A Sunday Supplement Icarus

In the book review section of today’s Weekend Australian, Nicolas Rothwell offers a typically erudite assessment of Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin:

Chatwin… was a truth-trimmer, he had the certainties and fallibilities of an autodidact, he was a travel-writer with touristic protocols, his writing never escaped from his training-ground in journalism; yet he, being endlessly obsessed by self-scrutiny, knew all these things, and it is his attempt to escape from them that gives his life, and thus this book, its quality of tension.

Rothwell is nicely suited to discussing this particular book. His own writings are recognisably kith and kin to Chatwin’s work, and, at the very least, the first section of his Wings of the Kite-Hawk is as good as Chatwin’s best. Yet despite his clear affinity with Chatwin, Rothwell holds little affection for him. He pays no mind to the nuances of Chatwin’s novels except for a few brief remarks on The Songlines, and his attitude towards Chatwin as a self-mythologised figure is resolutely ambivalent. Although he celebrates the aspirations that propelled Chatwin around the globe, he turns a jaundiced eye towards the resultant words on the page:

Chatwin was the contemporary British writer who felt most strongly the hollowness of modern literary forms and tropes, and cast his net wide, as wide as the world, in order to seek new inspirations. He wanted to steal those new sources of writing and insight, and bring them back, but all he brought back was travelogues, postcards from the ends of the earth. The writers who befriended him, more sober-minded figures, felt the same void in Western literature and shared Chatwin’s admiration for the exotic frontier; but they held back, and pondered the circumstances of their prison-cage, while he went right through, through to the bones of things.

In this sense, and this only, he was the truthful one, he was the Icarus, if a Sunday supplement Icarus, a creature who reached out for the very heart of life. In the through lines of this correspondence, one finds often in notes Chatwin’s friends sent him a kind of stricken awareness that he was out ahead of the pack, closing in on the absolutes of man’s condition, a beautiful, sacrificial victim who would never grow old.

I think that’s mostly right, but I also think it’s unfortunate that Rothwell does not at this point return to the novels. I don’t think it’s possible to decouple the novels, so incredibly slim and yet packed so full of substance, from the life lived on such a monumental scale; I think that what makes the novels so rich is, in part, that they were hewn out of, or distilled from, an existence so manic and so restless that it would seem able only to provide momentary inspiration for the writing of such novels without offering the time and the space for those novels to actually be written. Thankfully, although William Dalrymple’s review of Under the Sun pales in comparison to Rothwell’s review, it at least gives some thought to Chatwin’s literary output and to the emergence of that literature from the author’s life:

The letters also reveal what he read, how he wrote, and the sheer amount of hard labour that went into it, as he rewrote and pared his books down to their published form. “I’ve never liked big books,” he writes while hard at work on The Viceroy of Ouidah, “so I don’t see why I should try and write them. Unless you’re Tolstoy most of the ‘great books’ of the world should have been cut in half.” One characteristic remark notes how “I have written four bad pages and will reduce them to a single line.”

That’s the Chatwin who interests me more than the self-mythologised figure to whom Rothwell devotes most of his words, and that’s who I’ll be on the lookout for when I open up the letters.

Adventures

A few months ago I picked up a copy of J.M. Coetzee’s Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005. I had been meaning to purchase the book ever since it was published in 2007 because I think Coetzee is one of the best contemporary literary critics. By and large, he is generous in his sentiments towards the activity of writing but unsparing in his assessment of the words that make it onto the printed page; and I find that he also has the rare ability to make me want to pick up and read or re-read whatever book he is discussing even if he does not hold it in high esteem. So, in addition to reading Coetzee’s essays over the last few months, I have also been returning to some of what already sits on my shelves, especially the great American texts: Leaves of Grass, Go Down, Moses, and, most recently, The Adventures of Augie March.

The point of Coetzee’s essay on Augie March, however, is that the novel is far from “great.” While the essay, available online, opens with a sense of reverence — “Among American novelists of the latter half of the twentieth century, Saul Bellow stands out as one of the giants, perhaps the giant” — it doesn’t take long for a to frost settle over the pleasantries:

By his own account, [Saul] Bellow had a great time writing Augie March, and for the first few hundred pages his creative excitement is palpable and infectious. … The book won its readers over with its variety, its restless energy, its impatience with the proprieties. Above all, it seemed to say a great Yes! to America. Now, in retrospect, that Yes! can be seen to have come at a price: the price of critical consciousness.

For Coetzee, the excitement Bellow felt while writing Augie March led him to blurt out an onanistic mess of a book — unstructured, plodding, and intellectually self-congratulatory:

The book becomes steadily less engaging as it proceeds. The scene-by-scene method of composition, each scene commencing with a tour de force of vivid scene-setting, begins to seem mechanical. The many pages devoted to Augie’s spell in Mexico engaged in a harebrained scheme to train an eagle to catch iguanas add up to precious little, despite the compositional resources lavished on them. Augie’s principal wartime escapade, torpedoed, trapped with a mad scientist in a lifeboat off the African coast, is simply comic-book stuff.

The crux of Coetzee’s criticism is this: “Once it becomes clear that its hero is to lead a charmed life, Augie March begins to pay for its lack of dramatic structure and indeed of intellectual organisation.” But at what point exactly does it become clear that Augie March leads a charmed life? Coetzee doesn’t specify. In my reading, though, the moment of clarity comes just after Augie resolves to procure an abortion for Mimi Villars and just before he actually procures it. With no money to pay for an abortion, he decides to return to his old habit of shoplifting valuable second-hand books. He is caught in the act by a bookstore security guard who turns out to be one of his boyhood acquaintances. Rather than arrest him and charge him, his acquaintance lets him walk free but asks for a meeting outside the bookstore. The two men end up sharing a nostalgic conversation during which the other man reveals that he is unhappily married and raising a family he does not actually want. When he learns that Augie stole from the bookstore as a means of acquiring money to pay for an abortion, he offers to give Augie the money so that others might avoid finding themselves burdened with unwanted children. How can Augie’s life be anything but charmed? He sets out to acquire money, he fails and falls into trouble, then the man who rescues him from trouble drops the money straight in his lap.

But here’s the thing. The title of Bellow’s novel is The Adventures of Augie March and yet nothing about this sequence strikes me as particularly adventurous. On the contrary, the entire sequence strikes me as an exploration of destitution and desperation; and, as such, I think it indicates that the novel does not lack “intellectual organisation” despite Coetzee’s assertions to the contrary. It is true that much of Augie March is exaggeratedly adventurous, with the Mexican eagle-training scheme and the lifeboat episode being prime examples. But many other sequences are decidedly unadventurous because either pitiful, as in the case of the abortion, or else simply mundane, as in Augie’s compulsive reading of the literary classics. Bringing these diverse exploits under the banner of “adventure,” then, the novel essentially advances a protracted definition and redefinition of that word: again and again it posits a variety of activities each of which might conceivably constitute an “adventure,” and, with each new activity implicitly labelled “adventure,” it offers qualification after qualification on the definition of “adventure” it advances. In a sense, the title itself is the lodestone of the novel’s “intellectual organisation,” as the various narrative episodes revolve around that word and exert upon it a sort of oscillating centripetal force that twists it into a particular shape.

I don’t mean for this to represent an unqualified celebration of Augie March. On the whole, in fact, I share Coetzee’s general ambivalence towards the novel. But there is a principle of intellectual organisation at work within the novel — and a simple one at that — which, it seems to me, Coetzee overlooked. While an outstanding critic in many respects, this is perhaps one instance in which he let slip the generosity with which he usually approaches a given subject.