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The Devil’s Tail: Reading From the Lives of Authors

ISSUE:  Fall 2010

I spent a day with V. S. Naipaul in the fall of 1980. He was teaching undergraduates that semester at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he’d agreed to be interviewed for a projected special issue of Salmagundi magazine. My companions on this visit were the novelist Bharati Mukherjee and my wife Peg Boyers. From the first, in our preliminary phone conversations, Naipaul had expressed objections about my friend Bharati. “Why bring an Indian with you?” he asked. “It’s not as if I were an Indian writer. I wouldn’t want to be questioned by a person who thought of me in that way.” Of course I was tempted then to remind Naipaul that there was in fact some reason to think of him as a writer with roots in India, though I knew what he meant, and disliked ethnic labels as much as he did. All I said then was that Mukherjee was a colleague and a friend who had introduced me to his work, and that he would find her eminently suitable. That word, suitable, struck me at once as perfectly suitable for the moment, and as Naipaul took it in he decided, for his own reasons, to let the matter drop.

But at the interview Naipaul’s hostility to Bharati surfaced at once, from the very moment we shook hands. Pleasant enough to me and to Peg, he was visibly uncomfortable and sour with our friend, who had put on for the occasion a gorgeous sari. Of course Naipaul could not have known, as we did, that Bharati rarely wore such clothing, and was more apt to show up for her classes at Skidmore College wearing American sports clothes, khakis or jeans. She had also, on this occasion, painted in the middle of her forehead a bright red dot, knowing that a short time before our visit Naipaul had been asked by Elizabeth Hardwick for a brief New York Times interview about the significance of that mark or sign on the heads of Indian women. It is a statement, Naipaul had replied. “It says, my head is empty.”

Before we set up our portable tape recorder in Naipaul’s amply spacious office we exchanged what were intended to be the standard pleasantries. But Naipaul went on the attack the moment we seated ourselves across from him. “So you’ve driven from somewhere nearby in New York State?” he asked. “A few hours,” I said. “Not much of a drive.” “And you?” he asked Bharati. “Where are you from?” “Calcutta originally,” she said. “But more recently a decade in Toronto.”

“Oh Toronto makes sense for you,” he said. “As a city of lower class immigrants.”

“You know Toronto well?” she asked him.

“Well enough,” he said. “By repute mainly. And here I’m confirmed.”

There was a bit more of the same before we turned on the tape recorder. Did he not enjoy teaching at a place like Wesleyan, which enrolled exceptionally gifted students? “Not terribly gifted,” Naipaul replied. “And the fact of it is, it’s diminishing, you know, to spend one’s time in the company of inferior minds. But you would not have felt that, I think, that diminishment,” he said, “or perhaps not.” And then: “To give you some sense of the conditions here, you might visit the book store, which has really no books to speak of, and doesn’t carry even the issues of the New York Review of Books, so that I have to be driven somewhere to find a copy of my own latest article. It’s a trial, really, to be at such a place.”

No doubt it was, had been, a trial, and no doubt the words were, all of them, a reflection of what Naipaul actually felt, of what he was. Genuine too was our sense that he was, genuinely, more than a bit of a prick. Not a bore. Never that. But a man for whom a habit of contempt was deeply ingrained. Hard not to think, on the spot, in that light-filled, sparsely furnished office, of Hazlitt: “If a person has no delicacy, he has you in his power.” But then Naipaul had his moments of delicacy. In the course of the taped interview he rose to the occasion, as it were, and betrayed what seemed, in its way, a genuine sensitivity to the condition of servitude and bleak or uncertain prospects he described in the sometimes wretched places he had visited and written about—in Jamaica and India and the Congo. And yet the contempt was ever at the ready, the impulse to mock directed especially at the practiced sensitivities of the officially liberal professoriate in the American university, at the “bleeding hearts” trained never to find fault with the wretched of the earth, unable, in Naipaul’s view, even to consider the complicity of those unfortunates in what had been—and would continue to be—done to them.

And so we came away from our day with Naipaul—the interview itself stretching over several hours, followed by a lunch in the college cafeteria and a leisurely stroll on campus—with a vivid sense of the man we had come to meet. Bad manners were the least of it. Our impression was of a man wounded and trying hard not to be defined by his wounds. A man who had much to say about post-colonial politics and ressentiment and racial privilege but who seemed oddly not to understand a great deal, even on subjects powerfully brought forth in his novels. There was something peculiarly abstract and almost comically superior about his reflections on issues he had obviously thought about before, a fastidious, even formal manner he had of engaging with something as if it had nothing much to do with him. Though he proposed, when we were saying our farewells, that perhaps he might be invited to lecture “some time” at “your little college,” I thought no, this would be it, felt that I’d had my fill of this really very little man. Proust may well have been right, that though snobbery and the contempt that comes with it are “grave,” they are not “utterly” or inevitably “soul-destroying.” But this was not a proposition I was willing to test. My distaste for Naipaul was such as to make him seem the last person I would ever again hope to meet.

An elaborate anecdote—too elaborate perhaps—for a series of reflections on the uses of personal knowledge for readers of what was once called “serious literature.” But I have wanted, from the first, to establish that many of us have grounds for believing that we know something about a writer whose work we admire. I arranged the interview with Naipaul because I had begun to teach his work and wanted to devote an issue of Salmagundi magazine to him. I thought that his work opened up questions about the world that had nowhere else been raised so vividly, questions about the so-called advanced and under-developed nations, about the struggle between modernity and tradition, about the legacy of colonialism and the efforts to create what Naipaul called “new men” in places like the Congo and even “among the believers” in Pakistan and other Islamic societies. I had also begun to write about him for a book I was planning on politics and the novel. Though I hated much that he had to say in his political journalism and essays, I was chastened by his account of places I thought I knew something about. I was also astonished that he knew so well how adept were liberal intellectuals like myself at concealing from ourselves things we did not wish to acknowledge. He was a man it was easy to dislike on the basis of his writing alone. He had made his recent novels vehicles for expressing hard truths that my friends and I often felt honor-bound to resist. Though we had found his earlier works hilarious or—in the case of A House For Mr. Biswas—unforgettably beautiful and moving, there was nothing remotely beautiful or consoling in The Mimic Men, or Guerrillas, or A Bend In The River. Because Naipaul had made himself a writer who was assiduous not to present anything that would seem to a reader attractive or congenial, he had made a claim that was not to be ignored. And yet my feelings about Naipaul himself, though largely based upon a single extended encounter, were so strong that only my deep and considered admiration for his best work allowed me to withstand the impulse to abandon admiration and simply, for evermore, to regard even the novels as a reflection of the intolerable fellow who wrote them.

That has often been the way with such matters. Routinely, even among writers themselves, impressions of persons and deep personal antagonisms, are permitted to color responses to works of literature. A poet will say, casually, that she had never felt the poems of another leading contemporary poet to be “repellent” until she met her and took in her cold, unforgiving demeanor. A writer-friend reports that, when a famous contemporary poet—a woman—arrived at her university to deliver a reading, she shook hands with the assembled creative writing faculty, all six of them men, then turned to my friend, the one woman present, and wordlessly held out her coat. That cool peremptory gesture has ever since, over several years, colored my friend’s sense of the poet’s work, which seems to her bookish, remote, humanly indifferent, “academic.”

Even brief encounters are typically enough to shape not merely a sense of a person but a disposition towards that person’s work. Those who record that trajectory are rarely apologetic about their susceptibility to so scant a foundation for a long-term judgment. E. M. Cioran wrote that “one can no more refute [a fashionable] idea than a sauce,” and this would seem often to be the case with a powerful impression. You would suppose that critics and teachers, and even most “general” readers, would be reluctant to presume too much in their efforts to read a novel armed with incomplete information and fragmentary impressions. But knowledge can be, often is, a dangerous thing, as we have heard before. Our predisposition often determines what we find and what we confirm. How often do readers of literary biographies believe that they know perfectly how to interpret the work of an author based upon the portrait they have been given? It is easy for a reader convinced that Naipaul is a nasty little man to find confirming “evidence” in his novels. Does he not relentlessly pillory characters who strive to better themselves in ways that must seem hopeless, pathetic, comical to a superior fellow like Naipaul? Does he not ridicule the speech patterns of the natives in places like Trinidad, Antigua, and Jamaica, the better to emphasize the futility of persons in “backward” countries who aspire to a sophistication that does not, so far as Naipaul is concerned, belong to them? Does he not hold up to ridicule the intellectual pretensions of students and professors in African and middle eastern universities who routinely speak of “revolution” and “progress” when their societies are mired in ethnic or tribal conflict and their “new men” are preoccupied with lining their pockets and transferring their wealth to secure havens in more stable countries?

But much that has been said against Naipaul has relied upon what must be called “personal” impressions. He has operated, it is felt, from an apparently fixed disposition, very much in the way that he seemed to be when I met him years ago. The late Edward Said, a brilliant and knowledgeable critic, thought Naipaul an “imperialist” writer, one who designed his work to appeal to the prejudices of “western” readers, to confirm their view of the “third world” as hopelessly backward and uncivilized. So secure was Said in promoting this view of Naipaul that it did not occur to him that Naipaul’s western readers would be as quick to disparage the novel-ist’s depiction of the non-western world as he was. When, in the course of a panel discussion at Skidmore College, I suggested to Said that western liberals were not at all inclined to accept Naipaul’s view of Africa and Africans, he insisted that the largely favorable reception accorded to Naipaul’s books flatly contradicted my view of the matter. Naipaul was, Said insisted, an apologist for western imperialism who had an instinct for expressing and justifying the deep, often unconscious prejudices of his audience. This was obvious, he felt, and no recitation of the hostility that often greeted Naipaul’s books—even from critics who admired his artistry—would at all dissuade him. And did he agree, I asked him, that his own disposition significantly shaped his impression of Naipaul’s work and purposes? Was Said’s reading of Naipaul a reflection of the critic’s demand for fictions that were unambiguously “correct” in their depiction of the “true” relation between oppressors and the oppressed? Disposition had nothing to do with it, Said insisted, and he was in no way influenced by his knowledge of Naipaul’s “reactionary” temperament.

Of course there is no way to settle this sort of dispute, but I will say, simply, that my own exchanges with Said, over many years, only very occasionally in face-to-face meetings, followed a pattern all too familiar to those who have labored in these precincts. I think here of a 1961 essay by the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, which begins: “Mark Twain said that it isn’t what they don’t know that hurts people, it‘s what they do know that isn’t so. This is true [for example] of Kipling. If people don’t know about Kipling they can read Kipling, and then they’ll know about Kipling: it’s ideal. But most people already do know about Kipling—not very much, but too much. . . . They know that, just as Calvin Coolidge’s preacher was against sin and the snake was for it, Kipling was for imperialism.” Now Jarrell did not wish to argue about Kipling’s view of British imperialism. He wished simply to argue that Kipling was “one of the most skillful writers who have ever existed. . . . You can argue,” Jarrell went on, “about the judgment he makes of something, but the thing is there.” To come to such a writer armed against his bad, bad outlook was for most right-thinking readers sufficient reason to dismiss him with the standard disdainful epithets.

Said, I believe, came to Naipaul armed with such impressions. He despised Naipaul’s ironic severity, hated its deployment on behalf of what he took to be unworthy objectives. He refused, moreover, to take seriously the fact—it is a fact—that in the novels and essays he derided as “imperialist” texts, Naipaul is by no means a defender of “the white man’s burden,” nor of any ideology that may be said to sponsor a confident imperialist posture. Neither would Said accept as in any way significant the fact—also clearly a fact—that no character, white or black, who represents privilege or power is permitted to come off well in Naipaul’s work. To be sure, Naipaul’s novels are rarely hopeful, but they do take seriously, in ways Said was unwilling to acknowledge, the most extravagant ambitions of characters who are, much of the time, deluded about what may be accomplished in places whose inhabitants have been long inured to misery and violence. Though Said did not approve of what he took to be the purposes informing Naipaul’s writing, he should have been able to see that his works treated politics not merely as the pathetic pursuit of chimeras on the part of hopelessly backward people but as the necessary, often heartbreaking effort of persons in despair to change their lives. Did Naipaul sometimes go out of his way to point up the awfulness of something that might have been portrayed with greater charity? No doubt. But there is nothing in Naipaul’s mature work that would seem to be borne of sheer perversity or unalloyed nastiness.

The wrong kind of knowledge, the kind that incapacitates a reader in significant ways, may be traced to many different sources. Martin Amis once noted that “the literary interview won’t tell you what a writer is like. Far more compellingly, to some, it will tell you what a writer is like to interview.” Nevertheless, in 1997, not long before his death, I visited the novelist Gregor von Rezzori at his townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I’d been commissioned to interview the author of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite for the Canadian quarterly Brick. There are few recent novels I admired—still admire—as much as von Rezzori’s book, a work of fiction that reads like a sly, only slightly fictionalized autobiography. Mischievous, crafty, vulnerable, haughty, the book had troubled my imagination for more than twenty years. I had taught it to students who thought it appalling and to others who liked in it nothing so much as the opportunity it presented to test their own tolerance for the outré. By the time I went to interview von Rezzori I had made up my mind about the novel and about other books by this author. I believed him to be at once whimsical and earnest, a man intermittently thoughtful but not at all a thinker. Now and then he seemed to me an innocent in search of lost dreams, but there was also something feral about him. If he could seem, more than occasionally, adolescent, he was the sort of adolescent who had never quite stopped looking for an advantage.

Von Rezzori and his wife, Beatrice Monti, could not have been more welcoming and genial. Rapidly my wife and I established that we had in common with them a love of most things Italian. We agreed that my interview with the writer would range over his works in general and that I would feel free to inquire about periods and aspects of his life, including the World War II years when he worked in Germany as an employee of Radio Hamburg. In many ways, the session, which went on for several hours, was all that I might have imagined. Von Rezzori spoke freely of his likes and dislikes, of his aversion to “stupidity” and his own susceptibility to varieties of “hatred” which, as a rule, he deplored. He noted, in his work, a tendency to poeticism and beautiful writing, which he labored mightily to control. The “character” of his writing, its flavor, he believed, had more to do with an inveterate cynicism. Refusing the soft, the tender, he relied upon a tested instinct to “move against the good rising up in me.” When I offered that there was, in his work, “a relentless, sometimes cruel and self-assured irony,” he agreed, though when I compared it to the ironies of Thomas Mann he balked: Mann, he said, “has the irony of a German sophomore,” a “low irony.” Amused at my resistance to this, at my incredulity at the word “sophomore,” von Rezzori went on to associate his own peculiar brand of irony with what he called “Jewish wit.” “I was schooled by Jews,” he added, the trace of a malicious smile discernible in his broad, handsome, robustly elderly features.

And in fact it was the turn to things Jewish that precipitated in our interview a rather more strenuous exchange, only a part of which made it into the published transcript. Von Rezzori had been going on about his sense that there was much in his own nature he had learned to check. When he felt himself writing “too beautifully” he had learned to “step on the devil’s tail,” so as to “squash something in myself.” This rapidly became a leitmotif in our conversation, so that the habit of stepping, as it were, on the devil’s tail could be easily applied to a whole range of things. “Look,” he said, “as a writer—I’ve said this before—I have to work against myself as a human being. Against the good, against my hatred, against my particular sense of the ridiculous . . . I can’t be always hating and mocking, you know, so I’m working against my hatred, though I also have to allow it expression.” The habit, moreover, had most especially to be mobilized where Jews and Jewishness were concerned, given von Rezzori’s flirtation with crackpot racialist theories, his easy references to “typically Jewish attitudes” and “Jewish qualities,” to New York City as “a kind of shtetl environment,” to the idea that anti-Semitism is not only “addictive” but “an inherited disposition.” No reader of Memoirs of an Anti-Semite would be surprised at von Rezzori’s interest in such ideas, though I felt—perhaps foolishly—disappointed that he himself continued to take seriously ideas that he had used to such brilliant and satiric effect in his fiction.

But the most poignant and disturbing moments in our session came when the doorbell rang in the townhouse and, noting that his wife had gone out for a while, von Rezzori asked us to turn off the tape recorder as he rose to attend to his uninvited guest. The guest, however, was a repairman who had been phoned earlier by Beatrice Monti and summoned to fix a kitchen appliance. Clearly angry, apologetic, hesitant, von Rezzori led the intruder to the kitchen, where he was forced to spend ten or fifteen exasperated minutes, after which, when he returned to us, somewhat undone, asking us to join him in a drink, he recalled what he had been saying earlier, and went on, intimately, gamely attempting to clarify. “You know,” he tried, “with the Jews it’s a strange thing. It’s not something you can just put aside. You saw that man a minute ago? I can’t even now remember what he looks like. I don’t know his name. But he angered me. I don’t like to be interrupted and I can’t help feeling somehow that the man was responsible. From the moment I opened the door and he set foot in the house I was irritated and I thought to myself ‘that dirty little Jew.’ The man who rang that bell more than once and forced himself in here had to be a dirty little Jew. And I held onto that thought, or it held on to me, the entire time we were there together in the kitchen. And when I prepared myself to come out here and resume the interview I looked back over my shoulder and I saw, behind me, the devil’s tail, and I thought it’s time now to step on it, which I tried to do, though you can see it still, I suppose, there behind me. You can hear it in my telling you how hard it is not to be taken over by that hatred. It’s an old habit, and I try to suppress it.”

Coming from the author of the Memoirs such remarks could hardly astonish. What is more, they emerged, under the circumstances, with an almost winning air of candor and vulnerability. Was not this von Rezzori fellow open and confiding beyond anything his ardent interlocutor might have expected? Was he not exposing himself to ridicule or derision? And was he not, moreover, the unfortunate victim of a tendency, an obsession, for which he could not have been entirely to blame, given his central European background and “Aryan” conditioning? As he shared with us his disgusting susceptibility we might almost have been moved to offer commiseration and to congratulate the man on his determination, however futile, to step on the devil’s tail.

And yet the thought of that confiding outburst did not leave me. As I walked along Madison Avenue with my wife a few hours later, soon after we had been cordially invited to meet again with the von Rezzoris that summer in Italy, I declared that any further meeting was, so far as I was concerned, out of the question. Perhaps if the novelist had not shared other related confidences in the course of our session, the indelibly ugly accent of the one singular outburst would not have sounded quite so insistently in my memory. For he had assured me that of course, during his time working for Radio Hamburg in the 1940s, no one ever spoke of what was being done to the Jews at the time. There were, he insisted, so many other things to discuss, and no inclination on his part or anyone else’s to think about something that did not really concern them. If he had been, as he had often put it, tutored by Jews in the course of a long and not always unpleasant acquaintance, that did not imply any particular solicitude about the fate of the Jews as a people. And it seemed to him—on this he was clear—a bit surprising that I should have assumed that “this business of the Jews” would have interested a man who worked at a major news outlet at a time when the Hitler regime was carrying out “The Final Solution.” And what then did he think about back in those days? “Nothing much,” he replied. “Hardly anything, in fact.”

To turn back to the Memoirs in the aftermath of our memorable afternoon, as I prepared once more to teach the book, was to hear the familiar passages in a new way. What had seemed to me the anti-Semitism of a character suddenly seemed to me noxious in a degree I found surprising. When, in the past, I had come upon the narrator’s derisory references to Jews who seemed distasteful as a result of their “embarrassing self-confidence” or their “repulsive social climbing,” I had felt only admiration for an author so adept at exposing the empty condescension and blustery rage of a narrator—a “Gregor”—he knew well enough to despise.

I admired not only the relentless effrontery of the narrative but its insidious charm, its way of making the narrator’s racism seem almost quaint and forgivable, like an affliction indulged but never sanitized. Was it possible, I now wondered, that I had invited students to laugh at a passage like the following?

Salzburg in the summer of 1937 was just awful. It was overrun with Jews. The worst of them had come from Germany as refugees and, in spite of their luggage-laden Mercedes cars, behaved as if they were the victims of a cruel persecution and therefore had the right to hang around in hundreds at the Café Mozart.

So preposterous were passages like these that it was hard not to think them satiric, the wit obviously directed against anyone who could turn up his perfect Aryan nose at the idea of “a cruel persecution.” But von Rezzori himself had taught me to think that perhaps my own literary conditioning had somewhat blinded me to the more obvious charge of such a passage. Was I not now positioned to appreciate the true awfulness of von Rezzori’s playful, occasionally over-the-top, even boastful racism? Was his narrator’s complacent aplomb in the face of his sometimes murderous hostility to all things Jewish not in fact grotesque rather than merely symptomatic and candidly revealing?

In the introduction to a 2008 edition of the novel, Deborah Eisenberg argues that “it is precisely [the] tone of levity that is the very substance of the book’s gravity.” How can this be? We hear in that levity a persistent “self-mockery,” Eisenberg writes, and that, more than anything else, “prevents us from being able to dismiss [the narrator] outright as nothing more than an amazingly frivolous lout.” The “highly unwelcome insights” he shares with us must then “steadily dismantle his equanimity.” In truth, I am drawn still to this reading of the novel, and share, with some reluctance, Eisenberg’s appreciation of the “levity” that underwrites the entire work. My experience of the author himself is nothing I would wish to correct, and yet I continue to teach the novel very much in the way I did before our interview in New York. The novel has not in fact seemed to me fatally compromised by my vivid sense of the man who wrote it. Whatever his manias and resentments, von Rezzori was ambivalent about most things and capable of expressing, in a single breath, both affinity and detachment, tenderness and revulsion. To think of him principally as the man complaining about “the dirty little Jew” in his kitchen is to miss him—to miss the true voice of his fiction—more or less entirely.

There is no need to look very far to identify prominent instances of the misreading to which we are all, in varying degrees, susceptible, misreading inspired by knowing what we know about a writer or an artist. Consider, if only briefly, the case of the English poet Philip Larkin. When he died in 1985, Larkin was a beloved figure in England and a poet with a large following in the United States as well. Though the attitudes contained in the poetry could be rather harsh (religion was “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die”), and the lines could ring with acerbities (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”), Larkin had what one critic called “a genius for making his readers feel vicariously brave as they entered a life of such enforced solitude, such unfulfillment, such concentrated horror at age and death.” He was, in fact, a poet whose words all sorts of people committed to memory and shared with one another, a poet admired by his peers for his craftsmanship and adored by the common reader.

And yet all that changed with the publication of Larkin’s letters and the appearance of Andrew Motion’s superb biography. At once a reassessment of the poetry began, prompted by the discovery that Larkin was really a bad chap. Hard now to suppose that anyone at any time had thought Larkin an agreeable sort of fellow or had managed not to find the poems themselves some of the time mean-spirited and even repellant. But then Larkin was also funny and clever. He could be mournful and eloquent. For all the “fucking” and “pissing” and “groping” in the language of the poems, there was, much of the time, a compensatory rue, a genuine-sounding note of wry self-deprecation or irremediable sorrow. Nothing, really, even in the nastiest bits, to quite prepare a reader for letters deploring again and again the “wop,” the “coon,” the “too many fucking niggers,” the ever bound-to-be-disappointing sexual partners, the never-ending “ree-lay-shun-ship between men and women.”

Of course the best critics, responding to the letters and to the Motion biography, were moved to ask—as William Pritchard asked—“Why . . . one [would] want to read all this when the matchless poems are there, still fresh and glittering as creation itself.” And they naturally answered, with Pritchard, simply, that of course “we want to know everything, even too much, about the man who wrote them.” But then, for many other readers, the letters and the biography were an enormous, not-to-be-gotten-over trial. “Attitudes that read as irony in the lyrics,” wrote Phoebe Pettingell, “turn[ed] out to be for real in the man,” and thus the poems had inevitably to be read, or reread, in light of revelations as to what they must have intended or not quite made explicit. The poet Tom Paulin wrote in the Times Literary Supplement of the “sewer under the national monument Larkin became,” and an English professor named Lisa Jardine wrote in the Guardian that it would no longer be possible for her and other academics to teach Larkin’s work to students as they had in the past. His work, after all, could no longer be presented as “self-evidently ‘humane.’” For professors who customarily encouraged students, as Jardine described it, “to ‘read around’ their key literary texts,” the poems of Larkin would now be revealed as the work of “a casual, habitual racist, and an easy misogynist. Not to mention a malicious gossip who relished savagely caricaturing fellow authors,” and so on. Obviously Larkin’s poems served merely to conceal “implications” and left “familiar prejudices intact.” And so the task of educating students “to see through” the poetry would fall to persons like Jardine herself, adept at exposing “patriarchal beliefs” and all-around incorrect prejudices. Though Tom Paulin and many other writers declared, as Jardine had it, that “we are no longer allowed Larkin (or Virginia Woolf), because their writings are structured by key beliefs to which we can no longer subscribe,” others would make appropriate use of such “texts” and would thus alert the world to their sinister implications.

To all of this we might best respond by remembering what writers like Larkin do to us when they are operating with the benefit of their finest powers. Did Larkin write, some of the time, what John Banville termed “heartbreakingly tender” poems? He did. Was the nastiness in the poems often undercut, complicated, by “an impish and highly ironical smile” which made the performance by no means a straightforward exercise in bigotry? It was. And would we ever really want to read poems to be confirmed in our niceness and our impeccably sound views of society and human “re-lay-shuns”? Probably not.

And yet we may want, all the same, to acknowledge that this business of reading and responding is perhaps not so very easy to manage. Banville rightly declares, in the piece on Larkin, that “all this, of course, is incidental to what matters, which is the poetry.” Of course. But then the poetry matters in several different ways, and those may well include consideration of the spirit inhabiting a body of work. “There was much ugliness in Philip Larkin’s character,” Banville writes, “but what mattered most to him was beauty, and the making of beautiful objects. In this lay his greatness.” And thus we are not, in Banville’s view, to judge Larkin on the basis of the ugliness, any more than we are to “judge Shakespeare’s plays because he willed to Anne Hathaway his second-best bed.” To which we can only say, all right, fair enough, and then follow up with something like: But what if the ugliness in the character, the provincial prejudice, the murderous ressentiment—defects we associate with writers as various as Larkin, Ezra Pound, Celine, Naipaul, von Rezzori, and others—can be shown to infect the poems and novels and plays? What if the infection is not incidental to the work but an essential aspect of its character and tone?

In short, we may not wish too readily to dismiss questions about the spirit of a work, though we will want to affirm our allegiance to an idea of literature that sharply differentiates the poem or the novel from what appears to be its “message” or its “views” or the character of its author. “The only true thoughts,” T. W. Adorno once wrote, “are those which do not grasp their own meaning.” In which case, insofar as a Larkin poem or a von Rezzori novel is an expression of “true thoughts,” the thoughts must not be reducible to an unequivocal meaning. If that is what we take to be the case with such writers, then we will want to trust in the elusiveness of their works, which must remain, in the end, resistant to us and to our knowledge of their creators.


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