These sorts of questions and authors have kept me from reading much fiction. It is not that I don’t appreciate the authors – I often read biographies of fiction writers – or that I don’t think they have had their day. You’ve got me cornered if you say Homer, Virgil, and Dante are fiction writers. I change the definition of “fiction” when it hits modern times. Old fiction is non-fiction for me; call it philosophy or theology, but not fiction. What ancients are for me is iconic – they usher me into another (higher) world. My problem is that I don’t like authors to think they can just plain make things up, and do what my mother called “telling a story.” Professional golfer John Daly, who rarely does or says anything intelligent, accidentally stumbled from a fairway onto a stage of reporters and commented ever so accurately that he didn’t like fiction because, “after all, none of it is true”. Depending, I guess, on what you mean by “true”, but the floppy-haired, droopy-faced golfer was onto something. Why, I have asked myself for nearly 30 years of serious reading, why read those who play pretend when I can read those who tell the truth? Fiction, to quote the words of one who did write a bit of fiction (Frank O’Connor), “covers every reality with a sort of syrup of legend.” I feel uneasy about my lack of reading fiction, but like political opinions, it quickly passes.
I confess to having read some fiction (but not much) – I read, annually, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I like both of them; I am sentimental at Christmas and I am always in need of a good search-and-find-but-then-lose story. I don’t like Dickens’ style, but I find Hemingway’s tasty and zesty. If I don’t read any other fiction during the year, my chair remains quite comfortable. At a colleagues’ request, I read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (an overcooked blasting away at the Catholic Church and its power over truth, Ecco’s edges have [to use Thurber again] “lost their certainty”), and some Russians – I got half way through both Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (I’ve read much better presentations of theodicy in non-fiction; I liked Zosima a bit, but he was not real and I got bored with him) and Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. For some reason, the Russians (even if they can spell) have more endings and changings of personal names than a Greek verb, and I seem to fall asleep on the Russian fictionalists every time they take me on a train ride across their desolate, snowy, gloomy, frigid landscape. Nabakov, in his high-style (almost rococco) autobiography, Speak, Memory, does tell of summer in Russia, and makes me want to go there, but I’d rather go other places in the summer – like to golf courses or to baseball fields or to Ireland or to Scotland. If the list gets any longer, I may wipe Nabakov from my memory.
Again at the request of a colleague, I altered my (otherwise enjoyable) desultory “plan” to read that southern lady’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It was not as good as Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, but neither was Butler as good as Matthew 23 or Micah 5. Novelists are not prophets, though they think they are. Sometimes they are prophet-like, but they just don’t have the moral grounding to give a full-blown answer, and neither do they have the thunder of Zeus. Take Mark Twain, that boyhood idol of mine whose home in Hannibal, Muzera (as they say it) is one of my favorite haunts. Twain takes on slavery and racism, but he is so interested in entertaining and selling books (he managed his own money like an addicted gambler at a casino) that he has no answer and sinks the argument with a farcical vaudeville act on Huck’s raft. He’s best in telling stories, like Tom Sawyer. And Tom Sawyer, like the Calvinism he resented, “ain’t all that great”.
It is greatness that I seek in books, so it is to those bookstore shelves where no one gawks that I return time and time again. Perhaps the writer who best points me to reading greats, while making me think he just might be great himself, is Joseph Epstein. My friend, Sonia Bodi, put me on to him one day in her librarians’ office, and I’ve not been the same since. Let me introduce you to Joseph Epstein if I may. “Joseph, tell us about yourself,” which is what writing is all about – even when people hide themselves deeply into fictional characters or when they go on and on in some scientific historical description. He says to us, with the sort of punch we’ve learned to expect from him: scribo ergo sum. Or (I query), is it not “I am” through my writing – something like sum via scribendi? He states further that he writes in three genres – the familiar essay (of which he is first without equals – primus sine paris), the literary critical essay (which, like a great graduate assistant, leads the reader to the authors themselves), and fiction (about which, as you have already observed, I know nothing).
Sonia pointed me to Epstein’s Narcissus Leaves the Pool. After about two chapters (or essays), I thought, this guy (like his title) is a bit self-addressed. After four essays, I thought, this guy has a lot to say. After five essays, I thought, this is my kind of guy. Epstein’s is not self-indulgence so much as exposure of personhood, the personhood of all of us. Not self-indulgence, but human-indulgence. Remember, facing ourselves is not as easy as we pretend: to quote Dorothy L. Sayers, who did have some things to face squarely, “we are very much afraid of ourselves.” No one has put this any better than the 19th Century Anglican philosopher-theologian, F.D. Maurice, and what he said in his essay “On the Friendship of Books” of Shakespeare is true of Epstein: “Instead of being a big, imaginary We, he is so much a man himself that he can enter into the manhood of people who are the farthest off from him, and with whom he has the least to do.” And, like the bard whose life is no more known than Melchizedek’s, his quest is “to help us in knowing ourselves.” Therefore, “any book that does this is surely a friend.” Epstein’s image of Narcissus is the image of humans, everywhere and always, world without end. One of Epstein’s favorites is William Hazlitt, and surely this line by Hazlitt connects the minds of the two authors: “The interest we take in our own lives, in our successes or disappointments, and the home feelings that arise out of these, when well described, are the clearest and truest mirror in which we can see the image of human nature. For in this sense each man is a microcosm. What he is, the rest are … no more, no less.” Bingo!