MacDonald (Pseudonym of Donald Heiney) Harris Critical Essays

Harris, MacDonald (Pseudonym of Donald Heiney)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harris, MacDonald (Pseudonym of Donald Heiney) 1921–

An American editor, critic, novelist, and short story writer, Harris attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and spent much of his youth at sea. His stories reflect, in subject and theme, his attachment to the sea, and they are often humorous in the vein of Evelyn Waugh. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

[Trepleff] is a strange novel, propelling a reader forward pell-mell and totally absorbed, but never providing a solid footing. Experiencing it is an exciting but precarious business, like running along a fictional tightrope. Hence, while Trepleff's separate merits are many, and it is far better than most novels these days—in fact, it is very fine—the book as a whole never reaches the level of the assured, sometimes brilliant writing in its parts.

For one thing, though its central subject is a man who marches steadily from a position of affluent respectability to a state of semi-idiotic nothingness, its tone sways hither and yon from dead seriousness to slapstick comedy, from high lyricism down to existential coolness, with intermittent squiggles of mood as unexpected as they are indescribable, as if MacDonald Harris was never quite sure what attitude he should have about his own creation. For another, characters don't develop, they leap from this to that, sometimes sans motive or credibility. And always there is the nagging question, what to make of them?

As perhaps might be expected from such a complex balancing act, Trepleff, the hero, ends up in a sort of combined prison-hospital-insane asylum, those final refuges of so many of today's weak but saintly heroes. Yet when he asserts in the last pages that he is not some kind of isolated freak, that there are many destinies like his, the statement echoes the haunting feeling a reader has had all along about the fundamental significance of Trepleff's zany adventures and concerns….

By way of clarification, Trepleff is a character in Chekhov's drama The Seagull, and since role-playing is still another major theme in this theme-packed novel, the name works as both a title and an identity for the protagonist….

Trepleff's decline is mated with his roles. As Trepleff he marries, less for love than out of pity, a girl already pregnant by another man. As Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith he becomes a $60,000-a-year psychiatrist, the epitome of scientific rationality and square living. As a quasi-Christ he ruins his career by making dutiful love to one of his most pathetic patients. As Trigorin, the heartless novelist in The Seagull, he manipulates a rich widow into supporting him, finally driving her to suicide. Basically, however, Trepleff is Trepleff, compassionate and desiring love, doomed by fate and an inner demon to play multiple parts, and as a result to suffer fears, separations, and even crucifixions in each of them.

These are the steps in the action and its principal theme: the inability of men to care, and the pain they cause to themselves and others when they try. Yet any sequence of related episodes and any solid foundation of idea falsifies the nature of this crazy-quilt odyssey. What will stick in the mind are the best of its moments: Trepleff ransacking his own house for loose cash; Trepleff trying unsuccessfully to drown his dog because it insists on fornicating around; shoeless Trepleff being thrown out of a swank Paris hotel; Trepleff in Rome, interrogated by the police about a murder that never happened; Trepleff working out a modus vivendi with Nadia, the widow, in one of the queerest love-hate relationships in a long while….

Such episodes as these are handled with a mature style, with wit, energy, intelligence. For such traits a reader should be willing to be a bit out of kilter, to live in a house of fiction where, as Trepleff puts it, the walls are not quite straight. (p. 31)

Robert Maurer, in Saturday Review (© 1969 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 20, 1969.

The fact that [Trepleff] is a work set in contemporary American society with a prefiguration from Chekhov's The Seagull might invite certain speculations about the parallels between the twilight of late-Imperial Russia and the present condition of the United States. But this is not generally an academic work, of the kind Thomas Mann would write; it belongs rather to the picaresque tradition. (p. 228)

[The] novel begins with what seems to be a classic reenactment of Chekhov's play, with the producer of this amateur dramatization logically playing the role of Trigorin and even having an appropriate affair with the girl cast as Nina. By the time the (unnamed) narrator, playing Trepleff, comes to her, the Nina figure—Syd—has been jilted by the producer just as Trigorin abandons Nina; but Syd is even left bearing a child as a result of the encounter. The notion of imitation takes on a new nuance in Trepleff because of the method of acting employed. Egon, who has Trigorin's part and also produces the play, is a great believer in the Stanislavsky school of acting…. There are some splendid parodies of method-acting techniques in the first chapter, but the notion is introduced for more serious effects too. The reader is encouraged to feel that the method fails: a certain tension remains between character and role, and this discrepancy the novel develops.

The first intimation of the complications to come emerges with the narrator's feeling that Syd is "badly cast" as Nina. Nina's profound unhappiness contrasts with Syd's easy nature. Already the narrator has expressed misgivings about the acting technique; he is critical of the power the producer has, reducing the actors to mere puppets, and he describes the end effect as "a form of controlled schizophrenia." When it comes to following the set prefiguration, the hero is particularly recalcitrant; the very fact that he marries the girl playing Nina is a sign that the Seagull motif has been introduced as much to be departed from as to be followed.

The Trigorin figure leaves the modern Nina to have an affair with the actress playing Masha. And this makes Syd so angry that she rejects any previous sympathy she may have had for her role: "O, that Nina, what a fool she was." What Syd here criticizes is the passivity of Chekhov's characters, showing an impatience with the way some of the Russian figures behave which emerges again and again in Harris's novel. The narrator, too, reacts against his role in the play. He even has a positive prefiguration to contrast with the ineffective role of Trepleff forced upon him. Having read Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith at a receptive point in his life, the narrator "decided that it was [his] destiny to be a scientist like the hero of Lewis's novel: dedicated, truth-seeking, idealistic, a white-clad figure moving among the sick and alleviating pain with the sure touch of [his] fingers." Hence, when he refuses to become the parody of the Russian superfluous man, his concentration fixes once more on his youthful goal. "Now I saw that the thing was simple, much simpler than I had ever dreamed. I didn't have to be Trepleff, I didn't want to be Trepleff. I wanted to be Arrowsmith: cool, knowing, competent, Olympian, but sympathetic."… Looked at in the terms evolved in this study, the first chapter of Trepleff shows the same link between serial condensation and psychological development as was seen in Hans Erich Nossack's Nekyia. As he progresses, the central figure moves from one prefiguration (Trepleff) to another (Arrowsmith), But in Trepleff this sense of development engendered in the first chapter eventually proves illusory.

Before his marriage breaks up (he is a little too willing to "alleviate pain with the sure touch of [his] fingers") and before the prefigurations are shuffled once more, we have in a sub-plot a further veiled parallel to the course of Chekhov's drama. The narrator one day resolves to destroy his dog Ernest, a decision which in itself mars the general idyll he has constructed for himself. (Ernest has been enjoying a devastating love-life with the high pedigree bitches of the neighborhood, a motif which in fact itself prefigures the hero's path in later parts of Trepleff.)… Symbolically, it is an event reminiscent of Trepleff's first suicide attempt in The Seagull. Or, looked at another way, the attempt at killing the dog is a parody of the killing of the seagull in Chekhov's play. The outcome of either reading of this episode is the feeling that the narrator-hero of Trepleff is a rather unlucky, if not downright incompetent individual. (pp. 229-31)

The real starting-point of Trepleff is the image of a successful professional man with a happy married life—a stereotype of security from which the narrator gradually escapes. The catalyst comes when the hero slips into an adulterous relationship with one of his more frustrated clients, assuming the role of lover partly to rescue her from a state of permanent, unloved insecurity…. The hero's realization that he is becoming something of a Trigorin in the way he manipulates people comes closer to the turn his character is now taking. He is in the process of becoming an anti-hero, a role which reaches its nadir when the ex-psychiatrist, professionally struck from the register and deprived of all his money by his ex-wife and his "victim's" lawyers, ends up playing the part of gigolo to a rich American lady on her yearly visit to the fashion-houses of Europe. Although the novel is generally most explicit in naming prefigurations for the main protagonists, this lady is not related so openly to any Chekhovian character, yet it is clear from the outset that she is the modern equivalent of Mme Arkadina. (pp. 231-32)

By the time he reaches Europe, the hero has stood in a number of different relationships to the Seagull prefiguration: he has resembled Trepleff by falling in love with a Nina, but he has differed from this initial prefiguration by actually gaining the girl. Then, the more he refuses to play the part of Trepleff, the closer he comes to resembling Trigorin. With the further refinement that in his eyes the opposite of Trepleff is not always Trigorin (for this is a nineteenth-century antithesis), but Arrowsmith, we find a certain schizophrenic element entering the work. It can be seen, for example, in the narrator's attitude to his "mistress," though she is this in name only: "Part of me hated her and part of me desired her, but the most intelligent part of me, the clear unemotional detached Trigorin part, admired her." From this point onwards, whenever the narrator feels the urge to take stock of his demoralizing position, that of gigolo to his self-centered traveling companion, he turns to his Chekhov: "I was beginning to respect her, in at least part of my mind … but what happened to Trigorin? You call this manipulating people, all this carrying packages and running up and down stairs with her coat?" The narrator has difficulty in relating his present predicament to the prefiguration. "It seemed to me I had a slight problem here but not really. Trigorin was still around but he was collecting data. After a while he would figure out what to do with the data. At least that was what I told myself. It was possible that I was kidding myself but I didn't think so." Psychotic overtones begin to emerge, for there is a complicated network of doubts and protective motivations here which the ramifications of the motif do much to highlight.

The more wilfully his "mistress" behaves, the more difficult it becomes for the narrator to reconcile himself with the image of Trigorin which he seems to prefer at this stage in the proceedings. When he finally asserts himself, after taking a great deal of humiliating treatment from Nadia, the narrator very quickly finds himself evicted from the hotel where they had been staying together. (pp. 233-34)

The hero's revenge finally comes when he invidiously reminds Nadia of her age and plays upon her fears of growing old, and hence being no longer fashionable. He does this by taking her to see a gruesome collection of skeletons and bones in a crypt just off the Via Veneto in Rome. ("It reduced Helen of Troy, Romeo and Juliet, Petrarch's sonnets, all poetry and all human aspirations to something for a dog to gnaw on.") The narrator is very proud of the fact that he has found Nadia's Achilles' heel and has been able to wound her grievously there. (p. 234)

At this juncture, the Chekhov prefiguration is given a new twist and applied afresh, to Nadia. With the narrator endeavoring to reestablish himself as something of a Trigorin, Nadia starts to resemble Trepleff. Once more, there are no explicit references to this effect, but her double suicide attempt—the first unsuccessful one, in Rome, leaving her with a bandaged head like Trepleff's—makes the change of prefiguration abundantly clear. That the fragmentation and condensation of prefigurative roles no longer respects sex differences, but has a woman playing the role of Trepleff, might at first sound quite radical. Very few novels have worked with female prefigurations referring to male characters or vice versa. But this reversal is far from out of place in Trepleff, for the narrator's place as gigolo at this point in the plot is in itself an effeminate role, and the domineering behavior Nadia displays makes her suited to a man's part. (p. 235)

If the narrator is generally well aware of the appropriate counterparts in The Seagull to various characters in his story, the fact that nothing is made of either of Nadia's successive prefigurations—first Mme Arkadina, and then Trepleff—becomes a significant aspect of his attitude towards her. Why he makes no reference to the Trepleff parallel is perhaps easier to answer. He was himself for a long time closely linked with this figure, and he is to return to it at the end of the novel. To admit that his treatment of Nadia has reduced her to playing the role of Trepleff in a melodrama of his own making would be tantamount to another "vicarious suicide," from the hero's point of view. By not mentioning the Trepleff correspondence, at the point where it becomes fragmented to include Nadia, the narrator manages to distance himself substantially from a woman with whom he in fact has dangerously much in common. He probably does not mention the Arkadina prefiguration for equally self-protective reasons. At the time when he begins to make a pass at Nadia, while crossing the Atlantic on the first-class ticket he forfeited all his remaining funds to buy, the hero likes to think of himself as Trigorin, the manipulator of people. (In other words, he has in mind the Trigorin who is capable of loving and leaving Nina.) On the other hand, Trigorin's relationship with Mme Arkadina is a more complex matter. She is on the whole far more of a manipulator than he is, and for this reason it would not be very flattering for the narrator to think of Nadia as Mme Arkadina and to start pondering what his relationship with her means in the light of the Trigorin-Arkadina analogy.

So far, Nadia and her prefigurations have been considered in terms of what I have called plot-motivation. One can see that there are good psychological reasons why the hero, who is also the narrator of the novel and therefore in a position to suppress things unfavorable to his image of himself, should not want to consider what analogies exist for Nadia. But there are also good aesthetic reasons why the reader should not be constantly presented with a clear-cut analogy in this part of the narrative.

The hero's progress in the novel is from an integrated position in contemporary society to what at first appears to be a traditional outsider's role: that of parasite upon the more nauseating sides of the very society that he appears to reject. Nadia, with her fear of death and her constant preoccupation with preserving her fading beauty and keeping up a cosmopolitan appearance, with her Europe-fixation, her matriarchal posturing and her complex frigidity, becomes almost a parody of aspects of a society that the ex-psychiatrist has left behind. The hero seems to be, as a result, a figure from the picaresque tradition, for the picaro too lives off the society he rejects. There are passages reminiscent of Felix Krull, of Gide and Kerouac, to reinforce the stereotype employed. We tend to identify with the narrator even, as much because of his ubiquitous humor as because of the first-person perspective maintained throughout. It therefore comes as something of a shock—and perhaps a further literary parody—to find that Trepleff, like so many other novels of recent years, is being narrated from a lunatic asylum…. The relevance of this shock revelation to the Seagull motif lies in the fact that the Chekhov prefiguration reappears at precisely the same juncture as we realize that the hero is more than the traditional outsider, that he is in fact already suffering from acute schizophrenia. At this point he regresses to the persona which had been imposed upon him in the "controlled schizophrenia" of the amateur production of The Seagull. He "becomes" Trepleff once more. (pp. 235-37)

[The] modern Trepleff finds himself certified and put away amongst those stock figures who believe themselves to be Napoleon or Joan of Arc. The ultimate variation on the Seagull motif in the novel is that the narrator claims to be looked after by a certain Dr. Dorn (the name of the doctor in Chekhov's play). The final part of the novel is given over to the kind of intimate, solipsistic understandings that the mad sometimes share with their attendants:

Dorn is the only one in whom I have confided my secret and for this reason he is careful not to let anyone overhear when he calls me by name. When he appears in the doorway, a smile already forming under his soft moustache, he glances around behind him before he greets me: "Good morning, Konstantin Gavrilovich." And we both smile, pretending it is a joke, although we both know it is not a joke but our secret. If anyone overheard us, of course, we could pretend it was a joke and in this way the secret would not be discovered. "What did you do this morning, shoot a seagull?" "No, I shot at one, but missed." "If you kill one you must lay it at my feet." "I have already laid one at your feet. The one I killed because she threw my shoes out of the window."

Primarily the narrator means Nadia, but he might also be talking about himself. For in his insanity he has come to identify fully with what was merely an objective correlative in The Seagull, and he lays himself at the feet of Dr. Dorn. The suicide is now no longer vicarious; but it is essentially a mental suicide. The schizophrenia is no longer controlled, as it was in the college dramatic production but inescapably psychotic. The persona has become an identity.

The link established in Trepleff between imitating a prefiguration and becoming fixated by the role to the point of mental aberration is also a theme in Doktor Faustus and Passages. Other novels of recent years, such as Zelazny's The Dream Master and Spencer's Asylum, use the reenactment of myths as a way out of madness: offering a therapeutic reversal of the idée fixe through psycho-drama. Whereas Thomas Mann could still see the reenactment of a myth as a noble goal, it has been presented as a negative process in various recent novels. (pp. 238-39)

The extent to which myths have been shown in this chapter to confuse the outline of the plot, rather than put it into focus, also reflects a change in attitude to myths that appears to have taken place since the beginning of the century….

Attitudes to myths, inside or outside literature,… have changed in recent times, with a certain anti-myth reaction setting in. Yet this change in attitude has not led to the disappearance of mythological motifs from contemporary fiction. At most, they have been more often used in a pejorative way. Such prefigurations appear to have remained part of a standard method of telling a story and commenting on it at the same time from a different perspective. (p. 240)

John J. White, in his Mythology in the Modern Novel: A Study of Prefigurative Techniques (copyright © 1971 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1971 (footnotes deleted for this publication).

[Bull Fire] is a Baedekker of symbolic history…. [The] images in Bull Fire run riot until they cloak the narrative in a gauze as heavy as a classical dictionary. I had begun the novel with great expectations. The language has great power, and I was immediately drawn into the promise and texture of the child's life which opens the book. (p. 406)

All of [the convoluted happenings] would have been perfectly proper in the straight and well-told story which lies somewhere beneath all of [the] mythology, but there are too many portentous overtones as it exists now…. Mr. Harris follows the outline of myth, and has produced only a sketch. This is a great pity, since his prose can be both lyrical and effective. He captures moods and landscapes with great finesse, but they remain only an adjunct to the well-heeled plot. (pp. 406-07)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), September 29, 1973.

[In "The Balloonist"] Gustavus Crispin, a Vernian inventor and scientist, together with a positivistic American journalist and a demure young Frenchman who knows Virgil by heart, tries to reach the North Pole [by balloon] in 1897…. Crispin is … the narrator, and it is his oddball, icily narcissistic way of telling things that lifts "The Balloonist" above the level of old-fashioned adventure yarn to that of ruminative elegance.

Sometimes Crispin seems the commonplace mind at full stretch, coming up with resonant banalities ("The contents of the mind are infinite in their convolutions and at any given instant couldn't be encompassed by a hundred encyclopedias"), but more often, as if transfigured by some daydreaming hubris, he stages slow-motion inspections as his mind freewheels….

Suave work, this, done with mirrors and mellow sardonicism. "The Balloonist" proves that epiphanies of sheer finesse are more sensual than the complacencies of the pissoir, and more worth writing about as well. (p. 38)

Paul West, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 7, 1976.

It is into ten days of July 1897 that Macdonald Harris puts [The Balloonist] with "Hommage à Jules Verne" on the dedication page. But I had read the book, and with lessening mystification and growing admiration, before I read the blurb on the jacket or noticed the dedication. Of course the period and the balloon brought Verne to mind, but I was surprised to learn from the blurb that this is a "witty" (as well as "richly sensual and ingenious") novel, and that Gustav's love affair with Luisa is "hilarious" (as well as "stormy and tender") and that their earlier balloon trip across the Gulf of Bothnia was "delightfully comic". I wasn't finding, looking for or wanting chuckles….

On the surface it is three explorers in a balloon, hoping to navigate it to the north pole and back from and to Spitzbergen. One of them, the narrator, a Swedish major called Gustavus Crispin, is a "magneto-electrical aerographer". Another, Waldemer, is a journalist and the third—well, that's even less clear so far…. Theodor seems to be there because the balloon's ups, sideways and downs demand three live bodies of about that weight overall. Theodor modestly disappears behind hummocks of ice to answer the call of nature, as the author puts it.

Off they go, with some homing pigeons for a link with civilization, and every time Gustav curls up in his reindeer coat to sleep, he dreams: preferably erotic dreams, preferably of Luisa. These dreams lead him into a romantic past and several European countries. Less than half the book is airborne exploration. When, in that exploration, a windless, dumb cold eventually grounds them hundreds of miles from nowhere, dreams outnumber waking actions. One has heard that to die of cold is a marvellously merciful last journey, fed on psychedelic fantasies of warmth and love and salvation (the mother bird's skeleton found sitting on frozen eggs). I took it that the slow freeze-up was the author's deliberate patterning, and thought it highly successful.

Some of the waking action (Waldemer's bear-hunt and near-death on the ice-cliff, Theodor's near-death from the killer whales) is written with vivid imagination, too. But Gustav and Luisa in warm double beds on dry land is a more lasting picture than any of the arctic action, or even the cold comforts of coupled bodies drifting into oblivion. But why did Gustav secretly remove Waldemer's message out of the capsule on the pigeon's leg? And what did he read in it when he had removed it? Or have I been drifting into oblivion myself? If so, I have enjoyed it very much.

Richard Usborne, "A Cold Going," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), May 13, 1977, p. 580.