels for these broken in spirit is ardent but impotent. He has nothing to give but platitudes of self-help and chipper uplift.
Walking the streets, Miss Lonelyhearts perceives that what modernity offers the suffering is not genuine hope but vulgar distraction. At last, alone in bed, burning with fever, he looks at the crucifix on his wall, and God’s mind and heart become transparent to him. But just at that moment a cripple whose wife Miss Lonelyhearts has slept with comes looking for him. Miss Lonelyhearts, who does not see the gun the man is concealing, believes that this is the occasion for him to perform a miracle. “He would embrace the cripple and the cripple would be made whole again, even as he, a spiritual cripple, had been made whole.” The cripple runs from him; he catches the cripple; the gun goes off; Miss Lonelyhearts goes down.
In this book West knows the world he writes of, and he portrays its moral grotesquerie with wicked panache. That, however, is faint praise. Miss Lonelyhearts’s religious experience, which is not complete without his meaningless death, is reminiscent of the deathbed vision that Flaubert’s dimwitted Félicité enjoys in the story Un coeur simple (“A Simple Heart”): she sees hovering above her like the Holy Spirit her beloved stuffed parrot. But West is grimmer than Flaubert; not only does he deny Miss Lonelyhearts a true conversion, he does not even let him get away with the consolation of a false one. The deadpan, wised-up tone invests the ending with a contemptuous despair, as the fantastic hopes of an addled piety turn out to be no match for the brute facts of the dead world. In sum, Miss Lonelyhearts is like a very long and very good sick joke, told by a well-dressed man in a voice of unusual refinement.
The Day of the Locust (1939) is widely regarded as the best novel ever written about Hollywood, and it probably is, although one wishes one could think of a better. West captures the celebrated, by now clichéd, unreality that pervades a place where insurance salesmen dress like mountaineers and switchboard operators like tennis players; a house is not just a home but “a miniature Rhine castle with tar-paper turrets pierced for archers”; a silent movie queen turned madam likes to talk to her clients about Gertrude Stein and Juan Gris; and an eight-year-old child actor sings the blues with writhing buttocks and “a top-heavy load of sexual pain” in his voice.
West’s eye for the physically and spiritually misshapen finds plenty to keep itself occupied in this book. His protagonist, Tod Hackett, a Yale-educated painter who works as a set and costume designer, becomes fascinated by the grim-visaged people who “had come to California to die.” Although Tod regards Goya and Daumier as his artistic masters, his preoccupations, and West’s, make one think above all of George Grosz in the waning days of Weimar Germany: in the teeming malignity of Grosz’s crowds, one sees the model for the mob that, in the novel’s apocalyptic last chapter, runs amok at a movie premiere and mauls a man who has stomped on the singing child actor.
West’s description of what it is like to be engulfed by that mob is harrowingly brilliant, but his account of what animates it is notably wanting. As he sketches the worshipers at some preposterous Hollywood church, Tod reflects that those who had come to California to die “had it in them to destroy civilization.” But what of those who provided them with their fantasies?
Almost entirely absent from The Day of the Locust are the screenwriters, directors, producers, and studio heads who in their own, civilized way were the ones doing the real destroying. West knew that world, or certain precincts of it anyway, well enough to write about it tellingly. Perhaps out of cowardice, he missed a great opportunity.
With the benefit of hindsight, one also sees something factitious about West’s scenario of pandemonium. In his caricatures of bourgeois proto-Nazis, George Grosz was depicting people who would in fact destroy civilization; West only thought he was doing the same thing. His protagonist, thinking about the canvas he is at work on, “The Burning of Los Angeles,” has his doubts about whether the people he is painting really are mad or desperate enough to burn down a city; but then he thinks some more, and concludes that there will, indeed, be civil war, beginning in L.A. Although he tells himself his work will be judged not as prophecy but as painting, nevertheless he relishes “the role of Jeremiah.”
West, too, relished that role, and thought that his art divined the dire fate of America. Fortunately for America, it did not. Even in West’s best work, the heart of the matter eluded him, and he contented himself with an essentially vulgar understanding of vulgarity. A prophet who got it wrong, he enjoys too much honor in his own country.