August 1997

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True West

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 again.

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.