Nicholas Delbanco Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 6) - Essay

Delbanco, Nicholas (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Delbanco, Nicholas 1942–

Delbanco is a British-born American author of novels, poems, and short stories. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Except for Austrian grandfather Hans, who has anyway a rather minimalist mentality, the characters [in Fathering] are vague—and in respect to emotion, positively ghostly. Roughly the same paragraph form repeats throughout the book: a character begins to express something revealing, but opaquely coy detail and random thoughts pop in … and they slowly come to a halt, like lessons in entropy. This amounts to using the techniques of Woolf and Joyce not for discovery and revelation but to block comprehension, and it's aggravated by the author's nostalgic and protective attitude…. Why does an author want to present characters with poor character but protect them with the suggestion that even the author's knowledge is necessarily partial? This nouvelle vague ploy would go down better if the author didn't claim the Zeus-like power to orchestrate a neo-Sophoclean finale involving blatant coincidences.

Delbanco is skilled and his talent is genuine. Once or twice, in relation to Hans, the writing explodes, but it's impeded by the sense that its long drawn out seduction depends too much, like porn, on veils and anonymity. Hopefully this exasperatingly blocked book is not the one to judge the author by. (p. 19)

Martin Washburn, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), January 3, 1974.

Nicholas Delbanco writes like an inspired maniac, with a brilliant outpouring of image and idea; perhaps, therefore, he exists. His novel [Fathering], however, lacks coherence of action, apparently unable to resolve its uneasy balance between internal and external reality. If Robert only fantasized sleeping with his proxy mother, the imaginary event would assume its proper place in a long series of mental extravagances. As a real event, it makes demands which the narrative can't fulfill, for the book evades any real examination of its consequences. Nor does this incest in the first place derive from any clear necessity of character or event: though it expresses the deepest laws of human nature, no one seems aware of that fact. The author, brilliantly alive to the chaos of the inner life, is unable to relate the psyche to what happens externally, and seems unaware of the lack of relationship. Fathering doesn't know what it's doing—doing many things well, never shaping them into a whole. (p. 295)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1974.

Some of the difficulties [of Delbanco's novels] have to do with a tight, elliptical, syntactically compressed language; also with a profuse allusiveness, and with a structural abruptness (i.e., the reader's uncertainty as to how one thing has led to another) manifest variously at the level of sentence structure, paragraphing, chapter and the novel as a whole…. Delbanco's novels are clearly in the modernist mainstream; his affinities (whether or not of direct influence) are with such writers as Joyce, Faulkner, Beckett, and the French "new novelists."

If Delbanco's style is difficult, it also offers many rewards. On one level, the sheer wit and verbal agility—probably annoying to some readers—are a delight to others…. There is a pervasive anecdotal instinct in Delbanco's books—all sorts of little stories, parables, jokes, tall tales, riddles, etc., popping up constantly and contributing both to the sense of verbal display and of structural discontinuity. Grasse is basically a series of aphorisms in the form of a meditation, beneath which lurks a fiction.

Delbanco's virtuosity is by no means gimmickry, or primarily playfulness. Deeper rewards are inherent in the style. There is a special kind of electric tension between various polar opposites: between, for example, a certain sparseness, tautness, an immensely willful austerity on the one hand, and a lushness, a fertility, sometimes an exotic luridness on the other; between physical immediacy, tangibility, and a continuous insistence toward abstraction; between a certain pop-art quality, and a faultlessly disciplined intellectuality; ultimately, perhaps, between art and life. There is a measure of Lawrence Durrell in Delbanco (particularly in the exotic settings of The Martlet's Tale and parts of Sappho) but a Durrell enriched, complicated and purified by a countervailing severity and control. Perhaps there is more of Wallace Stevens than of Durrell. In most of the novels the verbal wizardry is at once both expression and suppression of strong emotions and turbulent insights. Words both sublimate emotion and, by compression, heat it up. In short, this is a very poetic kind of fiction. (pp. 85-6)

[There] is, in Delbanco's last three novels, an important public and political dimension which makes him very much a writer of his time—by which I mean a writer coming of age in the turbulent, activist, too often violent sixties. News is the most political of his books, and certainly one of the best…. In In the Middle Distance the highly introspective protagonist (all Delbanco's characters are highly introspective—in one or two instances implausibly so) meditates on all manner of things, but among them political issues like Cambodia and the Spanish Civil War. In Fathering there is similarly a great deal of passing political comment and awareness…. Delbanco is perfectly capable of writing straightforward, lucid, traditional narrative if he wants to—like a cubist painter, say, who can be meticulously representational if he has a mind to. (p. 86)

Much of what happens [in Fathering] is intrinsically lurid and sensational—suicide, incest, murder, cancer, rape, prostitution—yet the luridness is splendidly contained and sublimated by that verbal rapidity and acuity which, in the fiction, represents the character's hyperactive awareness, and, outside it, the author's mastery of his material. (p. 87)

Fathering seems to me especially Faulknerian—particularly the "difficult" Faulkner of Absalom, Absalom! Both novels engage the generational theme in a similar context: both involve a torturous seeking out of a murky family tree; both are about failed continuity, violent fragmentation and alienation…. Much of the novel could be construed as an enactment of his vision or sense of identity simultaneously asserted and violated in generational continuity. What is enacted are various rites of marital (and sexual) attraction and repulsion, yearnings and hates as between fathers and sons, tainted communions between mothers and sons, many separations, many dismemberments. Dismemberment, disjunction is one of the central motifs of the book, together with the yearning for renewed conjunction. Many images point up the theme…. In the final analysis, Fathering is a novel about loss…. Yet, as in many other fine works of literature, the negations of the imagination are, after all, affirmations. (pp. 87-8)

Stanley G. Eskin, "The Virtuosity of Nicholas Delbanco," in Mainstream (copyright © 1974 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), October, 1974, pp. 85-8.

How a writer of Mr. Delbanco's skill and depth could have written a highbrow "Love Story" is something of a mystery, but that, unfortunately, is what he has done. If ["Small Rain"] weren't so high-toned, it could almost be mistaken for a parody—from the ultra-romantic meeting of Anthony Hope-Harding (a sixty-year-old English bachelor vacationing in his dilapidated house in the South of France) and Maija von Einzeedle (a bored Swiss mother of two who has been married for twenty years to a dullard), through the kitsch lovers' dialogue, school of Noël and Gertie ("You're a foolish person. And you can't remember Sanskrit either"), and the big obstacles (her husband, his job) that you know they'll overcome, to the tragic ending. In the interstices of all this, there are, encouragingly, signs of the author's undeniable talent and continuing sanity. Hope-Harding and Einzeedle are full-blown, thoroughly modern, if late-blooming, people, and their unpinned passion for each other has a certain grandeur and weight that demand to be taken seriously. But the artificiality of their conversations and the sheer straining for effect intrude constantly. As in his last novel, "Fathering," Mr. Delbanco gives one the feeling that ambition outdistances his perspective …, and that though this is his seventh novel he has yet to find his real voice. (p. 83)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), August 18, 1975.