William Goyen Goyen, (Charles) William (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Goyen, (Charles) William 1915–

Goyen is an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, and translator. His style and subject matter place him in the tradition of the southern Gothic novel, but he has been largely overshadowed by the more prominent authors associated with that tradition, such as Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers. His first novel, House of Breath, is considered by many critics to be his best. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

E. R. Curtius

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Alive in William Goyen is a primal affinity with the first things of creation…. He has the keen senses of the woodsman, whom no creak or rustle can elude. He registers the sensual qualities of natural things, and it is as though he himself had experienced, from within, the cycle of germination, budding, flowering, and withering of all created matter. We seem to be hearing the voice of an aboriginal American that is being constantly pushed back by industrial civilization and forced to languish in its big cities. (p. 458)

[House of Breath is a] fledgling work—but a mature one. We are accustomed to a first novel being an eruption on which ore, slag, and ashes are whirled up together; or a so-called confession; or the reaction to the shock of growing pains on the nerves. Goyen's art is of a different sort. He has pledged himself to silence and waiting; to wait until he should find the word, "strong, small, but hard as a stone," which would utter his loneliness to the world…. The breath of lived life has merged with the breath of the artist. William Goyen had the power to attend this moment. He was able to wait because this breath was energy, an energy that wanted to be caught and directed so as to become the driving force of a power station. (pp. 459-60)

Like all modern art Goyen's book is the testimony and result of a sincerity that refuses to draw the line at cruelty…. [Goyen] lays bare the cancer of the flesh and of the soul; he … proclaims the passion of man. But with him suffering and torment include compassion. The tragic agony is carried through to the catharsis. The harmony with the elemental power of earth...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

Louise Y. Gossett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Goyen] differs markedly from his contemporaries in his lyrical, poetic translation of material into his imagined world. Mood finally supplants place. When the specifications of place and people fade, the violence becomes grotesqueness. The shadowy, elusive figures drop the forthrightness of violence and take on the half-lights, the mysteries, and the freakishness of the grotesque. Although their existence often seems other-worldly, these ghosts are related to the fear of crass industrialism and standardization which haunts or has haunted many Southerners. (p. 131)

Each [of Goyen's five books] is a collection of short pieces related in theme and mood. [The Fair Sister (1963)] is the briefest and the most unified, having been developed from a single story. (pp. 131-32)

Foremost in Goyen's work is a sense that human life now has no integrity. People are isolated from one another and from the past. They have lost their purpose, their ideals, and their capacity to communicate with one another. These psychological and moral disorders parallel the intrusion of industry, which has obliterated natural beauty and set profit above love and community. The grotesqueness of spiritual injuries and of physical malformations which manifests these conditions as well as overt violence interests Goyen. He creates an atmosphere of horror and ugliness in which characters are suspended like figures in a half-forgotten nightmare. (p. 132)

The subtlety with which Goyen perceives introspective characters and expresses their reveries approaches a kind of literary neuroticism. The dominant mood both of the characters and narrators is self-pity; hence there is little analysis of motives and causation. Action, conflict, and change as elements of drama in fiction are less important than the meditations of the narrator upon them. In this temper Goyen conveys something of the emotional stagnation and isolation of modern man as seen by Albert Camus in L'Etranger and Jean-Paul Sartre in La Nausée. Goyen's characters, however, do not engage in philosophical quests to define existence, for they are solaced simply by reciting their laments. (pp. 132-33)

In Goyen's fiction the feeling of being isolated is not so much expressed in dramatic situations as it makes up the circumambient mood in which life looks broken like a stick refracted in water. A view of this brokenness is made possible by the emotional distance between the narrator and the people he writes about. Because the narrator's role is to convince the reader to accept the vision of distortion, the method of narration is especially important.

To make vivid the malady of isolation and the consequent violent disintegration of human relationships, Goyen relies upon a point of view which might be called multiple refraction. This method is best exemplified in The House of Breath in which the narrator is a young man who speaks for himself both in the present and in the past, a period he captures by reconstructing the biographies of members of his family. The one quality he is able to respond to in each person is isolation. The fact...

(The entire section is 1298 words.)

David Dillon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The adjectives lyrical and poetic have often been applied to William Goyen's first novel, The House of Breath. They are not so misleading as most critical cachets because Goyen is a singer whose prose keeps time to the mysterious inner music of his characters.

Whether so much lyricism is a virtue, however, is another matter. I don't believe finally that it is. Being skeptical of epiphanies in general, I get annoyed with someone like young Ganchion, the narrator, who has one on every page. "Spit it out, boy," I keep thinking, "Say it straight." Instead, he trills it out in long plaintive songs about family tragedies and homesickness and some terrible yet ineffable loss of innocence that has transformed him into an Ishmael. Even when we acknowledge that the past is a foreign country and the flutterings of memory difficult to capture, Goyen's prose is frequently so convoluted, so self-consciously sensitive, that we are reminded more of the pre-Raphaelites than the Piney Woods. The simple homely events that obviously mean so much to him, and on which much of his best writing is based, dissolve into inscrutable private symbols that seem devoid of specific meaning.

The most intriguing voices in the novel—and House of Breath is a novel of voices, of interpolated monologues really—belong to Granny Ganchion and the scarred outcasts like Follie and Hattie. Talkers rather than singers,...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Jay S. Paul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As befits an age of universal solitude, in which art often is about art, William Goyen's stories are a testament to the essentiality of telling. He regards such communication as a form of love, a process including seeing and saying: to tell one must know; once one knows he must tell. The teller devotes his life to shaping an "anxious shapelessness" into truth. (p. 77)

The willingness to discipline himself in the use of language underlies his entire achievement as a writer. His stories ring with precision because they are language told to someone, not simply private, inchoate voices…. The Collected Stories of William Goyen … presents his ideas with remarkable continuity and seems to have been his means of experimenting in form and of finding "a language I thought I could use." Whether he writes of homelessness, fragmentation of individuals, elusiveness of the past, or the miracle of human love, Goyen is playing his main theme—the essentiality of telling—and orchestrating speech to render the "marvelous reciprocity" of a genuine relationship. (pp. 77-8)

Goyen has always written of human relationships—solitary people who fail to connect, solitary people who succeed in loving. The latter have been Goyen's hope: they are alert to surroundings; they have patience and imagination to comprehend others. One must keep in mind that story-telling … is both a means and a metaphor of loving, and that although knowing moves one to tell, comprehension is often simultaneous with telling for Goyen's characters. Restoration of self during the process of telling is one aspect of "marvelous reciprocity," but Goyen sees love as social….

The most lucid metaphor of the story-teller's activity occurs in a pair of stories, "The Enchanted Nurse" and "The Rescue," depicting the relationship of the nurse, Curran, and his patient. In the first, Curran is an old man remembering how Chris, brought to St. Albans hospital with a severely injured leg, became comatose after surgery, occasioning Curran's complete dedication to his recovery. "The Rescue" is set during the time Chris is in the coma and is tangential in plot to "The Enchanted Nurse": while a flood threatens the hospital, which becomes a sanctuary for all living beings, Curran more fully understands the miraculous reciprocity of healing. (p. 78)

[Like] many of Goyen's characters, Curran has been diminished—"my body is vanished, almost," but reduction has clarified what is essential, "this tale that lives within my senses." Chris, too,...

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Jay S. Paul

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What makes "Nests in a Stone Image" [in Ghost and Flesh] much more than an indulging of an all-too-writerly propensity to write about one's own writing is Goyen's use of imagery of the life of Jesus. The writer's vigil is patterned on Jesus' night of prayer and doubt in Gethsemane and overlaid with allusions to other aspects of his life. But "Nests in a Stone Image" is not updating of Jesus' story: the writer may agonize, but he is acutely aware of his mortality. Goyen utilizes Christian imagery to show both the writer's capacity to love and his anxieties that preclude loving. Goyen believes that belief is an individual possibility, and that each person can be as vital and dynamic as Jesus himself. Given...

(The entire section is 1500 words.)

Robert Phillips

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Collected Stories of William Goyen] is the book William Goyen has been writing all his career. A born storyteller, even his four novels (The House of Breath, In a Farther Country, The Fair Sister, Come the Restorer) are composed of stories joined together by a common thread of locale of circumstance, so many beads on a string…. Covering a creative span of nearly thirty years, the book reveals what too few have acknowledged: William Goyen is one of our most distinguished and uncompromising fiction writers.

In the past, some critics have dismissed Goyen's work as too "poetic" or too "regional." (He was born in and writes most frequently of the Southwest.) Yet the surprise of his...

(The entire section is 779 words.)