more from sontag: on high culture/pop culture, bauhaus and “postmodernism”

I never thought I was bridging the gap between high and low cultures. I am unquestioningly, without any ambiguity or irony, loyal to the canon of high culture in literature, music, and the visual and performing arts. But I’ve also enjoyed a lot of popular music, for example. It seemed we were trying to understand why that was perfectly possible and why that wasn’t paradoxical… and what diversity or plurality of standards
might be. However, it didn’t mean abolishing hierarchy, it didn’t mean equating everything. In some sense I was as much a partisan or supporter of traditional cultural hierarchy as any cultural conservative, but I didn’t draw the hierarchy in the same way…. Take an example: just because I loved Dostoevsky didn’t mean that I couldn’t love Bruce Springsteen. Now, if somebody says you have to choose between Russian literature or rock ‘n roll, of course I’d choose Russian literature. But I don’t have to choose. That being said, I would never argue that they’re equally valuable. But I was very struck by how rich and diverse one’s experiences are. Consequently, it seems to me a lot of cultural commentators were lying about the diversity of their experiences. On the other hand, there are a lot of things in mass culture that didn’t appeal to me, notably what’s on television. It seems very non-nourishing, conventional, bland, trivial. So it wasn’t a question of bridging the gap. It’s simply that I saw a lot of simultaneity in my experiences of pleasure, and felt that most discourse about culture was either philistine or shallowly snobbish. So it wasn’t this is "here," and that’s "there," and I can make a bridge. It was that I understood myself to have many kinds of experiences and pleasures, and I was trying to understand why that was possible, and how you could still maintain a hierarchical sense of values.

. . . This is not the sensibility that’s called the postmodern—by the way, that’s not the word I use or find useful to use. I associate postmodernism with leveling and with recycling. The word modernism arose in architecture. It has a very specific meaning. It meant the Bauhaus School, Corbusier, the box skyscraper, the rejection of ornament. Form is function. There are all sorts of modernist dogmas in architecture, which came to prevail not only because of their aesthetic values. There was a material support for these ideas: it’s cheaper to build buildings this way. Anyway, when the term postmodernism began to be used across the field for all the arts it became inflated. Indeed, many writers who used to be called modern or modernist are now called postmodern because they recycle, use quotations—I’m thinking of Donald Barthelme, for instance—or practice what’s called intertextuality.

—from “Against Postmodernism, etcetera: A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 12, Number 1, September 2001

sontag on the state of cinema, circa 2001

Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: You would drink too if you had to look at Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus every minute of your life.

The cinema as he [Jean-Luc Godard] knew it is over. That’s for sure—for a number of reasons, including the breakdown of the distribution system. I had to wait eight years to see Alan Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking, which I just saw at the Lincoln Center. Resnais made those films in the early ’90s, but then none of his films were distributed here in the past 10 years. We’re getting a much smaller selection here in New York, which is supposed to be a good place to see films. On the other hand, if you can tolerate the small formats—I happen to have a problem with miniaturized images—you can get the whole history of cinema and watch it over and over again. You don’t have to be dependent on the distribution system. The problems with cinema seem to me, more than anything, a cultural failure. Tastes have been corrupted, and it’s so rare to see filmmakers who have the aspiration to take on profound thoughts and feelings. There is a reason that more and more films that I like are coming from the less prosperous parts of the world, where commercial value has not completely taken over. For example, I think people have reacted so positively to Kiarostami is that he shows people who are quite innocent and not cynical, in this increasingly cynical world. In that sense, I don’t think cinema is over yet.

. . . Movies have been the love of my life. There have been many periods of my life when I’ve gone to movies every day, and sometimes I see two films a day. Bresson and Godard, and Syberberg, and more recently Sokurov, have been extremely important to me. I love Chantal Ackerman’s Jeanne Diehlmann, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, The American Soldier, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and Berlin Alexanderplatz; Angelopoulos’s Traveling Players, Alan Renais’s Melo, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, Claire Denis’s Beau Travail…. I’ve learned so much from these films. And no, I haven’t said goodbye to filmmaking. I’m not interested in adapting my own books, but in something else. Yes, I want to make more films.

—from “
Against Postmodernism, etcetera: A Conversation with Susan Sontag,” Postmodern Culture, Volume 12, Number 1, September 2001

phillip lopate on sontag’s shallow america


Sontag on American writers: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.”

Shallow America

In Death Kit, Sontag evinces no such ambivalence toward America: she simply doesn’t like the place. This second novel of hers is perhaps her most sustained attempt to describe contemporary American life, and the problem is that she doesn’t know it or its people well enough, so it comes off as slumming. There is contempt for the nine-to-fivers and the corporate world, and sociological cartoons about the inhabitants of suburban homes: “Houses that are quiet (now), emptied of father-breadwinner and school-age children. Being cared for and stocked with provisions by mother-wife and her domestics.” Diddy may not condescend to “their pampered well-fed children; equipped with shiny English bicycles that moved on hard tires, tended by garrulous devoted Irish nursemaids, packed off to their weekly piano lessons,” but Sontag surely does. On the other side of town, far from the shiny English bicycles, are the prostitutes and shabby sordid lodgings of the workman’s widow, who talks like this: “Why, I used to come home from school with my rear end red as fire! . . . Yeah, they could of used me for a bed warmer, that’s how red and hot my little fanny was.”

It’s always anomalous when a writer of Sontag’s intelligence goes crude or smutty. Maybe it springs from impatience, the wish for Rabelaisian bawdiness to cut through the burdens of consciousness. In any case, Sontag seems to have viewed the United States as relentlessly vulgar, and it brought out the vulgar and unsubtle in her. At roughly the same time she was writing Death Kit, she responded to a Partisan Review questionnaire, reprinted as “What’s Happening in America (1966)” in Styles of Radical Will (surely the weakest piece in that otherwise distinguished collection), with let-it-rip rhetoric: 

Today’s America, with Ronald Reagan the new daddy of California and John Wayne chawing spareribs in the White House, is pretty much the same Yahooland that Mencken was describing. The main difference is that what’s happening in America matters so much more in the late 1960s than it did in the 1920s. Then, if one had tough innards, one might jeer, sometimes affectionately, at American barbarism and find American innocence somewhat endearing. Both the barbarism and the innocence are lethal, outsized today.

You’ll get no argument from me about the danger American imperial power poses to the world, but I do find her bandying about labels like “barbarism” and “innocence” to be somewhat tired, overly broad and beside the point. Similarly, her potted history and cultural analysis sound skimpy. 

Having established that America was founded on genocide and slavery, she goes on to state: 

After America was ‘won,’ it was filled up by new generations of the poor and built up according to the tawdry fantasy of the good life that culturally deprived, uprooted people might have at the beginning of the industrial era. And the country looks it. Foreigners extol the American ‘energy,’ attributing to it both our unparalleled economic prosperity and the splendid vivacity of our arts and entertainments. But surely this is energy bad at its source and for which we pay too high a price, a hypernatural and humanly disproportionate dynamism that flays everyone’s nerves raw. Basically it is the energy of violence, of free-floating resentment and anxiety unleashed by chronic cultural dislocations which must be, for the most part, ferociously sublimated. This energy has mainly been sublimated into crude materialism and acquisitiveness. Into hectic philanthropy. Into benighted moral crusades, the most spectacular of which was Prohibition. Into an awesome talent for uglifying countries and cities. Into the loquacity and torment of a minority of gadflies, artists, prophets, muckrakers, cranks, and nuts. And into self-punishing neuroses. But the naked violence keeps breaking through, throwing everything into question.

To me, this is an imbalanced, overgeneralized and unsubstantiated screed by a hanging judge. It ignores too much about the ideals and achievements of immigrant America. I am not sure why the fantasy of the good life need be “tawdry,” or why American energy is “hypernatural” or intrinsically “violent,” or why a nation built of immigrants should necessarily be condemned to “chronic cultural dislocations,” or why our philanthropy should be dismissed as “hectic,” or why our valiant gadflies and muckrakers need be doomed to loquacious torment. But I despair of convincing many cultivated readers that America is not some horrible mistake, at a moment when its foreign and domestic policies are so tragically misguided. Suffice to say, I disagree with Sontag’s excessively negative assessment of America, and leave it at that.

Sontag’s intemperate tone in the above passage might be contextualized by noting that she was understandably angry, writing in the midst of the Vietnam War. Still, she remained consistent in her statements thereafter, explaining how her dislike for her native country’s “materialism” drew her toward Europhilia. As she put it in her 2003 Friedenhaus Acceptance Speech, “[T]here have always been American fellow-travelers of the European cultural ideals (one stands here before you), who find in the old arts of Europe correction and a liberation from the strenuous mercantilist biases of American culture.” To be fair, her espousal of the Bosnian cause led her to a more critical assessment of Western Europe, in its indifference and passivity to preventing violence, and she did once allow herself to comment on Nazism as “a triumphant barbarism that was (need it be said?) entirely generated from within the heart of Europe.” But always she returned to her initial position: 

If I must describe what Europe means to me as an American, I would start with liberation. Liberation from what passes in America for a culture. The diversity, seriousness, fastidiousness, density of European culture constitute an Archimedean point from which I can, mentally, move the world. I cannot do that from America, from what American culture gives me, as a collection of standards, as a legacy. Hence Europe is essential to me, more essential than America, although all my sojourns in Europe do not make me an expatriate. 

There is a funny, chagrined personal essay Sontag wrote in 1987, “Pilgrimage,”  about her California adolescence, when she was in flight from everything American. “I felt I was slumming, in my own life,” she writes, trying to drown out the laugh-track of TV sitcoms with “transformative books,” such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. She finally brings herself, with a friend, to ring Mann’s doorbell, and they have a chat, the irony of which rests on the fact that she is squirming with embarrassment at her immature country, while he is trying so hard to be charmed by it, meanwhile addressing her as a representative of American youth. 

He asked about our studies. Our studies? That was a further embarrassment. I was sure he hadn’t the faintest idea what a high school in Southern California was like. Did he know about Drivers’ Education (compulsory)? Typing courses? Wouldn’t he be surprised by the wrinkled condoms you spotted as you were darting across the lawn for first period. . . . I hoped he would never find out. He had enough to be sad about—Hitler, the destruction of Germany, exile. It was better that he not know how really far he was from Europe

And to be far from Europe, in her view, was to be far from everything intellectually nourishing. 

I find it curious how thoroughly Sontag eschewed American intellectual models, especially since there were a glut of notable essayists still on the scene when she made her debut. For instance, Edmund Wilson’s brand of biographical criticism, or his omnivorous reading range and cosmopolitan taste for foreign literature, might have inspired her.† The postwar era, 1945–1965, had been a golden era of American critical prose: Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Meyer Shapiro, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Leslie Fielder, Philip Rahv, James Agee, Robert Warshow, Manny Farber, Ralph Ellison, Dwight Macdonald, Pauline Kael, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Edwin Denby, Paul Goodman, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Seymour Krim, Arlene Croce; the list could go on. Yet Goodman and Trilling were the only ones of her countrymen she cited with admiration, and she had already pronounced Trilling’s relevance passé. She went out of her way to tell her Paris Review interviewer that Mary McCarthy was “a writer who’d never mattered to me.” Why not? Hadn’t McCarthy, for instance, preceded her in writing dispatches from North Vietnam, which Sontag admitted reading in Trip to Hanoi? No doubt Sontag resented the comparisons that saw her early on as “the new Mary McCarthy,” or as filling some sort of Dark-Lady-of-the-New York-intelligentsia niche previously occupied by McCarthy. Still, Mary McCarthy could be a fascinating writer; her first essay collection, On the Contrary, is as provocative and stylish a debut, in its way, as Against Interpretation, and her memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, is a classic of American autobiographical literature. But for Sontag, it would seem, she was incurably middlebrow, not a true intellectual in the European mold.‡

Interestingly, in that same Paris Review interview, Sontag does credit two American contemporaries as having influenced her: “I think I learned a lot about punctuation and speed from Donald Barthelme, about adjectives and sentence rhythms from Elizabeth Hardwick.” The implication I take from this statement is that Barthelme and Hardwick (the Hardwick of Sleepless Nights, not the essays) influenced her fiction writing. She was too proud of her fiction writing to waste time speaking to interviewers about the writers who influenced her essays, and perhaps too proud of her essays to address her apprenticeship in that area. 

I don’t at all fault Sontag for refusing to engage with the work of American essayists and critics; the European thought of Benjamin, Barthes, Cioran, Bernhard, Sebald, et cetera, fired her imagination, and since it did the trick, she need not have looked elsewhere. Also, by not addressing the American critical tradition, she was able to be heard as more of a unique voice, coming out of nowhere, bringing news of a larger, more ample intellectual life. She was better able to fulfill her role as the bridge between Old World and New World cultures. But this refusal to examine home-grown intellectual models is yet another indication of her dismissal of the American mind, which I cannot help regarding as a bit unfair. I also think she was being “ungrateful,” if one can use such a word, for failing to acknowledge that all those aforementioned American critics whose works appeared in Partisan Review, Commentary, Art News, the New Leader, and other journals paved the way, creating a warm, inviting context for her own cerebral essays to fit snugly into.

†Apparently they were social acquaintances. In Wilson’s diary, e Sixties, he reports in 1963 meeting “a handsome girl from California [Susan Sontag] who is one of Roger’s new writers,” a reference to editor Roger Straus, of Farrar, Straus. By 1968 he is reporting: “I never have much conversation with Susan Sontag. Roger can’t quite forgive me because I am not impressed with her. When I talked to her about the movies in the car, she discussed them in her usual pretentious and esoteric way. Yellow Submarine should have stuck to one style, it was a mixture of too many, an ‘anthology.’ ” How funny to picture these two great figures awkwardly debating the merits of Yellow Submarine!

‡ In her diary entry marked 9 Dec. 1961, Sontag writes: “Mary McCarthy’s grin—grey hair—low-fashion red + blue print suit. Clubwoman gossip. She is The Group. She’s nice to her husband.”

 —from Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag (2009)


american camp & harold robbins’ the carpetbaggers: “a man says a lot of things when he’s humping”



23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.  


58. The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful . . . Of course, one can’t always say that. Only under certain conditions, those which I’ve tried to sketch in these notes.


from Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964   


From Harold Robbins’ The Carpetbaggers:


Chapter 2  


I KEPT RAISING SMALL CLOUDS OF SAND WITH THE huarachos as I walked toward the factory. The faint clinical smell of the sulphur they used in making gunpowder came to my nose. It was the same kind of smell that was in the hospital the night I took her there. It wasn’t at all the kind of smell there was the night we made the baby.  


It was cool and clean that night. And there was the smell of the ocean and the surf that came in through the open windows of the small cottage I kept out at Malibu. But in the room there was nothing but the exciting scent of the girl and her wanting.


We had gone into the bedroom and stripped with the fierce urgency in our vitals. She was quicker than I and now she was on the bed, looking up at me as I opened the dresser drawer and took out a package of rubbers.


Her voice was a whisper in the night. “Don’t, Joney. Not this time.”


I looked at her. The bright Pacific moon threw its light in the window. Only her face was in shadows. Somehow, what she said brought the fever up.


The bitch must have sensed it. She reached for me and kissed me. “I hate those damn things, Joney. I want to feel you inside me.”


I hesitated a moment. She pulled me down on top of her. Her voice whispered in my ear.


“Nothing will happen, Joney. I’ll be careful.”


Then I couldn’t wait any longer and her whisper changed into a sudden cry of pain. I couldn’t breathe and she kept crying in my ear, “I love you, Joney. I love you, Joney.”


She loved me all right. She loved me so good that five weeks later she tells me we got to get married. We were sitting in the front seat of my car this time, driving back from the football game. I looked over at her. “What for?”


She looked up at me. She wasn’t frightened, not then. She was too sure of herself. Her voice was almost flippant. “The usual reason. What other reason does a fellow and a girl get married for?”


My voice turned bitter. I knew when I’d been taken. “Sometimes it’s because they want to get married.”


“Well, I want to get married.” She moved closer to me.


I pushed her back on the seat. “Well, I don’t.”


She began to cry then. “But you said you loved me.”


I didn’t look at her. “A man says a lot of things when he’s humping.” I pulled the car over against the curb and parked. I turned to her. “I thought you said you’d be careful.”


She was wiping at her tears with a small, ineffectual handkerchief. “I love you, Joney. I wanted to have your baby.”


For the first time since she told me, I began to feel better. That was one of the troubles with being Jonas Cord, Jr. Too many girls, and their mothers, too, thought that spelled money.


Big money. Ever since the war, when my father built an empire on gunpowder.

I looked down at her. “Then it’s simple. Have it.”


Her expression changed. She moved toward me. “You mean — you mean — we’ll get married?”


The faint look of triumph in her eyes faded quickly when I shook my head. “Uh-uh. I  meant have the baby if you want it that bad.”


She pulled away again. Suddenly, her face was set and cold. Her voice was calm and practical. “I don’t want it that bad. Not without a ring on my finger. I’ll have to get rid of it.”


I grinned and offered her a cigarette. “Now you’re talking, little girl.”

She took the cigarette and I lit it for her. “But it’s going to be expensive,” she said.


“How much?” I asked.


She drew in a mouthful of smoke. “There’s a doctor in Mexican Town. The girls say he’s very good.” She looked at me questioningly. “Two hundred?”


“O.K., you got it,” I said quickly. It was a bargain. The last one cost me three fifty. I flipped my cigarette over the side of the car and started the motor. I pulled the car out into traffic and headed toward Malibu.


“Hey, where you going?” she asked.


I looked over at her. “To the beach house,” I answered. “We might as well make the most of the situation.”


She began to laugh and drew closer to me. She looked up into my face. “I wonder what Mother would say if she knew just how far I went to get you. She told me not to miss a trick.”


I laughed. “You didn’t.”


She shook her head. “Poor Mother. She had the wedding all planned.”


Poor Mother. Maybe if the old bitch had kept her mouth shut her daughter might have been alive today.


It was the night after that about eleven thirty, that my telephone began to ring. I had just about fogged off and I cursed, reaching for the phone.


Her voice came through in a scared whisper. “Joney, I’m bleeding.”


The sleep shot out of my head like a bullet. “What’s the matter?”


“I went down to Mexican Town this afternoon and now something’s wrong. I haven’t stopped bleeding and I’m frightened.” I sat up in bed. “Where are you?”


“I checked into the Westwood Hotel this afternoon. Room nine-o-one.”


“Get back into bed. I’ll be right down.”


“Please hurry, Joney. Please.”


The Westwood is a commercial hotel in downtown L.A. Nobody even looked twice when I went up in the elevator without announcing myself at the desk. I stopped in front of Room 901 and tried the door. It was unlocked. I went in.


I never saw so much blood in my life. It was all over the cheap carpeting on the floor, the chair in which she had sat when she called me, the white sheets on the bed.


She was lying on the bed and her face was as white as the pillow under her head. Her eyes had been closed but they flickered open when I came over. Her lips moved but no sound came out.


I bent over her. “Don’t try to talk, baby. I’ll get a doctor. You’re gonna be all right.”


She closed her eyes and I went over to the phone. There was no use in just calling a doctor.


My father wasn’t going to be happy if I got our name into the papers again. I called McAllister. He was the attorney who handled the firm’s business in California.


His butler called him to the phone. I tried to keep my voice calm. “I need a doctor and an ambulance quick.”


In less than a moment, I understood why my father used Mac. He didn’t waste any time on useless questions. Just where, when and who. No why. His voice was precise. “A doctor and an ambulance will be there in ten minutes. I advise you to leave now. There’s no point in your getting any more involved than you are.”


I thanked him and put down the phone. I glanced over at the bed. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be sleeping. I started for the door and her eyes opened.


“Don’t go, Joney. I’m afraid.”


I went back to the bed and sat down beside it. I took her hand and she closed her eyes again. The ambulance was there in ten minutes. And she didn’t let go of my hand until we’d reached the hospital.



On the life of Harold Robbins:

“Guy Gone Wild” — A Review of Andrew Wilson, Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex

By Tom Carson

October 21, 2007


“An autopsy wouldn’t make any difference now.” That marvelous line cries out to have been scripted for Leslie Nielsen in one of the Naked Gun movies. But it’s uttered by the virile, easily riled Jonas Cord, the Howard Hughes stand-in at the center of The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins’s fabled 1961 novel — or novel-like object, anyhow. And Cord’s real-life enabler (“creator” would be pushing it) shared his assessment, judging from Robbins’s indifference to the verdict of posterity. As the world’s best-selling speed typist told a journalist in 1970, “When I’m gone, they can grill me and throw the ashes where they please, say what they like.”


Nobody has seen fit to say much of anything about Robbins since his death in 1997, decades after his vogue had — how to put this? — climaxed. But doesn’t a hustling subliterate whose oeuvre changed American publishing deserve at least one kudo, to usea solecism Robbins himself would have been likely to commit to print? Crammed with moronic prurience, achieving logorrhea with the barest of resources, your average Robbins page turner read as if he’d clacked it out using 10, if not 11, thumbs, and his 20 or so engorged books sold more than 750 million copies combined. If you’ve ever wondered just when quality literature and commercial fiction parted ways for good with a shudder, call him Harold Rubicon.


As Robbins’s fellow Brooklyn boy and close contemporary Arthur Miller might have put it, attention must be paid. So, duly making the beast with two hardbacks, Andrew Wilson — author of a well-regarded, as they say, life of Patricia Highsmith — has given us Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex. Besides answering nearly every question about its subject that any halfway brainy reader couldn’t be bothered to ask, it’s also better written than any of Robbins’s own behemoths, something I assume Wilson can’t help: he’s British. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that I doubt any future biography of Robbins will equal this one, but make of that claim what you will.


Wilson is impressively if inexplicably determined to uncover the reality behind Robbins’s fabulations about his early years, some of which proved sturdy enough to show up in his obituaries. Not too surprisingly, the tales he fed compliant interviewers — about growing up in a Catholic orphanage before his adoption by a Jewish family, servicing lonely men for cash during his mean-streets adolescence and the like — turn out to have been fibs. The lone seedling of fact from which these Grade-Z Scheherazadisms sprang was that, unlike his siblings, young Harold Rubin (not Robbins, just his way of going Gentile into that good night, and in the heyday of the Jewish American novel, too) was the spawn of a previous marriage his father tried to conceal after Harold’s mom died young.


The fuse was lit once Robbins’s first father-in-law got Harold, then a failed grocer and lowly clerk, a job at Universal Pictures, where he soon clawed his way up from shipping clerk (by some accounts) to the bookkeeping department. Thwarted in his ambition to turn producer, he started typing what became Never Love a Stranger, his scandalous 1948 debut. In Wilson’s high-flown formulation, “writing, for him, was not about creative expression or artistic ideals; rather, what fueled his ambition was a mercantile instinct, a desire to explore his dreams and fantasies and sell them off to the highest bidder.” The rude version of this aria is that Robbins was always in it for the money.


Nonetheless, his early novels got some halfway decent notices — A Stone for Danny Fisher, for one, the unlikely source material for the Elvis movie King Creole. In the 1940s and ’50s, outside of (mostly paperback) genre fiction, even the worst junk seldom candidly announced itself as such. Not only could “serious” mainstream novelists aim at best-sellerdom, but even hacks were presumed to covet respectability. Wonder of wonders, Robbins’s first publisher was Alfred A. Knopf, and the publishee liked to boast that he was one of only three authors with a “lifetime” Knopf contract. The other two? Thomas Mann and André Gide.


That changed with The Carpetbaggers, brought out, after delays and much wrangling, by Simon & Schuster. Or rather, by Trident Press, a new imprint devised by Leon Shimkin, the founder of Pocket Books and then one of Simon & Schuster’s owners, to overcome Max Schuster’s horror while guaranteeing Robbins unheard-of paperback lucre for this and future works. In the words of his later editor, Michael Korda, “Thus was the ‘hard/soft’ multibook contract born … après nous le déluge.” When Robbins sent Alfred Knopf a copy of his masterpiece, he got a frosty note back: “Thanks, but I don’t read such trash.” Rubicon!


All this is interesting in an archaeological way. But once The Carpetbaggers, reputedly “the fourth-most-read book in history,” transforms Robbins into, well, “Harold Robbins,” his story grows tiresome, despite Wilson’s stabs at tarting up the author’s later career with such reflections (there’s no evidence his subject shared them) as “by catering to the lowest common denominator, Robbins sacrificed his integrity.” Say what? He’d found his gimmick: exploitation, with garish facsimiles of Lana Turner (Where Love Has Gone), the South American playboy Porfirio Rubirosa (“The Adventurers”) and the Ford automobile dynasty (The Betsy), among others, paraded en déshabillé for our enjoyment. Besides churning out novel-like objects with the monotonous implacability of a batting-practice machine, Robbins never stopped trying to brand himself in other ways. These efforts included The Survivors, a notoriously wretched TV series he spitballed to ABC one day and had forgotten about by the time it was green-lighted.


Wilson quotes several of Robbins’s intimates as saying he behaved just like a character in his novels, and the insult, not that they mean it as one, rings drearily true. Making big bucks let him live out his grossest fantasies, like owning a yacht and having orgies. But his excesses are unlikely to fascinate any reader who isn’t a) 15 or b) Donald Trump, the first tycoon who seems to aspire to being a Robbins hero. The detail that may best evoke the milieu Robbins lived in is the “set of 14-karat-gold fingernails” he bought his second wife; according to presumably awed friends, “the effect of the sun reflecting off them was enough to nearly blind you.” There’s also something disconcerting about a biography in which George Hamilton, who starred in The Survivors, figures as a voice of reason: “I thought reading his books was as good as it got and getting to know him would not improve on that in any way.” Even the gentlemanly Korda’s verdict is blunt: “He was as disagreeable and odious in the days of his success as the days of his failure.”


Robbins himself once said, “I just happen to think I’ve done better than anyone else in reflecting the times in which I live,” meaning his work rather than his personality — and the claim isn’t completely absurd. If nothing else, he did know where the action was, though it took Francis Ford Coppola’s movie version of The Godfather, a novel that wouldn’t exist without Robbins’s example, to prove that greatness can be spun from sensationalist claptrap. If flimsily disguised lives of famous people strike you as meretricious by definition, remember Citizen Kane. The real pity is that, stamina aside, Robbins was talentless, and he made his preferred subject matter radioactive for more gifted novelists for a number of years. If he hadn’t gotten his mitts on Howard Hughes first, mightn’t Norman Mailer have been tempted?



“i don’t think i’d like it if people liked me. i’d think that something had gone wrong.”


three obituaries of James Purdy, dead at age 94: explorer of once-taboo topics — "including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality"

James Purdy in 2005



James Purdy, Darkly Comic Writer, Dies at 94

By William Grimes 


James Purdy, whose dark, often savagely comic fiction evoked a psychic American landscape of deluded innocence, sexual obsession, violence and isolation, died Friday in Englewood, N.J. He was 94 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.


His death was confirmed by John Uecker, a friend and assistant. Wayward and unclassifiable, Mr. Purdy, the author of the novels “Malcolm” and “The Nephew,” labored at the margins of the literary mainstream, inspiring veneration or disdain. His nearly 20 novels and numerous short stories and plays either enchanted or baffled critics with their gothic treatment of small-town innocents adrift in a corrupt and meaningless world, his distinctive blend of plain speech with ornate, florid locutions, and the hallucinatory quality of his often degraded scenes.


“I can describe my books as I see them as American, imaginative, symbolic,” he told an interviewer for the reference work World Authors. “ My literary ancestors are two other Calvinists, Hawthorne and Melville.” He also stated, in another interview, that he was attracted only to stories that “bristled with impossibilities.”


If Mr. Purdy made limited headway against what he called, in an autobiographical sketch, “the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment,” he was proclaimed “an authentic American genius” by Gore Vidal and admired extravagantly by writers like Angus Wilson, John Cowper Powys and Edith Sitwell, who, reviewing the stories and short plays collected in “Children Is All” (1962), wrote that Mr. Purdy would “come to be recognized as one of the greatest living writers of fiction in our language.


James Otis Purdy was born in Ohio near the Indiana border but remained vague about where. Because of his father’s financial woes, he was reared, he said, “in a troubled atmosphere” and left home at an early age for Chicago, unprepared, he later admitted, for the big city. “It provided me with enough subject matter for the rest of my life,” he said.


After serving in the Army, he attended the University of Puebla in Puebla, Mexico, the University of Chicago and the University of Madrid. From 1949 to 1953 he taught at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton, Wis.


Mr. Purdy had little luck placing his short stories in magazines. Supporters of his work arranged for the private publication of his stories and the novella “63: Dream Palace,” about two orphaned brothers who leave West Virginia for Chicago, where they fall prey to a series of exploiters.


On a hunch, Mr. Purdy sent the books to Sitwell, who was impressed. The novella, she wrote to Mr. Purdy, was “a masterpiece from every point of view.” At her urging, Victor Gollancz published the stories and the novella in one volume, and British critical response encouraged New Directions Press to bring out the Gollancz volume as “Color of Darkness” in 1957.


Mr. Purdy’s early work met with critical enthusiasm, and in 1960 he moved to New York, where the photographer Carl Van Vechten introduced him to a circle of friends that included Paul Bowles and Dorothy Parker.


“Malcolm” (1959), Mr. Purdy’s first full-scale novel, further explored one of his cherished themes, innocence on the loose, this time in a picaresque tale whose Candide-like hero trips lightly from absurdity to perversity. The novel, lavishly praised by Dorothy Parker in a career-making review in Esquire, was adapted for the stage by Edward Albee.


In “The Nephew” (1961), Mr. Purdy slyly intimated the elusiveness of human character in the story of a Korean War soldier missing in action whose aunt tries to research his life for a memorial book. She discovers that the boy she thought she knew was a stranger not only to her but to the rest of the family and was quite possibly gay.


Mr. Purdy, nothing if not fearless, led his readers into more forbidding terrain with novels like the farcical “Cabot Wright Begins” (1964), about a Wall Street heir who turns into a rapist after psychoanalysis frees his libido, and “Eustace Chisholm and the Works” (1967), which ends in a grisly sadomasochistic murder.


Decades of critical neglect followed, punctuated by brief spurts of interest when devotees like Mr. Vidal made the case for Mr. Purdy as a major artist. Though his plays were praised by Tennessee Williams, only a few were produced, at small theaters like the Theater for the New City in Manhattan. At his death, “James Purdy: Selected Plays” (Ivan R. Dee) was being prepared for publication in June.


Mr. Purdy, whose view of American culture was not optimistic, seemed to regard rejection as a badge of honor. “I don’t think I’d like it if people liked me,” he told one interviewer. “I’d think that something had gone wrong.”


By and large, reviewers resisted, or neglected, the four dystopian family novels set in the South and Midwest that Mr. Purdy grouped under the running title “Sleepers in Moon-Crowned Valleys.” These were “Jeremy’s Version” (1970), “The House of the Solitary Maggot” (1974), “Mourners Below” (1981) and “On Glory’s Course (1984).


Nor did he win converts with two later novels about gay life, one dealing with the AIDS epidemic (“Garments the Living Wear,” 1989), the other set in the New York of the mid-1960s (“Out With the Stars,” 1992).


Mr. Purdy might have countered that it was not the critics who spurned him, but he them.

“Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability, or by commercial acceptability,” he once said. “The worse the author, the more he is known.”


—March 14, 2009, The New York Times



Controversial author James Purdy dies


Cult author, poet and playwright James Purdy, whose fans ranged from Dorothy Parker to Gore Vidal but who was little known to the general public, died Friday morning in New Jersey.


Reports vary about his age, but according to his literary agency Harold Ober Associates, Purdy was 94 and had been in poor health. He died at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey.


In his dark writing, Purdy often explored controversial topics — including sex, race, loss of innocence, corruption, violence, abortion and homosexuality — at the edge of mainstream discussion, hence the shock and outrage he inspired from many critics.


‘When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone.’—James Purdy


Purdy also garnered high praise from a raft of acclaimed writers, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Susan Sontag, Angus Wilson and Edith Sitwell.


"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," Purdy told the Associated Press in 2005.


More recently, praise from authors like Vidal rekindled interest in Purdy’s writing.

Born in Ohio, Purdy said he was "exposed to everything" as a child, when his parents split and he lived alternately with his mother, father and grandmother.


A writer from early on, he began submitting short stories to New York magazines, which rejected him. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s when he began to make a name for himself.

After his story collection Don’t Call Me By My Right Name was published privately, he made his official debut with the release of 63: Dream Palace in 1956.


Though best known for novels like Malcolm (1959) and The Nephew (1961), Purdy’s credits include Cabot Wright Begins, Eustace Chisholm and the Works, as well as numerous short stories, plays, poems and drawings created over the past half-century.


A final volume — James Purdy: Selected Plays — is slated for publication in June.

—Friday, March 13, CBC News



Author James Purdy dies

By Hillel Italie


NEW YORK – Author James Purdy, a shocking realist and surprising romantic who in underground classics such as "Cabot Wright Begins" and "Eustace Chisholm and the Works" inspired censorious outrage and lasting admiration, has died.


Spokesman Walter Vatter of Ivan Dee Publishers said Purdy had been in poor health and died Friday morning at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey. Reports of his age have differed but, according to his literary agency, Harold Ober Associates, he was 94.


Purdy published poetry, drawings, the plays "Children Is All" and "Enduring Zeal," the novels "Mourners Below" and "Narrow Rooms," and the collection "Moe’s Villa and Other Stories." Much of his work fell out of print; several books were reissued in recent years. In the spring, Ivan Dee will issue a collection of his plays.


Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker were among his fans but Purdy won few awards and was little known to the general public. He spent most of his latter years in a one-room Brooklyn walk-up apartment, bitterly outside what he called "the anesthetic, hypocritical, preppy and stagnant New York literary establishment."


He was attacked for his "adolescent and distraught mind," accused of writing "fifth-rate, avant-garde soap opera" and left out of the country’s official literary establishment – the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also called a comic genius worthy of Voltaire and an outlaw, in the best sense, among his compromised peers.


Interviewed by The Associated Press in 2005, Purdy recalled being "exposed to everything" as a child, and his books revealed the most detailed awareness of sex, violence, race, class, familial cruelty and romantic longing. His work was labelled "gothic" for its extremes of emotion and physicality, but in his own mind, there was no sensationalism, just the impulse to write what he knew. 


"When you’re writing, at least in my case, you’re so occupied by the story and the characters that you have no interest in what people may think or whether I should write to please anyone," he said.


Purdy was born in Fremont, Ohio. His parents split up when he was young, forcing Purdy to alternate among the homes of his mother, father and grandmother. His formal education was essentially a waste, although Sunday school did impart an appreciation of the King James Bible. An early muse was a landlady to whom he wrote hate letters.


"My mother was both horrified and amused that I would write these terrible things about real people," he said, adding with a laugh, "We never showed them to the landlady. She might have had a stroke."


He wrote stories from an early age and in his 20s submitted some to what he called "the New York slick magazines," which duly rejected them in "rage." A break came in his early 30s when through a mutual acquaintance he was introduced to Chicago businessman and literary critic, Osborn Andreas, who agreed to privately publish a story collection, "Don’t Call Me by My Right Name."


Others soon learned about him, including British writers Dame Edith Sitwell and Angus Wilson, and his official debut, "63: Dream Palace," came out in 1956. He followed with such novels as "The Nephew," "Malcolm" and "Cabot Wright Begins," stories of innocent young men, needy older women and, in the case of "Cabot Wright," literary elitism, sexual violence and indiscreet bodily noises.


Rarely were reviewers so divided. Orville Prescott, book critic for The New York Times, labelled "Cabot Wright" the "sick outpouring of a confused, adolescent and distraught mind" and complained of Purdy’s "obsessive concentration on perverted and criminal sexual activities."


But Susan Sontag, writing in the Times six days later, likened "Cabot Wright" to Voltaire’s "Candide" and praised it as a "fluid, immensely readable, personal and strong work by a writer from whom everyone who cares about literature has expected, and will continue to expect, a great deal."


His most influential novel, "Eustace Chisholm and the Works," was published in 1967 to knee-jerk repulsion and eventual acclaim as a landmark of gay fiction. Set in Depression-era Chicago, "Chisholm" is a 20th-century "Satyricon," an explicit, matter-of-fact portrait of abortion, disembowelment and "diurnal coitus." But it’s also, through the passion of two men, a quest for "that rare thing: the authentic, naked, unconcealed voice of love."


Reviewing the book in 1967 for The New York Times, Wilfrid Sheed called "Eustace Chisholm" a "form of charade or peepshow" and placed it in "that line of homosexual fiction which announces itself not by subject matter but by tone." By 2005, the novel was respected, and respectable enough to receive the Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, presented to an ailing Purdy by "The Corrections" novelist Jonathan Franzen.


"The extreme margins of the stable, familiar world of Saul Bellow – and of most novelists, including me – are at the extreme normal end of Mr. Purdy’s world," Franzen said during a formal ceremony in Manhattan. "He takes up where the rest of us leave off."


—March 13, 2009, The Associated Press

james salter’s twentieth century paradise lost

James Salter’s novel Light Years is the story of a married couple, Viri and Nedra Berland, who enjoy—for a time, at least—a charmed life in upstate New York.

Reading Salter’s prose is a bit like watching a painter paint or a poet write: he has the eye for the necessary detail, the ear for the rhythm and cadence of American English, and the instinct for the essential image. An artist of the beauty that is to be found in everyday life, Salter has been praised by writers as varied as Susan Sontag and Reynolds Price. I cannot help but think that if Pierre Bonnard worked with a pen and not a brush, this is the kind of prose he would produce:

"The leaves came down, it seemed, in a single night. The prodigious arcade of trees in the village gave them up quickly; they fell like rain. … They would again, in addition to their beauty, to the roof they made beneath the sky, to their whispering, their slow, inarticulate sounds, the riches they poured down, they would, besides all this, give scale to everything, a true scale, reassuring, wise. We do not live as long, we do not know as much."


Light Years


We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with the cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.

The day is white as paper. The windows are chilled. The quarries lie empty, the silver mine drowned. The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving. A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp. In the fall it was silver with shad. The geese flew overhead in their long, shifting V’s. The tide flows in from the sea.

The Indians sought, they say, a river that "ran both ways." Here they found it. The salt wedge penetrates as far in as fifty miles; sometimes it reaches Poughkeepsie. There were huge beds of oysters here, seals in the harbor, in the woods inexhaustible game. This great glacial cut with its nuptial bays, the coves of wild celery and rice, this majestic river. The birds, like punctuation, are crossing in level flight. They seem to approach slowly, accelerate, pass overhead like arrows. The sky has no color. A feeling of rain.

All this was Dutch. Then, like so much else, it was English. The river is a reflection. It bears only silence, a glittering cold. The trees are naked. The eels sleep. The channel is deep enough for ocean liners; they could, if they wished, astonish the inner towns. There are turtles and crabs in the marshes, herons, Bonaparte gulls. The sewage pours from the cities further up. The river is filthy, but cleanses itself. The fish are numbed; they drift with the tide.

Along the banks there are houses of stone, no longer fashionable, and wooden houses, drafty and bare. There are still estates that exist, remnants of the great land parcels of the past. Near the water, a large Victorian, the brick painted white, trees high above it, a walled garden, a decaying greenhouse with ironwork along the roof. A house by the river, too low for the afternoon sun. It was flooded instead with the light of morning, with the eastern light. It was in glory at noon. There are spots where the paint has turned dark, bare spots. The gravel paths are dissolving; birds nest in the sheds.

We strolled in the garden, eating the small, bitter apples. The trees were dry and gnarled. The lights in the kitchen were on.

A car comes up the driveway, back from the city. The driver goes inside, only for a moment until he’s heard the news: the pony has gotten loose.

He is furious. "Where is she? Who left the door unlatched?"

"Oh God, Viri. I don’t know."

In a room with many plants, a kind of solarium, there is a lizard, a brown snake, a box turtle asleep. The entry step is deep, the turtle cannot leave. He sleeps on the gravel, his feet drawn up close. His nails are the color of ivory, they curl, they are long. The snake sleeps, the lizard sleeps.

Viri has his coat collar up and is trudging uphill. "Ursula!" he calls. He whistles.

The light has gone. The grass is dry; it creaks underfoot. There was no sun all day. Calling the pony’s name, he advances toward the far corners, the road, the adjoining fields. A stillness everywhere. It begins to rain. He sees the one-eyed dog that belongs to a neighbor, a kind of husky, his muzzle gray. The eye is closed completely, sealed, covered with fur so long ago was it lost, as if it never existed.

"Ursula!" he cries.

"She’s here," his wife says when he returns.

The pony is near the kitchen door, tranquil, dark, eating an apple. He touches her lips. She bites him absent-mindedly on the wrist. Her eyes are black, lustrous, with the long, crazy lashes of a drunken woman. Her coat is thick, her breath very sweet.

"Ursula," he says. Her ears turn slightly, then forget. "Where have you been? Who unlocked your stall?"

She has no interest in him.

"Have you learned to do that?" He touches an ear; it is warm, strong as a shoe. He leads her to the shed, whose door is ajar. Outside the kitchen he stamps dirt from his shoes.

The lights are on everywhere: a vast, illuminated house. Dead flies the size of beans lie behind the velvet curtains, the wallpaper has corner bulges, the window glass distorts. It is an aviary they live in, a honeycomb. The roofs are thick slate, the rooms are like shops. It gives off no sound, this house; in the darkness it is like a ship. Within, if one listens, there is everything: water, faint voices, the slow, measured rending of grain.

In the principal bath, with its stains, sponges, soaps the color of tea, books, water-curled copies of Vogue, he steams in peace. The water is above his knees; it penetrates to the bone. There is carpeting on the floor, a basket of smooth stones, an empty glass of the deepest blue.

"Papa," they call through the door.

"Yes." He is reading the Times.

"Where was Ursula?"


"Where was she?"

"I don’t know," he says. "She went out for a walk."

They wait for something further. He is a storyteller, a man of wonders. They listen for sounds, expecting the door to open.

"But where was she?"

"Her legs were wet," he announces.

"Her legs?"

"I think she was swimming."

"No, Daddy, really."

"She was trying to get the onions on the bottom."

"There are no onions there."

"Oh, yes."

"There are?"

"That’s where they grow."

They explain it to each other outside the door. It’s true, they decide. They wait for him, two little girls squatting like beggars.

"Papa, come out," they say. "We want to talk to you."

He puts aside the paper and sinks one last time into the embrace of the bath.



"Are you coming out?"

The pony fascinates them. It frightens them. They are ready to run if it makes an unexpected sound. Patient, silent, it stands in its stall; a grazing animal, it eats for hours. Its muzzle has a nimbus of fine hair, its teeth are browned.

"Their teeth never stop growing," the man who sold her to them said. He was a drunkard, his clothes were torn. "They keep growing out and getting wore down."

"What would happen if she didn’t eat?"

"If she didn’t eat?"

"What would happen to her teeth?"

"Make sure she eats," he said.

They often watch her; they listen to her jaws. This mythical beast, fragrant in the darkness, is greater than they are, stronger, more clever. They long to approach her, to win her love.


IT WAS THE AUTUMN OF 1958. Their children were seven and five. On the river, the color of slate, the light poured down. A soft light, God’s idleness. In the distance the new bridge gleamed like a statement, like a line in a letter which makes one stop.

Nedra was working in the kitchen, her rings set aside. She was tall, preoccupied; her neck was bare. When she paused to read a recipe, her head bent, she was stunning in her concentration, her air of obedience. She wore her wrist watch, her best shoes. Beneath the apron, she was dressed for the evening. People were coming for dinner.

She had trimmed the stems of flowers spread on the wood of the counter and begun to arrange them. Before her were scissors, paper-thin boxes of cheese, French knives. On her shoulders there was perfume. I am going to describe her life from the inside outward, from its core, the house as well, rooms in which life was gathered, rooms in the morning sunlight, the floors spread with Oriental rugs that had been her mother-in-law’s, apricot, rouge and tan, rugs which though worn seemed to drink the sun, to collect its warmth; books, potpourris, cushions in colors of Matisse, objects glistening like evidence, many of which might, had they been possessed by ancient peoples, have been placed in tombs for another life: clear crystal dice, pieces of staghorn, amber beads, boxes, sculptures, wooden balls, magazines in which were photographs of women to whom she compared herself.

Who cleans this large house, who scrubs the floors? She does everything, this woman, she does nothing. She is dressed in her oat-colored sweater, slim as a pike, her long hair fastened, the fire crackling. Her real concern is the heart of existence: meals, bed linen, clothing. The rest means nothing; it is managed somehow. She has a wide mouth, the mouth of an actress, thrilling, bright. Dark smudges in her armpits, mint on her breath. Her nature is extravagant. She buys on impulse, she visits Bendel’s as she would a friend’s, gathering up five or six dresses and entering a booth, not bothering to draw the curtain fully, a glimpse of her undressing, lean arms, lean trunk, bikini underpants. Yes, she scrubs floors, collects dirty clothes. She is twenty-eight. Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her; she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints. She is careful, hard to approach. Her life is concealed. It is through the smoke and conversation of many dinners that one sees her: country dinners, dinners at the Russian Tea Room, the Caf? Chauveron with Viri’s clients, the St. Regis, the Minotaur.

Guests were driving from the city, Peter Daro and his wife. "What time are they coming?"

"About seven," Viri said.

"Have you opened the wine?"

"Not yet."

The water was running, her hands were wet.

"Here, take this tray," she said. "The children want to eat by the fire. Tell them a story."

She stood for a moment surveying her preparations. She glanced at her watch.

The Daros arrived in darkness. The doors of their car slammed faintly. A few moments later they appeared at the entrance, their faces bright.

"Here’s a small gift," Peter said.

"Viri, Peter’s brought wine."

"Let me take your coats."

The evening was cold. In the rooms, the feel of autumn.

"That’s a beautiful drive," Peter said, smoothing his clothes. "I love to take that drive. As soon as you cross the bridge, you’re in trees, in darkness, the city is gone."

"It’s almost primeval," Catherine said.

"And you’re on your way to the beautiful house of the Berlands." He smiled. What confidence, what success there is in a man’s face at thirty.

"You look wonderful, both of you," Viri told them.

"Catherine really loves this house."

"So do I." Nedra smiled.

November evening, immemorial, clear. Smoked brook trout, mutton, an endive salad, a Margaux open on the sideboard. The dinner was served beneath a print of Chagall, the mermaid over the bay of Nice. The signature was probably false, but as Peter had said before, what difference did it make, it was as good as Chagall’s own, perhaps even better, with just the right degree of carelessness. And the poster, after all, was an issue of thousands, this angel afloat in pure night, the great majority of them not even distinguished by a signature of any kind, however fraudulent.

"Do you like trout?" Nedra asked, holding the dish.

"I don’t know which I like more, catching or eating them."

"Do you really know how to catch them?"

"There are times I’ve wondered," he said. He was helping himself generously. "You know, I’ve fished everywhere. The trout fisherman is a very special fellow, solitary, perverse. Nedra, this is delicious."

He had hair that was thinning, and a smooth, full face, the face of an heir, of someone who works in the trust department of a bank. He spent his days on his feet, however, fishing for Gauloises from a crumpled package. He had a gallery.

"That’s how I won Catherine," he said. "I took her fishing. Actually, I took her reading; she sat on the bank with a book while I fished for trout. Did I ever tell you the story about fishing in England? I went to a little river, perfect. It wasn’t the Test, that’s the famous one presided over for so many years by a man named Lunn. Marvelous old man, typically English. There’s a wonderful photograph of him with tweezers, sorting out insects. He’s a legend.

"This was near an inn, one of the oldest inEngland. It’s called the Old Bell. I came to this absolutely beautiful spot, and there were two men sitting on the bank, not too happy to have someone else appear, but of course, being English, they acted as if they hadn’t even seen me."

"Peter, pardon me," Nedra said. "Have some more."

He served himself.

"Anyway, I said, ‘How is it?’ ‘Lovely day,’ one of them said. ‘I mean, how is the fishing?’ Long silence. Finally one of them said, ‘Trout here.’ More silence. ‘One over by that rock,’ he said. ‘Really?’ ‘I saw him about an hour ago,’ he said. Long silence again. ‘Big bugger, too.’"

"Did you catch it?" she asked.

"Oh, no. This was a trout they knew. You know how it is; you’ve been to England."

"I’ve never been anywhere."

"Come on."

"But I’ve done everything," she said. "That’s more important." A wide smile over her wineglass. "Oh, Viri," she said, "the wine is marvelous."

"It is good, isn’t it? You know, there are some small shops-it’s surprising-where you can get quite good wines, and not expensively."

"Where did you get this?" Peter asked.

"Well, you know Fifty-sixth Street . . ."

"Next to Carnegie Hall."

"That’s it."

"On the corner there."

"They have some very good wines."

"Yes, I know. Who is the salesman again? There’s one particular salesman . . ."

"Yes, he’s bald."

"It’s not only that he knows wines; he knows the poetry of them."

"He’s terrific. His name is Jack."

"That’s right," Peter said. "Nice man."

"Viri, tell that conversation you overheard," Nedra said.

"That wasn’t in there."

"I know."

"It was in the bookstore."

"Come on, Viri," she said.

"It’s just something I overheard," he explained. "I was looking for a book, and there were these two men. One said to the other," his imitation was lisping and perfect, "’Sartre was right, you know.’

"’Oh, yeah?’" He imitated the other. "’About what?’

"’Genet’s a saint,’ he said. ‘The man’s a saint.’"

Nedra laughed. She had a rich, naked laugh. "You do that so well," she told him.

"No," he protested vaguely.

"You do it perfectly," she said.

Country dinners, the table dense with glasses, flowers, all the food one can eat, dinners ending in tobacco smoke, a feeling of ease. Leisurely dinners. The conversation never lapses. Their life is special, devout, they prefer to spend time with their children, they have only a few friends.


[From later in the novel:]


Danny is less obedient; she has a stubborn quality. She is less beautiful. In the summer her leanness and tan skin conceal it. She goes out in the deep water in a rubber tube, daring, kicking like an insect. It is morning, the surf fallingforward, its white teeth hissing on the shore. Viri watches, sitting on the sand. She waves at him, her shouts carried off by the wind. He understands suddenly what love of a child is. It overwhelms him like the line from a song.

Morning; the sea sound faint on the wind. His sunburned daughters walk on creaking floors. They pass their life together, in a compact that will never end. They go to the circus, to stores, the market shed in Amagansett with its laden shelves and fruits, to picnics, pageants, concerts in wooden churches among the trees. They enter Philharmonic Hall. The audience is hushed. They are seated, the program is in their laps. To listen to a symphony is to open the book of faces. The maestro arrives. He collects himself, stands poised. The great, exotic opening chords of Chabrier. They go to performances of Swan Lake, their faces pale in the darkness of the Grand Tier. The vast curve of seats is lighted like the Ritz. A huge orchestra pit, big as a ship, a ceiling of gold, hung with bursts of light, with pendants that glitter like ice. The great Nureyev comes out after, bowing like an angel, like a prince. They beg each other for the glasses; his neck, his chest are gleaming with sweat, even the ends of his hair. His hands, like those of a child, play with the cape tassels. The end of performances, the end of Mozart, of Bach. The solo violinist stands with her face raised, utterly drained, the last chords still sounding, as if from a great love. The conductor applauds her, the audience, the beautiful women, their hands held high.

They pass their life together, they pass boys fishing, walking to the end of the pier with a small eel tied, doubled up, on the hook. The mute eye of the eel calls out, a black dot in his plain, silver face. They sit at the table where their grandfather eats, Nedra’s father, a salesman, a man from small towns, his cough yellow, the Camel cigarettes always near his hand. His voice is out of focus, his eyes are filmed, he hardly seems to notice them. He brings death with him into the kitchen; a long, wasted life, the chrysalis of Nedra’s, its dry covering, its forgotten source. He has cheap shoes, a suitcase filled with samples of aluminum window frames.

Their life is formed together, woven together, they are like actors, a group of devoted actors who know nothing beyond themselves, beyond the pile of roles from old, from immortal plays.

The summer ends. There are misty, chilly days, the sea is quiet and white. The waves break far out with a slow, majestic sound. The beach is deserted. Occasional strollers along the water’s edge. The children lie on Viri’s back like possums; the sand is warm beneath him.

Peter and Catherine join them, together with their little boy. The families sit separated, in the solitude and mist. Peter has a folding chair and wears a yachting cap and a shirt. Beside him is a bucket filled with ice, bottles of Dubonnet and rum. An eerie and beautiful day. The fine points of mist drift over them. August has passed.

At a pause in the conversation, Peter rises and walks slowly, without a word, into the sea, a solitary bather, swimming far out in his blue shirt. His strokes are powerful and even. He swims with assurance, strong as an iceman. Finally Viri joins him. The water is cool. There is mist all about them, the swelling rhythm of the waves. No one is in sight except their families sitting on shore.

"It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea," Peter says. "Never any sun."

Franca and Danny come out to them.

"It’s deep here," Viri warns.

Each of the men holds a child. They huddle close.

"The Irish sailors," Peter tells them, "never learn to swim. Not even a stroke. The sea is too strong."

"But what if the boat sinks?"

"They cross their hands on their chests and say a prayer," Peter says. He performs it. Like the carved lid of a coffin he sinks from sight.

"Is it true?" they ask Viri later.


"They drown?"

"They deliver themselves to God."

"How does he know that?"

"He knows."

"Peter is very strange," Franca says.

And he reads to them, as he does every night, as if watering them, as if turning the earth at their feet. There are stories he has never heard of, and others he has known as a child, these stepping stones that are there for everyone. What is the real meaning of these stories, he wonders, of creatures that no longer exist even in the imagination princes, woodcutters, honest fishermen who live in hovels. He wants his children to have an old life and a new life, a life that is indivisible from all lives past, that grows from them, exceeds them, and another that is original, pure, free, that is beyond the prejudice which protects us, the habit which gives us shape. He wants them to know both degradation and sainthood, the one without humiliation, the other without ignorance. He is preparing them for this voyage. It is as if there is only a single hour, and in that hour all the provender must be gathered, all the advice offered. He longs for the one line to give them that they will always remember, that will embrace everything, that will point the way, but he cannot find the line, he cannot recognize it. It is more precious, he knows, than anything else they might own, but he does not have it. Instead, in his even, sensuous voice he laves them in the petty myths of Europe, of snowy Russia, the East. The best education comes from knowing only one book, he tells Nedra. Purity comes from that, and proportion, and the comfort of always having an example close at hand.

"Which book?" she says.

"There are a number of them."

"Viri," she says, "it’s a charming idea."


bhl asks “what are writers good for?” esterházy, pamuk, sollers & sontag on intellectuals in society

Originally published in Paris as the 1998 edition of the annual series entitled The Rules of the Game: Literature, Philosophy, Art, and Politics, Bernard-Henri Lévy’s compilation, What Good Are Intellectuals?: 44 Writers Share Their Thoughts offers commentary from those writers and public intellectuals who are sufficiently brave, dutiful or arrogant to stand in the middle of that difficult-to-navigate intersection of art and social thought.

BHL had writers from around the globe consider the role and responsibilities of intellectuals in modern society and what one can and should expect from them. Here’s the survey they were assigned to answer, and some of the more interesting responses:

Six Questions:

1. What does the word “intellectual” mean to you, today? Are you an intellectual — or do you reject that term?


2. Have any intellectual figures influenced you in a decisive way? (which ones?) Any “examples” who have inspired you, shaped you, whom you can invoke even today to clarify your mind?


3. What role do intellectuals play at the turn of the 20th century? Do you, like some people, think their role is finished?


4. We have heard a great deal about the “errors” committed by intellectuals, their “blindness,” and sometimes their “irresponsibility.” What do you think of these charges? Do you agree with their severity? Or would you moderate, even contradict them?


5. In the country where you live and work, what do you think are the greatest obstacles to intellectuals: the indifference of the media; the confusion of opinions; police repression; soft repression and competition from public spectacles, with all the illusions and lures that go with them; or other obstacles?


6. What tasks do you see as most urgent, today or always; what is your task? What prejudices are the most threatening, what causes must be defended, what perils must be averted? In short, what, in your eyes,are today’s greatest priorities for thought and action?



Péter Esterházy


1. The writer lives in his room, the intellectual in society. Sometimes I am an intellectual, or in any case, I should regard myself as one since other people consider me to be one. For me, the intellectual is someone who questions. Under that definition, the child who splits hairs, who thirsts for knowledge, and who spends his time asking questions is an intellectual; but the teacher who harps on the same answers in the name of education is not. Neither is the politician, who cannot question: he is condemned to give answers, he must always behave as thought he knows what must be done.


2. It would be pretentious of me to say that I have no thoughts on this matter; however, I do not like to make a point of naming any one source of inspiration, so I will close my eyes and answer: Danilo Kiš, Italo Calvino.


3. For me, this question is too vast. My pretense of an answer is, by “intellectual” we unconsciously mean the traditional intellectual, the one who has studied the humanities. While perhaps his sphere of activity has not changed, his impact, clearly, has diminished palpably (which amounts to the same thing as saying that his sphere of activity, too, has changed).


4. Those who criticize intellectuals are obviously intellectuals themselves. In other words, every critic worthy of the name is a self-critic. In this sense, I fully agree with the criticism. The bankruptcy of the intelligentsia is so painful because it shows that even to be rational, to be conscious, to maintain one’s distance, is not enough to protect oneself from anything. That, for me, is the proof of the enslavement of human thought, of human existence: we live under the sign of Auschwitz.


5. I learned how to play my role as an intellectual under a dictatorship. That is not the best school. We believed that everyone thought like us, or exactly the reverse; that there were only these two ways of thinking. However, those two are not the only ways. Such an attitude, which passes for natural, obviously causes many errors in Hungary

today. It may encourage the “chaotic multitude” and the concomitant terrors, then paralysis.


6. But if I hear the word “fight,” I am immediately overcome by fear and paralysis, so that I won’t even answer this question. But, if I am told in absolute terms that it is forbidden, that it is prohibited, that it is impossible and that there is no valid reason for fighting, then I unsheathe my sword!


There is a feeling that the guild of intellectuals has no grounds for rejoicing today, but obviously that will not be long in changing. It’s always been that way, hasn’t it?


Translated from Hungarian by Nicolas Cazelles



Orhan Pamuk


1. The term intellectual has no particular significance for me. I am neither eager to see myself as one, nor do I reject it as elitist. The word has a widely used meaning and is useful. People such as artists, writers, journalists and academics who resist pressures that limit freedoms and erase differences, whether these pressures originate from the state, religion or the general public, are referred to as intellectuals. However, some people tend to call anyone involved in the arts, writing, journalism or scholarly research intellectuals. In Turkey, there are many journalists endeavoring to have freedoms restricted, books banned, and those holding different views declared traitors to their country. Perhaps these people who engage in mental activity, even if only to a limited extent, might be classified as intellectuals, but in my view they would more appropriately be called “technicians who support the state and government.”


2. Sartre has influenced me with his colorful personality, obstinacy, argumentativeness, and enmity towards bourgeois opinions. I am fond of him. He moved fast and creatively between general theories and philosophy and day-to-day politics and minutiae. But the way in which his ability as a novelist and creative writer evaporated with his increasing obsession with politics is a warning to all writers. Edward Saïd is a good example of an intellectual who transforms literary criticism and close perusal of texts into highly creative social criticism. But as a writer, I have been influenced by creative writers with little interest in politics, such as Proust and Borges.


3. I do not believe that intellectuals have “roles” and “tasks.” I do not view intellectuals as a separate species with a specific program of activities or goals. There will always be people who write, and who speak out against the government, the state, and oppressive ideas espoused  by the majority. Intellectuals who talk of history and of missions bore me, and they are misguided. Intellectuals should see their tasks as more simple, and carry them out with more humility.


4. Intellectuals may have many misconceptions, but it is largely second class intellectuals, those who support the state and nationalists, who bother with these. A widespread fault of intellectuals is to take themselves too seriously, to have an inflated idea of their own importance, and to speak of historic missions and such in an affected and pretentious manner. Another thing I have learnt in Turkey is that most intellectuals who believe that soon everything will improve, and that a better future is just around the corner — mainly thanks to their own sufferings and achievements — are usually disappointed and end up in despair.


5. Being killed is a distinct possibility for Turkish intellectuals. Over the past twenty years, three prominent editorial writers from three leading newspapers in Turkey have been assassinated. Then there is the likelihood of being imprisoned, having your writings banned, etc. Being proclaimed a “traitor to the nation,” pushed aside, and losing your newspaper column and your job at once, is another method. So is disinterest and impassiveness. Particularly in remote provincial towns, intellectuals and writers are killed, or arrested, tortured and sentenced to thirty years imprisonment and not even the Istanbul newspapers take any notice, never mind those in the West.


6. I do not wish to use phrases like “the most urgent tasks” or “the most important causes,” because I do not believe sufficiently in tasks and causes. I want to write the best novels. For me, things are simpler: there is a state that bans books and imprisons writers and some baddies who collaborate. I would like to do something about them. Since I am regarded as a famous writer and an intellectual, I sometimes think that what I do is of some use. The greatest intellectual joy of today is, of course, good literature. Good literature is rarer than good intellectuals.



Philippe Sollers


1. Allow me to laugh a little at your question. What do you think the name “Sollers” means to intellectuals today, whatever their inclination? An abomination. Their response to me is supercilious, clerical, Pavlovian. In the long run, I will show what it means.


2. The history of my personal influence on the “great intellectuals” of my era remains to be written. I knew them all (and if you doubt it, read my books, particularly the one that is most intolerable for the clergy in question: Femmes).


3. The role of the intellectual these days is orchestrated, choreographed, predictable. They are there especially not to speak about real matters (which far exceed their information and their competence, in any case).


4. The pseudo-trial that is, from time to time, brought against intellectuals is just a wheel in a spectacular mechanical device. It refreshes the illusion when that is convenient for the show that is being put on.


5. What obstacles? Public demand (from the right as well as the left) has never been so strong. Watchdogs and denouncers of watchdogs, here, always have full employment.


6. Sorry, but no task is urgent, no prejudice is threatening, there is no cause to be defended, and no danger to be averted. Thought is never in jeopardy, and that is why, as time invariably shows, it is the only real action. “Thought is as clear as a crystal. A religion, whose lies depend upon it, can disturb it for a few minutes, if we wish to speak about effects that last a long time. When it comes to effects that last only briefly, the assassination of eight people at the gates of a capital, that will disturb it — certainly — until the end of all evil. And thought soon regains its limpidity.”



Susan Sontag

What the word “intellectual” means to me today is, first of all, conferences and roundtable discussions, and symposia in magazines about the role of intellectuals, in which well-known intellectuals have agreed to pronounce on the inadequacy, credulity, disgrace, treason, irrelevance, obsolescence, and imminent or already perfected disappearance of the caste to which, as their participation in these events testifies, they belong.




Whether I see myself as one (I try to do as little seeing of myself as possible) is beside the point. I answer, if so called.


Being a citizen of a country whose political and ethical culture promotes and reinforces distrust, fear, and contempt for intellectuals (re-read Tocqueville), the country that has developed the most anti-intellectual tradition on the planet, I incline to a less-jaded view of the role of intellectuals than my colleagues in Europe. No, their “mission” (as your question has it) is not completed.


Of course, it’s speaking far too well of intellectuals to expect the majority to have a taste for protesting against injustice, defending victims, challenging the reigning authoritarian pieties. Most intellectuals are as conformist — as willing, say, to support the prosecution of unjust wars — as most other people exercising educated professions. The number of people who have given intellectuals a good name, as troublemakers, voices of conscience, has always been small. Intellectuals responsibly taking sides, and putting themselves on the line for what they believe in (as opposed to signing petitions) is a good deal less common than intellectuals taking public positions either in conscious bad faith or in shameless ignorance of what they are pronouncing on: for every Gide or Orwell or Veil or Chomsky or Sakharov, we have ten of Romain Rolland or Ilya Ehrenburg or Jean Baudrillard or Peter Handke, etc. etc.


But could it be otherwise?




Although intellectuals come in all flavors, including the nationalist and the religious, I confess to being partial to the secular, cosmopolitan, anti-tribal variety. The “deracinated intellectual” seems to me an exemplary formula. By “intellectual,” I mean the “free” intellectual, someone who, beyond his or her professional or technical or artistic expertise, is committed to exercising (and thereby, implicitly, defending) the life of the mind as such.


A specialist may also be an intellectual. But an intellectual is never just a specialist. One is an intellectual because one has (or should have) certain standards of probity and responsibility in discourse.


That is the one indispensable contribution of intellectuals: the notion of discourse that is not merely instrumental, i.e. conformist.


How many times has one heard, in the last decades, that intellectuals are obsolete, or that so-and-so is “the last intellectual”?




There are two tasks for intellectuals, today as yesterday. One task, educational, is to promote dialogue, support the right to be heard of a multiplicity of voices, promote skepticism about received opinion. This means standing up those whose idea of education and culture is the imprinting of ideas (“ideals”) such as the love of the nation

or tribe.


The other task is adversarial. There has been a vertiginous shift of moral attitudes in the last two decades in advanced capitalist countries. Its hallmark is the discrediting of all idealisms, of altruism itself; of high standards of all kinds, cultural as well as moral. Thatcherism is now the triumphant ideology everywhere on the planet, and the mass media, whose function is to promote consumption, disseminate the narratives and ideas of value and disvalue by which people everywhere understand themselves. Intellectuals have the Sisyphean task of continuing to embody (and defend) another standard of mental life, and of discourse, than the nihilistic one promoted by the mass media. By nihilism, I mean not only the relativism, the privatization of interest, which is ascendant among the educated

classes everywhere, but also the more recent and more pernicious nihilism embodied in the ideology of so-called “cultural democracy”; the hatred of excellence and achievement as “elitist,” exclusionary.




The moral duty of the intellectual will always be complex, because there is more than one “highest” value, and there are concrete circumstances in which not all that is unconditionally good can be honored — in which, indeed, two of these values may prove incompatible.


For instance, understanding the truth does not always facilitate the struggle for justice. And in order to bring about justice, it may seem right to suppress the truth.




One hopes not to have to choose. But when a choice (between truth and justice) is necessary — as, alas, it sometimes is — then it seems to me that an intellectual ought to decide for the truth.




This is not, by and large, what intellectuals, the best-intentioned intellectuals, have done. Invariably, when intellectuals subscribe to causes, it is the truth, in all its complexity, that gets short shrift.




A good rule before one goes marching or signing anything: Whatever your tug of sympathy, you have no right to a public opinion unless you’ve been there, experienced at first hand and on the ground and for some considerable time the country, the war, the injustice, etc. you are talking about.


In the absence of such first-hand knowledge and experience: silence.


On the subject of the presumption (it’s worse than naivety) with which so many intellectuals subscribe to collective action when they know virtually nothing about what they are so pleased to have opinions on, nobody said it better than one of most compromised intellectuals of the 20th century, Bertolt Brecht (who surely knew whereof he spoke):


When it comes to marching, many do not know

That their enemy is marching at their head.

The voice which gives them their orders

Is the enemy’s voice and

The man who speaks of the enemy

Is the enemy himself.



—from Bernard-Henri Lévy (editor), What Good Are Intellectuals?: 44 Writers Share Their Thoughts. New York: Algora Publishing, 2000.