Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
In its introspective exploration of how a work gets written, Journal of the Fictive Life displays the traits that mark Howard Nemerov as man, thinker, teacher, and artist. Nemerov’s probings and resolutions are no less universal and evocative because he chooses the Freudian mode of self-conducted psychoanalysis rather than the Jungian mode of metaphorical analogy drawn from anthropology. Candor, wit, self-effacement, and intellectual honesty are manifest throughout this work, but the journal entries are more effective than the reflections of the fictional novelist Felix Ledger, who is necessarily aborted. Nemerov writes,I began under a pseudonym, Felix Ledger, whom I had invented as a novelist in a novel, . . . began talking about his relation with the art of writing. But really, even thus early, he was talking about my relation with the art of writing, and the pseudonym was already serving no real purpose. But I retained it for the writing of ten days’ entries . . . and it automatically dropped out only with the first narration and inspection of a dream, and the consequent deepening of analysis, the greater intimacy demanded with the details of my own past, which then and since became the true subject.
Felix Ledger was left behind because he had not established a character of his own. “Nevertheless,” writes Nemerov, “those first pages were necessary, though perhaps the pseudonym was not; and it is notable that this fictive self confesses rather less fully than I do myself.”
After Felix Ledger distinguishes between the novel and poetry as writing forms, he notes, “For a Jewish Puritan of the middle class, the novel is serious, the novel is work, the novel is conscious application—why the novel is practically the retail business all over again.” Yet poetry, Ledger makes clear, is pleasure, something that “has to be paid for.” The author frankly examines the ghosts of memory and unveils the enigmas and guilts and gildings of family life. He confesses his feelings about being the favorite son of a wealthy urban Jewish family in fashionable New York City, growing up in an apartment of ease and collected art. Admiring his father’s success, he somehow feels superior to it. He mulls over the meaning of family groupings and photographs and art objects, including home movies; he ponders the significance of sports, hobbies, school life. He wryly considers the blend of expectation and comparison, of emulation and judgment he applied in family situations, hoping for patterns of recognition out of the swirl of dreams and memories. Ledger’s (Nemerov’s) relations with his father illustrate well the unavoidable conflict between the work of an artist and the practical necessity of earning a living.
Nemerov’s wit often has an ironic edge to it. In his own voice he writes, “Marvelous how very clever one can be when it’s a question of turning the discussion away from one’s own secrets.” Indeed, the capacity for trenchant analysis, for looking beneath a surface and pointing out a connection, is evident throughout the book, as epigrams and apercus reduce complex entities to perceivable parts that reinform vision. Ledger comments on fictive actuality: “All this never happened, but it is essential to be accurate about how.” Besides making interesting asides about the connections between dream and story, Nemerov is revelatory about photography, the art of his sister, photographer Diane Arbus. He observes, “Photography, considered now not as an art but only as a widespread human activity, paradoxically stresses seeing at the expense of seeing.” Nemerov offers an explanation of why particular scenes are often photographed: “The Vatican, the Sphinx, and . . . the nostrils of the Fathers. All associated with power, authority, mystery, the parents.” To explain a general effect, he describes how the noses of the presidents stand out at Mount Rushmore.
Nemerov also probes the vagaries of literary fashion: “Symbolism itself is a suspiciously randomized way of sweeping the world up together and making it compassable as a single thought; it reaches, it swings far out on a slender thread to make its web.” He does not exempt his own explanations from the same rigorous examination: “This false analysis, that is, generalizes the position, it speaks reassuringly of Everyman not of oneself. The true, on the other hand, does not rest till it elicits the horrifyingly personal imagery in which one’s predicament first and subsequently appeared.”
It is this continuing impression of rigorous scrutiny, of pursuing each thought from probable origin to possible consequence, that gives Nemerov’s admittedly personal observations their intellectual honesty. He presents the reader with a medium—not a mirror. Trust is readily won by one who asserts, “I am trying to tell the truth, and it is a trouble to me.” Nemerov is a thinker who distills emotion: “The memory of pain is not painful, of pleasure not pleasurable. The memory of embarrassment is embarrassing, though, the memory of humiliation humiliating. The connection with anxiety is again clear.” He places himself in human proportion and engages in scrupulous self-examination. For Nemerov, subjectivity has been subsumed among larger human concerns—the prevalence of suffering, the problem of consciousness, the continuity of experience, the growth of awareness.
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