Poets and Pretenders

John Sutherland

  • The Great Pretender by James Atlas
    Viking, 239 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 670 81461 X
  • The Position of the Body by Richard Stern
    Northwestern, 207 pp, $21.95, November 1986, ISBN 0 8101 0730 9
  • The Setting Sun and the Rolling World by Charles Mungoshi
    Heinemann, 202 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 434 48166 1
  • Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 162 Years after his Lordship’s Death by Amanda Prantera
    Cape, 174 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 224 02423 X

James Atlas’s The Great Pretender is a first novel. But Atlas has some prior fame as the author of a powerful biography of Delmore Schwartz, America’s poète maudit who died tragically unfulfilled in 1966, having lived out the truth of one of his best essays: ‘The Isolation of the Modern Poet’. The Great Pretender tells the story of a tyro versifier, who comes to artistic consciousness around 1966 in Chicago and who hilariously fails to attain any subsequent artistic fulfilment. Not to force connections, both Atlas’s sombre biography and his current comic novel address the complex issue of the modern poetic career. It is, as it happens, a hot topic among literary critics at the moment, particularly the so-called ‘new historicists’. Lawrence Lipking’s The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (1981), for instance, elegantly demonstrates how ‘the idea of the poet’ framed literary lives from Keats onwards. Richard Helgerson’s Self-Crowned Laureates (1983) does the same for the English Renaissance.

The title of The Great Pretender is triple-loaded: the hero Ben Janis is a claimant for poetic fame, a laureate hoping to crown himself. His claims, he suspects with some justice, are a pretence. He is not much of a poet. And finally, the hit record (‘Oh yes, I’m the Great Pretender’) commemorates a significant spot of time in his past: the moment in the mid-Sixties when he first got laid and determined on poetry as his vocation.

Ben’s poetic soul has a pretty lousy seedtime in Evanston, Illinois – a bourgeois annexe to the windy city. The narrative opens with his being brought back from Harvard to Chicago for his Grandma Sophie’s funeral. She is the last link with the old country and the occasion has terminal as well as initial significance. After the ceremony, Ben sneaks off to the Paradise Motel for some guilt-ridden sexual relief with a freewheeling girlfriend of the old days, Lizzie Sherman. (As it happens, she was his first lay.) On the post-coital drive back, Ben is arrested for speeding by the unspeakable Chicago cops (it is the summer of 1968), roughed up, involuntarily defecates and is bailed out, soiled but unbowed, by his doctor father. Meanwhile random flashbacks fill in the required details of the embryo poet’s early years as a Jewish only child. The bulk of the subsequent narrative covers Ben’s years at Harvard, in which he becomes an unvalued disciple of his creative writing teacher, Morgan Ames, and his short stint at Balliol as a Rhodes scholar in which he does nothing but sink pints of bitter and have an unsatisfactory relationship with a girl called Eleanor – there is some enjoyable Anglophobia in this second half of the novel. At least he dodges Vietnam: or, given the peculiar aimlessness of his life, it might be fairer to say he fails to engage with it. For no particular reason, Ben abandons his privileged scholarship. Oxford bears the separation well: ‘Solemn in his gothic-windowed study, the Master of Balliol showed no surprise or curiosity when I told him I was leaving, and made no attempt to dissuade me; his only concern, he said, was that I had paid my parking tickets. “We’ve had chaps decamp and I end up before the magistrate,” he said mildly, scraping the bowl of his pipe.’

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