“In Eastern Europe you have to be a very, very bad novelist to be a bad novelist.”

—Josef Skvorecky (Czech novelist now in Toronto)

“How can you write the Russian novel in America so long as life goes on so unterribly?”

—Robert Frost (around 1924)

In 1959 a Soviet writer calling himself Abram Tertz smuggled out to the French religious magazine Esprit an essay called “On Socialist Realism.” Tertz, whoever he was, mockingly described not just the official Soviet literary creed but all forms of artistic realism as ridiculously inadequate to the representation of everyday life in the Soviet Union. Reality there was so improbable, so far beyond the “positive” realism acceptable to the all-governing censorship, that only a “phantasmagoric” art in the tradition of Hoffman, Dostoevsky, Goya, and Chagall could do justice to everyday life in Russia.

In 1960 this still unknown person, living up to his own prescription, published in France a provocative fiction, The Trial Begins, so unconventional coming from a Soviet writer that it seemed bizarre. The next year he followed this up with five Fantastic Tales. In 1964 he published Lyubimov, which appeared in English as The Makepeace Experiment.

“Abram Tertz” was an unexpectedly fresh and individual voice to come out of the Soviet Union. Anyone familiar in the least with the hackneyed formulae produced as “positive literature” by writers really serving as propagandists for the almighty state understood. that Tertz had to publish in the outside world. He directed his scorn not so much against the bad faith of such writers (inevitable in a police state) as against their willing mediocrity and refusal of artistic intelligence. Realism in the Russian tradition, supposedly derived from the hallowed example of Tolstoy, had become an excuse for shallow writing altogether beside the point of Soviet life—so marked by brutality from above, slavishness from below, to say nothing of the studied falseness of official speech. Narrative art now should abandon surface representation, Tertz argued; it should emphasize the dislocations and shifts of focus corresponding to our real perspective. Only this could convey human existence in so harshly controlled an environment. Dostoevsky in his “abnormality” was more true to everyday Soviet life than Olympian Tolstoy.

In September 1965 Abram Tertz was arrested. He was taken in along with the writer Yuli Daniel, who under the pseudonym “Nikolai Arzhak” had also sent material abroad. (This included a macabre satire on Stalin’s purges: on a select day of the year people were allowed to kill anybody they liked.) Tertz was the young scholar Andrei Sinyavsky, already noted for his literary cultivation. He was not a Jew; Yuli Daniel was. Sinyavsky had borrowed his pseudonym from the hero of an underworld ballad popular in the romantic Jewish underworld of the Moldavanka, the thieves’ quarter of Odessa pictured in the early stories of Isaac Babel. In 1941 Babel himself had disappeared in the purges; Sinyavsky’s pseudonym was understood as a tribute not only to Babel but to the many Jews who had fallen victim to Stalin’s terror.

Sinyavsky’s English translator, the late Max Heyward, wrote in his introduction to A Voice from the  Chorus (the letters Sinyavsky wrote to his wife from labor camp) that after their arrest Sinyavsky and  Daniel were held “in almost solitary confinement, seeing no one except their interrogators, stool pigeons put in the same cells, material witnesses occasionally brought in for a ‘confrontation. ” Physical brutality was no longer the norm, “but the usual array of sometimes even more effective instruments deployed to the full-playing on the prisoner’s anxiety about family, hints at supposed betrayals by friends.” In February 1966 Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp, Daniel to five.

A full report of their trial was eventually published in English; notes had been prepared under great difficulty by Sinyavsky’s wife and friends. No one was allowed to attend all court sessions. Anyone who still needs to know that in the country of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky literature is controlled, vulgarized, and robbed of inherent worth should read the exchanges between Sinyavsky and his prosecutors. At one point the judge accused Daniel of anti-Semitism because of remarks by a character in one of his stories. Sinyavsky had to explain that a character does not necessarily speak for an author.


POTMA, the camp three hundred miles east of Moscow where Sinyavsky spent five years before being released, was one of the many installations of the Soviet Union’s extensive “corrective labor colony.” All “political” prisoners were to be concentrated in this colony with a view to their speedy liquidation in the  event of a new war. Yet Sinyavsky’s A Voice from the Chorus is an amazingly harmonious, at times even  serene, record of his imprisonment. The preoccupation of this writer, all-observant under the most excruciating conditions, was not with personal freedom but with the overruling sense in camp of authority, compulsion, arbitrary rules. Sinyavsky attained a deeply Russian sense that personal will could be an illusion, a caprice. He came to believe that we are controlled, that we are not so alone as we think we are. His single voice came out of the “chorus” surrounding him.

In his revolt against communism, Sinyavsky (who now teaches in Paris) returned to Russian Orthodoxy. What his newfound faith means to him is that we are not free to choose what we believe and love. We are strangely chosen, positively impelled, by a force greater than ourselves.

I never knew what liberal philosophers meant by the ‘freedom of choice’ they are always talking about. Do we really choose whom to love, what to believe in, what illness to suffer? Love (like any other strong feeling) is a monarch, a despot, who dominates us from within, capturing us to the last remnant and forbidding us to glance back. How can we think of freedom when we are swallowed whole, when we see nothing, are aware of nothing except the One who chose us and, having chosen, torments us or bestows favors upon us? The moment we wish to free ourselves (whether from sin or from God) we are already swayed by a new ruler who whispers about liberation only until the day we have totally surrendered to him.

Not all the “exile” writers from Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Latin America would agree with Sinyavsky’s understanding of compulsion as a religious fact. For all I know, not even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, more doctrinally Christian now than Sinyavsky, would agree on the many profound limitations to freedom that Sinyavsky sees as inherent to the human state. Joseph Brodsky in New York would not agree; nor would the deeply Catholic Czeslaw Milosz in Berkeley; Nadine Gordimer, André Brink, Breytan Breytenbach from South Africa; Milan Kundera in Paris; V.S. Naipaul in England, Vasily Aksyonov in Washington; Garcia Márquez in Barcelona. Primo Levi, who fought fascism and barely survived Auschwitz, would certainly not agree. Tadeusz Konwicki is too busy defying or tricking the Polish censorship to feel that compulsion is the truth in all things.

But all writers with experience of having to write “under the gun,” all writers so cruelly tested by totalitarianism, would agree that compulsion is the background against which they write, from which they draw their images of the human state in our time. Grateful for their physical safety in the “free world,” they return over and over to the “hell” from which they have fled, not their imaginations.  Admiring the liveliness, the range, the novelty of so much American writing (Hemingway was described to me in the Soviet Union as the “only writer who has caught the pace of our time”; Faulkner has been the greatest influence on Garcia Márquez), they nevertheless feel a certain rue when they compare American subject matter with their own. Czeslaw Milosz, beginning his Norton lectures at Harvard, confessed himself overwhelmed by the difference he felt between himself and his audience.

My corner of Europe, owing to the extraordinary and lethal events that have been occurring there, comparable only to violent earthquakes, affords a peculiar perspective. As a result, all of us who come from those parts appraise poetry slightly differently than do the majority of my audience, for we tend to view it as a witness and participant in one of mankind’s major transformations. I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.

What followed reads like a report from hell—”not hell’s first circle, but a much deeper one.” Milosz  constantly reminds us of a West-East divide in poetry based on fundamentally different human experiences. If he thinks our experiences more fortunate, he also, like his hero Dostoevsky, thinks our writers a bit pitiable. He draws fervently on the terrible experiences of Polish poets in our time. Far from apologizing for poetry that may very well be thought too extreme in the West, he just as fervently believes that the ancient strength of poetry, its ancient ritual quality, is realized “when an entire community is struck by misfortune, for instance the Nazi occupation of Poland.”


THE resourcefulness born of displacement and loss, the abiding sense of irony and absurdity in life’s “unexpected” circumstances, the passionate adhesion to the subject forced on us! The leading example for our time (and he was born in 1857!) is Joseph Conrad—son of Polish martyrs to the national struggle (then as now) for Polish independence. At seventeen he skipped to France to become a sailor; in the course of many experiences at sea ran guns for the Spanish Carlists; spent all his earlylife in the British merchant marine. A thirty-eight, after twenty years at sea, he settled in England and published his first novel. In English. It was his third language.

“I verily believe mine was the only case of a boy of my nationality and antecedents taking a, so to speak, standing jump out of his racial surroundings and associations.” Conrad believed himself to be an exception among Poles, English people, other writers. His belief that his was a solitary case, founded on the experience of exile, the loneliness of life at sea, the strain of writing in an adopted language (which he spoke with a strong accent), gave him a special sense of human effort in all things—the ever-lasting will to overcome difficulty, seeming nothingness, all possible futility. The solitary case meant not only man’s weakness and submission to the larger forces more powerful and “cunning” than himself, but secret unavailing bitterness at the loss of established values, home, patrimony. Yet it was just this that compelled man—again as an exceptional case!—to overlook the pain and cost of his effort. A belief in heroism—desperate, unaccountable, willful—was more important than the acting out that unruly “circumstances” so easily ridiculed. Man’s effort in the end consisted of nothing so much as the recognition of its necessity. The cruel gods expect of us some final knowledge beyond appeal. This was Conrad’s encompassing view. In Lord Jim, Stein’s demand that we merge with the “destructive element” has understandably been taken as central to the brooding in which Conrad’s characters seem to live:

A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns . . . nicht wahr? . . . No, I tell you! The way to the destructive element is to submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands andfeet in the  water make the deep, deep sea keep you up. So if you ask me—how to be? I will tell you!—in the destructive element immerse.

What has not always been recognized about Conrad’s mastery as a novelist is that it depends on a vehement closeness to everything he needs to describe. He wants to fill a gap. The eye is of peculiar operative force in Conrad, a kind of tyranny over the other senses, steadily looking out on the sea’s emptiness. The reader has to be brought into the vise of Conrad’s attention; he has to be as involved as Conrad himself, brought right up against the scene in view. Conrad said in the famous preface to  The Nigger of the “Narcissus” that he wanted above all to make the reader “see.” What I see in the sometimes majestic strain of Conrad’s style is a desire to overcome the sense of distance. And it is overcome from passage to passage; his extreme tension gives excitement to Conrad’s muscular style. To “overcome” was Conrad’s raison d’être. But in the end some sense of necessity, of truth, overrides us with its truth. The terrible, the actual, cannot be dissolved into Myth and cannot be “redeemed” by Art. Just confront it.

No one writing in the great age of nineteenth-century imperialism described the automatic side of domination as Conrad did in “Heart of Darkness.” A French man-of-war is shelling the African bush.

It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. . . . In the empty immensity of earth, sky and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. . . . Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious rollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives—he called them enemies!—hidden out of sight.

Conrad’s sense of the political realities is that of the exile who has seen everything and distrusts it. The Secret Agent is different from contemporary thrillers, which are usually violent movie material and pretend to patriotic virtue because the hero is fighting Nazis or Communists. Conrad broods over the folly of overstrenuous convictions, their destruction of innocent persons. In The Secret Agent Verloc, an active figure in London’s revolutionary Anarchist circles, is actually an agent provocateur employed by the Czarist Embassy. He is instructed to commit an outrage that will be blamed on the revolutionists. Since science is now the public idol, Verloc sets out to bomb the Greenwich Observatory; his wife’s pathetically innocent little brother is made to carry the bomb and blows himself up. The Observatory is untouched. All parties to the affair are equally scorned by Conrad—the insanely overheated Anarchists, the insidious Czarist attaché who eggs Verloc on.

What makes The Secret Agent so telling a commentary on our times is Conrad’s rejection of both utopian fantasies and government scheming. In these matters he was not so much a conservative as a fatalist. He was an exile, with an exile’s dwelling on the particular human state forced on him.


THE writer today who is most like Conrad is V.S. Naipaul, an Indian from Trinidad along the Venezuelan coast, educated and living in England, an obsessive but rigorously detached observer of Third World life in Latin America, Asia, Africa. Naipaul was hardly “forced” to leave comparatively backward Trinidad for England. But Indians are a minority in Trinidad, they certainly feel they are sojourners in England, and Naipaul knows India only as a visitor.

“India for me is a very difficult country,” he wrote in the foreword to India: A Wounded Civilization, recounting the inflictions Indira Gandhi imposed and those it has long imposed on itself. Naipaul did not even see India until he was thirty. But it has haunted his life; even the novels and reportage that are not about the place. A Wounded Civilization is typical Naipaul—bitterly lucid about everything, terse, with something hardbitten yet resigned in the emotional background. Every landscape he brings back from his travels—the Caribbean, Africa, London, Washington, India—is ominously tense: on the verge of explosion. Yet Naipaul is never hard in the detached American reportorial manner, just a little terrifying in his concentration on places and objects that become symbols—a world widely in motion, an observer mysteriously in flight. “In India I know I am a stranger; but increasingly I understand that my Indian memories, the memories of that India which lived on into my childhood in Trinidad, are like trapdoors into a bottomless pit.”

And where has he not been a stranger? He certainly felt one in New York when I met him, was interestingly not interested in American writing. North America is not part of his historical experience. Even when he went over the route his readers know—Trinidad, Oxford, India, the continents between (domicile is the English countryside but obviously never for long)—the part of his life which excites him in the telling is his love and mastery of the English language. This he uses with conscious purity and some disdain, as if the plain words have more to say than the reader knows. Reading him, I feel that the words are reduced from some intensely anxious communion with himself. But they get into his books as a subtly disturbing tattoo; Naipaul presses on the reader without giving his hand away.

No other novelist in English of Naipaul’s range, virtuosity, flair—and there are not many—could say as he does, “The novel . . . is a form of social inquiry.” After the touching and comic books about Trinidad, his work tends to center on the confusion and violence of ideology—which Naipaul thoroughly suspects—in a world still colonial in spirit despite the breakup of the old Western empires. Naipaul is less on the side of the victims than he is contemptuous of radical pilgrims from the West seeking to “complete themselves.” Leftist black intellectuals from Trinidad hate him. That he is not sentimental about the “cause” one can see from the merciless dialectic of cruelty he satirizes in Guerrillas, about rebel movements in the Caribbean. But coming from a minority overlooked and even exploited, Naipaul even in The Loss of El Dorado, his history of the Spanish and English imperialist “adventure” in South America, reveals the painfully personal feelings that give emphasis to everything he writes. In A Wounded Civilization he speaks of “the shattering world.” History as incessant irony, History without obvious political solution, History as a mass “shattering” of all traditions, is always behind Naipaul’s disturbing quietness as a writer. The sense of displacement has given Naipaul an ominous sense of place.


WHAT makes Naipaul hurt so much more than other novelists of contemporary exodus? In In a Free State, a group of stories and a personal journal centering on displaced persons, the unsettling effect he creates comes from the many characters who don’t “belong” in the countries they are touring or working in, who wouldn’t “belong” any longer in the countries they come from. They have acquired a feeling of their own unreality in the “free state” of endlessly moving about contemporary life. Mobility in America may create our illusion of freedom. But in his journal describing a journey from Piraeus to Alexandria on a dingy Greek steamer, Naipaul observes, from the upper deck, Egyptian Greeks who night and day must stay in place on the lower deck:

They were traveling to Egypt, but Egypt was no longer their home. They had been expelled; they were refugees. The invaders had left Egypt; after many humiliations Egypt was free; and these Greeks, the poor ones, whobysimple skills had made themselves only just less poor than Egyptians, were the casualties of that freedom.

In prologue and epilogue, Naipaul speaks in his own person, reveals his state of ultimate  defenselessness without pretending to be detached. He clearly believes that it is history in action right now, our situation, that he has been living all his life-not some generalized “human condition.” Imperialism, even in decay, is the indelible background of everything he writes. The Indian from Trinidad who went to Oxford is always part of the story he is (always) telling. Naipaul has lived imperialism, must console himself with the imperialist’s language. But there is also the plight of the brilliant boy who left his home and now recognizes that he has changed too much to return to the “innocence” that exists only among those who have never left home.

The long title story, the key piece of In a Free State, describes a journey by car in an African republic, undertaken by a young homosexual British civil servant and the wife of a colleague. The pair are travelling from the capital to the foreigner’s compound where they will be safe; the country is disturbed. It had once had a king and a president; the king is now being hunted by the president’s troops, and he  will be killed as contemptuously as are the people of his tribe, who are being rounded up and tied  together as slaves used to be in the days when rival tribes picked them up for delivery to the slave traders. The highway is for great stretches unpaved, the rain comes down just when they hit straight earth, the windshield is ignorantly scratched instead of washed at a filling station. In the car, Bobby, who once had a “breakdown” at Oxford and is defensive and vulnerable, chats grimly with the wife, Linda, though she has a reputation as a “man-eater” and her womanliness often enrages and frightens him.

“In a Free State,” with its brilliant economy, has a positively intravenous effect. For all the coolness of his manner, Naipaul likes with a sort of casual savagery to knock the reader down. The sequence of action outside the car parodies the fretful trip. Bobby confesses his dream of returning, somewhere, out of the rain, to a warm, lighted house. Meanwhile there is the helicopter above, searching the roads for a sight of the fleeing king; the Zulu boy whom Bobby in a bar halfheartedly tries to make, over a lesson in math; the sudden nonfarcical sight of the grossly fat, indolent native troops running under the shouted orders of their Israeli military instructors; the old, still imperialist-minded, wog-hating British colonel who keeps a sort of hotel along the road. Though he gamely continues to serve five-course  dinners, he expects to be murdered by his native staff, one of whom is a local agitator who tries to steal Bobby’s car.

I suppose one criticism of Naipaul might well be that he has an obvious desolation about homelessness, migration, the final placelessness of those who have seen too much, which he tends to turn into mysterious accusation. There is a frankness of personal reference that removes him from the “godlike” impersonality of the novelist claimed by James Joyce—and so much cherished by novelists like Vladimir Nabokov who angrily deny that they use themselves. Naipaul possesses an outlook for humanity more openly tragic. He disclaims playing God even in a novel. He has associated himself with “History,” and does not expect better treatment than anyone else.


IN the United States just now, writers sure talk a lot about being writers. Is it because they complain so much of their unimportance to this commercial society that they are so chatty about their calling? Is it a defense from the mobs of would-be writers forever beating at their doors—the proliferating “creative writing” courses and correspondence schools, the writers’ conferences, the merchants of the book trade? The following appeared in the New York Times five years ago:

BOOK PACKAGERS COME OF AGE
Hard fiction does not generally lend itself to packaging, but Bernard Geis Associates specializes in it.

“We put up advances of $50,000 or more, sign up authors, subsidize them, inspire them, edit them, and when the book is completed toour satisfaction, we auction it to co-publishers,” said Mr. Geis, who almost twenty years ago published Jacqueline Susann under his own imprint.

“Our chief function is to scout and nurture talent,” Mr. Geis said, “and to take a $10,000 writer and make him a quarter-million-dollar writer.”

Twentieth-century American writing has been a world event, distinguished by its energy and flair, the ferocity of racial and social conflicts it describes, and above all the variety of individual situations inherent in a continental society composed of so many subtly antagonistic peoples-who often have nothing in common but their being “Americans” on this continent. Recalling the vogue of le roman américain after World War II, Jean-Paul Sartre acknowledged:

What fascinated us all really-petty bourgeois that we were, sons of peasants securely attached to the earth of our farms, intellectuals entrenched in Paris for life-was the constant flow of men across a whole continent, the exodus of an entire village to the orchards of California, the homeless wanderings of the hero in Light In August, and of the uprooted people who drifted along at the mercy of the storms in The 42nd Parallel, the dark murderous fury which sometimes swept through an entire city, the blind and criminal love in the novels of James M. Cain.

Our classic American writers before the Civil War were engaged in a deeply wrought dialogue with Nature, often enough with a God who was the same as Nature. The sense of self was intoxicating. But as Emerson proclaimed the doctrine of American “Self-Reliance,” the self existed not for itself alone, but was a religiously knowing entity, a link to the cosmos, part of what Walt Whitman was to call “the unfathomable universe.” Whitman proclaimed the self “Miracle of Miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts.”

In our day dominated by technology and super-power, the American writer is still planted on the self as the “only entrance to all facts.” But this self is usually regarded as “personality” rather than “soul,” often defined in sexual terms exclusively. Relentlessly active and mobile, it strives endlessly for “satisfaction,” but is often enough baffled by the lack of reward and rest given after so much striving. The Ego System has become virtually the only system, produces resentment and despair peculiarly modern. As John Cheever said in two different pieces of fiction, “Why, in this half-finished civilization, in this most prosperous, equitable, and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?”

The other side of this “accomplished world” is that the American is hypnotized by the incessant changes in his environment; they require him to make an effect. There is ambition, a restlessness boiling up all around him, that requires the writer as much as anyone else to show his stuff, to beat the competition. At the same time, the writer cannot help being aware that Americans are like no one else in their historic good fortune, and that they may be passing through a cycle called individualism, capitalism, the Enlightenment, democracy, that sometimes feels quite unreal. Compared with most of the world, we are free; but often we have nothing but this sense of being lucky. We are always seeking to define ourselves. We have our own excess on our hands. Art is that (once European) luxury which at last we can afford. Being “creative” is the ultimate proof that we have made it. Style we confuse with  elegance-quite rightly, for it is the easiest thing to imitate. But as the great classical scholar Gilbert Murray once observed, style now plays the part once occupied by religion and moral idealism.


THE great cry that rises up from modern American writing: Saul Bellow’s “I want! I want!” Bellow’s work constitutes by now a personal epic distinguished by exceptional intelligence and stylistic bite, a unique “at-homeness” with characters either mercilessly intellectual or boisterously criminal. Everything this gifted son of immigrants has relished in the range and vehemence of American experience has found its colorful representation in his work, every detail pushed along by a powerfully somber mind. And it is  all personal, the record of an exacting self-education. The center is invariably Bellow himself learning from life—so much so that in late novels like Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December it is impossible to believe that the usual central intelligence pounding away there like a thinking machine has a right to his non-Jewish name. One tends to overlook such inconsistencies in the freshness of observation, the language that always looks newly minted. From Bellow’s latest stories, collected in Him With His Foot In His Mouth:

The jet engines sucked and snarled up the frozen air; the huge plane lifted; the gray ground skidded away and you rose past hangars, over factories, ponds, bungalows, football fields, the stitched incisions of railroad tracks curving through the snow. And then the skyscraper community to the south. On an invisible sidewalk beneath, your little daughters walking to school might hear the engines, unaware that their Mummy overflew them. Now the gray water of the great lake appeared below with all its stresses, wind patterns, whitecaps. Good-bye. Being above the clouds always made Katrina tranquil. The bing! the lucid sunlight coming through infinite space (refrigerated blackness, they said) filled up the cabin with warmth and color.

The best American writers, like the worst, are always taking inventory. The flood of human experience is overwhelming, immediately reflected in the environmental tornado, progress or decline, bombarding them on every side. John Updike in Rabbit is Rich describes the American scene during the gas shortage:

Fast-food huts in eye-catching shapes and retail outlets of everything from bridald outfits to plaster birdbaths have widened the shoulders of this, the old Weisertown Pike, with their parking lots, leaving the odd old house and its stump of a front lawn sticking out painfully. Competitors Pike Porsche and Renault, Diefendorfer Volkswagen, Red Barn Mazda and BMW, Diamond County Automotive Imports – flicker their FUEL ECONOMY banners while the gasoline stations intermixed with their beckoning have shrouded pumps and tow-trucks parked across the lanes where automobiles once glided in, were filled, and glided on. An effect of hostile barricade, late in the day. Where did the shrouds come from? Some of them quite smartly tailored, in squared-off crimson canvas. A new industry, gas pump shrouds. Among bitter lakes of asphalt a few small stands of strawberries and early peas.

Smooth as silk, Updike can and does describe everything, from poorhouses in his quarter of  Pennsylvania to the perfect father-schoolmaster (his own) in The Centaur, from the not unpleasant turbulence of sex out of marriage to the “witches” in an American town projecting the fashionable  distrust of men. Updike is the lighthearted, adroitly objective social observer wherever he touches down. In Bellow’s mental world, not Updike’s, the projecting theme is the man in trouble, and he is always the same man. As a result, his instinct for observation—unlike Updike’s—is sharply assertive, even a bit shrewish; the condition he describes is unfailingly dark. And “late” Bellow is different, markedly, from the exuberance of Augie March and the anthropological comedy of Henderson the Rain King. He has turned “conservative” without losing rapture in his strength of observation. His progress in understanding is still the reason for the narrative; what happens there does so through the power of reflection alone. Where Updike sees all manner and size of people out of an interest almost comic in its zest, Bellow is the novelist as thinker. Only in a Bellow novel (The Dean’s December) would the hero say “My modernity was all used up.” And in the recent story “Cousins” a plea for the self is made in terms that would astonish every American writer except Emerson:

We enter the world without prior notice, we are manifested before we can be aware of manifestation. An original self exists, or, if you prefer, an original soul. It may be, as Goethe suggested, that the soul is a theater in which Nature can show itself, the only such theater it has. And this makes sense when you attempt to account for some kinds of passionate observation. . . .

When I ran into Tanky and his hoodlum colleague at O’Hare and thought what a disembodied William Blake eye above us might see, I was invoking my own fundamental perspective, that of a person who takes for granted distortion in the ordinary way of referring all truly important observations to that  original self or soul. . . . The seams open, the bonds dissolve, and the untenability of existence releases you back again to the original self. Then you are free to look for real being under the debris of modern ideas, and in a medieval trance, if you like, or with a lucidity altogether different from the lucidity of approved types of knowledge.


IN the midst of this our life, our terribly busy, shaky, complicated middle-class life, women writers apparently see things more clearly than men. Women, says Alicia Ostriker, are even “stealing the language.” I turn to one of our best poets, Adrienne Rich, and discover from her preface to Poems Selected and New that “We are confronted with the naked and unabashed failure of patriarchal politics and patriarchal civilization.” I read of “our determination that the sexual myths underlying the human condition can and shall be recognized and changed.” Thank God someone knows what all the trouble is about!

Adrienne Rich sprang into poetry from a rich literary education. Unlike the ignorant and indolent  practitioners who provoked Robert Frost to say that “free verse is like playing tennis without a net,” she began out of an old fashioned respect for the tradition. As a matter of course, as a matter of form, her cadences reminded you of other cadences, her words fell out of the best books.

Every poem was well-bred. There was pleasure in this if not much excitement. But what distinguished Rich from the beginning was a stress of personal emotion, an unmistakable background of friction and heat. There was real feeling in the air, elegantly spoken and well guarded. But a constant theme was misunderstanding and worse between people – especially when she duplicated the totally unadorned narrative style that Robert Frost had used for his great poems of marriage trouble “Living in Sin”:

Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
soundeda dozen notes upon the
keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at
the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for
cigarettes;
while she,jeered by the minor
demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the
bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the
stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout
the night,
she woke sometimes to feel the
daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

The clearest emotional note Rich struck in her fine collection The Diamond Cutters (1955): “. . . the cracks of morning show/ Only a replica of days we’ve marred/ With still the same old penances to do . . . ” (“The Prospect”) and “. . . We are split,/ Done into bits, undone, pale friend,/ As ecstasy begets its end;/ As we are spun of rawest thread-/ The flaw is in us; we will break” (“The Insomniacs”). An overriding theme, sometimes just as foreboding, seemed to be “The End of the Affair.” The conjunction of modulated poetry with so much tight-lipped bitterness was striking; you wondered how long she could rock back and forth in a poetry essentially so personal, in its polite way so quick to lament.

Although Rich remained strikingly somber and unwitty (except in her instinct for form), her poems of the sixties showed a determination to revolt. In Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Lawit seemed all too right for her to quote Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood- a Loaded Gun.” By Necessities of Life and  Leaflets her “gun” was certainly beginning to go off. It was the sixties! “Piece by piece I seem/ to reenter the world: I first began/ a small, fixed dot, still see/ that old myself, a dark-blue thumbtack/ pushed into the scene,/ a hard little head protruding/ from the pointillist’s buzz and bloom./ After a time the dot/ begins to ooze. Certain years/ melt it.”

Her long-awaited breakthrough in the seventies: The Will to Change and especially her most powerful book to date, Diving into the Wreck. The political fret of the sixties had burst into a driving sense of her identity and satisfaction as a lesbian, her need to separate herself from the “patriarchy.” Her poems had been getting looser, more open and emphatic; by now they were also explicit in their estrangement from many institutions and social sanctions she had reluctantly (like marriage) had to obey before. The famous masculine ego had to yield before so much awakened self knowledge-and explosiveness. In The Phenomenology of Anger she enumerated fantasies of murder, but these were “not enough,” since death would release “him” from consciousness. “When I dream of meeting/ the enemy, this is my dream:/ white acetylene/ ripples from my body/ effortlessly released/ perfectly trained/ on the true  enemy/ raking his body down to the thread/ of existence/ burning away his lie/ leaving him in a new/ world; a changed/ man.” This was poetry naked to its emotion, stripped two-line free stanzas, and reiterative in its fury, usually addressed to someone unseen by us but fully occupying Rich’s mind as enemy or lover.

Man in general was “the true enemy.” In one of the best contrived and most propaganda-laden of her new hate poems, “The Ninth Symphony Understood at Last as a Sexual Message,” it turned out that all Beethoven expressed, even in the sublime “Ode To Joy,” (remember that Milosz called this a goal for our tormented contemporaries to emulate) was “A man in terror of impotence . . . a man trying to tell something . . . howling from the climacteric . . . music of the entirely isolated soul . . . the beating of a bloody fist upon a splintered table.” Beethoven here is just paying the price for being male.


“WHAT do women want?” What do women writers want? What does Adrienne Rich want when she describes political atrocity in terms entirely mirroring her inner state—”my body is a list of wounds/ symmetrically placed/ a village/ blown open by planes/ that did not finish the job”? What does Joan Didion want when in Slouching Towards Bethlehem she correlates Los Angeles weather with her nervous fragility: “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, . . . the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” What does an innocuous, intensely descriptive poet like Amy Clampitt want when she piles word on word in poems that read like travel journals and to me, at least, say only that Clampitt was “there.” Even a less personal poem than most, “A Procession at Candlemas,” apropos of the march in Washington, October 21-22, 1967, against the war in Vietnam, becomes just another brilliant verbal exercise when she writes of a rural landscape: “Absently, without inhabitants, this/ nowhere oasis wears the place name/ of Indian Meadows. The westward-trekking/ transhumance, once only, of a people who/ in losing everything they had, lost even/ the names they went by,/ stumbling past/ like caribou, perhaps camped here.”

Perhaps it is all not so very different from what Norman Mailer “wanted” in A Fire on the Moon—the cult of experience lived through and through—when he celebrated the rocket power that carried Americans to the moon as the ultimate orgasm:

Then it came, like a crackling of wood twigs over the ridge, came with the sharp and furiousnbark of a milliondrops of oil crackling suddenly into combustion, a cacophony of barks louder and louder as Saturn-Apollo fifteen seconds ahead of its own sound cleared the lift tower to a cheer which could have been a cry of anguish from thatnear-audience watching; then came the ear-splitting bark of a thousand machine guns firing at once, and Aquariums shook through his feet at the fury of this combat assault, and heard the thunderous murmur of Niagaras of flame roaring conceivably louder than the loudest thunders hehadever heardhandtheearth began to shake and would not stop, it quivered through his feet standing on the wood of the bleachers, an apocalyptic fury of sound equal to some conception of the sound of your death in the roar of a drowning ear . . .

What is missing for me in all this display of privileged experience is what Milosz in his Harvard lectures defined as the real purpose of poetry. Poetry is profoundly a recall, not the mere impression of present experience. Rilke said poetry “is the past that breaks out in our hearts.” And as an indication of what is still central to all true writing, “poetry” as Dichtung, the deepest kind of saying, is associated in our minds (it used to be) with forces greater than ourselves, forces for which we still struggle to find a name, forces that truly work on us as Sinyavsky’s “compulsion.”

American writers nearing the end of the twentieth century—”our worst century so far,” Elizabeth Bishop said crisply, en passant as it were—are hardly to be blamed because they do not raise “the cries of Job” that Milosz hears in poets caught within the Soviet Empire. We are not caught. Whatever our personal troubles, whatever our resentment of the state, we are free. Not only do we feel ourselves “free”; we live in “the free world.” So John Updike is certainly on firm ground when, in his introduction to the latest round of writers’ interviews from the Paris Review, Writers At Work, he says of the interview with Philip Roth that Roth’s “defense of the free world against the charge of triviality is worth  the price of this book in itself.” But no one who knows what good writing is would ever accuse John Updike, Philip Roth, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Hardwick of “triviality.” These talented, urgently serious American virtuosi are marvels of concern with everything the bloody century holds up for them to look at. After all, it is particularly to Philip Roth as editor of the Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe” that we owe access to books by Czechs, Poles, Yugoslavs, that we might have missed. It is here, not “there,” that were published Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen; Jerzy Andzejewski’s Ashes and Diamonds; Danilo Kis’s A Tomb for Boris Davidovich; Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass and The Street of Crocodiles.

We are not to be blamed for not living in what Solzhenitsyn called hell’s “first circle” and what Milosz insists is the second. But those who speak from “hell” to us as spectators have something to say—che nel pensier rinova la paura Dante says in the sixth line of Inferno, “just to think of it makes you afraid again”—that we do not. It sometimes seems as old as the world.

This is the fifth article in “The Postmodern Temper,” a series looking at the state of various artistic disciplines. The series is made possible with support from the “New Works” program of the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, a state agency whose funds are recommended by the governor and the legislature.