David Slavitt Slavitt, David (Vol. 5) - Essay

Slavitt, David (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Slavitt, David 1935– (Henry Sutton)

Slavitt is an American novelist, poet, and translator. His novels include Anagrams and ABCD. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)

Books by David Slavitt aren't actually reviewed. Critics seize upon them as opportunities to snipe at him for his histrionic disdain of them. Muggers, sex maniacs and murderers may find forgiveness, but there's no sympathy for Slavitt, who committed literary sacrilege by making fun of what he calls the Quality Lit Biz—and, worse yet, making money by making fun. An accomplished poet, he frequently mocks the profession. An astute commentator on current literature and cinema, he has stated that most criticism is slightly refined gossip. A talented comic novelist, he tossed off (under the pseudonym of Henry Sutton) a trio of best-selling potboilers that filled his enemies with outrage and envy, and his coffers with coin of the realm.

All this is worth recalling, since Slavitt's … novel ["Anagrams"] offers a satirical insight into the Quality Lit Biz as conducted on American campuses. A group of lesser-known writers converge upon a Midwestern college for one of those absurd exercises called Literary Festivals. Because critical esteem, or financial solvency, or both have escaped them, the poets and novelists grow verbally aggressive—what else?—and play punishing tricks on each other, their obtuse host, and the equally obtuse audience. Predictably, the event is neither festive nor literary—with one major exception. Jerome Carpenter, the protagonist (and a professional plagiarist for a dissertation service), manages to finish an important poem.

On this foundation Slavitt has fashioned dozens of grotesquely funny scenes. But as a novel, "Anagrams" doesn't quite work. The story is slender and at times creaky and unconvincing; an anagrams game and the composition of Carpenter's poem are forced to carry far too much dramatic freight. Then, too, other than Carpenter and his friend, John Royle, the characters remain curiously flat.

Yet as a display of verbal pyrotechnics, the book is unbeatable. Each page pulses with provocative opinions, puns, jokes and the sort of throwaway lines most authors parcel out for maximum mileage. Though some scenes are overly long, the reader never questions the timbre of the prose, or that he is in the presence of authentically poetic minds. Wild about words, delirious at the infinite possibilities of diction, these writers almost shape a world for themselves before reality intrudes.

Slavitt seems to suggest they suffer the kind of isolation usually associated with drug addiction. Shuffling words the way an anagrams player shuffles letters, they are estranged from mates, mistresses and one another, since the sensitivity of their creative perceptions has little effect on their personal relationships. Prisoners of an expensive vice, they pursue single-mindedly the satisfaction of their craving, and scramble madly for rip-offs. Rather than snatch purses, they pick up fees for lecturing, teaching and, yes, doing reviews.

Carpenter, however, feels superior to his colleagues. He never pretends to live by anything less than outright deceit. In providing fraudulent dissertations for aspiring academics, he exposes the absurdity of a system that rewards spurious scholarship yet fears creativity. He has no illusions this will change things. Experience has taught him that most students and faculty members are no more interested in serious contemporary literature than the average traveling salesman. (pp. 6-7)

Ultimately, "Anagrams" is not so much a novel as the record of a groping, sometimes lyrical, mind working its way through the problem of how to live as a poet. As a set of bitchy, subjective, cynical literary opinions, the book can be both irritating and entertaining. In the end, the idea that emerges most clearly is that good literature stands on its own, regardless of the story of its composition or the personality of its author. Judged by this standard, "Anagrams" stands forth as a funny, incisive, and sad examination of what it means to have a 50-dollar-a-day habit for poetry. (p. 7)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1971.

The best of [the] poems [in Child's Play] are essay-like diversions that probe, expand, mock, and juggle human certitude and fate. Slavitt's thoughtfulness finds new points of view, and the thought masks the music and the varied pacing that carries it…. Although a number of the poems are simply things that occurred to him, not experiences deeply felt or considered, their laughter at man and praise of the survivor gives a gentle reminder of the variety of ways of hanging in. (p. lxii)

Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1973, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973).

For its epigraph, [ABCD] carries a quotation from Bach's Art of the Fugue. Musical readers, unless possessed of a supernatural wisdom, had better not spend too long in working out what it means. The key, D minor, often associated with tragedy and lamentation, is of little assistance here, and the sequence of notes would not offer a clue even to those with a mania for finding cruciform shapes in the Saint Matthew Passion or for detecting a code system in the songs of Schumann.

Music has in fact dictated the book's form as well as determining its title. Not that the author has resorted to the sonata principle or divided the narrative into four movements with Italian tempo markings, or had the thing printed on barred staves with clefs attached. Perhaps it might have been jollier if this were the case. No, these are, believe it or not, the Fugue Murders, in which, after appropriately staggered entries, D kills C kills B kills A. Apart, however, from this singular structural quirk, and a primitive urge to know how D finishes up, there is little to hold the reader's attention to the end.

As this is neither a whodunnit nor a psychological thriller, Mr Slavitt forces us to concentrate, with what often turns out to be an embarrassing directness, on his skills as a word spinner.

Story and characters wilt in an overheated greenhouse of artificiality…. Allusions to Leibniz, a disquisition on cigars (whose brand-names the author misspells), and an obligatory reference to the movies do not guarantee sophistication; neither does a barrage of self-conscious, neo-Jamesian rhetoric adequately suggest that dexterity of style to which it clearly pretends. A concerto, a symphonic poem, a set of variations, might better suit Mr Slavitt's talents. His fugue is but a mildly entertaining time-waster.

"Initial Impacts," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced by permission), May 3, 1974, p. 465.

ABCD is … thoroughly modern. It is a treatise on the art of self-indulgence….

[The protagonists'] actions are mercifully unpredictable, and Mr Slavitt has a quirky, elliptical imagination which casts a long shadow over whatever his raised eyebrow brushes against. His is an ordinary, human story of incest, murder and intrigue but it is one that refuses to take any of them particularly seriously. I liked it. (p. 548)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), May 4, 1974.