On Coates, Cultural Capital, and Remotism

I had taken this post down along with a bunch of others, and a colleague asked me to repost it. That’s why it’s at the top of my page now. Cheers!

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a new piece up at the Atlantic. Like most things Coates writes, it is beautifully written and urgently recommendable. Nominally, it’s about the time Coates spent this summer in a French-immersion program, but, being a Coates piece, it’s “about” many other things: what it’s like to be an autodidact; why narrow nationalism is sometimes a bridge, not a bar, to a generous and open-minded humanism; why brilliant people often hate school. It gives us a qualified defense of cosmopolitanism (the qualifications being just as necessary as the defense); a succinct explanation of barriers to class mobility among black people; a reminder, if any were needed, that oppressed minority groups are punished both for fitting into the surrounding culture and for not fitting into it; and a blessedly unexpected paean to the virtues of memorization. If we lived in a sane world, it would also end all argument as to whether accusations of “acting white” constitute the main barrier to black cultural achievement.

And yet, like a good French dish, this piece left one really foul taste in my mouth, and that taste came from Coates’s use of the metaphor “capital.” For example, he writes:

For most of American history, it has been national policy to plunder the capital accumulated by black people—social or otherwise. It began with the prohibition against reading, proceeded to separate and wholly unequal schools, and continues to this very day in our tacit acceptance of segregation. When building capital, it helps to know the right people. One aim of American policy, historically, has been to insure that the “right people” are rarely black. Segregation then ensures that these rare exceptions are spread thin, and that the rest of us have no access to other “right people.”

I certainly don’t disagree with Coates’s overall point in this paragraph; it’s an empirical point, and he’s empirically right. And I think I understand why “social capital” and “cultural capital” are helpful metaphors when making this point: knowing how to learn does tend to make you richer and happier. If people are kept from knowing how to learn, they are materially impoverished as a result. And so what might look to even well-meaning white people like a series of sins of omissionwe didn’t get around to making sure the black schools are as good as the white schools; we didn’t happen to build a library in this neighborhood; we just sort of committed white flight in a fit of absentmindednesscan be framed as a sin of commission. We didn’t fail, we plundered. We stole. We took away from some people something that everybody should have. And then we called the people we’d taken it away from “deficient.”

Metaphors of “cultural capital” and “social capital” are great and useful because they help make all that visible.

But the metaphor always jars me, and it especially jarred here, in an essay that contains passages like this:

At Middlebury, I spent as much time as I could with the master’s students, hovering right at the edge of overbearing. On average, I understood 30 percent of what was being said. This was, of course, the point. I wanted to be reminded of who I was. I wanted to be young again, to feel that old thrill of not knowing. … And I was ignorant. I felt as if someone had carried me off at night, taken me out to sea, and set me adrift in a life-raft. And the night was beautiful because it held all the things I would never know, and in that I saw my doom—the time when I could learn no more. Morning, noon, and evening, I sat on the terrace listening to the young master’s students talk. They would recount their days, share their jokes, or pass on their complaints. They came from everywhere—San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, Boulder, Hackensack, Philadelphia, Kiev. And they loved all the things I so wanted to love, but had not made time to love—Baudelaire, Balzac, Rimbaud. I would listen and feel the night folding around me, and the ice-water of youth surging through me.

…In my long voyage through this sea of language, that was my first sighting of land. I now knew how much I didn’t know. The feeling of discovery and understanding that came from this was incredible. It was the first moment when I thought I might survive the sea.

From a certain perspective, what Coates describes here is the process of acquiring cultural capital. Does that sound right to you? It’s … not wrong. Because Coates has gone through this experience, he will write and read more things; what he writes will be interesting in ways that he has not previously been interesting; the impact on his bottom line can only be good. Capital acquired! But I can’t be alone in feeling like that is an ugly, reductive way of describing what sounds a lot more like falling in love.

And that’s the problem with the “capital” metaphor. When you use the term “social capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests human social relationships are best compared to money, or to stuff that helps you make money. When you use the term “cultural capital,” you are using a metaphor that suggests that learning a language, knowing how to use a library, falling in love with Balzacthese things are all best compared to money. Now Balzac, of all people, would have been last to deny that money plays a role in these things as in all things. But the metaphor of “capital” takes one aspect, one end result, and makes it the whole phenomenon. And human beings live by our metaphors. When we get in the habit of talking about our relationships with our neighbors as “social capital,” or our relationship with our minds as “cultural capital,” we start to treat people and learning more like tools. Think of the metaphor of the “selfish gene,” which Dawkins defenders will always tell you they know is a metaphor: well, tell it to Jeffrey Skilling. And I have to think that English professors’ deference to the metaphor of “cultural capital” is one reason why so much contemporary academic literary criticism doesn’t so much deny aesthetic experience as simply ignore it. It’s another version of what G.K. Chestertonanother great writer who often leaves bad, in fact far, far worse tastes, in my mouthbeautifully described as “remotism”:

There is one great evil in modern life for which nobody has found even approximately a tolerable description: I can only invent a word and call it “remotism.” It is the tendency to think first of things which, as a matter of fact, lie far away from the actual centre of human experience. … We may take, for the sake of argument, the case of what is called falling in love. The sincere realist, the man who believes in a certain finality in physical science, says, “You may, if you like, describe this thing as a divine and sacred and incredible vision; that is your sentimental theory about it. But what it is, is an animal and sexual instinct designed for certain natural purposes.” The man on the other side, the idealist, replies, with quite equal confidence, that this is the very reverse of the truth. I put it as it has always struck me; he replies, “Not at all. You may, if you like, describe this thing as an animal and sexual instinct, designed for certain natural purposes; that is your philosophical or zoölogical theory about it. What it is, beyond all doubt of any kind, is a divine and sacred and incredible vision.” The fact that it is an animal necessity only comes to the naturalistic philosopher after looking abroad, studying its origins and results, constructing an explanation of its existence, more or less natural and conclusive. The fact that it is a spiritual triumph comes to the first errand boy who happens to feel it. 

We describe things by their consequences, and we forget the thing. So the wealth and health that come to people who can namedrop Balzac gets mistaken for … knowing Balzac. And Balzac gets reduced to a tool. I’m not calling for a ban on the useful metaphor of “cultural capital,” but I wish people who use it would more often acknowledge that these are very serious limitations.

And the bad taste comes back at the end of Coates’s essay, where he uses another phrase you hear a lot when you hang out in English departments:

I came to Middlebury in the spirit of the autodidactic, of auto-liberation, of writing, of Douglass and Malcolm X. I came in ignorance, and found I was more ignorant than I knew. Even there, I was much more comfortable in the library, thumbing through random histories in French, than I was in the classroom. It was not enough. It will not be enough. Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

Ah, yes. The master’s tools, master’s house, etc. I can’t do justice to the process by which Audre Lorde’s original quotation “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”the original context was that Lorde was understandably sick of being almost the only woman of color invited to speak at academic feminist panelsgot a) shorn of its negative (now it’s usually misquoted, to be about how sometimes you can so use the master’s tools) and b) turned into a shorthand way to defend the strategic value of reading canonical texts by dead white men. But that is usually how I hear it used: “God, you’re reading Moby-Dick? Why?” “Well, sometimes you’ve got to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.” And, though I think that’s certainly good strategyyes, you can learn a lot about white peoples’ particular crazinesses by reading our classic books, or about sexism by reading Saul Bellowit always makes me sad. I think: Seriously, that’s all you got from all those books? You plodded all the way through Melville, and all you got from it was some insight into the Racist Hivemind? You never, in all those pages, thought, “Huh, that’s a beautiful sentence,” or “Bellow may be problematic, but he’s an interesting guy”? I hate the instrumentalism of this metaphor when it’s used in this way (I have no problem with the point Audre Lorde was originally making); I hate the idea of canonical texts as “tools.” Certainly the construct of a canon, itself, is a tool, but the books making it up aren’t tools. Moby-Dick isn’t an instrument, any more than my love for my wife is just a way for my genes to get out there and express themselves again.

But the end of Coates’s essay is such a strange place for this meme to appear, too, because he so obviously does not think of learning as a tool, the Master’s or otherwise. He certainly doesn’t seem to feel that way about French, which he writes about with something more like the loving exasperation of a pet owner: “French is a language that obeys its rules when it feels like it. There is no unwavering rule to tell you which nouns are masculine, or which verbs require a preposition. Memory is the only way through.” If, somehow, the knowledge of French helped Coates dismantle the Master’s housewhich, seriously, I still don’t get, because isn’t the problem the Master, and his asshole rules, and not the house? Are houses just bad now? Is this a subtle argument for geodesic domes?but even if it did, he wouldn’t throw it away, as you throw away a tool that has outlived its usefulness. He wants it around for its own sake. Because knowledge, for him, is an end in itself.

That’s what it is for me. And that’s what people are for me. And that’s why I love Coates’s writing. But it’s also why I wish we had more language that, unlike the metaphors of “social capital” and “cultural capital,” insisted that people and knowledge are more than their functions.

Two things

Here is an essay on Elif Batuman’s wonderful novel The Idiot that I wrote for CommonwealVery honored to appear there; I do love me some lefty Catholics.

Reading this novel and writing this piece gave me a chance to clarify some things for myself about “where the novel is heading” (gag me, but I don’t have time to word that better) and I think the results of that thinking will be helpful for a lot more people than just me.

Tim Hurley, 1954-2016

phil_and_tim

Almost a year ago, my friend Tim Hurley and I were on Michigan Public Radio. I don’t think I ever posted the story here, chiefly for the very Phil Christman reason that I hate my speaking voice, but secondarily because I felt conflicted about the framing of the story, in which I am presented as a mentor to a man twenty-four years older than me, a man who has lived through things that would grind me like a pestle. I’m not saying this as a criticism of the reporter, Jennifer Guerra; she did a great job with the materials handed to her, and one of those materials was the fact that Tim and I met through an artistic-mentorship program sponsored by the Prison Creative Arts Project. He was a “returning citizen,” as the current jargon has it, who needed someone to help him continue the writing he had begun to practice more seriously during his last prison bit. I was that someone.

Going into the “mentorship,” I think we both had impostor syndrome, I as the MFA grad who hasn’t published a novel (still true, alas) and he as … well, as Tim Hurley; as a man whose most marked characteristic, in the time I knew him, was humility. It is utterly characteristic of Tim that when I told him about some of the misgivings mentioned above, he looked surprised, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a man who taught me as much as Tim did to present himself in public—and he repeatedly uses this language in the interview—as my student. I learned a great deal from Tim, who quickly became a friend and trusted confidant. I could go on for hours about the things I learned from him, and, since his spiritual home in recent years was a Vineyard church in Berkley, MI, I suspect that his funeral will involve—as befits him—a rich and educational and emotional and perhaps not-immaculately-structured outpouring of stories of things people have learned from Tim. (You can read some samples of his Hunter-Thompson-meets-Henri-Nouwen prose over here, and I recommend you do so. He had a great autobiography in him.) He was a living museum of late-’60s Detroit rock, a personal friend of the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, a man with detailed memories of seeing Iggy on stage when that still meant something. He worked in wastewater treatment for the city of Warren for many years, and had fascinating insights into the daily politics that keep a city running. (A good chunk of the autobiography that I wish he were here to edit together would have been the most interesting essay about wastewater treatment ever written. Seriously, what John McPhee did for oranges, he was going to do for water.) He had been in a cult. And he knew the insanity, self-deception, and single-mindedness of addiction, as Holmes knew Moriarty, because he struggled with it and had often lost to it. Which means he knew the human heart. Addiction is a disease, but it’s also a kind of caricature of the human condition, which is to be bored by what saves us and worshipfully abject toward the things that destroy us.

When I try to summarize what I most learned from Tim, though, it’s this: he showed me that humility can be a kind of passion, a militant rather than a passive virtue. We think of humility—at least I do—as something calm; Tim’s humility was jumpy, restless, agitated, a continuous and exhausting struggle to keep pace with and outwit his addict’s ego and capacity for self-delusion. He knew that a relapse would kill him, and he knew that only a constant searching and fearless moral inventory would keep him alive. He monitored himself, his relationships, and—yes—his friends for any signs of the kind of bullshit that would lead him to forget his Higher Power, even for a moment, because a moment was all it would take. He was less afraid of confrontation than anybody I know. If Tim walked up to you and said, “Look, something’s been on my heart,” the next words might be a compliment so sincere and heartfelt that it would sustain you for a day, or it might be him exhaustively and exhaustingly misunderstanding some side comment in an email. He was the type of person who left long, indignant, passionate comments on your Facebook wall that left you more confused than ever about what had upset him. But you always worked it out, because even if Tim picked nits, he didn’t pick fights. He simply wanted no bullshit in his relationship with you. He wanted for those he loved what he wanted for himself—to not be killed by the lies and the self-destructiveness that wait around every corner.

I’ve never seen a person work harder to remember his utter dependence on grace than Tim Hurley. I would be a better person if I could tear away the carapace of self-conscious irony that sustains me most days and be more like him. No luck yet. I love the Stooges, like Tim did, but my cognitive style is a good deal more Bowie than Iggy. Then again, in extreme circumstances, even Bowie could pray. For my dear friend Tim, my prayer flies like a word on a wing.

 

 

 

New Piece on Renata Adler! And Adler’s Books, Ranked

My review of Renata Adler’s journalism (in which I have happily wallowed for much of the past year) is live at The Periphery. I also recommend The Periphery more generally for its commitment to publishing marginalized, talented writers (not me: I’m probably one or the other of those, but surely not both), including two of my favorite Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing contributors, Chris Dankovich and Cozine Welch.

In keeping with tradition, I hereby offer readers the following ranking of all of Renata Adler’s books.

9. Pitch Dark (1982)
Beautiful in spots, but I just couldn’t get into it.

8. After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction (2015)
So here is the bad news: the title says “collected” but you still have to buy all the other nonfiction books. (There’s just too much good stuff left on the field.) And here is the even worse news: You still have to buy this one, too, because it has “Irreparable Harm,” her precise, savage evisceration of Bush v. Gore (2000). If you want to know what were all the problems with that decision besides whom it made President, she lays it out beautifully, and also, with unexpected help from Antonin Scalia, she spins out a secret history of the unconstitutional Office of the Independent Council. (Well, it was secret to me.)

7. Toward a Radical Middle (1970)
Dated, most of all by her the-system-is-slowly-getting-better optimism, and occasionally turgid, but she makes some solid and funny critiques of ’60s irrationalism (e.g. what she calls the “single-plane-of-atrocity view of Western man”) and its penchant for psychodrama (which makes a lot more sense after you read her piece on encounter groups). Also, her disciplined, quote-heavy, almost plodding, yet deeply inspiring pieces on the Civil Rights movement will show you that, however much you may in fact love them, you simply don’t, simply can’t love either Martin Luther King or old-fashioned journalistic scrupulosity enough. (I was delighted, in reading an anthology of King recently, to find him actually quoting from one of these pieces.)

6. A Year in the Dark (1969)
A lot of the recent Adler coverage talks about how her movie reviews are fun to read but that she has no feeling for the medium. They are fun to read (in particular, the introduction is a gorgeous mini-memoir in itself), but she has plenty of feeling for the medium. So much so that we can’t allow ourselves even momentarily to consider the main point she makes about it: that violence can’t be depicted without endorsement, because “the camera always says yes.”

5. Gone (2000)
… I know, I know. I know. I never wanted to be the kind of person who reads a whole book about William Shawn’s New Yorker and How We Lost It. Just the mention of the topic makes me feel resentful, like, “Why are you so sure I care?” Even knowing such books exist makes me feel like I’ve been drunkenly assgrabbed by the combined endowment funds of Harvard and Yale.

But this is one of the funniest books in the language.

In this book mere choices of typography make you laugh out loud. Look at what she does to poor old Lillian Ross simply by adding italics. I’ve never read Lillian Ross in my life and yet I totally know how she sounds when she talks, just from those italics. Look at the way she’s permanently damaged folks’ perceptions of Adam Gopnik with that one brilliant adjective, “meaching.” (I still read him, but with my guard up a bit against all those meaches.) This book is too trivial to be the highest evidence of her genius, but it does show her doing many things that only a genius could do. And the book isn’t even really that trivial, because it makes a point that I should have known, always had known on some level, but that a graduate education and TA training in English (with all that talk of Aristotle’s rhetoric and audience, audience, audience) had made it nearly impossible to say: that great writers, and great publications, don’t just reach an audience. They create one.

(And as for the ridiculous Judge Sirica business that made this book notorious, she’s answered that pretty damn conclusively.)

4. Canaries in the Mineshaft (2001)
Have you ever wondered what Renata Adler thinks of “Sesame Street”? Soap operas? G. Gordon Liddy? Monica Lewinsky? It’s all here, and she makes all of it seem every bit as urgent as the prospect of Grexit.

3. Reckless Disregard (1986)
You can read this book-length report on two simultaneous libel trials (Westmoreland v. CBS et al; Sharon v. Time) as a critique of the vague formulation of libel that emerged from 1964’s New York Times v. Sullivan, but more than that, it’s a critique of the American news media in the age of the byline (something my review discusses at length): how the desire to make oneself famous paradoxically causes the whole industry to move in a pack. That Adler picks two people that most of her target audience (me included) hates so much that it requires an effort of moral will even to care whether they were lied about just makes the critique more powerful, because by the end of the book you do care. And they totally were. Adler puts it better than I can (put anything):

As early as the first depositions in Sharon, it was evident that witnesses with a claim to any sort of journalistic affiliation considered themselves a class apart, by turns lofty, combative, sullen, lame, condescending, speciously pedantic, but, above all, socially and, as it were, Constitutionally arrogant, in a surprisingly unintelligent and uneducated way. Who are these people? is a question that would occur almost constantly to anyone upon reading or hearing the style and substance of their testimony. And why do they consider themselves entirely above the rules? These people were, to begin with, professionals, accustomed to speak with finality, never questioned except by their bosses; otherwise (in a field that, unlike, for example, true scholarship, suppresses second thoughts and confirming, or contradictory, inquiry) accustomed, in what they said or wrote, to being believed. In addition, these people had, in recent years, the power and glamour of the byline, and the contemporary notion of journalists as, in effect, celebrities bearing facts. What they were intellectually was in some ways surprising: better educated than their predecessors, they were not remarkable for their capacity to reason, or for their sense of language and of the meaning of even ordinary words. Nonetheless, they appeared before the courts not like any ordinary citizens but as though they had condescended to appear there, with their own conception of truth, of legal standards, and of what were to be the rules. As for “serious doubt,” it seemed at times unlikely that any of these people had ever entertained one—another indication that “serious doubt” cannot long continue as a form of “actual malice” in the law. What was true and false also seemed, at times, a matter of almost complete indifference to them. Above all, the journalists, as witnesses, looked like people whose mind it had never crossed to be ashamed.

Read Adler on the media, and you’ll never again wonder how Judith Miller got a job.

2. Speedboat (1976)

A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.


hideous 
family
pledged
itself
to
margarine

Margarine to itself pledged family hideous a 

I look and look at that sentence, and it just gets funnier.

1. Private Capacity (n.d.)
This was going to be Renata Adler’s book-length expose of the Bilderberg Group, an ultra-secretive yearly gathering of economic and political elites, the sorts of people whose self-importance the world has decided it agrees with. The fact that the book was announced for publication ca. 2002, then scuttled by mutual agreement between author and publisher, provides it with a far more aesthetically pleasing and appropriate ending than poor old words could ever do. But come on: I still want to see it. My favorite passage is probably the one where Jamie Dimon, Robert Rubin, and Dick Cheney use a small Latin American republic stage a live reenactment of the ending of 120 Days of Sodom.

Penelope Fitzgerald’s Novels, Ranked

9. The Golden Child (1976)
The last person I ranked in this manner was Muriel Spark, whose first novel is so freakishly well-realized that it just made me want to subside into nonexistence, like that book’s villain, Mrs. Hogg. Accordingly, then, I must thank Fitzgerald from the bottom of my heart for writing an OK first book that does not read as if it descended from heaven on a throw pillow made of angel pubes. It’s really discouraging when people do that, and the ho-hum quality of this mock-mystery novel about a fake museum exhibit gives the struggling would-be writer some hope.

Don’t bother with The Golden Child unless you’re crazily devoted, is what I’m saying.

8. Innocence (1986)
Don’t be fooled by the low ranking; from here on, pretty much the entire Fitzgerald canon is indispensable. This one is famous for a) initiating her “historical novels” phase and b) containing a beautifully-felt cameo by Antonio Gramsci. It is an utterly fresh romantic comedy with shadows around the edges. But every writer has that weapon she or he is prone to overusing, and for Fitzgerald, funnily enough, it’s understatement. The description of an episode in the (fictitious) history of the Ridolfi family at the beginning, which casts a symbolic shadow over the whole book, is always mentioned by critics as an example of Fitzgerald’s cleverness and subtlety; I think they actually talk about it because they’re proud they figured it out.

7-6. At Freddie’s (1982) and Human Voices (1980)
A toss-up, I love them both so much. They’re both among Fitzgerald’s early “autobiographical” novels (the others are The Bookshop and Offshore) and they’re both notable for not reading anything at all like novels involving “autobiographical material” are supposed to read. The narrator is almost inhumanly impartial to the characters most similar to the author, and wonderfully generous to everyone else. (Penelope Fitzgerald must have been a hell of a fun officemate, at least before life wore her down.) The happy endings are deeply equivocal, as earthly happiness must always be.

At Freddie‘s builds a wonderfully satisfying conflict between a woman of the theatre, running a perpetually down-at-the-heels acting school in London, all of whose personal power and influence come from her immense and classically theatrical denial of all the actual circumstances of her life, and her employee, a guy so morbidly honest that he makes Samuel Johnson look evasive. Dreams, meet Reality. This is a beautiful “Nobody gets what they want” novel, and finds its place this low on the list because it’s outshone, not because it isn’t, on its own terms, awfully bright.

Human Voices (and the title alone gives it a slight edge over At Freddie’s: at once an Eliotic allusion just right for the characters and mood, a description of the BBC Radio milieu in which the characters work, and a reference to the rumor-heavy hubbub of wartime) is perhaps the novel of Fitzgerald’s that pushes furthest her notion of erotic love as a beautiful and necessary catastrophe. You root for this book’s central couple, knowing that they’re going to bring each other misery. It’s the theme Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wanted to have, but the characters weren’t fully realized enough to embody it the way this book does. (Fitzgerald’s Innocence also treats of this sort of relationship, in a way that looks a little broad only when you compare it to the infinite subtlety of Human Voices.)  To bring Eliot back into the conversation, Fitzgerald writes about love the way Eliot’s Magi speak of the birth of Christ. And I think she writes truly.

5. The Beginning of Spring (1988)
Bears in the dining room. Prerevolutionary Russian mystics. A sexy au pair. And an image so spooky and lovely that I won’t say a word about it, even though one of Fitzgerald’s stupider paperback publishers has chosen to spoil the whole thing with a cover illustration.

4. The Gate of Angels (1990)
Readers of Hermione Lee’s Fitzgerald biography are oppressed by the knowledge that Fitzgerald began a book about the Inklings that she didn’t live to finish. It’s a foregone conclusion that this would have been the greatest novel of all time. On the day of its publication, bells would have rung, Lycidas would have returned from the sea’s bosom, ISIS would melt down their guns and declare war on frowning, the snow would have mounted on its frozen feet and commenced shoveling itself with a “Terribly sorry for the mess,” and “Hey Ya” would have sounded fresh again. However, if I had to pick any other period in the history of Oxbridge life for Fitzgerald to finish her book about, as consolation, it would be Cambridge at the dawn of modern physics, among handwringing men with apologetic faces and eccentric social habits who, half unmeaning (Eliot again!), disturbed the Newtonian universe. Anyone paying attention at this point could have seen that Fitzgerald had long since gathered to a greatness.

3. The Bookshop (1978)
(But what is “greatness,” anyway? Are we more in need of small portraits perfectly realized or large, difficult things brought off right? B: Yes. A: This book.)

2. The Blue Flower (1995)
And having gathered to a greatness, Fitzgerald flames out, like shining from shook foil.

I am tempted to accede to consensus here and put Blue Flower at number one. It is certainly the book that forced even the most dismissive old sexists in the British bookchat industry to admit that the dowdy lady comedian-of-manners was a genius. It is the most obviously innovative of her books, Cubist in its use of point of view (you often have no idea who is narrating or from where). It is, at least, a great choice to read if you don’t plan to read any other Fitzgerald. You’ll be moved (as much by the delicate beauty of the book’s structure, the sense it constantly creates of sudden affinities between widely-separated details, as by the pitiable lives narrated), and you’ll get why German Romanticism is a major literature ill-served by the English language.

1. Offshore (1979)
If there’s a distinction to be made between “early” and “late” Fitzgerald, it is radically not one of quality. Nor does it have to do with emotional force. I am not sure a novel has ever left me sadder.

New essay on Penelope Fitzgerald

This piece appeared about a month ago in the Christian Courier, a ragtag fugitive Canadian Reformed newspaper on a lonely quest to stay in business without dumbing down. I reprint it here with their kind permission. If for some reason you have Protestant leanings and/or like my work, consider subscribing. They are really cool people.

Historical novels generally work by immersion. Like Pixar movies or the better sort of video game, they bludgeon you with detail, distracting you with endless small sensible facts from any thought of the present-day world. This is a perfectly sensible method, yet the layers and layers of explanation—President Lincoln lifted the yellowed, battered envelope from the desk. Like most mail, it took months getting anywhere, and arrived travel-stained, smelling of gin…—implicitly acknowledge, and thus reinforce, the reader’s sense of distance from the very world into which these details initiate us.

For a few chapters, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower (1995) pretends to be this kind of book. Jacob Dietmahler, a German student, arrives at the estate of his friend Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, AKA Fritz, AKA Novalis, who we know (if for no other reason than that we’ve read the blurb) will become a major German Romantic poet and, through his impact on George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, a formative influence on modern fantasy literature. It’s laundry day when they arrive, so we pick up a few details about what minor German nobility of the late eighteenth century wore, and how often it got cleaned (only once a year, in the Hardenbergs’ case: a massive, daylong operation). One by one, conveniently, the Hardenburgs introduce themselves to Dietmahler, who will be, it seems, our point-of-view character.

Sixteen pages in, the bottom drops out. Dietmahler disappears—we don’t see him again for over half the book. Orderly sequence of event gives way to potted biographies, short out-of-context conversations, poetic asides, scene-setting details for scenes that barely arrive, all of this cheek-a-jowl on the page, sometimes together in the same paragraph. Constantly, Fitzgerald plays with our distance from the time period, at times speaking of the characters with great and easy intimacy, and at times turning essayist or intellectual historian, throwing details over her shoulder that none of the characters could possibly know: “It was at this time, when Fritz was emptying the sick room chamberpots, and later … that he was first described in a letter by the critic Friedrich Schlegel.” Who in the story knows this? Where is this narrator talking from? By the end of the book, we have, in this way, been Fritz’s friend, his fiancee, his protective and confused mother, his eventual readers, his intellectual heirs. He exists for us on many levels at once, as does—we realize with a gasp—the mystical, neoplatonic world that his works describe: a world in which brokenness and perfection somehow live together in a companionable, elderly-German-couple silence. In other words, the book enacts, in its structure, the world Novalis imagined, and tried to live in: a world in which Fritz’s short, disappointing life and Novalis’s long literary triumph coinhere.

The Blue Flower is the most obviously experimental of Fitzgerald’s nine novels, but it shares with its predecessors her amazing subtlety, her humor, and her predilection for meditative rather than chronologically linear structure. Most of all, it shares those books’ attachment to the sorts of characters that Hermione Lee, in her excellent new biography of Fitzgerald, describes as follows: “‘[D]ecent chaps’ who struggled and did not succeed…women who were always interrupted…vulnerable children…people who loved silently and without much hope.” She writes of defeats so small, so decorous, and so final that at least some of the characters barely register them as such. The hero of The Bookshop (1978) opens a bookshop in a provincial English town, and is ruined by the aspersions of an obnoxious blueblood. Offshore (1979) concerns a romantic relationship that never quite gets around to existing except in the minds of its two principals. Human Voices (1980) and At Freddie’s (1981) concern themselves with requited and unrequited love affairs, respectively, both equally doomed. And so on, through the series of historical novels that capped her career—Innocence (1986), The Beginning of Spring (1988), The Gate of Angels (1990), and The Blue Flower, her recognized masterpiece. Only God could lavish more loving attention on losers than Penelope Fitzgerald does.

There are two things about Lee’s biography, meticulously researched and marvelously organized as it is, that make the book hard to finish. First, it shows, in pitiless detail, that Fitzgerald loved, and was, these people in life, not only in art. Her husband was a well-intentioned failure, an ineffectual drunk with whom she’d stopped sleeping by the early ‘60s, a period that she spent too busy to write (!), cadging a living from ill-paying jobs, raising too-thin children on a leaky houseboat. Which sank. I would not wish Fitzgerald’s midlife on a bank robber, let alone on one of the great postwar English novelists. (The other is Muriel Spark. There is no third.) Secondly, when Fitzgerald does at last “succeed,” she is still subject to the most appalling male condescension this side of Mad Men. Her first publisher refers to his backlist of woman-written novels as “a branch of gynecology.” Literary journalists call her “shy Penelope.” After she wins the Booker Prize for Offshore, she sits, bemused, through a BBC panel discussion devoted to the proposition that the judges picked the wrong book. (They didn’t.)

Such is often the fate of the smart, compassionate, epigrammatic novel that nobody describes as “sprawling,” that doesn’t lend itself to panel discussions of The Contemporary Situation, that takes up more space in the memory than on the bookshelf. It is only partial compensation to see these books enjoy the sort of gradual triumph that culminates in the sort of fat, loving, judicious biography that Hermione Lee has written. But the lateness of Fitzgerald’s reward only reinforces the insight, ultimately theological, to which this quietly devoted Anglican writer’s novels bear witness: Humans are too hopelessly ill-adapted to this life for it to be the only one.

Muriel Spark’s Novels, Ranked

22. Reality and Dreams (1996)
I read this two weeks ago and I cannot recall a thing. A film director gets injured and…does things? Whatever, it’s still probably more enjoyable than the last few Booker winners.

21. Symposium (1990)
An unusually likable rich person is targeted for murder by an apparently nice young woman. Never, never trust apparently nice young women in Spark novels. You will get poleaxed in the brain. The best part of this book is the Marxist nuns; I would have read a whole book about them.

20. The Hothouse by the East River (1972)
This is Spark’s A Fable, her Runaway Soul, her George Romero’s Land of the Dead, the endlessly delayed magnum opus that, on arrival, seems to have overripened into almost nothing. I wasn’t gripped, and neither, it seems, were most American readers of this New York-set novel, in which Spark hoped to “do” Gotham as she’d “done” the Holy Land in Mandelbaum Gate: a print version isn’t even available at the moment (though you can finally get an ebook). However, it does have a character whose shadow won’t cast straight, which is among the most perfect metaphors imaginable for what it’s like to live with someone who’s vaguely, undiagnosibly … off a little bit.

18-19. Aiding and Abetting (2000) and The Finishing School (2004)
Her two last novels, published when she was 82 (!) and 86 (!). In the first, a May-December couple pursues the fugitive aristocrat-murderer Lord Lucan (who was a real guy), while Spark succumbs to too-big-to-edit syndrome. Every several pages she absent-mindedly recaps the entire plot thus far, as if she were writing a monthly superhero comic (“It’s a good thing your planet’s yellow sun gave me the strength to survive that explosion”), or, as is more likely, as if she were succumbing to age. Still, it also shows that her knack for creating situations that perfectly externalize what would seem to be stubbornly internal states never left her. I’m referring to the character Beate/Hildegarde, a fraudulent stigmatic who did, in fact, despite her fraud, miraculously cure a few people. The inextricability of brutal honesty from self-humbugging in religious life was rarely better dramatized. I could, on the other hand, have done without the faintly racist cannibalism subplot.
Finishing School leaves a less distinct impression, but it’s got some hilarious satire of Bright Young Literary Things, some pointed and helpful remarks on those of us whose self-critical instincts hamper our art, and, that rarity in Spark, a forgiving ending. (Even the dithering main character finally publishes his damn book. There’s hope for us all.)

16-17. The Takeover (1976) and Territorial Rights (1979)
Her Italian period, and her nasty/macabre period as well. The characters in these books are dank, even by her standards. Still, Territorial Rights shows Spark handling a fairly populated plot with aplomb; and as for The Takeover, I can’t really not like a story in which a guy pretends to be the leader of a Diana-worshipping cult so he won’t have to pay his rent.

15. Not to Disturb (1970)
As a love triangle reaches its bloody end, the servants, who already know how this story ends, get ready for the book deals and TV chat-shows. Also, there’s a madman in the attic. It’s very funny for an anti-novel, not that funny for a Spark novel.

14. The Public Image (1968)
A cleverly-plotted study of a movie star. It was the first thing I’d ever read that actually gave me some sense of what it would be like to be world-famous, the psychological habits you’d pick up from necessity: the sick watchfulness and involuntary calculation. And yes, John Lydon himself confirms that it was the inspiration for this.

12-13. Robinson (1958) and The Bachelors (1960)
Spark was pretty much kicking ass right out of the gate; these are “the worst” of her early novels, and yet they would have represented a quite respectable peak for anyone else. Robinson does Robinson Crusoe but adds a lady, and also blackmail; The Bachelors gives us yet another memorably creepy would-be cult leader (a medium, in this case) and a sympathetic portrait of epilepsy.

11. The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
A young Catholic convert visits the Holy Land and goes underground, all for the sake of a pilgrimage. This is Muriel Spark Goes Self-Consciously Big, with results that nearly won her the Booker Prize but, in the long run, has tended to turn off some of her more ardent fans, who find the book talky and self-serious. I can see where those who hold such a view are coming from, and the prose in the early chapters is leaden with explanation and background, but the back half of the book really takes off. I fell for this book, and I missed the characters after it was done: not always a feeling one associates with reading Spark.

10. The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Also from Spark’s anti-novel period, and one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. The heroine goes willingly to her own murder, from sheer nihilist perversity (or desire for control?). It’s like Evelyn Waugh got mindraped by Thomas Ligotti. Nothing so disturbing can be counted a literary failure. But yikes.

9. The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
A power-obsessed Mother Superior bugs her entire convent. It’s nuns doing Watergate. IT’S NUNS DOING WATERGATE. This book is so fucking funny. Take my word.

8. The Only Problem (1984)
Like the hero of this novel, I have read a lot of commentaries on the Book of Job, and its presentation of what this book calls “the only problem”: innocent suffering. This is worth all those commentaries put together.

7. The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)
A novel about a corporate efficiency consultant who wastes everyone’s time, does no work, and is probably Satan. So, a realist work, then.

6. Memento Mori (1958)
This is a novel about a crank caller who tells old people “Remember you must die.” But he’s not the bad guy. Do you really need me to sell you on this any further?

5. Loitering With Intent (1981)
Spark wrote a score-settling autobiography in the early ’90s, but if you really want to know what things were like for an edgy, intelligent young woman in austerity Britain, cadging a living as a secretary to demented old sexists while cobbling together her first novel, read this hilarious caper. Actually, you should read it whether or not what you want to know that.

4. The Comforters (1957)
As Maud Newton has pointed out, Spark’s debut novel is a postmodern metafiction before those things had been invented. One character is a writer who knows she’s also a character in the book we’re reading. Another is a cipher with no interior life: literally, when she goes into a dark room, she disappears entirely. There’s an old lady who runs a smuggling racket and a would-be Satanist, and those are the boring characters. It really chaps my ass that this was Spark’s first novel.

3. A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)
Spark’s most epigrammatic and quotable book, not because 1-2 are less well-written, but because their prose is more subordinated to story. Not that Kensington‘s style isn’t equally appropriate to its narrative: that of a wise and sensible older woman casting a retrospective eye on her youthful life. You could tweet the entire thing. Better, you could memorize the entire thing, and then base your life on it. It’s like wisdom literature for smartasses. Look at these sentences:

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. [N.b.: True! This is the only reason my wife was able to finish grad school in five years.]

It is my advice to any woman getting married to start, not as you mean to go on, but worse, tougher, than you mean to go on. Then you can relax and it comes as a pleasant surprise. [True! Goes double for teachers.]

It’s easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. … I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book. [True! Also, eat the least early in the day, when your willpower is least depleted, so that you’re covered if you go a little nuts in the evening. That “BREAKFAST IS A MUST” horseshit is useless for those of us who work sedentary jobs.]

My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. [So, so true. My wife’s grad school advisor, on similar grounds, told her to wear her clothes inside-out every few months, just to keep people from thinking she’s too competent. She has failed to do so to her detriment.]

When you have to refuse any request that admits of no argument, you should never give reasons or set out your objections; to do so leads to counter-reasons and counter-objections. [Has gotten me out of so many stupid obligations I cannot even count them all.]

When you are looking for a job the best thing to do is to tell everyone, high and humble, and keep reminding them please to look out for you. This advice is not guaranteed to find you a job, but it is remarkable how suitable jobs can be found through the most unlikely people. [This so works. Tell the janitor; tell your mailwoman; tell the cousin you run into at a funeral; tell the homeless guy for whom you buy a sandwich. Trust me.]

And please, New York City publishers, heed these words, if no others: A large part of an editor’s job is rejection. Perhaps nine-tenths. In those days at least, it was not only rejection of manuscripts but of those ideas that seemed to come walking into my office every day in the shape of pensive men and women talking with judicious facial expressions about such mutilated concepts as optimist/pessimist, fascist/communist, extrovert/introvert, highbrow/middlebrow/lowbrow; and this claptrap they applied to art, literature and life to the effect that all joy, wit and the pleasures of curiosity were quite squeezed out. 

2. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Most people think this is Spark’s masterpiece, and it’s not like they’re really wrong. You can never go wrong with a book that created an archetype, as this does, and that letter … (readers of the book know what I’m talking about, and everybody else needs to get on the stick).

1. The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
Every college town has one: the rental house that, year after year, attracts an oddly fascinating mixture of cool and awful women, giving the place an atmosphere permanently saturated in unfledged possibility, hormones, and late-adolescent cruelty. Take that house, then add to it a piece of not-yet-exploded WWII ordnance, and you have this: the pinnacle of Spark’s career, and one of the greatest, most poignant comic novels in English.

New piece on Muriel Spark

The Christian Courier has posted my little overview of Scottish comic novelist Muriel Spark’s ouevre.

I honestly think this is a really good little essay. And I hate everything.