Conrad Aiken, Novelist

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Novels written by poets offer a special sort of pleasure. Let’s leave aside the question of whether certain writers – Lawrence Durrell, say, or Michael Ondaatje – are more properly thought of as poets or novelists (novelists probably, based on reputation), or if there’s any pressing reason to class them as one or the other. In fact there’s always been considerable overlap between the two. Rilke wrote one novel, as did Allen Tate. Philip Larkin wrote a pair. Robert Penn Warren made several entries in both categories, as has Wendell Berry. The longer the list grows, the more names I feel compelled to include – William Carlos Williams, Leonard Cohen, even more contemporary genre-hoppers like Ben Lerner. It’s worth noting that these books are almost all in print.

Conrad Aiken’s novels haven’t enjoyed the same fate. Aiken was highly regarded as a poet – Pulitzer Prize in 1930, National Book Award in 1954 – but his remarks in a 1963 interview (published in the Paris Review in 1968) suggest that regard didn’t fill his bank account. When asked why he made the shift to writing fiction, Aiken noted that, “No, it was almost wholly financial. Our income wasn’t quite sufficient, and I thought maybe if I could turn out some short stories, I could make a little money.” He was quickly disappointed on this score: “But of course that proved to be an illusion because the sort of stories I wrote could only be sold to things likeThe Dial or The Criterion, and I didn’t make any more than I would have out of poetry.” He did, however, find it rewarding as a writer. His five novels appeared in a single volume, The Collected Novels of Conrad Aiken. That was 1964. They’ve been out of print ever since.

If A Heart for the Gods of Mexico is any indication, it’s an unjust fate. It’s slim – just over 150 pages – without feeling slight, despite the simple conceit. The energetic opening scenes in which Blomberg accompanies his friend Key through a series of bars and eateries in hopes of borrowing money . Blomberg means to escort his dear friend Noni and her fiancé Gil on a train trip from Boston to Mexico. The catch is that Noni is dying of a heart condition, and that Gil ( for whom she has finally left her husband) is unaware of this looming fate. If it all sounds like a manipulative tearjerker-to-be, it’s not. Aiken’s touch is deft and sure.

His mission is not easy, obvious emotion. Instead he places the three in motion, aboard a series of trains southward. Their limited funds force them to forego sleeper cars, and Aiken captures the tedium and occasionally surreal feeling of the unending trek southward. He also turns his poet’s eye on the landscape. The results are admirable, as when the travelers visit the Mississippi during a break from the train:

And under the iron-dark structure of the elevated railroad, the very viaduct over which they had themselves slowly entered the city, they came to the wide granite-paved beach of the majestic river, walked slowly down to it. Like tide-marks left by the sea, lines of grey and withered flotsam – driftwood, barrel-staves, empty bottles, tin cans, slivers of wood silvered with age, peeled branches polished like horn, egg-shells, orange-peels – marked the many levels at which during the winter the great river had stood. An enormous beach; against which the dark water slid with sleepy power, the brown eddies moving swiftly downstream as they coiled sparkling in the sunlight. A little way upstream, two river-boats rotted at a landing-stage, twin-smokestacked – the smokestacks with coronetted tops.

There are no reprieves when the trio reaches Mexico. Noni is on her way out, and no change of scenery can help. They take a house and engage a local couple, Josefina and Pablo, to handle day-to-day matters during their stay. The plot resolves in a storm, and a violent fight between Josefina and Pablo, events during which Noni passes away. It’s somehow a relief, perhaps because it breaks the tension brought by Blomberg and Noni sharing the secret of her grave illness.

A Heart for the Gods of Mexico adds dimension our understanding of Aiken as a writer, whatever his original intent in turning to prose fiction. As a standalone volume, it’s both rare and expensive, but the 1964 edition of his collected novels is available for under twenty dollars.

– John McIntyre

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