Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Save Dawn Powell from Kelly Jane Torrance!

A few years ago, I discovered the novels of Dawn Powell, which chronicled her own Ohio upbringing and, even more, the world to which she fled: New York. She was a first-rank wit and shrewd observer of Manhattan, from the poisoned cocktail elegance of 1930s high-life to boho Greenwich Village of the 1950s. Her books are funny, tough, kind and smart.

So I guess I should be somewhat in agreement with the remarks of Kelly Jane Torrance in The Washington Times. Torrance uses her review of Hermione Lee's new Edith Wharton biography as a soapbox to praise the name of Powell.

Instead, this is just the kind of piece that sets my teeth on edge.

First, she gets the history wrong.

Torrance writes: "Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for The Washington Post, is almost single-handedly responsible for reviving her reputation. Miss Powell, who died in 1965, was virtually unheard of amongst the wider public until Mr. Page wrote a 1998 biography and arranged for many of her 15 novels to be reprinted, including in the Library of America."

All hail and honor to the noble Page, who to be fair has certainly been Powell's angel, but as the biography on Powell's own Library of America page notes, the groundwork was already in place, thanks to Powell's old friend Gore Vidal. Vidal wrote an appreciative 1981 piece for Antioch Review, then later a lengthy 1986 article for the New York Review of Books. This put a few books back in print, which brought Powell's work to the attention of James Wolcott, who reviewed her work in Vanity Fair in 1990. Later, Steerforth Press (with Page's urging) released some more Powell books in the mid-1990s, and John Updike reviewed her in The New Yorker in 1994.

With some kind of readership thus established, Page's serviceable, quick-read biography came afterwards. The Library of America sealed her reputation. I hope it lasts forever.

So much for hair-splitting. The real problem with Torrance's piece is that she, with the cooperation of Page, props up one of those idiotic either/or celebrity death-matches between Powell and Faulkner, mainly because they are nothing alike, suggesting we must choose one over the other, that because more people should be reading the easily digestible Powell, fewer should be reading the famously complex Faulkner and, much to her relief, fewer presumably are.

"Experimentalism — successful or not — has often counted highly in making a literary reputation. But there are signs that literary modernism — a stream to which misters Hemingway and Faulkner, in particular, and Mr. Fitzgerald, to a lesser degree, belonged — is not aging well."

She cites Raleigh New and Observer critic J. Peder Zane's new book, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, which "contains a top-10 list with votes from 125 writers. The closest thing to a modernist book on the list is Mr. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. (James Joyce's Ulysses, often a mainstay of such projects, was nowhere to be found.)"

As Dan Green at The Reading Experience also points out,there's more modernism on the list than Torrance noticed. The closest thing to a modernist title on the Top Ten is In Search of Lost Time, at number eight, which is a virtual colossus of modernism, and for many people ranks with Ulysses as a virtual definition of what "modernist" means, particularly if you think of it as an early-20th Century literary movement that marks a significant break with traditional narrative structure, as Proust's story is at times a virtual frame by frame psychological analysis of his own memories.

The next closest thing to a modernist novel on the list is at number four: Lolita, although I forget what makes it modernist except that John Barth said it is, and that besides being a great comic novel it is a brilliantly structured one. So, of course, are many other novels, which raises the problem of clumping books into various classes or schools -- there are so many stellar examples of modernist literature from well before modernism officially began (Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, Sartor Resartus) that are either strikingly unique, layered, psychologically meticulous, or defiantly non-traditional. Salman Rushdie reminds us that that the very definition of novel is "new." Many new novels are hundreds of years old.

As for Torrance's prime suspects of modernism, I think only two fit the bill, and neither are Fitzgerald. While The Great Gatsby is a stellar novel, I have no idea why anyone even considers it "modernist," if they ever did. I think of it as a stylistically perfect novel that captured its age, but no one will ever accuse it of being a challenging read, or one that breaks with narrative tradition.

Hemingway, whatever one might think of him, had a style like no one else, and seemed to go against the trend of other writers by taking the less-is-more route.

Faulkner -- whom Torrance and Page are united in loathing, and whose Absalom, Absalom!, incidentally, hits the number two spot on Peder Zane's own personal list, if no one else's -- is, well, Faulkner. His books are like a Cubist painting; he smashes the straight sequential narrative to pieces and then reassembles it. Yes, they're hard to read, challenging, difficult, obtuse, but they're also truly staggering in a way only rare novels are. When you get to the end of a great book like Absalom or The Sound and the Fury or As I Lay Dying, you know you've been somewhere no other book has ever taken you, a journey you may feel compelled (as a lot of people do) to take over again -- maybe ten, twenty times in some cases.

In other words, Faulkner is immortal because his greatest novels never cease being interesting no matter how many times you read them. They're incandescent. They are the exact opposite of almost every other book you read, particularly the kind that go down smooth.

I'm not going to fall in the Torrance trap and say "like Dawn Powell," because I think she holds up to re-reading even if I don't think she is at Faulkner's level, or Edith Wharton's. She never wrote a novel as great as Wharton's best, and while scrappers like Jerry Delaine in The Wicked Pavilion and Amanda Evans in A Time to be Born may bring to mind Lily Bart in The House of Mirth (the best novel ever written about the fall of a social-climber) they aren't as memorable. Instead, she went for mad urban vitality; Powell's novels have the kind of raw life you might see in a Frans Hals painting, transplanted several hundred years later.

If Torrance doesn't have a firm grasp on what modernism is, and as noted it can be a slippery topic, her distrust of it suggests a reader who turns to books for comfort, to see a reflection of her own cramped deas of what a novel is. There's something cranky and reactionary about Torrance and her my-kid-could-do-that aesthetics, and I don't like the picture of Dawn Powell she seems to see: not someone lively and vigorous, but a dried-up old prune-in-the-making like Ms. Torrance herself.

I'm reminded of the excellent recent piece by Robert Pinsky in on the difficulty of poetry.

Should poets write in ways that are more genial, simple, and folksy, like the now-unreadable work of Edgar Guest (1888-1959)? Guest's Heap o' Livin' sold more than a million copies (in the days when a million copies was a lot), and he had his own weekly radio show. But Guest's popularity is history, while every day people still read the peculiar, demanding poems of Guest's approximate contemporaries Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens. People still read the poems of Moore and Stevens because they don't wear out, because they surprise and entice us—and maybe, in part, because they are difficult?

Difficulty, after all, is one of life's essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual's struggle with some great difficulty. In his difficult and entertaining work Ulysses, James Joyce recounts the challenges engaged by the persistent, thwarted hero Leopold and the ambitious, narcissistic hero Stephen.

Difficulty isn't neccessarily a virtue for its own sake, but it's often though not always a factor in anything that's different or unusual or that remains new, as Joyce's novel does -- and, I might add, as a richly complex novel like Anna Karenina, preferred choice of the Zane crew.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

dawn powell is my great aunt.