Thursday, July 23, 2009

John Clare: A Biography, by Jonathan Bate

I've gobbled up dozens of literary biographies since college without ever encountering anything that seemed like a great book. The genre seems to attract writers who, despite their intelligence and doggedness and appreciation for the subject, are usually just too ordinary to have much insight into extraordinary talent. (Richard Holmes is a semi-exception.) But I keep reading them, and lately I’ve come to appreciate them more as anthologies: selections of illuminating excerpts by great authors and the people who knew them, with passages of relevant context.

Like a good anthology, I think a real biography should be long. Slimmer, supposedly "readable" biographies seem to be coming into fashion, but there is nothing less interesting than the bare details of a writer’s life; the best stuff will always be on paper, and if someone is worth writing about at all, she will have hundreds of interesting pages tucked away – letters, journals, stray articles, juvenilia, bits of table talk preserved by other people. So why not overstuff? The best literary biography – which, full disclosure, I have never finished – is by general consensus The Life of Johnson because Boswell put in everything he could find (and perhaps went a little overboard).

Note: I do not mean overstuffed with the sort of minutiae that fills bad doorstop biographies, like the dates on which an author visited various people and what they ate and wore; I mean overstuffed with a writer’s words and conversation.

Jonathan Bate’s 600-page biography of Clare is, luckily, stuffed in the right way. Even when there is little solid information about a period of Clare's life, like his childhood, Bate quotes his poems and journal entries to create the necessary background (Clare loved cataloging village rituals and lore, and wrote some of his loveliest poems about his childhood games and wanderings). And when, in his 20s, Clare finally sets out to collect subscribers to publish his first little volume of poems, the book begins to soar, because Bate now has a wealth of writing to work with. We get more of Clare's verse, and selections from his wonderful letters and prose pieces, written in the headlong, unpunctuated, but beautifully precise manner he used throughout his life.

For those who have not had the pleasure, here is a sample of one of Clare's autobiographical pieces about his early attempts at writing:

I became fond of scribbling from down right pleasure in giving vent to my feelings and long and pleasing and painful were my struggles to acquire a sufficient knowledge of the written english before I could put down my ideas on paper even so as to understand myself but I mastered it in time sufficiently to be understood by others and then I became an author by accident and felt astonished when the critics became my friends that they should have noticed me at all — and no less supprised at the mistakes they uttered — that one should imagine I had read the old poets when such were as far from my access as earth from heaven and that others should imagine I had coined words which were as common around me as the grass under my feet — and all these were burning encouragements that made me work on — as to profits — the greatest profits most congenial to my feelings were the friends it brought me and the names that it rendered familiar to my fireside — scraps of whose melodys I had heard and read in my corner — but had I only imagined for a moment that I should hold communion with such hereafter that would have then been to me ‘as music in mourning’ — but I wrote because it pleased me in sorrow—and when I am happy it makes me more happy and so I go on.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but isn’t it difficult not to love this man? His voice comes across so clearly in his writing, so free of affectation and full of warmth, that one feels an immense affection for him that it's hard to feel for, say, Shelley. And throughout Clare’s life, people that met him felt the same way; even if they were patronizing or snobbish, they liked him and wanted to help him. A real intellectual collaboration developed between him and his early publishers, and Bate shows how important this literary society was for his artistic growth. And unlike the other great Romantics, Clare was greeted kindly by reviewers throughout his career, even if it was sometimes more for his up-from-nothing life story than his work.

After his first collection of poetry was published, Clare was the talk of the town for a few years, and Bate quotes extensively from his incisive pen portraits of the great figures of the age — Hazlitt, Lamb, de Quincey — whom he met during a handful of stays in London. Then comes the awful decline: money troubles, diminished sales, frequent drunkenness and womanizing, feelings of estrangement from his family, and growing mental instability, almost always dotted, however, with poems and prose sketches of extraordinary beauty and increasing mastery.

Bate is judicious: he isn’t so enamored with Clare that he overlooks his cruelty to his wife, his frequent irresponsibility, or the mess of barely legible manuscripts that he made his publishers wade through to cull individual volumes. Unfortunately, it is also around this point in the book that Bate feels the need to discuss the possible causes for Clare’s madness. Here is a sample of his reasoning:
Doctors often say that they can predict from an early age which of a group of children will have mental health problems later in life. It is usually the one who feels different: the misfit, the loner. Clare’s autobiographical writings reveal that he fell into this category. The hostility aroused by such a character in a small close-knit community led to village gossip that marked him out as too clever by half and likely to prove a lunatic. The sense of being a marked man made him feel more of an outsider and an oddity: the village prophecy that he would one day go mad contributed to its own fulfillment.
Isn’t there a whiff of the commonplace around this passage? Does Bate really think that such explanations — that he felt different from other people! — bring us any closer to understanding what happened to Clare? And this atmosphere — of reasonable intelligence coupled with a lack of imagination, of genuine love for the subject mixed with an inability to make any truly inspired acts of identification — hangs over even the best biographies I’ve read. These books are good at compiling and scene-sketching, but that deeper stab into the secret of an artist’s gift never seems to come; instead, we keep butting up against the biographer’s mundane attempts to "explain" the artist's personality.

Eventually, though, Bate has the good sense to give up on explanations. He simply quotes from the writing Clare did over his two decades in asylums: his poetry, his increasingly disordered journals, including some bizarre letters written in cipher, as well as visitors’ accounts of his behavior. Some of it is fascinating, since Clare was still capable of long periods of lucidity and inspiration, but as he becomes increasingly estranged from the things that once gave him joy – poetry, nature, his home, his family – it is mainly just heartbreaking.

Even with its desolate conclusion, though, Clare's life ends up feeling heroic instead of depressing. Few poets have done more with the talent given to them, and in the face of such obstacles. Robert Graves, who Bate quotes near the end of the book, comes closest to describing my feelings about Clare's work: "I find myself repeating whole poems of [his]," he wrote, "without having made a conscious effort to memorize them. And though it was taken as a symptom of madness that he one day confided in a visitor: ‘I know Gray — I know him well," I shall risk saying here, with equal affection: ‘I know Clare; I know him well.’" When you read his work, he always seems to be walking next to you, pointing out hundreds of things that you'd never noticed before or realized were beautiful; and while other poets shout and sing, conscious of their audience, and some seem to be whispering entirely to themselves, Clare is one of the rare ones who speaks to you in his ordinary voice, naturally, as one friend to another.

The best volume of his I have found is the Oxford Major Works, which contains poems along with prose sketches and a few letters. If you end up loving his work as much as I do, you’ll want to read Bate’s book, which does the things that a biography can manage to do, and does them well enough for me to be grateful.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Human Smoke, by Nicholson Baker

Nothing makes people angrier than to have an author take away one certainty without replacing it with another. This is only explanation I can think of for the brutality of some of the reviews of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, his pointillist account of the beginning of World War II. I picked the book up from the remaindered table knowing nothing about it, although I enjoyed The Mezzanine a great deal when I read it years ago. And I was curious about the blurbs on the back of Human Smoke, one of which described it as possibly "the most compelling argument for peace ever assembled."

"Assembled" is right (although "argument" is a tougher issue) -- the book consists of vignettes, usually no more than half a page long and often drawn from newspapers as well as famous and not-so-famous memoirs. Each vignette contains an account of some event -- Albert Speer taking his father on a tour of some insane proposed Nazi architectural projects, or the trials of conscientious objectors from various countries -- along with a line stating the date on which the event occurred. Authorial comment is virtually absent, and Baker insisted in an interview with Charlie Rose, somewhat disingenuously, that his opinions are nowhere in the book.

I suspect that most people will react to Human Smoke the way I did. In the beginning, maybe the first 50 pages, it was thrilling, compulsive reading; points of detail appeared one after another, each marking off a little area of the world around the time of the war, a net closing in around a huge school of fish. But deeper into the book, I started getting a little bored; the holes in the net were too huge to catch anything at all, and the pointillist method started to seem like an easy way to avoid making a coherent argument.

And Baker clearly does have some arguments, which he makes largely by juxtaposition. He shows how the people who were most aggressive and militaristic in their attitude to Nazi Germany -- Churchill, for example -- were also the least generous towards the Jews trying to get out and all of the other people who were clearly going to suffer the most because of the war, while the pacifists -- who are usually characterized as cowardly or entirely blind to the amorality of the Nazi regime -- were much more active in trying to help the people that needed it.

Second, he illustrates that the Allies -- and, again, Churchill in particular -- had a large role in escalating the brutality and aimlessness of the slaughter by beginning civilian bombing campaigns and making mass starvation part of their war strategy. And, in what is certainly the most controversial implication of the book, he indicates that these decisions may well have led the Nazis to escalate the program of extermination which they had always planned, but only as one of several possible options for ridding their territory of Jews and other undesirables.

I should say at this point that I don't have nearly enough knowledge of the era to judge any of these claims, and certainly not the last one. One of the reasons this book can be frustrating is that Baker doesn't lay out the facts in a comprehensive way, where you can either be positively convinced under the weight of evidence or angrily accuse him of an obvious omission. So it's hard to finish Human Smoke feeling like it was a real contribution to the history of the war.

But it does, I think, hammer a couple of useful chinks in the wall of moral certainty that surrounds WWII more than any other war. And eventually, after I recognized that the book's narrative method would prevent it from fulfilling certain desires, I began to appreciate the disorienting buzz that it captured, the sense of being a normal person living through these events, looking in the papers every day and wondering what in the world might happen next. Because Baker can see that this confusion is in some ways closer to the truth than the false clarity that comes with hindsight.

As a responsible writer, Baker even throws sand in the face of what are clearly some of his own moral convictions: he has a vignette where someone points out the absurdity of a pacifist response to the Nazis. And he has several conflicting accounts of the Nazis plans for the Jews -- deportation to Madagascar is one of them -- without providing any guidance on which ones were seriously considered. He acknowledges that the facts are simply a mess, that any comprehensive explanation requires that too much be left out.

In the end, you simply don't know how the war could have been best fought (although clearly everyone should have been more generous to the refugees). Uncertainty is obviously one of Baker's goals, the one that I'm guessing has made several reviewers so angry, partially because it makes their job harder. Many of them have decided that Baker is making a simple case for pacifism, or arguing that the Allies were partially responsible for the Holocaust, neither of which he is actually doing. But these straw men are simple ways to dismiss the book, or at least to deal with it quickly.

In any case, although I wasn't hugely impressed, I'm glad I read it. If nothing else, there are dozens of fascinating details, and you make the acquaintance of several intelligent and inspiring men -- Mihail Sebastian, for example, and Victor Klemperer, whose diaries I both want to read now. And it makes the point, which somehow never stops needing to be made, that one should be suspicious of the humanitarian impulses of leaders who are willing to drop bombs on other people's cities and kill whoever happens to be around.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism, by Joan Acocella

Willa Cather is an easy writer to undervalue. I’ve noticed, over the years, that many of the people who express admiration for her books (which I recommend often) are the sort of people who don’t usually read “serious” novels. Even in 7th grade, when I first read My Àntonia, I remember thinking, excellent, she doesn’t make you work too hard – and hard work and confusion, I assumed, for quite a long time, were the signs of a really great book. Cather, though, tends to make it clear enough what effect she’s aiming for: her symbols are monumental and apparently obvious, and when she has an idea, she doesn’t try to conceal it in some elaborate way; she tells you as clearly and gracefully as she can. Her books often feel artlessly constructed: one scene after another, and stories that seem inserted wherever the author felt like it.

But when I finished My Àntonia, all those years ago, and began the usual, unconscious process of assimilating the novel into my way of looking at the world, it stopped seeming so simple. There was something dark there that wouldn’t spread itself thin in my imagination and disappear. So I read the book again, several years later, and never felt like I was covering old ground, the simplest test of a classic. And as I read Cather’s other great books – A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, her short stories and essays – the outlines of a disturbing vision became apparent. Most of them are stories of disappointment, where everything good has already happened – and where hope for anything but a deeper appreciation of the past seems destined for failure.

Joan Acocella, in her wonderful little book on Cather and her critics, identifies this vision more precisely than I’d ever been able to manage myself: “Each of the four novels [from My Àntonia to Death Comes for the Archbishop],” she writes, “makes the same point: to desire something is to have as much of it as you will probably ever have.” Proust, Acocella points out, on the other side of the ocean, had a similar insight, and spent many more pages – wonderful pages – laying it out.

It is an insight, though, that it is difficult not to eventually rebel against, especially when an author insists too much: insists, for example, that mature romantic love is largely a lie, that most of our deepest feelings for other people are fantasies spun out by the imagination – and are, in fact, somehow more beautiful for being self-created, since this means we might actually be able to hold on to them. There can be something sickly and self-defeating about this outlook, and I got annoyed about halfway through Cather’s bitter, accomplished novella, My Mortal Enemy, which I wrote about a few years ago.

In Cather’s greatest books, however, the vision is bracing and honest – there is a convincing world on the page that gives the philosophy life. Each of these books is, in Cather’s own wonderful description of Norris’s McTeague, as “disagreeable as only a great piece of work can be.” Disagreeable in its deeper implications, I mean, but still filled with beauties, because Cather’s outlook is entirely compatible with humor and an appreciation of the world – especially the natural world – and its gifts.

As Acocella discusses, Cather has been ill-served by critics since the beginning. She never dealt explicitly with the concerns – political, economic, feminist, and now sexual – that serious, committed people, in various eras, wanted her to deal with. And so she was patronized, given faint praise, and occasionally condemned. In recent years, critics have started taking her very seriously indeed, but only because it has been decided (admittedly, with some evidence) that she was a lesbian, and so everything she wrote – as an outpouring of subconscious, repressed desires – has become relevant in the right ways.

Acocella makes these academics look pretty silly, but that isn’t too hard to do – all you have to do is quote, after all – and I became a little impatient with this part of the book, because I just don’t believe that these professors make much of a difference to ordinary readers. The majority of the book, luckily (minus a short, interesting biography), is simply an appreciation of Cather’s work, the best I have ever read. We have so little decent criticism in America that it’s easy to forget how useful and even stirring a real reading of great work can be.

Acocella looks closely at individual passages and shows how tightly knit they are, despite the illusion of artlessness - and manages to convey a sense of joy at getting closer to the source of their power. And she doesn’t treat the books as closed systems – networks of imagery and language that refer only to themselves – but as arguments for a way of looking at the world. She teases the author’s changing vision and its contradictions out of the books, and looks at it seriously for its value as a philosophy of life. You get the sense that she believes that how you read a book is a matter of genuine consequence. Her criticism – even her dance criticism, which I’ve read despite my complete lack of interest in dance – is consistently excellent, and her recently published collection of essaysis entirely worth reading.

As for Cather, I think she’s one of America's best writers – up there with Melville and Twain as a writer of imaginative prose. Until recently, I’d never realized just how much great writing she produced. Apparently she only allowed one of her stories, “Paul’s Case,” to be anthologized, but there are dozens of others, virtually unknown, that are just as great, and her essays in Not Under Forty, along with many of her reviews – which, by the way, show sparks of genius even when Cather was in her mid-20s – are all worth owning. The good people at the Library of America have put out a volume called Stories, Poems, and Other Writings,which has been a real education for me. I recommend it to everyone, along with Acocella’s book.