September 23, 2019

Flesh and Fiction

Things as they are, the modernist poet Wallace Stevens liked to point out, become changed when played on a “blue guitar.” What his metaphor meant to describe was nothing more nor less than the transforming power of the imagination. The same thing might also be said of the flesh-and-blood people who are stretched or otherwise altered as a novelist moves them from inspirational sources to fully rounded characters.

The line separating the two can, and often does, become blurred. One thinks, for example, of a novel such as Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1925). A portrait of the hard-drinking, spiritually empty “lost generation,” it is filled with characters dragged in from real-life sources, filtered through the prism of Hemingway’s consciousness and then presented to us as lively, representative types.Robert Cohn is a case in point. Based on Harold Loeb, a minor literary figure of the time, he is viewed as the quintessential outsider: a sloppy romantic, an annoying whiner and most of all, a Jew. Hemingway’s tone makes his disapproval, which is to say his anti-Semitism, very clear indeed.

Not surprisingly, Loeb took exception to the unflattering portrait and even went so far as to write a book, “The Way It Was,” that gave his side of the story. Hemingway, Loeb insisted, got the facts wrong, especially when it came to detailing the various fist fights that he presumably picked with his antagonists.Loeb tried his best to set the factual record straight, but after 75 years, nobody cares, including those who now study the novel in undergraduate literature courses. For better or worse, the real Harold Loeb has slipped down the memory hole, and all that is left is the fictional Robert Cohn, as Hemingway once imagined him.

Iwas reminded of poor Loeb railing away at the unfairness of it all because of the brouhaha that Saul Bellow’s recent novel, “Ravelstein,” has kicked up. It is, as one reviewer after another dutifully pointed out, a roman a clef: for Abe Ravelstein, read Allan Bloom, the author of “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987); for Chick, Ravelstein’s writer-friend, read Saul Bellow; and for the large Midwestern university where Ravelstein holds court about moral philosophy, read the University of Chicago. Granted, Bellow tries hard to keep straight the lines between Ravelstein, the fictional character, and the real Allan Bloom, but those who have read Bellow’s remarks at Bloom’s funeral (he died, presumably from AIDS, in 1992) know better. There, he said this: “What I was seeing, as I well knew, was the avidity for life particularly keen in him. … On a lesser level this avidity was apparent also in the delight he took in acquiring Persian carpets, Chinese chests, Hermes porcelain, Ultimo cashmere coats, and Mercedes-Benzes. In general, his attitude toward money was that it was something to be thrown away, scattered from the rear platform of luxury trains.”

Many of the same examples and turns of phrase find their way into “Ravelstein.” No doubt some will take Bellow to task for writing a book that lets Ravelstein/Bloom off the hook too easily, but such people have been dogging Bellow’s heels ever since he wrote the introduction to Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” a surprising best-seller that was not only sharply critical of American higher education but that also is given credit (or blame, depending on the perspective) for single-handedly launching the culture wars. But the troubles with real-life models and fictional characters hardly stop there. Some have wondered if Bellow in effect “crossed the line” by bringing up Bloom’s homosexuality and possible death from AIDS in the first place. What possible good is served by such insider gossip? Or put a slightly different way: What damages might have disappeared if Bellow had been, let us say, more discreet? The issue boils down to the differences between honesty and exploitation, between what the pulls of fiction demand and what the tugs of the heart whisper.

Bellow, we are told, is now not sure that he served his esteemed colleague well, but the final arbiter in these matters will be the cold, disinterested eye of literary history. Bloom may dog Ravelstein’s heels as an explanatory footnote just as Harold Loeb’s name was once dutifully trotted out whenever undergraduates first encountered the fictional Robert Cohn, but if Bellow’s novel is half as good as I think it is, what it reveals says much more about Bellow than it does about its ostensible subject.

By contrast, Philip Roth is a case of fiction used to settle old scores, although not in quite the way that many critics reduced “I Married a Communist” to little more than a mean-spirited response to “Leaving the Doll’s House,” ex-wife Claire Bloom’s tell-all account of a marriage gone sour. Rather, betrayal lies at the center of Roth’s furious imagination – from the earliest days, when he was accused of betraying American Jewry, to his latest portraits of people (Swede Levov, Iron Rinn, Coleman Silk) betrayed by the respective cultures swirling around them.

Fury is not a tidy emotion, and after more than four decades at the writing desk, it is fair to say that Roth is not a tidy writer, for all his meticulously crafted sentences and monklike aesthetic discipline. His characters always seems best, most real, if you will, when they are railing – whether it be Portnoy seeking a personal liberation beyond the smothering confines of a Jewish mother and the ethical strictures of the Jewish God or Mickey Sabbath desperately hoping, in “Sabbath’s Theater,” that raw sexual energy can ward off death. For a long time (some would say a very long time), the real-life model for Nathan Zuckerman’s kvetches and tantrums was Roth himself. Not, of course, Philip Roth in every particular, every detail, but Philip Roth as a launching pad for getting Zuckerman’s throat cleared and his voice ready to sing at high vibrato. Along the way, Roth found himself adding minor characters, also appropriated from real life, to Zuckerman’s center-stage orations.

In “The Ghost Writer,” for example, a young, highly agitated Zuckerman learns some valuable lessons in patience and writerly decorum from E.I. Lonoff, an aging, long-established Jewish writer who seems a dead ringer for the reclusive, often austere Bernard Malamud. Granted, there are differences between the real-life Malamud and the fictionalized Lonoff, but it is now virtually impossible to add up the details surrounding Lonoff’s dedication to art without thinking of Malamud.

In Roth’s latest novel, “The Human Stain,” many with-it reviewers wondered if the ultrasophisticated Coleman Silk was perhaps modeled on Anatole Broyard, the New York Times book critic who also made a conscious decision to pass as white. In this case, however, my instinct tells me that Roth had other fish to fry and that one is on stronger ground in supposing that he drew his initial scene about the absent (black) students from Silk’s class deeply resenting being called “spooks” from newspaper accounts a year or so ago about a black student equally outraged by an English professor who quoted a passage of Shakespeare that contained the word “niggardly.”

Here is a rare instance of life being better than Roth’s art, for in his effort to come up with a fresh example of his own devising, he rather hit a clunker.

Coleman Silk, on the other hand, is a brilliant character study, and one that needs no propping up on the bones of Anatole Broyard. But, then again, I say this because I believe that what Nathan Zuckerman and Silk have in common is a desire to push past the artificial constraints of ethnicity or race. Silk’s life is Zuckerman’s writ simultaneously larger or smaller than it might have been. Indeed, that is what makes the chemistry that draws these two ostensibly different characters together.

By this reckoning, too much blather about Anatole Broyard is, like the gossip mongering about Allan Bloom, simply an outside distraction, one that pulls us from the world that good fiction works hard to crea
te and back into the smaller-t truths where characters are first conceived.

Sanford Pinsker is Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. He writes widely on Jewish literature and culture. This article originally appeared in the New Jersey Jewish News.