Friday, April 12, 2013

Of Indeterminate Legacy

If someone leads a literary profile with, “The Greatest Novelist You Haven't Read” I'm already on the defensive. If said novelist turns out to be someone I have in fact read, defensiveness turns to scorn.

Dear Literary Critics and your Editors -- just . . . please, for one nano-second, consider the day we live in: the task of becoming “well read,” never mind “deeply read,” is by any measure impossible. So if I, a near-anonymous blogger of scant ambition in the hinterlands of Canada, have read James Salter (three books and counting), what accounts then for your prestige press blanket assessment that the 88-year-old Man Of Letters, is “underappreciated” (Alex Heimbach); “revered” but, alas, not “famous” (Nick Paumgarten); “has not been widely embraced as a great writer,” whose “books have never quite caught on” (Katie Roiphe), etc.

"Maybe if I hang with movie stars I'll be appreciated, and widely embraced."

To me it reads as a lazy way of giving the old man a sentimental send-off.

If, in the movie business, it is true that “Nobody knows anything,” the corollary for the publishing business is surely, “Nobody gets what they deserve.” And precisely what accolades and attention Salter's material “deserves” is a matter of more debate than the laurels above might suggest. Just for starters, both Vivian Gornick and Jonathan Dee cautiously express some reservations.

Cautious reservation strikes me as entirely appropriate. It's easy to get a little giddy when reading Salter: The sex! The glamour! The ennui! With Salter the first blush is always the loveliest — best to acknowledge that observation and move along. It is the return — to the memory, and to Salter's prose — that provokes doubts.

Consider just one quote that Heimbach admires: “The great chandeliers hang silent.” Evocative, or absurd? Honestly, I thought “evocative” the first time I read it, then “absurd” when I returned to it. One might argue that Salter was “slumming it” in People magazine, but how about, “They made love like it was a violent crime” (a favourite of Roiphe's)? Best to move on (to Fagen and Becker, perhaps).

Or how about this line, from Salter's memoir, Burning The Days: “The great engines of the world do not run on fidelity”? There are many ways to read a line like that, the most complimentary being, perhaps, as a Salterian mission statement: “What do the 'great engines of the world' run on?” Another might be, “The great engines of the world run on infidelity.” Huh. Okay, now I'm wondering how we should go about defining these “great engines of the world,” whether they're something that invite any sort of definition at all, or if they're just a metaphor, or vague phantom enticing our writer to make bold declarations.

The line could also just be Salter's poncey way of proclaiming “I been a baaaaaaaaad widdow boy!” That's a simpler, perhaps simple-minded, reading. But the fact that Salter proceeds to queue up accounts of screwing around on the wife (sex! glamour! ennui!) does little to discourage this reading.

So this reader never quite shakes the notion that Salter's books finally amount to advertisements for himself: “I'm James Salter — and you're not.” Not that that's a bad thing. He's done a magnificent job of being James Salter — much better than I would have. I just happen to prefer, say, Richard Hell's straightforward astonishment at his capacity for self-indulgence over Salter's ennui and innumerable light metaphors. Somehow Hell just reads more honestly — and sometimes a slim volume of blunt honesty goes further in establishing a legacy than might an entire library of well-turned phrases.


When it comes to literary legacies, I defy anyone to conjure up one weirder than H.P. Lovecraft's. The man's prose is awful: florid, overwritten, wildly off-key. And yet it inspires its own occult orders, blockbuster movies, and cultural memes galore. And now: serious philosophical consideration. The brute power of a well-conceived idea, it seems, can overcome its spectacularly inept expression.

If you haven't yet read any Lovecraft, I strongly urge you to head straight for SelfMadeHero's comic books. Lovecraft anthologies Vol 1 and 2 and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward are terrific adaptations vastly superior to the work that they draw from.

And yet, and yet . . . there is something about a reader conjuring the inconjurable that makes the experience so much more unsettling. Here's an idea: read 'em both, and decide for yourself which is more disturbing.


Roger Ebert is gone, but his legacy is likely to grow, for a bit longer at any rate. His written meditations on movies are likely to be referred to for as long as the applicable movies remain of interest. As for his not-exclusively-devoted-to-the-movies material, it's anybody's guess.

That was the stuff I most enjoyed reading, though. His blog, especially in the years after he lost his voice, was as vigorous and wide-ranging as you'd expect: movies and life-around-the-movies of course, but also childhood memories, ruminations on passing eras, and plenty of thoughts on religion, politics, and anything else that mattered to him. The politics got him a heap of “Stick to the movies, Roger” snark. As if. You didn't have to be a close reader to see that even his movie reviews couldn't “stick to the movies.”

I've sometimes thought he embodied the best of the '60s: he always seemed up for a good “happening.” He sat at the feet of Pauline Kael, played chess with The Duke, gamely followed Lee Marvin around when he was stinking drunk, and later when he sobered up. But he was far too impressively invested in-the-moment to be a '60s artifact. Al Gore might have invented the internet, but Roger Ebert mastered it. His club and the “far flung correspondents” he attracted kept the Happening very much alive.

“Invested in the moment,” though, that's the quality that kept me coming back, even to exuberant reviews of mediocre movies. That guy was alive to possibilities in a way that seemed attainable, and well worth emulating. I can't imagine a day when I won't silently ask, “I wonder what Roger would think?”

“Roger” now that's a legacy.

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