Jack Beatty

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 600

"None would wish it longer." Thus Dr. Johnson on Paradise Lost. Thus any reader not named Theroux on Darconville's Cat. Still, if you have a month to spare and want to put muscle on your vocabulary, you might dip into it, only go slowly, one toe at a time, as if the book were a Maine bay. It's actually a romance about a young professor at a Virginia girls' college who falls in love, as one might fall into the maw of Mount Saint Helens, with an even younger student, whom he courts, and is on the point of marrying when she calls it off. She (Isabel) loves a sailor, you see. Darconville, the spurned professor, takes revenge by writing this novel, which, among many other things, is a summa of misogyny. Darconville's bad luck in love is not the main source of this spleen; it is the teaching of Dr. Crucifer, a gypsy scholar who haunts the attic of Harvard's Adams House, where Darconville goes to teach after being jilted by Isabel. Dr. Crucifer is a self-administered eunuch, an erudite woman-hater, and a great snoring bore. He is a preposterous creation, and as he goes on and on and on, spewing his polysyllabic prejudices, even readers named Theroux must weary, stumble, finally fall, too exhausted to scale yet another immense, small-printed page. Page? Better call it a Calvary, for though this book begins in comedy, it ends in torture. Yet for the first 50 pages I thought I was scouting one of those oddball American masterpieces, like Gravity's Rainbow, which maul the categories of judgment. For one thing, the author had an extraordinary way with imagery…. For another, he displayed a Nabokovian gift for satiric invention…. (pp. 38-9)

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[But even] on page 18, you can see signs of ennui coming like the flicker of truck lights breaking the perfect night of a western highway. (p. 39)

Mr. Theroux is just wild about words; in this respect, he makes his brother Paul (he of the train books), who favors onomatopoeic words like "canoodling," seem terse, when really he's more artful, more aware of how the sound of a word can lend a passage not merely color but mood. Alexander wants you to notice his words; Paul wants you to feel them. It's the difference between a show-off and an artist. Alexander simply cannot make his gaudy words evoke emotion. They just sit there on the page, inert, without suggestive power, like ostentatious thumbprints. Longing and betrayal are his subjects, but he doesn't realize these poignant feelings for us in the way that Nabokov, obviously his model, realizes Humbert's love for Lolita and his heartache over her preference for Quilty. Darconville's infatuation, Darconville's suffering, are described in spangling language; but it is all merely, well, words, words, and more words, which bring the musty smell of the dictionary into the text, and which never pass over into what Lawrence called "art-speech," that realm of expression where word, feeling, thought fuse at the highest pitch of intensity. And not only do Mr. Theroux's words fail to evoke what Nabokov called "human interest"; they also fail to quicken our sense of beauty. Reading Darconville's Cat is like looking at a vast abstract canvas that doesn't work. The artist is too conscious of his materials, and too deliberate; his will is doing his imagination's work…. This is not literature; it is not even good fiction; it is a 700-page attack of logorrhea. (pp. 39-40)

Jack Beatty, "Logorrhea!" in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 184, No. 14, April 4, 1981, pp. 38-40.

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