Thursday, March 31, 2011

Simone de Beauvoir on Samuel Beckett

Simone de Beauvoir, writing about Beckett:
As for Beckett, his way of emphasizing the dark side of life is very beautiful. However, he's convinced that life is dark and only that. I too am convinced that life is dark, and at the same time I love life. But that conviction seems to have spoiled everything for him. When that's all you can say, there aren't fifty ways of saying it, and I've found that many of his works are merely repetitions of what he said earlier. Endgame repeats Waiting for Godot, but in a weaker way.

Man Booker International Prize

The shortlist has been announced for the Man Booker International Prize. The Man Booker Prize is the annual award for British and Commonwealth writers, for best novel of the year. It usually affords a bit of fun, with huffs and fall-outs among the jury common.

This is an international version, but it covers an author's entire body of work. It's an oddity, to be sure. I'm ambivalent about prizes at the best of times - how can you compare one piece of art against another? Once you start bringing cultural differences into it, plus the need to consider an author's whole oeuvre, it becomes impossible.

And, really, on what level can you compare, for ecample, Marilynne Robinson and Philip Pullman? Their worldviews are at such odds it becomes impossible to make any sort of literary judgement without some element of spiritual sensibility entering the discussion. To put it bluntly, what atheist is going to rank Robinson higher than Pullman, and what Presbyterian will prefer Pullman to Robinson? And, in any case, should they? Supposing it was possible to define some measure of purely literary worth: would there be any point? Robinson and Pullman each have their perspectives on mythology and spirituality, and these are crucial elements of their fiction. Without it, their work would be shorn of much of its power. So pitting them against each other is simply pointless.

Other than that, the list smacks of decision by committee. A couple of Asians, some Europeans, Americans but not too many, nowhere dominating. It's a major surprise there's no Latin American, even if they are out of fashion at the moment. Personally, I would remove Anne Tyler, who is a good novelist but scarcely in the same league as the others, and insert a Latin American, presumably Garcia Marquez. Any list of greatest living authors that doesn't include the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude is pretty flawed.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Cool Million by Nathanael West

In 1939 Nathanael West wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘My books meet no needs except my own, their circulation is practically private and I'm lucky to be published.’ This was no great exaggeration: to be frank, in his own (short) lifetime he was barely read. And yet, in response to one of my reviews of an earlier West novel, Jim H commented that West is an extremely influential novelist. And that's absolutely true. The more one reads West, the more one realises exactly how influential he has been on writers for the past sixty plus years. It is a remarkable turnaround.

The time when West was writing was one of depression but one, also, of clearly approaching turbulence, especially from Europe. It was, too, a time when the European novel was in the ascendancy and, with it, a different mood was being fostered in the arts: broadly speaking, we might be considering the late flowering of high modernism, with all its studied seriousness. And, at the same time, this was increasingly a political era. In that context, West’s peculiar novels were overlooked, their deceptive simplicity and barbed naivety not given the recognition they deserved, their political meaning underestimated. The existential theatre of the absurd, as depicted by Camus or Mann or Hesse, was an intellectual environment; its satire was concomitantly elevated, focused more on social criticism than comic technique. The 1930s depression occasioned much soul-searching in American society, saw lurches both left-ward and right-ward. It promulgated a social-realist approach to literature and, at the same time, a retreat into the pastoral. Such an environment was not conducive to sly, formally inventive prose like West’s. It wasn’t until after the second world war, with the emergence of the 1950s anti-war novels – Vonnegut, Heller etc, the peak of the southern grotesque, Cold War standoffs that led Philip Roth to protest the death of the novel because novelists couldn’t compete with reality, the Civil Rights movement and the birth of 1960s counterculture, that satire took on (once again) the slapstick, wise-cracking, anti-establishment dimensions that we encounter so strongly in the work of Nathanael West.

So there’s a pleasing circularity to it, a curious symbiosis. West influenced those who came after – Vonnegut, Pynchon, Hawkes, Purdy, Barthelme etc – but it was they who permitted West’s work to be understood for what it is. The successors opened the way for better understanding of the master.

A Cool Million is a political novel, in the sense that it targets a political establishment which is corrupt and racist, bullying and philistine, but its strangeness left the political movement largely nonplussed. It is a novel of the end of the American dream. It is Candide recast for twentieth-century America, the destruction of an innocent by a system he simply cannot comprehend. Lem Pitkin is a simple, if not simple-minded, boy who is torn apart – literally so, he is systematically divested of body parts – teeth, eye, thumb, scalp, leg – with painful regularity as he seeks to make his fortune and lay claim to that mythical, tarnished dream of American wealth and happiness. In doing this, West explains, his intention was to ‘rewrit[e] the Horatio Alger myth – from barge boy to president of from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in one generation.’

It is hard to tell whether one likes or dislikes this novel. It is a peculiar, hallucinatory experience. The cartoonish humour is, at once, wickedly funny and horridly cliched, bluntly didactic and acutely observant. One either rides with its eccentricity or is made sea-sick by it. I think, in the end, its success revolves around the extent to which you think West is offering the reader any sense of hope; indeed, whether it can be inferred that West himself possessed any of that virtue.

The relentlessness with which Lem’s picaresque life unfolds in succeeding disastrous set-pieces does become wearying, and before long what initially seemed like highly effective satire-dressed-as-whimsy loses both its humour and its impact. In that, it's a bit like Vonnegut when he's off-form. Lem is a construct, completely empty, devoid of any emotion or knowledge or feeling other than the quest for the American dream. He is completely passive. His life happens to him. He dies. From that point of view, A Cool Million is probably the least successful of West's novels.

By the end of the novel, Lem is embroiled in a Fascist organisation which is taking over America under the charismatic leadership of Shagpoke Whipple. Inevitably, he dies and, as a final ignominy, is resurrected posthumously as a hero of the fascist state. Thus, as David Galloway noted in 1964, West is warning that the inevitable result of the rupture of the American dream is a descent into fascism. Civil and labour unrest, dissatisfaction with the the system – ‘Wall Street and the international bankers’ – would announce itself through extremism and violence.

The difficulty in this is that it is unclear where the alternative lies. West gives us an array of characters of varying degrees of awfulness, but nowhere is there someone on whom we may affix some sense of moral responsibility. I do not like critics who dismiss books on the grounds that ‘there are no likeable characters’: such analyses are trite and pointless. And yet, in this case, it does present an issue with the novel: where is there any alternative to the dismal fascism that West portends? One might expect, at the very least, such an alternative should be observable through its absence, but it is difficult to argue even that with A Cool Million. Once you satirise everything, the point of the satire is lost (Percival Everett take note). Nonetheless, you may argue, a warning is still a warning, and it is not the role of the Cassandra to suggest a solution to the problem, only to warn of its impending genesis. Maybe. But remember here that the problem West warned against – the rise of American fascism – didn’t materialise.

Not yet, the ghost of Nathanael West may perhaps be whispering. Not yet.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky was a gambler. Like most gamblers, he found himself in serious debt. Hence The Gambler, which he wrote (actually dictated) within twenty-six days in 1866 in order to meet his publisher’s deadline, which failure would have occasioned crippling financial penalties. Art mirroring life.

As someone with no interest in gambling, nor any comprehension of or sympathy for the psychological impulses that lie behind it (that being one of the more positive side-effects of Calvinism), I was doubtful whether The Gambler would hold much interest for me but, such is Dostoevsky’s brilliance as a novelist, even minor works like The Gambler remain gripping. And, in one respect, it strikes me as positively a major work. In it, Dostoevsky’s focus is principally on the City of Man, rather than the preoccupation with the City of God which suffuses Crime and Punishment, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. What we have, then, is man and his foibles, man broken by his weaknesses, a searing secular analysis of human failure. Thus, it may lack some of the theological and emotional sweep of the great novels, but that is not to say it is ephemeral or slight. Rather, it may be argued that in The Gambler Dostoevsky more successfully approaches questions of morality and human love precisely because he does not bind such material in portentousness. Sometimes, it is easier to apprehend the City of God by ignoring it; there is sufficient activity in the City of Man, moral and immoral, good and evil, to establish a valid metaphysical standpoint.

The primary subject matter of the novel is, of course, gambling. But The Gambler is about much more than that. Gambling for money becomes a metaphor for gambling with life, for the search in each of us for something beyond the inevitable pull of mortality or the strictures of morality or society, or the balm of common-sense or the false comfort of romantic love. The novel takes the form of diary extracts by a young man named Alexei Ivanovich. Alexei is a tutor in the employ of a Russian general, and this entourage has arrived in Roulettenburg, in Germany, a place renowned (and named) for its casinos. Alexei Ivanovich, miserably in love with Polina Alexandrovna and searching for some meaning in life, grows increasingly certain that his fate is bound to the roulette tables.

Time and again, Alexei has the opportunity to triumph – indeed does triumph, at one stage winning 200,000 roubles. But triumph is transitory. Within each triumph is the seed of its ultimate destruction. We are not even talking here about hubris, simply the ineluctable notion of time and its cleansing effect on the human pysche. Alexei Ivanovich’s ruination is depicted through his addiction to gambling. Notably, however, he is not the first character in the novel to be so afflicted: that dubious state belongs, instead, to the General’s mother, Antonida Vasilevna, whose fatal attraction to the roulette wheel is relayed in two magnificent scenes, one as comedy, the other, inevitably, as tragedy. This merely sets the scene, however, showing us that the capacity for foolishness and intemperateness resides in all of us.

But it is Alexei Ivanovich specifically who is key to Dostoevsky’s message. His addiction and subsequent ruination goes far beyond routine foolhardiness. In his quest for satisfaction at the roulette table he is demonstrating the loss of his self, of his soul, of any sense of meaning. Moreover, there is a hideousl inevitability about it. “I knew for certain,” he writes, “that I should not leave Roulettenburg unchanged, that some radical and fundamental change would take place in my destiny; so it must be and so it would be.” This sets up Alexei Ivanovich for an existential battle he is wholly unequipped to win. He is gambling everything on mere chance just as – in Dostoevsky’s world view, at least – modern man, divorced from God, presumes that existence can be remain a game of luck and fortune without responsibility or devoid of consequence.

This desperate battle with the roulette table is mirrored throughout by Alexei Ivanovich’s doomed attraction to the beautiful but manipulative Polina. There has always been some speculation that much of The Gambler is autobiographical and that, in particular, the character of Polina is based on Appollonaria Suslova, a femme fatale with whom Dostoevsky had a torrid affair in 1863 (three years before The Gambler was written and during the period when his addiction to gambling was at its peak). Although there may be a degree of truth in this, D.S. Savage, writing in 1950, is right to point out that Polina is not merely a caricatured femme fatale, nor is the novel as straightforwardly autobiographical as has been suggested. Any such interpretations are understandable, however. The first great set-piece in The Gambler (and probably the funniest single episode in all of Dostoevsky and proof that this miserabilist has a keen sense of the comic) begins when Polina persuades Alexei to demonstrate his love for her by playing a ludicrous prank on a pompous German baron and his wife and, in so doing, greatly insulting them. Alexei does so, to disastrous effect, ultimately losing his position as tutor. But, Savage reminds us, we are receiving these views of Polina through the distorted vision of the man who is in her thrall, the unreliable narrator Alexei. And, Alexei admits, “Polina was always an enigma to me.” Most significantly, though, in the end it is not Polina who is responsible for Alexei’s ruin, but the truly femme fatalistique Mlle Blanche de Cominges. And, indeed, Mlle Blanche is really only the implement of his ruination: rather, it is Alexei Ivanovich himself who is ultimately responsible.

Alexei Ivanovich, in his devotion to the roulette table, believes in the truth of chance. And, through that belief, he is revealed to believe in nothing. He is a lost soul who loses all: love, status, wealth, self. His unrequited love of something becomes, instead, a requited love of nothingness.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Great chat up lines in literature (2)

The second in a (very) irregular series, so far only including Dostoevsky:

"Why or how I have come to love you I do not know. It may be that you are not altogether fair to look upon. Do you know, I am ignorant even as to what your face is like. In all probability, too, your heart is not comely, and it is possible that your mind is wholly ignoble."

Alexei Ivanovich to his beloved, Polina, in The Gambler

Saturday, March 12, 2011


This is a haunting photograph. I'm building myself up to reading Slaughterhouse-5 again, and this begins to get at the level of devastation we wrought on that city. But only BEGINS to get at it. We dropped 650,000 bombs on the city. 25,000 people died. The scale of it is, to be honest, too great to assimilate.

The photo comes from the Guardian, part of a regular series.

A Game of Patience

I've written about this before, but I'm doing so again because there's a better image of it on the Yorkshire's Favourite Paintings website. This is Meredith Frampton's painting, A Game of Patience, in the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, my local centre of culture. I adore this painting.

I saw another painting of the same woman, Margaret Austin-Jones, by the same artist in Tate Modern a couple of years ago and thought it was simply amazing. Then, not long later, on a trip into Hull I was astonished to find this one.

It is such an enigmatic painting. She is playing patience, and yet she is gazing fixedly at something to her right. Outside, life goes on, giving the impression of her isolated in her own bubble, alone and unconnected. She is very beautiful and there is something mesmerising about her.

The painting is one of a hundred across various art collections in Yorkshire which have been selected for a competition to see which is Yorkshire's overall favourite. The illustration on the website is very good quality and it allows you to inspect it in close-up. You don't get all of the beauty of Frampton's wonderfully smooth brushwork, but you get a good impression of it.

A lovely painting.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West

If Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) strayed into surreality from time to time, West’s debut novella, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) is the full lobster telephone. In it, Balso is wandering through Troy and discovers the Trojan Horse and decides to enter it. There are only three potential routes – the mouth, which is too high to reach, the navel, which leads to nowhere, and the nether parts. ‘O Anus Mirabilis’ it is, then, and he enters the horse’s back passage. His troubles begin.

In a picaresque adventure, Balso meets in quick succession a number of bizarre characters, each with a story to relate. There is an art-lover who initially acts as his guide; Maloney the Areopagite, naked but but for his derby hat and employed in writing the life of Saint Puce, a flea who lived in the armpit of Jesus Christ; a vile twelve-year-old boy who styles himself after Raskolnikov and wants to sleep with his schoolmistress, Miss McGeeney; Miss McGeeney herself, talking incessantly about Samuel Perkins, whose life she is chronicling; and a beautiful hunchback called Janey Davenport, who falls in love with Balso but who turns out to be a character created by Miss McGeeney in her epistolatory novel. It's all a dream, then, or a nightmare. Balso realises that the wooden horse is ‘inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience’ and, despite his best endeavours, he continually becomes that audience. To what end?

The Dream Life of Balso Snell is undoubtedly an odd novel, seemingly taking delight in decrying the artistic environment of which it, itself, is undeniably a part. West himself called it a ‘protest against writing books’, and it seems he wants to have it both ways: to be of the modern literary age and avowedly against it. Such contradictions are a feature of much modernist literature. In his rejection of virtually everything, Balso could be read as a clear descendent of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. And, like the Underground Man, he is two-dimensional. At least, though, Balso is two-dimensional in the context of a dream, where you might expect life in only two dimensions.

However, in another sense, the Underground Man is not the most apt comparison. Many critics have dismissed Balso Snell as nihilistic, but I do not get that sense. To satirise, even ridicule, contemporary arts is not necessarily to exhibit nihilistic tendencies. Rather, I think West’s debunking of his artistic environs is more in the way of a parody of the heroic quest myths from Odysseus onwards which so informed modernism (Joyce’s Ulysses the most obvious example) and contemporary, especially American literature (the whole myth of the west, after all, is merely the quest rewritten in chaps and spurs). If Balso is on a quest he is going to be sorely disappointed. And so it turns out: his peregrinations through the bowels and intestines of the Trojan Horse do not bring knowledge or revelation or happiness or reconciliation. At least, that is, until the novella’s conclusion, when it is possible to make a strongly humanist reading of the text.

At this point, while Balso is furiously wooing Mary McGeeney, he tells her: ‘ And when dying, will you be able to say, I turn down an empty glass, having drunk to the full, lived to the full? Is it not madness to deny life? Hurry! Hurry! for all is soon over.’ As mottos for life go, this is pretty good. It is followed by the finest, funniest, most ecstatic, most gloriously accurate depiction of the sexual act I’ve ever read. I’ll quote it in full, because it deserves it:

Sir! Stamping her tiny foot--imperative, irate. Sir, how dare you, sir! Do you presume? Down, Rover, I say down! The prying thumbs of insolent chauffeurs. The queen chooses. Elizabeth of England, Catherine of Russia,
Faustina of Rome.

These two noes graded into two yes-and-noes.

No...Oh...Oh, no. Eyes aswim with tears. Voice throaty, husky with with repressed passion. Oh, how sweet, sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart. Oh, I'm melting. My very bones are liquid. I'll swoon if you don't leave me alone. Leave me alone, I'm dizzy. No...No! You beast!

No: No, Balso, not tonight. No, not tonight. No! I'm sorry, Balso, but not tonight. Some other time, perhaps yes, but not tonight. Please be a dear, not tonight. Please!

But Balso would not take no for an answer, and he soon obtained the following yeses:

Allowing hot breath to escape from between moist, open lips: eyes upset, murmurs love. Tiger skin on divan. Spanish shawl on grand piano. Altar of Love. Church and Brothel. Odors of Ind and Afric. There's Egypt in your eyes. Rich, opulent love; beautiful, tapestried love; oriental, perfumed love.

Hard-bitten. Casual. Smart. Been there before. I've had policemen. No trace of a feminine whimper. Decidedly revisiting well-known, well-plowed ground. No new trees, wells, or even fences.

Desperate for life. Live! Experience! Live one's own. Your body is an instrument, an organ or a drum. Harmony. Order. Breasts. The apple of my eye, the pear of my abdomen. What is life without love? I burn! I ache! Hurrah!

Moooompitcher yaaaah. Oh I never hoped to know the passion, the sensuality hidden within you--yes, yes. Drag me down into the mire, drag. Yes! And with your hair the lust from my eyes brush. Yes...Yes...Ooh! Ah!

The miracle was made manifest. The Two became One.

Seriously, even that master compiler of lists, Donald Barthelme, never produced anything better. It is a virtuoso ending, full of life and vitality, the absolute opposite of the stultified, writerly, self-obsessed, self-hating characters so deliciously parodied earlier in the novel. Thus, the ending immediately invites you to return and re-read those early chapters with new insight. A world of people, not a world of arts. It’s a fascinating binary opposition, not one I have considered before. The Dream Life of Balso Snell is a thought-provoking polemic.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

The eponymous Miss Lonelyhearts is a young journalist employed to write the advice column for his newspaper, a task he is initially keen to undertake because ‘it might lead to a gossip column’, but one which comes to weigh heavily on him. He is a Christ-like figure of goodness and hope who is increasingly dragged into despair by the crises described by his correspondents. The travails with which he is confronted become increasingly tragic (not to mention bizarre), and Miss Lonelyhearts begins to feel helpless, even hopeless. As the novella progresses he attempts to find answers to the letters and, through them, to the questions they pose about humanity. Possessed of a ‘Christ complex’, he seeks answers through religion. He uses sex. He drinks. He fights. Still, he can find no answer. His despair deepens.

What we have, then, is essentially the existential crisis of Jesus Christ. Miss Lonelyhearts grows sick, the physical symptoms symbolic of the spiritual wasting that is afflicting him. His girlfriend, Betty, advises him to give up his job, since it is having such a profound effect on him. He can’t quit, he tells her, and even if he did ‘it wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t be able to forget the letters, no matter what I did.’

Whether Miss Lonelyhearts is intended to represent Christ, or is simply a fool with a Christ-complex, is the subject of much debate. James Light, for example, argues for the former, with Arthur Cohen arguing the latter. West, himself, describes Miss Lonelyheart as ‘a priest of our time who has a religious experience.’ A connection can also be made to that other Christ-like outsider, Bartleby the Scrivener, with Miss Lonelyhearts echoing Melville’s final line, ‘Ah humanity...’ when confronted by a springtime park which shows no signs of coming back to life. Whatever his underlying symbolism, Miss Lonelyhearts is surrounded by a world of pain and abuse, from which there appears to be no escape. This may sound like grim reading but, rest assured, Miss Lonelyhearts is a very funny black comedy. It is bizarre, a forerunner of Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon and the sixties postmodernists, while its stripped down, undemonstrative prose out-simplifies even Hemingway at his most recalcitrant. The overall mood is one of rising hysteria, a rage against the rage in society. Miss Lonelyhearts, with his Christ complex, believes he can remedy the ills of society, but in the end he finds that he (and we) are wholly unequipped to do so.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Now Westlin' Winds

I'm sure I've written about this before. This is Burns at his finest, and the last stanza is the finest love poetry I've ever read. It is simple, of the people, and it combines love and nature in a way that is totally natural and unforced. I would kill to be able to write like that.

Here, it is sung by Dick Gaughan in his pomp. Dick is the finest traditional singer I've had the privilege to see, and this is one of his best songs. He has an extraordinary knack of taking songs and making them his own. And not just traditional material - his version of Hamish Henderson's 51st Highland Division's Farewell To Sicily is unforgettable. Here, his voice seems to match the song perfectly - slightly gruff, but with a soulful undertow.

We'll gently walk and sweetly talk
Till the silent moon shine clearly.
I'll grab thy waist and, fondly pressed,
Swear how I love thee dearly.
Not vernal showers to budding flowers
Nor autumn to the farmer
So dear can be as thou to me,
My fair, my lovely charmer.

And this is another piece of Burns, this time sung by the great Davy Steele. I can't believe it's nearly ten years since Davy died. What a singer.

A Diptych

A few posts back I wrote about a superb moment in The Secret Agent, a frozen instant of pure, melancholy humanity. In it, Mrs Verloc leans over and kisses her husband's head. It is a perfect encapsulation of human love, capturing one of thoses moments that define our lives. I compared it to a painting by Vermeer or Hammershoi, an intimate snapshot of other people's quiet lives. It is a beautiful scene, quite perfect.

Later in the novel there is a second scene which forms a diptych with this scene, the nadir which follows this zenith. Mrs Verloc's simple-minded brother has been killed while carrying explosives on the instruction of Mr Verloc. Mrs Verloc is distraught. Mr Verloc is trying to rationalise the episode and remove himself from culpability. The two occupy the same room, ostensibly are in conversation with one another, but in reality they have long ceased to communicate on any practical level. Conrad writes:

Mr Verloc] was tired. The last particle of his nervous force had been expended in the wonders and agonies of this day full of surprising failures coming at the end of a harassing month of scheming and insomnia. He was tired. A man isn't made of stone. Hang everything! Mr Verloc reposed characteristically, clad in his outdoor garments. One side of his open overcoat was lying partly on the ground. Mr Verloc wallowed on his back. But he longed for a more perfect rest--for sleep--for a few hours of delicious forgetfulness. That would come later. Provisionally he rested. And he thought: "I wish she would give over this damned nonsense. It's exasperating."

There must have been something imperfect in Mrs Verloc's sentiment of regained freedom. Instead of taking the way of the door she leaned back, with her shoulders against the tablet of the mantelpiece, as a wayfarer rests against a fence. A tinge of wildness in her aspect was derived from the black veil hanging like a rag against her cheek, and from the fixity of her black gaze where the light of the room was absorbed and lost without the trace of a single gleam.

Again, Conrad has established a painterly scene, one of complete disconnection. Mr Verloc is lying on the settee, Mrs Verloc leaning against the mantelpiece. An unbridgeable gulf lies between them. There is a black veil hanging loose around Mrs Verloc's face and the room is shrouded in gloom, literal and metaphorical.

While the first scene, of the loving kiss, evokes a Vermeer or Hammershoi, this second scene could easily be a description of some Victorian era painting, something by Sir David Wilkie, or Augustus Leopold Egg or Waterhouse or GF Watts. It is intensely powerful but, to modern tastes perhaps, verges on melodrama, and it is, in truth, the last great moment of The Secret Agent before it does begin to slide into a melodramtic and, finally, didactic conclusion. In that, then, this is a final moment of genius. It is a perfect example of capturing a defining moment in words.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cabot Wright Begins by James Purdy

Cabot Wright Begins, James Purdy’s third novel, published in 1964, is very similar in tone to his first, Malcolm, a detached, ironic, somewhat distanced work in which the humour is mordant and the characters exist in a bubble of their own in a space akin to, but clearly different from our own world. In this way, Purdy manages to establish a critical reflection of our modern culture and mores. The result is highly entertaining and equally disturbing.

The first thing to note about Cabot Wright Begins is that its eponymous hero has recently been released from prison for raping 300 or more women. The second thing to note is that this is a comic novel. Such discordance between subject matter and delivery is typical of Purdy (and others, Vonnegut notably, or Barthelme) and it is used here to great effect. Bernie Gladhart, a naive used-car salesman is pressurised by his scheming wife to write a novelised account of Wright’s exploits; he decamps to Brooklyn in search of Wright and finds him by chance, living in the same hotel; he is followed to Brooklyn by family friend, Zoe Bickle, who takes over the writing of the memoir; relationships everywhere are strained. America is in crisis. This is the basis of the novel. Near its conclusion, Purdy includes a ‘review’ by Doyley Pepscout, the king of New York reviewers, of the fictionalised memoir produced by Bernie and Zoe:

I regret to say that this sordid, often obscure book, without visible motive or meaning, is dispiriting, disquieting, sordid, and utterly without reader-appeal.

It is easy to imagine a sardonic grin on Purdy’s face as he wrote these lines, contemplating the likelihood of a similar reaction to Cabot Wright Begins. Writing in 1984 of his early attempts to get published, he noted:

My stories were always returned with angry, peevish, indignant rejections from the New York slick magazines, and they earned, if possible, even more hostile comments from the little magazines. All editors were insistent that I would never be a published writer.

In Cabot Wright Begins, Purdy takes great delight in skewering such publishing types, a significant theme of the novel being the fatuity and greed and philistinism of the publishing industry which lies prostrate, as Purdy describes it, ‘before [its]true God, Mammon’. Publishing, for Purdy, is a craven business, subject to fads, oblivious of literary merit. In such an environment, one can readily understand how a novel like Cabot Wright Begins might be dismissed, but that would be the result of superficial reading. This is comedy at its sharpest and blackest. In terms of style it resides somewhere between the darkest fantasies of John Hawkes and the tendency to whimsy of Donald Barthelme. Take the best of each of those writers, the grotesquery of Hawkes and the satire of Barthelme, and you begin to get a measure of Cabot Wright Begins and, indeed, of Purdy’s work in general. In truth, you may have to go as far back as Sherwood Anderson to get a wholly comparable stylist. But Purdy, who died last year, remains a misunderstood and under-read writer. He describes his own writing style as:

both realistic and symbolic. The outer texture is realistic, but the actual story has a symbolic, almost mythic quality. The characters are being moved by forces, which they don’t understand.

This, he argues, presents difficulties for both publishers and critics. In a world that values certainty, linearity, a realist sense of ‘truth’, Purdy’s work offers only complexity and uncertainty. And this represents the difficulties attendant in approaching Cabot Wright Begins.

At the most basic level, readers may struggle to overcome the fact that Wright, a seemingly decent, ordinary man, a Yale graduate now successful in Wall Street, has raped 300 women, has subsequently served a seemingly short prison sentence and is now back in his home city of New York, living a quietly respectable life. Furthermore, these rapes are accompanied by Wright 'giggling'. And they are presented in a dreamlike fashion, with the women all but acquiescent, and with no sense of violence or of physical or mental damage. ‘There was never any evidence of struggle after he left. Many [victims] called the police, but more to share their experience than to register a complaint,’ we are told at one point. One character even reports that it changes her life for the better.

Readers unable to discard their literal approaches to fiction – and there are, alas, many of them – may balk at this but, of course, what we are dealing with here is allegory. What makes Purdy’s approach challenging, though, is, as he himself explained in the quote above, the way he melds reality and allegory in such a distinctive manner. The world inhabited by Cabot Wright is very like ours. We do not, as we might in Barthelme, for example, have Indians manning barricades made of grock or people buying entire cities on a whim or a giant balloon floating balefully over Manhattan. What we have are men and women much like ourselves, acting much like ourselves, except... except.... They seem real but they clearly are not. And it’s that discordance again, the unsettling way the reader is drawn down a seemingly familiar path only to emerge into a wholly alien landscape. And so readers can become challenged by the world that Purdy presents. One has to learn how to read him.

So, if one accepts the allegorical nature of Purdy’s fiction, what is Cabot Wright Begins about? Purdy himself puts it simply: it’s ‘about how awful America is.’ It is a direct attack on the rapacity of a consumer society that is turning on itself and eating itself alive. Genuine, personal human feelings and emotions become subservient to the twin gods of the market and popular (dumb) taste. In such stultified worlds, where nothing is original and everything is manufactured, true, natural existence becomes impossible. Thus, Cabot Wright effectively becomes an automaton, beholden to his sexual impulses, permanently priapic, constantly over-stimulated, unable to operate outside the framework imposed on him by society. Afterwards, he cannot even remember the facts of his own life until he is reminded of them. His ‘cure’, which permits his release from prison, leaves him so enervated and unfeeling that even those base, manufactured impulses that originally prompted his criminality have been neutralised. He is nothing. He is a husk. He can no longer even giggle, far less express any emotion.

In this, Cabot is symbolic of America itself. In the sermons of Cabot's boss, Mr Warburton, Purdy indulges in some excoriating analysis of contemporary America. It is a ‘shambles of scrofulous obscenity and barking half-breeds’, a nation passing ‘as quickly as possible into the cosmic scrap-hole of non-existence.’ Cabot, and all of the characters, in their ways, represent that national descent into self-indulgent decay. Bernie is ‘living at the end of a civilization’, while Gilda Warburton has read that ‘America was coming to an end.’ Thus, we have a nation in decline, symbolised by characters who are, themselves, gravely affected by that decline. They lack empathy, any ability to relate in what might be considered a normal way.

Because of this, Purdy’s characters lack the ability to extrapolate from action and turn it into emotion. Therefore, they consistently act in highly dramatic ways. Bernie is sent by his wife, Carrie, to Brooklyn to write an account of Wright’s life more or less on a whim. Carrie immediately takes a black lover whom she ‘marries’ in a mock ceremony, while late in the novel Bernie also finds solace with a Congolese man, and Gilda Warburton becomes ‘intimate’ with the black butler (Purdy’s use of black characters is worthy of a dissertation in its own right). And, of course, we have the 300 rapes. These episodes are related in flat, undemonstrative language, as though they are entirely natural, and yet the characters seem not to develop in any way from their actions. On the contrary, Purdy completely eschews traditional character development.

Bernie’s attempt to write his fictionalised account of Cabot’s life, too, becomes enmeshed in consumerist excess. He is taken on, at the prompting of Zoe Bickle, by the pre-eminent literary agent in New York, Princeton Keith, and is assured his work will become a bestseller. It fits with the zeitgeist, he is told. It will be massive. By the time the work is complete, however, stories of rape have fallen out of favour and the book is dropped. ‘It’s the age of the black faggot and fellatio,’ Bernie is told. Rape is old hat. (And any similarities here to, say, this year’s vogue for misery memoirs or celebrity ‘auto’biographies are entirely prescient on Purdy’s part. What excess is currently in vogue? And what will be next? One has to imagine that Patrick Bateman, Harvard graduate and rising star of Wall Street, and coruscating dissector of 1980s culture, would have admired the assault on 1960s culture in Cabot Wright Begins.)

And just as we saw in American Psycho, such societies are also prey to prejudice and outrageous – often unconscious – falsification of events in order to fit a pre-ordained map of ‘rightness’. Thus, while Cabot, a white man, is embarked on his raping spree he is variously described by his victims as:

a Black Muslim, a Puerto Rican degenerate, a longshoreman amuck on canned heat, an Atlantic Avenue dope addict, an escapee from numerous penitentiaries, and a noted Jewish night-club comic.

A cloak of prejudice is drawn over daily life. A good Yale man cannot be suspect. A black or a Muslim or a criminal or Jew undoubtedly must. So it is in the world of the bland, where the lowest common denominator dictates beliefs and interests and motivations.

So, altogether, we see the characters assailed by a blend of bloated sex, racism and greed. And such is the homogeneity of modern life, Purdy warns, that all individual instinct and reason is ceasing to have meaning. At the end of this novel, Cabot writes to Bernie in a passage which finally transcends the layers of irony and lands a punch on the reader, asking plaintively, “Do You think there’s a Chance for Me if I ever Find out who I is?

This takes us to the root of the novel. It is truly existential, in Camus’s sense of life as being absurd. The end of the novel arrives, remember, when Cabot Wright Begins. And what is it that he begins? To laugh. It is even spelled out for us: ‘First Ha then Ho, then Ha Ha HAR, HAAAAA!’ The whole shooting match, then, is simply absurd. And so all we have to do is make the most of it. But how? The novel ends with a beginning, a promise of hope, as the newly laughing Cabot Wright sets off to discover Me.

It’s a lesson worth learning.