Gardner’s Ghosts

22 Mar

conversations with john gardner

Conversations with John Gardner

It’s not surprising to see how many of the interview introductions in this collection focus on John Gardner’s physical appearance and on the controversy that surrounded his book On Moral Fiction. We’re familiar now with the famous description by Stephen Singular: ‘He is a small, potbellied man and his white hair falls over his shoulders, so that he looks something like a pregnant woman trying to pass for a Hell’s Angel.’ We get the full article here. Singular goes on a little too eagerly with the most venomous attacks on Gardner’s character delivered by the authors Gardner himself attacked.

Though never quite tasteful to compare a grown man to a pregnant woman, though we feel sorry about the poor reception of his work in the last years of his life, did he not sort of bring it upon himself? He started On Moral Fiction when he was unknown and redrafted it when he was known, which transitioned him to very known. The man who had once been known for the classic Grendel and the best-selling The Sunlight Dialogues was later known as the self-righteous pipe-smoking country boy who regarded Saul Bellow’s works as failures, Kurt Vonnegut’s works as comic books and Stanly Elkin’s work as childish playthings.

If you’re to agree with Gardner, you’d think America’s literature was full of ‘evil.’ Well, then who’s left to follow? Whom do we have left to read if we can’t read satans like Saul Below, snakes like Stanly Elkin, jerks like John Barth and brats like Bernard Malamud? John Gardner, of course! Oh, and don’t worry, there are others. Those who make the cut include Dickens and Tolstoy with Joyce Carol Oats and John Fowls, following (curiously) close behind.

After ‘evil,’ other words that Gardner uses frequently and plays pretty loose with include ‘bad,’ ‘immoral,’ and my personal favorite, ‘genius,’ (everyone in his family, including himself, seems to qualify as a genius). The term ‘nihilism’ is interchangeable with ‘pessimism’ in Gardner’s vocabulary.

This ‘Conversations With’ series, which usually prints pretty thin books of 120 odd pages, gave Gardner a full 300 pages. He likes to talk a lot. He likes to talk a lot about his own books. But that’s not the only thing he seems to like talking about. The Detroit Magazine interview assures us that ‘most of what he knows about philosophy he keeps to himself unless you press him to reveal it.’ Now, I’m sorry, but who in the world is going to press you about your knowledge of philosophy? In this book, Gardner takes up so much space talking about philosophy that the only presser one could imagine pressing him is something like a gangster-interviewer with a gun pointed at Gardner, telling him to spill absolutely everything he knows.

Gardner is probably at his best when interpreting different philosophical conundrums. He qualifies his moral arguments quite well with the historical backdrop of morality itself. His criticism of Sartre is quite clear and he even praises his prose.

At his worst, Gardner is saying far too much far too fast, not checking dates but drawing convenient conclusions that compliment his moral points, such as this:

‘For example, Dostoyevsky reads Nietzsche and he’s interested in Nietzsche’s theory of the superman, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Dostoyevsky had inclinations in that direction, a touch of megalomania certainly, and a touch of the outlaw … Raskolnikov would naturally, being exactly the kind of person he is, have certain friends, relatives, associations and Dostoyevsky introduces them, makes a perfect laboratory experiment.’
This conclusion isn’t wrong for theoretical literary reasons. It is wrong for a much simpler reason. Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, which features the very first mention of ‘the superman,’ was published more than 20 years after Raskolnikov’s exploits in Crime and Punishment. This is a largely forgivable mistake since it is merely a matter of switching diametrically opposed details (we have every reason to believe that it was in fact Dostoyevsky’s characters who inspired ‘the superman’)

Strange logical aberrations are bound to pop up in the language of a man who talks this much. Here’s another: ‘And then I think the whole world shifted with the rise of The Beatles and the drug culture and the revival of Disney.’

He comes off so charming and generous in his answers that we find ourselves wanting to believe him even when he contradicts himself. Sometimes he says he writes 15 or 20 hours every day without exception. Sometimes he tells us he doesn’t write when he’s depressed. Sometimes he feels he belongs to the school of verbal acrobats like Barthelme, Coover, Hawkes and Gass. Other times he considers those same the worst. Sometimes he despairs over and disowns On Moral Fiction as badly researched and unfair, while other times he assures us that his work and his theories will stand the test of time.

It is too perfect that one of his close friends was William Gass, perhaps the only writer who didn’t get hurt by Gardner’s criticisms. Gass just didn’t care too much about what anyone else had to say about his work, or about anyone’s work. They got in shouting matches over bottles of gin at the kitchen table late at night, bound together by their difference.

We don’t know if Gardner’s books will be read a hundred years from now, but they are being read now. Ten years ago, all but the best selling of his best sellers were out of print. Now, the post career controversy novel, Micklsson’s Ghosts, has come back into print along with several other works. We get to enjoy the best of what Gardner has to offer in glistening prose even if, now and then, it is interrupted by the odd cliché, the cumbersome sentence. His books are like him and vice versa. They talk a lot, they are full of contradictions, they try big things, they sometimes succeed and sometimes fail. Either way, we’re endeared to the effort and the spirit of the work.


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