“The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” directed by Philip Kaufman

unbearable poster

Almost Real

By Ray Sawhill

The three geographical and dramatic turning-points in the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are initiated by Tereza. They occur when she’s interrogated and, surrounded by slides, negatives and projectors, understands that what for her has been an extension outward of herself — photography — is now being used against everything she cares about; when, in the western world, she is confused and upset by taking nude photographs of Sabina; and when she has sex with a near-stranger in occupied Prague. (These scenes embody the same cluster of issues, too: power, the uses and misuses of imagery, betrayal, and mirroring.) The central turning point of the film is the mutual-nude-photography session between Tereza and Sabina: the movie literally balances and turns on that scene of woman/camera/woman/mirrors. The scene itself is a double-sided mirror at the heart of the movie. After it, Tereza returns with Tomas to the Czech countryside, and Sabina winds up alone in California.

Philip Kaufman’s film has a life and liveliness quite distinct from the Milan Kundera novel it’s based on. The film is a combination of conceptual sophistication and lustiness that could be said to be about the lure of the idea of an Old Country. Tereza represents this, or something like it (the rural, the direct) to Tomas; Kaufman invites us to let Czechoslovakia itself, with its ancient culture and modern political tragedies, represent something like it to us. Viewed outside the terms of the movie, Tereza may appear to be a dumb, enchanting guilt-tripper, but it’s clear that the film uses her to draw from us our feelings about not being whole.

In the past, Kaufman tried to give some of his movies melancholy undertones. Here he makes melancholy the point of the film, proposing that we view Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche as representing what many educated adults feel torn away or cut off from. His work suggests that he believes that expertise, energy and sophistication can bring him only so far — that without what Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche represents, his own work isn’t emotionally complete. In this film, Kaufman isn’t just fearless about sentiment, he makes of traditional forms of sentiment (dappled forest light, the camera wheeling around and around embracing lovers, etc.) his very material.

***

unbearable binoche and camera

It seems to me that Janacek’s music (a little like Dvorak’s, but much more so: Dvorak always remained a bit of a peasant himself) is about how learning a sophisticated language, even one you may love, can remove you from your sources. It’s about looking back and realizing you can never again utter a peasant’s unself-conscious cri de coeur. (Whether you were ever actually able to doesn’t really matter: Janacek can stand in our minds for a cosmopolitan man looking at the countryside, an emigré looking back on his homeland, or any of us contemplating childhood.) Time passing in this kind of work is implicit. Janacek, and Kaufman in this film, seem to simply turn around at a certain point and take note of the fact that time has passed, all on its own. (This is a constructed illusion: one way Kaufman achieves it is by making a motif of shots of passing countryside and water seen through car and train windows. He’s using these sentimental-movie-cliché shots in ways that suggest Janacek’s use of folk melodies, and he’s weaving our feelings about them into the movie.) Incorporating cris de coeur (even if those of others, even if of created others) into the work becomes a tribute, a resurrection and a nostalgic act. Janacek’s music is about the beauty of where you are and the beauty of where you (may or may not) come from and the distance between — and a little about how that distance has perhaps helped enable you to find the beauty in where you come from, has maybe even helped you express your love. It’s a little about the absurdity of all this. It’s about the costs and rewards of awareness.

***

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Kaufman uses being in the position of being a Hollywood filmmaker with an international cast making a big-budget movie about Czechoslovakia in 1968 — he has worked that nuttiness into the film. (He uses Janacek’s music to mirror his themes.) Think about how Tomas and Sabina enjoy each other’s playful erotic expertise (and how Day-Lewis and Lena Olin enjoy each other’s acting expertise): when they’re with each other (and often when they’re with others) they manage to turn everything into an enticing erotic challenge. The fun of being together for them is taking everything, and responding to everything, erotically.

They recognize this ability in each other and delight in it; that’s the basis of their friendship, it’s what they share. With others, they’re sneaky, even if sneakily direct; with each other they can be direct, even if that means being direct about their sneakiness. Tomas looks out from under his eyebrows and says “Take off your clothes.” Painting for Sabina seems to be a way of turning herself on: she keeps her hat by her side, and sometimes wears sexy underwear as she paints. If turning herself on involves or demands other people, fine. The female Sabina makes herself into an object that can be fallen in love with, and her art work is all mirrors, silhouettes and water imagery; the goatish Tomas is a surgeon, all analysis and action.

This kind of expertise can produce its own high: remember Olin on the train with her Geneva lover when he tells her he’s married? For an instant she looks stricken — will she become angry or dismayed? Then she manages to get turned on by this new bit of information. It’s a torchy moment: she thrusts her head out the window and turns her face to the rain. Kaufman uses rain and water in the film for its associations with death, fate and history. Sabina is being impudent; she’s defying what the elements would have her do. She’s defying what Tereza contemplates returning to after she realizes that the tall Prague stranger she has sex with may not have had the cleanest of motives. Tereza is introduced to us swimming in a pool; later, in her nightmare/fantasy about Tomas’ catting around, she’s in a pool too, her vision bobbing above and then below the surface. And in the country, when Tereza and Tomas move there, it’s often raining.

When Day-Lewis is a window-washer — and Kaufman uses Tomas’ position vis à vis windows and frames to make his status in relation to established power clear: for instance, Tomas is introduced at the beginning of the film in a commanding position, “performing” and being observed through a window, ordering a nurse to take her clothes off — and the woman invites him in, he sees photos on a bureau of her with what could be her father or her husband, who appears to be a successful Party hack. There’s a moment — is Tomas thrown out of his intrigued, sexed-up mood by this, or can he sustain it? — and then he’s going with it, and when his eyes return to her you know something of the (power-saturated? vengeful?) flavor his sex with her will have. Purity doesn’t mean a lot to Sabina and Tomas. They’re fallen, and they like it that way.

***

unbearable binoche olin

The taste of sex-without-love changes for Tomas in the post-invasion country, but he can get off on the new taste, and even enjoy his ability to get off on it. That sex is now fraught with pitfalls and ugly possibilities doesn’t prevent him from taking erotic pleasure; he’s able to use the danger and his own resentment as flavors, spices. The danger terrifies and sickens Tereza. Kaufman uses the sound of breathing as one expression of this. When Tereza arrives at Tomas’ apartment early in the film and he raises her sweater, Kaufman amplifies her frightened, aroused breathing — it’s funny and sexy. When they have returned to Prague after the invasion and we again hear her breathing that clearly, it’s when she sniffs another woman’s scent in Tomas’ hair. Anticipation vs. surveillance: the political shift has effected them even on that level.

The effect of the political shift on what’s allowed is made clearest in this film’s theater/performance element. Tomas has written a little scribble for a newspaper about “Oedipus The King.” It’s intended both seriously and playfully — I mean it and I don’t mean it, and you know in which ways — and readers understand and enjoy it. When he returns to Prague after the invasion, and is wooed and grilled, the policeman asks Tomas if he “really” meant that the Party leaders should pluck their eyes out. Of course he didn’t, and you watch Tomas size up how things now work. What was once theater — playful and liberating — is now read literally and used against you.

The enjoyment of expertise can be a basis for companionship and comradeship — it’s like “The Right Stuff.” Whizz-bang, so to speak. All those scenes of Tomas and Sabina making it in front of her mirrors and mirror-sculptures: they enjoy their reflections, their self-consciousness. To them it’s an erotic heightener. (And it’s akin to the lustiness and showmanship, the surface zappiness, of Kaufman’s earlier movies.) There’s swagger and brio in their sex, as there’s swagger and brio in the way Day Lewis and Olin work the fairly-explicit sex into their performances — they seem to turn that into an erotic performance challenge. They enjoy being cut loose, they enjoy their sophistication — she’s an adventuress, he’s a buccaneer.

***

unbearable b and w newsreel

Then Tomas falls for pure/peasant/uncouth/soulful/rooted-in-the soil/simple Tereza, whose idea of getting into sex seems to involve not a whole lot more than smooshing herself against him. She comes to the city during the Prague Spring. She’s part of what the free atmosphere coaxes forth, and she emerges from herself, first from the country and then from Tomas’ apartment — we’re given a shot of her standing behind Tomas’ window — into the commerce of life via her camera.

Sexually, she’s a klutz, nothing but needs and fears. But when Tomas is with her, what he feels seems deeper, more direct and genuine. He discovers a whole range of what seems to him to be pure feelings; she awakens in him the belief that without a connection to something “genuine” he’s incomplete, and that she is that something “genuine.” What she stirs up in him he misses otherwise. When she returns to Czechoslovakia we see him, through a window, use on another barmaid the same routine — mouthing the word “cognac” — he used to pick up Tereza. He isn’t being callous, he’s a performer enjoying his bag of tricks. But it isn’t the same thing for him anymore.

Tereza’s feeling so often crushed has some relation to what Tomas finds himself loving in her, and in oppressed Czechslovakia. She feels lost and confused in Geneva; she can’t handle western-style freedom, and her confusion is brought out in the nude-photography scene: she’s aroused and terrified, she genuinely doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. (It suggests a world of total disconnectedness, and she can’t make sense of that.) Surrounded by mirrors and art and facing another woman, she can’t account for her confusion or her arousal. She grows terribly nonplused when she’s turned on by Sabina’s sexiness before a camera — her yielding to it and commanding it all at once — and by Sabina’s pointing the camera back at her nakedness; we’re given to understand she doesn’t even like being naked. (Tereza needs to feel undefined.)

In Prague, when she tries to even the score with Tomas the perpetual cocksman, she’s clenched and frightened, and she insists that her partner pull back the curtains that are hung around his room to show that he’s hiding nothing. Kaufman lets us register the contrast with Sabina, who, on the train, enjoyed the wiliness — the role-playing and duplicity — of the pretending-to-be-asleep voyeur. Tereza hides behind frames without recognizing them as such until she’s urged out; Sabina propels herself into new situations, then puts frames around them and moves on.

Tereza can’t bring herself to enjoy the performance aspect of sex; Tomas and Sabina work costumes and playacting into their sex, and enjoy posing before mirrors. Binoche’s being so “available” yet not an accomplished performer jibes with this. What she is as an actress (at least here) in relation to Day Lewis and Olin parallels what Czechoslovakia (history! tragedy! a peasant culture!) can mean to an American: pure soul.

Much later, when Tereza and Tomas have retreated to the Czech countryside and go with their farming buddies to a country bar, she’s so at ease that she dances and teases and flirts; she’s consciously vamping Tomas. It’s the first time we have seen her do any active seducing; this is the only environment in which she feels secure enough to play. In California — all glorious surfaces — Sabina paints a picture of the ocean: she consciously, knowing the effort and what it costs, erects not a wall but a scrim between her and sorrow/fate. She needs to be able to experience her emotions as fully as possible yet not to be stymied by them. She thrives on what disconnectedness makes possible. (Only death rends the scrim.)

***

unbearable newsreel tanks

Kaufman’s movie is like a Janacek work, the filmmaker incorporating “Czechoslovakia” into his film as Janacek incorporated folk songs into his music, as Tomas incorporates Tereza into his life. It’s funny and touching that, in the movie, “Czechoslovakia” is as created (from France and other places, as well as from newsreels) as “Tereza” is. We’re not really seeing “soul,” we’re seeing an actress; we’re not really seeing Czechoslovakia, we’re seeing locations put to work. The doctored photographs that show up — the woman’s father or husband with Brezhnev; Erland Josephson with Kennedy and Khrushchev — and the whole passage about the Russian invasion, which is a kind of extended-through-time doctored photograph, have a special poignancy in this context. Kaufman is using movie fakery to make the emotions more immediate. He lets us realize, when Sabina puts her head out the train window, that Olin is performing in front of a blue screen and facing fake rain, but the effect is the enhancement of the character’s (and the actress’) impassioned recklessness.

Kaufman uses the newsreel footage similarly. When Tarkovsky and Wenders use newsreel footage, you can sense — despite what the filmmakers seem to be saying (which is usually about the need to leave the confines of your own head) — that what they’re doing is working the newsreel footage into their mournful and virtually totally self-reflexive fiction. Ie., their conceptual thinking is more important to them than the historical events the footage, in whatever way, portrays.

Kaufman’s approach liberates libido; he works the story and the characters into the newsreel. He alters the newsreel footage and lets us know it: we have the fun of trying to figure out how it’s been altered even as we register the awfulness of the invasion, and experience the rupture it represents in Czechoslovakian history (and in the film). For Kaufman, using this footage is a tribute art (as a part of life) pays to life (which includes art even as it washes it away and moves on). Though Kaufman never shows Tomas and Tereza rising into the heavens, the movie’s final image — it’s of a road through a forest, seen through the front windshield of a moving truck; the image grows brighter, suggesting pure radiance — may be the most beautiful Ascension ever put on film. What the light elicits depends on us.

©1988 by Ray Sawhill

“The Age of Innocence,” directed by Martin Scorsese

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Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: Most people probably take “The Age of Innocence” as a more-visually-inventive-than-usual Merchant-Ivory film. And most of them seem to enjoy it as such.

Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill: Middlebrow alert!

Polly Frost: It’s set in upper-crust 19th century New York City, among old money but just as the robber barons are emerging. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland Archer. He has a private income, he dabbles in the law, he’s a member of one of the respectable families, and he’s engaged to the flawless, brainless offspring of another “good” family (Winona Ryder). But he has a hankering for culture. He caresses his books, and he knows one or two painters.

RS: Into his world walks Michelle Pfeiffer as the Countess Olenska, woman of mystery and scandal. She’s fleeing a marriage to a philandering Polish count. She’s exotic, a teeny bit bohemian. Newland falls for her bigtime. So: will the countess, who needs money, return to the count or not? And what will Newland do about his passion for her?

PF: He’s such an honor-bound square that the way he expresses his passion for her is by helping her. There’s nothing more irritating than a man who gives you a lecture rather than making a pass at you. I’ve known a few of those.

RS: It’s a film in the tradition of “Brief Encounter.” And the missed-opportunity tragi-comedy is not my favorite genre. What do you make of the fact that some people have an appetite for genteel entertainments on this theme?

PF: They make a viewer feel civilized. They’re soap operas with all the good parts taken out.

RS: Newland Archer is a rotten central character. He’s a prig. You never understand why the countess looks at him passionately. Another problem is that Scorsese externalizes everything. Crimson, gold and chandeliers are everywhere. Since it’s already a Visconti world, the Countess doesn’t stand out. The film winds up being narrated and illustrated rather than dramatized.

PF: Some of the actors in the minor roles do seem to exist fully in the world of codified behavior and language. And Winona Ryder has a puppy-like helplessness, even when she’s being lethal and enslaving, that’s very effective.

RS: But Day-Lewis can’t do much with his role but mourn the way his balls are shriveling up. He’s so meticulous about playing a yearning American that he seems super-British. Pfeiffer works hard to generate some Garbo-like luster, but her nerves and her voice seem pure California.

PF: I liked her better than you did. She’s trying to come up with a reason why the countess is attracted to Newland. Maybe her interpretation is: the countess is out of her mind. She’s having a nervous breakdown.

RS: There’s another problem, which is the material itself. Over to you, honey.

PF: It’s a shallow and arch book, and it scores too easily off its characters. It exists mainly in its narration. Although when Wharton lets the two women really play with Newland, the book almost becomes malicious fun.

RS: I hate the snug, mocking social commentary about what “old New York” was like.

PF: And I hated Joanne Woodward’s reading of the narration. She had the tone of voice of someone who isn’t fun to gossip with. Julia Child would have been a better choice for the narrator.

RS: Scorsese makes old New York look like Vatican City, and his idea of psychology seems to be that WASPs are repressed Italians. What do you think he’s up to?

PF: He sets up an intricate perceiver/perceived thing, with binoculars and theater and paintings on the walls. What he does with it — and with the unbroken camera moves, and the dissolves, and the splintery editing — is try to show how your identity is formed by the tribe you’re in. And how people try to outwit it and like to think they can exist outside it, but are always getting trapped. It’s a web. The problem is that Scorsese thinks in purely cinematic terms. He knows what it is to be formed by movies and the media, but he doesn’t seem able to imagine his way inside someone who wasn’t formed by the media and the movies. Renoir and Ophuls used circling techniques to show characters caught up in a web, but they were so worldly you don’t feel it’s anything but cinematic technique.

RS: Scorsese really believes, or believed, that cinema is the apotheosis of the arts. He was one of those kids who was all revolutionary fervor. And his generation’s revolution has just led to corporate take-overs.

PF: It’s a generation that’s stuck with nostalgia. But I know you’re on a roll.

RS: Thanks. The generation before them — of Altman and Peckinpah — mastered traditional craft before they blew it apart. Scorsese’s generation bypassed traditional craft and headed for personal values. Now Scorsese’s left turning everything he touches into “personal cinema,” which in this case means he’s taken on Edith Wharton and produced a dignified variation of “Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas.” He makes the same movie over and move, no matter what the subject. The characters have no free will. There’s only Scorsese’s vision.

PF: In a scene set in the opera house balcony during intermission, the camera and the audio iris in on Newland and the countess, and she talks about the yellow roses he once sent her anonymously. He’s entranced: how does she know he sent them? She finishes talking to him, and she’s backlit for a minute by the stage lights as the curtain rises for the second act — she’s what connects him to the world of grand emotions, and to the arts. Art is viewed as transcendence, as it was in “Raging Bull.” But in “Raging Bull,” Jake LaMotta hurls himself directly at transcendence. Here, Newland holds back.

RS: Newland is like a virgin playing hard-to-get without even knowing it.

PF: I’ve known a few of those too.

© 1993 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in
The Modern Review.

 

Short Book Reviews

By Ray Sawhill

* A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters by John Kisch and Edward Mapp. Long before Spike Lee, directors and producers like Oscar Micheaux were making films for what was called the “race-movie circuit.” A fascinating place to begin learning about this tradition is this book by Kisch and Mapp; its introduction by film scholar Donald Bogle covers a lot of ground in 20 pages. Here are posters for Westerns (“Harlem on the Prairie”), comedies (“House-Rent Party”) and musicals (“Reet-Petite and Gone”), nearly all of them featuring an “All-Star Colored Cast.” The posters themselves have a distinctive splashiness and pizzazz that can remind you of the work of the some of the performers they feature: Ethel Waters, Buck & Bubbles, Josephine Baker.

* Another Life by Michael Korda. The editor-raconteur profiles writers and celebs; a canny insider’s look at the book business.

* Asafo! African Flags of the Fante by Peter Adler and Nicholas Barnard. This visual book is like a parade and a festival between covers. On display are flags made by West African warrior groups that were so taken by the visual splendor of European armies that they started making flags of their own, to their own taste. Spirals, crocodiles, wiggles, arrows and fish are some of the main elements — some of the flags have fringe on the edge. Adler and Barnard report that the Asafo have no written language, and that many of the flags convey oral proverbs, most of them commonsensical. My favorite: “If you shoot at a leopard and do not kill it, it is better not to have shot at all.” The designs have a retina-searing ferocity; the Asafo themselves consider the flags so potent that each new one must be approved by the chief of the elders and displayed before all companies to ensure no one is offended.

* Cracks by Sheila Kohler. Classmates from a South African boarding school meet at a reunion and wrestle with a mystery. An unforced erotic-poetic novella, especially good on the naive sensuality and malice of young girls.

* Cyclops by Albert Watson. Judging from his new book “Cyclops,” the photographer Albert Watson is a post-punk Irving Penn. This is all about style, impact and The New, pitched at an almost worrying level of high-strung artificiality. Here are richly-printed, black and white shots of actors, monkeys, rap stars, prisoners. They’re strikingly, boldly composed and sequenced: figures (a chicken, a dead frog) isolated against the white of the page, set opposite smokey-toned full-page portraits. David Carson, of the avant-garde rock and roll style magazine Ray Gun, designed “Cyclops,” giving it some of his chopped-out, splatter-font excitement. This is a coffee table book for cutting-edge coffee tables, with a bonus: a subtle, luscious nude of Sade.

* Key Ideas in Human Thought edited by Kenneth McLeish etc. It isn’t often that the more you leaf around in a reference work the more engaging it becomes. This book, put together by a team of British scholars, manages the feat. It’s certainly a solid way to bring yourself up to speed on notions from chaos theory to rhythm and blues. But it’s also a wonderful browse—a postmodern database with its own character and wry humor. Idiosyncratic and suave, the entries reflect academia’s freshest thinking. Even the choice of topics suggests a piquant notion of what knowledge is, or may be.

* Merrick by Anne Rice. There’s probably no American fiction writer who’s more review-proof than the New Orleans-based, witches-and-vampire novelist Anne Rice. To her fans, she’s a dark diva of blood, visions and lust. When a new Rice is released, as if on an unspoken signal, they apply the black lipstick, emerge from their dungeons, and buy up every copy printed. Nonfans live in a different dimension entirely. For us, reading her is like listening to incantations delivered in a foreign language—a blur of veils, candles, and horror-movie dialog, interrupted by the occasional sound of veins being punctured. Yet unlike, say, the orgy scene in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Rice’s writing is too trance-inducing to provoke giggles. For the record: her new one, “Merrick” (Knopf), is more of the Poe-meets-heavy-metal usual. A bi-racial heroine and voodoo are the fresh ingredients in the otherwise narcotically-familiar gumbo. Lestat (from “Interview With a Vampire”) makes a cameo appearance. Fans will be thrilled—but then they always are. In interviews, Rice has said that writing “Merrick,” her 22nd novel, brought her out of a depression. We couldn’t be happier for her. Me it left feeling pretty undead.

* Secrets of the Flesh by Judith Thurman. Nominated for a National Book Award, this bio of the great French writer Colette is intelligent and comprehensive. It’s also, unfortunately, a little fussy and overbaked.

* Truffaut by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana. A suave, anecdote-rich biography of the French filmmaker who was part poet, part careerist, and a compulsive seducer.

* Which Lie Did I Tell? by William Goldman. Life in the Hollywood trenches, as recounted by a well-known screenwriter. Smart, shrewd, and more than a little horrifying.

* With Nails: The Film Diaries of Richard E. Grant. These jottings by an actor who was first noticed in the British cult hit “Withnail and I” read as though they were dictated in a rush and edited with a Saladshooter. Yet they’re also sweetly revealing, because Grant seems never to have lost his bewilderment at the life of make-believe and money he has made his way into. He’s gaga when he meets Barbra Streisand; puppy-eager yet shrewd about his directors, such as Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and unabashedly fond of performers (such as Julia Roberts) in whom he recognizes vulnerability and a spirit of play. Grant himself—an excess of fizz ever in search of some vessel to fill—has plenty of both.

All reviews © Ray Sawhill.

The Litterati

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Josephine Hart

By Ray Sawhill

If Robert (“The Trial of Joan of Arc”) Bresson had directed a Zalman (“Wild Orchid”) King film, it might have come out like Louis Malle’s “Damage.” A pot-boiler made austere and tragic, equipped with style to kill and that phony but ever-alluring theme, sexual obsession, it’s a perfect complement to the Josephine Hart novel it’s based on. Hart gives us sleek coupling, with people in glamorous jobs suffering from posh anguish.

Along with such recent novels as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover,” “Damage” is an example of a new type of literary fiction. These books represent a highbrow mining of trash for its zing while condescending to it for its lack of class — literature that’s slumming. They’re would-be page-turners for narcissists who want to imagine they’re having an art experience.

This new form is the latest outgrowth of the ever-prospering creative-writing industry and the ongoing rationalization of the publishing business. The large publishing houses have moved far beyond what was called (by Thomas Whiteside) some years ago “the blockbuster complex”; one executive describes the creature his company has become as “a creator and exploiter of copyrights.” A house may or may not have a place for “quality literature” on its list; they may or may not feel they “can make it work.” What they prefer to commission and market is category books — franchises like horror novels and sewing books. Most have lost the knack of selling literature. Only Knopf, publisher of “Damage” and run by a one-time English publisher with a British flair for exploiting the American culture market, seems capable of putting over “literary importance” anymore.

If, for the publishers, literature is one potentially marketable commodity among many, for the creative-writing industry literature has become just something people with a certain kind of education produce — an abstract discipline a good college is supposed to give you a taste for. (People who follow this kind of writing closely seem to do it in a spirit of dedicated self-denial; most of them don’t watch TV or go to the movies. It’s a cargo cult under the sway of the great gods Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett.) The creative-writing classes and schools teach formula — a matter of fiddling with “voice,” “points of view,” etc. — while claiming to encourage the creation of literature. A couple of the hallmarks of writing-school writing: a preoccupation with that mesmerizer of first-year literary students, the unreliable narrator; and in place of story, word patterns, image patterns, theme patterns. It’s literature-by-algorithm-Synthesizer Lit. We now have several generations of writing school-educated creative writers; they have begun to set the tone for serious fiction. As the generation of Roth, Mailer and Munro becomes less prolific, the composers of Synth Lit will have the field almost entirely to themselves.

“Literature” used to indicate a judgment implying degree of expressiveness and level of accomplishment — either that or an elite, avant-garde activity. (“Professional writers” wrote genre books.) It’s still generally assumed to mean one or the other. But the creative-writing writers simply do literature. (This is similar to the way, among visual artists, “art” has become simply what it is an artist does.) Their schools have informed them that literature is the manipulation of formal elements, and the press, itself educated to recognize literary quality in these terms, concurs — another example of the domestication of a stance that once served to defy and provoke.

Like every other category, literature has spawned innumerable sub-categories, each with specs as demanding and artificial as any mystery-novel form: the Hers-column coming-to-terms novel; the multicultural/oracular/accusatory; the ode to the pre-AIDs years; the new-South farce; the category-defying blast of mega-ambition, etc. Despite this, literary people are almost frighteningly determined to see what they’re doing as akin to the supposedly unique works of solitary genius they learned to admire in school. One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature is as a category that won’t admit it’s a category. Yet the industry and the press still paint that old picture from the Thirties and Forties, the one that shows us how:

The new books in a bookstore may include genre, fluff and utility books, yes — but there’s also literature, where humanity transcends itself, and the tears and heartache are redeemed. Sophisticated editors and journalists and critics manage to exchange information about which books really do count in such a way that deserving authors and readers finally find each other.

The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business’ terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people.

Why is it, then, that virtually the only fiction that’s accepted as literary are books the industry labels as such? And why is it that only such literary fiction is considered worthy of serious discussion? It partly has to do with the vanity of the college-educated post-World War II generations. Many of what are marketed as literary books are clearly the products of educated people who have decided that only the field the greats toiled in is worthy of their full talents. (People seem tirelessly attached to using literature as a way of making themselves unhappy — using it to represent the something important they feel they really should be doing with their lives.) And of course the corporate journalists and publishers want to believe that what they’re involved in is significant not just economically but artistically and intellectually.

A more basic reason may be the widely cherished image of the book as the sacred embodier of wisdom and cultural values, as well as (for the writer) the big chance to show what he or she has got, and the ultimate test of character. Books, read in solitude and held emotionally close-in, often make a memorable impact on us during adolescence — like pop music, only more private. Attack the current literary conversation piece and you’re attacking someone’s memory of being moved by “Crime and Punishment.”

There are a number of kinds of books the corporate houses publish pretty effectively nowadays. Literature just isn’t one of them. Among their literary books it’s rare to run across one that sets out to entertain as straightforwardly as a mystery by, say Sandra Scoppetone or Robert Crais; that has anything like the sociological and psychological interest of the average true-crime book; that shows as respectful a recognition of the everyday frustrations people endure as a fair number of self-help books; that has the pep of Kay Yarborough Nelson’s computer-advice books; or that’s as beguiling to leaf around in as the Dorling Kindersley productions.

Yet faced with a stack of titles from the large houses, each one having a shelf life of from six weeks to six months, the old arguments about what’s a “real book” and what’s not still go on — a “real book” being understood to be not just some fleeting pop-culture phenomenon. Given this atmosphere of self-delusion and self-consciousness, how can a modeler of empty, graceful exercises such as Michael Chabon not be more likely to win the label of real writer than, for instance, Lee Smith, an emotional celebrator of common experience, whose novels have the pop fullness of a Patsy Cline performance?

It’s a PR triumph that the industry still has perfectly intelligent readers feeling guilty for not keeping up with its literary output, and convinced that they aren’t managing to do any real reading. But of course when you look at your friends’ bookshelves, you find that they really are reading, really prolifically. You see the nod to literature: a shelf or two of Synth Lit, mostly unread and often in hardcover (the hard covers sober monuments to the importance of “the literary”). And you see books that have actually been enjoyed: shelf after shelf of well-thumbed paperback books of journalism (“Barbarians at the Gate”), collections of interviews, category fiction (airplane reading, Scott Turow) and reference and lifestyle books — avowedly genrefied projects, few of them “real books.” One friend served on a literature prize board for a couple of years, reading literary novel after literary novel. When her term ended she returned to what she really enjoys: true crime and celebrity biographies. Readers nagged by the feeling that they’ve lost track of what’s important in books might trust their own tastes more; the books they’re having fun with generally are the industry’s most lively products.

Literary trade publishing today resembles the movie world as “The Player” (accurately) portrays it — with the difference that Hollywood doesn’t rely on the illusion of artistic significance. By now the world of literature, or the appearance of such, has become its own greatest creation. Certainly it makes no sense to take the fiction reviews in The New York Times Book Review as anything other than components of an ongoing soap opera with a rotating, evolving cast of characters. Synth Lit reached a momentary state of refined-away-to-nothing perfection a couple of years ago when Harold Brodkey was being compared to Proust for a novel he was avoiding publishing, and Gordon Lish was celebrated as “Captain Fiction” not for his novels and stories but for an EST-like writing class he conducted.

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Gordon Lish

To find work that has some actual originality of form and content — Acoustic Fiction as opposed to Synth Lit — readers would have better luck trying books from such small houses as Godine, New Directions, Mercury House, Arte Publico, 4 Walls 8 Windows, Sun & Moon, Coach House and Dalkey Archive. Intriguing novels have come from such unlikely places as the University of New Mexico Press and the Sierra Club Press.

Trade literature might have more vitality if it allowed itself some acknowledgement of the hustle and vulgarity of the commercial world it’s part of; the combination of the corporate and the aesthetically and morally self-serious results in something neutering, products that serve the corporations’ convenience first of all.

However sincere the authors are, the Sontag, the Hart and the Tartt are examples of books designed to stand out in this streamlined new world of trade literature. (Does it mater whether these writers know that they’re filling out templates? A bee doesn’t need to understand DNA and natural selection to gather honey.) They’re cashings-in on people’s vulnerability to the myth of literature, raids on the literature market that are as high-concept as any Hollywood film. High-concept movies can actually be easier to take simply because more people have participated; there’s often a performer or two worth watching.

It may be peculiar to this form that what’s most immediately irksome about the books isn’t how deadly they are but how badly they fail on the most basic (if “sensational”) level. The Donna Tartt can’t compare to a Tony Hillerman, and Hart’s “Damage” isn’t exactly a stellar example of the when-do-the-sex-scenes-begin genre.

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Susan Sontag

Sontag, forever making like Kundera and dropping her narrative to let an essay take over, can’t keep the pages turning as fast as Danielle Steel; Kundera hasn’t been making the pages turn too fast lately either. (It’s said in the business that Sontag’s agent, in celebration of her epochal decision to write a “popular, literary” novel, broke Sontag’s long-standing contract in order to raise her price.) But has the writing ever really been the point with Sontag? Her greatest gift has always been for acting out people’s fantasies of a thinker — nothing she writes can surpass the public character “Susan Sontag, woman intellectual.”

The most entertaining aspect of her performance this time around were the highfalutin’ interviews she granted. Did Marie Antoinette ever affect such regal airs? Asked recently what she thought of her fan-turned-detractor Camille Paglia, Sontag simply denied ever having heard of her.

©1993 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Truth and Lies in Literature” by Stephen Vizinczey

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By Ray Sawhill

In his new collection of essays and reviews, “Truth and Lies in Literature” (Atlantic Monthly), Stephen Vizinczey comes on like a pistol-packing stranger here to root out corruption and remind us of our ideals. He carries the role off with inspired gusto. He writes out of a conviction that art is worth fighting over, and he loves entering the fray — taking sides, making judgments.

He’s at his most eloquent in bursts — one-liners, really. His review of a biography of Dostoevsky begins: “If we want to know how the world hangs together, we must read Pushkin, Kleist, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy; if we want to know how the world falls apart, we must read Dostoevsky, the grand master of frenzy, of vile and senseless passions.” Stendhal, whom Vizinczey adores for his “absolute involvement and absolute detachment,” shows “the continuous tension in our consciousness between our expected and real reactions.” The French writer Gérard de Nerval “slipped in and out of madness, using his saner moments to tell us all about it, and then he hanged himself.” Kleist’s work “glows with the heightened sense of self-awareness most men feel in the presence of death.” Vizinczey despises caution in writers and responds with his own fine extravagance to those who get carried away: “Great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.” His own essays convey the sheer fun of getting worked up about art.

Born in Hungary, Vizinczey fought the Russians during the 1956 revolution and became a refugee. He has written — in English — two novels, “In Praise of Older Women” (1966) and “An Innocent Millionaire” (1985), and is now a Canadian citizen living in London. In his essays, he doesn’t spend much time on analysis, description or developing an argument; instead, he scrapes away misconceptions and lies, states why a work does or doesn’t matter, and then simply stands aside. “What I hope my collection will accomplish is to send people back to the books themselves,” he says.

Vizinczey’s boldness and pugnacity are bracing and can be very funny; they have also left him something of a literary-world lone wolf. “I would love to be accepted,” he says. “But whenever I’m tempted to be one of the boys — and I often am, I hate being an outsider — I ask myself, what was the point of running around the world and learning a new language if I’m just going to become another flatterer?”

© 1986 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Blue Pastoral” by Gilbert Sorrentino

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By Ray Sawhill

Gilbert Sorrentino has the mind of an avant-garde experimentalist and the instincts of a profane showman. His novels overflow with elaborate literary contrivances and games, and the titles he gives them (“Aberration of Starlight,” “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things”) lead you to expect one hall of mirrors after another. But there’s nothing dry or ingrown about his writing. His novels have the kind of physical charge and excitement more often associated with jazz and improvisational comedy than with literature.

“Blue Pastoral” (North Point), his new novel, is an attempt at a rococo black comedy, and is populated by people who love the sound of their own voices. Virtually all the characters speak in elaborate periods, invocations, apostrophes — bursts of enthusiasm that build and build, then scatter. The questing, Candide-like hero, a New York lens grinder named (Blue) Serge Gavotte, is possessed by a sudden love of music. Encouraged in his mania by a doctor who is treating him for an infection brought on by too much harmonica playing, Blue loads a piano on a cart and sets out with his son and wife in search of the perfect musical phrase. Whenever his zeal falters, the “doctor,” who using Blue as a guinea pig in an experiment, materializes in a new form and eggs him on.

The novel is full of parodies — of speeches, poetry, pornography and intellectual fashions. One chapter opens with Blue and his wife, Helene, inexplicably miles farther along in their travels. Blue: “We have passed through the great state of Mizzoo in a sudden flash, the time it takes to turn a page.” Helene: “I wondered why the so-called scenery zipped by so fast.” Blue: “I suspect that it the ‘text’ is being ‘deconstructed’ beneath our very feets!” Characters turn aside to argue with the narrator. Weeds, lingerie and sheep are only some of the major motifs.

Much of this is good fun, and there’s drive in the gnarled language. So why does “Blue Pastoral” grow tedious? I think it’s because the story, whose outlines Sorrentino used once before, in his first novel, the 1966 “The Sky Changes,” interest him as little but a display case for his pyrotechnics. In his earlier novels, the innovative techniques had a strange, tickling quality. They seemed at once irrelevant and essential, and provided a fresh way of getting inside frustrated lives; the loneliness, anger and humor they released were startling and vivid. Here the devices are no more than ornate excrescences and, in the end, they overwhelm your interest.

©1983 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“Fair and Tender Ladies” by Lee Smith

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By Ray Sawhill

Lee Smith’s novels are as consciously “women’s fiction” as anything you might run across in Redbook or McCall’s, but she opens the genre up and makes it seem expansive. Her work has a mixture of lyricism and sexual boldness that makes you go outside of writing, to the work of actresses and women singers, for comparisons. Like Sissy Spacek and Loretta Lynn, Smith can make a performance in a popular medium seem like a complete declaration of feeling.

Her new novel, “Fair and Tender Ladies” (Putnam), consists of letters written by Ivy Rowe, the daughter of a Virginia mountain family, who lives from 1900 well into the ’70s. Ivy’s life is the stuff of a back-country soap opera. When her father dies, her mother takes the family to town; when her mother dies, she boards with a sister who drinks on the sly. Ivy gets pregnant by a boy who leaves to fight in World War I, has an affair with a rich kid, marries a childhood friend, and returns with him to the family farm to raise a passel of kids.

Although Smith’s choice of the epistolary form might lead you to expect a play of irony and distance, the book contains no satire or parody. The author is in closer sympathy with her protagonist than we’re used to in contemporary literary fiction, and the point of the book is how far into Ivy’s emotions Smith can take us. That’s pretty far. Ivy’s letters, when she’s a child, keep shading into bookish extravagance; her words are all needlepoint and ribbons. In adolescence, she’s fascinated by being loved and desired, and by loving and desiring, and she acquires a reputation as a fallen woman even as she sees herself as the heroine of a romance novel.

A number of the letters she writes are to a mentally handicapped sister: in them, Ivy confides feelings she tells no one else about. These words stream out of her like feathers, clouds. She writes her sister about a hallucination she had the day she discovered she was pregnant: “I could see that baby as clear as day, tiny and pink and all curled up, and then it started beating me with its little fists against my stomach, trying to escape. It hurt me. And then … I was that little baby caught inside my own self and dying to escape. But I could not. I could never get out, I was caught for ever and ever inside myself.” By old age, facing down the coal company with a shotgun by her side, Ivy has become an eccentric buzzard and her words have grown crabbed and spiky. But her feelings still transport her; she still has the avidity of a little girl.

“I didn’t care if he was lying or not,” she writes her sister about a sweet-talker she once left her children and husband behind for. “It seemed like years since I’d heard a story.” Smith brings a more wide-ranging awareness to her tastes than Ivy does, but she shares Ivy’s susceptibility to storytelling. She reacts to stories as many people react to favorite songs, and she fills the novel with legends and tales. Smith’s love for the Appalachian hills gives off vibrations. She makes a reader feel the presence of spirits; she still sees in the land what folk artists saw there. Her work is about the moment when, as you look at or listen to a work of naïve art, it stops being a curiosity and starts to speak to you in a human voice.

It’s these longer, darker rhythms, pulsing beneath the hillbilly-Victorian flowerets of Ivy’s voice, that give the novel its physicality, and that help create the illusion of coming into warm contact with lives that have always seemed to take place at an impassable distance. “Fair and Tender Ladies” might have been sung into being.

© 1988 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.