Tag Archives: 1960s American fiction

National Book Award winners, part 19: 1966’s The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter.

10 Jan

 (Wherein I read all the former National Book Award winners, so that you don’t have to.)

1.

In 1966, Katherine Anne Porter won the national book award for her Collected Stories. In the seventeen years since the national book award began, she was the first female author to win.

Since 1950—the first year of the award—Pearl Buck, Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Mary McCarthy, Lorraine Hansbury, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates all published major novels. None of them won.

The story of women in American fiction is a study in rebellion against acute social control. The big names of Edith Wharton, Djuna Barnes, Kate Chopin[1] and Willa Cather are studies in steely determination and immense talent and drive. Many male authors back in the day slid into writing careers. The women had to hack their way in with bone-handled knives.

Until 1920, women were second-class citizens; they didn’t even have the right to vote. Higher education, publishing, most professions—these things and more were closed off to most women. Virginia Wolff famously said that “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own to write fiction.” Marriage was considered the major goal for women, and raising children the only honorable ambition.

Fiction in America was almost exclusively a man’s game. A handful of female writers broke through this gendered divide. The counterculture didn’t do much better; for all its vaulted transgressive morality, the Beat Movement was just as much a boys’ club as any Ivy League school[2].

Libertines, rebels, spinsters—most of the American female writers were outcasts, expatriates. The accomplishments of American female novelists were often overlooked in their home country. Gertrude Stein, a towering figure in modernism, became successful in France.

2.

Katherine Anne Porter’s life is the stuff of great fiction. She was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1890. It was a wilder time. Lives were stranger, less fixed. Expectations were low for a poor southern girl like Porter. And like many people of her time and station, Porter lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was a child. So did one of her brothers. Her father moved her here and there across Texas, Louisiana. In hotel rooms and boarding houses. She married at 16. She suffered at the hands of a hostile, abusive husband. She divorced at 25. She survived tuberculosis, barely survived the flu pandemic. She moved to New York City. She began writing. She wrote and wrote. Articles and stories. She had lovers, husbands, miscarriages and sadness. She carried bitterness like a stone in her heart.

 

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

The first female winner of the top fiction award. It only took 17 years.

Porter was famous in her lifetime for her novel, Ship of Fools. It follows a group of characters heading towards Germany in the 1930s. The writing of it took her over 20 years, but it was worth the wait. Fools was a monster bestseller, adapted into a movie, and it left Porter scalded by fame but also rich.

She didn’t write any other novels. The shorter form was better for her, easier.

3.

Porter is precise, controlled. She writes about small moments, little epiphanies. Some of her stories remind me of D.H. Lawrence. She isn’t flashy. Some of her stories feel plain. The conflicts are often subdued. I kept dipping in and out of the stories waiting for a shock of electricity. The shock never came.

This isn’t to say she isn’t a good writer, for she is. I just kept waiting for the prose to ignite. But she isn’t that kind of writer. She details the internal lives of her characters in quiet tones. Many of her stories are hushed. She details despair and disillusionment, often women realizing the fallow character of their husbands. She traffics in melancholy and regret. You can sense her lurking behind her stories, carrying around a lifetime of hardship and disappointment. To read her stories is to engage with a sad, lonely intelligence of the first rank.

Here’s a taste of her talent and style, the first paragraph of “Pale Horse, Pale Rider”:

 

In sleep she knew she was in her bed, but not the bed she had lain down in a few hours since, and the room was the not the same but it was a room she had known somewhere. Her heart was a stone lying upon her breast outside of her; her pulses lagged and paused, and she knew that something strange was going to happen, even as the early morning winds were cool through the lattice, the streaks of light were dark blue and the whole house was snoring in its sleep.

Now I must get up and go while they are all quiet.

 

I didn’t read all of her stories. I couldn’t. I won’t revisit her work. I (probably) won’t ever read more than the few pages I’ve already read of Ship of Fools. Porter is important for a lot of reasons, but I’m ready to leave her behind.

4.

It was a weak year for American fiction. Irving Stone, Vincent Starrett, Jerzy Kosinski, James Michener, Peter Matthiesson and Norman Mailer all published middling novels. Frank Herbert released his sci fi magnum opus, Dune. Kurt Vonnegut published another intriguing (and depressing) science fiction novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Flannery O’Connor released her fantastic collection of stories, Everything That Rises Must Converge. Porter’s Collected Stories is as good as any of these books, except for O’Connor’s. I just can’t get excited about reading it.

The Nobel prize winners of today were cutting their teeth on the sixties. International fiction was ablaze with bright, young talents who we’re still feeling today: J. M. Clezio, David Lodge, Witold Gombrowicz, Raymond Queneau, and Iris Murdoch.

Now on to Bellow (boo!) and Malamud (yay!).


[1] The Awakening is one of my favorite novels of all time.

[2] Please read Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of the Beats. It’s fantastic.

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National Book Award Winners, part 18: 1968’s The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder.

28 Dec

(Listening to the new National record, the wintry and beautiful Trouble Will Find Me, while the girls run around and bicker over their Christmas presents.)

1.

In 1968, Thornton Wilder—one of America’s most famous playwrights—won the National Book Award for The Eighth Day. It is a grand, noble and excellent book.

Wilder is erudite, classically educated and his erudition appears on page after page with references to Greek and Roman thinkers, writers, poets. This book is filled with aphorisms, often spoken from one character to another:

 

“Get loving, you sons-of-bitches, or the world will turn cold.”

“He warned me to beware of husbands and wives who adored one another. Such persons haven’t grown up.”

He looked out over the fields. Beautiful is the earth.

It’s page after page of knockout writing, almost too much wisdom at times. The novel is now remembered as something of an oddity or misfire. This is an unfair assessment, and The Eighth Day seems ripe for rediscovery.

The Eighth Day follows two families—the Lansings and the Ashleys—from a small American town. The patriarch of one family, John Ashley, is accused of murdering the patriarch of the other, Breckenridge Lansing. And, in transport after a guilty verdict at trial, John Ashley is freed by six hooded figures. The central mysteries of the novel are whether Ashley killed Breckenridge and why; who liberated him; and what will happen to the children of both families?

In patient, learned and noble prose, Wilder will answer all of these questions and more. Wilder takes as his theme the big questions of human endeavor. Is there a pattern to a human life, a shape, a direction? Is there free will? Is there good and evil? How do we live a decent life? And what, if anything, matters when viewed through the cosmic arc of time?

2.

I came to Wilder with little baggage. As a child, I thought he was famous for writing the screenplay to Boystown[1], and I knew as a young movie fan that he had something to do with Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons. (I was wrong about this, too; it was Booth Tarkington who Welles adapted, not Thornton Wilder.)

Wilder had a huge hit in 1927 with his first novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. It’s a very fine, very short, very taut little novel about a priest attempting to decipher God’s plan after a bridge collapses and five people are killed. The priest investigates the five victims, looking for some type of system or plan. Does God kill indiscriminately? Do human lives fit any type of pattern, is there free will, or are we locked into our deaths at birth?

A decade later Wilder had an enormous smash of a play with “Our Town,” his small-town reverie that manages to be simple, straight-forward, and deeply moving.

He wrote other novels, other plays. Then he retired to the southwest, living a hermit’s life in small Arizona towns. He was in his sixties. And, in semiretirement and alone in the dusty west, he began to compose The Eighth Day. The novel took him two years to write.

He categorized the first section as Little Women imagined by Dostoyevsky. This is a very fine and fitting description. There’s a classic feel to the first section, following John Ashley’s abandoned family as they open a boarding house, flee to parts unknown and ply their hands at a variety of jobs, cities. I wasn’t sure where the book was heading, but soon figured it out. The Ashleys aren’t quite human. They are closer to robots, at times brutal and uncaring. The novel is in a sense the long thawing out of their chilly nature, the humanizing regeneration of an entire family. (Think The Royal Tennenbaums filtered through a long, meditative gaze.)

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

A very fine, elegant and noble novel.

The novel follows the various characters in various settings, including a section following the escaped Ashley down to Chile, where he works for coalmining operations and the like. It’s fantastic. Take a read:

 

Several nights a week, in grimy overalls, he explored the city. He renewed a lapsed curiosity about the lives of others. . . . With the coming on of night he set out on long walks. He became an impenitent eavesdropper. . . . He turned about the homes of the prosperous as though he were planning to rob them. . . . . Everywhere prostitutes patrolled their exclusive territory, as bees are said to do. . . . At dusk the world fed; there were sounds of laughter and contentment. . . . By ten-thirty, however, the mood changed. An ominous current invaded the city. By midnight sudden cries filled the air, blows, pursuits, overturned furniture, sobbing and whimpering. In Coaltown, the report that men—particularly the miners—beat their wives was a matter for laughter. Here Ashley saw them. In a narrow alley he came upon a man striking a woman, blow after blow; she sank gradually to her knees, taunting him as no father, as a clown of a father. Another man was beating a woman’s head monotonously against the wall of a staircase. He saw children covering under blows. . . . Ashley hurried away. A hunted man is in no position to defend the persecuted. He longed to be at sea, to be on a mountain peak, on the Andes.

He waited.

He descended.

Damn good writing, with enough horror and decency in a sentence to fuel half a dozen weaker novels.

The novel keeps circling back to the two families in Coaltown, their struggles, and near the end the narrative voice shifts out of time. The story begins to give account of how the various characters will die, including one of the major characters—I won’t tell which one—moving to Nagasaki in the 1930s and looking out at the green gardens and reading a poem from the emperor. The narrator doesn’t say so, but it’s clear she will be incinerated by the atom bomb at the end of the war.

Hanging over it all is a speech given by a rationalist doctor on the first day of the 20th century. He’s in a bar, surrounded by drunks, and he speaks of the shape and nature of man:

 

The New Man is emerging. Nature never sleeps. Hitherto the sporadic great man, the lone genius, has carried the children of fear and inertia on his coattails. Henceforth, the whole mass will emerge from the cave-dwelling condition where most men cower still—terrified of encroachment, hugging their possessions, in bondage to fears of the Thunder God, fears of the vengeful dead, fears of the untamable beast in themselves. . . . Mind and Spirit will be the next climate of the human. The race is undergoing its education. What is education? . . . It is the bridge man crosses from the self-enclosed, self-favoring life into a consciousness of the entire community of mankind.

This is a grand vision, and it breathes through most of the life stories in this book. But its echoes of transcendentalism are undercut by an abiding melancholy, a persistent ache of the transience of mankind. The narrator again and again references the premature deaths of the characters, often in the middle of the drama.

Wilder uses this same schemata in “Our Town,” where the narrator shifts back and forth through time, commenting on the deaths of the characters who are enacting the drama. It isn’t disorienting. It isn’t confusing. It’s sobering, a stamp of mortality on fictional characters who can, in a sense, live forever.

It’s a cruel narrative trick, to throw the deaths of the characters we are following, rooting for and against and suffering with, in our faces—outside of linear time and expected decency—but it serves as a counterpoint to all the talk of spiritual progression and grand human evolution. What matters, in the end, isn’t clear, and the heroes and the villains die in equal measure, all pointlessly. The novel is an immense thing, important and holy in its way, but also cynical and self-destructive. It ends, for instance, with a sentence fragment of one word. Reading it you get the sense that Wilder was writing as if possessed, with his story running out of his fingertips and out of control.

3.

And in this way, The Eighth Day fits with the larger fictional trends of the late 1960s. Riots; assassinations; an unpopular distant war; an unruly, alien youth movement; homegrown terrorists; airline hijackings and so on—the chaos of the times percolated through the fiction of the 1960s and flowered into the violent (The Dog Soldiers), self-aware (JR), post-modern (Gravity’s Rainbow) 1970s. The old forms of the novel were exhausted, and the novel was undergoing another metamorphosis. The Eighth Day reflects some of this uncertainty through the flattening lens of history, but there’s a fractured narrative method at its core. The writing zips back and forth, there are little asides, and there’s the menace and threat of violence, even amidst the slow dawn of individual redemption. It’s a haunting read.

Wilder won the top award over Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, William Styron, Thomas Berger, Richard Brautigan[2] and Chaim Potok. He was the right choice.

Around the world, Marquez published his mammoth, hugely influential One Hundred Years of Solitude; Milan Kundera released The Joke[3]; William Golding published his intriguing, strangely flat The Pyramid; and J.G. Ballard continued his golden period with three novels.

Outside of Marquez, I think Wilder’s novel is probably the best I’ve read from the year. It’s a hell of a novel, elegant but wild, too. I would recommend it to anyone.

 


[1] I also thought Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and George C. Scott were the same person. What an actor that would be!

[2] A real oddity in American letters.

[3] I remember reading this but cannot remember what it’s about; The Unbearable Lightness of Being is great.

National Book Award winners, part 5: 1960’s The Waters of Kronos, by Conrad Richter.

16 Aug

Almost all writers are eventually lost to time. In some cases they are rediscovered, to great import. (Read The Swerve to see how important a single book can be.) In some cases, they slither along, held in print by cabals of devoted fans. (Read Lovecraft, Portis, Himes.) In some cases, a writer slips from the canon as a travesty of American letters. (Read any of John Williams’s books, especially Stoner, to see what I mean.) And in some cases, a writer was over-esteemed to begin with and needs to go gently into the good night.

So we come to Conrad Richter. Richter’s The Waters of Kronos won the 1960 National Book Award. He beat out Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, (ridiculous) Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (absurd), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (a travesty). That same year John Barth published The Sot-Weed Factor,  Walter Miller released A Canticle For Liebowitz, and Graham Greene, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, and Philip K. Dick, to name a few, all toiled over their best works.

Richter isn’t studied. He isn’t read (except his young adult novel, The Light in the Forest, which is a middle school staple). I don’t know anyone who even knows who he is. The gates have shut on his work. In fifty more years he’ll be nothing more than a footnote. It’s a tough thing to say about a writer’s entire body of work, but in Richter’s case, this isn’t a bad thing.

He isn’t a bad writer. He has technical skill, a nice, evocative way of describing turn of the century small-town American life. He writes direct, at times elegant sentences. He has ideas. He grapples with moral issues. But he lacks the fire, the madness, the strangeness, and the richness of great works of art. He’s intriguing, serious, and square. He’s a small novelist who somehow made it to the top of the field. There’s probably an interesting story in how he did this, I just don’t know it.

Richter was raised by Lutherans in Pennsylvania. His father was a Lutheran minister. His grandfather was a Lutheran minister. So were his uncles. A dour, moodiness saturates this novel. Darkness, storm clouds, barren earth, aging people, an inevitable pall of death; Martin Luther would have been proud. Everything is cast in a pre-destined shroud. It doesn’t make for thrilling reading.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

Dour, self-serious Lapsed Lutheran revisits his memories. Nothing is accomplished.

The story is simple, almost a fable. An old man returns to his hometown to find it buried under tons of water. A dam has been built, the graves have been moved, and the old man wanders a cemetery looking for the family plot. He reads the engraved etchings of his ancestors, coming to this mirthless conclusion: “Their wives, who outlived them, had no epitaphs.

In so doing, the old man moves backwards in time. He meets his parents when they were young, his grandparents, his uncles and aunts, his younger self. He asks questions, is stymied, confronts old mysteries and anger from the past. Everything he sees will be destroyed, all the people are already dead, the buildings and roads at the bottom of a man-made lake.

That’s the novel, entire. With a few dozen adverbs and twice as many similes, and a switch in setting to the Midwest somewhere, it could be a Ray Bradbury short story. There’s little villainy, plot, or even mischief. The old man wanders here and there, no one helps him, no listens to him, his family spurns him, the end.

Kronos is personal. You can feel Richter’s actual family shimmering beneath these fictional characters. He’s confronting the limits of his own love for his family. And, I’m guessing, investigating his own lack of belief in his forefather’s religion. Here’s a great little passage, where the old man explores his ambiguity towards his father:

Standing there outside his father’s store after all these years, he could feel it tonight, gripping him without rhyme or reason, holding him back, a grown man, even today. Sometimes he wondered if, whatever it was, it hadn’t been the origin of his interest in books and nature, not born of commendable thirst for knowledge, but from a shying away from his father’s world of enthusiastic socialibility with people, which had given him as a boy only difficulty and suffering so that he found relief in freedom and solitude in fields, the forest and the printed page, like an unreasoning moth released from the hand and soaring in air it had never taken cognizance of before.

He’s another passage, where the old man witnesses his grandfather’s funeral:

It was more pagan than he realized, John Donner told himself, closer to the Greeks. As a youth he had thought it criminal to torment the bereaved with mournful words and dirges. The feeble efforts to disguise evil with the words, “Asleep” and “At Rest,” carved serenely over pits of corruption had angered him. Now that he was older he wondered if he might not have been too thin-skinned and refined. If you had friends and neighbors to climb the hill and raise well-meant words over you at last, why should you prefer paid strangers consigning you to earth or fire?

Nifty, tidy writing, with erudition and heart, but little else. Time to move on. Goodnight, Conrad. Other writers await.