Monday, January 14, 2013

Trio - Dorothy Baker
This could easily be converted into a stage play. It has two interior settings and three main characters. We’re not “in” the mind of anyone; thoughts and feelings are conveyed through the spoken word and by descriptions of facial expressions and gestures. The plot, which involves an odd love triangle and the resulting struggle of wills, has drama, and the twists would keep an audience guessing. But I’m not cataloging the virtues of Trio. It’s not a play but a novel flawed by staginess. Though the characters are supposed to be roiled up emotionally, bad acting isn’t to blame for how affected it all seems. The fault lies with an author who keeps matters on a surface as immaculate as a glass tabletop in Pauline Maury’s modish apartment. Even those plot twists are tidy; I was aware of Baker behind the scenes, neatly arranging things. As I neared the conclusion something Chekhov wrote came to mind: “A shotgun introduced on page one must go off before the end of the story.” On page seven a little pearl-handled revolver had made an incidental appearance. I was sure it would go off, and three pages before the end it did (though, significantly, there was no mention of blood).

The Four Seasons of Success - Budd Schulberg
Schulberg was the son of a Hollywood producer and grew up in a home where literary figures were dinner guests. He gives an account of his close association with six of them: Sinclair Lewis, William Saroyan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West, Thomas Heggen and John Steinbeck. Are you interested? I was, primarily because of the presence of West, who I believe was the best of the lot. After reading the chapter on Lewis I was motivated to give him another try – with Babbitt – and my opinion was confirmed: he’s a bad writer. Heggen wrote one short novel, Mister Roberts, which became a huge success (bestseller, Broadway play, movie); he felt the pressure to follow it up with another book, but he never did; he died in his twenties, a possible suicide. Though he undoubtedly had various demons, his story has relevance to Schulberg’s theme: that writers in America are placed on pedestals; but it’s shaky up there, especially when critics are all too ready to knock you down. Fitzgerald is the prime example of a precipitous rise and fall, and he’s given by far the most space. Schulberg knew him in the years before his death, when he was struggling with alcoholism, reduced to writing screenplays for money, yet retaining a forlorn optimism. In this section we get a description of an epic binge that Scott goes on, and it’s both pitiable and repugnant (I think I’ve read enough about poor Scott). Schulberg advocates a more lenient attitude toward authors – to let them be a mountain range, with highs and lows. Two of the four seasons of success involve its loss: besides the critical boos that a once-lauded author meets with his second (or fifth) novel, there’s the slide into obscurity of authors who produced masterful works (his perfect example is Dos Passos with his USA trilogy). Most bittersweet is posthumous success, which is the only kind that was granted to West. Yet this acclaim was fleeting. How many still read The Day of the Locust? West has fallen back into obscurity. Maybe that’s just the way things are.

Kafka Was the Rage - Anatole Broyard
After WWII, just out of the army, Broyard moved to Greenwich Village. He opened a bookstore, attended classes at the New School, underwent eleven months of psychotherapy. Most important, he had an affair with Sheri (Part One is entitled “Sheri” and Part Two “After Sheri”). The problem with this book can be summed up by Broyard’s conclusion as to why his psychotherapy was unsuccessful: “What I brought to Dr. Schachtel was not a condition or a situation but a poetics.” Broyard doesn’t emerge as a flesh and blood presence but as a mind filtering experiences; concrete conditions and situations get the short shrift, as do the people he’s involved with. Regarding the bookstore, we’re provided with no idea of what it was like to run one on a day-to-day basis. As for Sheri, Broyard depicts her as little more than a weirdo. Sex is a big issue between them, and far too many words are expended on the subject: “Young men tend to make love monotonously, but Sheri took my monotony and developed variations on it, as if she were composing a fugue. If I was a piston, she was Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine.” And this: “When I connected myself to her, we were the chance meeting, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” There are a lot of twittering machines on these pages, but I’d rather know what these two people talked about over dinner. This isn’t really a memoir – it’s an author’s exploration of his state of mind, couched in literary terms. It was too self-centered for me; I never made it to the end.

1 comment:

jimmy scoville said...

Good point about not knowing the day-to-day of running a bookstore. That would have fleshed out the story more. I did enjoy the book, but began losing interest in the second half. The first half, to me, is delicious while the rest is more of a lean forward to get through it. Maybe I should have quit like you did.