A Writer Or Just a Critic's Idea of One?

Kerr and Shulevitz

A Writer Or Just a Critic's Idea of One?

Kerr and Shulevitz

A Writer Or Just a Critic's Idea of One?
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 27 1998 12:26 PM

Kerr and Shulevitz

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Dear Sarah,

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OK, let's talk about Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote." This story purports to be a biographical monograph on a minor French symbolist poet and critic who set himself the admittedly impossible task of writing, in the 20th century, the great Spanish novel of the 17th century. Not to reproduce or copy it, mind you: "His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided--word for word and line for line--with those of Miguel de Cervantes." How does he propose to do this? At first, Menard thinks, he'll learn Spanish, convert to Catholicism, fight against the Moors and Turks, and forget all European history after Cervantes' time. Then he realizes that that's cheating. The real challenge is "continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard."

As humor goes, this is very white on white, but--I'll grant you--no less hilarious for that. The rest of the story is taken up with comparisons of Menard's Quixote with Cervantes'. For example: "Cervantes crudely juxtaposes the humble provincial reality of his country against the fantasies of the romance, while Menard chooses as his 'reality' the land of Carmen during the century that saw the Battle of Lepanto and the plays of Lope de Vega. What burlesque brushstrokes of local color that choice would have inspired in a Maurice Barres or a Rodrigues Larreta! Yet Menard, with perfect naturalness, avoids them."

This is the quintessential Borgesian story--which, by the way, happens to be the first he ever wrote (before he wrote fiction he was a poet and critic). As you can imagine, the literature professors and formalist novelists had a field day with it. To de Man, it's about the slipperiness of poetic language. To Marxist literary critic Pierre Macherey, it's about how a particular reading of a text changes it. To novelist John Barth, it's about the pointlessness of ideas of originality. To novelist William Gass, it's about the absurdity trying to keep straight the differences between fiction and nonfiction, poetry and logic.

All these readings strike me as true, if tendentiously close to the agendas of the people who advance them. This is literature as the demonstration of the properties of literature, so it lends itself to just about any aesthetic theory you want. Almost every postmodernist notion has been advanced in Borges' name. You just can't pin the guy down. His is, as essayist Richard Poirier once put it, "a literature of self-parody that makes fun of itself as it goes along" (italics his). Borges is always ahead of you.

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But: What this bravura performance of what it means to be literary, this mise-en-abyme of mirrors upon mirrors, does not do is touch me deeply. It does not make me understand something I hadn't understood about what it means to be human. Leaving aside whether you think that's even relevant to a discussion of literature, you've got to admit that Borges is chilly. If you compare him to the other great European modernists he's always being held up as the equal to--Kafka, Joyce, Nabokov--he lacks vitality. He has no characters, no passion, no soul. Kafka has paranoia, Joyce willfulness and sex, Nabokov pathos and sex--plus bucketfuls of irony. Borges has closed formal systems. His grand conflicts, his tragic ironies, are all dramas of the mind. A great mind it is. But I grow tired of having to be impressed by it.

Back to humanity. The philosopher Richard Rorty says that one of the most important things literature can do is teach us about being human. In fact, he uses that claim to bolster one of the central theses of his brand of neo-pragmatism: his objection to formal moral systems. According to Rorty, no criminal or dictator was ever swayed by a rigorous demonstration of ethical first principles. What changes people's behavior is compassion, and we learn compassion from stories. What the world needs is more people reading novels, so that they are forced to realize that everyone else has an inner life and thereby become capable of grasping their impact on others. Me, I think Rorty goes too far--there's room for sadism in literature, too--but he does help me understand why Borges is not my cup of tea, as you would put it, and Munro, who opens up to me vast tracts of hitherto uncomprehended humanity, is.

I was going to defend Munro--she's not neo-Chekhovian just because she writes in the Chekhovian tradition! Almost all English-language short story writers write Chekhovianly, if that is not a ridiculous adverb. If you dismiss Munro on those grounds you have to dismiss Welty and Porter and Mansfield and Hemingway and Carver and so on and so forth--but I want to get to Lorrie Moore. Reading her was similar to rereading Borges for me, in that I used to adore her. I thought she was one of the funniest writers alive. Even in the midst of horror (and there's plenty of horror in Lorrie Moore--loneliness, mostly, and hopelessness), she cracked wise about stuff no one else would even have noticed. In this story about a mother whose baby has cancer in his kidney, for instance, when the mother first learns that the tumor is malignant, she thinks:

"Her unmotherly responses had all been noted: the panicky hope that his nap would last longer than it did; her occasional desire to kiss him passionately on the mouth (to make out with her baby!); her ongoing complaints about the very vocabulary of motherhood, how it degraded the speaker ('Is this a poopie onesie! Yes it's a very poopie onesie!'). She had, moreover, on three occasions used the formula bottles as flower vases. She twice let the Baby's ears get fudgy with wax. A few afternoons last month, at snacktime, she placed a bowl of Cheerios on the floor for him to eat, like a dog. She let him play with the Dustbuster. Just once, before he was born, she said, 'Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.' A joke, for God's sake!"

But somehow, I don't know how--it's either her or me, and it's probably me--in her new collection, Birds of America, all the wit and humor and spunk come off as bravado, and the overall impresson is of something false and annoying. In the story above, for instance--"People Like That Are the Only People Here," which has won every short story award there is this year--she's brave, she's so very brave, you almost don't notice how self-pitying, brittle, and angry she is. Granted, that particular story is an autobiographical account of her son's battle with cancer, but every other story in this book is self-pitying, brittle, and angry too. All the women are single, lonely, unlucky in love, despairing over the trashiness of daily existence. I can't figure out what I'm supposed to learn from them. As with Borges (only less interestingly so) I feel like I'm just supposed to watch, admiringly, as yet another Lorrie Moore stand-in endures, with brilliant puns and painful flair, the completely unendurable. Her characters need to get a life.

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Sarah Kerr reviews books and movies for
Slate. Judith Shulevitz is Slate's New York editor. This week they discuss Alice Munro's Love of a Good Woman (Knopf; 320 pages; $24), Lorrie Moore's Birds of America (Knopf; 291 pages; $23), and Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions (Viking; 560 pages; $40).