Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1443
Nicholas Delbanco 1942-
(Full name Nicholas Franklin Delbanco) English-born American novelist, short story writer, essayist, travel writer, critic, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Delbanco's career through 2001. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6 and 13.
Delbanco is best known for his works of fiction, most notably the Sherbrookes Trilogy, which traces five generations of a prominent New England family. His many novels include the experimental work In the Middle Distance (1971), a part-fictional, part-autobiographical narrative, In the Name of Mercy (1995), a murder mystery focused on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide, and What Remains (2000), the story of a German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany to settle in England and the United States. Delbanco's short stories, like his novels, address themes of aging, masculinity, intergenerational family dynamics, the craft of writing, and tensions between the past and the present. His style is characterized by poetic language, multiple character perspectives, and narratives that jump back and forth between distinct time periods. Delbanco's several works of nonfiction range across a variety of subjects, including travel writing, literary biography, and music history.
Delbanco was born on August 27, 1942, in London, England, the son of German Jews who had left Germany before World War II to escape Nazi persecution. When Delbanco was six years old, the family immigrated to the United States, where they settled in Larchmont, New York. Delbanco graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1963 with a major in literature. In 1966 he completed a master's degree in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Delbanco was twenty-four when his first novel, The Martlet's Tale (1966), was published. In 1970 he married Elena Greenhouse, with whom he has two children. Delbanco has held posts at several colleges and universities throughout the United States. He taught creative writing and English literature in the department of language and literature at Bennington College in Bennington, Vermont, from 1966 to 1984. From 1984 to 1985 he taught as a professor of English at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1985 Delbanco was hired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he serves as the head of the graduate program in creative writing as well as the Hopwood Awards program. Delbanco was also a staff member at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference from 1984 to 1994. He has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Endowment for the Arts creative writing award in 1973 and 1982, the PEN syndicated fiction award in 1983, 1985, and 1989, and the Michigan Council for the Arts award in 1986.
Some of Delbanco's earliest novels are modern stories based on biblical and classical texts. The Martlet's Tale is a reimagining of the biblical tale of the prodigal son, set in modern Greece. Fathering (1973) is a modern retelling of the Theban trilogy—Sophocles's series of plays about Oedipus and Antigone. In the Middle Distance is an experimental novel combining fiction and autobiography in a self-conscious, multi-layered narrative voice. In the Middle Distance alternates between first-person narration in the form of a journal kept by the protagonist—a fictional author by the name of Nicholas Delbanco—and third-person narration which describes the life of the Delbanco character. The novel intentionally blurs the distinctions between the real-life author Nicholas Delbanco and the fictional character who shares the same name. The plot concerns the writer's attempts to remodel his farmhouse in upstate New York while engaging in self-analysis and struggling with his creative process. Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy—Possession (1977), Sherbrookes (1978), and Stillness (1980)—follows the history and genealogy of the Sherbrookes, a distinguished family from Vermont. The Sherbrookes Trilogy is written in Delbanco's characteristic poetic prose and examines the tensions between the family's past and present. In the Name of Mercy, set in a hospice care facility in Michigan, explores the topical issue of doctor-assisted suicide within the genre of the murder mystery. Old Scores (1997) describes an affair between a professor and a student on a small Vermont college campus that turns out to have a profound impact on the lives of both characters. The narrative of Old Scores moves back and forth between the time of the affair and the present lives of the characters. What Remains follows three generations of a German-Jewish family who fled Hamburg to escape the Holocaust and settled in England and the United States. The story is told from the multiple perspectives of various members of the family.
The short stories in About My Table, and Other Stories (1983) focus on men in their late thirties grappling with the experience of aging who are torn between marital commitments and their own escapist fantasies. The tales in The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (1990) feature characters who are writers in the process of struggling with their craft and their careers. In the 1980s Delbanco began to publish various works of nonfiction, covering a wide range of topics. Group Portrait (1982) examines a group of famous writers—including Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells—who all lived in the same area of England during the early twentieth century. Delbanco discusses the professional and personal relationships between the writers and the extent of their influence on each other's writing. The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (1985) is based on Delbanco's travels with this well-known musical trio; one member of group is his wife's father. Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (1989) recounts Delbanco's journey with his wife and two daughters through the region of Provence in southern France. Delbanco contrasts his current perspective of the region with his impressions from his previous journeys to the area. The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (2000) includes a collection of fiction and essays on the craft of writing. The title piece is Delbanco's fictional reconstruction of an incident in which a suitcase full of original manuscripts by Ernest Hemingway was lost in a train station. In The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (2001) Delbanco traces the history and restoration process of his father-in-law's antique musical instrument, a rare Stradivarius cello crafted in 1707.
Delbanco's first novel, The Martlet's Tale, earned him early recognition as a promising young novelist. Gregory L. Morris has extolled In the Middle Distance for its complex narrative structure, arguing that, “What Delbanco ultimately pursues in this novel is a triple-layered examination of self and the ability to accurately declare the truths of that examination.” The novels of the Sherbrookes Trilogy have remained Delbanco's most celebrated works of fiction. Critics have complimented the poetic prose and deftly drawn characters in the trilogy and have lauded Delbanco's treatment of the family's intergenerational tensions. His novel In the Name of Mercy has received mixed assessments. Some critics have found the fictional narrative compelling and praised Delbanco for his ability to build suspense. Others have found the novel overly topical in addressing the issue of doctor-assisted suicide and observed that the book fails to adequately clarify the arguments on either side of the debate. Reviewers have been generally enthusiastic about What Remains, applauding Delbanco's skill at crafting the alternating perspectives of the novel's variety of characters. Neil Gordon has admired Delbanco's characterizations in What Remains, remarking that, “In a prose as evocative and clear as any being written in America today, Delbanco draws us into the very thought processes of his characters, showing us the past through their eyes and with the thick reality of their emotions.” Critical response to Delbanco's short story collections has been largely positive, with commentators praising Delbanco's craftsmanship and ability to evoke strong emotion through well-chosen details. Richard Eder has observed that the stories in About My Table are “written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought.” Response to Delbanco's various works of nonfiction, however, has been largely mixed. Reviewers of Group Portrait have faulted Delbanco for failing to provide the reader with new insight or information on the authors included in the study. Despite these criticisms, the work has been commended for expressing a strong sense of affection for its subjects. Additionally, several critics have found Delbanco's accounts of his travels in The Beaux Arts Trio and Running in Place to be tedious and overwritten, offering little in the way of original observations on his subject. On the other hand, The Countess of Stanlein Restored has garnered an enthusiastic response by some reviewers, with Amanda Heller describing the book as “a little gem, a trove of fact, lore, and sensual description evoking two enduring and intertwined traditions—the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.”
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The Martlet's Tale (novel) 1966
Grasse, 3/23/66 (novel) 1968
Consider Sappho Burning (novel) 1969
News (novel) 1970
In the Middle Distance (novel) 1971
Fathering (novel) 1973
Small Rain (novel) 1975
*Possession (novel) 1977
*Sherbrookes (novel) 1978
*Stillness (novel) 1980
Group Portrait: Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells (criticism) 1982
About My Table, and Other Stories (short stories) 1983
The Beaux Arts Trio: A Portrait (nonfiction) 1985
Running in Place: Scenes from the South of France (travel writing) 1989
The Writer's Trade, and Other Stories (short stories) 1990
Writers and Their Craft: Short Stories and Essays on the Narrative [editor; with Laurence Goldstein] (short stories and essays) 1991
In the Name of Mercy (novel) 1995
Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work [editor; with Alan Cheuse] (nonfiction) 1996
Old Scores (novel) 1997
The Lost Suitcase: Reflections on the Literary Life (nonfiction) 2000
What Remains (novel) 2000
The Countess of Stanlein Restored: A History of the Countess of Stanlein Ex-Paganini Stradivarius Cello of 1707 (nonfiction) 2001
*These novels comprise Delbanco's Sherbrookes Trilogy.
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SOURCE: Massie, Allan. “Foreigners.” Spectator 249, no. 8048 (9 October 1982): 28-9.
[In the following review, Massie describes Group Portrait as interesting, perceptive, and well-crafted.]
‘Some years ago my friend H. G. Wells wrote to the papers to say that for many years he was conscious of a ring of foreign conspirators plotting against British letters at no great distance from his residence, Spade House, Sandgate’. (Ford Madox Ford: Return to Yesterday.) These words lie at the heart of Mr Delbanco's book, [Group Portrait,] though, curiously, he doesn't quote them. Three of the foreign conspirators were Henry James, Joseph Conrad and Stephen Crane. Ford tried to pretend that a fourth was W. H. Hudson, but it's more likely that Wells had Ford himself in mind—it was in his Hueffer days before his change of surname disguised his German antecedents.
And of course Wells was quite right, up to a point. James, Conrad and Ford (as it seems more convenient to call him) were indeed engaged, if not exactly on a conspiracy, at least in an attack, that gave the impression of being in some way concerted, on that ‘loose baggy monster, the English novel’. The phrase was James's own, and the baggy monster was the target he had set himself to shoot down. Like almost all such consciously-selected oppositions, there was something a bit disingenuous in what James was doing. The English novel wasn't quite—had never been quite—the unstructured and rambling thing he identified. There had after all been Jane Austen; there was still Meredith, and Stevenson was only a few years dead in 1900, the year in which Mr Delbanco chooses to pitch his story. Nevertheless there was enough truth in James's strictures, and enough substance in his achievement, and in Conrad's and Ford's for us to be able to date the modern English novel from the work they did. They brought to the writing of fiction the sense of dedication and responsibility which had formerly been left to poets or to the French.
Mr Delbanco's subject is the degree of collaboration between them. Ford and Conrad worked closely together—that is well-known—and the chapter dealing with them is very properly placed at the centre of this cunningly-wrought book. Mr Delbanco is (rightly, I think) in no doubt that the collaboration was beneficial to both writers. It encouraged them to think more closely about what they were aiming at, and how it could be done. Between them, in hours of conversation, they worked out the theory of literary impressionism:
We agreed that the general effect of a novel must be the general effect life makes on mankind. A novel must therefore not be a narration, a report … We saw that Life did not narrate, but made impressions on our brains. We in turn, if we wished to produce on you an effect of life, must not narrate but render impressions … We agreed that the whole of Art consists in selection …
(Ford: Joseph Conrad, a Personal Reminiscence.)
The works they produced together were not frightfully good; it was when they resumed their separate careers that the fruits appeared. All the same they played nicely off each other. Mr Delbanco sets fascinatingly side by side passages from Heart of Darkness and Ford's The Cinque Ports; which echoes which? And of course Ford learned enough to write a good Conrad chapter. Mr Delbanco cites the example from Nostromo. I wish he had taken a look at the part Ford may have played in the writing of The Secret Agent.
The chapter or Crane is the least satisfactory, just as Crane is the most faded of the writers under review. All the same, all the others regarded him as outstandingly gifted. Conrad proposed collaboration with him before he fixed on Ford. James and Crane are said to have discussed ‘style’. Crane claimed that James had sent him manuscripts. The young American struck a chord in his senior: ‘during the first months of the new year’, wrote Leon Edel, ‘when Crane was ill most of the time, Henry James wrote The Sacred Fount. It may have derived some of its poignancy from the vision the novelist had of the way in which Crane was visibly dying while Cora thrived, seemingly unaware of the tragedy being lived out under her roof’. If nothing else then, Crane provided material for Jamesian art. The relation of art to life—that is an argument central to this book.
It was central to the famous quarrel between James and Wells. Here, Mr Delbanco has an advantage over most of us: he has actually read Boon, the novel in which Wells savaged and mocked the aged James. But, before then, there was a long record of friendship, of admiration that stopped short of understanding on either side. (Mr Delbanco also neatly points out that Wells's first sight of James was as the wretched author being catcalled on the first night of Guy Domville.) Mr Delbanco's sympathies lie clearly with James. He takes some satisfaction in pointing out that though ‘What Maisie Knew sold fewer copies in its first year of publication than The Time Machine in an average month; 80 years later, the figures are no doubt reversed.’ That might not have worried Wells; he always insisted he was a journalist, that his novels were written for the here and now. What he objected to in James was in fact put more forcibly and effectively by Rebecca West: in The Sacred Fount ‘a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.’ Of course, James comes well out of the quarrel. His personal dignity is impressive, while Wells's hippety-hoppiting impertinence reminds us of a sparrow. Nevertheless, H. G.'s own claims for the novel were hardly humble: ‘it is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas’.
But, the trouble from the James-Ford-Conrad point of view was that H. G.'s loudly-trumpeted indifference to the how of the matter vitiated the whole enterprise. Perhaps he sensed this himself: ‘the Novel proved like a blanket too small for the bed and when I tried to pull it over to cover my tossing conflict of ideas, I found I had to abandon questions of individuation. I never got “all life within the scope of the novel”. What a phrase. Who could?’ No one perhaps; but by ‘abandoning questions of individuation’, any felt life was likely to be excluded. All the same Wells's insistence on the importance of the what against the how should not be forgotten either. Mr Delbanco includes an admirable letter from Wells to Joyce, then engaged on Finnegan's Wake, to show how the argument was carried on to the next generation.
This is a book full of interest and intelligent perception. It occasionally irritates. Mr Delbanco frequently uses words meaninglessly. He has a ponderous way with the examination of metaphor. He is rather given to pretentious pronouncements which claim to discern significance where common sense sees none. But he has read everything on the subject, generously.
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SOURCE: Tuohy, Frank. “Birds of a Feather.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4151 (22 October 1982): 1148.
[In the following review, Tuohy comments that Group Portrait fails to offer the reader any new insight or information on its subject.]
Nicholas Delbanco has planned his work [Group Portrait] to illustrate what he calls “colleagueship” or “collegiality”: a quality that he identifies as having existed among these writers when all of them were living close to each other in West Kent or East Sussex around the turn of the century.
Today, especially when one is resident at a university, it is easy to assume that writers enjoy each other's company, and to proceed to the conclusion that in doing so they will share useful ideas about technique an so on. The idea of writers' seminars, creative writing courses and workshops, has spread from the United States to this country. If the same thing happened in the past, it must have been under the auspices of personal friendship. The popularity of books about the Bloomsbury group has strengthened this impression, though in their case friendship of the inner circle must have been helped by the fact that they were all doing different things and, to that extent at any rate, did not get in each other's light.
Delbanco quotes from Ada Galsworthy's notebook to show the large number of writers whom her husband knew between 1905 and 1910. “That constant keeping up to the mark”, he notes, “could not have failed to fire ambition.” But there is no reason to conclude that they spoke of anything but cricket or politics. When invited by P. H. Newby, then in charge of the Third Programme, to contribute a conversation between himself and a friend on the subject of his writing, Evelyn Waugh replied: “I am afraid this is not practical as I never mention my writing to my friends.” From the English point of view it may be that collegiality is strictly for colleges.
Except for Wells, however, the group in question were a cosmopolitan lot. Conrad and James were certainly aware of a world outside, where salons and literary schools existed. But, as Delbanco points out, there was no leading lady and therefore no salon. James, in any case, had severe doubts about the gentility of the other members and their wives, and this was sufficient to keep them apart.
Because of the lack of other evidence, Group Portrait concentrates on three themes: the tenancy of Brede Manor by Stephen Crane and his soi-disant wife Cora, the former Madame of the Hotel de Dream; the collaboration of Conrad and Ford: and the correspondence between Henry James and H. G. Wells and their subsequent quarrel. There are other themes available—no one has yet studied the lifelong hostility between Wells and Ford, which culminated in the publication of Wells's novel The Bulpington of Blup. And where Henry James is concerned, there are endless complexities in all his relationships. But Delbanco's purpose is not literary research; he depends on secondary sources entirely—he even quotes Virginia Woolf as quoted by somebody else, and his citations will be familiar to anyone else with a cursory knowledge of the subject. Possibly he is aiming at students for whom the admittedly overweight biographies of James, Conrad and Hueffer which have appeared in the last twenty years are heavy-going. But his style is too allusive to provide much help. A sentence like “if Jessie Conrad never quite had veto power over Joseph's guests, her Recollections of Stephen Crane are warm” cannot mean much to anyone who is coming upon these three people for the first time.
Some of the obvious difficulties are given rather casual treatment. Ford's book on Conrad is fascinating, but how much of it is true? On points of fact, he is often right where both Conrads are wrong, but this did not matter to him very much. On the evidence of David Garnett and others (Delbanco gets the Garnetts muddled) he had no prejudice whatsoever against the manufacture of myths. His methods were demonstrated, years ago, by Simon Nowell-Smith in the preface of his Legend of the Master. More kindly, Rebecca West spoke of his “transforming memory which altered everything”. He himself spoke of “impressionism”. This word, incidentally, is a useful point of distinction between Crane, Ford and Conrad, all of whom gave it different meanings. Delbanco mentions this in passing, but the subject has been brilliantly analysed by Ian Watt.
The work that has been done on these writers recently has been the product of university departments, that world in which books are read in order to pass examinations or promote careers. Though Nicholas Delbanco is of that world himself, he is to be commended for following in the tradition of Edmund Wilson, for whom writers and their books had an importance which was on a different, fully personal level. However, Group Portrait does not throw enough new light on the literary characteristics of his famous five. Touches of personal autobiography in the first and last chapters come across as journalistic and perfunctory. Perhaps unjustifiably, an English reader cannot take seriously sentences such as “Sir Philip Sidney made his home in Kent and Chaucer put her on the map immortally”. But in any case they seem out of place in a book where so much that is interesting and important has been passed by.
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SOURCE: Moser, Thomas C. “Views of Edwardian Fiction.” Sewanee Review 91, no. 2 (April 1983): 282-91.
[In the following review, Moser compares Group Portrait with two other books on Edwardian fiction. Moser comments that Delbanco's book is neatly organized and well-written, and that the strength of the book lies in the author's expression of a strong sense of affection for his subject.]
Even though all periods, all decades, are transitional, the Edwardian age is one of the most conspicuous. Richard Ellmann's phrase is the “two faces” of Edward; Samuel Hynes's, the Edwardian “turn of mind.” Between the end of Victoria's lengthy reign with its intellectual, technological revolutions and its gigantic novelists and 1914's initiation of a period of incredible, almost incessant, international violence and flashy modernist writers, the intervening years must somehow, from our point of view, account for the change. Three new books, of greatly differing approach and quality, take as their common subject the fiction of that post-Victorian period. In Edwardian Fiction Jefferson Hunter, of Smith College, treats the subject topically; in The Edwardian Novelists John Batchelor, an Oxford don, studies critically the work of six writers; in Group Portrait Nicholas Delbanco, a novelist and teacher at Bennington, considers biographically five writers who were friends and neighbors at the turn of the century.
Hunter's book seems to me terrific. He determinedly resists the “dangerous illusion … that the Edwardian era can be comprehended by a single myth or … symbol.” Hunter tries admirably to see the period through the eyes of those who lived in it rather than through our own eyes, which are always looking eagerly for signs of the “modern.” Many Edwardians prove to have been perfectly aware both of contradictions in their ideas and of change “as the essential social fact of their time.” (Still one cannot help feeling that when Hunter identifies the chief complicating facts of Edward's decade he has benefited from living in our seventies: the decline in real wages, militant suffragism, the inability to cope with either urban slums or the motor car, a deeply divisive war.) Hunter's austerity extends even to dating the period. Although he does sneak in Heart of Darkness (1899) and Lord Jim (1900), he tends to stick rigorously within Edward's reign (January 1901-May 1910). Eminently commonsensical, he nevertheless acknowledges the plausibility of going back to 1897—with its Invisible Man, Nigger of the “Narcissus,” and What Maisie Knew—or even of going forward to the guns of August 1914—when Ford finished The Good Soldier.
The key word in Edwardian Fiction is polarities. Hunter manages to integrate in an elegant structure his impressive historical knowledge and highly sophisticated critical responses to a welter of fictions. These include the masterpieces of James and Conrad, the works of the other major Edwardians, a host of significant minor fictions, and many best-sellers that were scorned by serious readers then and are forgotten today. The first part, “The Sense of a Period,” dramatizes the polarity between the fictions' formal conservatism and their thematic adventuresomeness. Hunter is perfectly conscious of the presence of James's rich formal inventiveness, especially “his fascination with the personal and artistic difficulties of knowing.” James, however, though universally admired, “still remained apart.” Although Hunter laments James's lack of influence, he convincingly shows how much Forster's first Italian novels of “Continental Rescues and Autumnal Affairs” owe to The Ambassadors. Over a decade ago Ian Watt suggested that “James's example …, more than anything else, helped Conrad to evolve his mature technique.” Nevertheless Hunter's main point is undeniable—that most Edwardian novelists stuck to nineteenth-century methods and ignored the examples of Conrad and James and the exhortations of Ford. He is also right that the prevailing plainness of form fitted these novelists, that ficelles would not have transformed Galsworthy nor the time-shift Bennett. But if these Edwardian artists were formally conservative, they nevertheless realized “that fiction might include a whole new range of personal and social observation. … After recovering from their fin-de-siècle weariness, Edwardians looked about them and discovered a plenitude of fictional subjects.” Naturally the “prodigious” Wells is Hunter's prime instance, but he even cites a novel called The Dream and the Business as “representative by virtue of its title alone” of “this polarity-ridden or -blessed period.”
The titles of the second and third parts of Hunter's book indicate his other major polarity—“Adventures Abroad” and “Coming Home.” Each section moves from the simple to the complex; the latter deals, roughly speaking, with the latter half of the decade. “Abroad” concerns both geography (away from England) and time (away from the present to the past or the future): Conrad's settings shifted from exotic places to London, Wells's from fantasies in remote times to present realism. After observing that some Edwardian romances follow the Victorian pattern of isolating the hero against an exotic landscape, Hunter also shows how the more sensitive romancers could not overlook the implications of imperialism, could not ignore the natives. Instead of putting writers into definite pro and con camps, imperialism tended to inspire a “sense of vague disquiet.” That sense gets into Tono-Bungay in the strange “quap” episode in which the narrator shoots a native in the back, destroying “innocent strangeness” without understanding “why he has done this.” Although W. H. Hudson “never uses the word ‘imperialism’” in his masterpiece, it shows “an educated white man” bringing “greed, anger, and violence into the green mansions.” Hunter naturally concludes this section with Conrad; yet even in this well-trodden field he manages to look with a fresh eye: at Lord Jim, who doesn't know he is a romantic and plays his role against an unglamorous backdrop; at Nostromo's childless Emilia Gould, the victim of subtle conjugal infidelity, and its titular hero, whose “passing is as ambiguous as Jim's” and whose failure makes clear “that there was no longer a place for adventurism in the world.” What makes Hunter's account of how imperialism affected fiction especially persuasive is his constant, modest, self-critical awareness that “political interpretations of romance inevitably seem ponderous,” that they sometimes are schematic and sometimes conflict with the authors' conscious intentions. Nevertheless “the works themselves point insistently enough in the direction of doubt about imperial ventures.”
“Coming Home” explores the reaction to romance and to the human cost of empire. It concentrates upon country houses and London. Hunter lists some twenty-eight fictive country houses and deals deftly and unobtrusively with virtually all of them. But he deals with real houses as well, discussing the possible meanings of Kipling's move to Bateman's, James's to Lamb House, Wells's to Spade House (and his even more significant leaving of it). The writers and their characters are drawn to refuges which they can humanly control and where there will be “few opportunities for bewilderment or meaningless violence.” But refuges don't always work: that is true of Kate Croy's and Merton Densher's figurative refuge in their secret relationship, and of Teddy Ponderevo's frantic quest for a suitable house. Sometimes a writer's handling of a house reveals his own limitations. Soames Forsyte's building of Robin Hill dramatizes his essence, his will to control a space absolutely, to tame Irene and make of her an objet. Hunter says damningly that in the end Galsworthy “owns his characters in the same way … orders their movements with fine manipulations … enjoys his authorial sense of property.” London is the other pole from the country in this polarity. Although some writers love London, for most, Conrad and Wells especially, it is “oppressively incomprehensible.” Hunter speaks of the “bewildered return to the city” and says flatly that Edwardian novelists doubted that sense could be made of urban life. Hunter concludes by pairing Howards End, which retreats from social problems to celebrate human relations, with Tono-Bungay, which ends with the “passing of England” and “brazen irresolution.” Hunter's dissatisfaction with both these “conditions of England” novels leads him—on his last page and, for me, his only disappointing one—to conclude that Edwardian fiction is a “relative failure.”
For John Batchelor “the” Edwardian novelists prove unsurprisingly to be Conrad and Ford, Wells and Bennett, Galsworthy and Forster. Batchelor impressively considers them in the context not only of the voluminous critical commentary about them but also of the period's minor fiction. Thus his book is potentially as rich as Hunter's. Moreover Batchelor moves on past 1910 to consider, most appropriately, The Good Soldier (1915). An excellent question—“Why does Conrad look so isolated a figure?”—initiated Batchelor's inquiry, which soon came to embrace “the Edwardian period as a whole.” In separate chapters on each author Batchelor, especially in the case of the “giant,” Conrad, wishes “to recover the freshness of the amateur reader.” This is not a bad aim, and to some extent the book profits from its author's informal, unacademic manner. Similarly Batchelor's determination not “to force these writers to resemble one another, since … they don't” commands at least our partial assent.
The first, longest, and, happily, the best chapter is given to Conrad. Treating him separately enables Batchelor to trace an arresting developmental theory: the novels through Nostromo explore the possibility that traditional heroism is still a reality; thereafter they convey a sense of the futility of human aspiration. Lord Jim is a great instance of “creative love,” with Marlow, the rational man, celebrating a young “friend who has had a religious experience.” Throughout the chapter Batchelor's lively independent mind strikes off interesting aperçus: Heyst is a “very successful piece of characterisation but the fiction [Victory] constructed round him is barely readable as a novel.” But the critic's breeziness often makes for unenlightening imprecision: thus “Conrad is a macho novelist”; Forster had “beginner's luck” with Where Angels Fear to Tread, and the prose of Howards End is “soggy” toward the conclusion. The book occasionally gives the impression of carelessness. Batchelor yokes Stein's famous “destructive element” with life, whereas Conrad (in cloudy prose) equates it with the dream. Ford, says Batchelor, “loved the Germans, his father's people, and saw the French as England's natural enemy.” But Ford adored France, devoted some of his loveliest prose to her, and fulfilled his wish of dying there.
Batchelor's decision to treat each writer fully has unfortunate results. For example he insists on dealing with Conrad's earliest works but has nothing significant to say about them. With good reason he dislikes all of Galsworthy except The Man of Property, yet he grinds out twenty-five pages on some five Galsworthy novels. What is more serious is that his method prevents his conveying much sense of the period. Instead the age has “tendencies” and “features” (the country house, urban novels). Certain potentially unifying themes do recur, but the reader must do the integrating. Probably the most interesting themes are the Edwardians' “sacramental” attitude toward “Life”; the “epistemological crisis” of the period; the inadequacy of the traditional form of the novel to portray a twentieth-century hero in a “devalued and directionless” society. Merely to list these ideas is to be reminded of Batchelor's curious and almost fatal omission—Henry James. Strether's exhortation to Little Bilham “to live” sheds light on most of the novels considered in the book, especially those of Bennett, Galsworthy, and Forster; Maisie's quest for knowledge beautifully registers the period's epistemological crisis; James's artful experimentations with form made Conrad's and Ford's possible, not to mention those of all their disciples.
Apparently a major purpose of this book is to offer fresh evaluations of the authors. These notably include confirming Galsworthy's relatively low position but elevating Wells and Bennett. Batchelor's apparent attitude toward fictive art has some strange results. In praising Wells, he insists that Tono-Bungay is “subtle, highly-wrought, and ‘written’ in as full a sense as Conrad, Ford and Henry James could wish.” Nevertheless, when Ford says, in the first issue of the English Review, that the most important recent historical event is the publication of the New York Edition of Henry James, he also says, as Batchelor reminds us, that James's great virtues are veracity, detachment, and objectivity. For many sympathetic intelligent readers, like Walter Allen and Bernard Bergonzi, Tono-Bungay is a seriously flawed novel—not because it has a form different from that of The Ambassadors or of The Good Soldier but because the narrator's love affairs are presented so sentimentally, so dishonestly. On the other hand Bennett's artistry in The Old Wives' Tale and Clayhanger, which Batchelor rightly celebrates, need not be so completely separated from Conrad's and Ford's as Batchelor asserts: “No one would ask Bennett to be Conrad. … To ask ultimate questions … one must be able to see man as free, isolated and alone, experiencing the epistemological crisis of the period. Bennett's Five Towns people are too firmly embedded in their history and their environment.” Obviously Bennett, even at his best, is very different from the great impressionists. Yet it is the arch-impressionist Ford who says that the “artist must always be humble and humble and again humble, since before the greatness of his task he himself is nothing.” Two of the most moving scenes in Clayhanger acknowledge that truth. When Miss Florence Simcox does her glorious clog-dance in the pub for those men who have all worn clogs in the winter slush, she makes charming “the clog, the very emblem of the servitude and the squalor of brutalized populations,” and changes it “into the medium of grace.” And when the hero, Edwin Clayhanger, observes the slow careful art of the bricklayer, he is “humbled” and “enlightened”; he realizes that such a “miracle is only the result of miraculous patience, miraculous nicety, miraculous honesty, miraculous perseverance.” Conrad's Jim is, as Batchelor says, ultimately unknowable. But surely so too is Edwin to Bennett—and to himself: “The impartial and unmoved spectator that sat somewhere in Edwin … watching his secret life … thought how strange” it was (italics mine). Granted that, for Bennett, the puzzlement is not so psychological or moral as it is for Conrad. Rather it is a bewilderment about the mysterious effects of the inexorable passage of time. The trouble with Wells, as well as with Galsworthy—if one may make so arrogant a remark—is that, even at their best, they write without humility, write as if they think they really know. I, for one, am unpersuaded.
Batchelor provides interesting lore on all his writers. His account, taken from Catherine Dupré's biography of Galsworthy, of Edward Garnett's angry response to the manuscript of The Man of Property is especially good. Garnett insisted that Galsworthy change Bossiney's explicit suicide—by throwing himself in despair under an omnibus after hearing of Soames's rape of Irene—into an ambiguous accident. Galsworthy nevertheless kept the incident remarkably close to that of the allegedly accidental death of Sergey Stepniak in 1895 under a train engine. Stepniak was Constance Garnett's beloved and the inspiration for her Russian translations. Was Edward Garnett, reading about Bossiney's death, unconsciously reminded of a family tragedy, and could he not bear to think of a man committing suicide out of despairing love for another man's sexually estranged wife? Later Conrad was to use Stepniak's death for the climax of Under Western Eyes—the maiming of the distracted Razumov when he is struck by a tramcar in Geneva.
Such intimate connections remind us how small was the world of Edwardian novelists, how well they knew one another. This is the subject of Nicholas Delbanco's Group Portrait. In a book explicitly “about colleagueship” among Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells the author naturally emphasizes geographical proximity and the positive aspects of the relationships. In 1900, the focal, but not exclusive, year of this portrait, these five writers were all living within an easy bicycle or dogcart ride of one another in South Kent and East Sussex. But six years before, when twenty-year-old Ford Madox Ford and his seventeen-year-old bride, Elsie Martindale, first settled in Kent, they were merely seeking cheap rent, fleeing literary London, and returning to the haunts of their childhood. (They had been schoolmates in Folkestone and lovers in Winchelsea.) And when, in 1896, James fell in love with Rye, he did so without a notion of a group forming. Yet subsequent moves south certainly suggest, as one motive, the idea of a literary circle. Delbanco celebrates this idea in a neatly organized and, for the most part, cleanly and handsomely written book. (At times the prose is perhaps a bit too cute: “The castles keep”; “The pale cast of thought has sicklied him [Crane's Henry Fleming]—yet conscience can make heroes of us all.”) The terrain of literary history that Delbanco travels is familiar: chapters on the Kentish countryside, on the youthful, doomed Crane, on Ford and Conrad's collaboration, on the quarrel of James and Wells, on the group as a whole. Knowledge of the landscape will vary with the reader. Delbanco actually wrote his book in Kent, and some of his most attractive prose is devoted to evoking the setting. It made me long to drop everything and return to that benign county of Canterbury, the Romney Marsh, and the Downs, to go again to Wells's Spade House in Sandgate, Conrad's Pent Farm five miles away, then on over to Rye for Dover sole at the Mermaid and another look at James's beautiful Georgian house, then some two miles farther to Ford's clapboard cottage in Winchelsea. Though Delbanco doesn't mention it, one would want also to visit the Cearne, on the Kent-Surrey border, Edward Garnett's pseudo-medieval stone cottage where Constance entertained all these great men while translating some seventy volumes of classic Russian fiction.
Despite the familiarity of its story the book is well worth reading just for its point of view. Delbanco says he loves to read these novelists and hopes others will; he shares James's and Ford's conviction that writers flourish better in a group than as hermits; he himself writes as a novelist, as an immigrant (“born in England, of German-Jewish parents and with an Italian name”), and as one who has benefited from literary collegiality. Delbanco's affectionate attitude is particularly welcome in the case of Ford: “he has been,” as Delbanco says, “unkindly discredited and is unjustly ignored.” Delbanco believes, for example, that Ford's “impression” of James's pained devotion to “poor Steevie” seems truer than Edel's conviction that James felt little friendship for Crane. Quoting Eudora Welty's injunction that Ford should be approached with “the response of love,” Delbanco indicates that “the trials of tracking down material … can vex each sleuth until he learns to hate his man.” But sleuths are useful, and Delbanco should have read Mizener's biography of Ford with more care. Had he done so, he would not have yoked Violet Hunt to the last collaboration of Conrad and Ford, The Nature of a Crime. They wrote it in 1906; Ford and Violet met in 1907. Nor would he have said that Ford “owned” the Pent Farm; he was just renting it when he sublet it to Conrad and provided the setting for Conrad's greatest years as a writer, 1898-1907. Poor Fordie never owned much of anything. And a look at a Conrad first edition would have prevented misdating. Conrad's touching gratitude for Ford's “friendly suggestion … friendly pressure … friendly voice” that elicited Conrad's beautiful reminiscence A Personal Record appeared not in 1923, as Delbanco says, but in 1912. That was the brief moment of reconciliation between their 1909-11 quarrel and their 1913-15 freeze, the moment too of a fine essay on Conrad by Ford that celebrates not only Lord Jim but the newly published Under Western Eyes. These are trivial errors, unworthy of mention except because Delbanco so insists that nothing in his scholarly reliable book is “conjectural.” He even cites a dissertation, J. H. Morey's useful study of the Conrad-Ford collaboration. Why then does he not cite Raymond T. Brebach's fine dissertation, “The Making of Romance” (1976)? Brebach identifies who wrote which sentences, who revised whose words, and documents Ford's concurrent development to the point where Ford could even improve on Conrad. These matters are germane to Group Portrait.
Delbanco is at his best and most engaging when he is being most personal, most speculative, when he is giving us, as he says, his “impressions of Impressionists.” He yokes his authors' deepest literary themes and most innovative techniques with the idea of collegiality. Thus Conrad dreams in his fiction of “civilized solidarity,” James of the “moral imperatives attendant” on being a stranger in a group, Crane and Wells of “a crowd of individuals.” “It is possible to argue,” Delbanco says, “that a dominant impulse in Lord Jim and The Good Soldier is precisely to find an attentive critical ear, an astute yet merciful friend,” and that “books as disparate as Kim and The Ambassadors have in common some notion of a commonweal.” Elsewhere Delbanco speculates that Conrad must have been a “role model” to the two young writers Crane and Ford. From the start Crane did his imaginative writing before the fact, dramatizing war in The Red Badge before becoming a war correspondent. He was, in short, “far more symbolist than realist.” By the time of Crane's death, his “reverence was on the drift away from men of action and toward those men active in art. Conrad represented both.” For all Ford's devotion to le mot juste, he was temperamentally a facile and casual writer. Conrad's “continual close scrutiny of language must have come as a surprise” to Ford. “Conrad was never casual.” Conrad especially “would have influenced Ford” as to “the architectonics of the novel” (Ford's phrase). Delbanco rightly says that one of the best things about The Good Soldier is “the tension established between the apparently casual discourse and the tautly reined-in and organized plot.” He is equally perceptive in discussing what Ford did for Conrad and persuasively proposes that in the love scene Ford wrote for Nostromo, when Conrad was too ill to do the next magazine installment, Ford gives Decoud's Antonia an “ease of utterance … elsewhere denied” her. Ford's dialogue is so convincing that it “does much to justify Decoud's ensuing action, as well as Antonia's lifelong and subsequent loss.” Speaking generally, Delbanco says: “I submit that Ford released the elder man to create profound scenarios by helping him to realize the surface of his texts.” Minor as the jointly written Romance is, its writing made greater triumphs possible; similarly an impressionistic narrator moves through “progressive revelation … conscious and searching but confused.” Reading Delbanco's whole account of the collaboration, we have to agree that Conrad's “great creative decade comes so hard on the heels of their meeting that it is churlish to call it coincidence.”
It is probably churlish too to wish from Delbanco more—more in the way of impressions, opinions, speculations, reconstructions—and to wish for fewer blocks of undigested quotations from the letters and criticism of Wells and James. Delbanco deliberately leaves out his subjects' “politics, their sexual proclivities, their neuroses, poetry, siblings, and clothes,” though admitting they are “consequential.” Had he considered some of these, he might have found it harder to paint so attractive a picture of colleagueship. Delbanco is right in feeling that it is a miracle that these five writers got on as well as they did—that “galaxy of talent assembled that beggars in accomplishment anything the English language has since produced.” But I, the Fordian sentimentalist, keep asking why they didn't get on even better. How much did James really value the others? In conversation he spoke contemptuously of both Marlow and Heart of Darkness; his 1914 putdown of Conrad, Wells, and Bennett, “The Younger Generation” (those babes of fifty-seven, forty-eight, and forty-seven respectively), was “the only time,” Conrad admitted to John Quinn, “a criticism affected me painfully.” Conversely I wish that Conrad had been strong enough to have continued to bear Ford's vagaries and to have dedicated one of his many books to him. Though Conrad warmly dedicated to Wells The Secret Agent in 1907, Wells denigrated Conrad fictively in Tono-Bungay in 1909, and explicitly in Boon in 1915. Doubtless I am asking far too much. Writing is such a lonely, vulnerable, supremely egoistic enterprise that to expect of novelists unfailing generosity and forgiveness is even more naive than to expect it of common folk. But we, safely removed from these great men by half a century and more, can give them their due. Almost as if to answer Hunter's concluding phrase about the “relative failure of Edwardian fiction,” Delbanco says flatly that at that time and in that place, south of London, the “English novel was self-consciously reinvented by a band of foreigners who chose to emulate the French.” Moreover “no author writing in English today can fail to deal with Conrad and James.” Hunter, of course, wants a specific kind of great novel, a quintessentially Edwardian work that connects the private and the public, mediates “between the poet and the statistician.” How about that great novel with its Edwardian protagonist—not Edward Ponderevo, inventor of Tono-Bungay, but Edward Ashburnham, the good soldier?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1073
SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Fidelity and the Urge to Fight.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 2, 8.
[In the following review, Eder discusses the themes of aging and the struggle of individuals caught between marital fidelity and escapist fantasy in the stories of About My Table.]
“We do not die from being ill; we die from being alive,” Montaigne wrote. [In About My Table,] Nicholas Delbanco writes of early middle life, when a certain amount of dying has already been done. Bloom has become sheen. The body's youthfulness is still there, but beginning to harden into its own memorial—it will not be renewed. It is the time when blows become cumulative, sapping resiliency and propagating their bruises.
Delbanco's nine short stories are like nine mourners at the same wake. It is a preliminary wake; there will be others. In each story the protagonist is in his late 30s and going through a climacteric of sorts. Forgotten or suppressed bits of life come back to him; but not in the final deathbed's grand retrospective of regret or rejoicing. These are data that must be lived with. It is too soon to give up and too late to hope. But life will be different.
The stories, written with breathtaking technique and an uncanny ability to bring a penetrating emotion up out of a gesture, a pause or a random thought, are independent but linked. They are linked in setting: The men are professors or professionals and live comfortably in western Massachusetts.
They are linked in theme: The protagonists are going through a crisis related to their age. They are divorced, or their marriages have stiffened. A sense of solitude has flooded in on them. They are honorably committed to their lives, they are bound to fidelity, more or less. But other lives entice them—a younger woman, the memory of a past love—to weaken the bindings and the life.
In “The Consolidation of Philosophy,” an architect with a wife and young daughter inhabits a no-man's-land between intimacy and estrangement. Sporadic affection alternates with sporadic fantasy. He sits in his office, spins a globe and imagines going to the Yucatan. He daydreams energetically about elaborate reunions with his first lover, who has become a well-known actress. She has, in fact, hinted once or twice that she would like to see him, but he has never pursued the hints. His real attachments stand in the way; on the other hand, his fantasies drain color from his real life.
There is a similar division in the elaborately constructed “Some in Their Bodies' Force,” where scenes showing the protagonist's life with his wife, and his protective, half-jealous love for his growing daughter, are intercut with memories of a Swedish girl he loved at college. Everything is told as if it were real—at the end he is a medieval adventurer sailing alone up a Norwegian fjord—and so everything has an air of hallucination.
In each of the stories, fidelity and the urge to flight are held in precarious balance, inclining sometimes one way, sometimes the other. But once youth is gone, Delbanco suggests, all choices mean pain and solitude.
In “Traction,” a lawyer flies to the Midwest to settle a client's case. His wife drinks heavily; his infant daughter is having a hip operation that will keep her in a cast for half a year. The trip is necessary; it is also a brief flight from the wounds that have pierced his life. A snowstorm sets in; his Ohio hosts urge him to stay over for a couple of days, and the host's seductive wife is particularly pressing.
She is Circe, he is Ulysses; and after a moment's weakness, he stops his ears and tries to get home through the storm: driving on icy roads, using feeder airlines that land in the wrong places, catching trains. “The Midwest was an obstacle course he was trying to negotiate,” Delbanco writes, with a sure knowledge of how winter can make a 19th-Century ordeal out of travel in that part of the country. There is no reward in the effort; merely faithfulness.
Snow and cold, those symbols of aging, recur. In one story they frame a quarrel; in another they envelop the solitude of a museum curator whose wife has left him. She has gone because she finds he lacks ambition. What he lacks is not ambition, he says, but addition: the compulsion to add one more book, painting or exploit to the great midden of culture. As a curator he is bound to celebrate what exists, not to extend it. He has his point, but he no longer has his wife.
The stories ostensibly put their focus on the protagonist. The play of his yearning, his valor, his weakness and his endurance serves as the subject. But Delbanco is an artist, and he deals in echoes. Shadowy figures in the background manage to be the most vivid: the wives who may drink or walk out, but generally remain steadfast and plucky.
The protagonist's choice is usually to remain faithful to marriage rather than to fantasies. But it is a meager faithfulness and doesn't give much nourishment. A sunny and populated island has become, with the sun setting, a dark shape across the water. From the island's point of view, of course, life continues as before; but the setting sun sees only the shadow it has made.
Delbanco's vision is stoic, just this side of tragic. But his stories are only tangentially bleak. He writes warmly about cold things. His tormented heroes are priggish and winning at the same time, and sometimes comical. The author's gift for comedy is considerable, in fact.
In “Ostinato” the grave strains and reconciliations of a musician's marriage are zanily bombarded by a series of letters from a Japanese girl who had served as an au pair and fallen in love with him. The letters are both touching and funny; their English is sublimely broken, but what is even more broken is their thoughts. Their woozy requests for assistance suggest all manner of things ranging from love through simple cheerfulness to mild blackmail.
The struggling characters in “About My Table” have an enticing virtue to them; one made brittle by time. They possess a quixotic sense of life's beauty. They do not want to die and the prospect, though still distant, disrupts them. But we don't want them to die either, and that is Delbanco's success.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3468
SOURCE: Hulbert, Ann. “Welcome the Wimps.” New Republic 189, no. 18 (31 October 1983): 35-8.
[In the following review, Hulbert compares About My Table to two other books of fiction about “men ill at ease in a post-feminist age.” Hulbert asserts that Delbanco's stories are poorly plotted and lacking in variety, and that the female characters are mere caricatures, observing that the collection fails to evoke a “moral sympathy” in the reader.]
“A man would never get the notion of writing a book on the peculiar situation of the human male,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex (1949), the book that helped inspire a flood of literature about the peculiar female predicament: manifestos and monographs, and a stream of novels—“the female sexual picaresque,” one critic called the emerging genre. But to judge by the publishers' lists of the last decade or so, Beauvoir spoke too soon about men. Thanks to feminism, men have begun to feel their situation is less powerful and more peculiar, and they have gotten the notion of writing about it. Their books don't yet occupy as much space in the bookstores as women's do. But back in the how-to, pop psychology sections, a shelf has been filling up with titles like The Male Machine, The Liberated Male, The Hazards of Being Male, On Men and Manhood. The New York Times recently launched a weekly column, “About Men,” to match the six-year-old “Hers” column. And now Nicholas Delbanco, Frederick Barthelme, and C. D. B. Bryan, none of them novice writers, have turned to fiction about men ill at ease in a post-feminist age.
In About My Table, Moon Deluxe, and Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes, the women's movement has made its mark, and men find their lot unsettlingly altered. Where literary heroes have commonly busied themselves with physical and intellectual explorations of the world and women, the more liberated male characters in these books are preoccupied by the challenge to inhabit an unfamiliar emotional realm, once the special province of women; there's less of that old manly worry about wearing the pants, and more about wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
Twenty years ago, before such new ideals of manhood had caught on, Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog rebelled against retreating to this intimate sphere, against settling for a life that revolved around women. “What was he hanging around for?” he moaned to himself at one especially low point in Herzog:
To follow this career of personal relationships until his strength at last gave out? Only to be a smashing success in the private realm, a king of hearts? Amorous Herzog, seeking love and embracing his Wandas, Zinkas, and Ramonas, one after another? But this is female pursuit. This hugging and heartbreak is for women. The occupation of men is in duty, in use, in civility, in politics in the Aristotelian sense.
A decade later Peter Tarnopol in Philip Roth's My Life as a Man also berated himself for letting amorous entanglements distract him from his higher vocation, writing. Lamenting “that sense [in women] of defenselessness and vulnerability that has come to be a mark of their sex and is often at the core of their relations with men,” he too aspired to more than coping with his Maureens and Susans.
Delbanco, Barthelme, and Bryan don't give their protagonists such impatient, manly gestures, or such defenseless damsels. For their men, the career of personal relationships comes close to eclipsing all other pursuits, active or contemplative. And that career now bears the mark Tarnopol saw stamped on women's lives: the sense of vulnerability at the core of their relations with the opposite sex.
The tone of these books about newly vulnerable men is subdued—quite different from so much of what gets loosely lumped as “women's fiction,” in which feminist defiance has often replaced female defenselessness. In these liberated times, Barbara Ehrenreich observes in her new book, The Hearts of Men, “women's issues are power issues, while male issues are human issues.” The narrator of Leonard Michaels's The Men's Club, a parodic foray into “men's fiction” of a few years ago, reluctantly agrees that men's themes are now softer, quieter ones. “I thought again about the women,” he says wistfully. “Anger, identity, politics, rights, wrongs. I envied them. It seemed attractive to be deprived in our society. Deprivation gives you something to fight for, it makes you morally superior, it makes you serious.”
The male characters in these books, as well as their creators, aren't fired by such proud passions. The title of Nicholas Delbanco's collection of stories, About My Table, rather quaintly conjurs up hearth and home, and his characters' dilemmas are mostly domestic. In Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes C. D. B. Bryan also turns away from large-scale drama; those messy scenes mostly happen in bedrooms and backyards. And Frederick Barthelme's shy bachelors are ambivalent about venturing outside; shopping expeditions are their idea of adventure. In fact, these authors describe their post-feminist protagonists behaving surprisingly like the unassertive, dependent women of less enlightened days—an otherwise extinct species, to judge by the aggressive females who stride so conspicuously through all three of these books.
“A proper man,” one of Delbanco's characters has read, “is one who has fathered a son, built a house, and completed a book.” The protagonists in this collection of nine stories—all but one of them married men in their mid- to late-30s, settled in modest professional and academic careers in the Northeast—don't quite fit this image of manhood, genteel though it is. Instead, they have gentler, more womanly habits. They specialize in daughters, toward whom they are devoted and attentive—more maternally solicitous than their wives. Only one, an architect, has designed a house, but most of them are occupied with helping to keep house. And only one has completed a book, which he hardly considers a great one. It has gradually dawned on him and the other characters that fulfillment and independence have eluded them somehow, but they're docile in their discontentment. The author of ten novels, Delbanco writes stories as muted as his men's lives—lightly plotted, lacking in variety.
Most of the stories turn on the characters' realization that they have paid an unexpected price for devoting their lives to the career of personal relationships that Herzog cursed: arriving at middle age, they feel empty. As Peter Danto walks along the beach in “Some in Their Bodies' Force,” he reflects on his life and describes a feeling of secondary, dependent status that sounds like Beauvoir's portrait of woman as “the Other.”
He had been a “ladies' man” and now he was a “family man.” He had acquaintances, of course, and men he could consult in need; he was sociable. But on the shore he felt himself abandoned, distinguished from the sea-wrack only by his sentient alertness to the distinction as such. And for an instant even this faded, even that self-consciousness was washed into transparency.
The dependency often starts even sooner. With more reverence than rancor, the narrator of “What You Carry” explains that he began as a mother's boy. “Through all his adolescence and young manhood, this was a constant: a continual sense … that his mother was someone to reckon with and serve.” He can't seem to shake the courtier habit: his failure to render one duty—to deliver a grandchild to her before her death—comes to symbolize his disorientation in the world and in time.
It's the women, mothers and wives, who are autonomous and purposeful—and impatient with hapless males. “What you don't understand … is ambition,” Edward's wife lectures him in “The Executor.” “It's wanting to count in this world. … To make a difference. To be able to say, when you walk in a room, ‘I matter, I'm here. This is me.’” But pushiness has no appeal for these men, who instead submit to small-scale circumstances. “Directions: he had lived his life by them,” George Allison ruefully reflects in “Marching through Georgia.” “What signs he read he followed; what turns he made he made with adequate warning and judiciously.” A minor car accident—not his fault—jars him, just as a sudden surge of “rage—shock after shock of it” jolts Edward when he confronts the stark fact that “he was nothing original, never had been or would be.” But they quickly compose themselves, outwardly at least. Within, they nurse “a sense of alternative possibilities,” “dreams of escape,” “a nostalgia for imagined opportunities that had not been, when offered, opportune.” They're too demure for their own good, it's clear. Yet Delbanco only rumples their tweeds, never really roughing them up. He is ever patient with these well-meaning milquetoasts who know that without their women they would be truly, rather than only vaguely, lost.
The men in Frederick Barthelme's story collection don't have women they can rely on, and lead irresolute lives as beauties come and go. They are roughly the same age as Delbanco's characters, but the external similarities end there. Single, they live in the Southwest, in a garish landscape of bright blue pools, lobster-pink stucco bungalows, fast-food places with “oversize four-color wrapped-in-clear-vinyl menus”—worlds away from the natural hues of Delbanco's New England. Those who are employed—and most of these aimless men have no discernible occupation—work for “a company”; what kind of company, or in what kinds of jobs, we never learn. Their main activity consists in puzzling, passive encounters with women.
The interior lives of Barthelme's protagonists are more difficult to describe, even though most of the stories are narrated in the first person. These men are eerily impassive, apparently mesmerized by their gleaming surroundings—especially by sleek women (one man spends days fixated on a succession of gorgeous salesgirls at a mall). In seventeen super-realistically sharp, sometimes funny, but finally inscrutable stories (most of which previously appeared in The New Yorker), Barthelme probes only far enough to note that his characters are always lonely and often nervous.
Women are what make them nervous. Generally younger than the narrators, Barthelme's female characters are energetically bizarre where Delbanco's are businesslike, but they too are the assertive figures—not the men. Antonia of the title story is perhaps the most intimidating eyeful of them all:
… she's huge, extraordinary, easily over six feet. Taller than you. Her skin is glass-smooth and her pale eyes are a watery turquoise. Her hair is parted on one side and brushed flat back to her scalp. She [is] … wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt with “So many men, so little time” silk-screened in two lines across the chest.
As that motto suggests, these women are hungry and in a hurry, and they seem to have Barthelme's quiet men at their mercy. They corral them into cars, jabber at them, impose on them, dump them, while the men nod and feel nervous. Like so many women of yore, the men appear to be ciphers until these manic creatures arrive and rouse them. While the men wait, Barthelme frequently describes them cleaning, like fastidious housewives—emptying the refrigerator, vacuuming the carpet. When they're out with women, they're usually eating, like children—playing with their peas, piling up one-inch squares of roast beef, arranging cream containers into football teams.
What they rarely resemble are grown-up men. They take graphic note of women's bodies, but seem strangely disembodied themselves, conveying no sign of sexual energy. In fact, they're often so aloof that women lose interest (some of them inclining instead to sinister men, or to other women). This female fickleness in turn seems to confirm the men in their cautiousness, although they never reveal their thoughts or hearts. In one story, “Lumber,” the subject of relations between the sexes explicitly arises—it's the implicit theme of all of the stories—but the discussion does little to clarify the protagonist's, or Barthelme's, view of the matter. Milby, one of several peripheral brutes in the collection, has just hit his girlfriend Lois and wants to discuss his brutishness with the narrator. “So talk, already,” Lois's friend Cherry tells the two men impatiently. “Go get a steak and talk. Be men all over the place. Practice spitting.” The docile narrator hardly knows how to rise to this occasion, of course, and he's not sure what to tell Milby, whose anger is so alien to him. “The thing is,” Milby sputters over the steak,
“they take advantage of everything—all the differences—but you can't. You get pissed after a while.”
“Everybody gets pissed.” I wonder why I don't tell him what I want to tell him, why he scares me. “Who's this ‘they’ anyway?”
“The bitches—what are you, some Holy Ghost or something? I don't need catechism lessons, brother. It's jerks like you screw it up for the rest of us. I'm telling you it just happens, and you're telling me Hail Mary, full of grace. That's a big help.”
“Yeah, O.K.,” I say, cutting through my steak. “You're probably right.”
It's obvious that he doesn't really think Milby is right, but it's equally clear that this uneasy narrator, like the others in the collection, has no clue about what to expect of women—how much bitchiness, how much sympathy—or of himself.
In their confusion, Barthelme's men generally resort to some version of the gawky nerd gambit: “Hoping for quick intimacy,” says the narrator of “Rain Check,” “I start telling Lucille the things I'm afraid of.” It's hopeless: “Lucille says she's not afraid of anything, so I shut up about loneliness.” And when at the very end of the story Lucille apparently decides she's ready for intimacy and asks, “So. What about a shower?” the narrator is as insecure as ever, but cagier now:
I give her a long look, letting the silence mount up. I stand there with her for a good two minutes, without saying a word, trying to outwait her, trying to see what's what. … She smiles at me as if she really does like me. Maybe we've been there longer than two minutes, but when the smile comes, I see her lips a little bit apart and her slightly hooded eyes, and she traces her fingers down my arm from the elbow to the wrist and stops there, loosely hooking her fingernails inside my shirt cuff, pinching my skin with her nails.
However lost and lonely these men may be, they are leery about being found by the reptilian women who abound, and Barthelme doesn't seem to blame them.
With two viperous wives and countless lovers behind him, the narrator of C. D. B. Bryan's Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is as lost as any of these men, and many times more loquacious. A 40-year-old TV documentary filmmaker living in the Connecticut suburbs, he takes comfort in “the trappings of being a father, a husband, a member of a family,” as Delbanco's protagonists do, yet both his marriages have failed. At the same time, he's an incorrigible adulterer and has kept up with the singles culture—slightly less plastic but hardly more personal than Barthelme's Southwest scene. Yet, for all the beautiful flesh he's fondled (there's page after page of soft porn), too many of the feelings have been ugly. “It is very hard to be a man to a woman these days. … To know what a man, what being a man even means,” he confesses more than once:
Difficult to know how to behave toward women. Difficult to know what they wanted. I listened to them, read their books. They said they wanted something more. They wanted equality, self-respect. They wanted to feel close, they wanted to feel passion; they wanted to feel secure; they wanted to feel whole.
“Sensitive” and “caring” man that the nameless narrator portrays himself to be, he's ready to confront his failure to help women enjoy any of these amorphous feelings. He's even more eager, however, to declare his own yearnings for them. He is, after all, as vulnerable, open, and unfulfilled as any woman. It's his turn to be listened to, to write a book.
And what an unheroic story of hugging and heartbreak this is from the author of Friendly Fire, an acclaimed chronicle of hardship on a larger scale—the trauma the Vietnam War brought to one family. With much artless talk about “mid-life crises,” “psychodramas,” and “the games people play,” Bryan's narrator undertakes an appraisal of his busy but dismal amorous career that sounds more like the confessions that have become a convention of pop psychology literature than like full-bodied fiction. As in Moon Deluxe and About My Table, the women have a monopoly on the tough attributes now (although they certainly don't yet have a corner on the job market; most are still at home). It was the “irreverence, ballsiness, pushiness” of his second wife Alice, the narrator says, that “appealed to something I felt lacking in me. Opposites attract.” He's the one who wants to “make love,” as languorously as possible, while his impatient partners have a more crudely carnal view of the activity. He's emotional and uncertain, in contrast to most of the women in his life, who tend to be calculating and decisive; while he balks, bewildered, at the prospect of divorce despite a hellish marriage, Alice is coldly plotting an escape with a man who will be able to support her in style. Throughout, the narrator aspires not to the conventional heroic ideal of autonomous selfhood, but to one of dependent intimacy.
The problem is that his ideal seems to imply intimacy with a mother figure, rather than with a woman as liberated and well-rounded as he conceives himself to be. As he indirectly acknowledges, the kind of feminine strength and assertiveness that appeals to him is maternal, with no manliness about it. Thus, he finally turns to Odette, his salvation thanks to a local spouse swap: she's the French wife of a neighbor who has gone off with the narrator's wife. A woman from the old country where sexual fashions haven't changed so much, this patient angel welcomes a man whom she says “reminded me of an adolescent who had grown too fast: a little awkward, a little helpless, a little unsure of [him]self.” Liberated though this man may look, he has lots of growing up left to do. His mid-life reassessment may have been purgative, but it's a protracted adolescence, not a paradise, that seems to lie ahead for him.
Most of the men in Delbanco's and Barthelme's stories are as awkward, helpless, and unsure as Bryan's narrator. They have come of age as feminism was flourishing and found that the old stern standards of masculinity and maturity don't really suit anymore. Neither, however, are new notions of manhood as comfortable as they might have hoped. Although Bryan's narrator has it on Odette's authority that “quiet and sensitive men” are what women want, the other characters in these books (and perhaps their creators as well) clearly are not sure what the ladies, often so loud and insensitive, would like. Whatever women's manly ideals might be, these men are full of ambivalence about their own aspirations for themselves. All of them may feel wiser for knowing the softer side of life. But most of them are also awash in doubts and identity problems, victims of familiar female dilemmas that threaten to leave them hollow, more wimpy than well-rounded.
If these men are not at peace with themselves, neither is the war between the sexes over. The quieter battles that continue in these books bring few victories for either life or literature. The male protagonists seem to have inherited the most debilitating of female qualities; in turn, their creators have bequeathed to the peripheral female characters the least appealing of masculine poses. Not surprisingly, the arrangement means they all lead discontented lives.
More important for the prospects of fiction, it means the men make unprepossessing literary heroes. (In the background, the women are rarely more than caricatures.) Embarked on the career of personal relationships, the protagonists have turned inward, and the uneasy narcissism that has replaced the old-style self-assertion proves to be a narrow field for fiction. The hugging and heartbreak in these stories and novel are often of more sociological than literary interest; acute observers, Delbanco, Barthelme, and Bryan get the manners just right—the décor, the relevant lusts and insecurities—but then fail to look very far beneath or beyond them. Their characters have little taste for the varied and vigorous experience of which strong plots are made. But equally rare among this lonely crowd is the moral sympathy that deepens characters and complicates their relations even in more circumscribed, domestic settings. The lives and stories of these men look thin and wan: new veins of feeling may have opened, but so has a deadly artery of anxiety.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4225
SOURCE: Delbanco, Nicholas, and Gregory L. Morris. “An Interview with Nicholas Delbanco.” Contemporary Literature 25, no. 4 (winter 1984): 386-96.
[In the following interview, which originally took place in November 1983, Delbanco discusses connections between his fiction and his own life, developments in his writing style, and the origins of his Sherbrookes trilogy.]
Nicholas Delbanco lives in Bennington, Vermont and teaches at Bennington College, where he directs the Bennington Writing Workshop and directs the M.F.A. in Writing program. He is the author of ten novels, including the three books of the acclaimed Sherbrookes trilogy (Possession, Sherbrookes, Stillness), and has most recently published a collection of short stories entitled About My Table, and Other Stories. He has also written two works of nonfiction—Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells, and the forthcoming The Beaux Arts Trio. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, and has published and read his works widely. The interview took place in November of 1983 at Wells College in Aurora, New York.
[Morris]: May we start with a little of your biography, particularly since some of your own experience seems such an integral part of your fiction?
[Delbanco]: I was born in London of German parents who were, in my father's case, of Italian extraction. They had been living in Germany since the sixteenth century, and maybe a bit before. Hitler caused my parents, separately, to leave; they met again in England and married there. In 1948, when I was six, they came to this country to settle. How clear it was that it would be a permanent settlement, I don't know. I think it was an experiment really, but one that took. My father, who's still alive, is now living in the third country—this one—that he considers to be home. When you come from a family like that—it's a common story, God knows—but when it's built into your expectation that perhaps you don't belong somewhere, that it can be taken from you or that you might choose to leave, this idea of rootedness and inheritance becomes an open question. We are a very old and rather fancy family in that sense; I know who the Delbancos were in Venice in 1600. But on the other hand, they've always been wanderers. I traveled—I don't want to exaggerate, my passport looks pretty blank by comparison with an airline pilot or someone who's an inveterate wanderer—but I traveled a lot. From 1969 to 1972 I must have gone to Europe three or four times, around the world once, to Central America once; that kind of continual pattern of motion was established by my parents early on. Because our relatives were still in Europe we used to go back all the time; after college I went back to England and settled there—it became a habit. It's a habit that has been broken of late, in part because I've learned to love and settle in Vermont, in part because children make it much harder to move. But even this year, I was in Europe in January. I don't mean to pretend to habitual cosmopolitanism, but I feel no less at ease in London or Cannes than I do in Aurora.
It seems that the idea of transplantation is dominant in your writing.
There's no question that that's personal. When your parents live in a country that is the third country they've actually thought of as home, then you have to call that notion—home—into question.
You keep returning to specific places in your writing, seemingly turning personal traveling experience into fiction. I'm thinking of your use of such places as St. Catherine's Island and the south of France.
I went to St. Catherine's while I was still in graduate school. At Columbia I knew the people who owned that island, and the island had the fascinating history there described [in News], starting with Mary, Queen of the Creeks, then Button Gwinnett and Tunis G. Campbell and so forth. The husband was then an aspiring politician, and they were a very wealthy family who used to fly folk down to St. Catherine's in order to have conferences; I think the previous person to go there before me was Nixon. The husband wanted essentially a little pamphlet on the history of the island so the guests in the jet could learn where they were landing. Since I was studying International Relations and he knew I could type, he asked me to do it. In the course of what became relatively serious research about Tunis Campbell, I came out with the beginnings of a novel. I can't offhand think of any location in any of my novels in which I haven't spent time. The south of France, of course, is the locus of Grasse 3/23/66 and of Small Rain, and it's a very important part of the fabric in each book.
Turning to the histories of your books, I was wondering whether they were all published in the order of their composition, or whether some were published years later or out of order?
Roughly speaking, they were published in the order of their composition. The short story collection, About My Table, of course, took care of itself; some of those stories were published before Group Portrait came out, but by and large I started to write short stories as a release from the trilogy.
It's interesting, then, that all of the stories in About My Table should be so similar, considering that they were written some years apart.
It became a desired pattern, partly. I have written and published a couple of short stories that aren't in that collection precisely because they were disparate. And the time span wasn't extraordinary, it was three or four years back.
Your first novel, The Martlet's Tale, was accepted for publication while you were still at Columbia?
Yes. It came out in July just after I left Columbia, but it was bought while I was there. Indeed, I graduated from college with a book already sold. But that was a much palmier time in American publishing; it was easier to get published then than now, and it was very easy to get attention if you were very young. So at twenty-three, when my first book appeared, I received the generic generosity given to a young author. There's still a lot of that; people routinely get more highly praised for their first book than for their second, and sometimes they can't get the second published.
And that novel was bought and turned into a movie?
Yes, but never released, fortunately. I ended up pulling out of the project.
Your earliest novels—The Martlet's Tale, Grasse 3/23/66, Consider Sappho Burning—are currently out of print. Do you see any particular reason for that? Is it a result, perhaps, of their style, their experimentalism?
It's the economics. The publisher of my first two novels, Lippincott, saw no reason to maintain or retain them, and they have long since been out of print. As far as I know News remains in print, and so that was probably a decision on Morrow's part; Consider Sappho Burning wasn't likely to burn up the salesmen's shelves. Morrow is beginning slowly—and it isn't clear to me how schematically—to bring most of them back in paper. Group Portrait's going to come out in paper this summer, so they're working their way back. Faulkner, at the time of his Nobel Prize, was entirely out of print in America, and though I don't mean to compare myself to him, that's a heartening statistic; his books, which were then out of print, now sell tens of thousands yearly. And so I would like to think of that as a momentary rather than a final decision.
Do you think the success of the Sherbrookes trilogy has encouraged Morrow to bring these books out now?
I'm not sure. I think there's a certain slow but general pattern of increase in response to the work. My wife thinks, and she may be right, that books like Grasse and Consider Sappho Burning did very close to irretrievable damage to my reputation with the salesmen and the buying public. I thumbed my nose at readability and became very quickly, as far as anybody paid any attention to those other books, an obscurantist author, a recherché experimentalist writer. I think it's taken a good decade or so for me to live that down and to emerge, insofar as I have at all, into the general popular perception of an author whose books one might be able to read.
Do you see your style as having changed at all over the years, in a significant way?
No, I don't think of it as a conscious shift in emphasis or style, though it's perfectly clear to me that there has been a radical change. But it seems to me more a function of the altered emphasis of my life and experience. I was very much, in the period of Grasse and Sappho, a feisty, overeducated kid who wanted to display his book-learning. Most writers produce books that are manifestly the productions of pretentious children and gifted embryos; I don't regret or renounce those books at all, but few publish that sort of novel. I managed to, and I'm proud of them as milestones, but Lord knows it's not a road I would have liked to continue traveling.
The books seem to become more accessible, particularly the Sherbrookes Trilogy and the stories of About My Table.
In some degree you're no longer a very good witness either, because you're so familiar with them that if they contain a code or a private language, it's one you can speak. But I think it's objectively the case that these stories are accessible. Of the stories in About My Table, “Northiam Hall” is probably the most recondite and the hardest to crack, and it seemed to me at my reading last night that the fifty or so college kids who were sitting there listening to me read that story were at least able to stay without falling asleep—not something that I could have claimed a decade ago.
The book that seemed a breakthrough for you was In the Middle Distance, for there you combined a more straightforward kind of style with an interesting technical experiment, in which you turn Nicholas Delbanco the writer into Nicholas Delbanco the character, and in which you interleave a journal—another common feature of your work—with your story.
I think that is the most ambitious technical experiment I have made. It actually arose, in large part, from a course I was teaching at Bennington in autobiographies; my thesis, or the idea that emerged from teaching, was that the ratification of data can be very misleading. There's no reason, as I say in that book, to disbelieve what Proust says about his childhood just because he calls it fiction, or at least no reason to take it qualitatively differently from what Bertrand Russell says about his childhood just because he calls it an autobiography. When somebody says that something happened to him, it may have principally happened in his imagination, just as if someone says that something is principally an imagined event, it may be a true psychic revelation. So I thought I'd make the character Nicholas Delbanco like me in certain important respects; he has my house, my passport number, some of my background—but I'd shoot him forward twenty years into events that couldn't possibly have happened to me yet (although as I'm beginning to tilt toward his age, I'm feeling a little nervous). But he truly is an invented figure. He happens to have my name, and therefore it seems like an autobiographical document. On the other hand, when I was writing, I did keep an actual journal which recorded personal things that were happening, like the building of a house and so forth. That actual journal became the novel that my fictive creation tried to construct, and of course he couldn't write it very successfully. I also think it was important that that book went backwards, wound down rather than wound up, so that in the end, when he's the smallest, it really is something like my experience.
The retrogressive structure of the book is certainly one of its most puzzling, and most fascinating, features.
It forms an “X.” As the journal works forward, the novel works backward, and somewhere in the middle they converge, while he's keeping notes.
And the editor's notes are notes you actually received from your editor?
I was living in the south of France during the period of composition of In the Middle Distance. My wife and I were about to travel around the world—we'd just gotten married and I had money from the movie deal for The Martlet's Tale—and so the process of editing the text, which is generally something Jim Landis and I do in person or on the phone, became one of letters. I had to send him the corrections. His letters in particular fascinated me, and somewhere around Hong Kong I sent him a telegram saying: Stop the presses. I thought we should incorporate the letters—the process of the editing ought to be part of the making of the book because it was part and parcel of the enterprise. He said, “You've got to be crazy; I'll give you till Tokyo to decide.” So I sent the same telegram, and when I got back to the States he had all the letters set up in print, and we just juggled them around in the galleys and put them in. So those really do refer to the typescript text, which is what I was carrying around with me. I think it's a little precious, but it was plausible.
I'd like to move ahead a bit and talk about the origins of the Sherbrookes trilogy. You said that Possession and Stillness mirror each other in a way, and that the middle book, Sherbrookes, is structurally different; it's not divided into separate books, for example.
No, it's the pastoral interlude. It takes approximately the nine months of Jane's gestation. I think it should work that way. You have two chunks of a single day's time, with much more back and forth in memory. Then there's the more or less direct narrative drift of the period of Maggie's pregnancy. It's not accidentally a green book. My original working title for that work, actually, was Spring and Fall, which I decided was presumptuous. So then I thought of calling it The Green Mantle. In the play in Stillness, Ian does, roughly speaking, describe each of my early novels. So, yes, there is a conscious disparity.
So often the central characters in your work are erudite, artistic types—architects, poets. And in the Sherbrooke books you make Ian Sherbrooke an actor. Is this a conscious effort on your part?
I should first talk about this a little generally. My own feeling, though I don't know whether you'd share it, is that I always have had a rather surprising ability to be someone other than myself as author; I was always pretty good at old women and very old men and very young children and foreigners and folk like that. But I never, to my satisfaction, was able to create a character anything like the author, and who was nonetheless persuasive or persuasively alive. It seemed to me that the weakest figures in my fiction were always the ones closest to home. In Ian's case I knew that and was able, I hope, to make it somehow function within the novel, because as you know it's a more or less technical Bildungsroman; the point is that he's a beginner at the end, so that he's just working his way into something like the power and the actuality of the elder generation by the end of the trilogy. There it was functionally useful, but I still think that, of the characters in the Sherbrooke family, Ian is manifestly the least vivid. He doesn't have the kind of clarity that Judah and Hattie and Maggie and even Jane have. He's a shape-shifter, a beginner.
Even in the final book, Stillness, which becomes his book?
I mean it to be his book. As we've said, Stillness mirrors Possession, each takes place in a single day, and Possession is essentially Judah's book; Ian never appears, but he's always thought about. The reverse is true in the last of the trilogy. So, yes, the book's tilted downwards a generation, and the third one is Ian's, but he is not clear yet; he's becoming rather than being, and he's a more or less technical example, as I've said, of a figure in a Bildungsroman; he's someone who starts at the end.
Actually, I had always had trouble wrestling with figures who were somewhat, or very, similar to me, but that did not seem to be the case in the short stories in About My Table. I felt liberated, in that particular form, to write about a figure who in one way or another was cognate to his creator. As far as I'm concerned, in fact, all the other figures in the stories are caricatures or only partially realized; they are not stage center. It's a book about nine men and certain witnesses to their world. But I wasn't trying to make the elder generation vivid or the wives or children vivid—I just wanted to focus on the male protagonist. That was a breakthrough, because I never could do it before, and I think I can now. This is a long way around to answering your particular question: why should all those figures have that kind of culture? The answer is that I was trying to stay a little closer to home and those are worlds with which I am more or less familiar. I didn't really do any full-scale submerging into another character. Sure, I asked my brother, who's a doctor, about the influence of altitude on pulmonary statistics; and sure, I asked an architect how you build such and such a structure. But I didn't feel that I had to go very far afield at all in those stories in order to invent simulacra.
But your characters do, ultimately, claim authenticity and depth.
I hope so. I'm not sure where I acquired this distaste for books about the writing of books. It's possible that John Gardner had a lot to do with that, because as you know he went full tilt against the novelist as the center of his own fiction. Certainly, when I was writing Grasse and Sappho, the experimental mode and the shaping of the book as object were central to me. I didn't want to have my protagonist a novelist; he never was. He came perilously close a few times, as in “Northiam Hall,” where he writes about a dead poet and is a sort of cultural historian. Or in “About My Table,” of course, where he's a working journalist, and in “Marching through Georgia,” where he's a figure whose expertise happens to be in the subject of “News.”
To return to Ian and the Sherbrookes trilogy, it seems, at the end of Stillness, that Ian has no choice—given the forces of family and the lines of connection between generation and generation, which are always strong ideas in your work—that he almost has no choice but to return, and then not to leave, at the end of the book, when Maggie leaves with Jane and Kincannon. That he almost has to take, by force of blood, the family name.
I wouldn't quarrel with that. I think he certainly acted as if he had an alternative, and could no doubt have remained a wanderer, but it would have been renouncing something that he finally was willing to claim.
So would you deny the validity of renunciation, which is another idea that runs throughout your work—for example, in News? And though Ian does renounce the family early on—
No, I consider that Ian is making an affirmation, albeit a bleak and chilly one, at book's end. I consider that it is his first acquiescence in who he was and is. Maggie's closer to renouncing at novel's end. I think probably my reading of Henry James, which was pretty serious those years, had something to do with the way I ended Stillness. It's in no technical sense a closure or a foreclosure, though I don't think I left the door open to make it a quartet. It's not, however, a definitive closure; it's more James's notion of a concluded “affair.”
You earlier mentioned John Gardner, who was a close friend of yours and, at one time, a colleague. Given your interest in colleagueship and collaboration, as evinced in Group Portrait, I was wondering if the two of you ever actively collaborated in any way, or ever actively edited each other's work? I know, for example, that you swapped characters for your Vermont books.
No, we never actually collaborated on anything, though we each often read the other's manuscripts. I certainly looked over his shoulder at what became On Becoming a Novelist and On Moral Fiction. And I read, for instance, the unfinished book of his, Stillness, the title of which John let me borrow for my own book. But I don't think he asked me for line readings, or that I offered them. When he fell very ill, he showed me stuff that he wanted my reaction to, but it was mostly critical work. Still, one doesn't have to ask, “What do you think of my paragraph?” in order to be a colleague.
Do you go along, basically, with Gardner's aesthetic, with the idea of moral fiction and art in the great tradition?
I think if the question is whether I go along basically, the answer is yes. I have quibbles and quarrels, but I don't think he's utterly wrong. I think he's more right than wrong.
You both seem to go about it differently, however, making those affirmations. I think particularly of your ideas on love, on the distinction between love and possessiveness, on “fathering,” and on the confusion of family and love and lust.
These are compelling issues, problems perhaps to me, but I don't think of them as problems to be solved, as if once I get “fathering” right, then it won't be an issue any longer. I think in that way I'm far less programmatic than John was. In his best moments as a novelist I think he stepped off the soapbox and wasn't programmatic. But it's not as if I think of these as ideas to wrestle with. I can see how a critic might. Those are major themes, but I don't have actual answers. They remain interesting problems.
Do you still feel uncomfortable, to any degree, with being “an American writer”? Given the way in which your books, particularly your early books, are so “geographically frenetic,” as you once put it, do you think that the Sherbrookes trilogy represents a sort of coming home for you, an acknowledgment of, or a reconciliation with, your Americanness?
There's no question that the locus of my work has shifted toward America. In the short story collection, there's only “Northiam Hall” that leaves the States. That is partly a geographical accident in that I spent much more time in America in the last years than I used to because my children are here and we are located. But it's also partly a sense, as the years go by and the roots go deeper, that this really is home and that there isn't any point in pretending otherwise, or even in attempting to report on any other kinds of culture. I taught a course last spring in Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, simply because I've never done that before, and because one pays lip-service to them as the progenitors of the American novel in the latter part of the twentieth century and takes their greatness for granted. Of course I'd read them and had my opinions, but I'd never really made a study of them; this year I did. They seem to me to be my masters and ancestors, and insofar as I hope to be an inheritor, it is of those voices and that kind of tradition. I'm actually doing an issue of The Bennington Review right now on Regionalism, and so I've been thinking about it to some degree, this sense of being located and fixed. I don't quarrel with it any longer, I don't resist it. I live there by choice and happily, but it's not as if I were born there.
You don't feel tied down geographically in your fiction, tying yourself to the New England region in your future fiction?
No, not in my future fiction. The novel I'm working on at the moment seems to be located in New England, and principally on the island of Martha's Vineyard, where I've gone back lately. I would like to acknowledge at some point, though it's a somewhat distant feeling, not an intellectual imperative, that, after all, the novel is principally an urban enterprise this century; I'd like to get my characters back into town a bit. No doubt their author will travel there too.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
SOURCE: Review of Group Portrait, by Nicholas Delbanco. Southern Humanities Review 18, no. 3 (summer 1984): 268-69.
[In the following review, the critic asserts that Group Portrait offers little new factual information concerning the community of six authors in London in 1900, and that the central ideas of the book are not argued in depth.]
In 1900 within a day's journey from each other, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and H. G. Wells were neighbors in Kent and East Sussex. Comparing their situation to the expatriate Left Bank of Paris and to Bloomsbury, Nicholas Delbanco examines the community of these artists [in Group Portrait]. None of the writers were native to the region, and Delbanco maintains that their aggregation there was a “conscious retreat, a place of exile.” Although the book jacket promises a “biographical study of writers in community,” there is little biographical material in this book except what could be culled from the major previous biographies, such as Arthur Mizener's The Saddest Story: A Biography of Ford Madox Ford or Frederick R. Karl's Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives. By focusing on the single year and the communal aspects of the novelists, however, Delbanco brings a new organization and emphasis to material which is generally well known.
The romantic notion of the solitary, isolated genius at odds with his environment, joins with the notion of intellectual property as something to be possessed and created privately, so as to incline the modern reader to see writers as individuals. Delbanco does a valuable service in insisting that art creates a community, demands a reading public, serves no purpose in isolation. He argues that in their sometimes testy interchanges these five novelists provided for each other the demanding audience, the serious critic, the stimulation for new and fertile inventions. While Delbanco's position seems plausible, it is not argued in any depth. Rather than examining in detail the ideological foundations of the individuals in this community, he uses anecdotes about house parties, spats, teas, and gifts of autographed books as evidence that powerful creative impulses flowed among these men.
In treating the documents, Delbanco is incautious. Ford Madox Ford's tendency to slip from fact to richly embroidered imagination in his memoirs is notorious. Delbanco notes, “Since [Ford] is a principal witness in Group Portrait, it is appropriate early on to establish his veracity.” Perhaps it would be even more appropriate to test his veracity, rather than to set out to establish it. Readers of Ford Madox Ford's Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance can see at a glance that it is fictionalized. There may be a core of veracity, but the fabric of the work contains many elaborations of descriptive detail or of conversations which are extremely unlikely. Ford's memoir of Conrad is best read as an historical novel, like his Fifth Queen trilogy in which he does not hesitate to put words into the mouth of Henry VIII, for example, not because the King spoke them but because they add to his artistic characterization of the man. What he does in his novels for Henry VIII, he does in his memoir for Conrad. To recognize such novelistic or New Journalistic reportage as “perfectly pardonable tropes,” is not the same as to establish “veracity.”
Adding very little to factual knowledge about the five authors, accepting uncritically the fictionalized and perhaps biased anecdotes of the group, proceeding digressively from scene to unrelated scene, Delbanco's book is interesting, but puzzling. What kind of work has he written? The concluding pages give a clue: “I myself was born in England, of German-Jewish parents. … I make my home in Vermont. The notion of a chosen land, of momentary rootedness, and roots that are self-nurtured, has personal importance.” Delbanco, himself a novelist, writes this Group Portrait not about Conrad, Ford, Crane, James, and Wells, so much as about himself. It is a pastoral, utopian work. Like a courtier severely restricted in his erotic life by the customs of his court, who imagines a land where shepherdesses carry crooks with lace bows and dally in the shade by clear flowing brooks, the modern writer, too, has his dream. Not an isolated, commercial, hostile world, but someplace where it is peaceful, old-fashioned and quaint, and where there are a few readers who care enough to read carefully and to comment straightforwardly. The utopia may never have existed in history, but has been created most powerfully as an imaginative fiction in Delbanco's study. It is a noble vision, attractive and compelling for any modern writer or critic who longs for some alternative to the real world, but it is probably not the same as any real world. Real shepherdesses do not carry beribboned crooks. The real relationship among Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells probably remains to be told. It is likely that there is a nexus among them which can illuminate their best work, but finding that connection will require an examination of what they thought and how their beliefs affected their art.
Ford's insistence that literary “impressionism” was a cultural wave during his collaborative years with Conrad is a promising place to begin a more serious study of their community, but it receives only perfunctory treatment in Group Portrait. Their attitude toward the limits of perception or the relativity of experience might also form a more enlightening area of common interest than those proposed in Delbanco's work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7170
SOURCE: Morris, Gregory L. “Nicholas Delbanco in the Middle Distance.” Critique 29, no. 1 (fall 1987): 30-45.
[In the following essay, Morris discusses In the Middle Distance in terms of its multilayered narrative, observing that the novel is an examination of the self and the writer's struggle to accurately represent the truth about himself.]
Nicholas Delbanco is the author of eleven published works of fiction. The earliest of these works were experimental, dense, and highly subjective; Delbanco's emphasis here was largely upon language, and in such novels as Grasse, 3/23/66 and Consider Sappho Burning, he strained the limits of allusiveness almost to the point of obsessive linguistic sport. In 1971, however, Delbanco published a book entitled In the Middle Distance, a sort of “fictional autobiography” that turned Nicholas Delbanco the author into Nicholas Delbanco the character. The novel's protagonist is an architect by the name of “Nicholas Delbanco,” and the book's “outer narrative” details this “Delbanco's” self-examination of the content—and ruin—of his life. This outer narrative is told in retrogressive fashion, beginning with the present time and circumstance of “Delbanco's” life and working successively backward to his childhood. At the same time, “Delbanco,” the character, keeps a journal (a typical autobiographical form), a journal he hopes to transform into a novel; the entries of this journal alternate with the chapters of the outer narrative, and basically work as counterpoint to the details of that outer narrative, moving from events in “Delbanco's” past to the events in “Delbanco's” present. Near the middle (appropriately) of In the Middle Distance, the two narratives intersect in a confluence of time and space.
This novel is interesting enough in its structural ingenuity, but In the Middle Distance boasts other elements of significance. For one, the novel tests the definitions of authorship. The Nicholas Delbanco who signs the book at the end seems to merge with the “Nicholas Delbanco” who keeps the journal and who from that journal tries unsuccessfully to build a novel. The lives of Nicholas Delbanco and “Nicholas Delbanco” are spatially and materially similar in that they share such things as name, passport number, inoculation scars, house; but they are different creatures of different times, as Delbanco vaults his character twenty years forward, into events yet unexperienced by Delbanco the author. (Delbanco is born in 1942, his character in 1922.) Thus the reader finds himself testing both the reliability of the narrative and the journal, keeping both in a sort of “middle distance” of belief. Also in that “middle distance” is the “fictional reality” of the book; time moves both forward and backward, forcing the reader to juggle two separate senses of time and space: one a creation of Nicholas Delbanco, the other a creation of Delbanco's protagonist and would-be novelist.
What Delbanco ultimately pursues in this novel is a triple-layered examination of self and the ability to accurately declare the truths of that examination. In the Middle Distance is a study in what Delbanco has called the “ratification of data” (Morris 391)—an imaginative look at the distinction between autobiography and fiction, at the illusory nature of presumed, apparent fact. On one level the book is an objective study of fictional character, “Nicholas Delbanco”: a fictive biography of a created life. On a second level, the book is an autobiography of that created life, as “Nicholas Delbanco” the character reconstructs, in his journal, the pattern of his existence, tracing the long chain of events that has brought him to crisis and collapse. On a third level, however, In the Middle Distance is Nicholas the author's attempt to combine personal history with personal fiction, to turn the novel into his own apparent autobiography, to expand the bounds of concrete fact by infusing it with supposition. What is, after all, a book by Nicholas Delbanco about a man named Nicholas Delbanco? And how are we to read such a book—as fiction or as autobiography? In the Middle Distance seems an effort to redefine both the forms and the ways in which we approach those forms.
For Delbanco, the writing of In the Middle Distance also proved to be of personal aesthetic significance, turning Delbanco and his fiction away from the highly stylized and self-conscious work of his early career to more traditional (though still delicate and mannered) narrative modes. The book reveals a private working-out of both artistic and personal perplexities, as if the use of certain autobiographical elements aided Delbanco in advancing his own creative code. The examination of a fictional, older “Nicholas Delbanco” seemed to shed some sort of private light on mind and soul, enabling Delbanco the writer to jettison certain pieces of creative and psychological baggage, liberating his imagination from a mere servicing of technique and language to a more vital exploration of narrative and character and value.
As a fictive autobiography, In the Middle Distance fits rather snugly into paradigms established by traditional autobiographical theory. The novel is clearly an examination of self, Delbanco trying in earnest to get a “fix” upon the shifting image of successive past selves and to establish a firmer sense of the present (and future self). Delbanco's method here varies. He works backward in his outer narrative, moving from the present self of his protagonist, “Nicholas Delbanco,” to the recollected selves of his past, on down to his earliest memories of a childhood self. All the while, though, Delbanco the novelist is suggesting a projected, proleptic self, one born some twenty years earlier than the “real” Delbanco, one who has lived in a past relatively alien to (or at least unexperienced by) his creator, and one whose future is an imaginatively educated guess. Substance, then, in the outer narrative comes of a blend of prediction, recollection, and imagination.
Delbanco's approach to the self comes in the form of the journal kept by his protagonist, a journal that the fictional “Delbanco” tries unsuccessfully to shape into a novel. The journal, we know, is the novelist Delbanco's own (Morris 391)—a sort of psychic gift from the present, realized self to an imagined and remoter self. But the journal also plays with the expectations of the reader, as it radically telescopes its perspective, at one moment a first-person revelation of heart and mind, the next a purposeful intrusion of the “real” Delbanco into the life and spirit of his created self. The journal, then, becomes a double-lensed “optical instrument” (in Proust's words), simultaneously shedding light on the life of both the fictive and the “real” Nicholas Delbanco.
As if to complicate the intended confusion of self already present in the novel, Delbanco includes excerpts from the letters passed between himself and his editor, James Landis, at the time of the completion of In the Middle Distance (Morris 392). Here the immediate contemporaneous presences of time and space directly intrude upon the fictive world of the novel. Delbanco and Landis are real identities; their words enter from a world that is more or less certain, a world abstracted from the imagined world of the novel. The letters become additional “data.” Detail accretes. The selves multiply. The reader traverses boundaries of time, both real and imagined, constantly turning and returning, adjusting to the selves in each specific realm. The divided self requires, here, a divided reader. The writer becomes the subject of his own work, positing a self (or selves) that shifts with each concurrent shift in perspective; at the same time, the reader reshapes his own consciousness with each of these same shifts, shutting down certain connections with one self, re-activating other connections with another self. The reader must react to at least three Nicholas Delbancos: the author, who both removes himself from his creation and steps intrusively into it via the letters, the protagonist described by Delbanco the author, and the sort of double-natured Delbanco who keeps the journal.
The outer narrative begins in 1970 with “Nicholas Delbanco,” architect, at age 48: “He had been married eighteen years. His wife was named Barbara, his daughter Eve … and he had one dead son named Michael. Michael had been named after Barbara's cousin; Barbara's cousin, too, was dead” (13). A brief flash backward to his youth, to “Delbanco's” days at Fieldston School, establishes one of the book's dominant metaphors in describing the younger “Delbanco's” record-setting broad jump: “That soaring, easeful leap, and the gathering of legs to belly in air, the final reach and curl and impact that would propel him forward—such flight had been and would remain his notion of success” (14). “Flight” here carries with it a twinned, though divergent, significance, emphasizing “Delbanco's” own “flight” from his past—the death of his son, the long affair with his lover, Jean—while at the same time figuring the sort of arc “Delbanco” seeks to draw from life and art, the necessary arc that will bridge the past and present, that will span the distance between memory and truth, between his several selves. (“He had a passion for bridges and wanted to build one before he retired; he dreamed of spanning the Amazon, or Ganges, or the Nile” .)
Truth, for “Delbanco,” is something always beyond the bend in the bridge, a test of his fortitude. He is a man often “surprised by, beleaguered by faith” (25); but that faith is not enough to sustain “Delbanco” through the layers of crisis, as his psychological defenses give way, leaving him with nightmares, hauntings, suggestions of the womb:
For seven nights running, he had slept in Michael's room. He did this for fear of strangling Barbara; he lay, arms folded, hands under his armpits, on his side. He did not sleep at all, or woke to find the pillow soaked. He ate only baby food, and little enough of that for a man of his bulk. He evolved some remedies: a glass of wine would calm him, and he chanted, regularly, “Devils, go away. Devils get lost. Devils, devils, devils.”
This sort of emotional regression—“Delbanco” curled in his dead son's bed, fetus-like, making that long jump from present to past—signals the same chronological regression of the outer narrative, as Delbanco takes his protagonist backward through successive selves.
What “Delbanco” will do, however, is retreat to his farm where “he would write a novel as an act of explication and an act of penance; he would expiate Michael, and Jean, and every failure embraced. He would recreate the past and resurrect it and enter into fantasy, not fact” (27). The novel will become for “Delbanco” an act of “necessity, not pleasure,” a device that will distance him from the past, a device that he hopes will authenticate his being by explicating his private process of becoming.
The “explications” are simultaneous, for while “Delbanco” struggles with his journal-novel and with piecing together his disordered self, the other Delbanco retreats—leaps, arcing—into “Delbanco's” past, isolating specific segments of that past, working backward to the earliest bits of reliable remembrance. The first of these time-shifts is only two years removed from the novelistic present, the chapter's frame being the second honeymoon of “Nicholas” and his wife Barbara. Within this frame, Delbanco retreats further still, unraveling the various threads of their marriage, isolating the intertwined lines of pain and love and loss that have come to form the bound lives of the “Delbancos.” Brought together originally by the pressures of politics (and politics is one of Delbanco's subthemes in this novel), “Nicholas” and Barbara go on to shape a marriage half-built on sacrifice and “seeming stability.” Yet, a marriage that once stood as “Nicolas's” “salvation” gradually turns sour and stultifying. “Nicholas” is a man defined by growth, by distance, by the length of flight, and now he “sensed, obliquely, decline, and the chance his heights were foothills and was not reconciled. He attempted to remember, on Thursday, what he had done the ten previous Thursdays, and there was neither distinction nor growth” (57). This developing sense of decline, of failure, of loss, works to transform love into pain—“He hurt her wittingly; he believed that pain was proof of love”—love breaking down, poised, tense on the ragged edge of hatred. Marriage turns into a brew measured, unequally, of pity and love. The recollections of Michael's death, and of “Nicholas's” own protracted affair with Jean, become for “Nicolas” willed symbols of his penance; these two very different varieties of pain serve to circumscribe and authenticate his life, his self: “Pain was flagellation; pain was proof of existence and of devotion and youth. He suffered Michael's memory, and Jean's and suffered possibility; possibility, also, was pain” (48).
Where Jean becomes a symbol of the chain of women in “Nicholas's” life and of his history of infidelities (“He tabulated women and knew himself defined by them, each diminution or growth signaled by some mate”), his dead son Michael becomes the emblem—the essential, unforgettable emblem—of his failure, of his life's vastation. As Delbanco tells us in the third backward shift, “Nicholas” had “made, of his son, expectation's vehicle, and he attempted to program success.” At the same time, however, “some part of him did funnel disappointment, and channel it to Michael—as if capitulation could be hedged, and the bet on failure, and age undercut” (75-76). When Michael dies, when tragedy and chance work to suddenly eliminate that hedge, the double sense of loss and failure multiplies, ramifies: “The loss would be perpetual, he thought, and the absence cumulative, and the sorrow of it, later, would be absolute. … Grief would come, Nicholas thought, and fury, and the sense of waste, later, when he was alone. … He had no love left, he decided, nor any charity” (93).
Michael's death also heightens upon “Nicholas” the twinned impresses of guilt and regret left from his affair with Jean. At the age of forty, “Nicholas thought himself a ruin of a man”; at forty, “Delbanco” senses the erosive energies of age and time. However, what wears is not only his body, his physical self, but also his emotional self, as he puzzles out his marriage and his extra-marital relationship with Jean. “Delbanco's” married self senses another sort of distance, a separateness that stretches between himself and his family, one more gap to be spanned: “He was attentive to his family and cared and provided for them and knew his love reciprocal—yet they remained discrete” (123). The failure to grow proximate seems at the heart of “Nicholas's” dilemma. Space must be filled—love's abhorrence of an emotional vacuum. Part of that space “Delbanco” occupies with the farm, bought with his wife—“and she was raveled in it past the chance of disengagement” (115). And that farm comes to occupy “Delbanco's” journal-novel.
The other portion of that vacuum—a portion lacking both physical and emotional content—“Nicholas” attempts to fill with his affair with Jean. Thirteen years earlier, he had proposed to Jean, and she had refused him, intent at the time on her career. “Delbanco” acts to resume, rekindle that relationship, not so much out of lust or want (“he had not had affairs”), but out of a wish to recapture portions of his past: “It was, he knew, his own youth he pursued in her, not someone's surrogate, and he was weary, largely, of the memory of youth” (111). Theirs is a relationship that is, indeed, wearied, exhausted, dry; their lovemaking is sterile, mechanical, a sign of love's flight and of “Nicholas's” bleak deficiency: “There was nothing, he announced, he would not foul nor could. Jean was sour and yielding and manipulated him and he was not romantic but was purposeful” (117-18). What might have been love, in the past, now over time and distance has turned bitter, lapsed into pity and self-pity and a love of weakness. Rather than forsake his marriage and his family and his present self, “Nicholas” will feign severance, will promise the consideration of divorce, align himself with fidelity, all the time admitting to a flawed nature that will periodically return him to commitments of the past (125). “Delbanco's” definition of need—or more accurately, his inability to define his need—renders his life, his self murky and weak and beyond reach. Resolution escapes him. Escape is resolution.
The root of this dislocated need Delbanco explores in the next retrogressive sequence, wherein “Nicholas” and Jean meet in Rome, thirteen years earlier, in July 1952. Their meeting is a reunion of sorts, a gathering together of need and lack and intense doubt: “He had proposed to her, one year previous, and she had refused. They agreed a separation would clarify choice; secretive, he had withdrawn, yet it was an act of will. She loved him, she announced, and would forever, and would marry no one else, but she had to learn of independence first” (140). Jean's need for independence and distance chafes at “Delbanco's” concurrent need for proximity and union (143); unable to connect emotionally, with any real hope of endurance, “Delbanco” nurtures physical desire, and its transient expression of need and dependence. In the past, at the height of their relationship, “Nicholas” and Jean had approximated that sort of marital commitment “Nicholas” now desperately seeks; but even then, the sick fruits of love—the possessiveness, the “ravening” suspicion, the quiet urge for severence—had been apparent: “He had loved, in her, unassailable distance, and attempted to obliterate it, failed. The songs he had found himself choosing to sing each heralded departure, each denied reprieve” (149).
Their relationship becomes figured in a cycle of approaches and departures, of comings and leavetakings. “Nicholas” comes to Rome, after a spring in which he had come to feel “in contact with some central part of himself, some sort of honesty long since lost” (146). He comes to collect the symbol of his supposed need, bridging distance with commitment. He proposes three times, the final offering coming during their lovemaking, his question a sort of third party in their room: “She did not answer, and he entered her and stayed on his knees in the bed, and, for the third time, this time in earnest, proposed. She came and did not answer and he deflated, sweating, determining to leave” (150). This image of radicalized need and union, appropriately enough, is shattered in the silence of Jean's refusal; “Nicholas” withdraws—physically, emotionally—chastened, intent on severance. At the airport, “Nicholas” leaves Jean “in the middle distance,” his tears blurring the parting vision, his pain gearing inward:
Pride turned to self-pity, then, he had howled for the ignominy of it, and was not contrite. He wept and traced a spiral in the window and bisected it, then traced a cone. He wept at her weeping and love and incessant exile and retrieved his boarding pass from his right vest pocket and, shivering, embarked.
It is difficult to tell just how much of “Nicholas's” pain is authentic, and how much is manufactured, the product of a role—a replicated semblance of woe and want and unanticipated loss, a song long rehearsed.
It is a song that “Nicholas” first learns to sing at the age of twenty: “Nicholas first fell in love, and was reciprocated, when twenty” (168). Love's object here is Sarah—rich, willing, under analysis. The affair begins with promise, with promises. Travel, time, closeness, the imitation of commitment and union, however, bring the affair to wreckage and failure. In part, failure here is bred by the times, which are not right for a love that pretends to endure; politics, art, the tendency to analyze all conspire toward love's ruin. Failure comes, too, from a misfocused view of that world and those times, from a presumed “virginity of self”: “His innocence, he decided, was intact; he had a spoiled boy's way, he said, of looking at the world. He wanted to see it unencumbered; even color-blindness served to clarify. He wanted to preserve surprise, and joy, and the sense of selfhood as receptacle; he exalted energy” (179). Young manhood, the unspoiled heart of a “spoiled boy”—ripe pickings for age and its dark, despoiling ways. “Nicholas” stands (at chapter's end) envisioning expanse, possibility, separation:
He had, sometimes, a sense of outer limits, and that growth was not ascent. He would attend architecture school in New Haven and amass credentials and sever, haltingly, from Sarah; they aped intimacy and knew it long since gone. He was tentative about betrayal and kept a need for possession after the desire to possess.
The habit of severance, for “Delbanco,” is an old one. Well practiced in fraudulent, inauthentic, “aped intimacy,” “Nicholas” shows early on the tendency to distance, to possession, to loneness. Relinquishment remains unlearned—relinquishment of self and of others. “He was best, he decided, alone.”
What “Nicholas” does learn, in a sequence some four years earlier, are the distancing capabilities of sex, of possession, of an act that is at once capitulation and gain, proximity and distance. At sixteen, “Nicholas” loses his sexual virginity in a scene that later in his life will be refigured and recolored, in Rome, with Jean. Paired, alone, “Nicholas” and his date, Jill, span time and body and consciousness in a sexual fusion (and confusion) of selves: “He pumped and gathered himself and felt a doubling distance, as though he alternated open eyes and the image leapt left, right. He touched Nicholas touching Jill and pictured her as Mary-Anne and the images were units and Nicholas exploded, making them one” (210). In a wondrous and radical union of image and act, “Nicholas” envelops himself in his self—balled up, cocoon-like (image of the room in Rome, of the house in which he writes his journal-novel), “gathered”—readying himself for the physical, sexual, and imaginative leap. The same sort of vision that takes him soaring in the long, record-setting arc, also takes him in and out of his self, in and out of his partner's self, distancing him from the act and the actors. This “doubling of distance” also effects itself in the aesthetic, imaginative act, with the confusion or melding of images and names and characters, that novelist doubling the distance between himself and his character who, in a significant way, is himself. Thus, to locate the self, “Nicholas” seeks it first in the sexual act, the physical and sometimes spiritual relinquishment of self—and isolation of self. When that fails him, he turns to his journal-novel, where he seeks again to distance consciousness from self.
And in the last segment or chapter of the outer narrative, the two selves, the two skeins of time weave themselves together, as the childhood “Delbanco” shares novelistic space with the “Delbanco” the child is destined to become. (Time ramifies here: the young “Nicholas” is “twenty minutes early … and twenty minutes late”—these twenty minutes explode into the twenty years between the author Delbanco and his earlier-born created self—“the boy he'd been deflected in the man he was.”) Delbanco removes his character to his earliest reliable memory, to his life between the ages of 7 and 10. Even at that age, “Nicholas felt he played roles. When his mother died he played the grief role; when he walked Betsy Lang home, he played the thoughtful friend” (236). The self as actor is a condition that remains consistent throughout “Delbanco's” life—that nagging sense of inauthenticity, of faked, fabricated self. Selfhood is “embellishment,” love and shame are “counter-balanced.” Selfhood for “Delbanco,” even then, is multiplicity, indefineable variety: the self as infinite pose.
Thus, at the end of this last recollection, Delbanco has the present, still-becoming “Nicholas Delbanco” put to rest the journal-novel that he has been working on all the while Delbanco has been retelling his life. “They were in the attic. It was October sixth.” Delbanco brings the narrative round to the date of the penultimate journal entry—the entry that begins In the Middle Distance—with “Nicholas” and wife Barbara in the attic of the farmhouse in which “Nicholas” has been laboring to reconstruct and refurbish both house and self: a twinned reconstruction of twinned selves. The effort, Delbanco suggests, has failed:
He wondered if his journal might have value, if he should buy a Mosler Safe or use a safe-deposit box; he decided, no. … He organized the letters and the journals and the photographs. His journal was no novel, he decided, nor would be. He put the whole in boxes and aligned the boxes. He covered the boxes against leakage, with a sheet of six-inch insulation that remained.
“Nicholas” gives in to—or reconciles with—failure, to the uncompleted novel and the incomplete self. He moves on, ascends, grows into a resumption of his life with wife and daughter, itself a measure of reconciliation and achievement.
How “Delbanco” comes to this reconciliation is, of course, the product of the inner narrative, the journal-novel that “Delbanco” constructs during his retreat to the farm in Cossayuna. Thus, while Delbanco the author writes from a “distance” of his protagonist-self and writes retrogressively, “Delbanco” the protagonist writes progressively, the journal covering a four-month summer's span. The journal itself is a composite of love letters and journals, of “college mementos and grade school looseleaf books”—most of it the actual data of Delbanco's actual life, a purposeful confusion of the fictive and the real. “People are their data's sum” (248). The question becomes, however, one of authenticity and its measure, for the nature of the data—its source, its tendency to either memory or imagination—seems to determine its acceptability as truth.
Thus, while Delbanco examines the nature of that truth—that “ratification of data”—in his novel, the fictive “Delbanco” examines the nature of individual self in his journal-novel. Incompletion and fragmentation are the ways of “Nicholas's” life. The journal is a fragment of the man's life; the passage of time occupied by the journal is but a segment of a life's passage. And still, “it's endless, it simply doesn't end.” So time circles back within In the Middle Distance: as the two strands of “Nicholas's” life convene in the final chapter of the outer narrative, and he “buries” his would-be novel on October 6, so Delbanco begins his novel with an entry from that same October 6, an indication of the circularity of things.
“Delbanco's” journal is a sort of disjointed, threefold narrative that records the building (or rebuilding) of “Delbanco's” farmhouse, the construction of a novel, and the analysis of self—all done simultaneously, concurrently, each a function of the other. House and book are “twinned out-posts.” Each comes to represent the personal disunity in “Delbanco's” life, the failure of time and force and imagination to coalesce into meaning. The house becomes an image of the self: “A house decaying over time, then fixed up with masks as to wallpaper, the fireplace stuffed, the floors covered with floors, kitchen roofed” (34). Detail and data gather over time, form strata of physical and autobiographical fact. To reconstruct, one must first deconstruct: “With each layer revealed, the house seems more its stately self, exorcising at last previous ghosts … let's work backwards” 67). This accumulation of material, of data, of time's residue must be stripped down, “shucked,” placed and identified. The working method (like Delbanco's in the outer narrative) is retrogressive (“it's all backasswards, life”), the uncovering of layer after layer of images applied and fashioned by circumstance and wish and need. But the effort does not always match the reward. In “Delbanco's” case, deconstruction proves far simpler than reconstruction; the house turns to “shell,” a lean frame of wall, a skeletal structure in need of “fleshing out.”
This is exactly what “Delbanco” seeks to do with his prospective novel. As the house desires solidity, squareness, wood, so the self seeks substance, physicality as word, book, palpable creation. “Delbanco” notes of his novel: “One of the central skeins to weave is self-reflexive here, and having to do with autobiography—how this may flesh, with what sort of fabric; what's the distinction … between ravel and unravel; how do we wind up?” (40). How, in other words, may the subjective self be expressed and defined in the objective word? What language reliably and adequately describes the process of a life, the slow advance of being? Such is the concern of the autobiographer. But there is an opposing, yet “complementary problem”: “The authentication, via data, of life that's nonexistent, word made flesh. Or, notes toward a supreme nonfiction. And perhaps, the lie can be compulsive (with farmers, women, critics), and perhaps it can be conscious. But the central and ravening paradox (how we each forge truths) should certainly apply” (64). The province proper of the novelist is adjunct to that of the autobiographer. Both deal with data, with word, with creation: distinction lies in beginning and end points. The novelist seeks to transform word into self, into believable and truth-telling flesh; the autobiographer takes flesh and consciously twists it into wishful, tendentious word. So “Delbanco's” imagined protagonist remarks: “Fiction, as I never tire telling my class in fiction is a series of strategies for truth. Autobiography, as I never tire telling my class in autobiography, is a selection of truths to adumbrate fiction” (65). Which self is genuine: that which is created, fabricated from selective and uncertain memory, or that which affirms the true, the nonfictional, through fiction? Where resides the lie—or, more appropriately, the greater lie? The novelist lies to attain truth. The autobiographer retells those truths that most securely underwrite a fraudulent self.
This problem of authenticity is more a concern of Delbanco's (after all, the source is, in actuality, his journal—confusion upon confusion—his script for the film adaptation of The Martlet's Tale). For “Delbanco,” the more immediate problem is one of organization and purpose. He must first identify the nature of his effort (“Calling this a novel. That.”), locate plot, protagonist, principle. Detail accumulates at random, declines toward chaos: “I'm growing weary of data, do wish for stories to tell” (131). The artist must shape his material, invest it with meaning, substance, resonance, pattern: “I need a metaphor, some sort of tale to tell. How the tomato plants found plaster at their back. Full of fits and starts, mirroring this wacky way: not the austere chronicle planned” (95). Time—real time—resists definition and circumscription, remains amorphous, vexatious. And so “Nicholas's” book, its pattern, abandons the linear and adopts another form, becomes a doubled medium: “What is this book but record: the motion circular, the pattern spiral, and therefore the needle transcribes a straight line” (128). The book circles inward, tracking ever-decreasing, ever-limiting circles, slowly, inexorably focusing in on self, the record's center, the end of the downward wind, of time's unraveling.
What substance and pattern the book does obtain comes from the adaptation of “Delbanco's” relationship—his failed relationship—with Jean. Jean's voice expresses itself through a series of letters inserted, italicized, into the text of the journal (perhaps one of the few pure fictions of this part of Delbanco's novel). In “Delbanco's” imagined reworking of this relationship, Jean (known as “K.” in the working plan) and the protagonist (“Delbanco”?) are divorced; K's letters translate into pleas for reconciliation, confessions, detailed litanies of suffering. She preaches distance (72-73), but as “Nicholas” confirms, “There are certain sorts of distance one simply cannot bridge, a kind of severance apology can't heal. Trust, that difficult thing to make, is easy to break, and irrevocably” (94). The break in their relationship derives from the protagonist's (or “Nicholas's”) unfaithfulness, the same sort of confused and worried lapse from grace that plagues “Nicholas” in the outer narrative: “What; sexual resentment turned to jealousy on the one hand, disdain on the other. Compounded by repeated infidelity, and the concomitant guilt” (36). “Nicholas's” distancing (or that of his protagonist's—the confusion doubles in the journal) is conscious, sought after, an insistent part of his work: “But I'm willing this separation, and writing it, and have long since decided it needful” (164). Separation becomes fact through its expression, becomes a sort of artifact generated from fragments of the imagination, a written, willed thing (188). When a by-product of love, separation is rarely unilateral. Lovers commit themselves to severence with the same fervor, the same single-mindedness that first brought them together.
Furthermore, the analysis of that severance bears little real reward, for the past leaves, at best, an ephemeral trail. The past—time—admits to no exactitude. The most one can hope for in reconstituting that past, and one's past self, is guesswork, “patchwork.” Thus, “Nicholas's” attempt at reconstructing the history of his self remains scrambled, fractured, incomplete; his journal and would-be novel fail because of the inherent chaos and discontinuity of the past and of its relation to the present self. “Nicholas” feels “bloody elegiac” every time he sits at his typewriter, hunting the thread of fact and circumstance that will lead him back to a previous self—“elegiac” because that self has been necessarily buried. Too much time, too much distance intervene. Dead, outworn selves are shucked, shed, interred, almost ritualistically, to propagate the new re-imagined self.
This casting-off of the past's leavings is doubly important in In the Middle Distance, for it permits a double reconciliation. Just as “Nicholas” comes to terms with his present, disordered self and buries that representation of his past selves, his journal-novel—so Nicholas Delbanco, through the experience of composition and decomposition, of compilation and recovery, fixes upon a new private and aesthetic self at the end of In the Middle Distance. Delbanco's purpose here is only partly to explore the nature of autobiography, and its distinctness from imaginative fiction. He also uses the autobiographical mode as a remedy, as a sort of “talking cure.” In the Middle Distance, in fact, conforms with some measure of consistency to the autobiographical structure described by Paul Jay in his book, Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes. According to Jay, the distinction between autobiography and fictional autobiography is “finally pointless”: “For if by ‘fictional’ we mean ‘made up’ ‘created,’ or ‘imagined,’—something, that is, which is literary and not ‘real’—then we have merely defined the ontological status of any text, autobiographical or not” (16). Jay goes on to argue that “each work develops out of its author's confrontation with a particular problem—the problem of literary self-representation” (21).
As for the restorative function of autobiography, Jay connects the self-reflexive literary work with the Freudian notion of a “talking cure”:
Of course, what is crucial to the transforming power of the talking cure is Freud's recognition of its doubly creative nature. The subject's cure is bound up in the ability to participate in generating a creative story in which key recollections are linked to form a therapeutic autobiographical narrative. However, the past events recollected in such a process may not in fact be “events” at all but, rather, imagined moments in a “history” being created in and by the act of analysis itself.
The autobiographer effects his cure by concurrently effecting a life-story—part fact, part imagined history—that attempts to “historicize consious memory into an eventually ‘perfected’ narrative” (26). The content, moreover, of that narrative derives from personal crisis. The form, Jay contends, “is determined in good measure by aesthetic and philosophical crises” (27). Such is the work cut out for himself by “Nicholas Delbanco,” as he attempts to reconstruct and re-order his own shattered self through the narrative of his journal-novel. For “Delbanco,” however, the narrative refuses to coalesce, to cohere, to form a logical, linear pattern. But the mere realization of his self's fragmentation, and of the nature of his own being, is enough to move him to a form of recovery: to a return to family and familial wholeness (even when that very family has been reduced and made unwhole by death).
For the other Delbanco, however, the novel serves as both a proof and a disproof of the self's authentication. To refute the verity of autobiographical self, Delbanco purposely shifts the viewpoint of his novel, writing in the outer narrative in the third person, moving to the first person in the inner narrative-journal. The voices grow confused, mixed, questioning. Delbanco consciously tests here the reliability of the “I,” of the self-conscious, self-reflexive autobiographer, by opposing it with the distanced third-person perspective of the novelistic narrator. Delbanco multiplies this confusion with his use of “authentic” letters between himself and his editor, offering a self-conscious nod to the creative origins of In the Middle Distance, to its fictional roots, posing almost another sort of self in the author-editor relationship. He goes further, including a letter from editor to photographer, whose subject is the very factual photo of Nicholas Delbanco—a tangible proof of external self. Delbanco also includes a portion of his own script for his own adaptation of his own first novel, The Martlet's Tale and excerpts from the journal kept by Delbanco during the making of that film (never released).
Delbanco also disrupts the temporal flow of his novel, telling the story in the outer narrative in reverse, time shifting backwards (with further backward leaps within each specific sequence); while in the journal-inner narrative, he moves time ostensibly forward, though even then Delbanco throws time out of joint by using the original dates of his journal within the entries dated by “Delbanco” as he supposedly creates them: the contradiction of time by time. This sort of interrupted narrative (as Jay points out) is characteristic of twentieth-century fiction—a confusion of genres: while the novel and the autobiography share “narrative modes,” and while “meaning lies in sequence,” Delbanco consciously and simultaneously blurs and identifies the differences in genres, illuminating the several weaknesses in both.
Finally, whereas traditional autobiography conflates protagonist, narrator, and author into a single entity, Delbanco purposely multiplies these three beings into four separate forms: Nicholas Delbanco, novelist in a real world; “Nicholas Delbanco,” the subject of that other Delbanco's narrative; “Nicholas Delbanco,” keeper of the journal and subject of his own introspection; and Nicholas Delbanco, autobiographer of his own life, both real and fictive, author of the data of his own life and of his created character-self.
However, In the Middle Distance serves also as an affirmation, as an aesthetic response to an aesthetic crisis, the same sort of crisis figured, says Jay, in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu and Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The artist, says Jay, attempts to “bridge the distance between past and present—between himself and his own textual representation of himself” (31). For Joyce and Proust, this meant finding another route to the veritable self, so that in their work, “Chronological narrative remains as the structural principle … but the truth becomes a function not of remembering but of fictionalizing” (36). The artist fictionalizes history because the essential self relies upon the creative process that is to “forge” it. Before that newly created self can emerge, however, old images of self must be canceled. Such, writes Jay, is the process described in A la recherche and Portrait: “For both writers, the autobiographical novel is a kind of burial place, a place in which the past is laid to rest in the very act of giving it new life in a fictional form” (146). For rebirth, there must first be a death. The artist must forget his past, must slay past selves in order to fashion one anew. The process, in fact, proves more significant than the product of that process. The artist undergoes a sort of “conversion” through his work, through the sustained effort in the present moments of creation, and not in the recollection of the past: “Thus, the work of the self-reflexive artist has an importance that transcends the importance of the finished work” (149). Such is the effect upon “Nicholas Delbanco,” whose journal-novel remains unfinished, incomplete, but who is, in essence, redeemed by the process of his effort. In the end, the artist, by use of the narrative mode, “retains the vision of the self as a unified and whole metaphysical essence,” even while deconstructing that self in the aesthetic process: a paradox befitting a very paradoxical self.
And such is the paradox pursued by Delbanco in In the Middle Distance. For his character and proleptic ego, “Nicholas Delbanco,” the self remains un-unified. “Delbanco” cannot imaginatively reconstruct the self, cannot shape it into the form of a novel and a narrative, perhaps because that past is largely Nicholas Delbanco's own. “Delbanco's” imagination fails him, as does his self—all those “shucked selves” remain disparate, fractured. Yet the work process, as noted above, does heal him, does prove therapeutic.
For Delbanco the author, the content of In the Middle Distance may or may not be a response to a personal, private crisis. The novel's form, however, seems a clear aesthetic response to particular aesthetic problems afflicting Delbanco at that time in his career. In the Middle Distance is a pivot-point in Delbanco's career, where he shifts both the focus and the source of his art, where he subordinates memory to imagination. Delbanco, like Proust and Joyce, must “willfully forget” the past to create “an imaginatively conceived Other.” Delbanco must project yet another form of distance—the distance between his past, autobiographical self and his present, authorial self, between memory and the aesthetic act. Before In the Middle Distance, Delbanco's fiction is highly autobiographical, revealing a substantial reliance upon individual experience for the stuff of his art. After In the Middle Distance, Delbanco tempers this mediation of memory with a greater infusion of imagination; instead of recollecting the past for his material, Delbanco collects the data of the present and of his present imaginative self. As a result, the very style of his work begins to change as well, turning from a highly allusive, recondite, referential kind of prose to a more traditional, accessible, narrative-minded style. Thus, at the end of In the Middle Distance, the Delbanco who signs the novel speaks out in a new, authoritative voice, issuing a declaration of aesthetic and political belief: “I hate this rhetoric. I believe it necessary now. Nor can the artist survive if only as court jester, though he might have earned the jest. Things are not amusing any more” (250). Art must serve a more serious function. The times demand it.
The times—and Delbanco's art—also demand a reaffirmed vision of self, and that redefined self is what emerges from the pages of In the Middle Distance. The book works as autobiography and as fiction, turning Delbanco into the “novelist of himself,” figuring a proleptic Delbanco who locates the “anticipated future” in the novelistic present. Delbanco “re-authors” his past and future life, mating memory and fiction in a union that generates a whole, yet multi-faceted, imagined autobiography. The past, and the past self, lie as parts of the vastation of Delbanco's process, but the present, and the present self, emerge resurrected, strong, eager to work. Art, life, self—each awaits retrieval, resumption. Truth remains in the distance. The leap toward that truth remains, for Delbanco, to be made—and made again.
Delbanco, Nicholas. In the Middle Distance. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1971.
Jay, Paul. Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984.
Morris, Gregory L. “An Interview with Nicholas Delbanco.” Contemporary Literature 25 (Winter 1984): 387-96.
Pascal, Roy. Design and Truth in Autobiography. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1960.
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SOURCE: Wildman, Eugene. “Going Away Again.” Chicago Tribune Books (23 July 1989): 4-5.
[In the following review, Wildman describes Running in Place as part autobiography, part travel literature, and observes that the book is an expression of Delbanco's “love affair” with the area of Provence, France.]
The interplay of memory and landscape is the subject of this non-fiction offering by novelist Nicholas Delbanco. The book [Running in Place] is part autobiography, part travel literature and is an account of the author's several stays in Provence, that storied region of the South of France. It is a description of a love affair with the land, a deepening intimacy, an eventual, inevitable growing apart and the need to have a place to belong to.
Provence has been a favorite locale of writers and artists through the centuries. The traditions of courtly love and the troubador poetry that celebrates it were born there. In the 14th Century the papacy was there, the seat of ecclesiastical power shifting from Rome to Avignon. Cezanne and Van Gogh made its landscapes famous.
Ford Madox Ford wrote a book about Provence. Henry James and D. H. Lawrence both sang its praises. Albert Camus is buried there. James Baldwin, a longtime friend of the author, lived there, as did actor Dirk Bogarde. Of still uncertain aesthetic interest, Baby Doc Duvalier fled to Provence after his overthrow in Haiti.
Yet Running in Place is less a look backward than a summing up and reassessment. It opens in 1987 with Delbanco and his wife and two daughters about to embark on their latest visit. The daughters are in no way enthralled at the prospect. Then it cuts to 1961, when Delbanco, an 18-year-old student only dreaming of becoming a writer, has occasion to make his first trip. Thereafter the narrative is a kind of fugue, continually cutting to the immediate past while detailing the progress of successive trips. It is a nice strategy. Mere nostalgia never stands a chance; the present is always reasserting its claim.
Delbanco's manner is loosely anecdotal, and one of these anecdotes is a gem. He sets out for the cathedral in Aix, which houses the triptych by Nicholas Froment depicting the legendary Good King Rene. Things go wrong from the start. At the cathedral, repairs are going on. Dust is everywhere. An attendant on duty has heard of the king but knows nothing of any painting. When, after much searching, it is finally located, the triptych is closed and locked. Delbanco is crushed. Outside, a beggar accosts him, exhorting him as he is a Christian to give money. He tells the beggar he is not one and won't. Whereupon the other showers him with curses, each more spiteful and artful than the last. By the time Delbanco is out of earshot, already he feels better.
On another occasion Baldwin comes for lunch, his customary ragtag, bohemian entourage in tow. They make a spirited group. Suddenly, in the midst of their jollity, they spy through the window an elderly couple, cameras at the ready, peering curiously at them. The couple, dear friends of the landlady, are the last of the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns. What their eyes registered, Delbanco notes, must have seemed the direst fulfillment of Spengler's prophecies in the “The Decline of the West.”
The high point of the book may be the tale of Alex and Maija Bechstein, a 60-year-old Tristan and Isolde. He is a charming bachelor, she a proper Swiss wife. It is magic the moment they meet. She forsakes all to join him. They are ecstatically, passionately, devotedly happy. Hardly are they settled, however, than he is stricken by cancer and dies. No matter that her joy was short-lived, that her children and the townspeople at home have denounced her. She has no regrets and would do it again.
Much as Delbanco loves Provence, there is little left to hold him. A place exists to be written about. You cannot otherwise revisit it. The flirtation with expatriation is over. His daughters are the measure of what is true for him now. “What time is it back home?” one of them asks midway through. “I'm looking forward to looking back on this,” the other puts in.
Perhaps the last word should be Maija's, in her own awkward, inimitable style. “Or do you finish or do you start. And both of those are simple. The hardest thing is to continue. That's what I find hard.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863
SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Travel Writing that Goes No Place.” Christian Science Monitor 81, no. 195 (1 September 1989): 13.
[In the following review, Rubin is highly critical of Running in Place, describing the book as unoriginal, uninteresting, monotonous, and poorly organized.]
Society hostess Elsa Maxwell is often credited with turning the South of France, specifically the Cote d'Azur, into a fashionable summer resort in the 1920s. (Before that, it was a place “resorted to” chiefly in the winter.) But Provence, the region of southeastern France that includes that stretch of coastline, has a long history of colorful associations: Roman Gaul, the Albigensian heresy, the medieval troubadours who virtually invented “romance.” A land of sunshine, olive trees, olive oil, garlic, honey, lavender, and perfume, Provence has held a special appeal for painters, who reveled in the clear brilliant light of the region.
The South of France must hold special associations for author Nicholas Delbanco, one presumes, or he would not have written [Running in Place] a book on the subject. But whatever this region may mean to Mr. Delbanco, very little in the way of inspiration, information, interest, or pleasure is conveyed in the lifeless pages of this very derivative, poorly organized, and monotonously written book.
Delbanco first visited the region as a college student in 1961. He returned subsequently at various periods of his life: as an aspiring young writer carrying on a love affair with an aspiring young singer, as a newly married husband and father, and, in 1987, as a mature parent of adolescent girls.
The narrative [of Running in Place] shifts desultorily back and forth among time periods, a hodgepodge of banal, pretentious ruminations on predictable topics, excruciatingly tiresome snippets of Delbanco family conversations, and dull anecdotes about semi-famous people Delbanco has met, but oh-so-tastefully refuses to name for fear of invading their “privacy.” (Insofar as his gifts for rendering a memorable character, telling a good story, or choosing a revealing incident are negligible, he would seem to be in little danger of delineating anyone's personality, let alone invading their privacy!)
Here is how he renders a woman he calls “Lilo Rosenthal”: “She said, ‘You must call me Lily,’ and invited us to tea. She wore yellow trousers and a silk shirt with a floral pattern. Her jewelry was silver, and her bracelets matched her earrings and the pendant at her neck. Her hair was dark brown, meticulously coifed, with just a streak of gray; reading glasses dangled from a cord. Her eyes were brown and green.” (Greenish brown or one brown eye and one green? one wonders.)
Only in the case of meeting that very famous American-in-exile, novelist James Baldwin, does Delbanco decide to drop the pseudonymity. It's just as well, because the only lively aspect of Delbanco's account is the vivid image Baldwin's name conjures up.
The descriptions of places are as weak as the descriptions of people. Driving south from Paris, Delbanco doesn't even attempt to evoke the changes in the landscape—probably because he senses he can't compete with so many other writers who have done it so well. Instead, he lists the place-names en route.
“An excellent writer is among us,” proclaims the dust-jacket quote from the New York Times (mercifully unattributed), “and if we neglect him, we shall have to apologize to posterity.” I somehow doubt apologies will be in order: This weak excuse for a book appears to have been supported by more grants than were needed to build Lincoln Center. The author of 10 less-than-memorable novels, a story collection, a disappointing book called, Group Portrait: Conrad, Crane, Ford, James, and Wells, recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, Yaddo, and other fellowships, Delbanco is director of the MFA in Writing at the University of Michigan and something called the Hopwood Awards Program.
Scion of a well-off banking family who fled Germany for England during the war, Delbanco grew up in America, graduated from Harvard, and began his writing career with a contract in hand for an unwritten first novel. As a young man, he toddled off to Europe, because he'd heard that's what writers (like Hemingway) did. But it would be unfair to blame Hemingway as an “influence” on Delbanco's style. This book is, indeed, underwritten: not only in the sense of being flat and colorless, but in the sense that it is the product of a career underwritten by a vast, uncoordinated, self-perpetuating system of grants, fellowships, writing programs, and awards that all too often seem to foster the overprivileged and the undertalented.
Readers in search of first-class travel writing to liven up the remaining days of summer would be well advised to skip this little side trip to Provence in favor of Ford Madox Ford's tribute to the region, or perhaps the work of the accomplished novelist, biographer, and travel writer Sybille Bedford (who spent time in the South of France herself). Bedford's splendid, A Visit to Don Otavio: A Traveller's Tale from Mexico, first published in 1953, has been reissued in a handsome paperback by Eland/Hippocrene Books Inc.
Here one finds the keenly observant eye, the knack for focusing on telling incidents, the elegant style, and the sense of adventure that can make travel writing as illuminating as travel itself.
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SOURCE: Pritchard, Melissa. “The Perils of Literature.” Chicago Tribune Books (4 February 1990): 6-7.
[In the following review, Pritchard praises The Writer's Trade as a brilliantly ordered and controlled book that examines the “craft and peril” of being a writer.]
Each of us erects our hidden altars, secretly hoping for salvation from mortality. Art exists as a particularly potent religion, the artist exalted as free agent, as re-creator of the universe. In Nicholas Delbanco's 13th book and second collection of short stories, The Writers' Trade, the craft and peril of being a writer is scrupulously examined.
In the title story, a young man, Mark Fusco, achieves extraordinary success with the publication of his first novel. Intoxicated by language and literature, discovering joy in his solitary craft, he attends the sweet triumph of a publication party, receiving adulation as bounty and gift. Afterward, feeling “there was nothing he could not attain, no prospect unattainable,” he is deep in his giddy dream of success when the train he is on hits and kills a young woman. Abruptly he is diminished by the understanding that life goes on, that “what was out there, on the track, found him irrelevant.” His reaction, instinctively, is to take and absorb this stuff of life, write it down, elevate life into art.
In “And with Advantages,” Ben, another young, naively ambitious writer, courts elderly, eminent men of letters, hoping at once to supplant them and to earn their imprimatur. Instead he witnesses old men foolishly lapsing into adolescent humor, exchanging souvenir erotic photographs and memories. As in the title story, this young writer, led by his colossal yet innocent vanity to attempt the transformation of life into art, instead finds life implacable and largely indifferent to his powers. Like Mark Fusco, Ben learns only that he understands nothing; he is painfully humbled, his vanity and ego assaulted.
“You Can Use My Name” follows the divergent trajectories of two writers' careers. While Richard is victimized and devoured by his own overwhelming success, his friend Adam is locked into oblivion, a bohemian whose life continually misses achievement. Each seeks and fails to find easy salvation in art; Richard's potency as an artist and Adam's artistic impotence prove equally devastating.
The world leaches the artist's power, erodes the muse, mutes the voice. Acclaim is as ruinous a distraction as more moderate success, when writers, finding jobs teaching, become too tepid in their art, having failed in failing to go far enough. Repeatedly, through his characters, Delbanco warns the struggling artist to get outside life and its limitations, to not be distracted, to simply work.
In several of these stories, characters look upon the conception of a child as some vague insurance of immortality. And in many of Delbanco's tales, tensions exists between the artist's need to keep his soul and work inviolate and the need to earn a living, with its consequent encounters with worldly standards, the anguished measurement of success or failure.
“The Day's Catch” follows David, another young writer, a passionate idealist and diligent recorder of stories, through his love affair with the young woman, Alice, who becomes his wife. Delbanco poignantly observes the privacy of lovers, an isolation comparable to that of the artist. Still love, like art, is vulnerable to corruption when pulled back into life to endure its daily bruises.
A writer has two selves: the observer, the aloof outsider, and the passionate, emotional self. However much his or her published work has matched the original ambition, the writer often must face that arid loss of faith that can occur to pilgrims of any persuasion. Yet even in this struggle with darkness, impotence and despair, the artist is tempted to create once again by the fresh, sensuous detail, the pull of event and character, the voice thrown and amplified. Faced with the inadequacy of insufficient passion, the artist must push beyond quiet panic and persist. There can be subtle heroism in a writer who is serving a greater talent, reduced to the role of an acolyte, as in the story “Palinurus.”
The young woman of “The Day's Catch,” Alice describes her epiphany, an experience of light in which she witnesses the world as a transparent membrane, seeing the mystical connectedness of everything. In Delbanco's final story, “Everything,” an old and senile writer experiences the relentless procession of time and loss—his fame and reputation of a greater density than his own failing flesh.
As Alice's experience of light gave her a sense of wholeness, senility confers upon this writer's intelligence a place where the dead and the living mingle, where memory and the present are indistinguishable, where all stories are one story, all voices one voice and life runs together like water. This involuntary disengagement from his own artistic ambitions, this collapse of the ego, suggests where true art lies, at the point of death of the self.
Contradicting the young writer's inflated sense of self, here is the stance of ultimate humility from which greatness can emerge. But in “Everything,” the aged author, newly wise, ironically has lost potency, the power to create.
The Writers' Trade is brilliantly ordered and controlled; its voices are many yet all perhaps are Delbanco's own—anguished, searching and stern. Both mourning and celebrating the writer's life, the bitter cost of artistic freedom, the power and gift of voice, this is an unsparing and radiant book.
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SOURCE: Simmons, Charles. “The Non-Telling Detail.” Washington Post (8 February 1990): B3.
[In the following review, Simmons comments that most of the stories in The Writer's Trade are flawed and bogged down by tedious details, but does reserve praise for two of the stories which he contends are well-written.]
Most of these nine stories are full of faults, some more interesting than others. In the title story [of The Writer's Trade] 22-year-old Mark Fusco has just published a first novel. It gets good reviews, and he appears to be at the start of a successful writing career. Author Nicholas Delbanco describes his professional progress: “Mark was learning to provide corroborative detail for his characters: birthday parties, a distaste for lima beans, a preference in socks. ‘Make a catalogue,’ his writing teacher had advised. ‘Make it on three-by-five cards. Know everything you can. Tell yourself the person despises lima beans. Try to decide if she likes snow peas or string beans better …’”
Delbanco himself follows this bad advice throughout, with wearisome results. For instance, in “And with Advantages,” a story about a 26-year-old writer, Ben, and his relationship with an old, ailing, famous writer, Ben goes from the old man's funeral to a girlfriend's apartment: “… they opened wine. The rooms were familiar, not strange. The bear rug by the bricked-up fireplace, the Indian clubs and the basket of dried flowers, the Miro prints and picture of the swimming team at Smith, the Marimekko bedspread and the rubber tree, the Exer-cycle by the dressing room and mirror on the mantel—all these remained in place.” This list of cliches is presented generically and without irony. It is word-to-word specific and, all told, indefinite. These are not corroborative details, just details.
The exact detail takes some finding. Or some genius. Chekhov, who wrote fast, dropped endless exact details. When we meet the lady with the dog on vacation in Yalta she is wearing a beret. She was “always wearing the same beret,” Chekhov says, “and always with the same white dog.” When we learn what the story is about we understand that the dog gave the lady a certain respectability, like traveling with a child, and that the beret was sadly festive, cautiously flirtatious, a provincial's gesture. Lima beans won't do that.
Let me quote another short passage from the same story. One night Ben observes three old-timers, friends of the old novelist and now guests. Ben thinks: “They would tell me how careers are made, how their own were fashioned; they could speak of the late great. They might describe Manhattan when it was an easy town, when Harlem was an easy place to visit after dark. They had known Theodore Dreiser, Babe Ruth, Thomas Hart Benton, Josephine Baker, Chaplin, Chaliapin, Pound. They could explain the usages of the smoke-filled room, the proper measure of ambition with mete modesty, the secrets of longevity and growth.” Lima beans would be more useful.
The longest story, “The Day's Catch” exemplifies another, more damaging fault. David, 22, fresh out of Harvard, goes to Martha's Vineyard to write. To support himself he delivers fish and takes care of a blind boy, son of a widow who is rich by having married an heir who drank himself to death. All of this is told in great detail, which leads us to believe it will come to something. Not so. David meets Alice, who moves in with him. Part 2 opens some years later. David and Alice are married and have a son. They go to Tortola to see if anything is left of their marriage. There they meet an old pal of David's who makes a pass at Alice. Alice remembers at length the last time she saw her father. He showed up with an Asian sweetheart, a nurse's aide who had taken care of him after he had been released from a prisoner-of-war camp during the Korean War. The last paragraph tells us obliquely that David and Alice's marriage is done. I suppose the point of the lengthy biographies and flashbacks is to give an impression of narrative largess; the impression I got is of a machine made of attachments but which does nothing.
Two stories work. “His Masquerade,” about a well-known poet's visit to a campus to give a reading, is ingenious and witty. In the concluding “Everything,” another aging writer ponders with what is left of his brain his long, eventful life. Delbanco's all too ready elegiac mode serves him well here. By many signs I understood that these stories intend to impart a tragic sense of life; I felt only a troubled sense of it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561
SOURCE: Cummins, Walter. Review of Writers and Their Craft, by Nicholas Delbanco. Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 1 (winter 1993): 102-03.
[In the following review, Cummins asserts that Writers and Their Craft is entertaining, but that it fails to provide new ideas or a fresh perspective on the craft of writing.]
This collection, [Writers and Their Craft,] material originally contained in a two-volume issue of Michigan Quarterly Review, is an olio of essays, interviews, memoirs, short statements, stories, and even cartoons that the editors hoped would provide “a kind of road map through [American fiction] of the 1990s, a work whose polyphonic structure represents its subject with high fidelity.” What they have produced is entertaining and frequently illuminating; but it fails to function as a road map. Anyone attempting to follow it for guidance would end up lost in a tangle of conflicting routes. The effect is a version of the logical conundrum in which a traveler at a fork in a road asks directions of a man who may belong to one of two tribes—one whose members always lie or one whose members always tell the truth. Thus, some of the 100 or so contributors consider minimalism a breakthrough, and others consider it an abomination; some despair over the vacuousness of today's writing, and others find an abundance of riches.
Equivalents of much of the material in the book—the stories and essays and interviews—could be found in many magazines, literary or otherwise. Unique is a section of almost 200 pages called “A Symposium on Contemporary American Fiction” in which 90 writers arranged alphabetically from Linsey Abrams to Jose Yglesias respond to a general question: “Granted that contemporary American fiction is a variety of things, which kind of recent writing interests you especially, and, in your opinion, is most deserving of more attention and more readers?” Some of the reactions deal specifically with those questions; others use them as an excuse to vent whatever is on the responder's mind. Some are earnest and thoughtful, others pithy or disingenuous.
However, the overall impression produced is one of déjà vu, opinions that are reruns of statements made about American fiction, say, 25 years ago. Of course, some of the vocabulary of the debate is new—postmodernism, minimalism, multiculturalism—but the basic attitudes fall into several familiar categories: e.g., nothing worthwhile is being written today, with the rare exception of work by x, y, and z; the workshops are to blame by turning out skillful writers with nothing to say; we are blessed by all the excellent work of our time; innovation is meaningless because what really matters is compelling fiction that probes the human soul; the old forms are played out; we must return to Joyce, Chekhov, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor; publishers care only about profit; the important new writers come from Latin America or Eastern Europe or multicultural backgrounds; my own writing hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves.
Beyond the variety of opinions the symposium assemblage is useful for gathering, with photographs, the 90 current writers who responded and for offering in aggregate an extensive compilation of books and writers they recommend as the best of current fiction.
In the large majority of stories and essays they chose for the book, the editors come down on the side of tradition—familiar narrative techniques and approaches that assume fiction should illuminate the way we live now.
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SOURCE: Idema, James. “Fatal Decisions.” Chicago Tribune Books (1 October 1995): 6.
[In the following review, Idema praises In the Name of Mercy as an entertaining, masterfully written novel that includes a number of compelling characters. Idema comments that, although Delbanco's views on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide seem ambiguous, the story is thoroughly engaging.]
What seems for much of Nicholas Delbanco's riveting new novel to be an eloquent plea for legitimatizing euthanasia becomes in the long run more a cautionary tale. Man cannot be trusted with the institutionalized practice of assisted suicide, Delbanco appears to say. For all its merciful intentions, it is a deed so vulnerable to abuse as to be morally unacceptable. What is wrought “in the name of mercy” is often more wicked than good.
Meanwhile, to explore this enormously complex issue, Delbanco has [with In the Name of Mercy] written a terrifically entertaining book: a swift, white-knuckle thriller, with a big cast of compelling characters and a theme direct from today's news pages. That its point of view seems somewhat ambiguous detracts not at all from its engaging plot.
In the Name of Mercy is difficult to put down, even more difficult to forget once you have put it down. Never mind that it all ends in a horrific mess, with the innocent hero, an altruistic young physician, walking away from his calling, slipping into anonymous oblivion and leaving neither good nor evil ascendant in his wake.
As the story opens, Peter Julius, M.D., watching his young wife in the final agonies of her struggle with melanoma, helps her end her pain once and for all. The experience persuades him to accept an offer to direct a hospice for critically ill patients. The hospice is part of a new medical center situated in Bellehaven, a backwater town in southern Michigan. From the very beginning matters go awry.
It doesn't help that Dr. Jack Kevorkian works not far from there: an angel of mercy to one faction, the infamous “Doctor Death” to another. He “brings down this lunatic posse, these righteous right-to-lifers,” as one of the center's founders complains. Nor does it help that the Bellehaven Daily is run by suspicious bigots and that it publishes unsigned letters to the editor. Like a Greek chorus, they comment periodically on the drama.
In addition to problems of public relations, desperate rivalries permeate the staff and contention over treatment is rife. The real troubles, however, begin when a long-term AIDS patient suddenly dies, and his companion charges that he was murdered. Then things really heat up, as a number of unexplained deaths occur, and it becomes apparent a killer with intimate access to hospital procedures is at work.
Several characters have both the means and the motives to do the nasty stuff, which makes the unraveling of the mystery a rewarding exercise for the reader—one that leads to a most satisfying surprise. Indeed, the finale includes a scene so balefully shocking that this reader, for one, protested aloud.
Featured players include chief resident Jim Kelly, whose troubled private life leads him to a blackmail scheme with Penny Lamson, a lusty nurse whose dream is to go to Paris, Richard Trueman and J. Harley Andrews, who founded the hospital and unexpectedly become patients there; Trip Conley, the clean-cut, ruthless president of the facility, with access to every department; and Rebecca Forsythe, a noted spokesperson on assisted suicide, whose book Undiscovered Country equates death and orgasm. Her love affair late in the story with Peter Julius sets up its ghastly ending.
Dr. Julius, the protagonist, is above suspicion but not always in sight, and he seems at times something of a non-participating observer—for example, his laconic response to the horror at the end, while consistent, is somehow unsatisfying.
Nevertheless, one of the chief pleasures of this book is the way the narrative moves seamlessly from one character to another—sometimes within quotation marks, more often in a kind of subconscious dialogue or soliloquy.
In one place, Trip Conley, late for a luncheon appointment with his unhappy alcoholic wife, fantasizes as he drives to their restaurant how their conversation will go after he apologizes to her: “Christine was on her second drink and staring at the menu, trying to decide if she would forgive him this once. She'd look up while he took his chair and started to apologize and, smiling that good smile of hers, the one that cost three years of orthodontia and a nose job, say, ‘Don't mention it, let's not discuss it, I'm certain you had a good reason.’ It would keep him guessing, and she liked to do that too.
“Or, more likely, she would mention it and blame him for standing her up. … Then she'd start in on the usual, how if it hadn't been for her there'd be no comfortable table, no reservation at a restaurant and nothing to buy dinner with and while he was perfecting his manners and learning the fine art of punctuality why didn't he acquire some gratitude also, you son of a bitch.”
When he does actually join her, the reality is worse than what he's imagined. It is masterly writing. So is a chapter devoted to the thoughts of a dying AIDS patient, a poem of both bitter humor and pure rage.
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SOURCE: Leggett, John. “Can Death Be Humane and Cost-Effective?” Los Angeles Times (3 October 1995): 6.
[In the following review, Leggett comments that the novel In the Name of Mercy is a provocative story, but that it fails to clarify the arguments for and against doctor-assisted suicide.]
Nicholas Delbanco has taken on a provocative theme in his new novel, In the Name of Mercy.
He has seen the conflict between a doctor's Hippocratic obligation to heal, to do no harm, to leave the ending of a life to God and the contrary belief, acclaimed by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, that there is mercy in hastening the death of an incurable patient in pain.
It is certainly a timely issue, given that today's medical profession is so technically advanced that it can, at great expense, prolong life unnaturally.
Delbanco lays his tale of healing and death at the Trueman-Andrews hospital and hospice in Bellehaven, Mich.
This enterprise is part of the empire of financier J. Harley Andrews, who has acquired it from the founder, Richard Trueman. The hospital and its adjoining hospice for terminal patients are a stage for the struggle between those who believe in the right to life and those who believe in the right to a timely death.
Our expectations are raised that the two physicians in charge of the hospital will dramatize these conflicting points of view.
Dr. Peter Julius, director of the hospice, and Dr. Jim Kelly, chief resident, speak forth on the moral and practical values involved in final health care.
Dr. Julius holds that dying patients are demanding, ignorant of medical procedure and that looking after them has become too expensive. Dr. Kelly reminds himself that a doctor's mission is healing and, while he opposes health care that delivers death, cites the high cost of treatment and sees the terminal care problem as a “managerial” rather than a medical one.
Both doctors accede to the Trueman-Andrews management policy that for terminal patients a speedy demise is both the humane and cost-effective way to go.
This policy is fostered by the hospital's aggressive, businessman president, Trip Conley. He has married the founder's daughter and subsequently made her miserable with his infidelities.
One of these is with Rebecca Forsythe, an English widow who has had great success with a book about assisting her husband's suicide. Conley has brought her to the hospital from London, ostensibly to improve the hospital's poor public relations.
The local newspaper has noted the accelerating death rate among elderly patients at Trueman-Andrews, augmented by occasional suicides.
A particularly troublesome case is that of an AIDS patient, who fails his own expectations of extended life. In sudden demise. His surviving lover writes angry letters to the newspaper's editor accusing the hospital staff of murder and threatening dreadful reprisals. Whereupon the lover also dies under suspicious circumstances.
The central love story of In the Name of Mercy stems from the beautiful widow, Rebecca Forsythe. Trip Conley, first smitten with her in London, has found Forsythe unresponsive since her arrival in Michigan and he is further displeased to discover that she has fallen thunderously in love with Dr. Peter Julius, and he with her.
A Grand Guignol ending left this reader no clearer of mind over arguments for and against euthanasia, but certainly persuaded of a need for governmental oversight of the nation's health services. Some readers may vow to steer clear of all hospices whatever their need for nursing care.
As a novel, In the Name of Mercy has its frailties. While Delbanco is praiseworthy for taking on so grand a theme, he seems to lose heart for it along the way.
If he did reach satisfactory conclusion about the mercy-killing controversy before telling his story he did not find a character to address or portray it. We miss the figure who might show a concern for the patients of this frightening institution.
Indeed all the important characters have been bereaved, wounded in some way, so that they can respond to events only with self-concern and self-pity. The hospital management personnel who have coasted into health care on the profit motive are a particularly sleazy bunch and such punishments as Delbanco devises for them are not nearly harsh enough.
(The hospital's image is not enhanced by admitting its two sponsors as patients, J. Harley Andrews for a heart complaint and Richard Trueman for prostate cancer. Given the quality of health care at the hospital bearing their names, it is not surprising that neither man recovers.)
The narrative voice that describes the events at Trueman-Andrews has a suitably sinister tone. Its grasp of the language of medical treatment provides authenticity at occasional cost of encrypting meaning for the uninitiated. It is also a voice weighted with the irony of a man who is all too familiar with the gap between what men say and what they do.
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SOURCE: Kellman, Steven G. “Half in Love with Easeful Death.” Michigan Quarterly Review 36, no. 3 (summer 1997): 520-28.
[In the following review, Kellman discusses In the Name of Mercy in the context of societal debates over doctor-assisted suicide, and compares Delbanco's novel to other books addressing the same issue. Kellman asserts that In the Name of Mercy holds little interest as a work of fiction, beyond its topical relevance to a current social problem.]
To be or not to be is the most compelling of all literary questions. The illustrious cases of Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Phaedra, Willy Loman, Ophelia, Antigone, Dido, Romeo, Hedda Gabler, Jocasta, Othello, and Quentin Compson demonstrate that the literary tradition has not exactly fixed its canon 'gainst self-slaughter. For Albert Camus, “There is but one genuinely philosophic problem, and that is suicide.” It is a challenge, too, to law and medicine.
A retired pathologist named Jack Kevorkian has become the most famous Michigander since Isiah Thomas by flaunting his complicity in the deaths of more than forty human beings. Using a device he calls the Mercitron machine, he has been ending the lives of those suffering not only from terminal and racking illnesses but from merely grievous ones as well. Although Kevorkian's actions are explicitly prohibited by law, juries have consistently refused to convict him, and he reportedly receives thousands of requests for lethal assistance each week. Poised to rule on the Constitutionality of statutes prohibiting assisted suicide, the United States Supreme Court has assumed the role of laureate to an unlettered age, articulating existential insights that poets used to court. Yet poets went to court when, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the august justices declared: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Abortion was the issue that begat that judicial opinion, but contemporary debates over medicide—Kevorkian's term for death induced by a health professional—demand a similar confrontation with elemental mysteries of human life and death.
If Henrik Ibsen had lived at the end of the second millennium, he would surely have written a problem play about this dramatic problem, a topical piece in which a terminating physician is branded enemy of the people. George Eliot would have accommodated a spacious volume to a discussion of what Kevorkian calls obitriatry, the specialty of physicians who limit their practice by abetting the demise of their patients. Anthony Trollope did, in fact, publish a novel, The Fixed Period (1882), that depicts a society in which all citizens are put to death on their sixty-eighth birthdays. But contemporary theater and fiction have ceded turf to supermarket tabloids, movies-of-the-week, and TV talk shows. Serious novelists—those who aspire to be read long after “Dr. Death,” too, dies and to be taught in the kind of university from whose faculty Kevorkian was expelled—eschew the merely topical. Anxieties over doctors dedicated to shortening rather than prolonging life are registered most directly in popular culture, and nonfiction.
Euthanasia is derived from the Greek for happy death, and the term is either oxymoronic or utopian. However, a country in which mercy-killing is legal and commonplace does exist, and it is neither Bosnia nor Rwanda but rather the Netherlands, where a government commission found that euthanasia accounts for two percent of all deaths and that more than half of the physicians admit deliberately either causing or hastening death. Primum non nocere, first do no harm, is the physician's solemn obligation, and for many Dutch doctors continued agony is a greater harm than loss of a hopeless life. Holland has become the Hemlock Society, and in Seduced by Death Herbert Hendin examines its experience. A psychiatrist active in suicide prevention, Hendin nevertheless claims to have begun his study with an open mind. But his conclusion is unequivocal, that the Dutch medical establishment is violating its ethical responsibilities: “The more I heard, the more I saw, and the more I was told by euthanasia advocates, the more shocked I was not only at the number of what could only be called wrongful deaths but at the Dutch insistence on defending what seemed indefensible.”
Hendin is disturbed by the proliferation of assisted suicide in the United States, and he offers his study of the Netherlands as a polemic against legalization here. He recognizes the humanitarian and libertarian motives of its proponents, the desire to diminish suffering and to affirm the individual's autonomy and dignity. However, he argues that, in practice, assisted suicide and euthanasia enlarge the power of the doctor at the expense of the patient, particularly those most vulnerable because of age, poverty, or ethnicity. While there might be general agreement not to take extraordinary measures to sustain the functions of the terminally ill if it means unbearable, unrelenting pain, Hendin contends that moral gymnasts will soon be rationalizing murder. There is, he insists, “a ‘slippery slope’ that descends inexorably from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from those who are terminally ill to those who are chronically ill, from those who are physically ill to those who are mentally ill, and from those who request euthanasia to those whose lives are ended at the doctor's discretion.”
Nicholas Delbanco maps that slope in his latest novel. Its very title, In the Name of Mercy, suggests the paradox that malign consequences proceed from benevolent intentions. The characters and events in the book so closely echo actualities, particularly in his own State of Michigan, that Delbanco begins by insisting that this is a work of fiction, set in the imaginary Michigan towns of Lakeview and Bellehaven. Yet he also thanks several doctors for their help with the manuscript. In the Name of Mercy is a physician-assisted roman-à-thèse, a literary invention designed to highlight contemporary issues in bioethics. “We live by little detail and not by large abstractions,” notes one of its characters; “we believe that our personal story might stand for a general truth.” Delbanco contrives details for several personal stories in order to illustrate general truths about life and death.
“I want to die,” insists Julie to her husband Peter, a conscientious young physician at a clinic in Lakeview, on the east shore of Lake Michigan. She is afflicted with lentigo maligna melanoma, and, after three years of idyllic marriage, Peter reluctantly, discreetly, puts his wife permanently beyond pain. When a patient suffering from incurable Alzheimer's disease repeats the same formula, “I want to die,” Peter Julius again obliges, with another fatality that is iatrogenic.
Most of In the Name of Mercy is set in Bellehaven, to which the widowed Peter moves in order to become director of the Harley Andrews Hospice, which specializes in the terminally ill. Crude, anonymous letters begin to alert authorities to an unusually high mortality rate among patients at the hospice and the entire Trueman-Andrews Medical Center of which it is a part. Among the principal players in Delbanco's medical whodunnit are: Penny Lampson, a cunning, randy nurse who induces Peter to take her along from Lakeview to Bellehaven; Trip Conley, a venal philanderer who got his job as head of the medical center by marrying the founder's daughter; Jim Kelly, the overwrought chief resident; Harley Andrews, a gruff old tycoon who funds the hospice and fervently believes in a mission of mercy; and Rebecca Forsythe, a British visitor whose books Death's Kingdom and Undiscovered Country have transformed her into a celebrated thanatoptician. Pressured by limited resources for urgent needs and by public concern about their profession, doctors and administrators clash over when to prolong life and when—or whether—to terminate it. While corpses accumulate, Peter and Rebecca, who share the burden of having assisted in a spouse's suicide, find renewal in each other's arms. Meanwhile, a genuine murderer is loose within the plot, and his unwitting victims appear to die in the name of mercy, rather than envy, lust, avarice, and the other base motives that truly foster slaughter.
The absent referent of much of these proceedings, Jack Kevorkian, is nevertheless explicitly invoked by Trip Conley. The rapacious hospital executive acknowledges that he invited Rebecca to Bellehaven as a winsome foil to the dour deliverer, who, by tainting the image of Michigan's medical profession, has been bad for the bottom line. Yet it is only a matter of image. The implication of the novel is that, however camouflaged, medicide is an ugly business. In the Name of Mercy is constructed around the paradoxical spectacle of thanatopticians hoisted on their own Mercitron machine. And Delbanco's own book is just such a mechanism, constructed to convey readers efficiently and painlessly to its end. In the merciless triage that determines literary immortality, problem novels rarely outlive the immediate social problems that they dramatize. The welfare state reduced The Jungle to antiquarian interest. In the Name of Mercy renders readers avid to turn its pages, but it diminishes life and death to merely topical matters.
If, as Wallace Stevens proclaimed, “Death is the mother of beauty,” Thanatos is at least the wet nurse of the Muses. Going to the Sun opens with a stunning act of euthanasia, but its ambitions are loftier than a legal brief. Immobile in a hospital bed, twenty-three-year-old David St. Germaine has lost an arm, two legs, two eyes, and a penis to a feral grizzly bear. He pleads with his lover to end his misery with a covert shot of insulin. Penny Culligan met the man she nicknames “Saint” in a seminar on contemporary Irish poetry. Shortly after the two fall passionately in love, they fly off together on a camping trip. It is during their first night in Glacier National Park that David is mauled just short of death. David's distraught mother demands extraordinary measures to preserve her son, but Penny subtly ends the life of the man she has barely had the time to know.
James McManus sets most of the novel, his fourth, seven years later. Still a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Penny has undertaken an arduous summer project; she intends to bicycle alone to Alaska, to pedal her solitary way through 3,285 miles in nine weeks. Her return to Glacier National Park will be in part an act of exorcism, enabling her to continue living without David. It is also an urgent attempt to subdue the juvenile diabetes that has dominated most of Penny's twenty-nine years and that threatens to shorten her remaining time. The bicycle trip is also a desperate strategy to overcome writer's block; she is at an impasse in her doctoral dissertation.
Her topic is the fiction of Samuel Beckett, who, along with Dante, furnishes an epigraph to Going to the Sun. He also functions as tutelary spirit of the entire enterprise. Throughout her long, persistent journey, through the upper Midwest and into the mountain states, Penny meditates on Molloy, the Beckett narrator whose severe assessment of human possibility resembles her own. “A solo bicycle trip is, after all, the quintessential Beckettian enterprise,” she notes, mindful not only of how many Beckett characters are cyclists but also of how he uses the portrait of a man pedaling as an emblem of human identity and of the tenuous connection between body and soul. Penny's image of her frail, diabetic frame both depleted and fortified by the challenge of locomotion is Beckettian, if not Shakespearean: “a skin bag of off-kilter blood pedaling across lunar grasses.” She travels across a bleak landscape that is the objective correlative of her own desolation. At a Motel 6 in Bobmars, Montana, Penny reconceives her deadlocked thesis: “I should be writing a book about what Beckett has to show about the comic and cosmic inevitability of the deterioration of the body—about accepting, even wishing for, mortality, as a return to our natural state of nonbeing. …”
Going to the Sun is just such a book, though it is not nearly as ponderous as that description might suggest. This picaresque novel exults in the vitality of mortality, and it rejuvenates the venerable American adventure of the open road. McManus is attentive to oddities of the natural and human landscapes through which Penny travels, and he quickens the journey by arranging encounters with Leona Marvin (aka Lee Marvin), an obsessive dissertation director who flies out to North Dakota in an awkward attempt to succor—and seduce—her student, and Ndele Rimes, a black prince in a flashy Mercedes who may be a basketball star or a fugitive carjacker. The prose is fortified by knowledgeable references to the mechanics and discipline of long-distance bicycling and to the onerous daily regimen of a careful diabetic. However, McManus's most impressive achievement is the voice of Penny Culligan, a canny young woman whom readers will gladly follow as far as she can go. Wary of self-pity, this diabetic, peripatetic ABD speaks for all, despite or because of the fact that she is dying more rapidly than most of the rest of us.
Playfully invoking both Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society and author of the suicide manual Final Exit, and Jack Kevorkian, Penny imagines them together in one of Dante's circles of Hell. Yet Going to the Sun is concerned with self-extinction less as a medical or legal issue than an existential one. “Killing myself is the last thing I'm going to do,” quips Penny twice, once to her professor and once in a postcard she writes but never sends to her father. Her roommate Jane is not entirely mistaken in judging a diabetic woman's solo journey from Chicago to Alaska as “some sort of slow-motion suicide mission.” Such, too, is life, though the slowness varies. Penny, whose defective metabolism is sustaining and destroying her, knows that we extinguish ourselves while distinguishing ourselves. She is intent on seizing control of a mutinous life, even if that can only be accomplished through death. Like Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, who tries to manipulate Eilert Loevborg into leaving this world “with a crown of vine-leaves in his hair,” Penny envisions death as deliberate and decisive, a graphic contrast to the muddle of existence: “I'm convinced that one's death should be elegant, painless if possible, and swift—maybe even heroic and beautiful, like I hope David's was. Maybe even slightly triumphant. It should also be an adventure, and so should occur long before one becomes decrepit, since the decrepit tend to be unadventuresome.” Beginning with its arresting account of ursine dismemberment and reluctant euthanasia and concluding with a thrilling dash down Logan Pass, Going to the Sun is just such a feat of mortal bravado.
Beckett's garrulous narrators can't go on, yet they go on, perpetuating themselves in their very wish for self-extinction. The Cumaean Sibyl's pronouncement Apothanein thelo, “I wish to die,” is what Ira Stigman, a prolific eighty-nine-year-old author, asks to be inscribed and hung in his study in New Mexico. Stigman expresses his wish in From Bondage (1996), the first volume published posthumously in Mercy of a Rude Stream, the vast autobiographical cycle created by ailing octogenarian Henry Roth, who, like his narrator alter ego, played his wish to have done with it all against his desire to write it all down. A similar vision of the writing life as a dance with death drives Reader's Block, the fifth novel published by sexagenarian New Yorker David Markson. A fiction in the shape of a cento, a compendium of quotations, it at first seems merely a literary lark. But if the reader can accept its brilliant idiosyncrasy, behold, the lark ascends!
The book is composed of short, discrete assertions arranged in a series of mostly single-sentence paragraphs. Of them, 333 consist of unattributed, more or less familiar quotations, including “Exit, pursued by a bear,” “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist,” and “Delenda est Carthago.” Other brief paragraphs demonstrate the poetry of titles—e.g., “Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress,” “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” and “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” A striking name—“Bucephalus,” “Hannah Senesch,” “Saxo Grammaticus”—or sequence of names—“Walter the Penniless. Peter the Hermit,” “William H. McGuffey. William H. Bonney,” “Brandeis. Cardozo. Frankfurter”—suffices for other paragraphs. Many others offer odd, arresting facts about literary figures—that, for example, Stephen Crane played catcher for the Syracuse University baseball team, Lautréamont, Jules Laforgue, and Jules Supervielle were all born in Montevideo, Kazantzakis's sequel to the Odyssey contains 33,333 lines, and Rudyard Kipling once lived in Vermont.
Two paragraphs separated by seventy-six pages each ask: “A novel of intellectual reference and allusion, so to speak minus much of the novel?” And the answer is manifestly: Reader's Block, a curious grab-bag of a book that also offers this self-referential snippet: “Nonlinear. Discontinuous. Collage-like. An assemblage.” And what Markson's text assembles are details of the artistic life, deconstructing Western culture to reconstruct it as a theater of madness, alcoholism, poverty, and despair. Information that: “Richard Lovelace spent his last years in unimaginable poverty, sometimes scavenging for garbage to subsist” or that: “Modigliani died of tuberculosis in a pauper's ward” suggests a correlation between creativity and misery. Malice, too, is a common trait of artists, and throughout its pages Reader's Block takes particular pains to note that dozens of authors (Pound, Hamsun, Eliot, Aquinas, Kant, Dreiser, Tacitus, Schopenhauer, Wolfe, et al.) were anti-Semites.
But running throughout the text like a latent malignancy is the theme of self-extinction. Four pages from the end of Reader's Block, a two-page list catalogues sixty-one fictional characters who killed themselves. And, at least once per page throughout his book, Markson mentions another actual artist who committed suicide, often specifying the method employed—shotgun, razor blade, revolver, sleeping pills, drowning, cocaine, plastic bag, barbiturates, fire, creosote, starvation, hanging, and sword, among others. We are reminded of the famous suicides—Hemingway, Woolf, Van Gogh, Socrates, Plath, Mishima, Celan, Mayakovsky, Kleist—and no sooner learn the names of others—Kurt Tucholsky, Fanny Imlay, Thomas Heggen, Coleman Dowell, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Constance Mayer—than that they, too, ended their own lives. “There is no death and art can prove it,” reads one paragraph, but the cumulative effect of all this morbid information is to establish that, though art be immortal, there are no artists and death can prove it.
“I have a narrative,” asserts a statement almost halfway through the book. “But you will be put to it to find it.” The narrative, such as it is, in Reader's Block can be found, within the context of culture as corrosion, in scattered statements about figures called “Reader” and “Protagonist.” Fragmented details provide intimations about Protagonist's life—that he was born in December, 1927, that, retired from the writing life and relocated from Greenwich Village, he leads a solitary, straitened existence, eating his meals out of cans. His literary acquaintances have included Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Donald Barthelme, and Malcolm Lowry, who even drank his shaving lotion. Formerly married and involved with women of varying ages, Protagonist has been celibate for three or four years. It is not clear whether he has a telephone. Nor is it clear whether Protagonist now resides in the gatehouse to a cemetery, where he discovers his own—undisclosed—name on one of the graves, or whether he lives in a house by the beach. What does seem certain is that Protagonist, who has survived surgery for lung and prostate cancer and for cataracts, takes his own life, according to two diverging scenarios. If he lives by the beach, Protagonist is said “to saunter out among the sandpipers and the gulls one afternoon, and stand for a time abstractedly in late autumn solitude, and then walk unremarkably into the sea.” In the alternative fiction, in which Protagonist lives beside a graveyard, he is thought “to pause at his accustomed window one afternoon, and gaze for a time abstractedly at the ranks of still white stone beyond, and then turn unremarkably to the gas.” Thus, in the penultimate page of Reader's Block, does Protagonist join the ranks of all the other suicidal writers cited throughout the rest of the book.
References to Reader scattered throughout Reader's Block indicate that he keeps a portrait of Dante, two orange stones from Masada (site of ancient mass Jewish suicide), a ball hit foul by Ted Williams, and a human skull near his desk. Reader is presented as someone who is as responsible as the writer for imagining Protagonist into existence—and oblivion—and for synthesizing all the disparate details of this book's disconnected sentences. Reader, then, is a personification of the mechanism by which Markson's discontinuous novel is generated. But the final, stark, and devastating paragraph demonstrates that Reader also destroys the work that embodies him. With the single concluding word “Wastebasket,” the novel and its connected Reader—like Chatterton or Tosca, or like Yves Tinguely's kinetic sculptures—self-destruct. Kevorkian's Mercitron machine is thus reconfigured in a litany of suicides and in the very act of reading.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3257
SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “A Single Jew.” New York Review of Books 44, no. 15 (9 October 1997): 8-9.
[In the following review, Kazin asserts that Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work offers no new information or understanding that isn't already made clear in Malamud's fiction.]
Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel was awarded the National Book Award for 1958 against the outraged opposition of one judge. Malamud, amazed that he had won, exclaimed, “A miracle has passed.” He was delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honor. The waiter, looking him up and down, briskly informed him that the table was full and that there was no place for him. Not for the first time I was seeing a Malamud story unfold.
There was the afternoon at a Yaddo board meeting when Malcolm Cowley peremptorily addressed him as “Bernie.” This was a familiarity he instantly resented (friends had to call him “Bern”) and he flinched with an anger that I understood all too well. He felt he was being treated prima facie as just another commonplace Jew, like the Jews in immigrant Brooklyn he had raised up to a high level of American art. He identified with them, they were his blood relations and spiritual family, but he was something more—an artist, and people had better not forget it.
The readings, lectures, personal documents, and sundry analyses of his own work published in Talking Horse: Bernard Malamud on Life and Work all insist on one point: I am an American artist in fiction, like so many other famous American writers of fiction, and I live for my art—only death will pull us apart! As a noticeably careful, sober, but rather academic commentary on his own work, the collection says nothing to the informed reader that Malamud's wonderfully unexpected stories and his two best novels, The Assistant and The Fixer, have not made clear. His central, his essential and most remarkable subject, over and over, is a single character who is not simply “Jewish,” like millions of other people, but the Jew, an individual Jew alone in an alien, ungiving environment without the company of other Jews to protect, cheer, and console him.
What could hardly be mentioned in friendly chats with students seeking lessons in “creative writing” were the long-instilled wounds in Malamud's life that did not have to bleed into his art (and they don't) although they are central to it: memories of his father's keeping a failing grocery in a hostile gentile neighborhood, his mother's death when he was fifteen, a younger brother's descent into schizophrenia, everlasting worry about poor sales.
Terror as the body palpably weakens is a principal subject. In “The Mourners,” a landlord who can't get a difficult tenant to leave screams, “Don't monkey with my blood pressure. If you're not out by the fifteenth, I will personally throw you on your bony ass.” The poor grocer (based on Malamud's father) whose goodness dominates his novel The Assistant always groans in fear of a heart attack when in the freezing dawn he has to lug in heavy cases of bottled milk.
Malamud's shopkeepers have no connection with the Jewish working class of the period, with its unions, its collective strikes, its dreams of socialism. The butcher, baker, tailor, shoemaker in these stories are on their own—their wives either dead or unstoppable complainers. No comfort comes from the faithful in the synagogue for a shopkeeper who had to keep open on the Sabbath and even, if necessary, on the holidays most sacred to a Jew. Malamud's grocer lived above the store, and could not get his rest when there was a hope of a customer coming in for a roll and a bottle of milk.
Poverty, the terror of being forced to the wall by another grocery or even a supermarket across the street, is the crucial life experience behind Malamud's recurrent figure of “the Jew.” In some basic sense, he is always alone. But what Malamud could not explain in Talking Horse was that the Jewish experience is in some sense unbelievable to the Jew himself. What readers of Malamud's stories of the seemingly improbable often take as “fantasy” was for him just the dislocation in this supposedly common-sense world familiar to Jews in extremis. Primo Levi in Auschwitz asked a guard, “Why all this?” The guard: “There is no ‘why’ here.”
Technically, Malamud made his art out of the foreign intonations he heard all through his childhood. The immigrants who still thought in Yiddish even as they spoke their self-taught English bring to Malamud's pages bitter, turbulent echoes of life in the shtetls of the Russian Pale where Jews were segregated. The voices in Malamud's slightest dialogue prepare one for The Fixer, Malamud's marvelous recreation of a Russia so steeped in Jew-hatred that an itinerant Jewish “fixer” and handyman could be held for three years awaiting trial on the charge of ritual murder performed according to the precepts of the Jewish religion.
In “The Loan,” Mrs. Lieb, the baker's wife (his second), “alert behind the counter, … discerned a stranger” in the crowd waiting to buy her husband's popular white bread—“a frail, gnarled man with a hard hat who hung, disjoined, at the edge of the crowd.” When he gives his name as “Kobotsky,” and says he wants to see the baker she suspiciously asks, “Who Kobotsky?” adding, “What do you want to see him?” This is the language of Malamud's world, and it fits their circumstances.
Kobotsky stared at his crippled hands. Once a cutter of furs, driven by arthritis out of the business.
Lieb gazed too. The bottom of a truss bit into his belly.
The wife is right to suspect that her husband's old friend wants something—a loan. The baker is moved, and in the face of his wife's vehement disapproval, says pleadingly, “His mother—God bless her—gave me many times a plate hot soup. … His wife is a very fine person—Dora—you will someday meet her—” It turns out that Lieb himself has not seen “Dora” for fifteen years. In fact, she has been dead for five. Kobotsky has come to seek ＄200 from Lieb—he never repaid a first loan—“The money I need for a stone on her grave. She never had a stone. Next Sunday is five years that she is dead and every year I promise her, ‘Dora, this year I will give you your stone,’ and every year I gave her nothing.”
Bessie Lieb screamed when she heard Kobotsky asking her husband for money and, “though weeping, shook her head.” Her father was shot by the Bolsheviks. Her first husband died of typhus in Warsaw. An older brother sacrificed his own chances to send her to America before the war, “and himself ended, with wife and daughter, in one of Hitler's incinerators.”
So I came to America and met here a poor baker, a poor man—who was always in his life poor—without a cent and without enjoyment, and I married him, God knows why, and with my both hands, working day and night, I fixed up for him his piece of business and we make now, after twelve years, a little living. But Lieb is not a healthy man, also with eyes that he needs an operation, and this is not yet everything.
She goes on so long that she soon needs to shriek again—the all-important bread has burned to a cinder. How Malamud loved to hear his characters sound off. No one parodied Yinglish with more zest than he did and to my knowledge no one ever used it to such satiric and poignant effect. One of his funniest tales is “The Jew-bird,” in which a skinny bird with frazzled black wings wearily flaps through the open kitchen window of the Cohen family's top-floor apartment on First Avenue near the East River—and turns out to be a Jew who speaks “Jewish.” The bird is not welcome but won't leave or shut up. He opens up with “Gevalt, a pogrom!” and continues, “If you can't spare a lamb chop I'll settle for a piece of herring with a crust of bread. You can't live on your nerve forever.” He is a Jew like any other Jew fleeing “Anti-Semeets.” “What kind of anti-Semites bother a bird?” the wife asks. “‘Any kind,’ said the bird, ‘also including eagles, vultures, and hawks. And once in a while some crows will take your eyes out.’”
The underside of Malamud's comic gift is that his frail, easily dismayed characters, seemingly driven only by fear for themselves, sometimes manage to incarnate a religious tradition they are too distracted to observe. In “The Mourners,” Gruber the landlord, maddened by Kessler, the obstinate tenant he can't get out of his house, suddenly realizes that Kessler, squatting on the floor without shoes, is in mourning, doing shiva, in memory of him. Kessler regards him as spiritually dead. Whereupon the landlord drapes himself in a sheet that serves for a prayer shawl and joins the other in prayer.
“Take Pity” takes place in limbo, a purgatory that can be connected to Jewish experience if not to its religious tradition. The recording angel Davidov, “the census-taker,” and the newly arrived Rosen, a suicide who bequeathed everything to a widow, Eva, who had refused his love on Earth, brush off all sentimentality by turning up in another world as rough, workaday Jews who talk as such Jews in Malamud usually talk. “What's the matter you don't pull the shade up?” the angel asks the suicide. “Who needs light?” “What then you need?” “Light I don't need,” replied Rosen.
“Davidov, sour-faced, flipped through the closely scrawled pages of his notebook until he found a clean one. He attempted to scratch in a word with his fountain pen but it had run dry, so he fished a pencil stub out of his vest pocket and sharpened it with a cracked razor blade.” Even angels have to make do in Malamud country.
No traditional afterlife ever comes to mind here, but a Jew knows what it is to be cooped up in limbo, a trying-out period between heaven and hell in which he tells his story. Rosen describes the end of Eva's husband:
Broke in him something. … Broke what breaks. He was talking to me how bitter was his life, and he touched me on my sleeve to say something else, but the next minute his face got small and he fell down dead, the wife screaming, the little girls crying that it made in my heart pain. I am myself a sick man and when I saw him laying on the floor, I said to myself, “Rosen, say goodbye, this guy is finished.” So I said it.
Rosen gave up his life for a woman who didn't love him. Morris Bober, the ailing, impoverished grocer in Malamud's novel The Assistant, so beaten up by a thug who has robbed him that he can no longer tend the store, unwittingly takes on as “assistant” the young Italyener Frank Alpine, the man who attacked him. Alpine doesn't know what to do with his life. Morris knows in despair all too well what to do with his. He suffers. Alpine, enviously studying Morris even as he doesn't register every sale he makes, says, “But tell me why it is that the Jews suffer so damn much, Morris. It seems to me that they like to suffer, don't they?” Morris: “If you live, you suffer. Some people suffer more, but not because they want.” Frank: “What do you suffer for, Morris?” “I suffer for you,” Morris said calmly.
Frank doesn't understand that last remark, and I didn't either when I first read it. Morris adds, “I mean you suffer for me,” and ends up saying, “If a Jew forgets the Law, he is not a good Jew and not a good man.” But Morris's saying “calmly” “I suffer for you” turns Morris into something like a Christ figure, and this is out of tune with everything else he says and does. When Morris finally dies, a rabbi he has never met, now officiating at his funeral, says, “Morris Bober was to me a true Jew because he lived in the Jewish experience, which he remembered, and with the Jewish heart. Maybe not to our formal tradition—for this I don't excuse him—but he was true to the spirit of our life—to want for others that which he wants also for himself. … Who told me this? I know. … For such reasons he was a Jew. What more does our sweet God ask His poor people?”
Malamud wanted Morris's life—clearly drawn from his own father's life—to be more than fortitude in suffering. The Golden Rule, though versions of it are familiar in Biblical lore, is not in the Law handed down from Mount Sinai. In the “Jewish experience,” which even to the most rebellious Jew has a sanctity apart from doctrine, the sense of Jewish virtue follows from all the wrong done to powerless Jews. Such virtue is what Malamud claimed for his characters. It is the most familiar theme in Yiddish fiction. But for a moment, when Morris claims to suffer for Frank, who once robbed him and assaulted him, and will rape his daughter, Malamud obviously yearns for a new moral universe based on unquestioning love for another. Malamud is perfectly aware that Christians don't dependably live up to this either. But he wants something more than fortitude and survival for his own, the long-suffering Jew—he wants him, if only once, to rise above the “Jewish experience.”
Not easily done. The collected stories include an amusing fantasy, “Angel Levine,” about a black Jew who is an angel “disincarnated” to live on Earth, but gets so caught up in Harlem that he gives less help than expected of a co-religionist. Typically, the story opens with the words “Manischevitz, a tailor, in his fifty-first year suffered many reverses and indignities.” The tailor regards his suffering as “an affront to God,” flatters and positively flirts with Him to get some help. “My dear God, sweetheart, did I deserve that this should happen to me?” But if it happens, say the pious, God wanted it to happen. Job, with his questionings, has no place here. God has swallowed the pious up: they do not complain or protest.
Yakov Bok, the victim-hero in The Fixer, is arrested by the Jew-hating tsarist police on a charge of ritual murder. He is enveloped in the age-old blood libel—a Jew will murder a Christian child in order to drain the blood that Jews use for baking Passover matzos. This horror, so steeped in medieval superstition that Chaucer repeated it in his tribute to the childmartyr Saint Hugh of Lincoln, was acceptable as late as 1925 to that cleverest of converts to Rome, G. K. Chesterton. In The Everlasting Man Chesterton charged that “the Hebrew prophets were perpetually protesting against the Hebrew race relapsing into an idolatry that involved such a war upon children; and it is probably enough that this abominable apostasy from the God of Israel has occasionally appeared in Israel since, in the form of what is called ritual murder … by individual and irresponsible diabolists who did happen to be Jews.”
Bok “the fixer” has never been a happy or agreeable man. He has no reliable trade, his wife left him because they remained childless. She turned to other men. Despite misgivings from his father-in-law, Bok leaves the shtetl to try his luck in the great city of Kiev. He is now there illegally, for Jews require special permission to live outside the Pale. Although always on the run, he manages to rescue from the freezing cold the drunken proprietor of a brick kiln, who belongs to the violently anti-Semitic “Black Hundreds,” the organization most responsible for pogroms.
Not knowing that Bok is a Jew and so a fugitive from the police, the grateful proprietor hires him to oversee his employees, who are evidently cheating him. This of course makes them hate Bok, whom they already suspect to be a Jew, and when a young boy's body is discovered in a cave, Bok is promptly arrested. As a Jew illegally living in Kiev, he is on everybody's hate list. Even the kiln proprietor's crippled daughter, who coaxed Bok up to her bedroom, testifies vindictively against him. Blood is indeed at the center of the case. She hates Bok because he begged off after seeing menstrual blood on her thigh.
For three years awaiting trial, Bok is strip-searched several times a day, starved, beaten, humiliated and isolated and constantly reminded that “you Yids killed Christ.” The Tsar takes a deep, vengeful interest in his case. The Russian Orthodox Church, the most anti-Semitic Christian church (it still is), vilifies him in concert with the Black Hundreds.
The Fixer is based on the historic case of Mendel Beilis in Kiev, 1913, who after suffering the many tortures Malamud unsparingly described in his novel was amazingly found innocent by a jury of Russian peasants. Leading lawyers—including Alexander Kerensky—came to his defense. Non-Jewish scholars testified that Jews have such a horror of blood that they do not tolerate a drop of it in their food. The Russian Orthodox Church built a church to commemorate Beilis's “victim.” Beilis, who eventually settled in America, remained an extremely bitter man who could never forgive even the many Jews and non-Jews who backed him up against the hatred that had seeped into his prison cell.
As Dreyfus was personally not liked by many who fought for his release from Devil's Island, so Beilis was not a favorite with many who knew him best. Malamud describes Bok's gruffness, his hatred of the deserting wife, and especially his refusal to ask God for help. He is not a believer. When his father-in-law sneaks a prayer shawl into his cell, he wears it as underwear against the cold. Bok knows nothing of ritual murder. He knows that he is up against people determined to cause him pain, day after day and year after year, simply because he is a Jew. So his quarrel is with primitive, superstitious Russia, not with “God,” who is not in the picture at all. Bok in jail becomes a revolutionary and imagines himself joyfully shooting the Tsar “right through the heart.”
One thing I've learned, he thought, there's no such thing as an unpolitical man, especially a Jew. You can't be one without the other, that's clear enough. You can't sit still and see yourself destroyed.
Afterwards he thought, Where there's no fight for it there's no freedom. What is it Spinoza says? If the state acts in ways that are abhorrent to human nature it's the lesser evil to destroy it. Death to the anti-Semites! Long live revolution! Long live liberty!
The novel cleverly ends with Bok being taken through the streets of Kiev on his way to trial.
The crowds lining both sides of the streets were dense again, packed tight between curb and house-front. There were faces at every window and people standing on rooftops along the way. Among those in the street were Jews of the Plossky District. Some, as the carriage clattered by and they glimpsed the fixer, were openly weeping, wringing their hands. One thinly bearded man clawed his face. One or two waved at Yakov. Some shouted his name.
Probably to Yakov's surprise, Malamud wants to say, he is not alone.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 340
SOURCE: Buckeye, Robert. Review of Old Scores, by Nicholas Delbanco. Review of Contemporary Fiction 18, no. 1 (spring 1998): 250-51.
[In the following review of Old Scores, Buckeye praises Delbanco's writing as intelligent, compassionate, and well-crafted.]
We know the story: the sixties; college; the professor, Paul Ballard, and the student he becomes involved with, Elizabeth Sieverdsen; the brief flaring of their love, its near predictable failure. It was the sixties, after all, and too many mistook indulgence for love. And its sequel: to revisit, with the cold eye of experience and time, that youthful evanescence. Or, even worse, to come together again years later, marked by life, particularly divorce, and think that this time …
It is the story of Old Scores but not the one Nicholas Delbanco tells. Love is either more than we will ever understand or less than, much less than, we desire, but it is everything Paul and Elizabeth desire, all they need to understand, even if they do not know it at the time. Despite years apart, their love marks them forever, alters their lives. Delbanco gives us here an Abelard and Heloise for our time, and if his comparison, of necessity, at first diminishes, it also enlarges; Paul and Elizabeth are legitimate heirs. It is a characteristic modernist method to hold the present up against the past, and Delbanco has employed it frequently; in Small Rain, for example, a version of Tristan and Isolde, or The Martlet's Tale, an account of the prodigal son. Guy Davenport argues that modernism was determined by the discovery of the specific, and Delbanco's detail is always, Thomas Lask notes, “dense, Euclidean in its ability to focus on a particular point of time and space.” Here and elsewhere, he keeps faith with the still uncompleted modernist project: his impulse utopian, standards absolute, measure the particular. We may characterize his writing at every point in this complex and difficult enterprise by its acute intelligence; by its compassion, particularly for the old; and, first and last, by its language, precise, exact. Old Scores is characteristic.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683
SOURCE: Gundy, Jeff. “Handling the Truth.” Georgia Review 106, no. 3 (fall 2000): 559-72.
[In the following excerpt, Gundy explores notions of truth in the essay collections of several authors, including Delbanco's The Lost Suitcase.]
Essays are often viewed as a kind of supplement, something that novelists and poets do with the leftover thoughts and stray impulses and bits of material that won't fit into their “real” work. Several aspects of the books under discussion here support this theory. One of them begins with an essay that the author breezily confesses having pieced together out of fragments from his commonplace book. And while dust-jacket notes are hardly to be trusted, if we take these at their word we learn that none of these authors is before all else an essayist. Of the whole group, only Sam Pickering is not more widely known as a poet or fiction writer, and even he, like David Brendan Hopes and Nicholas Delbanco, is described as a professor and then as an author. Turning to the others, we learn that Marjorie Sandor has won prizes for her short fiction and is also a professor, and that Hilary Masters has written eight novels. Even in their subject matter these books foreground issues related to writing fiction and poetry much more often than those related to writing nonfiction prose. Why are these authors, all of them quite capable essayists, seemingly reluctant to present themselves as essayists, and seemingly diffident as they offer their books for our attention?
I offer that question only for your contemplation. But as I read these books I found myself fascinated with closely related issues: just how writers present themselves, how they engage and contend with different registers of experience and inquiry, what particular elements of the world seemed to concern these novelists and poets and professors when they turn their hand to the essay. This sample is too small to be reliable, but these collections offer some tantalizing clues as to what literary artists who think of themselves as particular kinds—poets, fiction writers, or memoirists—find especially interesting and important, and to what uses they tend to put their materials.
We may view essays as mere supplements, but we also tend to have expectations about their being “true” that we don't have for fiction or even poetry. The current popularity of the unwieldy term “creative nonfiction” suggests some ambiguous balance of invention and truth, and the ways essayists handle these elements are crucial. The books under review all drew my attention to the ways their authors selected, arranged, and improvised upon the facts of their lives and interests. In what follows, then, I hope to explore how writers who define their primary identities quite differently seem to handle “the truth,” even as their handling becomes itself a part of their quest for self-definition and literary creation.
Nicholas Delbanco's The Lost Suitcase offers an unusual combination of texts: centered among eight essays on “the literary life” we find the title novella, a reimagining from multiple perspectives of the famous anecdote of the missing valise full of Hemingway's early manuscripts. Both the novella and the essays take up questions of literary accomplishment, judgment, and strategies in a confident, almost magisterial manner. Delbanco knows his craft and how to make even rather loose connections seem natural enough. I have already mentioned that the opening essay, “Travel, Art, and Death,” pieces together quite disparate entries from a commonplace book; yet by its end we believe that travels in Greece, old photographs, the deaths of Wallace Stegner and John Hersey, and the odd story of a friend—who passes his oral exam to graduate summa cum laude at Harvard because he happens to have memorized the first three hundred lines of Paradise Lost—all somehow belong together.
Lively, canny observations and anecdotes about the necessary but difficult relations among artists and their peers and mentors run through this book. Ruefully, Delbanco repeats the famous maxim that there is no arguing about taste, and he then notes the contradictory reality that those of us who teach writing or aspire to be writers must, in one way or another, spend our lives making and pressing others to make such judgments. We have to argue about taste; its vagaries and mysteries must be explored and examined even when they cannot be neatly summarized. One fine story tells of cellist Bernard Greenhouse studying with the master Pablo Casals until he can play a Bach suite exactly as Casals does. At this point, Casals plays through the piece once more, changing every detail and nuance of his performance. “Now you've learned how to improvise in Bach. From now on you study Bach this way.”
For novelists grappling with the problem of historical accuracy, Delbanco offers the intriguing operating principle of “lazy historicity” he devised while writing a novel about the nearly forgotten Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. “[I]t seems to me that the domain of research in historical fiction is strangely delimited: you need to get things right but need to stop your study when imagination starts. It's a kind of starter motor: you turn that particular key until the true engine kicks in.” Such a principle may trouble historians, but those concerned with the alternate avenues toward truth that fiction provides—and daunted by the nearly bottomless swamp that waits for those who pursue complete historical authenticity—will find it useful.
The essay “Telephone” provides some historical background in preparation for the title novella. In the standard version of the incident (Hemingway's first wife Hadley packed the suitcase to bring to him in Switzerland, and it was lost somewhere on her train journey), the loss of the early manuscripts “became an emblem for what proved irretrievable: [Hemingway's] hopeful youth, his marriage, his sense of possibility, his early close wrangling with words.” Yet Delbanco resists the tragic view of the incident, pointing out that the lost work could have been “mere penny-ante prose,” that surely Hemingway could have reconstructed much of what was worth saving, that Hemingway just may have, in fact, reworked some of the “lost” stories into A Moveable Feast.
Whatever the truth might be, “The Lost Suitcase” works a series of dazzling, virtuosic variations upon the story. Hadley (Delbanco calls her Anna-Lise) is naïve and earnest in the first version, a world-weary libertine in the next; in another she reads the pages and discovers, to her horror, that
this language of his is atrocious, so very much a schoolboy's prose she cannot bring herself to think of it as Edward's work or the work of someone who could ever be a writer.
There are pages about football and baseball and boxing.
There are pages about fish.
That which she tried to teach him he has failed entirely to learn; that which he knows is not worth knowing, but bathetic and mannered and cheap.
This is crafty stylistically as well as thematically, paying a kind of parodistic homage to Hemingway's famous prose style even as it undercuts it. Strikingly, throughout the many variations AnnaLise is a far more varied and intriguing character than Edward, who remains relatively consistent, and more or less an arrogant dope. One senses Delbanco's delight in having the master exactly where he wants him, in his own ability to retell the story with any spin he pleases, and especially in making the soon-to-be-spurned first wife the more interesting and talented character.
Yet the story's interest goes beyond the characters into the metanarrative that develops around, above, and below the kernel of incident. With the return to realism that has dominated fiction in the last twenty years or so, such postmodern maneuvers have fallen out of fashion, but Delbanco defies the currents and improvises happily, questions his own knowledge and motives, meditates on the difficulties of making fiction, and offers a droll series of lists: thirteen ways of looking at a suitcase, thirteen ways of hiding a suitcase, thirteen ways of looking for a suitcase, etc.
“Letter to a Young Fiction Writer” similarly pays homage to Rilke and his Letters to a Young Poet while drawing back a bit from the youthful admiration Delbanco once felt for the German poet. He now finds “the roses and the maidens and the lighthouses and the Orphic utterances” to be “a little humid.” His own advice includes a defense of the teaching of writing: “the worst that's done is not much harm and the best is a good deal better than that.” He notes the difficulty of finishing a book, of coming to terms with it as merely an “inert cultural object” rather than “fancy's flesh and bone.”
The last essay of The Lost Suitcase deals directly with the issue of why writers write. Its highlight, and a good measure of Delbanco's method and approach, is a brief transcription of the Beaux Arts Trio in rehearsal, with commentary. The musicians speak in a kind of polyglot, shorthand babble that is both hilarious and surprisingly revealing about the process of collaborative creation:
Nun, take it from D. Wubba wubba wubba wubba. Ich habe quasi improvisatore ici. You follow my bowing and I follow yours. Wubba wubba. You lose the whole effect of that piano after playing forte for fourteen bars through. Last night I tried going up, today I go down—the takeover shouldn't sound as if now it's me—but lead up, please.
Delbanco comments that his role was “to evoke the nature of the enterprise in a language faithful to the original but sufficiently distant from it to be more than mere transcription. This was a particular problem of reportage and, perhaps, extreme. But it seems to me an emblem of the novelist's ongoing task: we witness and translate.” Surely he is right; yet his own practice suggests that writers must create what is effectively a new reality, in what is quite nearly a different language, as they move from the rich, multilayered symphony of the live situation to the comparatively flat, single instrument of the written text. Wherever that lost suitcase may be, we are fortunate to have this book about it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
SOURCE: Gordon, Neil. “No Direction Home.” Washington Post Book World (14 January 2001): 3-4.
[In the following review, Gordon praises What Remains for its thoughtful, evocative, and lucid prose, as well as vivid characterization. Gordon discusses the theme of Jewish identity in the wake of the Holocaust as treated in Delbanco's novel.]
The Holocaust is not only the brutal history of an attempted genocide nor the nightmarish story of the camps. It's also a symphony of dignity lost, of warmth and childhood forever poisoned by the knowledge that generations of Jews anchored in Europe were uprooted in a few sudden years by implacable bureaucrats and jackbooted sadists. Nowhere was this more shocking than in Germany itself, where hundreds of years of Jewish residence had created a community as inextricably interwoven into German life as Jews are today into America, Judaism being often the weaker of their cultural and political identifications. For the lucky few who were able to escape, the Holocaust was a story not of extermination but of the detailed daily cruelty of German anti-semitism: the subtle, cruel, torturous destruction of the most safe and comforting intimacies of family and home.
What Remains, Nicholas Delbanco's 15th work of fiction, is a pensive and evocative tour through three generations of an exiled German-Jewish family as they carry, first to Britain and then to America, the shameful truth of their betrayal by their country and neighbors. They were foresighted enough to flee Germany before the war, and wealthy enough to pay the 25 percent of their net worth extracted by the Nazis as the price of immigration, while immigration was still allowed. Art dealers and businessmen, they live luxuriantly and very intensely the life of the mind: Their literary references are to Schiller and Goethe, Shakespeare and Proust; they listen to Bach and Schubert, and live among Rodins and rare African masks. In England their children are educated at Cambridge, in America at Harvard. They eat Westphalian ham, they celebrate Christmas.
There is nothing affected about this: Such was the culture of bourgeois Germans of the prewar period. Sometimes it seems, looking back as if the depth of Germany's racism was a precisely opposite measure of the heights of its culture and humanity before the crash of 1929, when Nazism began to take hold.
Wherever they are, the members of the family are aware that their ancestors were expelled from Venice in the 16th century, and they themselves were expelled from Hamburg in the 20th. “And it could happen here,” Delbanco writes. “On a daily basis, it is wise to be prepared. When John F. Kennedy was shot, and then Lee Harvey Oswald on TV, [Karl] had been fearful of madness, Wahnsinn, a national catastrophe, and they would have to leave. … Once you have been a refugee, you never forget it could happen again.”
Delbanco begins the novel from the perspective of 1984, when Benjamin, the family's middle grandchild, visits his childhood home in London. From here the story skips in succeeding chapters back to Benjamin's father, Karl, living in a wealthy New York suburb in the '60s, then back further to Benjamin's early childhood in 1944, when the family settled in London following their early escape from Hamburg. Most of the book proceeds to explore the interior landscapes of members of Benjamin's family in London in the mid-'40s; successive chapters enter the minds of his uncle, his grandmother, his older brother. Then the narration skips forward to the '60s again, taking up Benjamin's mother's point of view in New York. In the epilogue, we return to Benjamin's point of view for a last visit to London, with his two grown daughters, in 1996.
It's a complicated structure and necessarily a bit confusing. The payoff for a little perseverance, however, is that when the book catches us, it does so very, very hard—amazingly so. In a prose as evocative and clear as any being written in America today, Delbanco draws us into the very thought processes of his characters, showing us the past through their eyes and with the thick reality of their emotions. The exactitude and plenitude of detail in this book have the authenticity of real literary imagination, a world recreated through precisely drawn objects and sensations, a deeply empathetic construction of character and place, informed by nostalgia and love. Nothing here is particularly original; this is an evocation of a very familiar world. But everything here is vivid and important.
When writing from a child's point of view, Delbanco has the gift of mixing passing images and deep observation. Ben sees his mother start to cry when she tells him, “Remember, when they take away your house and kill the people that you love they can't take what you carry in your head”; moments later he reflects on a detail of the color in a shuffleboard game, equally striking to a child. Lived memory is composed of accidental details, retained by a logic beyond our control.
The novel's multiple points of view allow unusual insight into each of the characters. So Julia, the wise and didactic mother, emerges in a complex portrait created by combining the views of Ben and his brother, Jacob, and their father, Karl. In Judaism, writes John Sanford, it is the old men who are beautiful. But the figure of this troubled, courageous, careful woman will stay with me for a great long time, and the unveiling of the trauma at the heart of her emotional life is so skillfully handled that it provides this unusually complex novel with a dimension of suspense that any mystery writer would envy.
The German philosopher Theodore Adorno's famous mistake—his assertion that there could be no art after Auschwitz—can in retrospect be paraphrased in a much surer way: There can be no home after Auschwitz. The Nazis showed the postwar world that home is an empty concept: Belonging is suspect, safety is temporary, and the roots of residence can be torn away by a racism that good governments can perhaps control but that no government, from Bonn to Washington, can ever eradicate. What remains of our identity when we know that the most unthinkable rejection can eradicate everything we hold most dear? That's the question that Delbanco's musical and wise novel asks, and his answer—a tapestry of memory, missing, art, love and a lifelong awareness of vulnerability—is as fine as will be found anywhere.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1416
SOURCE: Kirshenbaum, Binnie. “A Desire to Belong.” New Leader 134, no. 1 (January-February 2001): 30-1.
[In the following review, Kirshenbaum praises What Remains as emotionally compelling and gracefully written.]
Nicholas Delbanco's 13th novel is a breathtakingly beautiful slim volume. But don't be misled by its size. The scope of What Remains is epic, spanning generations and continents. It is further testimony to Delbanco's skill as a writer that he artfully packs so much into such a compact work. There is nothing splashy here, no verbal pyrotechnics. Rather, it is the grace of language and of ideas that creates the gravitational pull which draws in the reader and swells the heart.
Told in chapters of alternating voices that skip back and forth in the time between 1944 and 1996, What Remains is the story of an extended family, three generations of refugees. These are not Emma Lazarus' tired, poor, huddled masses. They are rich German Jews who were among the fortunate in so far as they were able to get out of Nazi Germany largely intact, and with more than the shirts on their backs.
Although no longer fabulously wealthy—no more chauffeur-driven cars or costume balls—they are safely ensconced in bourgeois abundance (they do have a maid) in London. Yes, bombs certainly did fall and they did experience the irony of being unwanted, not for being Jewish but for being German in wartime England. Yet all in all they lived a comfortable life. In a tender detail of their safety, the father of the family's two small boys has painted a donkey, an elephant and Rafi the giraffe on the ceiling and walls of the garage that serves as their air-raid shelter.
Since this family—so warm, so loving, so morally and intellectually superior—had the prescience to see what was coming and the ability to save themselves, where is the sorrow? And make no mistake about it, this is a sorrowful novel.
The title points to the answer: It is in the ache of what is lost and of what remains behind that the author evokes in each of his wonderful characters; in the opaque patina of grief that transforms this family; in the knowledge that their lives will never be the same, innocence lost cannot be found. The sentiment is sweetly mirrored in a scene where Karl's wife Julia loses a ring. Not the whole ring, only a piece of it—the head of Minerva in gold. Her sons set about looking for it, with the promise of a pound to the one who finds it. Surely Ben will find it, because he is the one who always finds what is lost. Only this time, it is Jacob who finds the piece of gold and Ben who must face a small, but painful, truth.
This splendid family accepts what fate has dished out for them with all the courtesies, the stoicism, the strength, the dated elegance they value. Elsa, the mother of Karl and Gustave, the grandmother of Jacob and Ben, is almost eccentric. Enormous, but not so much that we don't take her seriously. She is too complicated to simply slip into an Auntie Mame type caricature, although she has her quirks: She winningly chain-smokes, leaving trails of ash in her wake. She dresses always in head-to-toe black or head-to-toe gray (the best backdrops for her silver jewelry—gold being vulgar). She teaches her grandsons the need for lovely manners. She infuses them with a love of nature, and how not to merely look but to see. She has a grand logic all her own too: If that art school had not rejected the young Adolf Hitler, nothing would have happened. It is all the fault of the art school.
But no one in this family laments or gripes or indulges in a cheap nostalgia. Even when momentarily overwhelmed with sadness while telling her grandson Ben of Germany, of the paradox of a nation that produced the music of Bach and Beethoven and Schubert yet also made Hitler (whom she often refers to as Schicklgruber), Granny averts her face from the boy. But, as Ben knows, it is 1946. The War is over. Hitler is gone. They could return, if only for a visit. Elsa, however, knows better:
“‘And when a whole country is evil like that it's madness to think of returning. Not ever.’
“‘Do you miss it?’
“‘Yes,’ she says. “‘I miss it very much.’
“And then she gives him chocolate, and they sit and rock.”
No, they can never go back. But they are German. So very, very German, and this they don't relinquish easily. There is more than a passing nod to keeping the German way of life alive in exile. They have not let go of their Goethe or their Heine or their chamber concerts or their language. Their English is liberally peppered with German, and their few friends outside the family are German refugees. In another paradox, it is their Germanness that keeps them from their Jewishness. When one of their friends, Dr. Lucas (always with the German formality of Dr.) wishes the family a good yontiff, he is reprimanded:
“‘We don't speak Yiddish here,’ says Julia. ‘Not in this house.’”
No Yiddish is spoken, no synagogue attended, and they celebrate Christmas replete with a tannenbaum and Christmas goose. This is not, as Dr. Lucas accuses, anti-Semitism as much as perhaps an elitism and a desire to belong. Elsa may be the one who most longs for Germany, and technically she is the matriarch, but it is Julia who is the clear-eyed pragmatist. It is she who runs the show, and who is always prepared to flee if need be.
Her pragmatism results in Julia's determination to move to America, to raise her boys in a place she believes will be more congenial than England to refugees. She wants her sons to go to Harvard, and so this branch of the family—Karl, Julia, Jacob, and Benjamin—leaves England and finds further refuge in Westchester Country, where a third son is born. Again, life is more than fair to them. They live in a nice house, Karl's business is successful, Jacob and Benjamin do indeed go off to Harvard, as it seems the youngest brother will too. The American Dream come true, albeit not exactly the Horatio Alger rags-to-riches version. Rather riches to solidly upper middle class, which is a small price to pay for life and limb, for freedom from fear, for a chance to belong.
Still, the matter of what remains continues to reverberate and unfold. With her sons grown and out of the house, what remains for Julia is a loneliness that cannot be filled. It is in part a remnant of the memory of her first love—an unrequited love for a young man in Germany, Jacob Steiner, who jumped from a window to his death as the Nazis closed in. Perhaps Julia's love for Jacob was not eternal, but something of it was. After she at last married Karl and settled down, she gave her first son Jacob's name so as not to forget—to always be reminded of her initial romantic adventure, her daring intransigent wide-eyed youth that day.
Questions remain about Jacob Steiner as well, about why he rejected Julia's offer of love and what part of him feared the Nazis most. And questions remain about Karl and Julia's marriage. It was a solid marriage, a successful marriage, stable and obviously one of mutual respect, but was it a happy marriage? That is not so clear.
To be a responsible family man, Karl gave up his dream of being an artist. Instead, he is a Sunday painter, salvaging pleasure in doing self-portraits on weekends spent in his studio; a studio apart from the rest of the house because Julia cannot abide the smell of turpentine.
And what will become of Gustave's art gallery? Ben returns to England with the idea of possibly taking it over, since Gustave would like his life's work to remain in the family. But, no. It won't work out. Ben cannot stay in England, and we are left to believe that the gallery will soon be no more.
In the very end what remains is our ashes, the dust of us. Dust and memory; memory from which story is fashioned. Nicholas Delbanco opens his story with an epigram, a line from Ezra Pound:
What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
What remains is this virtuous novel, written with love.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274
SOURCE: Heller, Amanda. Review of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, by Nicholas Delbanco. Boston Globe (19 August 2001): D3.
[In the following review, Heller describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an intriguing account focused on both the art of the musician and the art of the luthier.]
It is one of those confluences of circumstance best summed up as “genius of place”: For a number of variably evident reasons, about 300 years ago in the vicinity of Cremona, in northern Italy, a handful of craftsmen briefly produced the most sublime violins and cellos the world has ever known. Their names speak for themselves: Amati, Guarneri, and the most famous of all, Stradivari.
The author and scholar Nicholas Delbanco is fortunate enough to have a Stradivarius cello in the family (for such an exquisite creation is treated by its owner not as an inanimate possession but rather as a beloved, with a body and soul), belonging to his father-in-law, the master cellist Bernard Greenhouse. In this brief but intriguing essay, [The Countess of Stanlein Restored,] Delbanco sketches the rather murky provenance of this glorious old instrument, once owned by the violin virtuoso Paganini, and then details the painstaking surgery performed on it by a gifted artisan, Ren Morel, over a period of two years, an excruciating wait for an anxious owner approaching his mid-80s. This tiny book with its top-heavy title is a little gem, a trove of fact, lore, and sensual description evoking two enduring and intertwined traditions—the art of the musician and the art of the luthier. One suspects that Delbanco would not object to having it described, ultimately, as a love story.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366
SOURCE: Elliott, Robin. “Lure and Lore of the Cello.” Irish Times (27 October 2001): 69.
[In the following excerpt, Elliott describes The Countess of Stanlein Restored as an engaging and affectionate portrait of a rare cello.]
The cello is an object of such consummate perfection that it is hard to believe that it was created by the human mind. It is exquisitely beautiful to look at, and has a range of musical expression rivalled only by the violin. By turns, it can provide a sturdy yet flexible accompanying line, or take flight in full-throated song. …
[In The Countess of Stanlein Restored,] Delbanco sheds light on the mysterious art of restoration. Delbanco holds the Robert Frost Collegiate Chair of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, but he is also the son-in-law of Bernard Greenhouse, the semi-retired cellist of the Beaux Arts Trio. Delbanco has written an engaging and affectionate portrait of Greenhouse's Stradivarius cello, which is named after two former owners of the instrument: Stanlein, a French 19th-century aristocrat, and Paganini, the legendary Italian violin virtuoso.
This is one of about 60 surviving Strad cellos, as compared to just 12 violas but 600 or so violins.
Stradivarius made the instrument in 1707 near the start of his “Golden Period”, and it is the first of his smaller-sized cellos (75 cm long, as opposed to 81 cm in his earlier period). As such it has been the model for countless imitators ever since.
Greenhouse, who played this cello every day for 40 years, decided to have the instrument completely restored when he retired from active concert giving. He entrusted the job to the New York luthier Ren Morel, who gave two years of labour and love to the job.
It was a delicate balance between keeping the original material by Stradivarius (even small strips of canvas glued to the inside for reinforcement) and respecting the history of the instrument (for instance, by not replacing the back of the peg box, which was cut out by an earlier repairer and is now a distinctive feature of the instrument). Delbanco conveys wonderfully the arcane mysteries of what went into the restoration process and what makes a Strad something very much more than the sum of its parts.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479
SOURCE: Foss, Michael. “Yours for Twenty Pence.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5148 (30 November 2001): 21.
[In the following review, Foss offers a mixed assessment of The Countess of Stanlein Restored, faulting Delbanco for focusing too heavily on renowned persons such as cello-craftsman Antonio Stradivari and cellist Bernard Greenhouse, among others.]
This curious little book [The Countess of Stanlein Restored] promises to tell the story of the life, and the restoration, of a musical instrument. The instrument is the so-called Countess of Stanlein cello, made by Antonio Stradivari in 1707 and now in the possession of the respected American cellist Bernard Greenhouse.
The history of a fine old instrument is a rich field for all kinds of investigation. In fact, a whole sociology lies implicit in such an instrument. Many tricky questions are relevant to this story: matters of craftsmanship and technology; the commercial life of Cremona in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the demands of music on instruments and the relationship between compositional changes and instrument making; the requirements of performers and the pressures of audience expectation; the extreme tension, in a liberal economy, between the commodity value of an old instrument that has now become an art object and the need of none too wealthy players to release the musical potential of that object. And there is, of course, the romance of obscure histories, which, in the case of the “Stanlein”, witnessed a certain Signor Merighi, in 1822, rescuing the cello from a barrow in the streets of Milan for a sum now equivalent to twenty pence.
Wisely, Nicholas Delbanco limits the interesting topics that he might have covered. Unwisely, he tells us things we don't want to know. The author is the son-in-law of Bernard Greenhouse, and (with justice) speaks of the cellist with hushed respect. But the ineffable gloss of celebrity, the spotlight of fame, washes unerringly over too many names, including the World Cello Congress, Yo-Yo Ma, Casals, Greenhouse, and in particular the restorer René Morel and the maker Antonio Stradivari. Morel and Stradivari are undoubtedly great names in their fields—Stradivari perhaps the greatest. But the point is that we would like to be given more information and more intelligent discussion, and fewer laudatory puffs for those who don't need them. For example, the author draws heavily on the judgment of the Hill brothers, those pioneers in the study of Stradivarius instruments. Well, here is their opinion of this cello: “The Stanlein bass is today only a moderate example, as it bears signs of considerable and injudicious restoration.” This may be wrong, but it is worth discussing. Stradivari is a starry name, but by no means were all his instruments great. He was a craftsman, mighty but fallible, not a brand name. The sooner we learn that a mere rote of brand names is not an effective technique in the evaluation of art, the clearer our judgments will be.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 166
Flanagan, Thomas. “Old Masters of the Modern Novel.” Washington Post Book World 13, no. 27 (4 July 1982): 3, 13.
Flanagan criticizes Group Portrait as offering little in the way of new information, but praises Delbanco for expressing a strong sense of affection for his subject.
Ruttencutter, Helen Drees. “Working in Harmony.” Washington Post (9 February 1985): G2.
Ruttencutter argues that The Beaux Arts Trio is “disappointing” and comments that Delbanco inserts himself into the text too much.
Slung, Michele. “Aix Marks the Spot: Traveling through Provence.” Washington Post Book World 19, no. 132 (6 August 1989): 9.
Slung asserts that the true topic of Running in Place is not the locations to which Delbanco travels, but the author's self-scrutiny in terms of the “powerful sensations” invoked by the experience of travel.
Additional coverage of Delbanco's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vols. 2, 189; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 29, 55; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 6, 13; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 6, 234; and Literature Resource Center.