This morning I looked at the Saturday Review, read a few notices of recent books, not mine, and came up with the usual sense of horror. One should be a reviewer or better a critic, these curious sucker fish who live with joyous vicariousness on other men’s work and discipline with dreary words the thing which feeds them. I don’t say that writers should not be disciplined, but I could wish that the people who appoint themselves to do it were not quite so much of a pattern both physically and mentally.
I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic.
Time is the only critic without ambition.
Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.
From John Steinbeck’s 1969 interview in The Paris Review.
There’s a piece today in Salon about Michiko Kakutani taking up her favorite verb “limn” again. Thrilling stuff, I know, but it recalled to me this list compiled in Harper’s eight years ago by Christian Lorentzen of Kakutanis’ use of “limn” (the Harper’s bit is not mentioned in the Salon article) —
Limn an entire life in a couple of pages
Limn the trajectory of an entire life in a handful of pages
Limn the suffocating atmosphere of small-town life and the alienation experienced by those who defy its provincial mores
Limn the last days of an alcoholic frontierswoman living in a small western town
Limn a man’s sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss–all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor
Limn his inner life or probe the sources of his equipoise
Limn the inner life of people, surprised by the deceptions of time
Limn, with tenderness, wisdom, and humor, a vast array of human relationships, both straight and gay
Limn the rituals of hunting, trapping, planting, and canning with a wry mixture of amusement and respect
Limn the daily minutiae of life
Limn the human condition
Limn the complicated emotional geometry
Limn the delicate geometry of emotions
Limn a marriage of enduring passion and shared ideals
Limn Willy’s fears of losing Biff’s love and his own longings for immortality
Limn the brutal, perilous, and harrowing art of killing a forty-ton creature with a hand-thrown weapon
Limn some of its burgeoning manifestations
Limn the social and geopolitical fallout
Limn the surrealness of contemporary life
Limn the rhythms of the universe and an artist’s inner state of mind
Limn a future in which Pop Art gives way to Poll Art
Limn the nervous, almost flirtatious banter
Limn a hero’s efforts to achieve self-understanding
Limn girls’ secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual-revolution world
Limn the dangers posed by emerging diseases
Limn the spiritual yearnings and dislocations of an entire nation as it lurched from the certainties of the World War II years toward the confusions of the 1970s
Limn the irrationalities of history
Limn the impermanence–and emotional chaos–that threatens to overwhelm ordinary people
Limn the fabulous
Limn the ordinary with seeming nonchalance
Limn this deeply felt, if somewhat limited, theme with clarity and moral vigor
From Roberto Bolaño’s July, 2003 interview with Mexican Playboy, collected in The Last Interview and Other Conversations—
Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.
James Wood, writing about Virginia Woolf in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” (collected in The Broken Estate)–
Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a “great reviewer.” The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.
Wood’s description of Woolf is really Wood’s description of Wood.
The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.
Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.
Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:
This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.
This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).
The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.
If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.
Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.
American critic John Leonard died of lung cancer last Wednesday. From The New York Times obituary:
John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .
As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.
Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.
Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.
I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.