Monday, September 05, 2005


Yardley on Roth, one from Kunitz

I just read (via Beatrice) Jonathan Yardley's piece on the new LOA editions of Philip Roth, in which the critic emphatically declines to put out the welcome mat for Letting Go, When She Was Good, Our Gang, and The Breast. Indeed, it was the initial appearance of the latter two books that first turned Yardley against Roth: "I began to sense that so much of his work is drawn from a deep well of self-absorption and indifference to the world beyond." I haven't looked at the offending items in nearly twenty years, and can't go to bat for them. It's possible they've aged as badly as Yardley claims. (Like me, he still admires Goodbye, Columbus.) But another comment, later in the piece, did make me pause. As he feeds Letting Go into the shredder, Yardley notes: "The novel is endless--some 660 pages in this edition--and, apart from the intelligence of Roth's mind and the vigor of his prose, without redeeming quality." Gee, I thought, aren't intelligence and vigorous prose redeeming qualities in and of themselves? They may not be sufficient to salvage a mess like Letting Go--that would certainly be Yardley's argument--but sometimes they're all we've got. Sometimes I'll even settle for one out of two.

Anyway, my main point isn't to wrassle with Yardley. What his piece did make me ponder was how many works of art I love in spite of their glaring flaws. Perfection is a rare, possibly chimerical thing. Almost every novel or movie or piece of music that really matters to me has something wrong with it. (Randall Jarrell's famous definition: a novel is "sixty thousand words of discursive prose with something wrong with it.") Sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in how bad a wonderful work of art can be, how ingeniously a great artist tiptoes around his weaknesses: it's like an Old Master who just can't paint hands, and so invariably has his subjects clasp them behind their backs. Of the novels I've read recently, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead may come the closest to perfection: such control, such consistency! But in my heart of hearts, I prefer a gleeful shambles like Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, a comic supernova whose energies are just barely held together by string and Scotch tape. Or Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World--not a perfect novel by any means, but one suffused with such radiant intelligence that I gladly forgive its narrative flaws.

Last night I was trawling through Stanley Kunitz's Passing Through. There are many beautiful, imperfect pieces in there: "Quinnapoxet," "The Snakes of September," "Lamplighter: 1914," "Touch Me," and the overwhelming "Wellfleet Whale." But something like "Robin Redbreast" is, I suppose, perfect enough:
It was the dingiest bird
you ever saw, all the color
washed from him, as if
he had been standing in the rain,
friendless and stiff and cold,
since Eden went wrong.
In the house marked For Sale,
where nobody made a sound,
in the room where I lived
with an empty page, I had heard
the squawking of jays
under the wild persimmons
tormenting him.
So I scooped him up
after they knocked him down,
in league with that ounce of heart
pounding in my palm,
that dumb beak gaping.
Poor thing! Poor foolish life!
without sense enough to stop
running in desperate circles,
needing my lucky help
to toss him back into his element.
But when I held him high,
fear clutched my hand,
for through the hole in his head,
cut whistle-clean...
through the old dried wound
between his eyes
where the hunter's brand
had tunneled out his wits...
I caught the cold flash of the blue
unappeasable sky.

Judging Roth on the basis of weird, out-of-character efforts like The Breast or Our Gang (which I thought was often funny and breezy) or The Great American Novel or by their first novel (Letting Go) is just unfair. Roth was clearly going through an artistic crisis in the 70s which he was working through by trying different things. Like with other artists, Roth deserves to be judged by his best work.

How would you react to a critical debunking of Beethoven based on the Op. 54 Piano Sonata? Or a diss of Dostoevsky based on The Eternal Husband? It isn't just unfair; it's useless information to the reader of the criticism.
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