Brief Thoughts On American Novels (if not "The American Novel")

Eclecticism is, at once, the strength and weakness of the American artist. It is often said of him that he is too ambitious, though often it merely appears this way since he has become a brilliant collector. Take the American novelist, for instance. After having spent years worshipping the greatest masters of western civilization and beyond, and after having then perfected their methods, he at once wishes to have the dialogue and psychological thoroughness of Dostoyevsky, the round introspection of Proust, the scintillating prose of Nabokov, the labyrinthine structures of Borges, the musical playfulness and erudition of Joyce, and often enough, the American artist succeeds.

It is for his very ability that we are endeared to him, but it is through his rendering of style, his application of method and his constantly oscillating rhythm that we become disoriented, having passed through every hall in the great house of his narrative design, that we come away feeling only that we are standing on the foundations of all history and that, yet, we will be another beam rather than a statue, mural, or even a pillar—passed silently by the admirers of the future.

How frightening this is for the American artist …  Now, in what is still the youth of his nation, he fears that he does not yet know himself or his culture, that it has not developed well enough for him to round off his perception of it or to edify his audience. He fears that he’ll pass into the shadows of history without contributing a distinctive spirit.

Modernism struck a stylistic chord with America who, not having properly formed such a distinct artistic identity the way different parts of Europe did, was so involved with its assessment of, obsession with and imitation of the European masters that, by the time this century arrived, time had run out and their collection of techniques, sentiments, thoughts and tastes became the pastiche that it is today.

But, perhaps, the very admiration paid the American will be that he was the most brilliant collector of all, a faculty from which others could later build. But can we be sure that ignoring the worst of all arts and taking the best of all arts will be very important for artists of tomorrow? Who says they’ll have much use for what ‘bests’ have already come and gone? They’ll be too busy making greater mistakes in the wake of greater triumphs.

Irony is the closest art comes to a semblance of humility. It is the easiest mode in which it is possible to operate in the face of this truth: that that which we understand now and those forms which we currently have in place will one day be no longer or will have changed almost beyond recognition. Other devices, techniques and methods don’t have the same ability to say, ‘I may not know as we stand now how things will be, but we can laugh at ourselves now as we will when that day comes.’ Though too much irony can give a work of art the stench of bad parody and often make one suspicious of veiled pessimism, just the right touch of it allows future generations to forgive previous generations.

 

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