Tag: writers

Henry James, “The Real Right Thing” (1899)

henry james the real right thing herkenrath

Peter Herkenrath, “Untitled 02.”

The supernatural in stories can be hokey, a device to deceive realism by getting out from under its burdens, as when evidence is refuted with faith–or rather, as when a faith-based argument is introduced in an attempt to refute evidence. But isn’t fiction itself the ghost a writer conjures to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gap between truth and a reality overwhelmingly reliant on, if not made up of, perceptions?

Ashton Doyne was a “great” writer. He died unexpectedly. His wife lets the young George Withermore’s publishers know she wants him to write her husband’s biography. Withermore admired Doyne and jumps at the chance to spend his nights with his master’s papers–swimming in his sheets. He quickly feels Doyne’s ghostly presence and comes to look forward to it, to “the possibility of an intercourse closer than that of life.” There are clear suggestions of eroticism between the two men as Withermore researches him, “the great fact of the way Doyne was ‘coming out’. He was coming out too beautifully — better yet than such a partisan as Withermore could have supposed.” But Withermore then senses that Doyne leaves him, and discovers from the widow that Doyne has flitted over to her. Withermore worries, as she does, about the wisdom of writing the biography. James explores the ethic of the biographer, a profound question:

There is an out: do the dead have rights? James clearly suggests that they do, that they’re not exactly dead, and he wants an artist’s life to be left as the artist’s work, nothing more: “The artist was what he did–he was nothing else.” Which is to say that understanding the artist is a pretext to invade a privacy extraneous to the artist’s work. That’s arguable, and there are endless lines that can and must be crossed: how is one to separate an artist’s private correspondence, and its artistry, from the artist’s work, for example?

Doyne and Withermore want to do “the real right thing.” They give up on the biography.

Collier’s Weekly, December 16, 1899

 

Malamud, “The Literary Life of Laban Goldman” (1943)

bernard malamud literary life of laban goldman

Laban Goldman is kin to Chekhov’s Mitia Kouldarov in “Joy,” but without youth’s excuse. He’s a middle-aged man married 27 years to Emma, “a small woman, heavily built,” with a daughter, Sylvia, married and raising two children elsewhere. Goldman is self-delusional: he writes letters to the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times and thinks he’s on his way to becoming a literary star, or was, but for his wife. He’s just had a letter printed in the Eagle that morning. He uses “big words,” says things like “It’s a sociological subject of import” when he speaks to his daughter on the phone and has only contempt for his wife. “Twenty-seven years I have been married to you in a life which I got nothing from it,” he tells her. He attends night school, where he’s infatuated with a Miss Moscowitz, “a tall, thin woman in her early thirties.” His English class is discussing Romeo and Juliet. He “squirmed uncomfortably in his seat as the period grew shorter. He knew that he would feel miserable if he had not raised his letter…” But he finds a way, though his letter is about divorce. He contrives a way to squish the Capulet-Montague clash through his letter: “The result of this incongruence is very frequently tragedy or, nowadays, divorce.” It’s actually quite a funny line. “On this subject I would like to quote you some words of mine…” (Laban is Arabic for yogurt, and a reference to Libnah in Numbers, but not seemingly meaningful here.)

Afterward Goldman and Moscowitz go out for coffee and are exchanging verbally masturbatory flatteries when Moscowitz notices a woman rushing their way, with another woman trying to hold her back. “Mr. Goldman,” she said in a tight voice, “your wife is coming.” The scene reminds me of the scene where Mr. Zipsky in Woody Allen’s Radio Days has a nervous breakdown and runs amok in the neighborhood. Not fair to Emma of course, but the way Malamud describes her approach is cleaverly evocative. And so: esclandre. Miss Moscowitz quickly exits. Goldman is indifferent to his wife. His letter that morning erases all depression, leaving him with his final delusion: “Ah,” he sighed, as he walked along, “with my experience, what a book I could really write!”

Assembly, November 1943