For a writer who, since the publication of On Moral Fiction in 1978, has been under almost continual attack and whose literary reputation reached its lowest point in the time between the appearance of his ninth novel, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, in June, 1982, and his death three months later, John Gardner has received a surprising amount of attention from academic critics, who have made him the subject of no fewer than seven books in the past four years: John Gardner: A Bibliographical Profile (1980), by John Howell; Moral Fiction: An Anthology (1980), edited by Joe David Bellamy; John Gardner: Critical Perspectives (1982), edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren; John Gardner: True Art, Moral Art (1983), edited by Beatrice Mendez-Egle; A World of Order and Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (1984), by Gregory Morris; John Gardner: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography (1984), by Robert A. Morace; and the book under review here, Arches & Light: The Fiction of John Gardner (1983), by David Cowart.
On the strength of his earlier critical study, Thomas Pynchon: The Art of Allusion (1980), Cowart’s view of Gardner demands the serious attention of anyone interested in Gardner and his work. Briefly stated, that view is as follows. Gardner believed thatthe artist must, in his work, make the world over from scratch. This creation is by no means irresponsible or escapist, because the world becomes what art says it is. To put it another way, the artist must shoulder responsibility for what he creates at first hand—his art—and for what he creates at second hand—the world shaped by that art. Gardner thus modifies the traditional dictum that art uncovers changeless, preexistent truths; he makes of the proposition “life imitates art” something more than a parlor witticism.
As an artist, Gardner acknowledged the horror of the world but refused to succumb to despair. Against the darkness of the abyss, Gardner posited what he called the “arches and light” of aesthetic creation, in particular the effect of such art on the reader for whom it would act as “an antidote to despair.” Gardner’s characters, many of them artists or surrogate artists, face the same choice; they must choose between negation and affirmation, between the acceptance of a “narrowly defined existential truth” and “some finer, more complex, less accessible truth that is no less real for being created, at least in part, by the artist in the process of uncovering it.”
No one familiar with Gardner’s work will find Cowart’s position especially startling or even new, for it derives in large measure from On Moral Fiction. At his best, however, Cowart does add significantly to the reader’s understanding of and appreciation for Gardner’s artistry. In writing his three “early pastoral novels,” The Resurrection (1966), The Wreckage of Agathon (1970), and Nickel Mountain (1973), Cowart explains, Gardner “sets himself the task of making positive stories out of the grimmest possible material,” realizing “that his creed as a novelist—affirmation—was nugatory unless it could be practiced in the face of the ugliest truths about the human condition.” By manipulating narrative points of view and combining the conventions of distinct literary forms, the novel and the pastoral, Gardner was able to transform morbid subjects, such as the death of The Resurrection’s protagonist, James Chandler, into affirmations of certain basic human values such as responsibility and community. Cowart’s chapter on Gardner’s most frequently discussed work, Grendel (1971), is nearly as good. Cowart’s lucid treatment makes clear exactly how much previous commentators have missed, even in the by now overworked relationship between the novel and the Anglo-Saxon epic from which it derives. Beowulf (c. 1000), Cowart points out,at once endorses and questions the values of the society it describes; it glorifies the ancient, heroic ideals espoused by the pagan ancestors of its Christian audience at the same time that it reveals how little...
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