Saturday, 11 February 2017

Paul West: Life With Swan

When Paul West passed away in 2015, few newspapers bothered to report this loss (hooray to The Telegraph and The New York Times!). Since then Verbivoracious Press has released a new edition of Caliban’s Filibuster, the first since its original publication in 1971. However, I don’t foresee a Westian renaissance; he seems a tad more unknown than even Alexander Theroux! In the future, I fear, only fans of phrasemaking, that shrinking sect, will continue to band around his books for felicity. I suspect that people not only do not know that they lost a great stylist; they probably don’t even know that they ever had him.

So every moment is a good moment to make the case for Paul West!

Life With Swan, the love story between an English novelist-cum-creative writing teacher and a talented student who matures into a remarkable poet, constitutes one of West’s finest achievements. Before reading it I knew him mainly for a trilogy about poverty, frustration and madness: Alley Jaggers, I’m Expecting to Live Quite Soon, and Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas. This trilogy follows a young unhappy couple in post-war England, a land of tension and austerity, of rain, ruins and rage, of crummy houses stabbed with chilly draughts and in whose rooms a desperate underclass fantasizes about escaping from pervasive gloom. Alley Jaggers, an ape-man-like construction worker, displays latent creative powers, but unable to find outlets for them, perpetrates a horrible murder and is institutionalized. I remember part one and two painted with autumnal tones. In the third part, Alley, through the help of a doctor, has started living a more unrepressed life, and even if he remains a dangerous madman, the use of language has gone from grim to golden.

Still, it wasn’t until I remembered the trilogy in light of Life With Swan – and its pages do beam like pulsars – that I realized how sooty the language in those earlier novels was. Life With Swan, by contrast, the action relocated to an America bright with intellectual and emotional optimism, launches into a peahen to joie de vivre in luminescent wordplay. The plot, as vestigial as a distant start to the naked eye: the two lovers encounter some difficulties maintaining their relationship while pursuing careers in different cities; but I didn’t even need to wait for the end to know that they stay together – and yeah, in this one love conquers all. No one unique ideas on between the covers: we’ve all read love stories before; love is so common a thing. West, however, paints this so common a thing with words I had never read before. Life With Swan is a good example of how to write a plotless novel and keep it gripping for 300 pages. Perhaps the exuberant West mastered such eloquence because he was putting his own love story to paper.

I wonder how Paul West wrote. Something in his mind burst, perhaps, and a flood of phrases rushed like the Amazons River in a storm. Almost everything I’ve read by him carries this mark of excess. And this excess also means a commitment to the multifarious. West wrote many different books: the Alley Jaggers trilogy began as a grim realist drama and ended as a verbal carnival. Caliban’s Filibuster, published between the trilogy, enacted the fantasies of a hack screenwriter who escapes from drudgery into language. West has written historical novels and addressed contemporary topics, like in his 9/11 novel, The Immensity of the Here and Now. He’s written several very different memoirs, from a sketch of his childhood in England (I, Said the Sparrow) to an account of his battle with global aphasia (The Shadow Factory). He’s populated his novels with historical figures, from John Milton to Adolf Hitler, and he’s invented some pretty weird characters too. Life With Swan, published in 1997, added another trick to his repertoire. Revitalizing a genre that has fallen out of favor, the roman à clef, West narrates the early days of his meeting the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with: the naturalist and poetess Diane Ackerman.

I don’t give a fig whether or not West followed the facts faithfully; I don’t know them, and it’s beside the point. Although West wasn’t of the sort to write for writing’s sake, but used fiction to address important themes of evil and morality, he was also a writer in love with words and the world, and in this novel love, words and the world are all woven together in an intricate, seamless artwork like Arab tiles. The curious reader, if he care to research, can find bits here and there of the real-life relationship. The narrator has nicknamed his love Swan, and it seems Both West and Ackerman shared a habit of inventing cute names for each other, as we can see in her book One Hundred Names for Love. They did meet in a creative writing course West taught; and she is a poetess. “It is hard to imagine how excellent her work was, her poetry at least,” writes the narrator. Still maturing as a poet when she enrolls in his class, Swan shies away from showing her poems to her teacher. “But I had read them already in campus magazines and been astounded by the real thing. Finally, when I got to review her first book, I wrote that she was the best living lyric poet. There again, having noted her quality, I perfected her at once, I the fugitive from the courtly love of the Middle Ages, the johnnies or the johns who thought nothing sensual was good unless it contained a decisive mental component.”

For me, the reader butting in and turning this into a ménage à trois, it is the exhibition of this mental component that compels me to continue reading. The narrator lavishes on Swan the greatest treasures of his verbal genius: puns, riddles, neologisms, bewildering metaphors. “Perhaps the hurly-burly of everyday affection is not for me, but instead the absolute of idolatry, a heavy burden because the worry of it allows me no tolerance: if I don’t get perfection, I don’t want anything, anyone. This means I am a manqué of some kind, a monk who missed his vocation, a mystic who mislaid his universe. I must be the last of those who practiced courtly love, honoring not the person or the thing but the grail.”

This is real amour fou, and much better written than Amour Fou.

Thanks to Swan, a naturalist with friends in unusual places, the narrator also gets access to a world of scientists and natural wonder as the couple befriends Raoul Bunsen, a Carl Sagan-like figure soaring in popularity thanks to a TV show popularizing science. Bunsen opens Cape Canaveral to them at the height of the frenzy over the Apollo space satellite missions, and the narrator gets to interpolate his love for Swan with his fascination for the universe. The novel expands its awe over the everyday to cover also the unknown, alternating between the local and the cosmic. Everything gets blurred: language is both a contact lens and a magnifying glass:

A trapdoor swung open as my world increased and I suddenly thought how Swan and I had a massive backdrop against which to relish each other. She already had a constellation, Cygnus, named for her, which was more than a head start; but surely we could do better than that, handing her a Stefan’s Quintet out of the universe’s nameless largesse. She would not be studying astronomy, or so I thought; but she would be under that umbrella of cosmic bravura, excited by incessant discovery.

West’s sentences stretch from New York into the stars and satellites and examine feelings as much as faraway galaxies.

These days I read mostly thinking what a novel can do for me as a writer. There are novels put together so well that understanding their creation is no less interesting than reading them; others, I fear, are so sloppy I wonder how anyone mustered the energy to cobble the parts together to end up with a trophy of twaddle. I like West’s novels, I like them enough to have mailed a letter to West’s home in Ithaca, New York, although I doubt he ever received it; it doesn’t matter, it only contained a string of fawning eulogia. I admire his novels because they embody many of the qualities I seek in my own prose fiction, and I believe discovering him has helped me to improve as a writer.

The narrator repeats a word, phrasemaking, that is a key to the novel and its process. I first came across it when I read West’s 1985 essay “In Defense of Purple Prose”. In it he defends “the almost lost art of phrasemaking” from the verbally inept “who have never made up a stylish phrase in their lives, as if style had become taboo, a menace to people, gods and cars.” For West, phrasemaking constituted the writer’s duty: chopping clichés, creating new imagery, helping the lexicon find its way out of the labyrinth of stock sentences, in sum siccing a singular style on sedate readers.

Life With Swan illustrates, sentence after sentence, a mastery of language at a heightened state. His word-hoard alone astonishes me; how not to venerate a writer who combats acyrology? West had already impressed me tremendously with Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, a smorgasbord of wordplay concentrated in a short novel. With twice the room to play in, he prunes every page of flatness and packs them with puns to achieve an impossible purity. As far as I understand one of West’s mental processes, it seems words attract other words because of sounds; he seemed to be on the lookout for sounds and echoes connecting them. “That distant and obscure marriage of hers had been a mere kindergarten bauble, erased by one sunset or a good bubble bath, and she had reverted to who she had been before it, before before.” Another example: “Inured to praise, from me at least, my Swan gets on with life, lauded to death by her swain, but hardly put out if I forget to extol her; she has acquired such impetus she needs no extra shove.” And one more, the narrator commending Swan on her violin play: “Perhaps she played so well, with educated brio, because music dangled and was dandled on the fringe of poetry.” His use of paronomasia doesn’t just amaze me for its variety, going deep into the vocabulary, but for its quantity; they keep on coming. I love paronomasias myself; I first became conscious of them a couple of years ago while reading Steven Moore's The Novel; I liked the concept so much I started doing what I start doing every time I like something a lot: I started making a list. Last time I checked my Excel file, I had 1500 pairs of paronomasias, and growing. I wonder how West went about this; did he also keep lists? Did he like to waste whole days away just making lists of words like a squirrel gathering walnuts for winter? Or did he think them up on the spot, as he moved along, every word at the tip of his tongue? I think about such things when I read such novels as Life With Swan: what's the process behind their construction? West makes craftsmanship look like fun.

Paul West reminds me a lot of his friend William H. Gass; like Gass, West assumed a vehement defense of literary experimentalism while doing nothing forcefully experimental himself. Almost every novel I’ve read by him has tended to have a strong plot following rounded, lively characters E.M. Forster would have killed for, in pursuit of something tangible, moving in linear fashion towards satisfying climaxes. Caliban’s Filibuster is the only novel by him that put me off, precisely for being so self-consciously experimental, although I think it was also the breakthrough that led him to the superb Bela Lugosi. Generally he doesn’t assault grammar, he doesn’t hate conventional punctuation, he’s not against giving characters names and motivations. I suspect he even suffered from a belief in traditional humanism – what a square!

West’s phrasemaking is essentially classic; it harkens all the way back to Gorgias, the father of poetic prose. Francisco de Quevedo would have given him good grades for his diligent study of conceptismo; he writes the way Baltasar Gracián and Emanuele Tesauro prescribed in the 17th. His prose has more to do with John Lyly, Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Browne, and Herman Melville than with spokesmen for experimentation like Ben Marcus and Eimear McBride whose own literary output range from vanilla prose to bad grammar masquerading aggressively as an “avant-gardism” that Joyce pulled off much better a century ago. Ah, the senile vanguards…

The quest for novelty and innovation is ezrapounded into Anglo-American writers’ heads from a young age; the theory, if not the practice, is welded to their literary tradition’s DNA. This is understandable; the word “novel” itself promises news. In Portugal, on the contrary, we call it romance, so we don’t feel the connection. But with English having a different etymythology to worship, people can write an antanaclasis like, “A novel should be about novel things.” As an outsider looking in, I find this folly for innovation a fascinating phenomenon. Once upon a time, when I started giving my first baby steps into my own writing, I almost fell for it too. Nowadays, though, my impression is that there is more lip service to it than genuine belief. Did you ever notice how most novelists who judge Ulysses the greatest novel ever, never actually make an effort to move past the Cervantes/Flaubert school of fiction? You’d think so many fans would be in a hurry to imitate its greatness.

Personally, I don’t give a hoot what writers believe in, so long as that belief helps them write well. If West needed to consider himself an experimentalist to write something like Life With Swan, who am I to complain? However, from what I know of him, I think he wrote very conventional novels, with a virtuosity that put him next to Nabokov. It was in fact West, and Nabokov, and Gass, and the great Theroux (another conventional novelist who preaches experimentation), who made me realize that seeking quality and beauty is a mora laudable goal than seeking novelty. I don't frown, of course, at novels going off the beaten path, but putting innovation on a pedestal makes it a dogma as problematic as every other dogma: when bad things start being done in its behalf, zealots will defend them nonetheless lest the object of their beliefs be disproved. As such, it's not uncommon for many priests of the New to equate novelty with quality, giving nary a thought to whether or not said novelty is aesthetically pleasing. Like Robert Coover once said, "Innovation helps hide a lot of flaws." I myself prefer the fundamentalists of quality. The fundamentalist of quality wants to be better than better; my instincts tell me that yields better results.

I prefer these writers because they dislocate the center of the novel from content to language. No less loathsome than the novelty nutters, there’s also the content cult that reduces fiction to a message. There's something paradoxical pertaining all the pomp around reading; on the one hand, writers love to stroke the readers’ ego about how reading makes them smarter and more sophisticated; on the other hand, all ideas in novels are recycled from one week to another, as if readers had the attention span of a fruit fly. Life With Swan, for instance, is a novel of trite wisdom: being alive is good, sharing your life with your beloved is even better. I reached that same conclusion when I was around 10, I think. In fact, West even spells it out at the end of his conventional novel, right at the very end, just in case the sophisticated reader is too stupid to get it:

I go into Swan’s bathroom, put on a feeble light by dimmer switch, and lean over the ingot, half-comprising an invocation to it that begins: Inkwell of nothing, in which we dip our eyes. If it is almost enough just to be alive, no wonder I thank my lucky stars for a gift of so much more.

And the novel ends, and we close the cover and check if the author is Paul West or Paulo Coelho; it sure sounds like one of his aphorisms.

I love West also because he shows me how little fiction has to give me in terms of ideas. Since I’m a converted who already agrees with what the narrator is preaching, this novel would be a waste of time if it gave me nothing else. I think a lot about what fiction is good for, both as a struggling writer and as a voracious reader. Whatever the perspective, the conclusions converge. I realize I can't live without language, a specific sort of language, more ornate, more overwrought; a busy, bosomy language, calling attention to itself, always signaling at me. That’s what redeems the trite wisdom of so many novels. It’s what sets Life With Swan above a pamphlet like Antonio Skármeta’s The Postman. Whoever has taken a trip through that well-intentioned tripe, will remember a kind would-be poet awash in valuable lessons on freedom, love, friendship and the beauty of life. However, I mainly remember an unpoetic narrating voice limping on until it’s mercifully executed when poor Mario is implied to be disappeared by the secret police. Because novels tend to preach to those already converted to humanism like me, virtuous lessons matter far less to me than virtuosity. The risk of writing for the converted, though, is that writers allow their prose to remain as anesthetized as if undergoing surgery. Skármeta defended life because that’s what he read in countless novels before he took a stab at his own;  because repetition is easy and there are lucrative rewards in it, his prose just moves towards them like a teleguided missile. He affirmed life programmatically; West, instead, affirmed life grammatically: his love for life isn’t in press-conference-room-like declarations, it’s in the weave of the language itself. A writer who starts a novel with this radiant, exuberant, minutely-crafted sentence,

A puberty ago, I watched from my office window one afternoon as she descended into baking sunlight on the library steps in a Spanish-looking straw hat (Eton boating style), drape-swinging her legs in polychrome-striped bell-bottoms, behind her the terminal moraine of black hair that ser her out from the crowd since she was ten.

is a writer truly in love with life because he loves the one tool that can sing such love: words. Don’t affirm life, then; embody it in your sentences; make life the style. Be conventional in your ideas, but extraordinary in how you express them. I don't know if life is beautiful, but it sure is when West writes it. This should be a simple lesson for fiction writers to learn, and yet so many great ones have died without ever learning it, leaving behind them a slug-like trail of comatose prose. Many actually resent purple prose and phrasemaking, and will go on happily making their own unpoetic postmen.And yet Life With Swan is a much grander hymn to love and literature.

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