Gardner, John (Vol. 18)
Gardner, John 1933–
Gardner, an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, and children's book author, is also a scholar of medieval literature. As both an artist and a critic, Gardner believes that art should serve a moral purpose, that essentially art is "a game played against chaos and death." The subject of his work is often drawn from myth and legend. Admitting indebtedness to Chaucer, Dante, and Walt Disney, Gardner is consistently drawn to the fairy tale for the source and style of his writing. The breadth of his learning is revealed in the wealth of allusion from the entire spectrum of Western literary and philosophical tradition found in his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
Norma L. Hutman
[Creative] vision extends truth, shapes … archetype in its own image, commenting imaginatively (and hence more than logically) upon its archetypal mother. This happens all too rarely, but happen it does in John Gardner's Grendel which illustrates the perfect rapport possible between two workings of a single myth. That it can stand beside the epic Beowulf is no small judgment on the achievement of the novel. (p. 19)
Central to the novel is the confrontation of chaos and order: Grendel sees chaos in all that occurs and indeed insists upon chaos as ultimate principle; man makes order in the unformed void and, immortalizing, the artist remakes reality from the same elements to his own distinct purpose. The world as given is the milieu of monsters: nature, forests, hostile cold, wild storms, the less than benign climate of Scandinavia. In this death wreaking void, man builds houses, groups them and organizes his society, erects kingly halls, fortifications, links his realms by roads. Out of the untamed world monsters invade the tamed and symmetrical world of man, entering the mead hall to leave, together with death and destruction, their chaotic mark upon the ordered universe. Gardner's Grendel sees man essentially as a maker of patterns: "They'd map out roads through Hell with their crackpot theories," he says of them….
Roads concretize man's control over environment and the unity of a kingdom. Further...
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"Nothing could be more obvious," says John Gardner [in On Moral Fiction], "than that art should be moral and that the first business of criticism, at least some of the time, should be to judge works of literature (or painting or even music) on grounds of the production's moral worth." Acknowledging our usual embarrassment in the presence of words like "morality," he sets out to demonstrate the practice of moral criticism. Gardner positions his moral telescope. He scans the contemporary literary scene as though it were a night sky. And he finds himself as distressed by its occasional cold dazzle as by its expanses of emptiness. Gardner admits outright that he is a constellation hunter in search of the human image writ large, the illuminations of world and self classically provided by Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy. Our stars, he concludes, shed no radiance because they shine primarily for and upon themselves….
Gardner has an eye for those fine-line failures of concentration, commitment, and craftsmanship that widen out until they fracture a novel's foundation in illusion. Whenever he charges a contemporary with carelessness, he brings the novelist's fictional world sharply into focus, to show us the cracks and flaws. Since he sees so well, it seems peculiar to complain that he also sees badly. But he does. His perspective is inconsistent and shifts about disconcertingly. (p. 935)
The close-ups dissolve,...
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In a recent essay, [John Gardner] deplores the "shoddy morality of much of our fiction" and insists that "instruction is art's most basic function, whether or not it ought to be." Hence, a great responsibility rests on the artist to "seek positive moral values, provide models of goodness." "Fiction," Gardner says, "should spellbind and inspire, though it should not lie."
Unlike Flannery O'Connor who was trying mainly to convince a hard-headed audience that the redemption of Jesus Christ is real, John Gardner prefers to seek out human models of goodness and suggest that they too have redemptive powers…. It is as if Gardner believes that by writing about redemption he can somehow make it real because whatever values we celebrate in our arts will be celebrated in society. And he argues that because "art doesn't imitate life, art makes people do things,… if we celebrate bad values in our arts, we're going to have a bad society."
Given his theory about the teaching function of literature, Nickel Mountain has to be John Gardner's personal testimony that goodness is real and that faith need not succumb to despair. He cannot be unaware that he is teaching redemption. Although Gardner tends to hedge on religious questions and prefers to concentrate on human rather than divine redemption, he nevertheless infuses the book with a sense of heaven-inspired mystery. Gardner does, after all, choose a theme replete with...
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It is not surprising … to find Gardner publishing On Moral Fiction, a theoretical/critical book which will probably be quoted as widely as Gass's Fiction and the Figures of Life was a few years ago, not because Gardner's formulations of the new fictional conservatism are particularly brilliant but because he articulates feelings and tastes many disgruntled readers share. Gass's essays had an elegant uselessness; Gardner's appeal is plain talk and righteousness. I have heard "Kill the Aestheticians" murmured in my university library. Gardner responds to this kind of frustration with academic jargon by using words, such as Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, that most critics walked away from years ago. These abstractions come to have a sludge-like quality, Gardner's distinctions often lack precision (a favorite pejorative is "creepy"), and his readings of recent fiction are sometimes militantly unimaginative. But On Moral Fiction is still a necessary book because its earnest force requires even the reader who resists it page by page to examine his assumptions about fiction and because no other writer—Tom Wolfe in The Painted Word excepted—has reminded us recently that art is by and for human beings.
Gardner finds most contemporary American fiction and its criticism mediocre or worse…. What we need, argues Gardner, is a moral fiction, one that improves life through its sane and healthy vision and through its...
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[Freddy's Book] is a well-written, persuasive, philosophically dramatic, and concise work in which Gardner brings into explicit, exciting battle the debilitating forces of the late 20th century existentialism and the right, or the will, to be happy, secure, and productive in life….
An admirably good, peaceful hero like Lars-Goring would be fictionally weak if the novelist considered his goodness as a Leavisian moral absolute; hence the battery of existential "tests" Gardner subjects him to. Such tests are the moral transcriptions of Gardner's intuition of real-life pressures. The qualities of endless conflict and dread, verifiable to the reader's own experience, renders the entire novel (and in particular the goodness of Lars-Goring) more mature, more poignant, more meaningful. It is the imagination's freedom from deterministic moral principles (Gardner's initial definition) that permits the kind of enlarging contrast Gardner presents so successfully in Freddy's Book.
Working from one's intuition of real experience rather than from an abstract code of dos and don'ts, the novelist is able to encompass and therefore put in perspective any number of narrower dogmas that other writers might (Gardner would think incorrectly) use as the principal concern of their fictions. Such a dogma might be anything too narrow to make for an accurate, edifying, "moral" fiction by itself—e.g., the self-reflexive word...
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"Freddy's Book," John Gardner's eighth novel, begins as a conventional horror story, with the familiar Gothic appurtenances. At a party in Madison, Wis., given to celebrate his lecture on "The Psycho-politics of the Late Welsh Fairy Tale," the narrator, a Professor Winesap, meets a "doll-like" "Scandinavianist" named Sven Agaard, who announces suddenly, "I have a son who's a monster." The following day, Winesap accepts an invitation to visit Agaard's home on the outskirts of town. (p. 197)
Agaard invites Winesap to … meet Freddy, the monstrous son, who, Agaard now explains, is a "fan" of Winesap's. Freddy turns out to be an 8-foot-tall genius of sorts, sickly and overweight, who spends his days sequestered in his room, reading voraciously and writing a book. Winesap offers to read the book. (p. 198)
The remainder of Mr. Gardner's novel is Freddy's book, called "King Gustav & the Devil." Despite its anachronistic style—"Play your cards right, I'll make you archbishop"; "On which subject more later"—it is a fairly straight-forward historical novel about how Gustav Erikson Vasa, with the help of the Hanseatic town of Lübeck and a knight named Lars-Goren Bergkvist, threw off the rule of Denmark, became King Gustav I of Sweden in 1523, and proceeded to solidify his reign. What chiefly saves it from being conventional history is the presence of the Devil as a character, who keeps egging on the various combatants...
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URSULA K. Le GUIN
Going strictly by internal evidence one might suppose Freddy's Book to be the work of the offspring of an illicit but delightful union between Ingmar Bergman and Isak Dinesen; but it was written by John Gardner (who, characteristically, insists that it was written by Freddy).
[The Devil in Freddy's Book] is one of the largest and most convincing devils to be found in modern literature; he is very stupid and very subtle; and his eventual murder at the hands and bone knife of the knight is an event of great dramatic power and originality and of most devious and echoing implications. The tale left me mystified and satisfied to the highest degree. Who could ask for anything more? (p. 1)
So I arrive grumpily at [Vlemk, The Box-Painter] which is what I think one must call a minor work. It has charm and interest; it plays in narrative form with some of the ideas discoursed upon in Gardner's On Moral Fiction and with some other ideas all its own; but it does not seem to arrive anywhere. It remains in between. It sets off in a manner suited to adult or child, the straightforward narrative mode of the tale told aloud: "Once a man and wife lived in a vinegar jug by the sea," "There was once a king of the Sakya clan," "There once was a man who made pictures on boxes…." But the matter is intended for a highly sophisticated readership, and so the folktale manner soon sounds affected; nor is it...
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It is the interesting fate of "Freddy's Book" to follow John Gardner's critical essay "On Moral Fiction" on the ever-longer shelf of his books. Interesting because the new novel is a very enjoyable one, an entertainment high and bright, in every sense; and yet it can't expect to escape the dead-earnest question, is it moral? Its very structure—a novel within a novel, or rather, a fairytale-historical novella with a long fictional preface explaining how the subsequent narrative fell into the editor's hands—suggests the kind of literary game-playing against which the Gardner of "On Moral Fiction" has so much to say: it is a structure worthy of that "unmoral" novelist John Barth. "On Moral Fiction" itself is very enjoyable too—meaning brightly readable, which critical essays generally aren't. But underneath it is a sermon as solemn as the little word "on" in its title, shot through with that dread of pleasure we associate with early Protestantism. It leads one to inspect all the pleasure Gardner himself has given—he gave most in "Grendel," and he's giving it again now—in order to find those improvements that were secretly worked upon the reader as he sat there, unsuspecting, and more or less enthralled.
Most of the enthralling in "Freddy's Book" is done in the long fictional preface….
One has the distinct feeling of being invited to "do something" with the relationship of the preface to the narrative [which...
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[The subjects of the debate between Lars-Goren and Brask in Freddy's Book]—art and language—are an authorial intrusion that spoils this book and points to the weaknesses of Gardner's recent work. A quite natural dialogue of hope and despair turns into an aesthetic argument between the knight of moral fiction and the bishop of empty rhetoric, a debate between communication and performance, substance and elegance, emotional response and dead perception, John Gardner and a "stylist" who might be mistaken for William Gass. The book's self-consciousness—its self-reference and its nervousness—is Gardner's fault, not Freddy's, because the same kind of defensive contentiousness mars October Light and On Moral Fiction.
Gardner wants, he has said, the old storyteller's magic—"a vivid and continuous dream"—but he has so little confidence in his reader and in his own ability to do the trick that he repeatedly breaks into the dream he's making to argue that the continuous dream is what art should be….
"Art begins in a wound," Gardner says in On Moral Fiction, "and is an attempt to learn to live with the wound or to heal it." Freddy heals his wound—his difference from others, the country-boy feeling of not being good enough—by composing himself into Lars-Goren, the heroic knight. That Gardner "lives with" an analogous, perhaps quite similar wound—the sense of being a literary...
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Freddy's Book is profoundly dissatisfying. I came to it as a great admirer of John Gardner's previous fiction—Grendel, October Light, the tales in The King's Indian—but as a disparager of his unscholarly Chaucer biography and his self-righteous critical tract, On Moral Fiction. In his fiction Gardner has been inventive, witty, and entertaining. In his criticism he has been plagiaristic, self-serving, and sanctimonious. Freddy's Book, a novel, shares more qualities with Gardner's criticism than with his fiction. (p. 36)
In On Moral Fiction Gardner claims that "Art … discovers by its process what it can say" (emphasis his). But in the first part of Freddy's Book there is no discovery by process. Characters are always where Gardner needs them: Winesap goes to Agaard's house for no really interesting reason; heavy snow confines him there for the night, conveniently, so he can be goaded into reading demented Freddy's little book. The very language, which is ordinarily where Gardner is at his best, reeks of lack of attention to the details of the process he claims is essential to good fiction. "His voice cracked out like a trumpet, belligerent and fearful." This is writing off the tip of Gardner's pen: the basic simile is old hat, and the adjectives, confusingly, are antonyms. "Outside the room, wind was howling through the pines" can only be described as a cliché. In the...
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