GOING TO THE TIGERS
NOTES ON MIDDLE STYLE
One day back in graduate school my advisor, a savvy and successful novelist whose books meant a lot to me and whom I had just traveled three thousand miles to come work with, called me into his office and sat me down sternly. “Look, no offense,” he said, holding up a page of my manuscript, a page so capillaried with red marks it looked like the face of a stroke victim, “but you’ve got to cut it out with these frigging F. Scott Fitzgerald sentences.”
This was, on one level, the nicest compliment the man ever gave me. After all, it was my love for Fitzgerald and his frigging sentences that had made me want to be a novelist in the first place. If every writer, as Bellow once said, is a reader moved to emulation (and my advisor wasn’t so hot on Bellow’s sentences either), then to be told I was now writing the kinds of frigging sentences that had made me want to, uh, write those kinds of frigging sentences? On one level it was very nice to hear.
Unfortunately my advisor didn’t mean it on that level. He meant it on a different level, a lower level. He meant that being enthralled as I was to lovely, thrilling, Daisy Buchananish prose was in my case less the solution than the problem. He himself was a rough-and-tumble realist, streety and sharp—a Redskin, in Philip Rahv’s famous phrase. Already he had me pegged as a member of that wan lesser tribe, the Palefaces, one of those cerebral, overly refined aesthetes who hung out in libraries and coffee shops doodling bon mots in overpriced notebooks. Moi! That this peremptory judgment was ludicrously unfair, ungenerous, and reductive did not make it any less true. I hurried out of his office that day with my face burning, my hands clenching and unclenching, shadow-boxing with shame.
All of which was many years ago now. But because there comes a point in any vocation when one begins to doubt the efficacy of one’s own path through the dark woods, and because yours truly has now reached that point, it seems important to think about these things, and to write about them, even if writing about them only intensifies and accentuates the very condition I’m describing. Which is (to repeat) a condition of mid-career self-scrutiny, a reluctance to keep writing about things in the same diction, the same rhythms and vocabulary, the same reflexive, vaguely lyrical way one has written about them in the past.
Like most people, I would rather be someone else. The prose this other self would write would be sharp and coiled, deadly like a snake; not all soggy and attenuated like a garden hose, spritzing dewily, indiscriminately, over thorns and flowers. But it seems one can’t just choose to be a snake. Temperament, sensibility, culture—all come into play. To be Jewish, for instance, is to incline, from Eden onward, less toward the snake than the snake victim. Most of us, with the notable exception of Isaac Babel, lack that cold equipment, that steely, scrupulous will to violence seen in writers like Flannery O’Connor, John Hawkes, Robert Stone, Cormac McCarthy, and other Catholic rednecks. So the matter is not uncomplicated. Then too, given that any investigation of our personal linguistic patterns will inevitably be conducted within the confines of those patterns, there’s bound to be a certain maze-like, funhouse-mirror effect of not being able to see beyond the freakishly elongated reflection of our own heads.
Nonetheless: can’t go on, will go on, etc.
Going on, in fact, poses a substantive and stylistic argument of its own, with its own set of moral and aesthetic consequences. Here’s Thomas McGuane—a recovering “word drunk” by his own admission—on how the experience of his middle years, which among other things consisted of attending a great many funerals, affected not just the substance of his work but its tones and its rhythms too. “As you get older,” he advises,
you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.… you want something that is drawn like a bow, and a bow is a simple instrument. A good writer should get a little bit cleaner and probably a little bit plainer as life and the oeuvre go on.
For all its plain good sense, this seems a fairly radical sentiment. Generally we secular types resist the imperative-prescriptive mode: we don’t like being told what’s real and what’s true and what we should or shouldn’t do. But McGuane’s shoulds here are instructive. He doesn’t concede for argument’s sake that such notions as truth and “the real” may not exist, may be only quaint premodern artifacts, tarnished if not shattered after decades of rough handling by lawyers, humanities professors, and people with French surnames. No, a Westerner’s impatience with that sort of dithering and equivocal epistemological bullshit—with all bullshit—makes its own point: namely, that if experience (and for experience we might go ahead and substitute the word death) teaches us what’s real and what isn’t, then to pretend otherwise, either in substance or in aesthetic form, is an evasion, a shirking of the writer’s responsibility to truth. The rest is commentary.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,” goes the Zen teaching, “in the expert’s few.”
We can hear a version of this, the message and medium both, in the later work of a writer like Natalia Ginzburg:
We are adult because we have behind us the silent presence of the dead, whom we ask to judge our current actions and from whom we ask forgiveness for past offences… we are adult because of that brief moment when one day it fell to our lot to live when we had looked at the things of the world as if for the last time, when we had renounced our possession of them and returned them to the will of God: and suddenly the things of the world appeared to us in their just place beneath the sky, and the human beings too. In that brief moment we found a point of equilibrium for our wavering life, and it seemed to us that we could… find there the words for our vocation.
We hear it too, this adult “language for the real,” in the good Doctor Chekhov. Chekhov’s lyricism, if we can even call it that, is dispensed sparely but tactically, less an expression of overtly “poetic” effects than of a general pellucidity and lightness of manner that’s both an artistic and (his letters suggest) behavioral ideal. “You may weep and moan over your stories,” he advises a correspondent, “you may suffer together with your heroes, but I consider one must do this so that the reader does not notice it. The more objective, the stronger will be the effect.”
That there’s no such thing as “objective” writing—that it’s only a manipulated impression, a trick of subjective light—is too obvious to bother over. But how to achieve that impression is another matter. Chekhov’s style, as Nabokov tells us, “goes to parties clad in his everyday suit… the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, these were foreign to him.” The critic D. S. Mirsky goes one step further: “He has no feeling for words. No Russian writer of anything like his significance used a language so devoid of all raciness and nerve.”
Whether this is meant as compliment or indictment, or both, it seems a bit too nervy. Yes, Chekhov’s vocabulary is deliberately plain, and deploys few ostentatious metaphors and similes. But his scorn for the lyrical, like a former smoker’s scorn for the patch, is as knowing as it is severe; lyricism is a weakness he’s forever struggling to put behind him for good. We see this when he lifts his attention from the muddle of human affairs to the transcendent and impersonal presence of the landscape, which evokes, even as late as “Lady With the Pet Dog,” his most full-throated writing. The prose is not so much antilyrical as discreetly, evasively lyrical, full of subtle musical patterns and cadences, with an often rather manipulative use of repetition, pauses, and ellipses. It’s a style, for all its simplicity of description, that eludes simple description, its beauty arising not in spite but because of a lack of interest in the merely beautiful. Beautiful, not beautiful—in Chekhov these like all other easy oppositions come to seem almost vulgar and cartoonish, beside the point. Take the moment when Gurov, that snobby cold fish, spots Anna Sergeyevna at the opera, feeling, for perhaps the first time in his life, the straight lines of the either/or crumbling into the dissolute, dreamy haze of the both/and:
she, this little, undistinguished woman, lost in a provincial crowd, with a vulgar lorgnette in her hand, filled his whole life now, was his sorrow and his joy, the only happiness that he now desired for himself, and to the sounds of the bad orchestra, of the miserable local violins, he thought how lovely she was. He thought and dreamed.
Note what gets pride of place here: not the joy but the sorrow. And always that final lingering note, the reflective thought. For the mature Chekhov, the breakdown of the simple into the binary, and the binary into the atomic (“Of course,” Fitzgerald writes in The Crack-Up, “all life is a process of breaking down”) can be—arguably must be—a catastrophic process, as unwelcome for the writer as it is for his characters. To discover that each moment, when it arrives, is no longer simply itself, solo and unencumbered, but comes freighted with cumbersome bags of memory, loss, and regret? This is the wisdom of aging, a wisdom we’d almost prefer to do without. If Gurov’s surrender to the dream-drift of the irrational leads him toward a version (or inversion) of McGuane’s “plain winnowed truth,” it’s a very swampy, messy one, a truth so mysterious and destabilizing that, like that natural phenomenon “thunder in winter,” it cannot be explained, only intuited from experience. To account for such a vision places its own stylistic demands on the writer. The clever satire of the early work no longer obtains; he must find a less pointed, more jointed approach. His own breezy advice to his acolytes—“Write what you like. If you haven’t facts, make up with lyricism”—is now useless to him, a fossil of glib certainties long outgrown.
We can recast this opposition between facts and lyricism in grammatical terms, as a tug-of-war between adjective and noun. The lyrical writer’s affinity and/or weakness for the adjective is a source of embarrassment to us all, suggesting as it does, in its earnest and insistent way, a kind of religious faith. Faith both in the adjective’s powers of descriptive persuasion—its ability to do right by its noun—and also, more broadly in language itself, its ability to do right by its noun (reality I mean) with (and here’s yet another faith) its various latent, implied, and subordinate depths. (“The total and unique adjective,” Alain Robbe-Grillet snorts, “which attempted to unite all the inner qualities, the entire hidden soul of things.”) Or maybe it’s just the opposite. Maybe it’s a lack of faith, a frantic insecurity about language’s ability to adhere to the real, that impels us to press more and more of it against the page, like a stoned teenager taping down the corners of an unruly poster. Either way the stuff won’t stick. And the danger for the writer remains the same: that even as we sing our hymns and render praise unto our subjects, we only manage to obscure them, to fog the windows with the stains of our own breathing.
Point is, it gets old fast, this habit of rendering something in a manner that foregrounds the rendering, not the something. Reading a novel that feels overly finessed, not quite visceral, makes us antsy and peevish. Enough with the light show, we think, enough with the incense, the dry ice, the elaborate riddles and evasions. No wonder people hate novels. They really are just words, aren’t they? Words and then more words! True, we like words, up to a point. We’ve all been trained to admire, maybe too much, a voice that’s fluent, shapely, resonant, and neatly symbolic. But what happens when we apply that voice to material that isn’t shapely or fluent, that’s at war, in fact, with shapeliness and fluency, at war with neatness, at war with reason itself? This is what happens:
Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails.
Reading a passage like this, with its honeyed prose, its fine, discriminating clauses, the brain stem is soothed but the viscera just lie there, untouched. You could be forgiven for wondering if the writer has purposely set out to exemplify, even reaffirm, the numbed, heedless relativism of the culture under attack, a culture that among other things prizes aestheticized self-display above other forms of discourse. The result is either a political statement or a denial of politics altogether. Or both. In any case it arouses suspicion. Something feels wrong. We’d like to call in the Reality Police—storm the page, pull back the fancy blankets and pillows, and get a look at some naked truth. Only where did it go? The truth, if it was ever even there, appears to have made its escape under cover of darkness, leaving only more bunched bedding below.
No wonder we turn with relief, then, to the good solid materiality of the noun. The object. The thing. Thingness, with its modest bearing, its seemingly humble, methodical reportage, appears to make no claims on our emotions, request no special treatment or favors, and thus enjoys a persuasive Zen-like power all its own. (Compare the passage quoted above to Don DeLillo’s account of the same 9/12 aftermath—“There is something empty in the sky”—which neatly, but not too neatly, registers the stunning wrongness and confusion of presence/absence, in the same way Hemingway’s Frederic Henry, looking down at his wounded leg, thinks, “My knee wasn’t there.”) Yes, beside the noun’s rugged, Gary Cooperish laconicism, the adjective can seem as sweaty and undignified, as pleadingly inflated, as Peter Lorre. We’d like to step back from it, wipe the stain of its corruptions off our sleeve. Clear this away, says the overseer of the hunger artist’s limp corpse. Just give us the real thing, we think, strong and vivid and unmediated, and let us make up our own minds…
And yet, taken to its logical extreme—did someone say Robbe-Grillet?—even the rhetorical plainness of thingness appears, like all extremes, weirdly radical and mysterious, even fancy. (Hemingway again: “Down at the station there were five whores waiting for the train to come in, and six white men and four Indians.”) In the same way we perceive a lake in the dark by the lights that surround it, we negotiate a path around the plain-facts style, and out into the darkness beyond its borders—which of course turns out not to be plain or solid at all, but full of vacancies and lacunae, strange depths, strange myths.
Which is only to say that both styles, in good hands, lead more or less to the same place, along parallel paths of paradox and counterpoint. You say “tomato,” I say “red round seed-spilling fruit”; what matters is the conviction and intensity and music of the voice. The concrete implies the abstract, the simple implies the complex, and vice versa. Even McGuane’s candor and directness, his hostility to rhetorical posturing, is itself (he’d probably be the first to admit) a kind of rhetorical posture, not plain at all.
If every style, then, is an argument with its own opposite, its shadow/twin, whether the terms of that argument should or could evolve as time and the culture march along is a question we’re all likely to answer, as McGuane does, in the affirmative. But how? For every major artist whose latter works calcify into mannerism, there are a thousand minor ones who never make it that far. After all, we have only so many arrows in our quiver. To take up other weapons, and hit the target again and again? Such plasticity of attack is difficult to achieve, and beyond exhausting to maintain, and that’s not even taking into account a marketplace where brand recognition is everything, where a static, reliably “signature” style is a terrific asset. Even an artist as notoriously uncompromising as Mark Rothko chose more or less deliberately in midcareer, according to his biographer, to give the world what it already wanted from him. And what did it want? It wanted “Rothkos.” It wanted ineffable hovering rectangles of color, and more ineffable hovering rectangles of color, not some doodly semisurrealist multi-forms no one knew what to do with. And so the artist, who begins by laying siege to the precut frames of the past, and reducing them to splinters, sues for peace later and frames himself.
Not that most of us wouldn’t happily settle for this. Not that it isn’t smarter to acknowledge our limits, and keep doing what we already know we can do. And if occasionally we get a postcard from that difficult country we’ve chosen to fly over or avoid, and always on the back is the same message (HE NOT BUSY BEING BORN IS BUSY DYING), OK, we can live with that. Not everyone is a bloody fucking genius, after all.
What would the dynamic, nonsignature style of a bloody fucking genius even look like, anyway? Edward Said, in his unfinished but influential book, On Late Style, finds in the late works of Beethoven, Strauss, Lampedusa, Visconti, and Thomas Mann not McGuane’s plain winnowed “real” thing, but something like the opposite: a landscape of “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Said is out to interrogate, as they say, the whole notion of maturity, and not just in the arts. Suppose that age doesn’t yield the serenity of “ripeness is all”? That instead of harmony and resolution we find only “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness,” a devotion to the truth of unreconciled relations? That our apprehension of the “real” is undermined by our recognition that reality itself—the self itself—is shot through with holes? If so, then might some new style or vocabulary be necessary, one that’s neither “plain” nor “lyrical” but dissolves the line between all such easy polarities, and forges a weird albeit messy path of its own?
“A catching fire between extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground,” Theodor Adorno puts it. “In the history of art, late works are the catastrophes.”
Death in Venice, though hardly a late work for Mann, reads like a very late work for man. We all know the story: Aschenbach, a distinguished artist, a man given to orderly and fastidious brooding in plushly appointed rooms, arrives in Venice at a creative impasse. His ends have gone out of sync with his means. Or, as the narrator coolly observes, “His work had ceased to be marked by that fiery play of fancy which is the product of joy.” And so to Venice, “that wild, presumably unrestrained region where desires are realized,” as Said puts it, “and fantasies fulfilled.” Aschenbach, like all imperialists, wants to gain something for nothing and make good his escape; he craves, as Norman Mailer would say, the heat of the orgy but not its murder. “He would go on a journey,” he tells himself. “Not far—not all the way to the tigers.” But in the end the tigers get him anyway. In the end the artist, like Gurov, grows bored with his own halfway measures, his own patterned, systemic ways, and succumbs, miserably but ecstatically, to the erotic disorder and “eastern plagues” of Venice. Undone by his mad pursuit of the ever-receding Tadzio, he loses mind, will, discipline, detachment—all the tools of a culture fighting off its discontents. “The hostility to civilization,” Freud tells us, “is produced by the pressure that civilization exercises, the renunciations of instinct which it demands.” And so with Aschenbach, who blows his top—spewing the hot, spasmodic stream of ash that is his latent self—and then collapses in a heap, spent for real.
If Venice seems an apt staging ground for this apocalyptic drama, it may be because it’s not ground per se at all, but occupies a kind of swampy interzone (geographical, historical, imaginative) between land and water, East and West, North and South. Venice represents Paradise and Inferno both. Beauty and decay are twined; the transition from gorgeousness to garbage, in Tony Tanner’s phrase, hovers invisibly, hauntingly close. In Venice, with its bad smells, lush art, and crumbling walls, over-ripeness is all. Solid things perch precariously above the sea, secretly longing to merge with it, to lose definition and trickle away like so much runny hair dye.
Prominent among these melting forms is Mann’s own “magisterial style,” his shapely, cerebral aesthetic, which, like his protagonist and setting, and like so much modernist art in general, seems to crave if not revel in its own destruction:
Our magisterial style is all folly and pretence, our honourable repute a farce, the crowd’s belief in us is merely laughable. And to teach youth, or the populace, by means of art is a dangerous practice and ought to be forbidden. For what good can an artist be as a teacher, when from his birth up he is headed direct for the pit? We may want to shun it and attain to honour in the world; but however we turn, it draws us still. So, then, since knowledge might destroy us, we will have none of it. For knowledge, Phaedrus, does not make him who possesses it dignified or austere. Knowledge is all-knowing, understanding, forgiving; it takes up no position, sets no store by form. It has compassion with the abyss—it is the abyss.
Suppose, in other words, that knowledge and form don’t play so well together after all. That the artist’s obsession with beauty makes him not wiser and more dignified with age but increasingly subject to intoxication, desire, and despair—increasingly prone “not to excellence but to excess.” Are we all fated to wind up like Aschenbach, melting down in his beach chair? Or like Governor Mark Sanford, heartsick and moony, blathering on about serpentine adventures on the Appalachian Trail? Will we never be done with that stuff, put that old rough beast to bed? Dignity, in the long run, turns out to be a nonsustainable fuel. Sooner or later the wells run dry. In the war between beauty and pride, beauty, that blue angel, always wins.
Possibly this is the plain real thing: this Lear-like stripping down of the constructed self. This exposure to primordial elements, eternal desires, the murk below. As Aschenbach groans, with a certain helpless excitement, “We cannot pull ourselves together, we can only fall apart.”
John Cheever, who knew a thing or two about stripping down, muses in his journal over Fitzgerald’s late work, which is to say he uses the occasion of musing over Fitzgerald’s late work—and also hitting the gin pretty hard—to muse over his own:
The writer cultivates, extends, raises, and inflates his imagination, sure that this is his destiny, his usefulness, his contribution to the understanding of good and evil.… As he inflates his imagination, he inflates his capacity for anxiety, and inevitably becomes the victim of crushing phobias that can only be allayed by lethal doses of heroin or alcohol.
Anxiety for Cheever is yet another form of excessive “beauty,” a spark thrown off by the imagination’s lonely, ever-grinding wheel, which continues to whir away unattended after hours, when the day’s work is through. To write we must sit alone in a room for many hours, mumbling to ourselves and conjuring “plots.” How closely this resembles mental illness—or yields to it—is something we’d prefer not to think about. But we are forced to think about it anyway, when we confront the deliriously involuted late work of a Melville, a James, a Woolf, a Joyce. Here the movement through the years is not a paring down in the service of clarity, but an often fussy, groping prodigiousness, full of fidgets and hesitations and decorative revisions, an ornate sort of laughter in the dark. (Beckett takes this to its zero point in his last short plays and “closed space” stories, which are more in the McGuane-ian vein, shorn and terse, whittled down to the essential, a voice in the dark.) A friend of mine likens listening to late Mahler to watching a man pour gravy not just over the meat but over the potatoes, the green beans, the salad, and the cake as well. You’d think a man would get sick of gravy. But suppose the only way he has to express that sickness is by means of—you guessed it—gravy? No wonder Joyce, when asked what he planned to do after Finnegans Wake, replied, “I think I’ll write something very simple and very short.”
“Solitude,” Mann writes, “gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous—to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.” In short: fair and foul are squabbling twins. To quiet their dissonance we may turn to alcohol or drugs, or extracurricular affairs, or the ritual anesthetic of compulsive work, or in Cheever’s case all of the above. But these are only temporary solutions.
And yet it’s in the heat of collision between these warring opposites that the blade of a mature style gets forged. Not that maturity, in art as in life, is in any conventional way attractive. No, with its craggy flesh, its wild eyebrows, its unruly ear and nose hairs and runaway moles, maturity ain’t that pretty at all. It doesn’t want to charm. It doesn’t have time to charm. Shakespeare, like his protagonists, gets less charming as the years go on, the diction grander, wilder, more concentrated, more varied, more obscure. “It is as if, having achieved age, they want none of its… amiability or official ingratiation,” Said writes of his subjects. “Yet in none of them is mortality denied or evaded, but keeps coming back as the theme of death which undermines, and strangely elevates their uses of language and the aesthetic.”
For a writer at once oppressed and liberated by the shadow of catastrophe, and entirely allergic to embarrassment, take the much-remarked-upon late period Philip Roth. Mickey Sabbath’s credo—“the unknown about any excess is how excessive it’s been”—could as well apply to any Roth hero dating back to Portnoy. So it’s with some surprise and admiration that, in turning to the early work, what stands out, or rather doesn’t, is the lovely, often fastidiously lyrical prose, the Jamesian modesty and restraint the writer would later go on to triumphantly shed. Here’s a not untypical sentence from Goodbye, Columbus:
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.
Now compare this to a passage from a later, infinitely messier work:
He was now six short years from seventy: what had him grasping at the broadening buttocks as though the tattooist Time had ornamented neither of them with its comical festoonery was his knowing inescapably that the game was just about over.
Whatever else you want to say about this sentence—and boy, where do you start—it appears to have left lyricism and shapeliness behind. It seems in fact actively hostile to such niceties of style, to all niceties, all styles, plunging heedlessly down the page like a zipper undoing itself, freeing itself from such tiresome constraints as good taste, good grammar, good writing, good behavior. This is, to switch metaphors, no local; it’s an express, rattling and shrieking down the dark tunnel to the terminal, the last station. Only in the novel’s final section do we see that this is the direction we’ve been headed all along: the graveyard. In the waning light, the sexual chaos and slapstick comedy that came before take on, in retrospect, a softly fading fullness, the sweetness of things that intensify even as they perish. Because they perish. Here, in the roaring, bravura elegy with which this utterly exhausting novel concludes, Sabbath’s Lear-like loneliness, his Aschenbachian fever, burns through the scrim and torches the set.
And now, thought Sabbath, the feature attraction, the thing that matters most, the unforeseen culmination for which he had battled all his life. He had not realized how very long he’d been longing to be put to death.
Roth’s willingness to pare down, hurry up, and uglify his prose stands in direct contrast to a writer like Updike, say, who, though he writes beautifully and insightfully about the “translucent thinness” of so many artists’ late work, seems to maintain, even in his last months, much of the same patient, pointillist, lyrical density as before. Whether this admirable consistency represents a triumph or a failure of style is a question we could and probably should argue about. Must there be some palpable shift or disjunction, some greater sense of grit in the paint? Said would say yes. “Late style,” he writes, “is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality.”
It has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.
Of course there’s no shortage of unembarrassable old coots in the other arts as well. Wandering through the Musée Picasso in Paris, for example, it’s impossible not to be struck by the amazing, lurid ugliness of the late works. If you don’t believe me, here’s the last self-portrait from 1972, the full title of which is “Self Portrait Facing Death”:
This seems as vivid an example of “Age masquerading as Juvenility” (as Hardy says of Father Time) as we’re likely to find. Shakespeare too likes to have it both ways, at once defying and acknowledging the ravages of time: “Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” We see it in late Titian, in late Rembrandt, with those heavy, often haphazard-looking brushstrokes, in those late cutouts by Matisse. We see it in the raw cartoony klansmen of Guston. It’s everywhere in Dylan—what would you call those Christmas tunes? In late Coltrane, late Waits, late Leonard Cohen, late Beatles… all those scruffy, late-blooming flowers going rogue from the garden, in search of rougher ground. Said, quoting Adorno, reminds us that “the maturity of late works does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are… not round, but furrowed, even ravaged… bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.”
Leonard Michaels, no less than his contemporary Roth, evolved a distinct new style in his later work, the unfinished cycle known as the Nachman Stories. Here again the movement of maturity is not contraction but expansion, the tense leather diction of his early prose—(“I didn’t budge. I stared. His eyes squeezed to dashes. I heard the mock whimper of yawns. He began scratching the tablecloth”)—loosening at the joints like an old coat, the angry hunch of the rebel, in flight from immigrant parents and obscure species guilts, mellowing into the quizzical vulnerability, the emotional and epistemological confusions of an egghead mathematician for whom the workings of the world remain a strange, insoluble equation.
He yearned for his office and his desk and the window that looked out on the shining Pacific. He’d never gone swimming in the prodigious, restless, teeming, alluring thing, but he loved the changing light on its surface and the sounds it made in the darkness…
… a man began playing a guitar. The tune was a bossa nova, haunting, something like a blues, only more finely nuanced and not at all macho… soon he wasn’t thinking at all, only following the tune. It made a lovely, sinuous shape, and then made it again and again, always a little differently and yet always the same, as the rhythm carried its exquisite sadness toward infinity.
It’s like the return of a prodigal son. The bad boy has grown up, embraced his inner schlemiel; the calcified, knowing posture has worn away under the impersonal assault of experience. What’s left is all dreamy Chekhovian sadness.
Anyway it’s a hopeful idea, that the point of departure and the point of arrival might curve under the weight of the ultimate necessity, and at last converge. The meter is ticking; whither should we bend our steps? Who knows what work we might be capable of if, like the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s story, there was someone there to shoot us every minute of our lives?
These are of course rhetorical questions. For a rhetorical answer, or the ghost of one, I’d like to conclude with a writer whose own style—in its eerie plainness, its dogged devotion to paradox, its refusal of lyric consolation, its lack of interest in any unifying theory or stance or proclamation—seems so consistently and mysteriously “late” as to approach the posthumous:
“Every limb as tired as a person.”
“Let the bad remain bad, otherwise it will grow worse.”
“Does my larynx hurt so much because for many hours I have done nothing with it?”
“So the help goes away again without helping.”
These are literally the last words Kafka ever wrote. They are taken from the brief notes, or “conversation slips,” he jotted to his nurses, friends, and doctors in the sanatorium in Kierling as he lay dying (aptly enough, he was proofreading the galleys of A Hunger Artist at the time), because no other form of communication was possible. His larynx had shut like a door. And yet for all the suffering and deprivation there is no bitterness, only a kind of heightened and immaculate modesty, a keen observance of and tender regard for the struggles of those living things around him, becoming increasingly precious even as they recede from view. There may be nothing more moving, in any of his stories, than the note, after a glass had fallen to the floor of his room and broken: “You’ll have to warn the girl about the glass; she sometimes comes in barefoot.” Nor did he ever write anything, in my opinion, more fancy and more plain, more simple and more complex, more raw and more refined, more true to the ecstasy of sentience, beauty, and appetite, than this glimpse at the flowers dying on the windowsill beside him:
“How wonderful that is, isn’t it? The lilac—dying, it drinks, goes on swilling.”
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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