Frederic Prokosch Prokosch, Frederic - Essay

Prokosch, Frederic

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Prokosch, Frederic 1908–

Prokosch is an American novelist, poet, and translator. He has said that his principal themes are "perpetual search, perpetual flight, multiple identities, ambiguities of destiny, and geographical symbolisms."

[Frederic Prokosch] is thought of today as one who writes travelogues, who does a nice job of describing places and whose work should be dutifully reviewed by third-rate reviewers—perhaps that pleasant assistant professor who could use an item in his bibliography. And yet, against this impression of Prokosch's worth must be set the opinions of some of the greatest writers of the century. In addition to Yeats, three other winners of the Nobel Prize for literature [Gide, Mann, and Camus] saw important promise in Prokosch's work. (p. 34)

[His] strange, quite beautiful poems made Frederic Prokosch for a time a popular, almost a fashionable, poet. His poems were placed in anthologies, conspicuously in those of Oscar Williams. Of more importance, however, Prokosch influenced the work of one of the most remarkable poets of the century: Dylan Thomas. (p. 40)

Frederic Prokosch's production of poetry has not been large: fewer than one hundred poems have been printed. Furthermore, the poems, roughly the product of perhaps ten years time, were written for the most part between 1930 and 1940. One can probably not treat his expression, limited both in time and amount, as anything other than a potential. Prokosch's talent for poetry remains an unfinished talent. We do not know, nor does it seem likely that we shall ever know, how he might have ended had he chosen to be a poet rather than a novelist. (p. 46)

While Prokosch's poetry is flawed by a vagueness which leads to occasional dullness and by an excess of emotional words such as "terrifying" or "frightening," which should almost never be said out loud in poetry, his gift for poetry was still a generous one. (p. 47)

World War II solved some problems for Prokosch and created others. He had, prior to the conflict, always contemplated the possibility of war as if it were the approach of doomsday. When war came and then went, and man and his problems persisted, Prokosch lost some of the basis for his world outlook, for his delicious fears. Of the three novels set in the war years, only The Conspirators is successful…. But it is not, finally, a good book because it is better unified or better conceived. It is a good book because Prokosch's old view of the collapse of Europe and civilization remained valid in the immune atmosphere of neutral Portugal. One did not in the first two years of the war know what would happen to Europe…. Both Age of Thunder and The Idols of the Cave are seeking for a new beginning or, better, for a new approach to the destiny of man. In The Idols of the Cave only the most tentative notions rise as to what the new approach might be. But one spies from time to time a fear of mechanization and of conformity in the western world. These tentative notions, however, became positive focuses in later novels. (pp. 100-01)

[Prokosch's] contribution has not been, one sees now, to participate like Hemingway in the public experience of his generation; it has been to participate in the psychic experience of his generation. He has not marched on the broad plain. He has wandered in a narrow chasm, fitfully lit, haunted by phantoms and echoing with the voices of dangerous memories. One would be foolish to take his chasm as the whole truth; but it would be equally foolish to take as the whole truth the armies marching on the plain. (p. 130)

Prokosch is not alone … in his depiction of the flavor of internationalism in his novels and poetry, but his contribution to the genre is unique. He is not so concerned as was Henry James with the contrast of cultures brought into confrontation. Nor is he so concerned with the comparison of cultures as is Lawrence Durrell. Prokosch is not primarily interested in the exilic or expatriate viewpoint which fascinated Hemingway and many others in this century. Prokosch's interest and concern, while partaking of cultural contrast and comparison, largely reflect a vogue, almost a mystical haloing, of the idea of internationalism. This vogue represents a condemnation, really, of American isolationism prior to World War II. Prokosch's intensity of conviction could come, really, only to an American, one supposes, and only to one whose background contained elements both of provincialism and cosmopolitanism. Only one who was born early in the twentieth century and whose youth was spent in Wisconsin, Texas, and European schools would so singleheartedly desire to collate disparate cultural elements. The word here is "collate," for there is never any impression that Prokosch wants to fuse the elements. His Asians do not change his Europeans; his Europeans do not blend with his Americans. However, when his Americans or Europeans are not destroyed by their contacts with each other—or, more particularly, by their contacts with Asians or Africans—they may enrich their lives through broadening their understanding of themselves. (pp. 131-32)

One cannot avoid the impression that Prokosch's novels rather fretfully deplore the changes wrought, and about to be wrought, by the twentieth century. Again and again his earlier novels remind us that the old Europe is dying. His later novels remind us that some change, not so great as had earlier been anticipated, has already taken place and that the future is that of an antiseptic, dull civilization. Yet what is it in the old Europe, that Prokosch so reluctantly gives up? It is not the Europe of 1910 or of the nineteenth century; it is the Europe of the Age of Reason. It is a western civilization incidentally aristocratic but naturally international and one which took man rather than five-year plans as the measure of all things. In reality, Prokosch laments the passage of an era which never in a personal way existed for him and which, indeed, had been swept away by the century preceding his birth. (pp. 132-33)

If the intent of Prokosch's internationalism is to turn life toward life, so also has his faith in freedom a similar aim: to allow the soul scope to pursue its own tragedy. Prokosch uses the word "tragedy" with a romantic largeness. He associates it with "dignity." To a degree, at least, tragedy must mean to him the weaving of individual destiny that is apparent in all of his novels. Prokosch examines both life and its destiny in two different ways. He holds western, civilized men up to the cruel, frank light of Asia, Africa, Brazil. He places them in wastelands and among primitives whose incomprehension finally begets ironic comprehension. Or, he scrutinizes his Europeans and Americans in their great cities: Paris, Rome, New York. The cities function for Prokosch somewhat as do his deserts and jungles, for they extract as well as affect the spirits of his characters. At the same time, the city is clothed in its civilization, while the desert or jungle is nude. The city thus murmurs of the heights of civilization, perhaps passed, perhaps to come, but always with a gentle insistence on the virtues of decorum and intelligence…. Unquestionably, Prokosch longs to coordinate instinct and civilized intelligence, but he does not wish to do so through any romantic dependence on nature. (pp. 134-35)

Frederic Prokosch creates character within a severely restricted range beyond which he cannot, or will not, go. We may easily catalogue the categories: the faceless hero, the sly but engaging aborigine, the promiscuous and ambitious heroine, the "tragic" artist, the conspirator, the homosexual, the European or American whose sensibilities are whipped into hysteria by exposure to a circumstance or to a savage setting. In addition, the novels are salted with creatures, creatures rather than characters, who appear briefly to present a tantalizing surface of inscrutable gesture but who disappear like figures in a nightmare without any sure resolution. (p. 136)

The fact is that Prokosch writes what Hawthorne in the nineteenth century called "romance"; that is, an allegory in which the real or surface occurrences may much of the time appear illusory, so that only meaning or theme obtains a solidity. In addition to this general aim of romance, Prokosch also writes in the tradition of legend or fable. (p. 139)

Because Prokosch apparently believes faithfully that man is born with a sacred nature, his whole concept of character is that of encouraging that nature to fulfill itself or, if need be, to cast off the disguise created by the fearful self or imposed by modern life…. Prokosch is speaking, of course, of what Carl Jung calls the anima in the layers of personality…. The seemingly flaccid hero of Prokosch's novels derives from the fact that Prokosch chooses to reveal primarily the innocuous surface. Yet the whole truth is that, through other characters and cryptic clues, the submerged selves of his heroes are subtly suggested. (pp. 140-41)

Frederic Prokosch's luxuriant prose style is characterized at its most elementary level by a contest between large terms, vague but suggestive, and sharp, brilliant metaphors. He hangs a very great deal—too much, one says finally—on such words as "prehistory," "primitive," and "tragedy." Such abstractions suggest an attempt to shove a number of indefinite emotions into one container in the hope that the container itself will be imposing enough to scare away questions. The terms are a literary equivalent of political jargon, a kind of jingoism of the soul. (p. 142)

Wherever one turns in Prokosch's work he finds the oblique view, the irrational desire, the strange imbalance, the subtle mood, over all of which his style blows like a hectic wind in Hansel's and Gretel's forest. If one thinks Kafka took unpredictability as far as possible, he needs only to read Prokosch to know better. If one thinks T. S. Eliot's Apeneck Sweeney struck utter simplification in saying that life is "birth, copulation and death," one need only read Prokosch to find an author who strikes birth from the list. What, one asks, is the permanent worth of this novelist who stands outside the categories of the spokesmen for the mainstream, such as Thomas Mann, E. M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner?… It seems unlikely that more than two or three novels of Frederic Prokosch have any chance of survival. At the same time, it seems improbable that such a unique voice as his can ever be quite lost. No picture of the whole accomplishment of the twentieth century would be complete without cognizance of, say, The Asiatics, The Seven Who Fled, perhaps Nine Days to Mukalla, or The Seven Sisters. For these books possess the kind of delicate tensile strength, the individuality which survives longer than many a more conventional book…. The modern scene does not offer equivalents to Frederic Prokosch. But even though he is not very much like any other contemporary novelist, his prospects are shared by other writers who, in rejecting the common view of life, are forced to create their own views through intensities of style and situation. They are, like Prokosch, essentially poets who in a century of prose, write novels. Julien Green, Lawrence Durrell, Vladimir Nabokov come to mind, along with Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Paul Bowles, and possibly Isak Dinesen and James Purdy. In such a company, Frederic Prokosch has no masters—and hardly a peer. (pp. 146-47)

Radcliffe Squires, in his Frederic Prokosch (copyright 1964 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1964.

Frederic Prokosch's The Wreck of the Cassandra may produce audible groans of dismay. Who on earth would have thought that a writer would resort to the narrenschiff device again, but here it is, the steamer Cassandra this time, puffing across the Pacific in 1938 with an assorted collection of international wanderers who will (right) be shipwrecked and (right again) be forced to confront their true natures….

Prokosch's characters have been recruited from the same old passenger list: Lily Domingo, a rich, bored American: Baron Kleist, a demonic German; Professor Shishnik, a meditative Slav; Laura Eccles, a virginal Englishwoman; the Americans Tony and Laura Wagenseller, partners in a disintegrating marriage. Their fates also come as standard equipment. The innocent Laura Eccles will be put to death in savage fertility rites; Lily Domingo will be murdered for her jewels by a demented Malay; the gentle Shishnik will kill the mad Teuton, Baron Kleist, in self-defense; Tony and Laura will survive with new respect for one another. And since The Wreck of the Cassandra uses its shopworn formula with a full awareness of the modern temper, there will also be a good deal of existentialist philosophizing….

Frederic Prokosch has been writing novels since the mid 1930s, and he can spin out words with the polished ease of an old professional. More's the pity that The Wreck of the Cassandra is so banal and unbelievable, a docile servant of the existential mood.

A. Sidney Knowles, Jr., in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 3, Summer, 1968, pp. 823-25.

[America, My Wilderness] is an exercise in decorative fauxnaïveté…. Reading the elaborate, high-charged style of this book is like being confronted by a bulldozer on a narrow road: It scarcely gives you time to step back and look at it because it just keeps coming at you. The narrative—full of magic, violence, and fabulous incidents—is almost engulfed by the metaphors, and America, My Wilderness is a static novel. The characters don't move across the land so much as the land moves under them. The naming of towns and rivers and the animation of landscape ("Then the land grew hysterical…. The waves of noonday light made the sand seethe and coruscate, and the earth lay in a spasm of grotesque torment") doesn't guarantee lyricism or vitality, and when everything is like something else, it's difficult to know what anything is like….

America, My Wilderness aspires to poetry, to a mythopoeic conception of the country as something as vast and grand and inexplicable as nature itself, and as violent. All this is a great deal for a novel to take on, and I think that the desperate and often frantic style is an indication that the author is cowed by the task he has set himself. There are moments when he rises to it, but most of the time it's very heavy going.

Alan Hislop, in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 21, 1972, p. 5.

Tag ends out of classical mythology serve to give some substance to [America, My Wilderness], more a brilliantly executed travelogue than a novel wherein the author in episodic fashion traces the journey of his amorphous hero across the United States, back and forth, up and down, in a fruitless search for a country closer to cloudland than America. Color, sound, and beauty often juxtaposed with ugliness all help to enchant the reader and lose him in a world of unutterable strangeness despite a haunting familiarity here and there accented by the inclusion of place names readily identifiable but rejected out of hand all the same as mere intrusions designed to give verisimilitude otherwise lacking to a tale of no considerable validity.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Summer, 1972), p. c.

Frederic Prokosch is, thank God, no Bill Burroughs. The symbols, the weirdnesses he offers in [America, My Wilderness], are reassuringly familiar. I don't know exactly what it is about puppet-masters, photograph albums, hunchbacks, umbrellas, lepidopterists, feathers, patent medicine pedlars and tiny music boxes that makes them so immediately mysterious and intriguing and irresistibly other. Certainly something does. So much so, in fact, that in less delicate and precise hands than those of Mr. Prokosch they are in serious danger of becoming stock items, surrealist cliché.

America, My Wilderness tells stories of a young man's adventures as he travels across turn-of-the-century America, finding beauty and violence, creation and destruction everywhere inseparable. Trite old stuff, no doubt: picaresque and predictable. But illuminated here by the fresh, clear imagination of the author, and told with a lack of embarrassment, a richness, a love of language that I find quite breath-taking….

The blurb boldly suggests that 'to read the novel is to inhabit again for a time a kind of Eden'. I don't quite know what that means. But I'll go along with it all the way.

D. G. Compton, in Books and Bookmen, January, 1973, pp. 82-3.