West, Paul (Vol. 96)
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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)...
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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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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, in which the Atlas of myth speaks about his endless burden, how he misses his daughters the Pléiades, and the hydrogen whisper of the universe. "Atlas is coming out in words," his interlocutor remarks,
and I'm in the near-fatuous position of transposing a voice-in-the-head, but spoken into the tape by myself, into yet another medium, of which not even my best friend, Etna, would call me master … When the Voice of Ages (or whatever) deigns to favor you with some friendly gab, you don't make picayune cracks about the quality of reception, the speed or slowness of the transmission, the timbre of his vowels, and you certainly don't mind that occasionally you get lost in him, he in you, the pair of you in...
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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.
The story that unfolds is not in all ways unique. It is about a small-scale society, a small village, a small family and small minds. The author could have selected from an infinite number of backdrops where small was the operative word. In this work, he has selected to project his story against a Hopi screen. Does it work? In a word (the favorite word of George's nephew Oswald Beautiful Badger Going Over the Hill), Negatorio: an unequivocal no.
The story is set in our time, and the place names used are easy to locate in any Rand McNally guide. George The Place In Flowers Where Pollen Rests is not an old man, but he is beset with heart trouble and on-coming blindness, which will permanently...
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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 Over the Hill (it's shorter in Hopi), Mr. West's new protagonist, has an even harder time of things before reaching the level of self-discovery. We first meet him at the instant he realizes he has accidentally strangled Trudy Blue while performing in a pornographic movie.
That ends his porn career and sends him back to the Arizona mesa where he was born—and where death by suffocation is something of a motif, being ritually administered to baby eagles and to foxes. He is aimless and feeling bad, for himself at least. "Life cost more than a man ever earned," he says.
The most compelling man on the mesa is Oswald's uncle (really father, but that comes later), George the Place in Flowers Where Pollen...
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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 patient with the questions and eager to respond. He has been equally gracious in answering further questions through the mail. In all my dealings with Paul West I have found him to be delightful witty, considerate, solicitous, and extremely generous. In all ways, this project has been a genuine pleasure.
[Madden:] Will you describe the importance Samuel Beckett has had for you? Much that you write has direct references, allusions, mentions of Beckett.
[West:] Nearly everybody you talk to about fiction seems to think there's a fundamental incompatibility between writing fiction and having a good mind. Beckett struck me as somebody with a good mind who is also able to write fiction, thus demonstrating that...
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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 warning, Lady Caroline threw herself into a love affair whose notorious course shocked even Regency morals and launched Byron on the series of scandals whose accumulated force finally propelled him into exile from England four years later.
Byron did not leave scandal behind, however, nor did the extraordinary phenomenon of Byronmania abate in the slightest with the hero's expatriation. On the contrary, no detail of his sayings or doings was too insignificant to arouse the interest of his admirers—or his detractors, for that matter. A swarm of self-appointed biographers was busy recording the particulars of the poet's famous exile.
Among the aspiring Boswells was J. W. Polidori, the hero of Paul West's...
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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 vigorous and inviting literary talents still punching away in semiobscurity. West wants to bowl over his audience and usually does, in virtuoso performances like Alley Jaggers, Bela Lugosi's White Christmas and The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, the last a fictionalization of the failed 1944 plot by German officers to assassinate Hitler.
The author's twelfth novel is an equally successful imagining of a historical event, the 1816 European tour of Romanticism's Rolling Stones, George Gordon (Lord Byron) and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their entourage had its own claim to notoriety. Shelley's wife Mary was the daughter of the radical philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the basic...
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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 their verbal energies, which are staggered across time in some attempt at narrative development. The writing produces the effect of shifting radio bands or a phased array radar system where one used to expect a consciousness. What one hears, West would say, are the sounds of the universe pollinating itself. Such sounds will scare the average consumer. The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests is not necessarily a crowd pleaser in spite of all its gore and libido. It is as if Rabelais, Conrad Aiken, and Natalie Sarraute had succeeded in trying to make something artistically redeemable out of Rambo. West delivers pure artifice, yet with more brio and detail than most realistic writing around today.
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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 and deplorable, and one can only hope that Overlook Press intends to rectify that mistake keeping it in print for many years to come.
Of course the publication of any Paul West novel should be welcome news, and any consideration of his canon quickly reveals an embarrassment of riches. But The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg may well represent the pinnacle of a truly prodigious, distinguished career. Put simply, the novel is a major work, and the nine intervening years since its first publication have done nothing to diminish the novel's brilliance.
In so many ways this is an extremely daring book—in subject, scope, method, and linguistic inventiveness. Anyone looking at the Third...
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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, where Paul West taught, I didn't know the author either (nor, to my chagrin, even his name). Checking the meager holdings of my small campus library for a book of his that might contain the piece, I drew the proverbial blank. But since collegiality is the hallmark in the best of all possible worlds, the academic, I wrote the author a note explaining my friend's pressing need for the essay (he was working on his doctoral dissertation) and his offer to pay for it (I don't recall if in Spanish pesetas or Philippine pesos).
Sometime thereafter, I received a letter from the author explaining that the essay would reach me as soon as the English Department secretary got around to Xeroxing it. I guess she never did for I...
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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 of the London fog, and it may be just as well that the many writers who continue to search for his true identity will, almost certainly, never prove that they have found it. The stench of the Ripper's crimes is perhaps more salutary when the banality of evil behind them remains unplumbed.
Certainly the lessons Paul West hopes to impart in his new novel, The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, have little or nothing to do with any attempt to come up with a new candidate for the murderer. In his short preface he acknowledges several sources for the choice he has made, chief among them Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper (1976), a rather breathless nonfiction attempt to pin the role mainly upon Dr. William...
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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 Lord Byron's Doctor and The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, Mr. West burrowed his way into history from the oddest angles, weaving in and around factual episodes (Byron and Shelley on vacation, the von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler) with nervy imagination. His specialty is filling in the missing details—psychological and otherwise—through verbally exquisite interior monologues or provocatively vivid evocations of unfamiliar milieus.
This time, of course, it isn't just the details that need fictional filling in. It's virtually the whole story, since no one has ever proved whodunit, let alone offered a convincing explanation of the motive behind the savage murders of five East End...
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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 he had indeed written the review but that Jack Beatty, senior editor at the Atlantic, had killed it: he could not print an enthusiastic review, he said, of a novel devoted to the chopping up of women. In the mean-time, other reviews had pointed out the novel's severe feminism, most recently applauded by Andrea Dworkin in Ms. It was clear that Beatty and his colleagues hadn't read the novel, but were treating it as if it were by Brett Easton Ellis. The New York Times picked up the tale and published a story in my favor that many other newspapers printed in its entirety. Mr. Marx's phone began to ring, and it became clear that, although he might have no future at the Atlantic, he had a solid one elsewhere. In his...
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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 Doctor. The territory he inhabits as novelist, poet and polemicist has recently been plotted in colourful detail by the French press, which traces his ancestry to Rabelais by way of the Elizabethans, and notes the significance of his professorial chair as a successor to Nabokov. His pugnacious critical position, as a scourge of the Carver-inspired school of "minimalist" fiction, has apparently earned him the nickname "Maximalist Rex".
The Women of Whitechapel purports to be the inside story of Jack the Ripper, and his victims; and it is based on the theory, explored in recent books and films, which attributes the murders to an Establishment conspiracy. It proceeds from the supposition that Queen Victoria's son,...
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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, marry, live and die have many rooms, all of them consecrated to different purposes, yet all of them containing a love that somehow survives the years.
That the novel is autobiographical is interesting but in the end unimportant; what West makes of his material matters more than where he found it. No doubt he could have told his parents' story in a memoir or joint biography or family history, had he so chosen, but in making a novel out of that story he liberates his imagination and is thus able to reflect upon questions to which a child is not customarily privy.
Reflect is precisely what West does. Love's Mansion is a leisurely, meditative book, the pace of which may not be to all readers' tastes....
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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 inhabiting "real" historical people we thought we knew, as well as many we didn't, as some of his titles indicate: Lord Byron's Doctor, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper.
In last year's tour de force, Portable People, there spring to amazing life and sometimes grim death 85 personages from Nixon in China, Simone Weil and the author himself to Rudolf Schwarzkogler, "sonneteer of meat"—his own, an Austrian avant-gardist who in 1940 sculpted himself away from himself, the "patron saint of minimalists" who used razor blades on his own body as a way of "beseeching us to stick together or else."
A biographical note at the end of Love's...
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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) merciful selectivity, focusing on certain episodes but flying through whole decades in between. In its unpretentious way, Love's Mansion is a tale of the 20th century, and a tribute to the aspiring human spirit (symbolized, in this novel, by music). "To live amidst the universe without thinking about it—why, that is to have Beethoven on the player and be afraid to turn it on," we are told at the story's end.
Nearly half the book is devoted, in marvelous detail, to Harry's hellish experiences in World War I. After enlisting by faking his age, 16-year-old Harry becomes an expert machine-gunner, rising to sergeant's rank before a German shell blast leaves him blind. He eventually recovers sight in one eye, and the steadfast...
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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 difficult to do, so presumably I must keep on trying my hand at them till I improve," and he concludes, "I try to be accurate." Statements of genuine literary humility, to be sure, but these are signals too. Reader, beware. You too are going to have to do a little work here. This is a writer who takes his craft seriously, who can quite unself-consciously give us Djuna Barnes, Gombrowicz, Frisch, Goytisolo, and Dante in a four-paragraph introductory note and who feels that "an avid reader should strive for some sense of the international main."
With that brief hint of effort in store, we are plunged straight into the literary world of one of fiction's brighter and better-stocked minds. The first piece in the book deals with...
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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 declared the genre hopelessly unworkable, declaring that faithfulness to history and freedom of invention are inherently contradictory principles. Naive as this judgment might sound to a poststructuralist critic, Manzoni nonetheless correctly assumes that even a sophisticated reader expects a historical novel to be faithful to the past—just as he expects a novel with a contemporary setting to be faithful to the present. (Ian Watt and others have even defined the novel—as distinct from romance, fantasy, fable, and the like—in terms of such empirical faithfulness.)
The real difficulty here may well lie in determining what the past was—and this is not a problem that is any closer to solution today than it was in 1850. On...
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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 serious stroke, that he found that he'd been a "slow suicide whose corroded emblem was the frying pan."
Told that he was likely to die quickly without a pacemaker implant to regulate his faltering heartbeat, West reluctantly agreed. "It was not just a patch applied, a decal, but an incubus," he writes, that would "send me stumbling back out into the world as a well-wired freak at the mercy of microwave ovens and thunderstorms, insect-repelling wave-emitter boxes and airport security barriers."
While A Stroke of Genius brims with exacting accounts of West's post-implant life ("I have been mortified into becoming some Homo adaptus, a modified man") and of what he calls the "panjandrum hubris" of...
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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 in one case, and just before it in the other.
In Empire a 12-year-old English boy, separated from his family by the chaos of the Japanese attack on Shanghai, makes his way home to find that his parents have been violently abducted. Alone, he finds himself in a prison camp for foreign families, a gentle child turned feral, and scavenging to stay alive. It is an atrocity, but in the boy's survival there is something of the picaresque freedom of other displaced children, Kim or Huck Finn, for instance, and of their growth—although here it is growth into a world turned hallucinogenic by Hiroshima's mushroom. Ballard's novel, a masterpiece of the '80s, opens mysteriously outward.
West's book, on the...
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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 personages ranging from a Parisian mutilé de guerre, to his own parents, to an eccentric kachina carver, and in each case he presents history as deeply personal and highly individual and for some a nightmare from which they cannot awaken.
His new novel takes place in Nanking in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl named Scald Ibis who is abruptly divorced from all that is familiar and nurturing. Her father is away from home serving in the army, and unbeknownst to her, her brother has been beheaded and his body thrown into a well and her mother raped and her body tossed into the Yangtze. The family home becomes the base of operations for Colonel Hayashi, who chooses the girl as his...
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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 too good for the eminent author and literary critic Paul West to pass up. "I'm afraid I belong to those who cannot resist a verbal opportunity, whatever the cost," he confides in [My Mother's Music, a] poignant memoir about his devoted, high-strung British mother, who died a few years ago at age 94.
Mildred Noden West more or less saved her teen-age son's life—urging him up and out of "the bottom social class" of an exhausted postwar England—and Mr. West minces no words about his feelings: "I hero-worshiped her." "I dote on that face of hers." "We had held hands at all ages, un-self-conscious."
The reader soon falls into step, without embarrassment, won over by the story's candor, telling...
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Mann, Charles. "The Man Who Breaks Typewriters." The Review of Contemporary Fiction 11, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 298-303.
Short explanation of West's collected papers, including their contents and locations. Includes appendix listing the items at Pennsylvania State University, which has to date the largest collection of West's manuscripts.
McWilliam, Candia. "Miner's Son, Butcher's Daughter." The New York Times Book Review (20 September 1992): 16.
Favorable review of Love's Mansion, in which McWilliam applauds West for portraying something as "unfashionable" as the relationship of a "long-married couple."
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