Paul West Essay - West, Paul (Vol. 7)

West, Paul (Vol. 7)

West, Paul 1930–

A novelist, critic, poet, teacher, essayist, and short story writer, West is an Englishman now living in America. He became known for the zany inventiveness of the Alley Jaggers novels; but it is Words for a Deaf Daughter that reveals his essential optimism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Like many of the rest of us, Mr. West has grown disenchanted with scholarship which suggests "a doctrinal putsch with a doctorate at the end of it." As opposed to what he calls the "sacerdotal methodologies" of some New and Myth criticism, he advocates [in The Wine of Absurdity] a more eclectic, private response. "Humanism," he frankly acknowledges a debt to Mr. Irving Babbitt, "is not a program or a scheme, but a way of living life deliberately." Countering "the stoniness of the world," we must admit "the incompleteness and unsatisfactoriness of our systems…." The chief weapon with which to escape becoming "an accidental person" is imagination, the wine with which, as Camus said, we may best resist absurdity.

What gives freshness to this quest for secular beatitude is Mr. West's tactic of drawing support from a number of men whose religious commitments (Eliot, Graham Greene), or whose attempt to redefine man (Camus, Sartre), might seem to put them some distance from him. Pragmatic breadth offers large areas for maneuver….

[At times] the duties assigned to imagination seem desperately heavy.

Like all honest fiction, Mr. West's novel [Alley Jaggers] sheds light on his own theoretical preoccupations. It exposes, boldly, a human predicament more affecting than even the most far-reaching theorizing. Alley Jaggers, a twenty-five year old Midlands plasterer, fights to preserve his identity in a domestic cold war where his adversaries are his glum mother and an obese wife….

Alley tunes himself out from his surroundings so that he will not go mad. He exaggerates compulsively. Even his burps are "operatic." He reads Tarzan stories, affects an Irish brogue, dreams of glory in some TV-style war, orgiastic yet harmless….

One cannot escape the feeling that Alley's downfall results not from poverty of imagination—his vocabulary is … bawdily original … but from our modern brutalization of that faculty through impossible demands. He is incapable of conceiving of it as anything except protest. Granting Alley's special circumstances and limits, Mr. West seems to be verifying in this intermittently hilarious, ultimately frightening book the failure of unsupported imagination, no matter how autonomous, even riotous. (p. 644)

George Greene, in Commonweal (copyright 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 30, 1966.

A fine novel is a dangerous thing. It makes one impatient with all the talk, however genuine, about the crisis of confidence, the crisis of language, the crisis of character. It makes one realize that the novel's most traditional elements, the telling of the tale, the limning of character, the classic social settings and their attendant atmosphere, the unavoidable and so-often-boring sex scenes can be revolutionized when they are communicated in a language that is just right, a language that both describes and transcends these elements. Why dangerous? Because when it comes along—as it has in Paul West's new novel ["I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon"]—it looks so easy that one feels like blaming all the other novelists who don't wait until their material has found its right language. (p. 38)

There is an embarrassment of riches here. If anything, small details are treated too handsomely and the book could have been, I believe, shorter and better without some of them….

"I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon" lives at once by the grace of the extraordinary gifts of its author. (p. 39)

Daniel Stern, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1970.

"I see you in a portable ghetto you carry around with you, the only inhabitant …". So Paul West envisages his deaf daughter's domain in his devout and courtly apostrophe to her….

Paul West, who seems to have read everything and considered everything (birds, mathematics, genetics, music, odd parts of the world and airplanes), uses the language with a combined ingenuity and precision, perfectly suiting his sentences and the words within them to the cadences of his moods as they are dictated by Mandy's; elegantly colloquial in their collaboration, father and daughter can rapidly cascade, can surge and recede like tides, lie still like a limpid lake.

If one does not pay strict attention, [Words for a Deaf Daughter] will break the heart. (p. 4)

Jean Stafford, in Book World (© The Washington Post), August 23, 1970.

The beauty of Words for a Deaf Daughter is the truth of its form…. West writes directly and uncondescendingly to his almost totally deaf, eight-year-old daughter Mandy in the hope that she will one day be able to receive and understand his lavish trust of words. (p. 60)

A lifelong slave of words and reasons, he envies the intensity with which Mandy perceives the world nonverbally through her four acute senses. Fascinated by attentiveness for its own sake, he frees himself for a time by tasting and testing along with her. Ink tastes like "charred toenail," bark is like vulcanized crab meat, and leather, "a taste here not of the meat or the fat next to the hide but of the fur once outside it and of seaweed iodine."

Elsewhere West taps against his daughter's silence with exuberant wordplay. In a dazzling tour de force he compiles a looping, digressionary dictionary of her vocabulary, from "agnoo" (thank you) to "zwingh" (swing). He projects Mandy into the future as a kind of wholesome blonde Barbarella, zipping through time and space on exotic journeys. He creates worlds in which the handicapped seem to resemble Edward Lear's innocent creatures: compassionate Jumblies who set to sea in sieves and return, birds with corkscrew legs, who, like Mandy, are not rejects of nature but unique and puzzling variations of nature's paradoxical energy.

West's playfulness is of the highest order. Like Homo ludens, man the naturally playful animal, he exercises imagination to create something where there was nothing. In doing so, he puts pity to shame and makes empathy seem hermetic and inadequate. Words for a Deaf Daughter is an act of love, not merely its expression. It is also a work of art, the vision of the loved object widening beyond adoration into new ways of seeing the world. (p. 63)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Through the Sound Barrier," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), September 7, 1970, pp. 60, 63.

"Words for a Deaf Daughter" is a song of life in the midst of calamity, a precious account of how meaning can be carved into the randomness that seems to pervade our lives. And it is written in a prose that is poetry—controlled, unsentimental, exquisite configurations of words that recreate for us the world of Mandy West and her family.

Ee-ya, Mandy says softly, gratefully, when things are going well and she is happy. Well, ee-ya, Paul West, for this glory of a book. Ee-ya for the words you have addressed not only to your daughter but also to all of us who live lives of sound but do not hear, lives of light but do not see—to the real handicapped of the world. Ee-ya, indeed, from those of us who will read your book, and listen, and learn. (p. 26)

Chaim Potok, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1970.

It is well past time we claimed this mad transplanted Englishman as ours. With ["Caliban's Filibuster"] Paul West calls due the debt, and we are welchers indeed if we respond with less than applause—prolonged, amazed applause. If West's earlier novels published here ("Alley Jaggers," "I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon") were lovely lessons to the reader in how to see and feel, "Caliban's Filibuster" offers the Ph.D. in passionate intellection; if the earlier books were lessons to the writer in how to be funny, vicious, cold as a frozen snake, loving as a mother, all in the most controlled lyrical prose, then "Caliban's Filibuster" is quite plainly something like a master craftsman's masterpiece….

"Alley Jaggers" (1966) was a terribly moving story of a simple man consumed by dreams and language; it showed how complex real simplicity is….

"Caliban's Filibuster" is a fiction about language, and madness, and the worlds of dream we make to hide away in….

Cal, the ostensible name of the protagonist, is simultaneously a prisoner and a warder of words…. He is forced by his secret self to watch [a] movie [while flying to Japan]; the movie is in his mind, the flight becomes a journey through his many invented selves, the many worlds of fantasy and language behind which someone, the essential Cal, is cowering.

The rhythm of the book is in thirds: Cal hallucinates himself first as a millionaire shipowner …; then he is a brilliant Shakespearean professor; then he is a terrible witch-doctor resembling Shakespeare's magician Prospero, who enslaved the original Caliban.

Each of these is in turn divided, as are characters in "The Tempest"…. Cal's projections of himself are split—into warring creatures or contradictory verb-tenses or separate lobes of the brain. Cal is forced by mysterious electric shocks to examine himself; and one thinks of Prospero, torturing savage Caliban, who cries "The red plague rid you/For learning me your language."

The language here is a dazzlement. It is what Cal hides inside, what his Prospero-self tries to force him to yield: "verbal carnival all my own, all anarchy and din, barbaric and infernal."

There is wonderful humor here too….

There is superb lyricism. (p. 5)

This book is a trip to the basic mind of Cal while he tries, hiding there, to keep his questing self away. He filibusters so he may not hear. He is a state of verbal war. To structure this incipient chaos, West uses references to "The Tempest," to the divisions of the brain and to the spectrum—the book is in turn dominated by blue, yellow and red: "Man, I discovered, is a rainbow sandwich." If this calls to mind Joyce's subtle structures for "Ulysses," it should. (pp. 5, 18)

Frederick Busch, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 20, 1971.

The most affirmative thing about [Colonel Mint], as about West's other books, is his faith in the novel as an art form, as a dignified production of the human mind, capable of rendering, in its infinite variety, social comment, philosophic statement, comedy, pain, all of which West can do—impressively. "Meaning is the most explosive thing there is. Like angels," Lew R. [a character in Colonel Mint] says. Here is a novel that means.

Diane Johnson, "The Tomorrow We Should Fear Today," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 28, 1972, p. 3.

More than science fiction, or a satire on military autonomy, [Colonel Mint] is a series of grotesque inventions that culminates in a brilliant rearrangement of language and "fact," and has some of the dimensions of religious mystery. West opposes to our determination to make things mean, our refusal to see what is beyond our control, the principle of absurdity. It violates all the disciplines of plot and character…. (p. 2120)

Bruce Allen, in Library Journal (reprinted from the June 1, 1972, issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), June 1, 1972.

West can be witty, salacious and compassionate, but here [in Colonel Mint] his props destroy him. The colloquies between Colonel Mint and his inquisitor Lew R.; the torments administered by assistant Ray Bliss; and the sexual extravaganzas lavished by an hors d'oeuvre named Connie Langoustine, raise the novel's excitement to an inescapable level of sedation. (p. 22)

The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; (© 1972 by The New Republic, Inc.), August 19 & 26, 1972.

Colonel Mint provides a pleasant donnée: an astronaut in action sees an angel and says so. Most of the novel concentrates on the torments subsequently invented to force him to recant. One can surmise why the author might have thought it funny: long ago men suffered for their divergences from religious faith; now the state's destruction of deviants is as certain as the Inquisition's; such parallel and reversal is the stuff of comedy…. Dr. Johnson once remarked of John Ogilvie's poems, "Why, Sir, there is in them what was imagination, but it is no more imagination in him, than sound is sound in the echo." Paul West provides echoes of ideas, an echo of comedy: what is supposed to be funny is more often horrifying, because of the detectable relish with which sadism is elaborated. The author's control is tenuous; one learns nothing. (pp. 503-04)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1972 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXV, No. 3, Autumn, 1972.

West is clearly fascinated by the deranged mind stretching itself to unpredictable limits, creating brilliant collages out of the unlikely matter of contemporary experience…. [Bela Lugosi's White Christmas, the third novel in West's Alley Jaggers trilogy,] in every way resists the conventional, and much of it is staggeringly difficult. But its great verbal energy and inventiveness, its suggestion of a manic cosmos inhabited chiefly by Alley's busy mind, cheerfully subvert the world's demand that things fit neatly into the grooves of reason, and strike off several brilliantly gaudy images of the survival of the untamable individual. (p. 3183)

Library Journal (reprinted from the October 1, 1972, issue of Library Journal, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1972 by Xerox Corporation), October 1, 1972.

The style of the author of Alley Jaggers … is infectious. In its expansiveness, it seems to me a truer heir to Joyce than Beckett's verbalised silences: at any rate, the best product I've encountered of the Burroughs-Vonnegut school which holds that the novel has nowhere left to go but up, into cosmic fantasy….

The premise [of Colonel Mint] may be a shade whimsical, but the novel's development from it could only be called that if you'd spread the adjective over Ben Jonson and the blacker-witted Metaphysicals….

With unflagging verbal and surrealist invention, West whips you over a switchback of puns, atrocities, Jonsonian catalogues of excess….

'Earth is cradle of the mind, but cannot forever live in cradle,' Mint muses runically at one crisis of his ordeal. It would make a neat epigraph for the book, or for the emerging school of fiction it represents. Myself, finding plenty of life still in the old cradle, I'm not wholly convinced that novelists need yet abandon our cooling planet for newer skies. But art isn't all necessities. It would be a tired mind that didn't respond to the exhilarating, exhausting Jacobean display of this witty, horrific book. (p. 772)

Ronald Bryden, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp., 1973; reprinted by permission of Ronald Bryden), June 7, 1973.