Friday, March 22, 2019

Three Authors in Search of a Life

            It was pure chance that led me to read the books discussed in this essay consecutively. In different ways the authors present how they experienced the writing life. For the first two this experience is bleak, but in the third — and the best of the lot — a positive light emerges.

Sigrid Nunez – The Friend
            Sigrid Nunez, now in her late sixties, has spent most of her life in the literary world. She got her MFA from Columbia and has taught creative writing at an impressive list of universities. She’s written six previous novels and one memoir, Sempre Susan, about the time she lived with Susan Sontag (Sontag was recovering from cancer surgery). The Friend won the 2018 National Book Award for Fiction, but much of it consists of a factual look at the writing life. And the picture she presents is an exceedingly negative one.
            Her nameless first person narrator includes a series of quotes by real life authors that she terms “lecture notes.” Here are the opening two (italics are Nunez’s): All writers are monsters. Henri de Montherlant; Writers are always selling somebody out. Writing is an aggressive act, even a hostile act . . . the tactic of a secret bully. Joan Didion. The narrator’s own observations are almost all cynical and pessimistic and critical (the MFA students she teaches get a D- for their character and ability). She notes the jealousy writers feel toward the success of others, and cites the byproducts of writing as self-doubt and self-loathing (she comments that, whenever she has to admit that she’s a writer, she feels a deep sense of shame). Her friend and onetime lover is a noted author and Nobel candidate. He advises his students (he too teaches in an MFA program; literature, among its other faults, doesn’t pay) that if there was anything else they could do with their lives instead of being writers, any other profession, they should do it. He tells the narrator that when he goes back to a piece of work he had abandoned he thinks, “Like a dog to its vomit.
            But — enough. I’ve made my point — or, rather, I’ve presented Nunez’s point. An Insider is saying, quite bluntly, that if you’re in search of a decent life, don’t be a writer. What’s interesting is that the National Book Award judges — literary folks — bestowed an honor on a work that portrays their profession to be miserable and grubby.
            Someone as skilled at her craft as Nunez must have realized that, by making her narrator so similar to herself (age, line of work, never married), she’s created a book that seems like a memoir. And, if we do take the “I” in The Friend to be Nunez, one comes to an inevitable question: who is the famous author and ex-lover? A bit of research could disclose who taught creative writing at Columbia University around the time Nunez was a student. Anyone who resembles the man in the novel? He’s disguised, but, still, possibly he can be narrowed down to a handful of candidates. If this feels like nosing around in somebody’s private business, consider the memoir Nunez wrote about Susan Sontag (published after Sontag was dead). I haven’t read it, but some objected to what was in the book — too much that was unflattering to its subject. So can’t probing into Nunez’s life be seen as turnabout is fair play? She herself notes how authors prey on people they know for material: Writers really are like vampires.
            Also open to speculation is the author’s portrayal of the famous author. He’s a womanizer, and the women he beds down are often his students. Nunez has no problem with this; she gives him an “out” by describing him as a lover of women (as opposed to a hater). Nowadays such behavior would be grounds for dismissal; the students would be considered victims. Nunez doesn’t see it that way. These young women are fully complicit in the act. But Nunez never takes the step of going into their motivation. Why do aspiring young female writers (a category which might include her) have sex with a famous author? That’s an easy one: To get ahead in their career, to have doors opened to them.
            Obviously Sigrid Nunez was one of those people who couldn’t find anything else she wanted to do with her life except to be a writer. She does it very well, but is that enough?

            In his copious correspondence Ernest Hemingway was spontaneous, unexpurgated, unedited; he says what he’s feeling, no holds barred. As a result his Selected Letters are quite revealing. He was a complex man; there are admirable aspects to his personality, but there’s also much about him that is abhorrent. And it’s the pernicious side of his nature which permeates his writing life.
            In Paris, married to his first wife Hadley, he pursued connections with people who had clout in the literary world, and he had the vigorous personality and good looks that leave a strong impression. Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein and Scott Fitzgerald are among those he got help from. But after he achieved success he would turn on all three; in the case of Anderson, he wrote a novel (The Torrents of Spring) whose sole purpose was to ridicule the prose of someone who had promoted his early work. And in his last, posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast, he persists in his demeaning portrayals of Fitzgerald and Stein. He had some contact with two Nobel Prize winners; he was contemptuous of Sinclair Lewis and disparaging of Faulkner. It wasn’t just their writing he found fault with; his attacks are personal (their appearance, their habits). He had a few friendships with other writers, notably John Dos Passos, but none survived his combative touchiness. Relationships with editors and publishers would also turn sour. His letters to Maxwell Perkins became aggressively critical about how his work was being marketed and promoted. Only with people unconnected to the literary life — fellow hunters and fishermen and military men — could he sustain peaceful relations.
            These letters show a writer consumed by grudges, resentments, jealousy, anger. In 1950 his first novel in ten years came out (Across the River and into the Woods) to almost universally negative reviews and meager sales. A year later James Jones’s From Here to Eternity was greeted with rave reviews, the National Book Award and huge sales. On March 5, 1951 he wrote a letter to Charles Scribner (his publisher and also Jones’s). An excerpt: “I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead nigger’s ear.” Only a sick mind would go on and on in this mode. You can look back at the second paragraph of this essay, the section dealing with The Friend, and check out those italicized quotes, where the words “monster” and “bully” appear. Another word — “vampire” — also applies: Hemingway was constantly including in his work thinly-disguised portrayals of people he disliked.
            He was the most famous literary figure of the time, but this did not bring Hemingway contentment. He claimed to love reading, but it was tainted by his competitive nature (he engaged in imaginary boxing matches with the likes of Tolstoy and Flaubert). His praise for contemporary writers was limited to those who were writing in a mode completely different from his. Another claim he made was that the act of writing gave him pleasure. Maybe so. But it’s quite possible that he was plagued by a deep-seated insecurity about his ability. When a book was published, any negative comment was like a hook in his mouth. He needed to be fawned over to be satisfied. Though he achieved honor in his lifetime, culminating in the Nobel Prize, his predominate feelings, as expressed in these letters, were discontent and disappointment. He never attended the award ceremony in Stockholm, and he gave his medal away. A hollowness set in. After 1952’s The Old Man and the Sea (so short it appeared in one edition of Life magazine) he published no more fiction in the nine years left before he ended his life with a blast to his forehead from a double-barreled shotgun. He was sixty-two.
Joyce Horner – That Time of Year
            That Time of Year takes the form of a journal Joyce Horner kept for the three years she spent in a nursing home (she was in her early seventies and had a knee condition that left her a semi-invalid). These aren’t dashed-off entries; Joyce worked on them. Near the end of the book she thanks someone who’s typing them up; I’m sure she hoped for publication (which came two years after her death, in a paperback edition put out by the University of Massachusetts Press). Like Nunez, Joyce was a professor and an author; she wrote two novels and had her poetry published in leading magazines. But she taught at Mount Holyoke College, not Princeton; she never received any awards; she doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia. I pulled this book at random from the stacks at my university library; its only “blurb” was a sentence from someone at the Menninger Foundation. But the subject matter interested me, and when I read the beginning of the first entry I was hooked. The reading experience that followed was a meaningful one; neither Nunez’s novel nor anything Hemingway wrote made so deep an impression on me.
            In a few (maybe two or three) entries she thinks about success — that she’d “still like a crumb or two of it” — and she mentions sending her poems to magazines (mostly receiving rejections). But Joyce takes in stride what life has given her. This is a book free of spite. She doesn’t display a hunger for fame nor any negativity toward the literary life, and she finds gratification in the act of working on her poems. At times she’s not satisfied with them — she’s able to recognize when something falls short of her standards and needs more work (“The good thing is that I want to work on them”). Writing by others also gives her a pleasure unsullied by jealousy. As for her twenty-five years of teaching she says little — the book is not about her past life — but she’s happy to get a letter or a visit from an ex-student.
            Joyce has lost her independence, and this hurts. Her fears have to do with more losses of things vital to her existence. The worst of these is the loss of her ability to think, which she sees around her (the worst horror, for her, is not death but senility). Writing this journal and her poems is an assertion by her and to herself that her mind is still perceptive, and that she has the power to make words serve her purpose. Writing for her is a sustaining experience.
            The entries are not daily; sometimes there are gaps of days or even weeks. Near the end of the book these gaps become more frequent. This is a human document, and Joyce’s hope and spirit wane. She expresses no religious feelings, but speaks of a “dialogue between body and soul, in which the body has the last word. It was the end of the dialogue — what can the soul say? It is the body triumphant, sure he’ll win, pointing out that the battle is already a losing one — that you listen to music less, are less carried away by Bach and Mozart, whatever you think you are going to be. That you look up more than you are reading — ‘Who’s that going past the door?’ That you are pleased with interruptions — a nurse coming with the pills? You’ve come down in the world, down in the world, and what a world — the small world of clocks and routines, wheelchairs and commodes.” But in the next paragraph she rallies; she’s reading a book on Colette, “admiring her indomitableness, her energy fighting arthritis, her unselfconsciousness to the end, and envying the way she could sink herself in what the senses offered her.”
            I didn’t find this journal to be depressing. When one feels they have made emotional and intellectual contact with another person, it’s a gratifying experience. I’ve referred to her as Joyce because I feel close to her. And I haven’t strayed from the stated topic of this essay — the literary life. Here is someone who’s living that life, in arduous circumstances and without acclamation, and is doing it with what I would describe as nobility and grace.