Thursday, May 04, 2006


Romano on PEN, Banville on Roth

I'm just about finished with my fly-on-the-wall coverage of the PEN World Voices Festival: all that remains is my conversation with Dubravka Ugresic, which should be done in a day or so. Meanwhile, if you're interested in a one-stop overview of the entire blowout, take a look at Carlin Romano's piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Star turns by such global celebrities such as outgoing president Salman Rushdie vied for attention with modest appearances by such non-household names as Bulgaria's great poet, Lyobomir Levchev ("I speak English only after second bottle"). Yet many of the issues most crucial to the visiting writers emerged not in star turns, but at the many themed panels, some large enough to require a scorecard, some so linguistically varied they guaranteed a headache to anyone besides Kofi Annan.

On other fronts, I just got around to reading John Banville's review of Everyman in the Guardian, and although I regard him highly as a critic, this is one silly performance. One paragraph in particular rankled:
It might be claimed that the overall flatness of style in Everyman is the mark of a master disdaining mere technique, but that will not quite do. Our lives are a shimmer of nuances between the two fixed poles of birth and death. That flash which is our being-here, brief though it be, is infinitely complex, made up of poses, self-delusions, fleeting epiphanies, false starts and falser finishes--nothing in life finishes save life itself--all generated from the premise that the self is a self and not merely a persona, a congeries of selves. Literary art cannot hope to express that complexity, but it can, by the power of style, which is the imagination in action, set up a parallel complexity which, as by magic, gives a sufficiently convincing illusion of lifelikeness. "In literature," Henry James declares, "we move through a blest world in which we know nothing except by style, but in which also everything is saved by it." All of Everyman could be contained within a few pages of late James.
This is transparently the recipe for a John Banville novel--the infinite nuances, the atomized perceptions--and the biggest boner a critic can commit is the insistence that all writers should do what he does. It's embarrassing. So is Banville's attempt to beat Roth with the stick of James's late style. No other writer has leaned so heavily on style and so lightly on actual knowledge of the world: James writes about sex, money, power, and marriage as if he'd read about them in a book--worse, in one of his own books. I speak as a fan, but one who prefers the moving minimalism of Everyman to the syntactical swamps of The Golden Bowl.

Nice blog, I like it.

I disagree with you about Henry James, however. Read the sections of The Portrait of a Lady just after Mr Rosier visits Madame Merle, to the point at which Lord Warburton says goodbye, and especially Isabel's vigil after Osmond asks her to get Warburton for Pansy. Underneath the flourish is a subtle analysis of a doomed marriage and how it went wrong. Going to the Golden Bowl, sometimes it is difficult to get through those long sentences, but as I get to the end I am swept up in Maggie's action, every time I read it. James uses images to get at the truths he's writing about, to crystallise them, and I can't think of any finer discussion of marital power than the images of Charlotte breaking out of her cage and being led at the end of Adam's silken noose. The truths lie under the metaphors. There is also the quiet, mostly unarticulated power of Adam, who is pulling the strings in the background, unknown to the Prince and Charlotte.

On the other hand, James was leery of intimacy in his own life, and I do think that translates to the books, not in the Golden Bowl (Charlotte and the Prince have very sexy conversations, I think), but certainly in The Portrait of a Lady, especially 'the hot wind of the desert' scene at the very end.

Moneywise, I can't agree with you there, either, look at Charlotte's suffering in the Golden Bowl, and the Prince's valuation of money as superior to love which seems to me to be his downfall. Again in The Wings of the Dove, Merton Densher is no copied character, and even Kate Croy is sympathetic. Henry James is the only writer I know who makes you love and hate every character - nowhere more so than in the Golden Bowl, where the reader's loyalties go from Charlotte to Maggie, from the Prince to Adam. At the first I'm rooting for Charlotte, when the perspective changes I'm rooting for Maggie even though I didn't want to. That's not a sign of somebody mediating already-known ideas, it seems to me.

I'm not a critic so I may be talking rubbish, but I love James with a passion (quite embarrassing, really!) and will defend him manfully!
I'm not actually a sworn enemy of Henry James--in fact I regard him as a great, great writer--and what I was objecting to in my post was Banville's use of him as an (ineffective) truncheon. The Portrait of a Lady belongs to the master's middle period, and I agree with you that much of it is wonderfully lucid. James, like Proust, knows how to squeeze the maximum mileage of out of his endless sentences. But I would still argue that there's something abstract, almost touchingly theoretical, about his treatment of sex and romance and the grubbier side of life. Finally: critics talk rubbish all the time, so your non-professional status is hardly a black mark against you. Manful indeed!
Thanks for the reply! You are of course completely right about Banville's use of James, I would never argue about that! Critics do talk a lot of rubbish (not you, obviously) but they do talk their rubbish nicely.

What's wrong with manful anyway? "I will defend him womanfully" doesn't sound quite right!

James is abstract, but he's not only abstract, I suppose that's what I mean. For me the abstract style actually gets closer to the truth than a blanker way of writing. You have probably had that feeling when you read a brilliant book and suddenly you realise that you never even looked at the world in the right way, that you've never read anything properly before, that nothing will ever be the same again? That's how James made me feel, and I don't think an author who was even mainly abstract could do that.
I was looking for a good review of "The Golden Bowl," and Google eventually led me here. (Actually I didn't find the Banville review embarrassing, but maybe I should withhold judgment since I haven't read the Roth novel.) Have you read Gore Vidal's take on "The Golden Bowl"? I find it the best. I've been very uneasy with the reviews that find Maggie and her father to be so "moral." Martha Nussbaum's is about the worst. Can you suggest any enlightening criticism of the novel? (What's the wheelchair below for?)
Hi Goethe Girl,

I should clarify: I didn't find Banville's review embarrassing, only his suggestion that Roth should sound like Banville. I don't recall Vidal's take on "The Golden Bowl"--I should chase that down. As for additional criticism of the novel, nothing occurs to me off the top of my head: maybe R.P. Blackmur wrote something smart (and quasi-opaque) on the subject? Not sure. Not sure which wheelchair you're referring to, either, but you can chalk that up to my own ignorance. Thanks for commenting in any case!
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