Elizabeth Harrower’s Third Act

This essay originally appeared in issue 93 (Summer 2014) of Brick Magazine. 

Writing, romantic notions hold, is a way of a life, an identity, a state of being. There is a degree of truth to these assessments. It’s also a job, and we’ve witnessed the retirements of three major writers in recent years. In late 2012, when Philip Roth told the French magazine Les Inrocks: “I’m done,” he touched off debate about whether writers can, in fact, retire. The conclusion, per the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch: sort of. Jim Crace’s announcement greeted readers ahead of his final book, Harvest, which was a finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Alice Munro had tried to quit once before, in 2006. It was one of the very few failures in her literary life. Four months after her most recent retirement announcement, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Scores of one-novel writers sit at the far end of this spectrum. We lament Harper Lee’s silence and the fact Ralph Ellison never finished Juneteenth, but they are outliers. The disappearance of a mediocre novelist is a non-event. It’s harder to gauge the scale of loss attached to a writer who stops producing fiction in mid-career. E. M. Forster is perhaps the most well-known example, but he already had A Passage to India to his credit when he stopped publishing fiction at the age of forty.

Elizabeth Harrower is a more mysterious and ultimately more gratifying case. Between 1957 and 1966, she published four novels. Notable for the unsentimental tone she used to portray bright female characters beset by limited options, she belonged squarely amid Australia’s finest writers of the era, figures like Christina Stead and Kylie Tennant, who enjoyed long, acclaimed careers. Harrower’s first three books were well regarded, but The Watch Tower set a new standard. At thirty-seven, she was poised to build a body of work that would help define her country’s literature in the latter half of the twentieth century. Patrick White, who would win the Nobel Prize in 1973, encouraged her to follow the path she’d started. Instead, as far as readers knew, she disappeared. Years passed, then piled up. The prospect of a new novel grew remote. Reader interest flagged. The four novels went out of print. Harrower slipped into de facto retirement from the literary world, for undisclosed reasons. It might justifiably have been a long pause, a chance to draw a deep breath after four books in less than a decade and marshal resources for a next, major effort. But, with time her name faded into irrelevance. Despite White’s continued encouragement, Harrower opted for a different sort of life.

Imagine if Roth had stopped writing after Portnoy’s Complaint or Munro after Who Do You Think You Are? We would still know their names, but their reputations would be nowhere near so great. If Crace hadn’t written beyond Signals of Distress, he would likely be a marginal figure today. This is not to cast Harrower as a writer of their calibre, not if entire bodies of work are considered. But through four books she showed tremendous promise. And four novels in less than a decade is a consistent output.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether Harrower’s career was a casualty of the gender politics of her time, directly or otherwise. She has declined to identify as a feminist, concluding that, “the sense of grievance doesn’t appeal to me.” This is a surprise in light of her work, which contains ample cause for grievance among its female characters. There’s a temptation to suspect slyness here, to suspect that she’s advancing a grievance indirectly. If so, the choice is stunningly effective. The Watch Tower finds two sisters in a world so proscribed it’s cruel. In the aftermath of their father’s death and their mother’s decision to move abroad, Laura and her younger sister Clare are left to make their own way. They end up beholden to Felix, the man Laura marries in spite of her lack of real attraction to him and the sizable age difference between them. He takes in Clare as well and provides her with the resources to attend a secretarial course rather than finishing high school. Clare then goes to work for Felix, like Laura before her, and the two of them live at the mercy of his whims and moods. It’s a crushing arrangement. Felix’s motives remain opaque, his sulks and rages unpredictable. He builds up businesses and sells them at a loss, without consulting his wife. There is an intimation of repressed homosexual longing in Felix’s desperate desire to impress other men, even at the expense of his own family’s well-being. The possibility never occurs to his wife, though in her defence, there is no offence so grievous as doubting or questioning him.

The sisterly bond gives way to the bond between husband and wife, but the shift feels more like the result of Stockholm syndrome than a new, shared mission. A casual mention of Felix’s likeness to Bluebeard, and his acquisition of a china figurine of the mythic figure, prompts a moment of ghoulishness:

He knew how to treat his women! He knew the stuff to give ’em! Is he like me? Huh?’ He grimaced more horribly than ever into Clare’s face, popping his eyes at her, and she backed away, giggling kindly. She did not really think him funny at all, but she was very obliged that he tried to be.

‘What?’ The source of Laura’s indignation changed. ‘He was the one who had rooms full of murdered wives!’

Felix gave a dreadful roar and rolled his eyes wildly. ‘Aha! You want to watch out!’ He laughed into the smiling, wary faces with glee.

Felix nurtures uncertainty in the sisters, making no exception his wife: “He was rather miserly about any new facts he happened to acquire. He hoarded them in secret as though they were personal wealth, only popping one out occasionally to give Laura a feeling that this poor sample was the very least of all he hid.” Gradually Clare concludes she has “no choice but to resign herself to the unchangeableness of her existence.” Harrower builds hope and longing for change in the reader as well, only to undermine or delay those moments in the women’s lives and heighten the tension still further. It’s the work of a very sure hand. The reader longs to see what the writer did next. But what she did next was draw back from writing and publishing.

In his survey of Australian novelists, The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found, critic Geordie Williamson speculates that “The very success of [The Watch Tower] meant that no further attempts were required.” Williamson’s explanation is credible in the sense that it notes Harrower’s mastery in the novel, but it doesn’t account for the turmoil implicit in her own remarks and actions. She has spoken obliquely to her choice to stop writing, remarking that, “Other people have an interest in your not writing.” She has also taken a portion of blame for herself, saying, “I was self-destructive,” and noting some unidentified irritation she let get in the way of her work. Whatever her reasons, those early works show the emergence of a mature novelist and leave many tantalizing questions in the what-might-have-been range.

“Retiring from writing is not to retire from life,” Jim Crace has said. Elizabeth Harrower would no doubt agree. She has noted that many of the friends she’s made in the past twenty or thirty years have no idea she ever published a word. Of her books, Harrower has said it “does seem like another person” wrote them. The reissue of those books by Text Publishing has brought a new wave of attention from readers in her native Australia, and from abroad. With the rare exception, reissued classics seldom yield big responses. The groundswell of belated recognition for John Williams’s novel Stoner in the United Kingdom last year was as notable as it was improbable. The early results in Harrower’s case are promising, however. Michael Dirda wrote a glowing review of The Watch Tower in The Washington Post. A piece in the Guardian (U.K.) suggested an affinity between Harrower’s novel and the band Portishead’s album Dummy. And 2014 will see Harrower’s first new novel in better than forty years. In Certain Circles was set for publication in 1971, but Harrower withdrew it late in the process. She consigned it to a drawer until publisher Michael Heyward convinced her it belonged in print. It should bring still more attention to Harrower’s past life and perhaps add a triumphant final chapter to her literary legacy.

– John McIntyre

In Certain Circles: The Last of Elizabeth Harrower

It’s strange to say so about the work of a living writer, but In Certain Circles is a fitting epilogue to Elizabeth Harrower’s literary career. Her fourth and presumably final novel, The Watch Tower, was released in 1966. It was out of print, as were her three other novels, until Australia’s Text Publishing began reissuing lost classics of Australian literature in 2011. Shortly thereafter, In Certain Circles turned up in the archives of the National Library of Australia. It had been there since 1971, when Harrower made an eleventh-hour decision to pull it from publication. It hadn’t attracted much attention in the intervening decades. Harrower had made no subsequent move to have it published. It belonged to another life, one she might regard fondly but felt no urgency to revisit. If not for the admiring notices the reissues of her previous books received, and the gentle but persistent enthusiasm of her new publisher, it might’ve languished there indefinitely amid the artifacts.

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National Library of Australia

Her reasons for choosing to stop publication remain a mystery. What’s clear is that In Certain Circles is a fitting final entry in the Harrower catalog. The novel is concerned with two pairs of siblings whose lives unfold over more than twenty years, beginning in post-WWII Sydney. Russell and Zoe are children of privilege, relatively speaking. Their parents are “well-known identities” in the press. With their creature comforts and lush surroundings, Russell and Zoe’s family might live in an idyll, but for the war’s shadow still hanging over him. The entry of a pair beguiling orphans, Stephen and Anna, into their orbit upsets the balance of things as well. He’s darkly serious and she, when we’re first introduced to her, is a “fifteen-year-old orphan with the grave eyes suitable to her fabled position in life.” They’re unlike anyone Zoe has known, though if we’re to trust her mother, Zoe has led a sheltered life at that point.

Their lives grow gradually more intertwined, progress Harrower charts deftly, allowing much to happen off the page. Zoe marries Stephen. Russell and Stephen go into business together. Anna and Russell carry on an affair. All the while, Harrower has firm command in narrative terms. She uses leaps to mark the passage of time, covering better than two decades in 250 pages. It’s also apparent she understands fully the events she chooses not to portray, both their specifics and emotional weight, thanks to a series of well-placed allusions to the intervening years, and the fact these characters feel as whole at forty as they did at eighteen. Readers who missed Harrower the first time around may find themselves thinking of Anita Brookner’s mastery here, but that’s technically an inversion. There’s clear common ground – both are enviably good on the weight of attractions and social slights, for instance – but Harrower’s work as a writer ended well ahead of Brookner’s debut as a novelist.

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In Certain Circles also feels more tightly written than Harrower’s previous work, on a line by line basis. She may not have mulled over Isaac Babel’s observation that, “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place,” but there are instances here which would make the great Russian proud. When Zoe’s friends visit, shortly after she’s met Stephen and come away puzzled and flustered, Harrower writes,

The young men were law students, and famous as football players. Zoe heard Russell explaining this to Stephen as she joined them again after a swift change of clothing. Certainly, their physical splendour needed some explanation. Inches over six feet, with heavy faces, heavy locks of hair – Zoe saw them as Greek warriors, or lovers, or athletes, on the frieze of some Ionian temple. Her esteem reached its peak when they were out on the field. Her eyes could never decide whether their running or their standing, poised to take a goal, thrilled her more.

Off the field, well, they still looked like heroes, but were as complex as a comic strip. Conventional. Ordinary. In spite of their looks. (She had just realized it.) They had the usual predatory view of Zoe, and no strong hold on her affections. She had never thought of them so coldly as today, yet today she would willingly have gone to live with both of them at the same time.

Zoe’s attitude also serves as early notice of the social and cultural changes that unfold over the course of the novel. Harrower deals with these in a restrained fashion. She doesn’t trouble herself to make reference to landmark events, but a new permissiveness is apparent later in the novel. It better suits Anna, whose life is not quite dissolute, but certainly not conventional either by the standards of the day. She’s lived abroad, taken lovers, foregone the chance to have children. The seriousness with which she considers suicide during the intervening years suggests hers was not an easy passage through that restrictive period, but she’s strong and self-reliant by the end.

That potential suicide also emerges as a climactic moment. Its resolution suits the novel, Anna’s character, and the contours of Harrower’s body of work equally well. Anna offers an explanation for her change of heart – it was a complex time, she says – and concludes, “But it’s ancient history. It’s a story about someone else.” It’s not hard to picture Harrower, who parted ways with the literary life so definitively, so many years earlier and started anew, nodding her approval.

— John McIntyre

A Writer Died Today

It’s seldom an event anymore, culturally speaking, when a writer dies. The passing of a major figure brings splashy tributes and immediate reckonings of where the writer fits among the greats. It’s gratifying and necessary, but it moves me far less than a last look at a writer who has been shuttled to the margins. Unexpected rewards lie in that direction, voices and sensibilities we’re poorer for having forgotten.

I wasn’t considering that prospect when Leonard Michaels died in May of 2003. His name was firmly in my mind as a writer to investigate further, based on his story “Manikin,” but it was his obituary in The New York Times that provided the final push. Just three years earlier he had published his final story collection, A Girl with a Monkey. His novels and stories were in print at the time of his death, in editions from Mercury House, a small, nonprofit press. More than a decade later, publishers and readers have reckoned with the scale of loss his passing represented: his works rate Classics editions from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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When the novelist Charles Wright died in 2008, I felt a momentary shock in thinking it was the acclaimed poet, who grew up in the small town of Pickwick Dam, Tennessee, not far from where I spent my childhood. Instead the writer in question was a forgotten African-American novelist. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his work in the 1960s. James Baldwin noted his promise. Ishmael Reed called him, “Richard Pryor on paper.” Wright was witty and irreverent and, if his work is any indication, quite possibly at odds with the entire world. His three slim novels, two of them semi-autobiographical (The Wig is defiantly picaresque) were the work of a writer of uncommon talents. The outlines of his life after he stopped publishing are sketchy. He was an alcoholic and lived with his editor’s family for many years. His editor’s widow speaks of Wright with warmth, puzzlement and a touch of regret. People are beginning to take note of his work again, she says, and it’s a shame he’s not around to enjoy it.

In addition to a last bow for a worthy writer, the notice might bring attention to a vital project. Mary Ward Brown’s death in May of 2013 put her back on readers’ minds a final time. It also brought the enterprising reader in contact with the Deep South Books series from University of Alabama Press. Brown postponed her work for twenty-five years, in favor of farm work and child-rearing. Her first book, Tongues of Flame, was published in her late sixties. It won the PEN/Hemingway award in 1986. She followed that with another story collection and a memoir, but her late start and deliberate work rate prevented her from remaining prominent in readers’ minds.

The internet opens up great vistas in this search. The move to digital content keeps items from one day visible through several more. Also, access to distant papers means a broader pool of notices. The UK Independent reported Andrée Chedid’s death. Her novel The Multiple Child (L’Enfant Multiple) was out of print in the US. That didn’t diminish the lure of its opening lines, which nod to Eugene Atget, or its spare, refined style. More recently, the same paper noted the passing of Nancy Garden, who we should remember for her book Annie on My Mind. Garden’s work provided comfort and sustenance to gay teenagers who faced the same difficulties she had known in searching for a story that spoke to their own concerns and experiences. Garden remembered the difficulty of “growing up as a young lesbian in the ’50s, I looked in vain for books about my people.” Annie on My Mind was often targeted by groups seeking to ban it, but Garden’s contributions didn’t go unnoticed. The American Library Association recognized her lifetime of literary influence with the Margaret Edwards Award in 2003.

There are of course the writers who come as a complete surprise, despite their full careers. Morris Renek died in in 2013. The New York Times’ headline called him “a Novelist of Gift and Determination.” All that was news to me. He was eighty-eight years old, the author of five novels. A bit of digging turned up the critic John Leonard, calling Siam Miami, “a comic, profound and elegantly written novel,” and concluding, “Mr. Renek is a writer.” Those must have been heady days for Renek. A notice of that quality and magnitude might well have been a breakthrough moment, yet the favorable review was no guarantee against reader indifference in a book’s own time, let alone thereafter. Leonard’s judgment was sound, but like all Renek’s work, Siam Miami was out of print at the time of his death. A similar fate befell Newton Thornburg, whose Cutter and Bone earned him praise as “one of the best writers of his generation” in The Guardian when he died in 2011. They await another turn in print, even if that doesn’t bring the type of gradual, sustained acclaim the late John Williams’s novel Stoner enjoyed in recent years.

And on occasion what emerges from reading these notices is powerfully sad. In The New Republic, where Rachel Wetzsteon was Poetry Editor for a brief period before her death, Adam Kirsch noted that she “took on the inheritance of Larkin and Auden.” Wetzsteon committed suicide in late 2009. Kirsch also offers an appraisal of Wetzsteon as her generation’s best love poet, at The Poetry Foundation. “She had been severely depressed in recent months, partly over the breakup of a three-year romance,” according to The New York Times. It’s said that one does not die of love. No doubt that held true for Wetzsteon as well. In her work, though, the reader finds great openness and equally great vulnerability. In the sonnet sequence that opens Home and Away, Wetzsteon writes, “But the great hand that holds us between fingers/cannot hold one poor candle to this new fist/squeezing my heart.” There seemed to be a strange intensity throughout, though it’s dangerously easy to make these judgments in retrospect, to substitute evidence which is speculative at best for the many unknowns which built to the final act of the writer’s life.

There is perhaps something morbid about such a habit, though it touches on the celebratory as well, thanks to the urge to delve into the late writer’s life’s work. Frederick Busch had a full complement of novels on bookstore shelves at the time of his 2006 death. I had always regarded him lightly (who knows how we form these impressions?), but the prospect of an out-of-print treasure, his 1979 novel Rounds, overcame my objections. Let’s be clear: Rounds is not a treasure. It’s out of print for a reason, but it did suggest Busch was capable of more. I tried Harry and Catherine, work Busch created after a decade worth of additional seasoning as a writer and a human being. It’s a book which, the writer Ron Carlson observed, “is about rich, deep intimacy, about the larger loves that people come to in maturity.” He could also have called it warm, subtle and honest without disgracing himself.

It was Frederick Busch who observed that, “Money is a letter from the world to an author about his work.” The literary world is not solely peopled by the greats. The vast majority of writers are fortunate to make a brief mark before fading into obscurity. The writer’s obituary is the summing up, if I may purloin Mr. Maugham’s phrase, a final letter to the world about a writer’s life and work. Without these send-offs, we stand to lose sight of countless writers, their work and the literary odds-and-ends that go with them. Alistair MacLeod’s passing earlier this year brought a memorable portrait of his enduring relationship with his publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart.

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For years Gibson encouraged MacLeod to write a novel, a regimen including periodic phone calls, and the deployment of committed listeners to MacLeod’s readings, to keep track of new developments in the book. He popped up by surprise at a train station once and playfully offered to carry the briefcase containing MacLeod’s only copy of the manuscript that became No Great Mischief. MacLeod declined. It was more than a decade, all told, before he finally turned the manuscript over to Gibson. It was a great success, a justification of both men’s endurance.

Ivan Gold’s death reminded us that his first book arrived with Lionel Trilling’s blessings emblazoned on its cover and the weighty expectations which accompany such praise. He published two novels in the four-plus decades after Trilling’s endorsement. His career stands as a cautionary tale about the perils of early acclaim and the toll alcoholism can take on a writer’s work. These are the raw ingredients that inspire books like John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, where we are reminded that Norman Douglas’s last words were either, “Love, love, love,” or, “Get these fucking nuns away from me;” and David Markson’s Reader’s Block, with its curious, obsessive mix of anecdotes. They are the fabric of the literary life, and an invitation to unforeseen wonders.

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

Rediscovering classics with McPherson & Co.

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One of my great weaknesses as a reader is the neglected book. I’m also susceptible to “forgotten classic” or “rediscovered classic” – any acknowledgement that a writer who has suffered a stint in the wilderness, so to speak, is now in for a period of renewed attention. In the past this has brought me to works like Thomas Williams’s story collection Leah, New Hampshire, from Graywolf’s now-discontinued Rediscovery series and Edward Lewis Wallant’s novel The Tenants of Moonbloom, one of several worthy titles I’ve read from the New York Review Books Classics series. In the past, publishers have naturally been reluctant to undertake such a series. The commercial prospects aren’t exactly stunning, at least not in a good way. It’s still unclear whether we’ll see a shift in this attitude with the new economic realities of the ebook market (or whether we should expect to). Both of those questions belong to a different discussion. On this occasion, a couple of neglected titles are in the offing, from the back catalogue of McPherson & Company, the company’s Recovered Classics series: Valery Larbaud’s The Diaries of A.O. Barnabooth and Frederick Ted Castle’s Anticipation.

A.O. Barnabooth is the creation of the writer Valery Larbaud. He – Larbaud – was a great friend of James Joyce and had a hand in the first translation of passages from Ulysses. The Barnabooth diaries are an extension of Larbaud’s earlier project: poems by Barnabooth. Larbaud sent the poems into the world in Barnabooth’s name, with no indication of his own involvement. This was 1908. The complications of such a scheme were relatively few. In fact Larbaud didn’t reveal his involvement until the positive response to the book was apparent.

Barnabooth is the world’s richest man. He is also a visionary, a man so disaffected with the material world that he turns his back on possessions, sells his property and sets out on a tour of the world. He observes that this is his “first journey as a free man: since I have freed myself of my social duties; broken away from the caste in which destiny sought to imprison me; since I am no longer the slave of my racing stable and my hunters: since I no longer find myself at every turn hemmed in by the demon of real property.” He travels, choosing new things to sustain him in each destination and leaves them behind upon his departure. Acquisition, he has concluded, is a pleasure; ownership is a burden.

Yet for all his insight and sacrifice, he insists he is misunderstood. Aboard a train in Italy, early in his journey, he wonders, “was there ever a man more unjustly treated than I? Or a character more misunderstood than mine?” It’s hard not to read Barnabooth as satirical at times, or at least highly self-aware. But whether he is cynic, satirist or decadent, does one necessarily rule out the others? Witness his reaction to a news article about abject poverty:

Tell of the cries of joy I gave when I read in a paper of a whole family dying of hunger. Ah! That avenged me, me, a man humiliated a thousand times by the “hunger” which the poor are always parading before me. And how I used to rub my hands when one of my automobiles splashed some miserable-looking passer-by, or ran over a blind beggar’s dog! Good! Good! So much the better for me. Ah! my masters! You men of purity, who would do so many fine things and good things if you but had the leisure that I have, and are therefore all superior to the “stupid millionaire.”

He’s also clearly a provocateur, as when he observes that, “I have too many traveling things. I shall amuse myself by throwing them, after midnight, from my balcony into the Arno. Really there is nothing more hampering when one is traveling.” In his introduction, Robert Kelly situates Larbaud’s novel as “the none-too-serious bridge between the Wagnerian anal-obsessive masterpiece of Joyce and the crazed criminous transgressive jack-off commoditism of George Bataille. Do we need this span? We do. Why? The sacredness of frivolity.” There are frivolous moments, though to cast Barnabooth as mere frivolity is unsatisfying. The novel is diary, travelogue and to some extent, bildungsroman, though, as Kelly notes, this maturation leaves the impression that “he has, it seems, settled for silence.” I’m less convinced that’s a lamentable outcome, and I mean that as no knock on the novel. On some basic level, it’s evidence of restraint, and if it’s ultimately imposed by Larbaud, that’s appropriate, since Barnabooth’s gifts don’t stretch to restraint.

Frederick Ted Castle’s Anticipation is another maximalist artifact, though in a different way than Larbaud’s novel. His publisher Bruce McPherson has characterized the book as an “unholy union of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.” And while a book’s epigraph is seldom truly revealing, Castle’s here befits an unholy union: “I hereby dedicate this book to my erstwhile wife Janet Belle Craver Castle Winston.” It’s entirely possible that without McPherson, the book would never have seen the light of day. Castle finished writing the novel in 1966, but for various reasons opted not to publish it until 1984. Nearly thirty years after the book finally appeared, it still feels fresh and daring. Despite being named Anticipation, the novel begins in what seems midstream:

Charles.

So far, as even such a phrase implies, the course has been forward in time so that it is now later than when I began to write. And there is no indication that I have been writing continuously or in the present since I began, and there are some indications that I have stopped writing and started again much later.

Castle’s style is elliptical and discursive and generally committed to the proposition that these tendencies yield compelling results. The gamble isn’t always rewarding for the reader, but Castle hits the mark often enough to justify the choice. An early aside considers the correlation or lack thereof between hand size and penis size. There’s a full page photo (of neither hands nor penises), and several pages of photocopied handwriting. He includes letters to figures like the poet Ed Dorn. At one point, the narrator analyzes how he spends his days, concluding that, “You may suppose that when I’m with people, I do as they do on TV.” He follows this with an italicized note: “If I write this every day until my twenty-fifth birthday I may have something worth something, a cause for celebration.” Book Two ends in mid-sentence.

Understand that plot, for Castle, feels incidental. So much is turned inward, either to reflection or analysis that actual events come second. Yet Castle maintains a sort of momentum, eventually coming to an extended consideration of the artists of various stripes who have influenced him. He includes The Oxford Universal Dictionary of Historical Principles, “Bernardo Bertolucci for his lovely film about stupidity called Primo della Rivoluzione”, Joyce Carol Oates, “a childhood friend, for her novel With Shuddering Fall which demonstrates the masculine principle”, as well as dozens of others. He rounds this off with “page by page and line by line in the order of their appearance of the dead letters of my stars, my lights, my predecessors.” The list is extensive and wide-ranging and in some speculative way adds some insight on all that’s come before. Anticipation is a strange, sometimes unwieldy beast, but it’s also layered and often engaging. Its very existence is a tribute to the power of the small press.

– John McIntyre

Reconsidering Charles Wright

When asked about his childhood in a 1964 interview, the writer James Baldwin noted the importance of libraries in his development. “I finally read my way out of Harlem,” he said, and listed titled by Dickens, Dostoevsky, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright as highlights of his reading. He tacked on a single work by an emerging writer, The Messenger, the first novel by an African-American novelist named Charles Wright.

This was no small endorsement; Baldwin was a major literary figure by 1964. Wright was a columnist for the Village Voice. Whatever Wright’s literary ambitions, praise from an established writer of Baldwin’s calibre must have been gratifying for the first-time novelist. Two more books followed – The Wig (1966) and Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About (1972), both slim, assured volumes marked by Wright’s shrewd, ambivalent voice. Thereafter, silence.

Wright did not die young or suffer some cruel, debilitating fate. He simply dropped off the literary radar. He talked of plans for a book of short stories in a 1972 interview, but it never materialized. Another wave of young writers moved to the front rank. Wright’s moment receded further still. An omnibus edition of his three books appeared in the early 1990s, complete with the news that he was at work on a new novel, but the book in question was never published. He died in 2008, weakened by years of heavy drinking. His name was by then more familiar in relation to the decorated American poet of the same name. The three books he did publish, however, are long overdue for a second look. Surely we can grant that much consideration to the man Ishmael Reed called “Richard Pryor before there was a Richard Pryor. Richard Pryor on paper.”

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The Messenger is not a great first novel. It is a series of tightly plotted vignettes with no more obvious narrative arc than one might find in a writer’s journal. Wright follows a man named Charles, an African-American writer who works at jobs far beneath him and surrounds himself with drag queens, con men, booze and occasionally drugs. He displays an easy, fluid sexuality with both men and women. After a gay orgy he reflects that, “It was an experience, nothing more. And if I felt like it, I’d do it again. It was as simple as that.” We see him bobbing in the waves, somehow in control of every situation. He considers selling his body on the street and concludes he will be picked up “for ten-plus-drinks, or by a Vassar-type of girl who will want to discuss jazz.”

Despite the lack of a neat arc, Wright’s powers of observation and the strength of his voice draw the reader along. The book opens with a nod to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Wright’s narrator, Charles, is a squatter in a midtown Manhattan building. The affinity with Ellison is less pronounced thereafter. Wright interjects several racially charged incidents from his protagonist’s childhood, including an occasion on which he is hauled in by police and forced to run in circles around their interrogation room. An officer drops a coin on the floor at the end and Charles, “knelt down and picked up the nickel because that was the only thing to do.” Later, however, he concludes that “the wounds of my childhood were no more than a sudden, sharp pain.” His takeaway from being unfairly denied promotions during military service is equally understated. “Seeing this happen,” he remarks, “taught me things it was good to know.” But perhaps there is no clearer picture of his resignation than in this sketch of Harlem:

“It was almost midnight now. Everything was alive on 125th Street. This was Saturday night, the time when the Negroes let their hair down, relax, get drunk, fight and grumble about Mr. White Man and the price of pork and eggs and the troubles of their cousins down south, knowing that, come Monday morning, it will all be the same.”

Charles works as a messenger, a job which takes him all over the city and brings him in contact with everyone from Wall Street brokers to Broadway talent. He is not awed by these individuals, all of whom are more successful and powerful than he. Instead, these settings heighten the tension between Charles and the world around (or above) him. On a single page, he endorses both the virtues of pimping as a means to supplement a workingman’s income, and the writing of Lawrence Durrell, somehow folding the two into a single critique of society’s expectations of men in his position, a moment which ends the chapter in striking fashion:

“That afternoon, as I walked through the concourse of the RCA building, sneezing and reading Lawrence Durrell, dead drunk from the explosion of his words, I suddenly looked up and encountered the long face of Steven Rockefeller. He seemed startled. Doesn’t he think poor people read?”

The book’s final scene provides no real closure. Charles throws a party in farewell to his squat, during which the super tells him that he can stay, rent free, as long as he likes, but this piece of news is eclipsed by the surging party, a revel that we leave in progress at the novel’s end.

Four years later, Wright brought out The Wig. It was a great leap forward, a full-fledged novel, a brief, blazing picaresque set in “an America of tomorrow.” Wright’s protagonist, Lester Jefferson, describes himself as “Walter Mitty’s target-colored stepson.” He spends all his money on a hair treatment called Silky Smooth, which is meant to straighten and refashion his hair in a way that will allow him to join “The Great Society,” shorthand in the novel for the world of material success, almost exclusively reserved for white Americans. But his new, cascading locks don’t open the doors he imagines they will.

The writer Ishmael Reed, who cites The Wig as an early influence on his work, has written that, “The fact that this novel was ignored tells us a lot about how African-American fiction has been kept in its place.” Indeed, early notices foretold the obstacles the book has endured. The critic Victor Navasky observed that “White folks won’t find much to celebrate in The Wig.” In many ways, The Wig is a terrifically difficult book. The absurdities Wright employs are memorable on their face, but for every Little Jimmie Wishbone, who won fame starring in horribly degrading movie roles, there is a Nonnie Swift, who Lester finds groaning in the hallway, holding her “pancake belly,” about to give birth to a baby which is two years overdue. Lester encounters a series of grotesque figures, like the necrophilic undertaker, Mr. Fishback and a drug dealer who collects Civil Rights relics, among them a hunk of hair from a Georgia policeman’s dog and a charred wooden cross, seven feet high.

Difficult and contentious though it is, The Wig succeeds as comedy. Wright had an unerring sense of the absurd and impeccable timing, as when Lester and Little Jimmie race through the streets of Harlem. Little Jimmie asks for a head start. Lester demurs, but Little Jimmie asks, “Didn’t they give you a medal last year ‘cause the bloodhounds couldn’t catch you?”

“Jesus. I’d almost forgotten,” Lester concedes, “I guess I’m sort of an American hero.”

Lester’s misadventures offer nothing in the way of uplifting ideology, nor optimism. Navasky called The Wig “a disturbing book by a man with a vicious, significant talent,” and Conrad Knickerbocker said it was “brutal, exciting, and necessary.” Young African-American writers recognized it as a significant book. Nonetheless, six years would pass before Wright’s next book.

It is easy, given the trajectory of Wright’s life after Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About, to read resignation in its pages, to view it as a flag of surrender. Even at the time, the writer David Freeman likened the book to “the rough draft of a suicide note.” Wright had flexed his muscles in The Wig, and the response he received from many corners was strained. He referred to the book as “my retarded child,” and left New York for a time to regroup. His final book is less ambitious. Anatole Broyard castigated Wright, who was then forty, as “pretty old to be promising.” A number of chapters first appeared as columns in the Village Voice. Critics seemed unable to decide whether it was fiction or nonfiction. The New York Times listed it as a noteworthy volume of essays.

Whatever its origins or the makeup of its content, the book has a familiar feel. Charles returns, this time as a dishwasher and porter, among other roles. He is adrift, shuttling between Manhattan and a Catskills resort, performing these menial jobs by choice – the Charles of the book is as talented as the author himself, has two books to his credit, and could, if he wished, forge a comfortable, middle-range life. Instead, he follows the path he’s worn for himself and reflects that “The young protest, riot. The elders bite their lips, inhale anger, or flaunt their power. Nailed between two worlds, I try to stay stoned, clang like a bell in a small tower, comfortable with the knowledge that I’m moving on.”

We recognize tragedy in the wake of sudden, unexpected events. Cases like Wright’s belong to another class. He lived to the age of 75 and enjoyed some acclaim early in the proceedings. The talent he squandered, or abandoned, was formidable. We might slot him in alongside writers like Nathanael West and Jane Bowles, visionaries whose entire body of work fits neatly in a single volume.

In Journal of the Fictive Life, the great poet Howard Nemerov asserted that aspiring writers should “Remember that if you never wrote another line the world would not be poorer.” No doubt this is often true, but in the case of Charles Wright, his silence was a great loss to the reading world.

– John McIntyre

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Issue 89 of Brick: A Literary Journal.

Cesare Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life

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Cesare Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life

Cesare Zavattini’s name is not immediately familiar in the way of the director Vittorio de Sica’s. Yet together they created many of the neorealist films that defined Italian postwar cinema, among them Sciuscià (Shoeshine), Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) and Umberto D. His work prior to the end of World War II was largely forgettable, though he had a hand in the writing of I Nostri Sogni (Our Dreams), a 1943 film in which de Sica both starred and received a writing credit. The following year, Zavattini was part of a team of writers behind I Bambini ci Guardano (The Children Are Watching Us), the first time he contributed writing to a film de Sica directed. Two years later came Shoeshine, and The Bicycle Thief two years after that. He observed once that “Cinema is that phenomenon of collaboration where each tries to erase all the traces of the work of the others,” but he was speaking only of the work which appears on screen. Without question an abiding fondness and loyalty marked his relationship with De Sica. In fact the only meaningful record we have of Zavattini’s life in English, a volume culled from his journals and entitled Cesare Zavattini: Sequences from a Cinematic Life, opens fittingly, with a dedication, “To Vittorio De Sica.”

This is not to suggest, however, that he was dependent on De Sica for his ideas, or to Zavattini has been described as “the central theoretician of neorealism,” and his remarks in a 1953 Sight and Sound interview make it clear why. His view of the medium contains nothing romantic. If anything, it’s baldly practical, but it demonstrates his commitment to presenting audiences with uncomfortable truths, even if that meant wrapping those truths in a veneer of narrative:

The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism, it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts.

Keep in mind that this still seems to have been a concession on Zavattini’s part. He was a keen observer, a newspaper man before his work writing films, and the everyday, the unscripted, held endless appeal for him. It’s easy to imagine him today, roaming the streets and shooting documentaries on a shoestring budget and coming away with remarkable results, but fictional narrative was king then, even more so than today. Sequences from a Cinematic Life, a condensed volume of his journals, opens with this sketch of “A Film I’d Like to Make”:

My Home Town. A cameraman, an electrician, a grip, the assistant director, and me – we’d live there for four or five months, and it would cost very little, just the film. The plot? The action? I haven’t any, everything seems dust and ashes compared to these three or four months in my town, surrounded by about fifty children to whom I could say in dialect “ver la boca da peu (open your mouth wider).”

This is not to suggest that he recorded only fanciful ideas for potentially dull films. His eye for detail, for the heartbreaking tableau, is on full display. Of a conversation with a friend, he remembers, “I tried to console him. He’s bald, and last night at the Fiamma Theater he realized that directly behind him his mistress of twenty years before was sitting. She surely did nothing but stare at his bald head and his wrinkles.” Or this picture of a widow on the day her husband’s coffin is prepared:

There was a corpse, about two years ago, and the solderer was soldering the zinc coffin in the entrance hall two hours before the funeral. That noise barely broke the death-silence and the summer-silence weighing on the house in Luzzara; all of a sudden somebody was heard coming down the steps with a tinny click-clack, slamming, and sighing; it was the widow with a little kettle over her arm. Removing it she said, in a faint voice: “While you’re about it, put a drop of lead over this hole.”

It’s hard to overstate the sheer amount of life recorded here, sometimes in striking arrangement thanks to the choices by editor William Weaver. For instance, the coffin scene immediately gives way to this:

With [silent film actress] Francesca Bertini at the Grand Hotel. I say that she is still a great actress and a beautiful woman; she stands up and slowly runs her hands down over her hips, starting with the ribs and coming down to the hips themselves, with her head in profile. Then she sits down and we look at each other, smiling.

What writer couldn’t stand to learn from his restraint and implication here, his confidence that a few well-chosen details will convey all?

In his memoir Burning the Days, the writer James Salter writes of meeting Zavattini in Italy. This was likely the late ’60s, when Salter was in the country directing Three and writing The Appointment for Sidney Lumet. By the time Salter met him, Zavattini had been writing films for more than three decades. Salter knew his work and was “prepared to greatly admire him,” but Zavattini didn’t cut the expected figure. “He was bald, and wore a baggy blue suit of the kind that has buttons on the fly,” Salter recalls. “He was disheartened. ‘The cinema has failed,’ he said.” A debatable statement, given all that we’ve seen since, but no doubt Zavattini had his reasons for reaching such a conclusion. He had racked up dozens of screen credits as a writer by that time, and a total of more than one-hundred by the time of his death. That failure may simply have been a matter of the industry moving in a different direction from what he preferred, placing more emphasis on artifice and downplaying what he called “living social facts,” but he knew what he felt. Nonetheless, Salter viewed his work as vital, and Truman Capote called him “the single original literary figure for which films can assume credit.” Whether Capote’s is an accurate assessment or an exaggeration, Zavattini offered much for viewers to savor. His journals are a feast in their own right. They are admittedly uneven at times, as such documents tend to be. This is especially true when Zavattini’s politics take center stage. Still, the balance tips far toward Zavattini the writer, the man with the sharp eye for the singular detail. There is no finer argument for seeking out the volume than Zavattini’s retelling of how he met his wife:

I took shelter in a doorway, from the house opposite came the notes of a waltz, the rain stopped and on the balcony of that house a young girl appeared dressed in yellow. I couldn’t see her clearly up there, perhaps it was the odor of the dust raised by the downpour, perhaps the glistening of the drainpipes as the sun reappeared (we are followed on tiptoe by someone who makes the clouds, causes noises in the streets only so that they will drive us where it suits him, but in such a way that we blame the clouds and the noises). The girl on the balcony dropped a handkerchief, I ran to pick it up, then rushed through the door, up the steps. At the top of them the girl was waiting. “Thank you,” she said. “What’s your name?” I asked, out of breath. “Anna,” she answered, and vanished. I wrote her a letter of a kind I’ve never written again in my life; a year later we were married. We are happy; Maria, Anna’s sister, visits us often, they love each other and are very similar; even their faces are alike. One day, we talked about that summer afternoon, about how Anna and I met. “I was on the balcony,” Maria said, “and all of a sudden I dropped my handkerchief. Anna was playing the piano. I said to her, ‘I dropped my handkerchief, a man is bringing it up.’ She was less shy than I was, she went to the door and met you. I remember as if it were yesterday, we were both wearing yellow dresses.

Glorious. The book is out of print – the director’s name lives on, and the actors’, far longer than the writer’s – but easy enough to find and well worth the very modest price. It’s a dusty, forgotten little gem, the likes of which we see too rarely.

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.