Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Woolf the torero, or, On The Story abou the Story

In the most recent issue of the Quarterly Conversation we featured an adapted version of J. C. Hallman's introduction to his new anthology, The Story about the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature (2009), and while the introduction itself--along with Hallman's feisty blog posts at Tin House--has led to some combative back-and-forth online, nearly everyone seems to agree that the contents of the anthology are impressive. So I was excited to finally pick up a copy the other day, and so far it hasn't disappointed.

Hallman has brought together a group of essays in which distinguished writers--Nabokov, Lawrence, Wallace Stegner, William Gass, and many more--turn their attention to a particular work or author who has been important to them. The runners among you will know what I mean when I say that the resulting book is one that's perfect for reading before a long run; the baseball fans among you can picture it as between-innings reading for a late-season ballgame, attended alone because one's regular seatmates have bailed, driven away by September's too-familiar twin ills, futility and chill. The book's trove of carefully phrased arguments and deeply held beliefs about literature *, its making and its purpose, roll and rattle around in the brain long after the book is closed, and the miles or the innings slip away barely noticed.

One of my favorite pieces thus far is one that Virginia Woolf wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in 1928: under the smilingly innocuous title "An Essay in Criticism," she handily dismantles Hemingway's short-story collection Men Without Women (1927). The relatively brief review contains a number of interesting observations, of the sort that can sometimes be occasioned by the collision of mismatched artistic temperaments, but the most compactly insightful passage is this one, keyed to a few sentences from The Sun Also Rises (1926):
(But if we had to choose one sentence with which to describe what Mr. Hemingway attempts and sometimes achieves, we should quote a passage from a description of a bullfight: "Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like corkscrews, their elbows raised and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterwards, all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Romero's bullfighting gave real emotion, because he kept the absolute purity of line in his movements and always quietly and calmly let the horns pass him close each time.") Mr. Hemingway's writing, one might paraphrase, gives us now and then a real emotion, because he keeps absolute purity of line in his movements and lets the horns (which are truth, fact, reality) pass him close each time. But there is something faked, too, which turns bad and give an unpleasant feeling--that also we must face in course of time.
Later, after some passages in which she leavens real praise for some of Hemingway's sentences (such as "a long, lean phrase which goes curling around a situation like the lash of a whip") with apt criticisms of his dialogue and characters, Woolf unexpectedly both draws and drives home her shiv in one smooth, elegant move:
There are in Men Without Women many stories which, if life were longer, one would wish to read again.
Even Mack Heath would be proud of a murder that quick and clean. I expect she walked away with nary a drop of blood on her.

To be fair, I should note that of course Woolf--though an old favorite--is not without her own faults. Here, for example, she's at her roundabout worst:
[H]e is a skilled and conscientious writer. He has an aim and makes for it without circumlocution. We have, therefore, to take his measure against somebody of substance, and not merely line him, for form's sake, beside the indistinct bulk of some ephemeral shape largely stuffed with straw.
Good god--I hate to think how many words it would take for her to describe the Tin Man or the Cowardly Lion!

Reading an essay like this one, which find me nodding along to certain strongly worded criticisms--such as
On the other hand, his is a talent which may contract and harden still further, it may come to depend more and more on the emphatic moment; make more and more use of dialogue, and cast narrative and description overboard as an encumbrance.
[T]hough Mr. Hemingway is brilliantly and enormously skilful, he lets his dexterity, like the bullfighter's cloak, get between him and the fact.
--because they so comfortably confirm certain of my prejudices, ultimately has the opposite effect of what might be expected: I find myself thinking that I should go back to Hemingway, free him from the barnacles of faulty memory and the false certainties of ever-evolving taste and actually read him again.

Perhaps Raymond Carver, one of his descendants, is the same way, for after an initial flurry of admiration, I find myself disliking his stories, too, when I reconstruct them in my mind long after reading them. Perhaps, tending as I do these days towards the baroque, I should read both as a restorative every few years, if only to remind myself that even if the signpost to which they pointed ultimately reads Dead End, that doesn't mean it wasn't worth investigating--and, perhaps just as important, that they bear no responsibility for their legion of self-appointed acolytes, who worship the bony leanness of their prose while failing to understand what has put the marrow deep within it.

And now, having handily put down what I have to say is a very nice little straw man of my own, it's off to bed for me.

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