Mark Harris Edgar Z. Friedenberg

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Edgar Z. Friedenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A reviewer who attempts to look … deeply into Twentyone Twice faces curious but interesting problems, both technical and moral. If it were fiction, I would hail it as a satirical masterpiece. The character, Harris, who emerges from it is just the sort that Jean-Paul Sartre, say, would have drawn to depict an American professor in a provincial college torn between fidelity to his youthful radicalism and the ambition to become an instrument of "national purpose." It is all there: the studied use of obscenity to project an image of impulsive warmth; the deliberate, self-critical assumption of an anti-heroic posture to explain the absence of militance. Mr. Harris loses no opportunity to present himself as sensitive, good-hearted, and so tolerant that he has come to expect, as a matter of course, to betray himself….

What is the function of all this self-abasement? Apparently to suggest that self-abasement has become a necessary part of being human, the way we all live now. (p. 24)

The source of the reader's difficulty with Twentyone Twice is not a defect of literary craftsmanship—Mr. Harris is an excellent craftsman. The book is filled with detailed observations of Washington, Africa, and the singular daily life of both locales, sensitively recorded, and placed precisely in its context so as to be most richly meaningful. The difficulty is philosophical; and it lies precisely in the distinction between comedy and satire which W. H. Auden developed in his essay on Byron in the August 18th issue of this Review.

Mr. Harris writes with a wry and delightful wit; and he explicitly perceives Twentyone Twice as comic: "It has," he says, "nothing but its own meaning rising from its comic detail." Well, that's quite enough. But in Auden's terms, this means that its vision of man is sympathetic and tolerant, though pessimistic. The reader is expected to laugh indulgently with Harris and his associates as they stumble through a wayward world, doing the best they can to be human, all too human.

But American interventions into the lives and affairs of other societies, even when benign in intent, have got rather beyond the scope of indulgent humor; and American subservience to its own secret police is not funny at all. Moreover, Mr. Harris is a much better writer than he seems to realize. If the character, Harris, in Twentyone Twice is addicted to self-betrayal, the author, Mark Harris, is perhaps incapable of it. His craftsmanship takes over; the muses prevail, and what develops is a marvelous caricature—a Jules Feiffer portrait in depth—of the academic liberal pursuing his career and devoting himself to our national purpose; troubled by doubts, but proudly evading the need to confront firmly the ethical issues at their source. (p. 25)

Edgar Z. Friedenberg, "One of the Boys," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1966 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XII, No. 4, September 22, 1966, pp. 24-5.