My Life in Fiction

First published in The Threepenny Review (Fall 2013)

Novels demand a projection of self that varies with your moods and seasons, the stages of your life. Reading fiction is a way of finding yourself by losing yourself – getting immersed in stories about other people. It makes strange places seem familiar yet defamiliarizes people and places we thought we knew. You could describe it as a kind of possession. Fiction gives us not only access to but ownership of experiences not our own, even as it casts a kind of spell over us, drawing us out of where we are. Rosanna Warren describes it this way in her autobiographical essay “Midi”: “To read is to take possession. But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind, and to enter another world.”

For me as a young reader, that other world had two favorite regions I loved to explore – history, which seemed like a fabulous and richly peopled country, and sports, that fiercely competitive terrain where people from nowhere could make good. Since I was from nowhere too, a bright, ghetto-bred yeshiva boy, son of Americanized immigrants, it gave me bold figures with whom I could identify. I was particularly taken with a series of eight young adult novels by Joseph Altsheler about the Civil War, focused alternately on two cousins, close to each other before the war, who find themselves fighting on opposite sides. These books turned a divided family into a metaphor for a fractured nation pursuing a fratricidal war. First published during the first world war – Altsheler died in 1919 – they focused on major battles and had similar titles – The Guns of Bull Run, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chicamauga – place names that were exotic, hard to pronounce, yet meant America to me, the real America as opposed to New York Jewish world I knew best.

We didn’t buy books in my family and there were only a few stray titles on the shelves; instead I haunted the local public library – the Seward Park branch on the Lower East Side, which survives today, a detached relic among large housing projects. I can still picture the exact spot on the shelf where these treasured books were to be found. I learned what little I knew about American history from these novels, where our worst national bloodletting came alive as a saga of broken ties and youthful adventures. Eager for tales of heroism and military campaigns, I was enchanted by the ground’s-eye view of colorful generals like Stonewall Jackson but also by the simple fact of young men leaving home and getting caught up in a critical turn of the nation’s history.

My other favorite was the sports novels of John R. Tunis, such as The Kid from Tomkinsville, about a rookie pitcher, a small-town kid, trying to make it with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It must have mattered that I had little athletic grace of my own, but hungered for it. As an ardent Yankee fan I was hardly disposed to like the Dodgers, their perennial, hapless hometown rival, but here was another tale of a young man setting out in the world, against humbling odds, to seek glory with a team itself the chronic underdog. The resulting teamwork and unlikely stardom were irresistible to me, besides offering privileged access to the baseball scene I already followed with passion. The rivalries of sports, the dreams and crotchets of its players, were as momentous to me then as the drums of war. Both catered to a boy’s fantasy of winning recognition, distinguishing yourself through luck and pluck – a dream of standing out just by being really good at what you did.

But something just as fundamental must have been at work, a sheer love of story, an bedrock fascination with what happens next. This was as potent for me in settings of everyday life as well as in heart stopping scenes of conflict or adventure. This may be why I gulped down Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with such gusto. Mark Twain called them both “adventures” but they were really postwar memories of a simpler life, the lives of boys in border country before the Civil War. I picked up few of the deeper resonances of Huckleberry Finn, which I read simply as an engrossing continuation of the story, but the Mississippi River surroundings were as winningly remote to me as the India of Kipling’s Kim, another book about the perils and freedoms of a boy on his own that I wolfed down soon afterward. I basked in the unfamiliar world of these books as much as the stories they told. To recapture the pleasure I found in the Twain diptych I fell upon Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and its nifty sequel, Penrod and Sam, published around the same time as the Altsheler books. Like Twain’s novels but with a more literary vocabulary, a surprisingly arch style, they were about youthful misadventures, not real adventures. Since I was too much the ‘good’ boy, driven to perform and excel, the devil-may-care behavior of these boys, always getting into fixes, spoke loudly to my furtive, hidden impulse to misbehave. They let me savor the anarchic role of the boy I could never be, for I was eager to please, deeply invested in winning adult approval.

My craving for story came out even more in my love of movies, just about any movies so long as there were vivid figures on the screen and something happened to them. I never tired of the double bills at neighbor hood theatres, the B-film programmers as much as the features, and I once announced exultantly that I had never seen a film that wasn’t absolutely great – not an auspicious omen for a future critic. Soon I realized that richly woven storytelling was the web and woof of most fictional best sellers. Barely into high school, I began devouring as many popular books as I could lay my hands on, pillaging the local library after we had moved to Queens, eyeing the Locked Shelf where the racier titles were kept. The library was my second home on Saturday afternoons when observant Jews did little but sleep, read, or take long walks. For pennies a day I also borrowed books from the tiny lending library – was it Womrath’s? – that stocked recent titles in local drug stores. Branching out even further, I snagged free books for joining the Literary Guild, which featured novels that were all plot, all action, some steamily romantic in the style of Daphne du Maurier, some simply evocative and atmospheric like Island in the Sun, set in the Caribbean, by Evelyn Waugh’s less gifted older brother, Alec, who was also a travel writer. I joined the egregious Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club where each volume boiled down four or five popular books into pure story, excising literary frills like subplots, digressions, and detailed descriptions.

Such surgical shortcuts were handy for a pedantically slow reader, as I then was, who relished every sentence yet also needed the feeling of keeping up, of being in the know. This is the truncated form in which I ‘read’ books like Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, which sported Jewish characters who were closer to home than anything I expected to find in popular fiction. Such plot-driven novels were written efficiently in prose as transparent as Orwell’s windowpane, with few turns of style that could impede the flow of the telling or complicate the human relationships. But just then, as a high school sophomore, I stumbled on two novels that unexpectedly gave me a finer sense of where fiction could transport the reader.

The first was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which propelled me breathlessly into the maelstrom of the French Revolution, a scene I had already encountered in the derring-do of a royalist thriller, The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was swept up by the larger-than-life quality of Dickens’s world of bloody carnage and social enmity, and by the sheer intensity of his themes of injustice, redemption, and self-sacrifice. Who could forget the famous opening (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ”), the lethal knitting of the vengeful Madame Defarge, or the final speech by the wastrel Sydney Carton as he goes to the guillotine in place of a better man (“It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have even done . . . “)? But what impressed me most was the sinuous complication of Dickens’s sentences, with their elaborate dependent clauses, and the braided strands of his labyrinthine plot, its vast web of memorable characters. This dense plotting, with every loose thread tied up by the end, seemed such a perfect wonder that I began rereading the book as soon as I finished it, as if to unlock the secret of how it was constructed.

The other eye-opening work I came upon, this one for a book report, was Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This too had a distant historical milieu, even more remote than the Civil War, all laid out in finely wrought sentences that bent my mind at unexpected angles. The lone figure of Hester Prynne, cast out of the community, bearing her badge of shame with defiant pride, reverberated for me, since I was already in adolescent rebellion against my strict religious upbringing. Once desperate to belong, I was now drawn to characters who resisted and went their own way. Above all these novels by Dickens and Hawthorne showed me the difference literary form could make, how deep language could plumb. For the first time I felt the spell not only of what the books were about, the elaborately imagined worlds they opened to me, but also the way they were written, their intricate embroidery of words and themes.

This dawning appreciation of language itself eventually led me to the work of Conrad and Joyce, whose work I happened upon shortly before my freshman year in college. A commodious collection of Conrad’s stories and short novels, Tales of Land and Sea, became my new bible, burnished by miracles of style that lent eloquence to adventures more subtle than anything I had read. My other new find was Harry Levin’s Portable Joyce, collecting all his early work in a beautifully printed format. A neighbor in the dorms, also a future English major, had come upon these two writers at just the same time, and we fell into a pattern of reading their stories in tandem, then chewing them over one by one.

It struck me that one of the serious pleasures of reading novels – or seeing movies – was talking about them afterward, turning the experience around in the mind and on the tongue. I was nowhere near ready to take on their big books, Nostromo or Ulysses, partly because I was still a pokey, masticating reader, but the mandarin prose, far-off milieu, and keen moral dilemmas of Conrad’s tales spoke to my undergraduate thirst for large existential questions. But where Conrad’s language, so tactile, so visual, enthralled me for being really written – it was anything but a transparent windowpane – Joyce’s writing in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist looked understated, drab, as if reflecting his characters’ lives. Nothing much happened in his stories – the reign of plot seemed to have ended – yet I got the keen sense of an everyday world, itself grey and uneventful, utterly different from my own Jewish world, yet seen only through fugitive glimpses from story to story .

In Joyce’s shabby-genteel world, suffocating in middle-class propriety, much of the upholstery of fiction had vanished along with the neat plotting, the satisfying curve of storytelling. As a reader I would need to connect the dots, to line up the moments of insight on my own. This was my halting introduction to modern art, as I realized much later. If Dickens’s novel had amazed me with its ingenious architecture and Conrad’s prose for its gravity and plenitude, Joyce’s stories struck me most for their seemingly casual indirection. Their revelations were oblique, at times almost imperceptible. These final epiphanies, as Joyce liked to call them, were nothing like the twisty O. Henry endings I had come to expect from short stories.

One quite different book had somewhat prepared me for the uncanny quality of Joyce’s short fiction. In the local library I had come across a Kafka collection, The Penal Colony, which stitched together the meager volumes he’d brought out in his own lifetime. The earliest stories, mere sketches, didn’t register for me, but those that followed mesmerized me with their strangeness and open-endedness. They fleshed out fantastic stories with realistic detail but I had no idea what they were meant to be about. One story, barely a page or two, dealt with a provincial advocate who had once been Bucephalus, the noble steed ridden by Alexander the Great. Now he was settling down to a more humdrum life, nothing like his ancient days of glory. Another was about a country doctor who rides out for a nighttime call, finds himself abused and jeered at, only to realize he can never return – his life is changed forever. The story unfolded with a dreamlike logic that made it feel at once enigmatic and inevitable. But even at seventeen I could identify with its emotions of infinite regret and infinite longing, the dread sense of having made a wrong turn, done something trivial but fateful that could never be undone.

As I grew more intrigued with short fiction I decided to try writing some myself. Creative writing was not on the bill in Columbia College – a craft approach to the arts was frowned upon, on the notion that real art couldn’t be taught – so I signed on to a course in the School of General Studies with a veteran writing teacher. There was too much talk about tricks of the trade, about formulas for writing and getting published, but I was grateful for the incentive simply to write. For weeks and weeks I wrestled with turning stuff I remembered or invented into genuine stories but they never seemed to come together. It was easy to set the scene, much harder to keep things moving convincingly, let alone to find the right resolution – half a story was no trouble to write. From my discovery of touching collections by Bernard Malamud (The Magic Barrel) and Grace Paley (The Little Disturbances of Man) I already knew that Jewish lives, the folks who inhabited the world I knew best, could be material for fiction. But I had such a mystique of the creative, of Art with a capital A, that my small experience seemed too beggarly, too banal, for the exalted demands of authentic fiction. The writers I read and revered had left me awed, tongue-tied. Finally, at the last possible moment, I dropped the course. I despaired of being able to cast a spell, conjure up a world that would truly come alive, take hold of a reader, as my idols had done. My life in fiction was going to be in the fiction I read, not in the fiction I wrote, though I never quite surrendered the ambition of writing a novel.

As a college junior I had my first extended exposure to modern literature in a large lecture course given by Lionel Trilling. To my surprise I liked Ulysses less than Joyce’s earlier books, though Trilling wisely urged us to speed through it at the pace of an ordinary novel, without pausing to decipher every page, every phrase. But I took to everything of Kafka’s I could put my hands on: “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” The Castle, The Trial. Something about his work simply transfixed me I couldn’t explain it. There was nothing overtly Jewish about it, but it spoke to the imagination of disaster I must have imbibed from my immigrant parents, who evidently felt that if something could go wrong it inevitably would – a cold might develop into pneumonia, a bike ride was an invitation to an accident, a knock at the door could bring grief or bad trouble. These dark expectations, so often disappointed, were choice material for comedy, and I came to see Kafka as a poker-faced comic writer, at once excavating and exorcizing his own unhappy consciousness. Though I had never been unhappy in that radical way, I had such dismal intuitions in my bones.

This was the moment in one’s reading life when the mind was like virgin soil, when every seed sprouted, and each year, seemingly each week, brought fresh discoveries. In my senior year it was the landmark works of nineteenth-century fiction, first Jane Austen and Walter Scott, then Victorian fiction, which I studied with Trilling, Steven Marcus, and Daniel Bell in a newly conceived course on the Victorian “moral temper,” by which they meant the core values, the inner rhythm of the culture. Their aim was for us to pluck social insight from these novelists, especially Dickens and Trollope, to grasp key institutions like the church and the political system. But what we found in them instead was the exuberant vitality of a richly peopled world, something no sociology or professional history could furnish. It was no accident that these long books were works you could truly live in, self-contained, copiously imagined worlds. I developed a passion for such expansive works. I won’t go into the delectable summers spent with The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, The Way We Live Now, or Middlemarch, books I hoped would never end, which actually felt like they would never end.

The following year, as a graduate student at Yale, I had my first serious run-in with classic American literature, since The Scarlet Letter had not led me to try out other American books, which were patronized as slightly provincial in the precincts of Columbia’s English Department. To fill this gap in my reading, I burrowed my way through Melville, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, whose books were so idiosyncratic they linked up better with modern writers than with the English tradition. Hawthorne’s austere moral allegories and Poe’s horrific stories reminded me of Kafka, while Melville reawakened my dormant feeling for Conrad. But that yearlong course, taught by Charles Feidelson, concluded with a full semester on Henry James that provided me with literary capital for a lifetime. I cherish a clear memory of every book and story I read in that class, from Roderick Hudson to The Golden Bowl, and of wrestling with a paper on The Portrait of a Lady that was perhaps the high-water mark of my life as a student. It showed me how well fiction could track the delicate operations of perception, the mind on which nothing is lost, but also the social features of classes and intimate relationships, all bottomless in their complexity.

But the best thing about this trek through James was probing the work of a many-sided writer from beginning to end, getting inside his imagination as it worked out its destiny from book to book. Two years earlier I had had the great fortune of spending a full year with Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays; two years later, on a fellowship in Cambridge, I would do so again with most of the novels of Dickens. Henry James was not quite in their league but his work too had the copious variety of a universe as it deepened from decade to decade. You could not really settle down in his world, as you could in the Dickens world, but you had to be amazed at how he explored the filaments of human consciousness, beginning with Isabel Archer’s great fireside reverie, three-quarters of the way though The Portrait of a Lady, when she grasps at last the grim reality of her unfortunate marriage. In his insight into such relationships, the bachelor James had picked up where Jane Austen and George Eliot had left off. This was what F. R. Leavis hailed as the “great tradition.”

I won’t go into my later adventures with metafiction in the late 1960s, when I discovered Pynchon and Borges and Barthelme; with American Jewish writers from Henry Roth to Philip Roth, with neo-realist writers like Carver and Ford; or with American writers of the interwar years, whose work I began to teach in courses that were part literary and part cultural history – the life and times as seen from inside the novelist’s imagination. Suffice it to say that I learned the wisdom of Henry James’s metaphor of the house of fiction, with its many rooms. For Borges and Kafka those rooms form part of a labyrinth, like Kafka’s Castle or his edifice of the Law, structures with no real apertures. For James they have windows into which we can peer, to slake our unquenchable curiosity about how different people live and feel – “not one window,” says James in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, “but a million . . . every one of which has been pierced, or is still piercable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.”

Thanks to these windows, behind which so many telling scenes are enacted, fiction has given me access to more people and places than ‘real’ life has ever done, access so vibrant that it belongs less to mere observation, more to the fullness of experience itself. My wife once complained when I was reading a Trollope novel that I was unreachable – “earth to dad,” the kids used to say, trying to snag their father’s attention. Glassy-eyed, I was living vicariously in that imagined world even when I was not actually reading. Not all novels offer us such an ample, enveloping reality, a sorcerer’s web of words that possesses us completely, with the very alchemy that eluded me in the stories I tried to write. All of them, when they work, take us out of ourselves, even as they drive us into ourselves, tapping into feelings we never knew we had, constructing a world more purified of circumstance and accident than the mundane world we think we know. As Keats put it in one of his inimitable letters, “the imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.”