Friday, July 19, 1996

Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick

A review of Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Faulty Towers
Ozick Exposes Folly of Literature’s Greats

By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, $21 

In her new collection of essays, Fame & Folly, Cynthia Ozick writes that her favorite book by Anthony Trollope is The Way We Live Now, his thirty-third novel out of forty-seven, because it’s his longest—952 pages. About herself she writes that she “has not written enough”—just under 2,000 published pages in thirty years—and that she “is little-known or not known at all, relegated to marginality, absent from the authoritative anthologies that dictate which writers matter.”

Yet despite her “marginality” and the sparseness of her oeuvre, she’s one of the finest writers and critics of our time. She doesn’t need forty-seven novels (although they would certainly be welcome), because in those 2,000 pages she’s written such gem-like masterpieces as Levitation, The Shawl, and The Messiah of Stockholm.

Like her idols Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, Ozick combines traditional Jewish history and mythology with fabulous technical innovation, creating a literature that’s both forward- and backward-looking. Her “Puttermesser” series of short stories rewrites the creation myth, weaving a modern New York sensibility into the ancient “golem” tales, and her chilling story “The Shawl” and its follow-up, “Rosa,” portray the awesome void created by the Holocaust.

Along with her masterful authorial presence, Ozick also brings an astute literary and social consciousness. A champion of “high art” and an espouser of her own self-styled feminism, Ozick writes about literature and history with equal doses of passion, humor, and awe. She balks at nothing—T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, Henry James’ existential dread, her own obscurity—and her erudition allows her an almost omniscient view of whatever subject she chooses.

Her essay “Eliot at 101,” from Fame & Folly, examines Eliot’s phenomenal rise and fall from public favor. Unabashedly stating that Eliot was the center of her literary apprenticeship, Ozick describes him at his height as “pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon.” He filled football stadiums—the University of Minnesota’s football stadium, to be exact: 14,000 seats—with adoring fans of his poetry and of his “New Criticism.”

Eliot’s readers rebelled against Wordsworthian tradition in favor of Modernism, but “the young who gave homage to Eliot,” writes Ozick, “were engaged in a self-contradictory double maneuver: They were willingly authoritarian even as they jubilantly rebelled… they were ready to fall on their knees to a god. A god, moreover, who despised free-thinking, democracy, and secularism; the very conditions of anti-authoritarianism.”

By now the god has fallen: Nobody’s interested in Eliot’s fascist apologetics or his rigid criticism anymore. But his fall seems to have ushered in a loss of popular interest in “high art.” No writer could possibly fill a football stadium now, and Ozick mourns this loss. “What we will probably go on missing forever,” she writes, “is that golden cape of our youth, the power and prestige of high art.”

Other essays in Fame & Folly, notably “What Henry James Knew,” “Mark Twain’s Vienna,” and “Isaac Babel and the Identity Question,” discuss the relationship between what Ozick calls “fame and folly.” James’ ambition and ego were driven by intense insecurities; Twain was momentarily anti-Semitic; Babel rode with the Red Cossacks—yet critics treat these artists as holy. As with Eliot, Ozick reveres the writers but doesn’t agree with their mystification. As Ozick’s essay “Rushdie in the Louvre” argues, mysticism in at the very heart of fanaticism and authoritarianism, and this fascinating and accomplished collection of essays does great service in holding great art up for all to behold while allowing the artists under discussion to remain merely human. Ozick may not be in danger of being idolized by anyone other than me, but this book succeeds brilliantly at rising up as a work of high art while remaining tethered to a very humble and very earth-bound author.

—David Wiley

Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes

A review of Cross Channel, by Julian Barnes
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Changing Channels
English Novelist Crosses Over with
Short Stories About French

By Julian Barnes
Knopf, $21

Born in 1946, Julian Barnes was a late bloomer. He published his first novel—the fine, if conventional, Metroland—in 1980, and has been turning out novel after novel, each more brilliant than the last, ever since. His third book, Flaubert’s Parrot—a combination biography, novel, literary critique, and critique of literary critique—was hailed by critics as the greatest novelistic innovation since Nabokov’s Pale Fire. With these accomplishments, Barnes has established himself as one of the masters of the novel. His newest book, however, Cross Channel, is a collection of short stories and finds him far out of his element.

Comprising ten loosely connected stories, Cross Channel addresses Barnes’—and England’s—obsession with France. This obsession colors much of Barnes’ earlier work, and Cross Channel deals directly with the questions of language, culture, and religion at the heart of British and French discourse.

As always, Barnes’ scholarship is formidable. Ranging from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries, Cross Channel takes up everything from Catholic missionary soldiers to bridge building to bicycling to winemaking, and as with Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes delved heavily into journals, newspapers, and correspondence to write these stories. The results can be perplexing, especially to monolingual Americans, but at times they can also be deeply gratifying.

The richest of these stories, “Hermitage,” is a moving treatise on love and winemaking in fin-de-si├Ęcle France. Two British women, Emily and Florence, are fed up with the turnip farmers of their native village, and to escape they buy a vineyard in northern France, their “hermitage.” Through their interactions with the locals, Emily and Florence open the story to much larger questions than to just the specifics of winemaking. Discussing purity regulations for their vintage, the two women learn about local habits, issues of nationalism, and questions of language. Even the simple task of transporting the wine brings up old economic and social dilemmas.

Not every story in this collection evokes so much so powerfully. Many stories, however beautiful the language, are more technically dazzling than artistically satisfying. The story “Melon” astounds with its knowledge of eighteenth-century culture and history but leaves the reader dry. “Melon” records the various destinies of a group of British noblemen who go to France for a cricket match in September 1789, at the start of the French Revolution—definitely the wrong time to be thinking of sports. With this premise, the story could have been a powerful depiction of personal loyalties, or at the very least an examination of class struggle, but it’s neither. The narrative threads end up getting mangled and fragmented by Barnes’ own virtuosity. Each character’s individuality becomes more and more obscure, and the story ends up being pointless despite its wide range.

Although many of the individual stories in Cross Channel successfully examine the English/French fascination—such as “Interference,” with its cranky exiled composer, and “Dragons,” with its awesome religious clash—the collection is, as a whole, somewhat weak. The interconnecting threads are flimsy, and there’s too much going on in this book for it to be wholly integrated or complete. Maybe the collection is too short—just 211 pages—to make any sense of Barnes’ vast subject material.

Barnes’ worst mistake in Cross Channel is an attempt at closure at the end of all this discontinuity. In the last story, “Tunnel,” the main character, an older version of Barnes himself, travels to France by Eurostar in the year 2017. Letting his mind wander over his lifetime of visits to France, he constructs in his mind a kind of English/French mythology. Despite the story’s eschatological bent, nothing is really culminated. Instead, Barnes relies on the worst narrative trick to pull the story together: The last line of the book reads, “And the elderly Englishman, when he returned home, began to write the stories you have just read.” Hopefully Barnes—the somewhat younger Englishman—will return home to write another novel.

—David Wiley

Friday, July 12, 1996

Talking in Bed, by Antonya Nelson

A review of Talking in Bed, by Antonya Nelson
Published July 12th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Familiar Talk
Nelson’s First Novel is Mired in Stereotypes

By Antonya Nelson
Houghton Mifflin, $22.95

In 1990, Antonya Nelson’s first book, The Expendables, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction. Since then she’s published two more collections, and now with Talking in Bed she’s finally published a novel. Unfortunately, like O’Connor—a master of the short story—Nelson proves to be not much of a novelist.

Talking in Bed begins is a hospital where two men, Evan and Paddy, meet after their respective fathers’ deaths. The two are polar opposites—Evan is a psychiatrist, and Paddy is a roofer—but their common experience draws them together into a strange relationship.

Evan’s intellect attracts Paddy, and after a while Paddy becomes something of an innocent ideal for Evan. The two gravitate toward each other, exchanging secrets (among other things) in an attempt to get closer to the truth of their mutual appeal.

After a few weeks of friendship, it’s obvious that they both want to escape their own lives in exchange for the other’s. Evan’s sick of his rational, controlled existence, and Paddy yearns for the larger world that he imagines Evan to inhabit. Although Nelson plays this out thoroughly, delving deeply into each man’s psyche, it’s really nothing more than a drawn-out “grass is greener” scenario.

Add a few alienated wives to this mixture and you’ve got all the makings of a movie of the week. Paddy’s ingenuous charm also works on Rachel, Evan’s wife, and when Evan leaves her, Paddy moves right in to take his place. What follows is a sordid—and somewhat banal—battle of wills and personalities over who Rachel will choose.

Here the novel shifts ostensibly away from Evan and Paddy and onto Rachel. Instead of watching the two men battle it out in the flesh, the reader must now watch it happen within Rachel. As she sleeps with Paddy, she misses her intellectual familiarity with Evan, but it’s precisely that cerebral aspect of love that she’s trying to escape.

The question looms: Which will Rachel choose, the mind or the body? It’s that simple. Or is it? Nelson tries, with some success, to examine every aspect of this dilemma, but ultimately she can’t raise this novel above its essentially one-question premise.

Nelson’s worst sin, though, is not the lame plot, but rather her oversimplification of character. Instead of drawing real characters, she presents the reader with archetypes: the neurotic, overly cerebral Jew, the confused ex-Catholic, the lunk-headed WASP, and the idiotic Mormon. Nelson thinks these facile delineations inherently entail a heightened conflict and that she can simply create stereotypes and watch the ensuing confusion. But these divisions don’t create tension; they simply offend. And who really cares if Rachel chooses one caricature over another?

Talking in Bed isn’t a total waste, though. It presents a broad view of modern social entanglements, leaving little out of the picture. Nelson employs the homeless, the mentally ill, racial minorities, and social deviants to add a more complicated sense of reality to her novel. But like much of her characterization, much of this inclusion is either one dimensional or cursory. It’s ironic; in trying to portray a confused and complicated—and specific—world, Nelson has created little more than platitudes and generalizations.

—David Wiley