Gardner, John 1933–
Gardner, an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, biographer, and children's book author, is also a scholar of medieval literature. As both an artist and a critic, Gardner believes that art should serve a moral purpose, that essentially art is "a game played against chaos and death." The subject of his work is often drawn from myth and legend. Admitting an indebtedness to Chaucer, Dante, and Walt Disney, Gardner is consistently drawn to the fairy tale for the source and style of his writing. The breadth of his learning is revealed in the wealth of allusion from the entire spectrum of Western literary and philosophical tradition found in his work. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68.)
[The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain, two novels from the "very early" phase of Gardner's career,] resemble each other in several ways. They share an upstate New York setting, which Gardner will replace with more fabulous realms in the later novels. They share an omniscient narrator, presenting plausible characters who speak convincing dialogue; Gardner will use self-conscious and unreliable first-person narrators in the later novels. They share a conventional chronological structure, which will be modified to more experimental forms in the last three novels. The Resurrection and Nickel Mountain share a large, philosophical focus on the question, posed bluntly and emphatically to James Chandler, "What is the meaning of life?"… Gardner will rephrase the question and alter the simplicity with which the answer is achieved, but he will not change the affirmative tone of his answer.
Just as the first two novels share similar themes and techniques, they also share a similar flaw. At their worst, they are sentimental; the affirmations made by the protagonists are not earned nor are they fully credible…. If sentimentality forms the implicit trap for the affirmative vision, Gardner will avoid it in his last three novels through the use of self-consciousness and humor.
Gardner's last three novels are his best and are distinguished from the first two by their inclusion of the figure of the alien, developed to its fullest in Grendel. Gardner's three most compelling characters are aliens: the Sunlight Man, Agathon, and Grendel. Each is an eccentric, estranged from a society he improves through the biting wit of his alienation; each is pitted against righteousness and complacency; each is an artist of sorts: the Sunlight Man with magic, Agathon with fictionalized narrative, and Grendel with poetic myth. Finally, each is a joker, a sad clown, whose jokes emerge like black humor from a mood of despair.
The Sunlight Dialogues and The Wreckage of Agathon share a similar theme, in which the metaphysical focus of the earlier novels is replaced by a social focus. Both novels are about the inadequacy of law and the need for justice, the narrowness of codified rules and the need for a broader human understanding. (pp. 87-8)
Though both novels suggest the kind of affirmative vision that remains constant through Gardner's career, its locus is changed from the protagonists' celebration of life to the legacy of understanding they leave for others. (p. 89)
[The] prison cells of both novels are fundamentally alike in spite of the differences of time and space, and the cell works as a controlling metaphor for human experience in both novels. In form, each of the novels replaces the realistic conventions of the earlier works with more experimental techniques. Both play with contrasting narrative perspectives; The Wreckage of Agathon contrasts the...
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The best key, although a reductive one, to John Gardner's fiction is the narrator's question in Jason and Medeia: "Is nothing serious?" In his fiction Gardner engages us in a search for the answer to this question, a search to determine if life is nothing more than a series of comical, meaningless exercises. A representative of order and one of disorder, an adherent to forms and a believer in magical chaos, conduct the quest through a series of bizarre confrontations…. Mythic and quotidian realities inevitably merge in Gardner's work. The answer to his question lies in the merging of contradictions: "the true measure of human adaptability is man's power to find, despite overwhelming arguments, something in himself to love." Man is ridiculous, his actions are absurd; but such perception and his ability to love regardless grant man his seriousness.
Gardner is, of course, telling us nothing new. He recreates new forms and revitalizes old ones for a new perception of the often-conducted search for meaning. His astoundingly visual prose, his reworking of myths, and his resurrection of old forms (pastoral novel, epic poem) shock us out of our complacency about the nearly exhausted question and its equally repetitive answer. His use of magic and deformity, of the mythic and the common, and his insistence on the positive power of love transport a tired search into an active playground…. Gardner lets us laugh precisely because we are laughable, and only in our ability to laugh can we approach our seriousness. The ridiculous and the serious are inseparable in his fiction; operating simultaneously with and against each other, they bring us into Gardner's funhouse and out into his gravity.
The ridiculous is emphasized by a special kind of deformity, based on the ludicrous…. Antagonistic non-order and protagonistic order repeatedly merge in Gardner's fiction; the deformity of the one merges with and defines the conformity of the other. He brings them together and concerns himself with articulating the result of the...
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[In The Life and Times of Chaucer Gardner] shows both his scholarship and his imaginative talent. Many external facts about Chaucer's life are available; little can be discovered about his inner life, nor about many of the important events of the times. Gardner furnishes what has been learned over the years, and uses his novelist's skill for the rest. Some of this works; some doesn't.
Perhaps the chief problem with the book is that Gardner never aims at a specific audience. The general reader will find out far more than he wants to know…. All the dubious data of Chaucer's career are mentioned: his uncertain date of birth, his education, employment, patronage, the questionable details of his marriage and fatherhood, his jobs and places of residence, his financial successes and failures. No place in all this is there certainty. Gardner has to fill in much of his account with "Probably," or "It seems likely that …" and "It would be pleasant to think that…." As a result, much of the book is too detailed and too full of minutiae to please the popular audience. As for the scholar, there is too much summary recounting of well-researched commonplaces to be of real appeal. Surprisingly, for a novelist of Gardner's stature, the tone and style of the work is spotty, moving from pedantic to chatty without warning.
As any competent scholar, Gardner has his own axe to grind in many of the details he furnishes and the conclusions he draws. One need not agree with them; however, one must be challenged and provoked to reconsideration by the ideas Gardner puts forward…. He finds explanation of much of the poet's art in his encounters with Nominalism, then a great issue at Oxford. Gardner makes a good case for tying the "Marriage Group" of Tales together as a discussion of government. His insights into the personal meaning of many lines of Chaucer's verse is quite persuasive and ingenious. Gardner set himself a formidable task in this book; let us rejoice that he has succeeded as well as he has. (p. 121)
Stephen J. Laut, S. J., in Best Sellers (copyright © 1977 Helen Dwight Reid Foundation), July, 1977.
[October Light is a] strange but often beautiful and touching account of two lonely, elderly people, caught up in their memories, their convictions, and their prejudices…. October Light examines American culture and values retrospectively and, at least at the end, prospectively. Some of those values, embodied in these two sturdy Vermonters and their friends, seem in danger of extinction, about to be swept away by a crasser, younger generation that, paradoxically, they themselves have bred. The title of the book and much of its writing seems to indicate that even in Vermont, or especially there, we are witnessing the twilight of our civilization—a sad, briefly exhilarating period that will relentlessly pass into a dark, wintry time. There are many signs of decadence and degeneration. For example,… Sally reads a paperback novel that her grandnephew found in the pigstye and accidentally left behind. Though torn and soiled, with frequent gaps of missing pages, it provides a fascination for her, and she reads the whole thing. An ostensibly cheap thriller filled with sensationalistic accounts of attempted suicides, dope smuggling, sexual license, and other tawdriness, this novel-within-the-novel contrasts and compares with the main events and, in part, offers an oblique running commentary. At one point Sally glimpses that the thriller she is reading is about Capitalism, about the same values her brother holds dear—"An Hour's Work for an...
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The plot of Grendel is based on that of the Old English poem Beowulf, though not in an especially straightforward way. The main action of Beowulf breaks into four parts: the Grendel episode …; the subsequent battle with Grendel's mother …; the return voyage …; and the dragon fight…. In the original, each major conflict concludes before the next begins, and a fifty-year successful reign by Beowulf separates his fight with the dragon from his conquest of Grendel and his mother. Gardner's novel opens with Grendel ravaging Hrothgar's meadhall and men, and ends immediately after the fight with Beowulf, Grendel's death being imminent: this episode represents only about one-fourth of the...
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There is a paragraph toward the end of On Moral Fiction in which Mr. Gardner tells us about the kind of frustration which must have led him to publish his beliefs about art in this form.
… I've been in conversations where no one seemed to care about the truth, where people argued merely to win, refused to listen or try to understand, threw in irrelevancies—some anecdote without conceivable bearing, some mere ego flower. A thousand times I have heard some person—some casual acquaintance about whom I had no strong feeling—cruelly vilified, and have found that to rise in defense of mere fairness is to become, suddenly, the enemy. I have witnessed, repeatedly, university...
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In On Moral Fiction Gardner pronounces virtually all contemporary art defective. To correct the situation he gives us this "attempt to develop a set of instructions, an analysis of what has gone wrong in recent years with the various arts." It's a thoughtful, amusing, and arrogant little book designed to pick fights, and may get more of them than Gardner can handle….
John Gardner is isolated, idealistic, and ever so gently totalitarian. There is more to art than is accounted for in his philosophy.
Gardner doesn't like what contemporary art does because it's not uplifting. It doesn't inspire. It doesn't celebrate….
Gardner operates a closed system of art....
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