It was another task I did not know how to begin; but smaller. 

I had read any number of novels, and owed them a great share of my ignorance about life.  I had had a course in the Modern French novel, and had dutifully plowed through the reading list on the Modern German novel, and had in my mind a certain map of the Modern English-and-American Novel.  But I had never considered adding to this corpus; the ability to create a set of Characters and march them through a Plot was not included in my toolkit.  And I had never thought about the genre in any theoretical way.  My reflections had focused on poetry.

Obviously in eight weeks the students could not be asked to read more than eight books.  How was I to select from this vast field – James-Conrad-Joyce-Woolf-Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Orwell-Faulkner-Proust-Gide-Robbe-Grillet-Sartre-Camus-Mann–Musil-Hesse-Kafka – eight works that would be “representative”?  And should I try to give them a survey of what the course would not cover directly?  I was afraid that would result only in plot summaries and dubious generalities.  Between the works of, say, Joseph Conrad and Alain Robbe-Grillet, there didn’t seem to be any continuous thread that could give unity to a series of lectures about The Modern Novel.  There didn’t seem to be any solid general concepts, of which the books I might assign could be treated as examples.

In this puzzlement I hit upon the idea of picking one “central” novel, and then choosing seven others that seemed to “go with” that one, relying on my aesthetic sense.  Like a flower arrangement.  It seemed a good bet that among the novels so chosen, connections would reveal themselves, and these would give the course an inner unity.

A couple of years earlier, on a visit to my brother Jim’s family in Vancouver, my niece Laura had picked up three sticks and said to me, “That’s my dad and Aunt Bea and Uncle Don.”  Then she picked up a single stick and said, “And that’s my mom.”  She was two or three at the time and had not yet picked up the names for kinship ties.  Yet she could perceive the relation without having a name for it.  It was just this sort of inarticulate perception that guided my choice of materials for the course.

What should the “central” novel be?  Celan had said that Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge had influenced him to settle in Paris.   I had read Malte years before, and had found it irritating and unsettling.  It is not even one of the works that is always mentioned when people talk about The Modern Novel; it is not the work of a novelist but a lyric poet’s one excursion into fiction.  But if Malte was that important to Celan, then it must be important.

What other novels, then, “went with” The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge?  Here other constraints and wishes made themselves manifest.  Clearly I could not get out of discussing Joyce; in the light of Malte it would have to be A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, rather than Ulysses.   (Shorter, anyway.)  Kafka I would not have thought of omitting, but Malte chose The Castle rather than The Trial.  Proust had to be included; the first volume of his series, Combray, would fit very well.  I wanted to start with Flaubert, the “father of the modern novel,” and hesitated between Madame Bovary and The Sentimental Education.  Perhaps the Parisian environment of the latter would have prompted me to choose it, if I had not recalled an interesting allusion to Madame Bovary in Joyce Carol Oates’ them, which I had read that winter.  (Bernice had written to me about them, saying it had made her want to leave a dead cow on Oates’ porch!)  I thought it would be interesting to have the first book of the course reflected in the last; so Madame Bovary, and them, were in.  I wanted to include Dostoevsky, as a predecessor embodying qualities the opposite of Flaubert’s.  But which book by Dostoevsky would fit in here?  I found myself thinking of two scenes from a relatively obscure work, The Adolescent (also translated as A Raw Youth).  I could not remember much about the book, but those two scenes, the one where Versilov smashes the icon and a conversation between the brother and sister, had a kind of luminosity.  Finally, I also assigned Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, though in the event I did not get around to teaching it.

There were ten or twelve students in the class, a good size for discussion.  I went into each class with a few notes, and we free-associated our way through the texts.  The class participated pretty well.  And the connections did not fail to show up.


On first reading, in high school, Madame Bovary, the book and the character, had appalled me.  I remember stammering in class: “There is nothing in her that could ever bear fruit!” Ah, yes: the sterility of Art.

But then there was that glimpse of Emma in them, in that letter written by “Maureen Wendall” that induced Oates to enter into a conversation with Maureen and eventually write her life-story: 


One night you read something from Madame Bovary, which was our assignment, about the woman going for a walk in a field with her dog.  You seemed to think that was important.  Out in the field, she looks around, she sees – I don’t know what.  I don’t remember.  Then she feels a cold wind starting to blow, and she goes back home.  You read that passage to us and pointed out something about it, and I could tell you were thinking That woman is something like me, like you yourself, a stranger to us, and I sat there hearing myself think, This is not important, none of this is real.... Why did you think that book about Madame Bovary was so important?  All those books?  Why did you tell us they were more important than life?  They are not more important than my life.


There are a lot of different ways to take Emma Bovary née Rouault.  Even the physical description isn’t consistent – brown eyes in one passage, blue in another.  Despite all the trompe l’oeil realism, you end up asking yourself if anyone is really like that.   For instance, her lack of real feeling at her the death of her mother seems very unnatural.

But then Emma doesn’t really have a mother.  Amid all the detailed characterizations, the character of her mother is left blank.  In the farmhouse parlor where we first meet Emma there hangs a picture of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, with the inscription: à mon cher papa.  Emma, like Minerva, sprang from the head of her father, who is not farmer Rouault but Papa Flaubert.  With the realization that Emma, with all her stupidities, is a degraded Wisdom figure, the book came into focus, not as a realistic novel but as a complicated and terrible allegory. 

In a letter to Louise Colet, the poet and adventuress whom Flaubert used as one model for Emma and then ditched as he was preparing to kill Emma off, Flaubert wrote that “The author must be like God in his creation, everywhere present and nowhere visible.”  The universe of the Flaubert novel is hermetically sealed.  The characters’ destiny unrolls inexorably according to laws that were set by the creator at the outset.  Emma is Flaubert’s Wisdom, imprisoned in a work of Flaubert’s making, just as the Shekhinah/Sophia is exiled in the world created by God.  (Years later I came across the Gnostic “Gospel of Helen,” which tells a story that reminded me of Emma’s; and some years after that I read Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony and found an allusion to that very passage.)    Dimly, beneath her promiscuities and financial imprudences, Emma is aware of her exile and origin.  Her self-destructive behavior can be interpreted as an expression of impatience with the world in which she is imprisoned and separated from her creator.  Her Quixotic infatuation with bad literature, her literal acting-out of its scenarios, makes her an incarnation of the word, though a word that Flaubert (an ex-romantic) would disclaim. 

Toward the end it is as if Emma knows she is in a novel and is trying to contact her author.  She writes letters, ostensibly to her lover but really to a “god.”  Binet, the lathe-turner whom she tries to vamp in her last desperation, is a stand-in for the author, absorbed in the creation of an intricate and totally useless object which, we are told, is nearing completion.  Her last kiss is bestowed upon the image of the “God-man” – the crucifix of course, but one also thinks of the man who is playing God in creating this self-enclosed world.  And her last sight is of “the blind man,” a synchronicity for which the realist Flaubert has often been faulted, but the blind man too is Flaubert.  Flaubert is blind to his responsibility for the world – the world he created and the real world.  For Emma’s individual fate mirrors a process of social and environmental decay.  The horrible moment when Charles lifts her shimmering veil and sees her face distorted in death –  you could see it as the lifting of the veil of Maya.  But the destruction he sees is the result of stupidity and exploitation.  The post-Emma world is represented by the fetuses rotting in their jars in the apothecary’s shop.

Madame Bovary doesn’t begin with Emma.  It begins with a depiction of Charles, her future husband, that focuses upon his cap.  The cap is a composite of ill-fitting parts, representing several different styles that have not been reconciled but mashed together.  The narrator seems to have a fascination with such objects; the town hall at Yonville and Emma’s wedding-cake are further examples.  The incoherency of these images is mirrored in the society which the novel portrays, where various people – the greedy pseudo-intellectual apothecary, the priest, the ladies’ man, the moneylender – use Emma for their various ends and end by pulling her apart.  The sum of their actions is a great stupidity (represented by the person of poor Charles).  In contrast, Emma’s outward appearance, at least, suggests unity and consistency.  In the scene  with the priest, where the disorder of a class of adolescent boys makes it impossible for the priest to concentrate on the appeal she wants to make, she finally turns around “all of a piece, like a statue on a pivot” and walks out of the church.  Images of blindness keep coming up; the novel is rife with Oedipal imagery, as if Flaubert had been reading too much Freud (but this is before Freud!).  Evidently this story had its roots in the loyalties and anxieties that were bound up for Flaubert with the mother imago.  The bovine names in the book (Bovary, Tuvache, Vaubyessard, Leboeuf) are a shot at the stupidity of society; but the cow is also a (somewhat insulting) mother-image.  In contrast to Freud, the mother is set in opposition not so much to the father as to the adolescent male group.  The narrator at the outset is one of a class of adolescent boys.  This voice merges seamlessly into the voice of the “godlike” universal narrator!  There is one father-figure in the book – Dr. Rivière, the conscientious physician (modeled on Flaubert’s father), who could have saved Emma, if he had only been summoned in time.  In that Gnostic passage Flaubert had read, the Sophia figure falls away from the Father and is then subjugated and humiliated by the Archons, who are ignorant of the Creator.  Similarly, Emma has “fallen” from the consciousness of her creator into the world of characters -- Rodolphe, Homais, Binet, Bournisien, and Leon – who lack any perception beyond their immediate preoccupations and needs.

True, Emma is as stupid, as relentlessly egoistic, as the rest.  One is appalled by the way she treats her child, her childlike husband, and the stable-boy with a clubfoot (Oedipus again!) on whom she pushes Charles to perform a disastrous operation.  One is disgusted with her bad taste, to which Flaubert’s exquisite nature descriptions form a constant contrast.  Yet on the symbolic level (which isn’t completely detached from her psyche either, since she has this longing that can find no object within the world of the novel) she represents a lot of things against which Flaubert was subliminally aware of offending.  She represents the reader who takes the word literally.  (The cheap romances were to her what Celan’s poems were to me.)  And thereby she represents the integrity of the word itself.  She is one to whom it means something.  She is also one who wants to create equivalents for the word in the world.  Her strivings to create an appropriate setting for herself (“This is the kind of dining room I should have”) are neither tasteful nor financially appropriate, but yet they do somehow raise the question whether the material world ought to be shaped entirely by financial strivings.   She seems, then, to to represent the material world, which is ultimately dependent on the word.  This comes out especially in the scene where Charles lifts her veil, and where she becomes a symbol of the desecrated bauty of the world.  The veil scene is the culmination of the novel’s textile imagery, which is very dense.  I reminded the students that the textile is also the text and the tissue of life.  The novel renders that tissue, but also rends it.

Although I had assigned only Madame Bovary, at the end of the week I did lecture a bit about The Sentimental Education, and about the larger story of which Madame Bovary is a part. It's a curious thing that Madame Bovary, which Flaubert wanted to be completely self-contained and self-enclosed, has aroused in scholars and biographers a positive passion for tracing its connections with his life and surroundings, his previous and subsequent works, until Madame Bovary, like Emma in that veil scene, seems to “spread[...] out beyond [it]self, merging into the things around [it].”  The story is not just Madame Bovary.   The story include it is also the letters Flaubert wrote to Colet while writing Madame Bovary; it includes that marathon session where Flaubert read aloud the whole of The Temptation of St. Anthony, that wild ride through all of history and religion, to a group of friends who responded by urging him to write something realistic; it is includes the book about the mystical spinster living in the country with her parents that Flaubert considered writing before he settled on the more saleable plot of Bovary; it is his father the physician and his sorrowful mother; it includes Élisa Schlésinger, whose shawl he rescued from being carried off by the waves, who resembled his mother and who contributed some of Emma’s physical traits; it includes Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, a spinster living in the country who felt that Emma was something like her and wrote to Flaubert and to whom he wrote another series of letters (hers for some reason are never printed); it includes Flaubert’s avowals (“Madame Bovary is me”) and disavowals (“Emma is a bit of a phony; I put into the book nothing of my own sentiments”); and it includes The Sentimental Education, which begins with the rescue of the shawl by the hero, Frederic, who, does not become a great novelist but just wastes his life, worshipping Marie Arnoux (Élisa Schlésinger) from a distance but courting unworthy mistresses and throwing away his chances for marriage with a country heiress named Louise.  Mme. Arnoux, a more ideal figure than Emma but at the same time a less central one, behaves virtuously but fares little better than Emma; after the collapse of her husband’s fortunes and her marriage, she offers herself to Frederic, but when she lifts her veil (again that motif!) he sees that she is old.  The Sentimental Education is a novel about doing nothing, in which drift, inertia, and entropy (reflected not only in the life of the hero but that of the surrounding society) are portrayed with great industry and energy. There is a maddening, Moebius-strip quality about the fact that in The Sentimental Education Flaubert gives his own most inspiring experience -- the rescue of the shawl, symbol of the texts he was destined to create -- to someone who creates nothing. It is like saying that The Sentimental Education, for all its consummate art, is the equivalent of doing nothing. The final episode in the story is Bouvard et Pecuchet (two more “bovine” names), Flaubert's last, unfinished work, where two clerks who have decided to live without women inherit a fortune that enables them to engage in various Utopian projects that come to nothing. Having wasted the fortune, they return to copying. With the Mother eliminated, there is nothing left in the world but drift and waste.  Thus Flaubert became the “father” of that modern tradition of complacent despair which, as Beckett has shown, is capable of endless if sterile repetition.

There is also a thread of “anxiety of influence” here.  For one of the models that was held up to Flaubert was Balzac, whose Human Comedy is avowedly a Dante spinoff.  Balzac, like Dante, purports to portray the whole of human life, except that Balzac’s universe is a) formless and b) without the possibility of transcendence.  Bovary is also a Divine Comedy gone wrong.  There is an awful lot of circular imagery in Bovary, wheels within wheels that recall the circles and spheres of the Commedia.  Emma’s maiden name is Rouault, which contains the word for “wheel” and also echoes Rouen, the nearest major city, where part of the action takes place; again, Emma stands for the state of the community, just as Beatrice, the representative of Divine Wisdom, also stood for the ideal Florence.  But while rewriting Dante, Flaubert cannot allow the Wisdom figure to play a redemptive role, perhaps among other things because that would be too much like Dante.  Degradation seems more “original.”  Emma is made to play the fool; while Marie Arnoux, a closer approximation to the Dantean ideal, cannot redeem others or save herself.  Like Emma, she suffers a symbolic dismemberment when her possessions are sold at auction, pawed over by Frederic’s mistresses; after Frederic rejects her she cuts off a large lock of her hair, just as someone cuts off a large lock of Emma’s hair after her death.  Nothing survives the flux of time and betrayal.  Thus Bovary is part of a story that includes the Divine Comedy, the Human Comedy, and the novels and plays of Beckett.

Louise Colet, the “pauvre Muse” of Madame Bovary, had an answer for Flaubert.   She was a poet, though not a great one; she had some interest in the social causes of her day; she tried hard to persuade Flaubert that a child of theirs would be a greater creation than either could make via Art.  There is a poem written after they had watched a party of bathers that reminds me of the speeches in Büchner’s play to which Celan alludes when he opens the “Meridian” with a remark about the childlessness of Art.  And after another of their excursions she wrote her best poem. I translate, not attempting to reproduce the rhymed alexandrines:




Yes, when we two are old, it will be good to remember this day

All radiant with peace, with sun, with love;

Together we were walking opposite an island

which the leisurely river bathes in tranquil waves.

The poplars shivered, supple, in the air

and mirroed in the water their slow swaying.


And I, upon your arm, how proud I was!

I framed my happiness in the calm expanse;

I married the adored sounds of your voice

to the murmurs that arose from the waves and the woods.

With the marvelous and infinite creation

I associated your strength and mingled your genius;

feeling how great and good you shone upon that day

like a hidden god visible to my love.


The last four lines echo things Flaubert had said about the grandeur of Creation, in which Art isincluded; but above all they contradict that maxim about God being “everywhere present and nowhere visible.”   In Colet’s world, the creative power becomes visible, embodied in Flaubert, to the receptive intelligence which she herself represents.  Again I thought of Chochmah and Binah, the first two stages by which the Divine power emanates to the world.  But with the rejection of Understanding, this process of emanation is checked.


After the foregoing had become clear, give or take a few points, we moved on to Dostoevsky, to The Adolescent.

Dostoevsky is a very different author from Flaubert.  In high school I had found The Brothers Karamazov inspiring because of the passionate conviction with which the characters argued.  The Idiot, on the other hand, had struck me like a personal catastrophe.  Flaubert’s characters are dummies; without much introspection or communication they are marched through a plot that unrolls mechanically, inevitably, without the possibility of either Divine or human intervention.  In Dostoevsky, on the other hand, the characters are thinking beings and the plot seems like the outcome of the debate among them.  Mostly they are mixed-up thinking beings, and so the plot is chaotic and disastrous.  Nowhere is the plot more chaotic than in The Adolescent, and that may be one reason why most Dostoevsky critics regard it as a failure.  Yet there is one enthusiastic study (by Hans-Jürgen Gerigk), and recently I read that Kafka liked it.

The Adolescent is the story of an “accidental family.”  The central thread is the relationship between Andrei Versilov, a nobleman who has squandered his fortune, and his illegitimate son, Arkady Dolgoruky, the narrator and title figure.  The name Dolgoruky is the name of an ancient noble family, but in Arkady’s case it harks back only to his legal father Makar Dolgoruky, Versilov’s former serf, whose wife Sophia Versilov seduced after popular novels about the plight of women and serfs made him feel a sentimental sympathy which unfortunately turned to lust and issued in a traditional baronial form of misconduct.  Thus Arkady is a product of literature.  His first name (“Arcadian”) marks him as an innocent; he personifies a “naive” reading of literature, as he tries to hold Versilov to the promise he made Makar to marry Sophia after Makar’s death.  Makar, who reacted to his wife’s seduction by becoming a saintly pilgrim, is now a dying man, nursed by Sophia and her friend Tatiana, a matriarch not biologically related to the family.   By keeping his promise, Versilov would at last be giving real weight to the egalitarian sympathies that had been the pretext for his seduction of Sophia.  But Versilov is, to say the least, ambivalent about keeping this or any other promise.  Like the narrator of the better-known Notes from Underground, Versilov is above all concerned with preserving his “freedom,” which any commitment would impair.  He is also afraid of being judged by others, and therefore can never admit that he has revealed himself.  The name “Versilov” suggests reversals, changefulness.  At one point he whispers to Arkady:  “He (meaning himself) has always lied to you.”   This reminded me of the way many authors recoil from attempts to attach meaning to their works, especially social meaning, as when Ibsen insisted that A Doll’s House was “just a play.”  While equivocating about his intentions toward Sophia, Versilov is courting Katerina, a beautiful, vital, intelligent young widow with whom Arkady is also in love. 

Katerina’s nature is the great question mark of the book.  Versilov portrays her as a siren.  Perhaps he needs to see her that way.  Certainly she seems to encourage Versilov, whose intellect fascinates her; and at one point she treats Arkady shabbily.  She cannot take the suit of this poor, illegitimate, plain young man seriously.  Yet she is attracted by his sincerity and his idealized image of her; and one of her motives is a desire for order and beauty.  At the height of his passion for her, Arkady calls her “the living life,” a term Dostoevsky otherwise applies only to Christ.   Moreover, Arkady’s meetings with Katerina occur in the apartment of Tatiana, with whom Katerina has an affectionate relationship despite her apparent rivalry with Sophia.

Tatiana’s apartment, smothered in draperies, is an obviously symbolic place.  It is the center of the textile imagery in the novel, just as Tatiana is the center of an extended network of women whose predicaments mirror Sophia’s: they are all in desperate straits because the men on whom they are dependent have gambled away the family resources.  One of the key images of the book is a scene of women sewing together.  This sight makes Versilov anxious, but delights Arkady.  Arkady perceives the existence of the women’s network and is fascinated by it.  The women do not always act altruistically toward one another, but all the same he senses that the exchange among them is life-giving.  While the female characters are less striking individually than in some of Dostoevsky’s other works, their network comes alive as a kind of meta-character.  This is quite an amazing achievement and gives the novel an energy which those who tune in to it at all (e.g. Gerigk, and Andrew McAndrew whose vivid contemporary translation I was using) find electrifying. 

The counter-image to the women’s network is the ruinous gambling in which most of the male characters engage.  Associated with the gambling is an ongoing meditation about chance, randomness, disorder.  Disorder is personified by the usurer Stebelkov, whose features do not seem to fit together and whose monologues are incoherent and impossible to follow logically.  Disorder is also represented, perhaps partly unintentionally, by a plot that is often wildly incoherent and improbable.   Arkady’s confrontation of Versilov, and thus the writing of the book, is made possible by one of the least probable events: a character by the name of Maria, who is never introduced, has entrusted to Arkady a letter which Versilov fears may contain information that could hurt his chances with Katerina.   I got the feeling, too, that gambling was a metaphor for one aspect of writing, which can be a channel for the release of chaotic impulses.  And yet writing also seems to make judgment and justice possible!

Arkady himself is a product of randomness, a member of an “accidental family.”  Yet in trying to bring Versilov to justice, so to speak, and win Katerina, he is pitted against the odds.  This reminded me of Mallarmé’s final masterpiece, “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance.”  On the one occasion when Arkady, desperate for money, turns to gambling, he places his bet on the zero, which he sees other gamblers superstitiously avoiding, and wins.  This is the one time in the novel when gambling turns out well.  Arkady represents the “Utopian” chance of abolishing chance, the chance that a work of art could change something for the better in the human condition.  

The climax of the novel is that scene I had remembered, where Versilov breaks the icon.  The icon is Makar’s bequest to Sophia and Versilov.  It is a double icon of two saints with halos.  When Versilov breaks it, it cleaves neatly in two.   It seems to symbolize the marriage Versilov is supposed to contract with Sophia.  But the shape, if you visualize it, is something like the tablets of the Law!   And when Versilov breaks the icon, we are inevitably reminded of Moses breaking the tablets of the Law.   Versilov would like to abolish the Law, but precisely by breaking the icon he establishes the Law in the reader’s mind.   Dostoevsky was, famously, an anti-Semite, and there is one anti-Semitic caricature in this book; but on a deeper level this book shows a sympathy for the Law and hints at reservations about the Christian myth in which the prophetic individual is pitted against the community. 

Versilov does not regain his freedom by breaking the icon.  It becomes clear that he is exhausted, a broken man.  Katerina definitively rejects him, confessing that she finds him a bit ridiculous.  In the end he is back in Sophia’s care, though the matter of marriage has been shelved.  Arkady, however, has written his account; and someone who reads it expresses the hope that when the present chaos has settled, such accounts will be useful in drawing the lessons from this time.  Katerina is traveling abroad, but corresponding with Arkady.  So the book ands on a question mark.


After The Adolescent, we proceeded to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  The first thing we noticed was the title.  Generally, in the art world, “A Portrait of the Artist” is a self-portrait of the painter at the time it is painted.  So maybe Stephen Dedalus is not a self-portriat but just a representation of some typical artist?  The Daedalus of the Greek myth was the prototypical artist, designer of the labyrinth from which he escaped on waxen wings with his son, Icarus, and in which the Minotaur was later confined.  But most of the incidents in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are things that happened to Joyce, and Joyce made no secret of this.  Joyce was an admirer of Flaubert, knew whole pages of Flaubert by heart, and like Flaubert he seems to strive to create a sealed-off world to which the artist stands in the relation of “God,” and yet reminds us at every turn that his materials are taken from real life (from the world of the true God).  And again as with Flaubert, his work reflects the real world with a distortion because the author, who is a character in God’s world, cannot appear in the sub-world he creates.  Stephen, like Emma and Frederic, is imprisoned in the novel’s sub-world and cannot rise to the level of creativity of his creator.  That last name is a sinister joke:  in the myth, Daedalus escapes on his waxen wings, but his son Icarus flies too near the sun, his wings melt, and he falls into the sea and drowns.  Stephen is not the father-artist but the hapless child.  His father according to the plot, John Dedalus (closely modeled on John Joyce) teasingly threatens to disown him; and his real “father,” Joyce, portrays Stephen with that elusive modern “irony” that is also a kind of disownment.

We began by noting that Portrait begins in the voice of Stephen’s father:


Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, there was a moocow coming down the road.  And the moocow met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.

His father told him that story. His father looked at him through a glass.  He was baby tuckoo.


Of course the image of the cow jumped out at us.  Again a degraded mother-image.  The mother appears in Portrait as the victim, along with her children, of a father who displays a Versilovian ambivalence about providing for his family.  The father is partial to his eldest son and at times invites him to participate in his flight from the mother and from responsibility, but in that invitation the threat of disownment is always implicitly present.

This configuration is complicated by the presence of “Dante,” a domineering, bigoted aunt.  Weirdly, there really was a domineering, bigoted aunt called “Dante” (aunty) in the Joyce household.  “Dante” stands for Catholic morality.  When the Irish revolutionary leader Parnell falls from power because of an adulterous relationship, Dante exults over his fall and subsequent death, while Dedalus senior is heartbroken.  Dante and the “hellfire sermon” that scarifies Stephen’s adolescent consciousness are the main exhibits in the case against the community which Stephen/Joyce builds throughout the novel, so as to make his departure from Dublin into an inevitable “exile.”  The city of Florence expelled Dante and forbade him to return there on pain of death.  Dublin, which did no such thing to Joyce, had to be portrayed as a spiritual hell inhabited by dead souls incapable of understanding the artist.  Church and community, Stephen tells a friend, are “nets” which he as a free spirit must try to “fly by.”  (Textile imagery, with a negative connotation.)  The book ends with the dates “Dublin 1904/Trieste 1914,” thus telling us that Joyce, like his hero, has left the city.  Like the Commedia, Portrait is a look back at the community from exile.  But in Joyce’s case, the exile was self-chosen.

Portrait is a fiction, and therefore does not have to be a “fair” portrait of the community.  From Joyce’s portrait of Dublin one would hardly guess that, thanks to Yeats and his associates, Dublin was one of the most vital cultural centers of Joyce’s time.  The literature that flourished there receives only the most dismissive mention.  Joyce wrote poetry.  But as a poet he could probably not have surpassed Yeats (let alone Dante); he certainly could not have shone as a solitary star in his own firmament, as the novel allowed him to do.

There is an Emma in Portrait, or was in the novel’s earlier drafts:  the girl referred to in the final version as E—C--.  Stephen writes her a poem, the “Villanelle of the Temptress.”  I found the “Villanelle” quite beautiful, and the passage in which it takes shape seems to me the high point of the novel.  But Stephen does not trust E– C– enough to send her the poem.  This Emma is a reader who does not even get to read him.  When they meet and she asks him if he has been writing verses, he “change[s] the subject and turn[s] on the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri.”  This is odd, because Dante did write love poetry.  What can Stephen have said to the poor girl?  All that we learn is that Stephen, while portraying his departure as the equivalent of Dante’s exile, does not want to follow Dante as a poet of love.  Rather he is a poet of departure, of irony, of escape from commitment and responsibility.

Joyce both did and did not escape the “nets” of community.  He never returned to live in Dublin, yet his life in “exile” furnished him  no subject matter.  Both of his two later notvels, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, are set in Dublin.  In Ulysses the setting is “realistic,” except that, again, it is a “bovine,” Yeats-less Dublin.  Its only free spirits are Stephen and Bloom, and both are ineffectual.  Finnegans Wake mentions various Dublin landmarks but no longer has a setting, characters, or action; all is dissolved in a play of archetypes and verbal associations.  In Joyce’s work as a whole there is a progression away from common intelligibility.  Here I could not but think of Paul Celan, of whom the same is true.  Celan’s exile was involuntary.  But they both ended up writing for the same audience:        for literary scholars to whom the fate of the community is neither here nor there.


It was after one of the sessions on Portrait that one of the students, I’ll call her Caroline, said to me, “I feel as if this is all one book we are talking about.”  And we hadn’t even gotten to Malte yet!


I can’t reconstruct much of the original discussion of Malte at this point.  Malte doesn’t have a plot of the usual kind.  It presents itself as the journal of a young Dane, the last of an impoverished aristocratic family, living in Paris and writing down memories, present experiences and cultural reflections, in no particular order, though often one can trace an associative thread between sections.  The unity of the book is purely associative, created by the “shadowy weft of connections” among the parts.  In the chapter I originally wrote about Malte, I let this form inspire me to string together some of my own experiences and recollections in a text which now seems to me self-indulgent, and in which Rilke’s novel is often lost to sight. 

I cannot possibly have done that in class.  I must have tried to trace the associative threads within the book, especially those that lead to the lost mother.  An intense relationship is portrayed, in which the mother and son read stories and look at pieces of old lace together.  At one point the mother dresses the boy in girl’s clothes and calls him Sophie, and he adopts this persona for a while.  This was evidently autobiographical.  Maybe it was not uncommon in those days; my grandmother dressed my father in girl’s clothes for several years.  Perhaps it left both Rilke and my father with more sympathy for the feminine than they might otherwise have had.  Grandma Cameron and Rilke’s mother seem both to have been rather domineering.  But in Malte the mother is not domineering but vulnerable and ailing, especially since her marriage to the “master of the hunt,” Malte’s father, who is portrayed as a rather hard man (again, apparently, in contradiction to the real character of Rilke’s father).  The mother is lost to Malte in a double sense:  because she dies young and because he never knew her as the high-spirited young girl she is said to have been before her marriage.  In a grotesque image, Malte reconstructs his mother’s face from an obese kinswoman’s face in which the mother’s features appear “as though pushed apart.”  Similarly, at various times in the book he seems to be trying to reconstruct his mother from traces scattered through the world—the method of Celan’s poems, and of my interpretations.

One legacy of this early bond with the mother is a susceptibility to impressions of suffering.  A recurring image is the figure of the homeless old person, male or female, who keeps crossing Malte’s line of sight.  Two of the men are blind.  Some feed the birds in the squares, spending hours in complete stillness in order to attract them.  (Hence the bird-feeding image in that poem of mine, “Give me your word.”)  An old woman shows Malte a pencil, which seems mysterious and ominous to him until he understands that he is supposed to buy it.  Malte begins to believe or to fantasize that there is a network of these outcasts and that they are trying to communicate something to him.


It must have been at this point that a young man raised his hand and said this reminded him of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, where the fantasy of a network of outcasts takes shape as a shadow organization: the Tristero. 

I had read The Crying of Lot 49.  It had been lying around in the apartment my brother Don shared with some friends the preceding winter.  Because of the number 49, I had picked it up.   I was puzzled by the name Tristero, and the student cracked it for me:  a portmanteau of Tristan and Prospero.  The lover and the exile.

It might seem a stretch to associate the network of outcasts with the memory of the mother.  But in death Malte’s mother is said to have been “much disfigured.”  The outcast network is what is left floating in space, so to speak, after the destruction of the maternal star.  And then, as for Simone Weil, there is a link between affliction and beauty, the latter standing for a compassion and justice to which the former might appeal.

Another way in which the mother returns is through Malte’s relationship with her younger sister, Abelone, who perhaps resembles her as she once was.  Malte falls in love with Abelone, and there is an idyll which is hidden from the reader’s eyes yet evoked by the description of the unicorn tapestries.  This description is the center of the novel, and of course the ultimate in textile imagery!  The tapestries, housed in the Musee de Cluny on the Ile de la Cite, are an allegory of love at the heart of the city and the novel.

But of course the love of aunt and nephew can lead only to a “necessary separation.” And the novel, after arriving at the vision of the unicorn tapestries, moves away from it again, in a number of different directions, so that the second half of the novel seems more disjointed than the first.  Ambivalences begin to surface.  Home is recalled as a place where one was not understood, where a birthday celebration was “a joy for someone else.”  There is an uncanny passage in which the child wraps himself up in an improvised costume, catches sight of himself in the mirror and feels himself lose his identity to this costumed figure.   There is an encounter with a young woman who reminds him of Abelone and who sings a song that celebrates unfulfilled love.  The last piece is the story of the Prodigal Son, who ends by accepting that no one will ever understand or truly love him; if he returns home it is to live in an internal exile.  Thus Malte ends by capitulating to the home-leaving, love-denying fashion of the twentieth century, though it puts up a fight.

Similar patterns surfaced in the other books we read.  In The Castle, for instance, almost all the female characters are associated with textile imagery.  The finest seamstress, and the wearer of the finest textile (lace) is Amalia, the rebel, who has brought disgraceon herself and her family by refusing the advances of a Castle official.  Although K’s efforts are devoted to obtaining recognition from the Castle’s power hierarchy, he keeps getting steered back to Amalia.  Another of Amalia’s attributes is a garnet necklace which she seems to have inherited from the title figure of Božena Nemcova’s The Grandmother, a Czech novel that is said to have been one of The Castle’s sources.  In The Grandmother there is also a castle, but it is inhabited by a gracious countess who is quite accessible and who, in the central episode, sees that justice is done.  The Castle bears an almost facial resemblance to The Adolescent; in both books the male protagonist’s interviews with female characters give him a sense of access to a hidden reality.  In Proust’s Combray the key scene is the one where the mother, rejected by the father, spends the night reading to her son in his room.   Thus literature and the maternal image become inseparably associated.  The mother stands for a harmony of aesthetics and ethics which the rest of the Search for Lost Time mostly mocks, though the narrator looks back to it with covert longing. 

Them, the last book we discussed, yielded many surprises.  It had its share of the “fascination with violence” that is typical of Oates’ work.  But the main character, Maureen, is not an “Oates character,” according to Oates’ introduction to the book; she is a real person who managed to interest Oates in writing her story.  Maureen is not fascinated with violence; she has seen too much of it.  Like Malte, she takes refuge in the library, where she reads Jane Austen.  She has a vision of justice and order that is connected with literature and writing in general.  She is afraid of “mistakes.”  There is also a matriarch in the book, a figure who reminds me of Tatiana in The Adolescent, whose unerring perceptions enable her to “charge down the right track, never making a mistake.”


As said, the students seemed to be taking all this in.  With two of them, Caroline and Denise, I stayed in touch for some months after the class ended.  Caroline wrote some poems, and one story in a fragmentary style reminiscent of Malte

It was my most successful teaching experience; but it did not lead to a resumption of my academic career.  With the Comparative Literature department nothing had been said about continued employment after the summer; and any chances of it were spoiled by encounters that occurred outside the classroom.  More than once, people have cited to me the Talmudic parable of Rabbi Shimon ben Jochai and his son, who lived in a cave studying the mysteries of Torah for a year.  When they came out they saw people going about life in their ordinary, unaware way, and their wrath was so intense that it burned up everything they saw.  Annoyed at the destruction of His creations, God then told them to go back to the cave and study for another year, which they did.  On emerging they were able to look at ordinary people again without burning them up.  I saw a good deal to criticize in the world and in the academic community in those days, and made no secret of my opinions.


Around this time I talked with two writers who had written books with plots that reminded me of those I talked about in the course.  Different variations on the theme of the flight from community and from the confrontation with feminine intelligence.  In one of them the protagonist leaves his wife to live with a young girl, and this was known to be autobiographical.  This novelist and I talked at some length, and he was rather open with me; he told me that he loved his wife “a lot,” but when he lived with her he couldn’t write.  It made me think of The Adolescent and its pre- and post-history.  The Adolescent was written during the final phase of Dostoevsky’s settling-down.  A few years before, he had married his secretary, Anna Snitkin, probably the model for Arkady’s mother Sophia.  The first years of their marriage had been turbulent, due to Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling and lingering attachment to a beautiful, brilliant, equally complex young woman with whom he had had a tormented relationship and whom he portrayed several times, Arkady’s Katerina being perhaps her final incarnation.  But Anna was patient, and after a while he did settle down, give up gambling, and become a tolerable husband and father.  The Adolescent represents a progress toward self-knowledge, knowledge of the other, viewing of the past in a new light, regrets, acceptances, even some glimpses of transcendence that are more convincing than the dubious fervor that alternates with violence in other works.  But The Adolescent was panned by Dostoevsky’s contemporaries, and its reputation has never recovered.  In The Brothers Karamazov, his last novel, he had learned his lesson: the women are dead or reduced to irrelevance, and the men discuss the issues that remain with a solemn air of grappling with life’s great questions.  The Brothers Karamazov flows a lot more smoothly than The Adolescent, and only if one understands The Adolescent does it seem like a daring trapeze act performed at ground level.  So does “good” literature have to be a betrayal of what is otherwise good?

As I taught the course, I kept thinking about some of the other readings that had come my way:  Buber’s Hasidim, Weil, Jackson, Kropotking.  It seemed to me that these authors pointed to a different way of doing literature, so as to support rather than subvert community.  It should be possible to learn such a way and teach it.  Somewhere.

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