Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641

Journal of the Fictive Life takes its place among those mid-twentieth century works that are concerned with the self-reflexive nature of literature. Felix Ledger observes, “a fascinating theme . . . debating the extent to which speculation has in the past couple of decades visibly begun to replace art, how much the making challenges artistic interest more than what is made; how art as adventure seems for the present almost to have overthrown the work of art.” Early in book 2, as Nemerov discusses his own dreams in his own voice, he addresses the relationship between state of mind and possible literary achievement:Now this dream occurs in and refers to a period of my life in several respects critical. I am about to be a father once again, fully thirteen years after the first time. Toward the end of my wife’s pregnancy I have been unusually listless about sex, and though her appearance supplies an innocent reason for my want of interest in her I have characteristically had the glum thought that I might be getting a bit past it. And I have been for some time in a (corresponding?) period of artistic impotence, or paralysis, partly involving the choice between poetry and fiction (the two ways again!), a condition which I have been trying to examine in these pages, which may represent in themselves a “third way” of writing, as well as being an attempt to find some third way, probably combining the linguistic powers of poetry with the architectural qualities of the novel.

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The “third way” remains conjectural; Nemerov’s power to illuminate with elegance and grace is a given.

Journal of the Fictive Life is a book that begins with the attempt to achieve a novel, an affective fiction at length. The effort results in an account and shift of voice that strives to be true to feeling and, in so doing, manages to achieve a fictive, or imagined, work that commands much attention. From the start, the reader is reminded of the journals of Andre Gide and his Les Faux-monnayeurs (1925; The Counterfeiters, 1927), a novel of a novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing a novel. Nemerov may also have been influenced by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910; The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958) and the work of Wallace Stevens, for whom “fictive” was a favorite word. Later American writers who may have found Journal of the Fictive Life useful in developing their own voices include John Barth, William Gass, and Robert Bly, for there are aspects in the work that both autonomists and activists can draw upon, especially the element of abandoning a form that is not fulfilling itself and openly asserting the reflexive nature of the literary endeavor, coming forth with a form frankly artificial and not striving to be representational but faithful to the emotion intended.

Such a shift of form and frank avowal of artifice may result in greater creative force, more resonance and radiance within the work itself. The important thing is bringing forth the form that sustains the illumination sought, no matter if others may charge inconsistency or accuse of formal violation. Nemerov sought to find the form and fix the feeling that would bring forth the cycle of life-death-birth and demonstrate the interdependencies of memory and family, dreams and fantasy, and selection and self-scrutiny. He initially wrote a fictional journal but abandoned that form when it was not producing a character or life of its own. Adopting his own dream-journal form, Nemerov succeeded in achieving a more suitable imaginative entity; he was true to his observed self and created an aesthetic experience of integrity and individuality. As the critic Ross Labrie remarks, “Whatever the future of Nemerov’s unusual narrative method, he has written a book of considerable power whose images and anxieties cling to the mind.”

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