John Gardner Essay - Gardner, John (Vol. 3)

Gardner, John (Vol. 3)

Gardner, John 1933–

Gardner is an American novelist and critic. The Sunlight Dialogues was one of the most widely-acclaimed novels of 1973.

Any novel published today boasting a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, and rather more than ample characterization is a rarity indeed, but when such a book goes even further and, refusing to equate obfuscation with profundity, actually advances fresh ideas in discussing good and evil, personal freedom as opposed to uncritical acceptance of current law, and even orthodoxy versus nonconformity, then certainly a time for rejoicing is finally at hand. Call Mr. Gardner an old-fashioned writer, accuse him of following time-worn conventions in narrative technique, or abuse him roundly for a failure to experiment; whatever the critical assessment the fact remains that [The Sunlight Dialogues is] a compulsive, artfully composed, intelligently conceived philosophical novel, reflective, thoughtful, and mature.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. lvi.

"Jason and Medeia" is nothing less than an epic poem in 24 books (the full Homeric complement) on one of the major cycles of Greek legend: the voyage of the Argo toward the limits of the known world, the quest for the Golden Fleece, and Medeia's later revenge on Jason, her husband, when he abandons her for a dynastic marriage. The crew of the ship, by tradition, includes many notable heroes of ancient lore, among them Heracles and Orpheus, Peleus and Telamon (the fathers of Achilleus and Ajax), and Castor and Ploydeuces (brothers of Helen), as well as Jason, the captain. The journey reels off marvels that rival the sights of Odysseus, and the terrible aftermath, Medeia's savage vengeance, contains some of the most shocking material in Greek tragic literature.

Gardner's ambition is evidently to fabricate in English a fourth "ancient" epic to complement the "Iliad," the "Odyssey," and the "Aeneid," as well as a book to stand beside his own novels, which are very much concerned with myth, wonder and historical fantasy. His verse form is the loose-limbed hexameter familiar to us from Richmond Lattimore's translations of Homer. And if Lattimore, following Pound, can be said to have ushered in a great age of verse translation, free of Victorian prettiness and poeticality, then Gardner, himself an ingenious translator from the Middle English, has invented a bizarre variant upon this tradition: the open hoax, the instant classic, a translation without an original.

Without an original? Not quite. The story of the Argonauts and Medeia survives in several ancient works, among them an ode of Pindar, Euripides's great "Medea" …, and, at considerable length, the "Argonautica" of Apollonius of Rhodes, a minor epic of the third century B.C. Gardner is so faithful to these last two sources (and perhaps others I don't recognize) that he plunks down large chunks of them line for line in his own text….

What remains unclear as we read on is why Gardner should have undertaken such a hybrid project. The answer, I'm afraid, lies near at hand: Gardner is a prolific and learned writer of amazing virtuoso dexterity, but with little power of judgment or depth of inspiration. Like another superb technician, Ezra Pound, he needs to hang his hat on another man's rack, to unravel and reweave someone else's thread. Always the clever student, full of boyish bravado, he sets tough tasks for himself—hurdles, challenges—and polishes them off effortlessly, without really pondering if they were worth doing at all….

Gardner's books all have the willed brilliance of the born overachiever, a dazzle of setting or idea or language that never quite flares up into imaginative life, that scarcely eludes its own precis. The Beowulf story from the monster's viewpoint? Smashing! An Athenian Quixote and his Sancho cracking metaphysical jokes in a Spartan prison? Boffo! Even "The Sunlight Dialogues," with its finely textured narrative realism, has the feel of an immense trick, an ingenious imitation of the triple-decker novel.

Yet, despite their limitations, "Grendel" and "The Sunlight Dialogues" work in a way that "Jason and Medeia" does not. In "Grendel" especially, the monster's viewpoint makes all the difference. We never forget that it's a gimmick, but the odd angle of vision enables Gardner to take full possession of his subject and remold his source almost beyond recognition. It also liberates his wit and virtuosity, and his sardonic view of all human pretension. No such creative expropriation occurs in "Jason and Medeia."…

In general, whenever human complications intercede, Gardner is at a loss and tries to fill the void with Language, bolts of eloquence, sheer poeticism. He's gifted with a golden tongue that often as not gets him into trouble by making everything seem easy and tempting….

Nor can I take seriously the claims made for him as a "philosophical" writer. True, all the books are strewn with debates about abstract ideas, but they remain just that, abstractions, mere talk, scarcely ever fleshed out by the texture of a world or the movement of the plot. And the level of these abstractions is appallingly low, even as talk; in "Jason and Medeia" they repeatedly come down to a little jig of stereotyped antitheses—nature and art, flesh and spirit, freedom and order, and so on….

[Pessimism] and melancholy [are] Gardner's most authentic philosophical [attitudes. They run] through all his books, but where in "Grendel" [they are] finely actualized, in "Jason and Medeia" [they run] counter to the poem's main impetus. Gardner's basic model is the "Odyssey," not the "Iliad," the adventure story rather than the drama of character in conflict…. Gardner mottles the Homeric pattern—which he slavishly follows—with repeated reminders of its pointlessness and irrelevance.

Morris Dickstein, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 1, 1973, p. 4.

History is too rich in prophets; the whine of doomsaying is in our daily life. We need writers who will defend us against the sins of God by revising the dream history of our kind.

John Gardner believes and denies the past; he shakes the order on which mythical history has been predicated, setting man above the gods. A theme, almost an obsession, runs through his work; he begins at the beginning—Eden—and concentrates on the great sin, the murder of Abel. Since we are the children of Cain, the builders of cities, Gardner defends us by revising our interpretation of Cain's art. The cause of Cain's murderous jealousy was God's rejection of his offspring of the "fruit of the ground" and his acceptance of Abel's offering of the "firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof." One may interpret God's choice with the humility of a Kierkegaard, suggesting that Cain, like Abraham, should have had faith: who are we mere mortals to question the ways of the Lord? Or one may think that God is some sort of primitivist, preferring the nomadic Abel to the civilized (the word can be traced back to the Latin colere, to cultivate) Cain.

John Gardner chooses to read Genesis 3:23 ("Therefore the Lord God sent him [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.") before he reads Genesis 4:3-5, in which God rejects Cain's offering of the "fruit of the ground." It makes no sense; the unnameable is irrational, capricious. How can Cain have faith in caprice? The unnameable Himself has failed to have even the consistency of ordinary men. Cain, realizing the absurdity of the world, rebels; raging, he kills his brother.

God refuses responsibility for the act and sends Cain out to be a fugitive and a wanderer, putting a mark on him to keep him from being killed before he has suffered enough to satisfy his tormentor.

Gardner cannot retract the curse, but he rejects the guilt, telling us that Cain and the children of Cain are the human suffers of this world, the compassionate ones, those whose very being is the most intense. On the outskirts of Eden we learned doubt, the possibility of evil, loneliness, and the ultimateness of this world. The children of Cain, staggering through life, stinking and groaning under the burden of primordial guilt, knowing they must overcome both themselves and their fate, are capable of love and perception; they are humanists.

John Gardner teaches us to love them so that we may disregard the despairing lacerations of the prophets and love ourselves….

[Let] history be rewritten from a humanistic point of view, Mr. Gardner seems to say. Let the gods be shown for what they are, unmask fate, raise man to a place from which he can face absurdity without trembling; then the children of Cain will have the courage to be, to rebel, to enter the forge of life and emerge defiant, free, and more merciful than the gods.

Earl Shorris, in Harper's (copyright © 1973 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the August, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), August, 1973, pp. 90-2.

Perhaps, in some remote historical sense, novels such as Giles Goat-Boy and Snow White do reflect the terrible truths about America in the 1960's, i.e., its inability to accept the moral imperatives behind secular power once the Calvinist mode collapsed, but they also indicate a certain kind of imagination's impotence when faced by an impossible gestalt it wishes to refute but lacks the courage to escape. Political liberalism's current retreat into noninvolvement under the assaults of young, radical, essentially antidemocratic attitudes has left its writers with no firm pieties from which they can safely describe their country's tortured consciousness, at least not in any transcendental manner.

With the advent of John Gardner's old-fashioned saga, the American novel can once again be dragged from its premature grave and shoved back on the heroic, albeit dangerous, course initially charted by Herman Melville during an earlier renaissance. In fact and fancy, The Sunlight Dialogues is a brave throwback to Moby Dick, not only in its use of a broad social canvas and an omniscient narrator, but in its intense concern for spiritual and philosophical values. Lacking a viable godhead, and its consequent ethical code, it still does not hesitate to presume upon the humanistic tradition which has always been the artist's surest ground, and, more to the point, it believes in itself as an aesthetic entity capable of making profound statements about mankind's nature and fate….

Mr. Gardner's narrative has a compulsive, relentless, Dostoevskian readability about it that has almost invariably characterized the best of our novels, and its poetic metaphors, however masked by the narrator's fluid language, never violate the characters' integrity. Each inner voice is distinct, true to itself, and convinces the reader of its individual rightness, which is quite an accomplishment in a creation striving for nothing less than a total allegory for contemporary America….

For the first time in American literature since Faulkner and Stevens, we have a fiction that reaches beyond religious dead-ends for its narrative consciousness. Though medieval in much of its strategic concepts, the novel's philosophical base is broad enough to encompass Spinoza and Kant, as well as the Schopenhauerean possibility of will as world….

Without doubt, Mr. Gardner has written a significant American novel at a critical juncture in our development and, in the process, rescued our literature from a quagmire of nihilistic gamesmanship. Further, his novel is wholly contemporary in its implicit assumption of a convoluted, existential reality in which both science and religion cannot be used to support simplistic denials of personal responsibility. Though closest in spirit and energy to Omensetter's Luck, William H. Gass's neglected masterpiece of the middle sixties, The Sunlight Dialogues should be put beside Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Ambassadors and The Sound and the Fury, as another major effort to relate an especially American ethos and situation to much deeper philosophical and behavioral questions, while reasserting the tragic dimension of all human existence.

Edward Butscher, "The American Novel is Alive and Well … Now," in The Georgia Review, Fall, 1973, pp. 393-97.

Gardner is a novelist and prose is his medium. Jason and Medeia is in verse, not, as Time's critic believed, in blank verse but in the freely syllabled six-beaters which Richmond Lattimore used to translate Homer. A shambling, ungainly measure at best, it yields in Mr. Gardner's hands some thirteen thousand lines not one of which is so worded or cadenced that it gives pleasure on first encounter or remains in the memory afterward. The decision to cast his narrative in verse may be in large part responsible for what I take to be a full-scale literary disaster….

[If] you do not enjoy verse catalogues you should not read epic poems. However, the pleasure they give is bound up with the pleasures of form and ceremony, the metrical encasement of long, outlandish names and the stylized epithets that set them off, the cunning of their various placing along the line. The hexameters of Apollonius encompass the catalogue very well; so in their way do Morris's couplets. Gardner's parvenu six-beaters know nothing of ceremony and in consequence his catalogue is a mannered bore. It is hazardous to revive ancient conventions without really understanding them….

[Some] of the discussions in The Sunlight Dialogues showed that Gardner has interesting things to say. But here his singing robes fatally impede him and drive him to posturing and intellectual buffoonery.

Why, the reader cannot but ask, why retell these old stories unless you can make something of them? Yet this may be the wrong way to put it, for "making something of them" too easily means imposing your own, contemporary, meanings upon ancient material. A myth or heroic legend is not a neutral vehicle, a mere narrative framework into which any thematic content can be inserted. It makes a particular statement, carries the tone and color of its own age and society. Myth, we may believe, is permanent ("universal"); it is also local. To live in the retelling, it must of course be made new in some way, but although the experiencing mind is of our day, what it experiences comes from afar. There must be, as in Pavese's mythological Dialoghi con Leucò, an encounter between Then and Now in which both are modified….

Gardner is in fact at his best, or his better, when he is content not to intervene and lets the story more or less tell itself. Books 14-16, relating the capture of the Fleece and Medea's elopement with Jason, are taken fairly directly from Apollonius and have a certain power. But he is too ambitious to do this for long….

Gardner tacks on to the very long account of Jason's mythological or heroic voyage the tonally quite different story of Jason the vulgar opportunist who abandons Medea for a more profitable bride. Euripides made a great tragedy out of it. Gardner's hurried version is at most melodrama.

D. S. Carne-Ross, "Epic Overreach," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), October 4, 1973, pp. 35-6.

[The Sunlight Dialogues is] another attempt to mythmake America, destroying first the older myths that people live by: family solidarity, conjugal love, the clichés it has become a cliché to attack. But not in this way, let's make clear. Part of the novel's success, indeed, is because such themes have not become mechanical, but are made new.

Resembling more 19th-century writing in its ability to create a totally absorbing world, The Sunlight Dialogues has a power rare in modern fiction, on all levels, wheeling through different points of view in Faulkner-like incursions into private consciousnesses. The language itself is impressive, holding the barely disguised primitiveness of our world in its images: 'a house as black as dinosaur bones', the first of many; and there is a poet's eye for the symbolic detail….

But most forceful of all is the opposition of the dialogues themselves, and the indictment of law and order as a chillingly negative impulse that finds its apotheosis in the funerals that Clumly attends with unfailing regularity….

Susan Knight, in New Statesman, October 19, 1973, p. 570.

One current phenomenon that hasn't been sufficiently examined is the rash of fiction by academics, or rather, academic fiction. John Barth, Alan Lelchuk, and William Gass, along with John Gardner, come to mind, and their fictions share certain characteristics. Nearly all of them are to be found in Gardner's Jason & Medeia.

Reliance upon earlier writers' plots, characters, and narrative techniques. Gardner has stitched together, I believe for the first time, all the scattered episodes in the mythic career of the Greek hero Jason. The story is told in blank verse hexameter lines that occasionally roll sonorously and often don't; much of the book resembles those translations of Homer that make the old poet read like a long-winded novelist….

Each of the characters represents, and is identified by, his rhetorical stance. This is a partial answer to the question that comes to mind as the reader forges through Gardner's epic: Why did a professor of Old and Middle English at Southern Illinois University spend all that time rehashing and pasting together materials that masters have worked over?

Gardner has tried to make the myths serve as vehicles for arguments that intrigue him: Reason v. feeling, freedom v. the rule of law, idealism v. the demands of power politics. Thus as the characters interact they do a great deal of talking, and all points of view are covered. One man argues that a tranquil state must demand crushing conformity from its citizens. Another declares that nothing in the world matters but ecstasy. One fellow attacks Jason's story on epistemological grounds, claiming that any verbal ordering of experience is automatically a lie. And so on….

[Gardner's work] suggests another element common to academic fiction: It's more fun to talk about than to read. Gardner takes us through storms at sea, battles with strange beasts, all sorts of wild episodes, but they don't interest him much; he disposes of his epic materials in a hurry and gets back to the arguments…. A writer can pretty well do as he pleases with his material, but after considering what men like Nikos Kazantzakis and Robert Graves have made of similar subjects, this is pretty pale stuff.

Other characteristics of academic fiction come to mind: total disregard for the marketplace and little interest in the reader. Universities offer writers freedom from commercial pressures, which sounds like a good idea; why, I wonder, do so many of them seem like boys playing with their toy railroads? Similarly, while concern for the reader can slide into pandering, treating him as beneath interest has its problems too. Readers usually return the compliment, for an understandable reason: To cope with such a book as Jason & Medeia one needs the uninterrupted leisure time of an eighteenth century country vicar. Or a teacher with a university sinecure.

Don Crinklaw, "Academic Literary Grooves," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 23, 1973, pp. 1311-12.

Gardner's reverence for ancient forms and permanent truths was clear enough in his earlier novels, but only in their doctrine, not in their multiple styles, which were insistently original. He has always been a man with a message. But like other serious modern novelists, he finds it hard to express his message directly. So he put it where he could be absolved from responsibility for it, in the mouths of crack-brained seers, monsters, madmen—his Agathon, his Grendel, his Sunlight Man. These characters and the novels in which they appear were often garrulous and sometimes cute. To the extent that they were, the severity and restraint of "Nickel Mountain," the inarticulateness of its characters, is an implicit criticism of them, or at least a moving away or on.

"Nickel Mountain," that is, has the look of being the result of certain conclusions Gardner had written himself toward: that "what was important was unspeakable," but perhaps susceptible to embodiment in a form; that in art, at least, less is more; and that at this moment in the history of fiction, originality may lie more in the recovery of ancient forms than in the invention of new ones. These conclusions may or may not be true, but that good fiction can be written out of them is proved by "Nickel Mountain," which is shapely and moving enough to make you believe, while you are reading it, in ancient forms and permanent truths.

George Stade, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 9, 1973, p. 5.

If The Sunlight Dialogues was masterful in its paced switches from cops to robbers, philosophers to magicians, bureaucrats to babblers, and if Gardner was proud to charm his snakey topic with every riff he knew, Nickel Mountain is very different. Until the key scene in the new novel, Gardner modestly hides those riffs by giving character a stolid life of its own, and meaning an unchaperoned vulnerability. Indeed Nickel Mountain has a fine absence of artificiality—until the moment of truth. But then! Then, along comes John, huffing, puffing, crumbling cookies, moving the very heavens, all to push his novel where he wants it, fashionably, to be. In short Nickel Mountain shows the wear of a 20-year composition span. Gardner began it, according to rumor, years ago when the novel used to bring one kind of news, and he's finished it now when fiction bears very different tidings….

Gardner believes novels should elucidate character, and he is trying to practice his belief by incorporating pieces of what one might call the anti-novel. Where many of his most talented peers—Pynchon, Barth, Mailer, Burroughs—have welcomed the erosion of character and exploited the new forms this erosion allows, Gardner has tried to shore up coherence. E. M. Forster best championed this position in his famous lectures (published as Aspects of the Novel in 1927): character "is real," he said, "when the novelist knows everything about it." Gardner's and Forster's school "give[s] us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable." Anti-novelists would disagree with that statement, would consider it complacent in a world that demonstrates the impossibility of stability, the necessity of unreason, and experience's ultimate mystery. Perhaps it is no longer possible to achieve a plausibly coherent or explicable character. Perhaps the conviction, the assumptions, the faith for that effort are now so radically debilitated that no one will ever do it again—but that's of course unlikely. What we have in Gardner is a fundamentally conservative author who has tried to appropriate certain impulses from beyond his pale without integrating them, and who has, thereby, cheapened his conservativism and spoiled his novel. If the argument between the two sorts of novel that presently exist in contemporary fiction is as important as I believe it is, we need a passionate challenge to the runaway energies of erosion—neither to turn erosion back nor to quicken it, but to sharpen and clarify its important directions. Nickel Mountain is disappointing in itself because Gardner has seemed to promise a necessary antithesis that he has not yet delivered.

W. T. Lhamon, Jr., "Old Tidings," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), December 15, 1973, pp. 25-6.

Gardner is unfashionably willing to run [the] risk of sentimentality…. Never more so than in Nickel Mountain, a curiously youthful novel about people with Oreo cookies and dogs named Prince….

Gardner's narrative would do for a soap opera…. Gardner's people are not self-conscious about saying such a thing as "Life goes on" and "Life's a funny thing," bringing to these poor old phrases a sense of wonder at the mysterious or accidental turnings of human affairs.

Like Sherwood Anderson, John Gardner is willing to sound boring and simple-minded in an attempt to reinvest such lines and the characters who say them with a kind of truthfulness and passion. Inevitably, though, he is driven into the minds of his characters and must allow himself a certain novelistic license in complexity….

John Gardner's book is sometimes overwritten and repetitive. But it shines with talent and, as Randall Jarrell once put it, "with an affection that cannot help itself for an innocence that cannot help itself."

Timothy Foote, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), December 31, 1973, pp. 55-6.

Predictably, most critics have turned Gardner's chief fault into a virtue; he is, they tell us, a "philosophical novelist" and leave it at that. I, for one, prefer a philosophical novelist who is less blatantly "philosophical" and one whose "philosophy" isn't comprised mainly of truisms. The Gardner books I've read thus far, The Wreckage of Agathon, Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues, vary in size considerably, but they all seem bloated because of the author's passion for delivering messages (a passion that gets completely out of hand in The Sunlight Dialogues, in which rural types implausibly spout universals). Jason and Medeia, which is often written in what might be called mock poetry, is no exception…. Sometimes there are striking lines in Gardner's "poem," but for the most part the language is either feeble ("No fire was left / but the wild furnace of my heart," "now menstrual cramps/sharp as the banging of Herakles' club") or downright foolish ("I squealed like a rat incinerated.").

Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, p. 777.

Imagine a concert at which people want to express their involvement with the music but for some reason feel they must pretend to be deaf and dumb. Gardner's characters [in "Nickel Mountain"] are involved with the kind of content, speculation, and realization peculiar to literature, but it seems their sense of innocence demands that they never speak directly about the curiously Jamesian universe generated by their search for literary holy grails. And their sign language consists of what happens to them, as if their lives were illustrations of their lives.

Thus when they are big and fat, or get torn apart physically, it doubles as allegory. Yet the symbolism itself is never quite as significant as the fact that it represents their refusal to be outspoken…. When a sort of interface between allegory and objectivity results, it generates strange pseudo-events, and the book seems to be having a visitation of metaphysical flying saucers….

"Nickel Mountain" has brilliance and depth, and might be entirely compelling if it were clearer what reality its characters are grounded in. I wound up thinking of its problems, as I do about much of James, that if life were so complex in these ways there would be no need to write novels.

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), January 24, 1974, p. 31.

At the rate John Gardner is churning out novels, he'll soon rival Joyce Carol Oates for the literary light most-likely-to-be-boycotted by the Friends of the Forest. Nickel Mountain, his latest, is another solid piece of work that assumes more manageable proportions than his lengthy Sunlight Dialogues….

Gardner clearly sets himself a hell of a problem, working within such limited confines—beside which the narrative flexibility of Sunlight Dialogues looks like a loose sock—and in the end he runs into the old difficulty of how one writes about boring and inarticulate people without becoming boring or inarticulate oneself.

Gardner, of course, is never inarticulate—but the reader may find himself wishing, midway through the searching, late-night-diner reveries of Soames and company, that they would either spit it out, or else just let a man finish his apple pie in peace.

Michael Rogers, in Rolling Stone (© 1974 by Straight Arrow Publishers Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1974, p. 75.