Eleanor Bergstein Critical Essays

Bergstein, Eleanor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bergstein, Eleanor 1938–

Ms Bergstein is an American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53-56.)

Advancing Paul Newman is two stories, with the same characters, told contrapuntally….

For a novel, especially a first novel, to remain compulsively readable for almost 400 pages in which short sequences intercut two levels of time is a feat; here the conception works completely. Instead of rendering a sense of displacement, each fragment blends into the text with an urgency that increases as the book goes on. Bergstein's ear is very fine; the prose rhythms are superbly controlled, and the slightly elegiac tone of the retrospective segments brings a satisfying throb to the infighting and couplings of the campaign. The two narratives play on each other, just as Ila's and Kitsy's sexual involvements and political activities merge in a way that makes it impossible to separate cause and effect. Bergstein combines her materials to create an extraordinarily rich mixture….

In Advancing Paul Newman, memories of Manhattan and the Beatles and sex and assassinations and movies come together to form the texture of a decade that has been lived through; and, despite the speed of the prose, the novel has the leisurely feel of a reverie. In getting to the essence of how we look back on a just-vanished era, Bergstein does what the makers of American Graffiti were said to have done, and without the aid of a soundtrack for instant nostalgia.

Ila and Kitsy are swallowed up into the fecundity of this texture; during the reading I was caught up in their ambitions and griefs and rivalries, but in thinking of them afterward they don't exist for me outside of the novel's locales and events. They are clearly set, and I don't forget them; but I don't connect them with people I meet in life, as I do the characters in some other novels that are close to me. Although Bergstein probably intended for Ila and Kitsy to be more vivid than they are, their evanescence isn't a flaw. If they were stronger the novel's carefully achieved balance between contrasting moods might be thrown off, and the book might lose its air of constant surprise. The men are easily identifiable while you're reading about them, but when you've finished it's hard to remember which was which. In a novel that gave us nothing but characters reacting to each other, this kind of blurring would be fatal; but the forgettableness of these possibly tiresome males who do keep things going without any bother makes it easier to enjoy everything else….

Better than any other novel I can think of, Advancing Paul Newman tells us the way part of the American experience of the '60s was; but it doesn't tell us why. If it did, it would be a complete vision; but to engross us and even to transform our view of the past as it does, its vision doesn't need to be complete. Effortlessly assured, it has none of the tentativeness of a "first novel." Eleanor Bergstein knows how to bring emotion to the surface without leaving her readers to wallow in it. She knows how to begin a long novel on a high and sustain it, even while including elements of tragedy. Her debut is exhilarating from start to finish and is a major work.

John Alfred Avant, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 23, 1974, pp. 26-7.

The characters [in Advancing Paul Newman] live brilliantly in stroboscopic flashes, but try to see them whole and they vanish before your eyes. Well, that's "the point," perhaps; but I wish the novel were able to transcend the problem it sets for itself, for I fear it too will evanesce sooner than it should. To read Advancing Paul Newman with perfect sympathy and understanding you ought to remember the look of the lipstick marks on the cover of Goodbye, Columbus, still feel frissons at the mention of the Janice Wylie murder—after all, didn't you live just a couple of blocks away?—and be at least able to identify Sam and Curtis and Jessica in the McCarthy campaign. Read now, with the decade just slipping from one's own imaginative grasp, it stirs continual feelings of recognition, of rightness. A reader twenty years hence may find it just as baffling as Finnegans Wake.

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1974, pp. 130-32.