July 24, 2007

Gratuitous Literary Observation

Perhaps unwisely, given my current isolation, I've been wallowing in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities the past couple days. As much a fan of Wolfe as I am, this is actually the very first time I've read this particular novel.

It's been about a year since I last read one of Wolfe's books and I'd forgotten how relentlessly savage he is about things. Think it's a nice, sunny day? Ha! So what? Just means Nemesis has a clearer view and a cleaner shot. Bango! You're doomed, do you hear me? Dooooooooomed!

Coming up for air, as it were, I began to wonder a) if it is even remotely conceivable that Wolfe might write a, er, happy novel, one not so drenched in mockery, cynicism, awfulness and despair, and b) whether such a novel would actually be worth reading.

I put this question to Mom t'other day. Mulling it over, she thought probably not, that the power of the satirist is in tearing things down, not building them up. In her experience, on those occassions when a satirist does undertake to describe the World As He Would Like To See It, it generally turns out to be a place you really wouldn't want to spend any time. (She mentioned an anecdote about some literary criticism aimed at Sinclair Lewis in this respect, but I cannot recall the work to which she was referring.)

Of course, satire is a 'uge field and it comes in many different shapes and intensities, from gentle, good-natured ribbing to outright bellowing from the soapbox. Also many, many authors use satire to one extent or another in their writing without being considered genuine satirists themselves. However, I'm thinking of the capital-S satirists here, starting with Petronius and working right down to modern times. Have any of them ever written non-satirical works as good as their satirical output?

(And before Mrs. P can jump on it with both feet, Mom and I did consider Brideshead Revisited in our talk. Neither of us have anything against it and we know that Mr. Wu considered it the pinnacle of his own writing, but it is the favorite of neither of us.)

Posted by Robert at July 24, 2007 10:25 AM | TrackBack

I love Tom Wolfe's work as well, but I think you're right as far as the cynicism of his novels. However, take the time to read The Right Stuff again --- while it contains its share of cynical observations on the whole beginnings of the Mercury program, Wolfe can't help but express grudging admiration for the men who strapped themselves into the world's biggest Roman candles for a ride into space.

Posted by: Aggravated DocSurg at July 24, 2007 11:11 AM

Jump on it with both feet? Why, you left out the knife clenched between my teeth. Read the next bit, particularly what Ronald Knox had to say:

"That is why the concluding episode, the deathbed conversion of Lord Marchmain, is the denouement pointed to by the perceptive Cordelia. Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die after his Byronic exile in Venice. He is unrepentant for his adulterous life and proposes to leave his estate to the adulterous Julia and Charles. Despite the objections of Charles and the doctor, Julia sends for a priest. Lord March-main at first refuses to see him, thinking he has still some time to live, but when he knows that he is soon to die, he accepts the ministration of the church, receives the absolution, and manages to make a feeble sign of the cross. This act of the will shows that grace has been effectual, and that by a twitch of the line he has died safely in the arms of the church.

"Waugh’s friend Ronald Knox did not much care for Brideshead Revisited, but he did like the ending. He admitted to Waugh what he had said to himself: "“I wish Evelyn would write about characters whom one would like to meet in life. . . . But once you reach the end, needless to say the whole cast -- even Beryl -- falls into place and the twitch of the happening in the very bowels of Metroland is inconceivably effective."” Waugh wrote back saying, “I am delighted that you have become reconciled to B.R. in the end. It was, of course, all about the death bed. I was present at almost exactly that scene.”"

Posted by: Mrs. Peperium at July 24, 2007 01:17 PM

(Insert evil chuckle here)

BTW, I just plunged for Alex's family autobiography. Have you read it yet?

Posted by: Robbo the LB at July 24, 2007 01:22 PM