Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gornick on Bellow, with assist from Baubie

My beloved Baubie, who passed away on December 15th, was for many years a faculty wife extraordinaire at the University of Chicago. When my grandfather's department was recruiting new faculty, she would take them and their wives to the CSO or the art institute to show off the city she loved. She would help them find doctors and apartments and synagogues or churches to help them with the move. She nurtured many of his graduate students, some of whom were there at her 90th birthday party so many years later. I've thought about her sometimes during one of those endless conversations about the squeeze on academic labor - yes, of course, it's the switch to part-timers, but is there also not something in the loss of all that free and invisible labor done by the wives? (Of course, many times the part-timers are the wives, but that's another story.)

Baubie loved the intellectual stimulation of the Hyde Park Community. She was unfailingly warm, in her Minnesota way, about pretty much everyone there. (We once had an argument about her insistence that Milton Friedman was a really nice guy). One time when we were going through some old books, there was a stack of Bellow and I asked if she'd met him. "Oh, sure." I asked what he was like. "Well, you know," she said. Of course I didn't, but I did: that was as close as she would come to saying someone was less than wonderful. "His wife was a doll, though," she said then. "Well, you know, one of his wives." God bless Minnesota nice.

So there's a volume of letters of Bellow's out. As I've mentioned before, I love letters and diaries and the ephemera of writers, so I was curious about them. Unfortunately I couldn't get through the reviews of them I'd seen, as each one began with a long lament about the eclipse of the great masters, how Bellow's readers were dying out, and on and on. Isn't after someone's dead a good time to stop kissing up to them? So I was delighted to see that Vivian Gornick had a piece about the letters in Bookforum. Reading it brought home what should have been obvious: the lamenters weren't only trying to win Bellow's favor, they were imitating him:
Then there is the unhappy transformation of his attitude toward the culture in which he found himself. In 1952, he wrote to Lionel Trilling: "Are most novels poor today? Undoubtedly. But . . . things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it! To identify oneself with a better past! No, no!" A decade later he was in the full, relentless cry against "the present" that made his books rise repeatedly to crescendoes of ridiculing bitterness against his own time.
Of course, you could argue he really was just growing wiser with age and able to see the corruptions around him more clearly, or that the world really was just getting worse. But as Gornick outlines, over the course of the letters, the world goes sour in much the same way each woman, and women overall, and friendships, went sour. There's a difference between being enraged by the world and having contempt for it. Having contempt isn't critique, it's a way of rejecting the premises outright, the way Bellow or Roth's characters accuse women or feminists of doing. As Gornick wrote in The Situation and the Story, being able to imagine the other isn't a question of political correctness, it's a necessary function of the literary imagination.

There are a number of reasons why reviewers might glide over this or struggle to frame it in more heroic terms. There's the natural pull towards canonization, of course, along with a desire to counter criticism deemed 'political' - even if it means ignoring the writer's own obsessions. There's also a kind of deference that I think is greater for book reviewers than those working in say film, in that reviewers are writers, so you're writing about someone who does what you do, and within that likely does things that you can't do, so who are you to say they have become solipsistic, self-justifying, self-pitying or what have you?

Take a sentence from Herzog Gornick quotes, when he says of women, "They eat green salad and drink human blood." Now, that's kind of a brilliant sentence. Beautiful, maybe? Is that the right word? But it's power doesn't make it 'true' in any of the ways a statement like that could be 'true.' Yes, yes, it's Herzog saying it, not Bellow, so you could say, it's a truth-telling statement about the thought process of a certain kind of betrayed husband. But it's a truth obtained by absorption in this point of view, not distance. Then, in a letter, we get a sentence like this one:
In a 1984 letter to a former mistress, he says of the fourth wife now leaving him almost exactly what he'd said of the second when she left him: "Where a woman's warmest sympathies should be there is a gap, something extracted in the earliest years of life which now is not even felt, not recognized as absent."
A less brilliant sentence this time, its ironies more obvious and bare. Why should we take the laments for the culture any differently? Baubie once asked me, when she was taking a retirement class on Nobel Prize winning authors, why they were all so dark, why weren't there any who could write about the joys of life. I mumbled something about how much harder that is to express, a wholly insufficient answer, because it's not just with sexism or cultural decline that literary folks seem especially vulnerable to equating bad news with truth.

There's always a pleasure in writers with voice and craft, and there's lots of reasons to read Bellow, to find him compelling. But there may also be moments when one finds it all a bit much, that life is short and art long and that, contrary to popular belief, there are limits to a woman's masochism, even as a reader. A lovely thing about no longer being a student and no longer twenty-one is the ability to accept this with relief.

On another note, I was delighted to read in her author note that Vivian Gornick is writing a biography of Emma Goldman. I love her autobiographical essays and her book on Stanton, and ever since discovering the unbelievable genius B. Traven, I've been itching to learn more about anarchism. It's not quite Minnesota nice, but at least there will be dancing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Idea of Datedness (with Jazz Hands)

This week I went to the ballet. The trip was inspired in part by my rant after seeing Black Swan about how yes, she lost a lot of weight and trained hard, but people who said Natalie Portman looked like a ballet dancer just don't know what they are talking about, and were doing a real disservice to the amazing artists the film was trying to be about. It also seemed like a kind of Social Network thing: let's make this world seem even more misogynist world than it is, and kind of condemn, that, but mostly wallow in it, because you know what isn't misogynist: Hollywood! Not to mention the idea of 'reinventing Swan Lake by making it visceral!" as some revolutionary statement. What's next, a visionary theater directory who wants to set Hamlet in Nazi Germany? Zany!

But, in any case, the movie made me want to go to the ballet. I complained to my friend that no one wants to go, and he gamely volunteered, so last week I saw a double Jerome Robbins program, "Dances at a Gathering," originally from 1969, and 1958's "NY Export: Opus Jazz." No offense to black block theaters and their folding chairs, but there's nothing like going to Lincoln Center in the middle of the week. "Dances at a Gathering" is the kind of modern ballet I love best: just enough story: no mythological frufru, no dead virgins, just friends coming together mixing, flirting, pairing off, repairing off, and quietly bidding each other off, all with a classical vocabulary, and gorgeous lines to match the single voice of Chopin's piano line.

But it was the relatively short "NY Export" that just floored me. My friend joked before hand that he wanted to see jazz hands, and he wasn't disappointed. Everyone has seen Robbins choreography, since he did West Side Story (along with Peter Pan, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and others), and it always kind of kills me when people joke about the dancing gangs of West Side Story, as if musical theater was supposed to adhere to the Dogma rules of social realism. But it's not just the jazz hands: everything about this piece screams 1959, as much as the Weber paintings I last wrote about, from the sneakers to the gorgeous Ben Shahn backdrops. People make fun of the obsessive period stuff on Mad Men, but it's undeniably a huge part of what we love: the illusion of transportation, to which the visual is the best pathway. Nostalgia is dangerous in general, when it's for a time we never lived in as much as when it's clearly a proxy for our own childhoods. But it's also unavoidable, and, taking it with the proper suspicion, we can enjoy it as one of the transporting pleasures of art. I was trying to describe Ben Shahn and all I could think of was the line from Annie Hall, you know the one, "you're like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandies University, the socialist summer camps, and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings," and of course I'm not that at all, no one could be who isn't a good thirty years older than me, and even going back that wasn't really my family, but it's something to laugh at, and to explain why you like the "dated" more than all the things the hip people have "rediscovered."