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.’

The last chapter of the novel finds Ben summoned back to Chicago by the ever randy Lizzie. ‘On our left, the pilot told the drowsing passengers, we could see the lights of Chicago. I cupped my hand to the window and looked down. A cluster of lights shone out of the dark, as cold and distant as a galaxy. Then it was gone.’ Stephen Dedalus has been repeatedly alluded to, and Atlas leaves us wondering whether his Icarus soars, plunges, or merely dangles after the fashion of his favourite novelist’s favourite man. The last, I guess.

The form of The Great Pretender is Portnoyesque autobiography. Atlas brings to Roth’s now rather hackneyed technique a hurried absentmindedness in which logical links are dropped and every sentence jacknifes irrelevantly from its predecessor. Take, for example, the following itinerary of brains to breasts via the Partisan Review:

Brains were a very important commodity in our household. Philistinism was rampant in the land. My father deplored Howard Johnson’s and the House of Pancakes, Jack Paar and Arthur Godfrey, Leon Uris and Herman Wouk. When Dwight Macdonald’s famous essay ‘Masscult and Midcult’ was published in Partisan Review, he was ecstatic, chuckling over Macdonald’s assault on the pretensions of those contemptible middlebrows Thornton Wilder and Archibald MacLeish. He was furious when Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe. ‘The man has responsibilities to the intellectuals in this country,’ my father stormed. ‘We’ll lose credibility.’ (That wasn’t the way I saw it, beating off with the notorious Playboy spread of Marilyn open on my knee.)

As a device, Atlas’s tumbling, over-packed style works well. The Great Pretender is funny on every page, which is not always the case with comic novels. But the narrative disorder piled up over two hundred such pages makes a general and probably serious assertion about the modern literary career, as do the hero-in-transit starting and finishing-points. Very simply, for someone with Ben’s background there is nothing solid from which to write poetry. Or more accurately, his life has no adhesive surfaces. He’s like a man trying to climb a glass wall with a large comforting mattress underneath him. His family have assimilated into bland ethnic nothingness. He belongs nowhere, and inherits no faith, only vague decency and gaping intellectual open-mindedness. There is no worthwhile literary or sexual relationship in his life; his friends always seem to be in other places, writing hurried letters about the latest books they’ve read. No woman stays with him. A reunion with his Harvard idol Morgan Ames at the Poetry Society in Earl’s Court is a typical non-event: ‘The evening was a crushing disaster. When the reading was over, I went up to Ames and said hello. He didn’t remember me! I clamoured around him with another insignificant and obscure student, six inches shorter even than I.’

In his recent critical collection, The Position of the Body, Richard Stern observes that his home town, Chicago, used to represent authenticity for American literature: ‘With Chicago, the word “real” comes to mind. Farce amid grimness. Fires and fists, strikes, riots, clubs and cops, machine tools and machine politics, crooks and cardinals.’ But somehow, as Stern also notes, this quality of ‘American real’ was lost ‘a century or two ago, back in 1968’. Atlas has aptly commemorated this post-1968 vacuity at the heart of literary America.

Stern calls his collection of hobbyhorsical meditations on life and letters an ‘ordered miscellany’. Miscellaneity is the more apparent quality. One typical piece consists of a two-page essay on Philip Roth, originally ‘dictated over the phone to an editor who needed it for a 24-hour deadline’. Stern prefaces this rush job with an italicised disquisition of great pomposity on Roth and deconstruction; he then packages the bundle into a section obscurely called ‘The Cheeper’s Shield or Making Things Up’, which carries another pompous preface and an ostentatious array of epigraphs. Five such sections make up the volume, which is called – to give it its full, impracticable title – ‘It is well to establish the position of the body from the outset, before passing on to more important matters’. It’s one of the cheekiest efforts of literary-critical window dressing I’ve encountered and in its way inspires admiration. But when you get down to it, Stern’s miscellany is essentially a ragbag of randomly opportunistic essays, lectures, top-of-the-head reviews and columns most of which give the impression of having been phoned-in the night before publication. There may be another truth about the modern literary life in all this.

A number of Stern’s miscellaneities reflect on his frequent writer’s trips abroad and in one of them he observes: ‘African life does not allow for the luxurious development of a novel; only short stories are possible.’ Essentially, this seems an inversion of the argument V.S. Pritchett once made about Russian fiction and the length of the Russian day – that Tolstoyan-scale novels require a bloatedly pampered and settled way of life. Africa doesn’t have time for anything more than literary snapshots and fragments.

Charles Mungoshi’s The Setting Sun and the Rolling World is a collection of tersely short stories from Rhodesia and Zimbabwe (two very different places, as it emerges). They take the form of understated studies of contemporary black proletarian and tribal experience, mainly from the point of view of the male child. In the huge social convulsions which Southern Africa is undergoing, the boy represents the future that is fought for and the emergent national consciousness. Most importantly for Mungoshi, the child is the site of all the tensions and disruptions which a long revolution entails. In what I take to be the best piece in this collection, ‘The Brother’, young Tendai comes from the country to visit his older brother Magufu in the city. Tendai is about to enrol in secondary school, a great event for him; his brother Magufu’s wife is expectant and working at home on the land. The intention is that the older brother will provide the needed school equipment from his urban wages. Unluckily, Tendai arrives on Saturday night and gets caught up in the weekly orgy. His brother turns out to be dissolute and drunken, and is callously unfaithful to his wife while Tendai tries to sleep on the floor beside him. On the Sunday morning, hung over, Magufu cadges Tendai’s school fees to keep the party going. The story ends with bitter enlightenment for the young hero. Expecting to cross one threshold of his life, he finds himself at another: ‘he would always remember that something very violent had been done to him and that is when he had begun not to care very much for his brother Magufu ... except that they had the same parents.’ We are allowed to construe the enigmatic ending as tragic loss of family ties, political liberation or an ironic affirmation that, after all, blood is thick. Hovering over most of Mungoshi’s pieces, as over Southern Africa as a whole, is an impenetrably cloudy future.

Amanda Prantera’s Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 162 years after his Lordship’s Death (another title that will infuriate cataloguers) has a neat premise. A super computer is programmed with every known fact about Byron: especially all the material in Leslie Marchand’s edition of the letters and Jerome McGann’s annotated edition of the poems. Thus loaded, it is interrogated on the grounds that the internal interactions of this data will create an artificially intelligent ‘Byron’ who can be conversed with about blank patches in the biography. Principally, the researchers (led by ‘Anna’) probe the enigmatic years at Cambridge, 1805-8, of which little has survived in the way of letters and not much in anecdote. More particularly, they want to discover who is the subject of the elegaic love poems to ‘Thyrza’ published in 1811.

In fact, there is less scholarly mystery about Thyrza than Prantera (for fictional purposes) pretends. Although his surviving family halfheartedly claimed that Thyrza must have been an unknown young woman who died in 1811, E.H. Coleridge established beyond doubt that the poems were written in memory of John Edleston, a 15-year-old Trinity choirboy with whom Byron fell in love in October 1805. And Marchand has subsequently fleshed out the episode. Edleston (nicknamed ‘the Cornelian’) was working-class, fair, thin (Byron was at the time monstrously fat), and had beautifully liquid dark eyes. He was evidently indeterminately sexed in a way that always excited the poet. In Byron and Greek Love (1985) Louis Crompton assumes that the episode was a homosexual experiment that was later to trigger Byron’s full-blown bisexuality.

Prantera’s narrative moves on two tracks. On one side of the Visual Display Screen the baffled research team try desperately to decode their literary monster’s inscrutable replies. He evidently knows all about Thyrza, but in his lordly way he won’t divulge more than insolent half-answers. Their ‘Byron’ is, they discover, Byronic. Behind the screen, however, the resuscitated poet privately assembles the Edleston affair in all its passionate and uncomfortable detail, like a patient coming round from amnesia.

So far the novel is straightforward enough. But in their impatience to get output the researchers change the sexual parameters of their program, and the plot (together with the literary-biographical history) thickens. Edleston suddenly sprouts breasts to ‘Byron’s’ amazement. The ‘Thyrza’ enigma now becomes ‘Alba’. Perhaps the hermaphroditic Alba is Edleston’s sister Ann (mentioned fleetingly in Marchand’s biography). There seems a closer identification, however, with the mysterious ‘Miss Cameron’ that Byron kept in rooms at Brompton in 1808 and who was taken disgused as a page to his apartment in Brighton. Disguising his girlfriends as young men was one of Byron’s favourite ruses: the practice was partly precautionary but also, like his taste for heterosexual buggery, indicates chronic confusion.

There is another layer of mystery connected with ‘Alba’. ‘LB’ (pronounced ‘Albé’) was evidently the Shelley circle nickname for Lord Byron. And when Claire Clairmont bore the poet’s bastard child (Allegra) she was first called Alba. Claire Clairmont was also one of the women who disguised themselves as pages to visit Byron. Is she Alba? Or is Alba a projection of the poet’s own femininity?

The novel ends with an apparent triumph for science. ‘Byron’ composes a new love poem, mysteriously dedicated to ‘A—a’. The novel closes with Anna, the programmer, trying to work out the significance of the printout, not realising that it is she (not Alba) who is the object of Byron’s 1986 verses:

‘To A—a,’ she mused. Augusta? Unlikely Annabella? Impossible. To who then? That was something she would have to think about. To her, anyway, it didn’t seem a bad poem at all. On the contrary, she thought it was beautiful. Full of significance, if only she could work it out, and very, very moving.

Conversations with Lord Byron is clever and consistently entertaining, if slightly too long for its single idea. Another small cavil is that the author is very unforgiving to the shortcomings of non-Byronists like myself. It took me a day in the Huntington Library to get as far as I have with the novel’s identity puzzles; nor do I flatter myself that I’ve got to the bottom of Prantera’s riddling. Some notes would be welcome if the work is reprinted. But the novel’s main contention is transparently clear and up-to-the minute. However exhaustive our literary research, and however aided with modern technology, a dead author can never be ‘fully known’. All that we have by way of contact is the irreducibly enigmatic text, and the more we know, the more baffling the text is likely to be.