Buy Brick 93 now

The time has come to find a copy of the newest issue of Brick: A Literary Journal. This is the 93rd issue of one of the essential English-language magazines in print today.

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It features thoughts from Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and others on the late, great Mavis Gallant; an interview with Aleksandar Hemon, and my essay on the long-neglected Australian writer Elizabeth Harrower. I’m not without bias in recommending it, but it’s hard to get more for $15.

— John McIntyre

Jay McInerney, Expectations and A Writer’s Evolution

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A couple of years ago I had the chance to talk with Michael Ondaatje. The fruits of that conversation are available in the Interviews tab above. I asked him if he felt fortunate in some way that overwhelming, mainstream success hadn’t hit him early in his career. “I was very lucky that way,” he said. “I think about that, I think of someone like [Jay] McInerney, who writes that first book, and no one can survive that. It must be a nightmare.” I had mentioned Norman Mailer in the question, and was surprised that he thought of Mailer fondly, as an important writer in his own past, but I was even less prepared for him to bring up Jay McInerney’s name.  

Implicit in Ondaatje’s comment was the conclusion that McInerney had indeed failed to come through the early scrutiny and produce work worthy of his debut, Bright Lights, Big City. “You started on the Upper East Side with champagne and unlimited prospects,” he writes early in the book, just before detailing how the night has gone off course. “You could start your own group-” he writes later, “the Brotherhood of Unfulfilled Promise.” Similar observations have been made about his career. For all that, his debut is still a remarkable book, slim and urgent, its momentum is irresistible. It clocks in at less than two-hundred pages. With that small stack of paper, McInerney’s life changed. He was legitimately famous, worthy fodder for tabloid stories, the object of generosity from strangers (in the form of cocaine) and, worst of all, of loathing and resentment from people he’d never met. ”There was a backlash,” he told Entertainment Weekly in 1992. “I got so much attention for my first novel — and for everything that I did back then, every party I went to, every girl I dated — that people got sick of hearing my name. I don’t blame them. God knows, I got sick of hearing it.” That constant attention was what he couldn’t survive, that and the sort of free hand given to Norman Mailer, who had an unfettered run after the overwhelming success of The Naked and the Dead. In Mailer’s case, that freedom produced some godawful duds and some truly brilliant work. McInerney even cited him as one of the few writers who might understand what he’d endured. Conventional wisdom had it, though, that McInerney only matched one half of the equation. It wasn’t the good half.

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Still, I’d read Bright Lights, Big City and been genuinely impressed, enough so to take on Model Behavior, which was far less satisfying. I didn’t push further, though maybe I should have. But there were so many other writers to read, ones whose work was a far safer bet. I didn’t forget McInerney, but I didn’t expect to devote much more time or thought to him.

Then last year the LA Review of Books ran an essay by Tom Dibblee called “Jay McInerney, the New York Fantasy, and Wine.” I read it with some interest, and it’s clearly stuck with me since I’m writing about it nearly a year later. Dibblee avoided reading McInerney’s acclaimed debut for several years, but when he finally did, “For me, Bright Lights, 20 years after its release, felt like a guide to the way young writers should be.” Many young writers are fortunate to find a book which has that impact on them. As we’re wont to do with additional books by the writer whose work had such a major impact, Dibblee wanted more. He notes, though, the mediocrity of McInerney’s subsequent work, singling out Story of My Life as an exception. Shortly after reading Dibblee’s essay, I happened across a used copy of that book. I made it about a dozen pages, until the young female protagonist  says, “Watch out! Rebecca’s coming to town, and I’m definitely not talking about the one from Sunnybrook Farm.” That was the end of Story of My Life for me.

In the time between Ondaatje’s comments and Dibblee’s essay, I’d learned that McInerney was friends with Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of Le Bernardin, the finest restaurant in which I’ve ever had the good fortune to dine. McInerney had also developed a serious interest in wine. He’d written a couple of books on the subject, in addition to writing wine columns for House & Garden and now The Wall Street Journal. He’d written fiction during those years as well, so the wine writing maybe wasn’t a wholesale reinvention. Nonetheless it struck me as an appropriate progression for a man moving from the frantic youth he’d apparently had to a more comfortable middle age. Pair that with the friendship with Ripert, and he’d arranged a life for himself far more appealing to me than anything in Bright Lights, Big City. Dibblee, as was his right, wasn’t sold:

If you want to be a writer but you’re not writing, you need to feed yourself some kind of stopgap. You can’t just let your writing brain turn to mush. So you sniff on wine and you do your best to spell it all out. And it’s fun. It feels good. It’s extremely difficult to describe sense of smell. The ephemerality of the endeavor matches your mood. It’s consoling that it can’t possibly add up to anything, that this description won’t wind up on paper, that in the morning you’ll forget what you said, forget the true extent of that sniff, and be back to zero, the metric of your stasis that you feel an oddly compelling loyalty to. This zero has an intoxicating purity to it. But then for me it didn’t stop at wine and the next thing I knew I found myself talking about not just wine but morel mushrooms and porcini dust and then I woke up one day and realized, ‘What the fuck are you doing, dude? How long can you go on convincing yourself that you care about soufflés and tannins?’”

I understand the sense that the novel trumps all else a writer can do. McInerney has one remarkable novel to his credit, a book that belongs firmly to a particular moment in time, perhaps defines it even. He effectively caught lightning in a bottle the first time out, and has never approached that level again. It happened to John Horne Burns, for instance, but he died before he was forty. He also didn’t face the scrutiny, and the scourge of expectation, not the way McInerney did. Yet McInerney has kept writing. The pair of novels Dibblee found most maddening, Brightness Falls and The Good Life, are better than I expected. Admittedly part of my enjoyment may have come from the Victor Propp/Harold Brodkey character in Brightness Falls. Though they’re not career-defining statements, the two novels are the work of a more mature writer, a man at home in domestic scenes, talking about soufflés and tannins rather than snorting coke in a club toilet. It also wasn’t a progression that seemed so surprising, given Bright Lights, Big City.

Beware conflating the author and the text, or the author and the protagonist. It’s an old, basic rule, one it’s often sorely tempting to ignore. McInerney himself sought to deflect the impression that Brightness Falls was a roman a clef, and the similarities between his life and the events in Bright Lights, Big City have been remarked on repeatedly. Assuming some overlap, intentional or not, the seeds are planted in that first book for Jay McInerney, oenophile, author of low-key books about unhappy couples. Witness an early scene in a nightclub, when our hero, such as he is, considers what he will tell the woman he has longed to meet:

“When you meet her you are going to tell her that what you really want is a house in the country with a garden…You see yourself as the kind of guy who wakes up early on Sunday morning and steps out to cop the Times and croissants. Who might take a cue from the Arts and Leisure section and decide to check out an exhibition – costumes of the Hapsburg Court at the Met, say, or Japanese lacquerware of the Muromachi period at the Asia society. The kind of guy who calls up the woman he met at a publishing party Friday night, the party he did not get sloppy drunk at.”

Did McInerney possess the kind of foresight needed to make such a fine distinction so far in advance? There’s a sense the distinction fit him then, and he’s grown naturally in that direction since. The book ends with the protagonist bartering for bread: “You get down on your knees and tear open the bag. the smell of warm dough envelops you. The first bite sticks in your throat and you almost gag. You will have to go slowly. You will have to learn everything all over again.” It’s not a stretch to go from that moment to Brightness Falls, or to conclude that Bright Lights, Big City was a virtuoso performance, a brilliant one-off.

The big moment for Dibblee comes when, while waiting tables at Minetta Tavern, a group of “rowdy middle-aged men” comes in to join a woman.  They order only cheap rosé, and for reasons he doesn’t get into in great detail, are “the worst table I’d ever waited on.” When they leave, a co-worker tells Dibblee, “Now there goes a cautionary tale,” and that he’d just waited on Jay McInerney.

I interviewed Eric Ripert a couple of years ago. We sat in a salon of sorts, upstairs from his restaurant. He was gracious and elegant. He spoke accented English and told me about Le Bernardin’s trial and error approach to molecular gastronomy. He seemed calm and tolerant, a man comfortable with the good life McInerney allegedly – per Dibblee – once thought scandalous. And if he counts McInerney as a friend, I’m inclined to believe the man has genuine interest in writing about wine, and soufflés and tannins.

At the end of his essay, Tom Dibblee imagines a sit-down with McInerney, in which he informs the man that,

You always believed that the good life was scandalous, and that those who strived for and attained the good life would have to pay a price. But then you got there. You broke through. And instead of having to pay, you realized you were the same guy you’d always been and nobody was going to put you in jail — there would be no trial, there would be no punishment — and you got bored. The problem with your later books is that they’re boring. They’re boring because you’re bored. And you should be writing books about being bored. You should write about yourself…Well, I’m doing the talking now. And I’m going to read whatever you write either way. But what I want is this — a story about a middle-aged drunk who’s reckoning with the fact that he’s squandered his talent. That is the subject on which you are America’s foremost authority.

I’m less convinced than Tom Dibblee is that Jay McInerney squandered his talent. It’s entirely possible that he wasn’t a novelist of the first rank, not to the extent that each new book was destined to be a major addition to American literature. It seems more likely that he actually admired the good life, so to speak, the means to walk into one of the world’s great restaurants on a whim and order freely, both food and wine. In fact I see nothing wrong with that, nor with privileging those things over writing one more “important” novel, if there is such a thing anymore. There’s nothing sacred about being a writer, a novelist, no reason for McInerney to feel abashed or ashamed. I don’t even think he’s bored. It’s just possible he’s the man he wanted to be all along. And given Dibblee’s experience waiting on him, maybe there’s still a germ of the Bright Lights, Big City era lurking somewhere inside him. It’s just not very interesting at this point, and to his credit, McInerney appears to know it.

– 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.

Out of the Drawer at Last: Nicholas Mosley’s A Garden of Trees

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It is unfair at this late date to introduce Nicholas Mosley as the son of Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley the younger has forged a life wholly unlike his father’s. He served the Allied cause in World War II and several terms as a Liberal member in the House of Lords. He worked against apartheid in South Africa as part of the Community of the Resurrection. And he is a gifted writer, as evidenced by novels like Impossible Object, which was shortlisted for the 1969 Booker Prize, and Hopeful Monsters, which won the 1991 Whitbread Award. Yet the specter of his father’s radicalism has trailed Nicholas Mosley all these years. The extent of the elder Mosley’s commitment to Fascism is unclear. His son has speculated that he enjoyed the spotlight but was committed to a different way of life. He sought to prevent Britain from entering World War II, preferring instead to direct Germany’s aggressions toward Russia. His father never liked Hitler, Mosley says, and that he had no ties to high-ranking members of the Nazi party. Late in the war, Churchill even arranged for Oswald and his wife to live under house arrest. Nicholas was allowed to visit, a liberty which assumes little threat on the part of either party.

If he hadn’t practiced such an uncompromising style of writing, Nicholas Mosley’s name might be less closely linked to his father’s sins. The scholar Shiva Rahbaran calls him “one of the most controversial contemporary novelists in the English language.” His experimental tendencies no doubt limited his readership. In Impossible Object, one of his finest books, Mosley foregoes conventional narrative structure in favor of loosely related vignettes. The reader may discern links, but as Mosley has said, “The reader could, and would make whatever he wanted of it.” He speaks to the fluidity of the novel’s separate narrative threads in his memoir, Efforts and Truth, when he writes, “The fifth story of Impossible Object is about a man (the narrator of the fourth story?) who has got fed up with the sort of life he has got stuck in and goes off to look for a new girlfriend.” His more experimental offerings have been linked to the anti-novel/nouveau roman strains of fiction which emerged from Europe. Others, including the newly released A Garden of Trees, are tied up with questions of faith and doubt – questions of substance, to be sure, but something apart from the main thrust of contemporary English language fiction. Never one to back away from unconventional ideas, Mosley has described his experience writing novels as “forward memory.” That is to say, he writes about an event in a fictional context, only to watch it unfold later in his actual life. His other theories of the novel are more accessible. “There is a sense,” Mosley writes in Efforts at Truth, “in which novels are a smokescreen put up to deal with the near-desperate pains of reality: there is a sense in which they are not-quite-so-desperate efforts to break through the smokescreens that seem to be put up by reality itself.”

A Garden of Trees arrives from Dalkey Archive with Nicholas Mosley’s reputation as a writer fully formed. This is a curious state of affairs; he wrote the book in 1949 and 1950. It is natural enough for a writer to look back at early works, both published and unpublished. James Salter revisited his second novel, The Arm of Flesh, after forty years of dissatisfaction with it. He made such extensive revisions that the result, Cassada, was practically a different book. Peter Mathiessen took three novels (Killing Mister WatsonLost Man’s River and Bone by Bone) he had published over a span of ten years and pared them down to a single volume, Shadow Country, which was awarded the National Book Award in 2008. In Mosley’s case, A Garden of Trees was to be his second novel, but it was received coolly by publishers. David Garnett of Rupert Hart-Davis read the book and pronounced it a failure. The conversation was “bad and dead,” the story rambling, and that “publication in its present form would be a mistake.” The book was finally accepted by Weidenfeld & Nicholson after what Mosley describes as a “lengthy round of publishers.” Both author and publisher were lukewarm about the novel by that time. Mosley was far along on his next book, Rainbearers, and chose to direct his energies there. A Garden of Trees went in the drawer, where it remained until now, when it is finally between covers – handsome ones – thanks to Dalkey Archive. There is no evidence to suggest that Mosley has fundamentally altered the original text. In a postscript to the book, he writes that, “Perhaps now, in this overt age of celebrity, there might be some recognition of the strength of inwardness rather than clamor.” It is an admirable aim, but also a very generous reading of the novel in question.

A Garden of Trees is not Mosley in experimental mode. That came later, and the authority with which he presented those experiments was formidable. He is far less commanding here. A searching quality pervades the book. Perhaps this is to blame for the novel’s callow feel. The reader could view that same quality as a reflection of postwar England’s need to reorder priorities, to go from a daily life rich with moral purpose to a less remarkable, more stable existence.

The novel centers on a group of four friends: the unnamed narrator; Peter and Annabelle, who are brother and sister; and Marius, who exerts a powerful attraction over the other three. He particularly appeals to Annabelle, with whom he has a brief affair and fathers a child. The narrator is drawn into their circle after encountering Marius at a political rally. It is unclear how involved Marius is in the proceedings, but the narrator follows him and eventually strikes up a conversation. Marius is a powerful, mysterious presence. He reveals little of himself in conversation. His occupation is unclear, though his circle of friends and acquaintances readily offer, among other things, a place to sleep. Peter is glib and tortured, disaffected with everything from the time he spent at Oxford to organized religion. His experience in the army is rewarding in that he finds “simple people doing simple things that are supposed to be unpleasant.” If that sounds condescending, he’s less tedious than the description suggests. In fact his is the best dialogue in the novel, consistently witty, occasionally weighty and delivered in the proper dosage.

Mosley concedes that the dialogue is often dead, but reading it is no easier for that admission. Take an excerpt of a conversation between Annabelle and the narrator:

The world is not dead to us.”

Of course not.”

What is this hopelessness?”

Mixing eternity with the future. The future is what will happen, beyond our control, beyond our living. That is what is the world to those who work. Eternity is what might happen, what is in our control, what is in our dying. We can create it.”

Hopelessness is hunger and drudgery,” Annabelle said, “it is nothing else.”

With hunger and drudgery there is the future. There is always hope. Where there is no hunger or drudgery there is also the hope of the present. This is the same as eternity. There is only hopelessness when drudgery looks to the present and idleness looks to the future.”

These dense, artificial passages are still more glaring thanks to a number of clever exchanges and pithy, even aphoristic observations throughout the book. Marius’s wife, wasting away in a hospital bed, remarks that, “It is easier to talk than to believe.” On another occasion, Marius tells Annabelle, “Suffering is when you can’t even die.” Annabelle says, “How pompous, darling.” Marius, untroubled, says, “Yes,” and though Mosley doesn’t say so, it’s hard to imagine the remark coming with anything but a smirk.

Mosley does create a spell, albeit a fragile one, via the narrator’s three friends and their efforts to establish a world apart. But his insistence upon keeping Marius, the center of their little group, so cryptic and mysterious, robs the narrative of much needed momentum. They separate and confront, each in their own time, questions of faith. This brings Father Jack Manners to the stage, and while he is central to the group’s spiritual development, he lends a bloodless feel to the proceedings. The book’s final pages are all the more remarkable for that. Mosley gives us a thrilling picture of Marius’s last days, one in which he appears charismatic and noble. It suggests an appeal only seen in fragments throughout the book, one so strong that Marius could credibly be the pole star for many lives.

This novel was unmistakably a step in Mosley’s progression as a writer, but it’s clear he simply doesn’t trust himself here as fully as he did later. He treats the titular image and metaphor subtly for much of the book, allowing his young protagonists to tinker with the discrete worlds they attempt to create. Gradually he draws closer, allowing the narrator to remark that, “A fruit tree…is where it all started, I suppose, in a garden of trees.” Later he goes further still, when Peter’s father remarks to the narrator that, “It seems to me you are obsessed with the Garden of Eden. You insist on trying to recreate it and at the same time insist on making the original mistakes.” These false notes are particularly hard to ignore given Mosley’s elegant prose and the basic soundness of his conceit here. A Garden of Trees is not the best of Nicholas Mosley, but that’s not to say it’s wholly without merit. The best of Mosley is a high bar indeed.

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.