Paul West Essay - West, Paul (Vol. 96)

West, Paul (Vol. 96)

Introduction

Paul West 1930–

English-born American novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, poet, and autobiographer.

The following entry provides coverage of West's career from 1987 to 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7 and 14.

Though West's publications range from poetry to literary criticism and autobiography, he is perhaps best known for his fiction, written in an intricate and ornate style that is frequently concerned with the psychological lives of minor historical figures. A French war refugee in Rat Man of Paris (1986) and the Romantic artist Walter Sickert in The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (1992) are two examples of minor real-life figures who become key players in West's prose. These and other novels explore the complex motivations of various characters, with West's writing providing a window on their actions and life choices. West acknowledges influences on his writing as diverse as Samuel Beckett, Juan Goytisolo, and Marcel Proust, and he identifies more strongly with the writing of South Americans than North Americans. West's nonfiction has also been well received, especially his two-volume set of literary criticism, The Modern Novel (1963), a collection of essays that put forth his philosophy of fiction writing.

Biographical Information

West was born in Derbyshire, England, to a working class father partially blinded during combat in World War I and a middle-class mother whose career as a pianist was deferred to care for the family. The couple's relationship is the topic of West's autobiographical novel, Love's Mansion (1992), in which two people from differing backgrounds overcome obstacles of class and politics to form a lifelong bond that manages to transcend even boredom and familiarity. West received his Masters degree at Columbia University in 1953 and shortly afterwards relocated to the United States to teach, spending most of his career at Pennsylvania State University. West has one daughter, Mandy, born brain-damaged and mostly deaf, who is the subject of two of his books: Words for a Deaf Daughter (1969) and Gala (1976), in which he attempts to explain his daughter's place in an imperfect and random universe. West himself has suffered from various illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and migraine; in A Stroke of Genius (1995) he chronicles his experiences as a stroke victim.

Major Works

Most critical attention is focused on West's novels. Though his first novel, A Quality of Mercy, was published in 1961, his fiction did not gain wide critical reception until The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (1980). This historical rendering of the plot to kill Adolf Hitler is similar to West's other novels in that it presents a highly personal history of someone on the periphery of public history. This was followed by Ratman of Paris, a story about a real-life eccentric who roamed the streets of post-war Paris exposing passersby to a "rat"—a fox stole—which was one of his few remaining possessions from before the war. West gives the Rat Man a history and describes the chain of events that may have eventually led to his notoriety. In Lord Byron's Doctor (1989), West travels further back in time to fictionalize the events of Lord Byron's elite circle of writers and friends in the early eighteenth century. Though much is known of Percy and Mary Shelley, and even Mary's half sister Claire Clairmont, a more obscure figure is Byron's doctor, John William Polidori, who travelled with the group and was accepted at least in part into their literary parlors. West describes the doctor as a character filled with self-importance and second-rate prose, who eventually bored his companions and fell from their favor. One of West's most popular novels is The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, in which he expounds upon the previously-published theory of a sinister plot in eighteenth-century London to keep scandal at a safe distance from the throne—a task that involved murdering several prostitutes who knew too much about Prince Edward's dealings in the city's underworld.

Critical Reception

While West has not enjoyed the widespread popular success of many well-received novelists, his reputation among critics is secure. Most have regarded his novels as well-crafted and consistent, even if some have taken issue with his meticulous prose style, marked by frequent and lengthy passages in which characters contemplate their motives and thoughts. These criticisms have prompted West to write an essay entitled "In Defense of Purple Prose," in which he lambasts the current preference of critics for a more minimalist style and staunchly defends his ornate prose as being richer and more colorful than a novel constructed with as few words as possible. Conversely, some critics admire this style. Of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, Partisan Review critic Ronald Christ noted that "the richness of West's prose is the real wealth here and it is, like Stauffenberg's hours, loaded with all the treasures of a 'truant mind.'"

Principal Works

The Fantasy Poets: Number Seven (poetry) 1952
The Growth of the Novel (nonfiction) 1959
Byron and the Spoiler's Art (nonfiction) 1960
The Spellbound Horses (poetry) 1960
A Quality of Mercy (novel) 1961
Byron: A Collection of Critical Essays [editor] (nonfiction) 1963
I, Said the Sparrow (memoir) 1963
The Modern Novel [two volumes] (nonfiction) 1963; revised edition, 1965
Alley Jaggers (novel) 1964
Robert Penn Warren (criticism) 1964
The Snow Leopard (poetry) 1964
Tenement of Clay (novel) 1965
The Wine of Absurdity: Essays on Literature and Consolation (nonfiction) 1966
I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon (novel) 1969
Words for a Deaf Daughter (biography) 1969
Caliban's Filibuster (novel) 1971
Bela Lugosi's White Christmas (novel) 1972
Colonel Mint (novel) 1973
Gala (novel; sequel to Words for a Deaf Daughter) 1976
The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (historical novel) 1980
Out of My Depths: A Swimmer in the Universe (autobiography) 1983
Rat Man of Paris (novel) 1986
Sheer Fiction (criticism) 1987
The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests (novel) 1988
The Universe, and Other Fictions (short stories) 1988
Lord Byron's Doctor (historical novel) 1989
Portable People (nonfiction) 1990
Sheer Fiction, Volume 2 (nonfiction) 1991
Love's Mansion (memoir) 1992
The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper (historical novel) 1992
A Stroke of Genius: Illness and Self-Discovery (memoir) 1995
The Tent of Orange Mist (novel) 1995
My Mother's Music (memoir) 1996
Sporting with Amaryllis (novel) 1997

∗These novels form the "Alley Jaggers" trilogy.

Criticism

David Lehman (review date 2 August 1987)

SOURCE: "Uncommonly Good Common Readers," in Book World The Washington Post, Vol. XVII, No. 31, August 2, 1987, p. 10-11.

[In the following review of Sheer Fiction, a collection of essays explaining West's love of elaborate, colorful prose, Lehman praises the author's style in an era typified by minimalist writing.]

In Sheer Fiction, Paul West votes for verbal gigantism, a high-caloric linguistic pleasure principle. West, whose 10 published novels include Rat Man of Paris and The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, is an unabashed proponent and practitioner of purple prose. He is for pageantry, against austerity; for prose that is "revved up, ample, intense, incandescent, or flamboyant"; against any sensibility that would regard "taut, clean, crisp, tight, terse, lean" as virtues; for baroque elaboration and sheer invention, against naturalism in any narrow sense. The foremost enemy is trendy "minimalism," a dandy punching bag. Minimalism, West writes, is "the ponderous ho-hum of the gull who thinks fiction somehow photographs life instead of mimicking life's creative ways. Minimalism to me is what there cannot be too little of."

The essays in Sheer Fiction rely on digressions, deviations, and bravura displays of associative logic to enact their themes. Take, for example, "A Rocking Horse on Mars" (one of several marvelous titles), which begins...

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Gregory Feeley (review date 31 July 1988)

SOURCE: "Fragments and Fancy," in Book World The Washington Post, Vol. XVIII, No. 31, July 31, 1988, p. 9.

[In the following mixed review of West's collection of short stories entitled The Universe, and Other Fictions, Feeley comments that the author's narrative voice fluctuates little over the series of stories.]

The stories in Paul West's The Universe, and Other Fictions are [short, dense] and so learned as to seem often gnomic. More shapely as fictions, they take on themes familiar from West's earlier books but here greatly compressed, like a sauce boiled down to daunting richness. "Life With Atlas" is more récit or meditation than dramatic narrative,...

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Hartman H. Lomawaima (review date 9 October 1988)

SOURCE: "The Moment in Fiction When Truth Flees," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 9, 1988, pp. 2, 15.

[In the following review, Lomawaima faults The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests for its simplistic portrayal of Hopi life and accuses West of imposing his own meaning on Native American culture.]

The title of this novel is also the surname of its protagonist. George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests is a Hopi man who has lived his entire life among the majestic high mesas of northeastern Arizona. The Hopi people have lived here for more than a thousand years, and among their villages is the oldest settlement in all of North America....

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Lee Lescaze (review date 1 November 1988)

SOURCE: "Mayhem on the Mesa," in The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 1988, p. A26.

[In the following review, Lescaze criticizes some of the passages in The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, suggesting that much of the narrative long-windedness dulls the characters' actions.]

Paul West is much concerned with the pathetic puniness of man. He also has a liking for grotesques. In his previous novel, Rat Man of Paris, his protagonist wraps his body in filthy rags, his head in infantile dreams, and walks the streets of Paris, alarming people by brandishing rats. In the end, he finds love, fatherhood and peace.

Oswald Beautiful Badger Going...

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David W. Madden (interview date 15-17 June 1989)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Paul West," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 154-76.

[In the following interview, Madden and West discuss major themes and influences in West's fiction.]

The following interview was conducted in the front room of Paul West's home in Ithaca, New York, 15-17 June 1989. The discussion was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which were the torrential downpour outside, a temperamental fluorescent light that hummed and buzzed on and off, and a persistent groundhog determined to drown itself in West's pool. Each day West would greet me at noon with lunch, and throughout our conversations he was...

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Angeline Goreau (review date 3 September 1989)

SOURCE: "Physician, Behave Thyself," in The New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1989, pp. 2, 16.

[In the following mixed review, Goreau criticizes West's portrayal of the poet George Byron in Lord Byron's Doctor, claiming that in an effort to elevate the importance of the poet's bumbling doctor, he renders Byron himself a caricature.]

"Mad—bad—and dangerous to know," Lady Caroline Lamb wrote in her journal on the evening she first set eyes on Lord Byron. She was, like most of London in the latter part of March 1812, fresh from an impassioned reading of the first two cantos of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" and wild to know its author. Disregarding her own...

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R. Z. Sheppard (review date 11 September 1989)

SOURCE: "The Cruelty of Genius," in Time, Vol. 134, No. 11, September 11, 1989, p. 82.

[In the following excerpt, Sheppard favorably reviews Lord Byron's Doctor, calling it a successful portrayal of the "passionately entwined" Romanticism and egoism of Byron and his colleagues.]

Doubleday assures editors and reviewers that Lord Byron's Doctor is Paul West's "most accessible novel to date." What does this suggest about the writer's previous work? That it is less accessible, or even impenetrable? With a publisher like that, who needs critics? Far better to have readers willing to discover for themselves that, if anything, West, 59, is one of the most...

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C. S. Schreiner (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 135-36.

[In the following review of The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, Schreiner interprets the book as a demonstration of West's philosophy of artistic necessity.]

[The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests is a] teeming, propulsive book with the spirit and substance of butterflies clinging to a moving locomotive. Although Paul West's new novel is about Hopi life animated to a large extent by the perversities of American culture, these phenomena are not depicted with any concern for empirical accuracy but are taken in terms of...

(The entire section is 754 words.)

David W. Madden (review date Fall 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 3, Fall, 1990, pp. 192-94.

[In the following review, Madden applauds the reprinting of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, calling it a "major work" that explores the moral subtleties involved in the rise of Nazi power and the motives of those involved with the unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.]

The republication (here in reduced print with the original pagination) of Paul West's novel from 1980 is cause for genuine celebration. The fact that the book has been out of print for so many years is both inexplicable...

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Robert Lima (essay date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: "Words of Power: Openings to the Universe of Paul West," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 212-18.

[In the following essay, Lima studies the language of West's novels, which he compares to that of Dante's Inferno, as well as his characters, some of whom he refers to as "grotesques."]

Many years ago, nearly twenty-three in fact, I received a request from a Spanish priest stationed in the Philippines for an essay by Paul West. Knowing that the author and I taught at the same university, he had taken it for granted that I would have access to the piece. I didn't. Since I was at a campus other than University Park,...

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John Clute (review date 28 April 1991)

SOURCE: "In the Service of Empire," in Book World The Washington Post, Vol. XXI, No. 17, April 28, 1991.

[In the following review, Clute gives a negative assessment of The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, claiming that it is weighed down by too much verbalizing and too little urgency on the part of the characters.]

Jack the Ripper is a bit like the Boojum. Like that most invisible and most threatening of all the varieties of Snark in Lewis Carroll's famous poem, he lurks blank and ravenous at the end of the hunt, and it is an unlucky Bellman who runs across his likeness in the flesh. The most famous murderer in the world, he remains unexposed, a phantom...

(The entire section is 905 words.)

Josh Rubins (review date 12 May 1991)

SOURCE: "Serial Murder by Gaslight," in The New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1991, pp. 11-12.

[In the following review, Rubins praises The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, saying that the characters emerge as distinct personalities and the book vividly portrays the seediness of Victorian London with a fresh sense of horror.]

Admirers of Paul West's recent fiction probably won't be surprised to learn that this new novel, despite its title, begins not as a tale of crime or horror but as a quirky, almost dreamy love story—complete with a plucky shopgirl, a real-life prince and a soon-to-be-famous artist as matchmaker. After all, in such books as...

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Paul West (excerpt date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: "Deep-Sixed into the Atlantic," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 260-62.

[In the following excerpt, West annotates a letter he wrote to The Atlantic on July 4, 1991, after the magazine refused to publish a positive review of his novel, The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper.]

When word came that the Atlantic, enthusiastic about my work, had commissioned a long review of The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, I was impressed; middle-brow America was getting to grips at last. Some time later I heard from the reviewer, Bill Marx, editor of the Boston Phoenix's Literary Supplement, that...

(The entire section is 1084 words.)

Cerald Mangan (review date 8 November 1991)

SOURCE: "A London Dunghill," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4623, November 8, 1991, p. 31.

[In the following review of The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, Mangan focuses on the sexual and scatalogical tone of the novel, passages of which he declares "rhetorical flights" and "sheer nonsense."]

Paul West is an Englishman now in his early sixties, who emigrated to the United States in 1962 and now lives in New York State. His thirteenth novel is the first to be published in Britain, and it arrives surrounded by an honour-laden reputation which has also spread to France, by way of his two previous novels Rat Man of Paris and Lord Byron's...

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Jonathan Yardley (review date 27 September 1992)

SOURCE: "When Harry Met Hilly," in Book World The Washington Post, Vol. XXII, No. 39, September 27, 1992, p. 3.

[In the following review, Yardley proclaims the autobiographical nature of Love's Mansion, West's fictionalized biography of his parents' marriage, of less importance than his successful contemplation of love and marriage.]

Paul West takes the title of this, his 14th work of fiction, from a line by Diane Ackerman: "Love's mansion has so many rooms." It is an image that persists throughout the novel, the subject of which is the strangely affecting romance of a man and woman closely modeled upon West's own parents: The houses in which they meet, court,...

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Joseph Coates (review date 18 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Creating Your Creators: The Protean Paul West Tackles His Toughest Inventions: Mom and Dad," in Chicago Tribune—Books, October 18, 1992, p. 5.

[In the following review of Love's Mansion, Coates theorizes that West's portrayal of his parents' lives is in line with his fictionalization of other historical figures in such novels as Lord Byron's Doctor and The Rat Man of Paris.]

Love's Mansion is either Paul West's consummate novel or his most atypical—if, come to think of it, a "typical" Paul West novel can be imagined. Prolific, protean in impersonation, gamy and yet uncannily tender in sensibility and subject matter, he relishes...

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David Sacks (review date 4 November 1992)

SOURCE: "Hilly and Harry, an Enduring Love Story," in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXX, No. 90, November 4, 1992, p. A12.

[In the following review, Sacks offers a favorable assessment of Love's Mansion.]

Any marriage lasting 50 years deserves to be written up. In his moving and highly enjoyable novel Love's Mansion Paul West presents a thinly fictionalized memoir of his parents, starting with their shared childhood in an English Midlands village in the early 1900s and ending with his widowed mother's recent death at age 94.

Giving them new names—Hilly and Harry Moxton—Mr. West treats them with candor, sympathy and (for the reader)...

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Vicki Weissman (review date February-March 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Sheer Fiction II, in The American Book Review, Vol. 14, No. 16, February-March, 1993, p. 30-1.

[In the following review of Sheer Fiction II, Weissman finds that the essays in the collection require considerable contemplation and knowledge to understand.]

Paul West has been keeping the written word alive and well for a good long time. Nine nonfiction and twelve fiction titles are listed at the beginning of [Sheer Fiction II], his tenth work of nonfiction and follow-up to Sheer Fiction. Yet, endearingly, he opens by writing, "Doing these pieces reminds me of different calisthenics from those of novel-writing; I find them...

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Gary Davenport (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: "True Merchants of the Untrue," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. CI, No. 2, Spring, 1993, pp. 300-03.

[In the following excerpt, Davenport examines how The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper fits the conventions of the historical novel and the political novel, and pronounces the book "a considerable achievement." He also comments briefly on Love's Mansion.]

In 1850 Alessandro Manzoni published an essay called Del romanzo storico (it first appeared in English in 1984 as On the Historical Novel). Nineteenth-century admirers of historical fiction who read that essay must have been disheartened when the author of I promessi sposi...

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Dwight Garner (review date 20 March 1995)

SOURCE: "Do Not Go Gentle," in The Nation, March 20, 1995, p. 394.

[In the following excerpt, Garner describes A Stroke of Genius as "a brave and lovely book" which "quickly moves well beyond being a survivor's celebration."]

In the case of the upstate New York novelist Paul West, who in A Stroke of Genius recounts the various illnesses that have besieged him in recent years—heart disease, diabetes, debilitating migraines—"the sheer majesty of salt" was among the active agents in his physical decline. "Nothing tasted right unless it had been fried," West writes about his restless appetite, but it wasn't until quite late in life, after suffering a...

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Richard Eder (review date 10 September 1995)

SOURCE: "The Smashing of a Child's World," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 10, 1995, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following mixed review, Eder finds The Tent of Orange Mist to be "in some ways a small masterpiece," yet identifies several qualities of West's writing that he finds "irritating."]

Like J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, the agony in Paul West's The Tent of Orange Mist lies in a drowning of what Yeats called the ceremony of innocence. In both books the ceremony belongs to children who must face, by themselves, the savagery of modern war. In both books the terror comes with the Japanese invasion of China; at the start of World War II...

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David W. Madden (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Tent of Orange Mist, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring, 1996, p. 145.

[In the following positive review, Madden asserts that The Tent of Orange Mist is "a gorgeous assertion of the dignity of the human spirit" and should elevate West to the position of "premier practitioner of historical fiction in America."]

With the publication of The Tent of Orange Mist, Paul West takes his place as the premier practitioner of historical fiction in America. In each of his novels since The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, West has consistently explored the possibilities of reimagined historical events and...

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David Sacks (review date 12 May 1996)

SOURCE: "A Volcano in a Dresden Shepherdess," in The New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1996, p. 11.

[In the following review, Sacks praises West's ability to write skillfully and convincingly about his adoration of his mother in My Mother's Music.]

It takes guts for a grown man, in America today, to write adoringly about his mom. Love of mother, tainted by pop psychology, is one of our favorite movie and novel cliches, signaling male sexual confusion, blocked development or psychosis. In real life a man may honor the woman who nurtured and sacrificed for him. But speak or write earnestly about her and you risk sounding ridiculous.

That's a challenge...

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