During the 1930s, a master of the short novel hallucinated
a grotesque, erotic America we can recognize as our own
by Virginia Heffernan
NATHANAEL WEST: NOVELS AND OTHER WRITINGS, edited by Sacvan Bercovitch. Library
of America, 829 pages, $35.
Late in 1926, a 23-year-old graduate of Brown University changed his name from
Nathan Weinstein to Nathanael West and left for Paris to think about being a
writer. "I was asked to all the parties," West would write later -- and this,
rather than any substantial work on his fiction, was proof to him that his
expatriation had been a success. For West, whose enigmatic, darkly funny novels
went on to garner praise from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson, becoming a
writer meant first developing a persona that would simultaneously attract
artists and perplex "tourists and the folks back home."
West offers one way to achieve this effect in "Impostor," a prose piece
collected for the first time in the Library of America's excellent new edition
of West's work, edited and annotated by Sacvan Bercovitch. In that story, the
young narrator, not sure he can appear convincingly bohemian, resolves to
reject the beards and corduroys of the café crowd in favor of "hard
collars and carefully pressed suits . . . clean gloves and a tightly
rolled umbrella" -- what he thinks of as a Wall Street look. " `Craziness'
through the exaggeration of normality was to be my method," he says, voicing
the fantasy that motivated West himself throughout his career; from his early
experiment The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) through his inspired
novel of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust (1939), West developed a style
of Dada-inspired "superrealism" that would amplify the anger, the secrets, and
the fantasies of Depression-era America.
In West's cosmology, exaggeration rules: a moment of self-doubt becomes
profound self-loathing; fleeting hostility becomes a blow to the head; and the
merest gesture of compassion becomes an act of martyrdom. Prose is not always
easy to read at this volume -- West's crazy normality has, in the 57 years
since his death, often perplexed both the tourists and the folks back home --
but this edition, which demonstrates the range of West's craziness as well as
his normality, is convincing evidence that his work is worth looking at
West's four short novels, his letters, and his several stories and screenplays
make up the bulk of the Library of America volume. It's a compact book, with no
introduction and few notes, and the fact that Bercovitch, who is Charles H.
Carswell Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard
University, has chosen to include in the collection both a college paper and a
fellowship application points up a frustration encountered by every new reader
of West's work: there's never been enough of it. Even before West died in a car
crash in 1940, Bercovitch's detailed chronology makes clear, the young author's
literary production had been checked by false starts, strapped publishers, and
the difficulty of settling on a genre. West's tight style, however, is
surprisingly well-suited to a short opus: his strength is in the vivid phrase,
and there are examples of ingenious phrase-making in almost all of the newly
collected material (including that college essay).
West's devotion to exaggerated normality led him naturally to humor, satire,
and the grotesque, but his sensibility also admitted an uncommonly generous
sympathy for the weak, particularly the sick and the pretentious. Even the
Swiftean satire Balso Snell, which is surreal and often obscene -- Snell
spends the novel navigating the intestines of a Trojan horse -- has moments of
acute pathos. A young male artist confesses to having once tried to get the
attention of a sailor by affecting "the postures of a desperate prostitute,"
concluding, "the man went past without noticing me. . . . I sat
down on a bench and was violently sick." Here are all the elements of West at
his most grim, but also his most moving: despair, an exaggerated gesture,
brutal indifference, and breakdown into violence and sickness. (W.H. Auden
named this cycle of disgust "West's Disease.")
Miss Lonelyhearts, which is about the crack-up of an advice columnist,
repeats this cycle but is still less shy of pathos; the letters from the
lovelorn -- "I cry all the time it hurts so much I don't know what to do" --
brilliantly reveal an elegiac quality latent in cliché-driven language.
West does not emphasize what he once called "the vicious, mean, ugly, obscene,
and insane" at the expense of gentler feelings, however; his method is to
exaggerate sincerity, maximizing its effect. And though he didn't have much
hope that humanity could transcend the bleakness of the world, he sympathized
with the longing to do so. "It is hard," he writes in The Day of the
Locust, "to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how
tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are."
Although critics have credited West with defining his time and anticipating
our own, they have never counted him among major 20th-century American writers.
He seems to have become a writer, like Frank Norris or Djuna Barnes, whose work
is periodically "revived," appreciated, and explained, and then returned to the
hands of more stalwart fans. During one such revival, in 1957 (following the
first publication of a West collection), Auden offered one way to explain the
fluctuation of critical interest in West: it is hard to tell what he's doing.
"Nathanael West is not, strictly speaking, a novelist," wrote Auden, who
questioned the verisimilitude of Miss Lonelyhearts, in which a columnist
and his editor engage in high-pitched theological analyses of letters from
lovesick readers. "His characters need real food, drink, and money, and live in
recognizable places like New York or Hollywood, but, taken as feigned history,
they are absurd." West did indeed insist that absurdity and grandiosity, as
well as nihilism and despair, are always bound up in even ordinary
interactions. And perhaps this is why his work is perennially judged "problem"
writing, fated to turn up now and then, get puzzled over, and then get tucked
back out of sight, unsolved, like a Rubik's Cube.
West's juvenilia, essays, stories, and fragments, which finish out the volume,
are surprisingly good reading, especially "Some Notes on Violence" and "The
Adventurer." The plays and screenplays, some of which are also reprinted here,
are uneven, some of them missing the mark of comedy so absolutely as to be
almost poignant (West's failed play "Good Hunting" is like this).
Among the most illuminating pieces of new material in this volume is a 1939
thank-you note to Fitzgerald, who had praised West in print. Fitzgerald's
appreciation made West, who had just endured a decade of mixed reviews, feel
less alone with his perplexing visions, his hyped reality. "I go on
. . . making what one critic called `private and unfunny
jokes,' " West wrote. "[You] made me feel that they weren't completely
private and maybe not even entirely jokes."
Virginia Heffernan is a frequent contributor to the PLS.