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May 13, 1967 - Image 14

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Publication:
Michigan Daily, 1967-05-13
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Arts & Letters
Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, by Justin
Kaplan. Simon and Schuster. $7.95.
A new biography of Mark Twain has every right to be one
of the decade's truly substantial publishing events. The
revival of interest in Twain has never been higher; there is
a crying need for a really top-flight biography; enough of
the laborious ground work has already been covered in schol-
arly articles and monographs; and a rash of books treating in
great detail limited areas of Twain's life have come out and
been thoroughly evaluated. Access to great quantities of
material in the Mark Twain Papers has been much sim-
plified of late, and will be even easier as the University
of California Press continues publishing them. The time
is ripe for the great literary biographer to step in, sift,
evaluate and synthesise all this into a magnificently read-
able and accurate definitive Life.
Justin Kaplan must have felt pretty sly six years ago
when he "set aside an editorial career" (as the dust-jacket
blurb tells us), to work on his "long-planned" biography
of Twain. He would sweep the field. And by commercial
standards it would be hard to say he hasn't done just that.
The book had a fine publisher, a large advertising budget, an
enormous sale; and last month Mr. Kaplan walked off with
the crowning glory-a check from the National Book Award
Committee for writing the year's best book in Arts and
Letters. Imagine! The biography of Twain has arrived!
Except it hasn't. Mr, Kaplan deserves congratulations
for writing a book which sells a lot of copies, no small
achievement, especially since it is his first. But for all that,
he has not written a very good
biography of Mark Twain.
As one might guess from
the title, Mr. Clemens and
Mark Twain is a biography
based on the assumption that
its subject was in some sense
a split personality. There is
Mark Twain, the literary fig-
z ure made famous in Roughing
It, Innocents Abroad, and on
the lecture platforms of the
lyceum circuit throughout the
1870's. His character is a famil-
iar part of the 19th century
American scene, and has per-
haps contributed more than
we realize to our national self-
image. We all recognize him-
the small town boy grown up,
boisterous, colorful, viciously
self-reliant, bawdy-mouthed,
probably homeless and smelly,
given to nostalgia, and much
less worldly than he thinks.
Imagine the great grandfather
of the hippies and you have
¢ $ Y t him.
't%. k Samuel L. Clemens was such
a man in his youth, a fact
which would now have only
. passing interest except that
1; t Clemens also fixed the spirit
\ \} of such men in literature. Peo-
ple loved it, and Clemens was
caught, stuck to his persona,
T and forced to write and lecture
in the character of M a r k
Twain which was enormously
profitable but sometimes quite
(Continued on page twelve)

Fiction
The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud. Farrar Straus & Giroux.
$5.75.

Science, Philosophy,

&n

Religion

You are invited to imagine what the weekly reviewers'
response would have been if Dostoyevsky had published La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Po,
The Brothers Karamazov in the United States in 1966. We --San Juan and New York, by Oscar Lewis. Random
might like to think that this incomparable novel would re- $10.
ceive the reception it deserved, but probably the journalis- "In the course of my anthropological studies of
tic criticism would have fallen into a familiar and predict- and family life in Mexico," says Oscar Lewis in his i
able pattern. The novel is too heavy, some would say. What tion to La Vida, "a number of my ... friends have so
point, others would demand, has all the interminable philo- delicately suggested that I turn to a study of povert.
sophizing, the endless desputes on the nature of God and own country, the United States. My study of Puerto
Man in this tale of parricide? Finally, still others would is a first step in that direction." Lewis's new book i.
dismiss it as a transparent-
roman a clef, a fictionalized
treatment of the Ilyinsky mur-
der case, and as such unworthy,
of serious critical attention.
Surely this is preposterous
- naturally nothing like this
would be perpetrated on a
n o v e li s t of Dostoyevsky's
stature. Or would it? For the
reception of The Fixer was of !jrr. -.j l
just such a patronizing and # '
p '
prejudicial nature. A fine and
moving book, infinitely above
~- ; anything the author had pre- ~',
viously produced, one which
strikes chords which remind us !' ./
of Kafka and (yes!) Dostoy- K-7
evsky - and, for all that, a \
novel which seemed upon pub-
lication to be fated for the on w- ur
oblivion to which so-so fourth - x/'/
novels are inevitably consigned 6ries
The National Book Award-
for Fiction may, hopefully, save The Fixer, for this is a sense scarcely even that, since it is overwhelmingly
novel which should not lie buried upon remainder tables. to the slum culture of San Juan. Although Puerto
One of the chief obstacles to its recognition was probably have been U.S. citizens since 1917 and Puerto Ric
its historical nature. The book is based upon the Mendel "unincorporated territory," the life portrayed in ti
Beilis case, a particularly loathesome anti-Semitic trial which will seem in many ways as foreign, barbaric and st
took place in Russia on the eve of World War I. The Fixer
roughly parallels the Beilis trial, in which a Jew outside us as an Australian tribe's. Yet somehow I suspect
the Pale was accused - and convicted - of murdering a the study were wholly devoted to indigenous North
Gentile boy to obtain Christian blood to mix with flour can poverty, it would appear no less strange. That, ii
for Passover matzos. That the charge was absurd was appar- is the main point of "the poverty of culture" and tl
ent to all but the most fanatical anti-Semities, but the value of this book as a social document.
prosecution was successful because it was politically advan-
tageous for those concerned that Beilis be convicted. For Lewis, who originated the phrase, "the culture
Admittedly, if The Fixer contained only this sort of sub- erty" has a very specific meaning, as he explains ir
human hatred, bigotry and injustice, it would have been cellent introduction. Lewis believes there is a tenac
neither better nor worse than similar expositions like Meyer of values and social conventions which arises in tra]
Levin's Compulsion or Donald Mankiewicz's Trial. But the
interests aroused by Malamud's novel are both higher and
deeper than this, so obviously so that one wonders how
even the hurried weekly reviewers could have managed
to ignore them.
Before touching on the intellectual problems in The Fixer,
one must do justice to its crudely historical and physical na-
ture. Though we must ultimately read this book as a spirituala
odyssey of the victim, handyman Yakov Bok, The Fixer's7
vision takes in the entire Russian scene from a worm's
eye view. The harsh and livid light of Bok's consciousness
illuminates, at its widest focus, a political scene where the .
forces of liberalism and reaction are at war - the prize being
the control of Russia through the weak Tsar Nicholas IL The societies where the poor are a separate group, with lo
persecutions and pogroms which are daily facts of existence organization, who feel alienated from the dominan
to Bok and his fellow-Jews are "sound" political tactics of the In such a society, the group in power "explains pove
conservative party; they are not inexplicable existential result of personal inadequacy;" with the partial res
(Continued on page twelve) (Continued on page ton)

Poetry
Nights and Days, by James Merrill. Atheneum. $1.95.
Ranked glinitings from within
Hint that a small articulate crowd
has been
Gathered for days now, waiting.
These lines from Nights and Days are perhaps intention.
ally descriptive of the anticipation answered by Merrill's
fourth book of poetry. The volume contains eighteen poems,
all of which sustain the subtle confrontation characteristic
of the poet's approach to the individual in general and
himself in particular-an encounter guided by the morality
of a promise-keeper and poetry-maker.
In one poem Merrill explains his constructions:
The rough pentameter
Qu~atrains give way, you will ob-
serve, to...
Interpolations, prose as well as
verse.
A constant affirmation is inherent in his impeccable form,
although previous critics have found it obscured by vivid
vocabulary and pretentious underlying meanings. He re-
sponds to this accusation in "From the Cupola":
I find that I can break the cipher
come to light along certain hum-
ming branches
make out not only apple blossom
and sun
but perfectly the dance of darker
undertones
on pavement or the white wall. It is
this dance I know
that cracks the pavement
The pavement of his poems-often cracked by grandiose
distraction, chiselling caesura, humiliating recourse to the
dictionary, or the heavy tread of genius quoted verbatim-
remains enticing. An author so willing to admit and, in
fact, able to parlay his "weaknesses" into a National Book
Award Prize Winner, must clearly be met on his own ground.
That his poetry "smells of the lamp" is actually vital to
the world of Nights and Days that Merrill would show us:
The lamp I smell in every line.
Do you smell mine? From its
rubbed brass a moth
Hurtles in motes and tatters of it-
self
-Be careful, tiny sister, drabbest
sylph!-
Against the hot glare, the consum-
ing myth,
Drops, and is still. My hands move.
An intense
Slow-paced, erratic dance goes on
below.
I have received from whom I do
not know
These letters. Show me, light, if
they make sense.
Merrill has a painter's eye for colors, and shows a par-
ticular fascination with golden light. The gilt wash of the
Hagia Sophia, in his poem tThe Thousand and Second

History

&

The Enlightenment: An Interpretat
A. Knopf. $8.95.
In an attempt to synthesize div
enment, Peter Gay offers a two-
terpretation of its cultural climate
he describes himself as leaning I
expresses dissatisfaction with tho:
praise the period, as well as witl
Enlightenment as the source of e
his first volume the author exam
of the Enlightenment and the d
vailing structure of society and
lightenment philosophers. He deal
struggle he had delineated in the
suit of Modernity."
In defining the Enlightenment
there was no strict organization o7
be applied to everyrphiloso- c
pher of the Eighteenth Cen-
tury. The association of think- r,
ers might best be described
as a family - pursuing a com-
mon cause, exchanging ideas,
debating, presenting a certain
unity without 1 o s i n g the
identity of individuals. The
source of unity for the En- N
lightenment was an attitude
of criticism pursued in the
loneliness of freedom. In de-
scribing the Enlightenment as
the development of "modern
paganism" the author indi-
cated two basic elements of
the age: its affinity for class-
ical thought and its opposition
to Christianity, which was
identified with an uncritical,
myth-oriented mentality.
Enlightenment philosophers
discussed four principal pe-
riods of history: the great river
civilizations, the a g e of
Greece, the Christian millen-~"
ium, and the Enlightenment. 9
The philosophes considered
their age parallel to the civili-
zation of the Greeks. While
earlier civilizations had made
scientific and cultural advan-
ces, they were still bound to
a mythical view of the world,
content to explain their ex-
perience in terms of magic
and mysterious powers direc-
ting man's life. The primary
Greek achievement was the
development of an inquiring, '
objective attitude toward re-
ality. To the Enlightenment philos
a development of the Greek thrus
ity.
The philosophes regarded the
sion to mythic thinking. They
flourishing in a decadent age, feed
empire, finding support among tl
preoccupation with God and salva
authors to be preserved, but only
tian mold and divorced from t
(Continued on p

E

w social Night," seems at times only what it physically is-ochre
t group, plaster hiding the. real facade of red, green and blue. Simi-
rty as a larly, Merrill, using his verbal prism, breaks the light that
cult that hits our eyes into its subtler components. Mirrors and win-
(Continued on page nine)

-W

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