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Marius Qualities Of A Good Essay

Marius Qualities Of A Good Essay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Les Miserables Essay Questions

The first sixty pages of Les Misérables is dedicated to describing the personality, actions, sayings, and values of Bishop Myriel, a character who does not appear in any other part of the book. Why do you think the author chose to do this?

Though Bishop Myriel does not appear in any other part of this book, he is a model for moral behavior. A major theme of Les Misérables is the moral journey of the soul from selfishness and darkness to compassion and light. Bishop Myriel’s life story offers an example of this journey, which is detailed in the first sixty pages of the book: he was born wealthy and powerful, but lost everything he had after the French Revolution, and became devoted to helping the poor. Though the biography of Bishop Myriel is long, it is not dull and it is not filler material. Many of the episodes described (Myriel’s interaction with the bandits of rural France, his compassion towards a condemned criminal, and so on) offer engaging examples of how to live a good life in a less-than-perfect world.

Much of the book is dedicated to describing the plight of the poor in 19th century France. Victor Hugo distinguishes between a few different types of impoverished people. Identify a few of these different types, then compare and contrast them.

There are at least three different types of impoverished people in Les Misérables. the pitiful poor, the purified poor, and the wicked poor. The pitiful poor are those who are so beaten down by unjust and undeserved poverty that they cannot even defend themselves from cruelty of suffering; poverty has stripped everything away from them. Monsieur Mabeuf and Fantine are two examples of this type of poor. Another type is the purified poor. For this type, poverty has resulted in an improvement on the character, removing all excess and deepening their compassion for their fellow humanity. Marius and Gavroche are two examples of this type. The third, the wicked poor, are pushed into depravity and cruelty to other human beings; they reason that because no compassion was shown to them, they have no reason to have compassion towards others. Thénardier is an example of the wicked poor. Each of these types has a moral lesson: the pitiful poor inspire our compassion; the purified poor invite our imitation; and the wicked poor demand sanctions. In each case, Hugo endeavors so inspire a sense of action.

Many impoverished characters in Les Misérables suffer in different ways. How does the gender of each character influence the difficulties they must overcome?

Because she is poor and a woman, Fantine is eventually forced to resort to prostitution, which Hugo describes as one of the greatest of all forms of suffering. In her situation, a man might have been able to sell his labor, but her only option is to sell her sexuality. Fantine’s death is directly influenced by her work in prostitution. On the other hand, Jean Valjean endures the difficulties of masculinity. He is originally sentenced to prison for stealing a loaf of bread — this is the only way he can be a provider to his sister’s children.

What is Hugo’s perspective on justice? How is it similar to and different from the legal definition of justice? Are there characters that embody these differing ideas of what justice means?

Hugo emphasizes a justice that is dependent on mercy. His protagonist is an ex-convict who goes on to commit identity fraud after his imprisonment ends. Another novelist with a different idea of justice might have made a villain out of Jean Valjean, but for Hugo, Valjean’s journey toward compassion and righteousness is a hero’s journey. Valjean does have respect for laws, but he also sees how they fail — particularly among the poor. Javert embodies a different idea of justice. Javert is rigid in his adherence to the law, and when he is confronted with a situation that cannot be neatly resolved within the existing justice system, he kills himself.

Les Misérables is well known for its large cast of characters. Who is your favorite character, and why? How does Hugo develop this character’s personality in the narrative?

Enjolras is my favorite character. When he is introduced along with the rest of the ABC Society, he is described as the leader, but the reasons for this are not fully clear until the last stand on the barricade. Enjolras is simultaneously a compassionate idealist and fierce zealot, and these qualities are vividly illustrated in the way that he treats one of his men who murders an innocent civilian. With a grand speech explaining that the revolution must bring in a world of new and fairer values, he executes this man. But Enjolras does not rejoice in death. At another point, he shoots an officer in the French army and weeps that he must kill his brother. Enjolras’ reactions to these complicated situations reveal a complex character.

ThoughLes Misérablesis strongly informed by its historical context, it also contains timeless themes. What is one incident, character, or idea that remains particularly pertinent today?

One idea that remains relevant today is that of the good man who becomes a victim of an unjust legal system. Especially in light of high levels of incarceration and police violence, it is not always clear that every judicial decision is actually just, or that the justice system actually creates justice. In some cases, poor people seem to be penalized unfairly. In the book, Jean Valjean was originally imprisoned for stealing a tiny bit of food to feed his sister’s children, and he faced enormous barriers to rejoining society after his release. We can imagine Jean Valjeans in our own society, and ask what happens to prisoners after they are released, and what forces push them into recidivism (i.e. committing more crimes).

Do you think Javert is justified in going to such lengths to pursue Jean Valjean? Why or why not?

I think he is justified in pursuing Valjean. The reader knows what a moral and righteous character Valjean is, but Javert does not have the same perspective; all he knows is that an ex-convict has gained a position of great social power in Montfermeil. Valjean is remarkable for his incredible strength and his high intelligence, two characteristics that would make a particularly dangerous criminal, if Valjean decided to pursue that life.

Les Misérables contains many cases of people discovering someone’s hidden identity. Describe one such episode, and explain its significance in the narrative.

One revelation of hidden identity comes when Javert discerns Valjean’s true identity when he saves Fauchelevent from the overturned carriage. Valjean is posing as Monsieur Madeleine at the time, but Javert still suspects that he is the vanished ex-convict. Valjean’s choice to save Fauchelevent through the use of his incredible (and very easily recognizable) physical strength despite the fact that it will allow Javert to identify him more easily is a mark of Valjean’s moral progress: he is willing to sacrifice himself to save others. In this instance of sudden recognition, it is a particular quality that reveals the hidden person; in other places in the novel, there is less explanation about how and why people are recognized.

Why do you think Hugo chose to write about the unsuccessful uprising of 1832 rather than other, more successful insurrections? Successful insurrections could include the uprising that removed the Bourbon kings from power or the French Revolution itself. What themes in the narrative does this focus support?

I think Hugo focused on this uprising to emphasize its courageous yet tragic nature. The men on the barricade knew that they were going to die, and in the end they knew that little political change would come out of it. In this way, Hugo can use the event as a way to highlight the struggles of the poor and their dreams for the future. The revolution remains unfinished and full of promise, rather than a difficult or dreary reality. Hugo likes to focus on the small events in history; though he makes mention of Waterloo and the Restoration, he spends much of his time focusing on the lives on individual characters. The uprising of 1832 was a similarly small event; it had enormous impact in the lives of individuals but relatively little impact on history, though it did lay the groundwork for the later uprising that removed Louis-Philippe from power.

Éponine is perhaps one of the most memorable characters in the novel. Do you think her actions are primarily selfish or selfless?

I think her actions are selfish — but they are still admirable. It was very selfish of her to put off sending Marius’ final letter to Cosette, and to entice Marius to a death on the barricades. She seized this chance to have Marius all to herself and to push him away from Cosette; this is the very definition of selfish. However, in the end she rejected these actions and sacrificed her life to save Marius. But this may also be selfish — she was so in love with Marius that she did not want to live in a world without him, and she may have been thinking more about herself than him when she put her hand in front of the gun. Despite her selfish actions, Éponine remains one of the most complex and likable characters in the book.

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Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them. Writers like Fielding and Smollett could seem realistic in the modern sense because they dealt largely with uninhibited characters, many of whom were about two jumps ahead of the police, but Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.

The detective story (perhaps I had better call it that, since the English formula still dominates the trade) has to find its public by a slow process of distillation. That it does do this, and holds on thereafter with such tenacity, is a fact; the reasons for it are a study for more patient minds than mine. Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked "Best-Sellers of Yesteryear," and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that "really important books" get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

To tell you the truth, I do not like it very much myself. In my less stilted moments I too write detective stories, and all this immortality makes just a little too much competition. Even Einstein couldn’t get very far if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too. Hemingway says somewhere that the good writer competes only with the dead. The good detective story writer (there must after all be a few) competes not only with all the unburied dead but with all the hosts of the living as well. And on almost equal terms; for it is one of the qualities of this kind of writing that the thing that makes people read it never goes out of style. The hero’s tie may be a little off the mode and the good gray inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with siren screaming, but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.

I have, however, a less sordid interest in the matter. It seems to me that production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose need of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took any talent. In that sense the raised eyebrow of the critic and the shoddy merchandizing of the publisher are perfectly logical. The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average—or only slightly above average—detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

I suppose the principal dilemma of the traditional or classic or straight-deductive or logic—and—deduction novel of detection is that for any approach to perfection it demands a combination of qualities not found in the same mind. The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board. The scientific sleuth has a nice new shiny laboratory, but I’m sorry I can’t remember the face. The fellow who can write you a vivid and colorful prose simply won’t be bothered with the coolie labor of breaking down unbreakable alibis. The master of rare knowledge is living psychologically in the age of the hoop skirt. If you know all you should know about ceramics and Egyptian needlework, you don’t know anything at all about the police. If you know that platinum won’t melt under about 2800 degrees F. by itself, but will melt at the glance of a pair of deep blue eyes when put close to a bar of lead, then you don’t know how men make love in the twentieth century. And if you know enough about the elegant flânerie of the pre-war French Riviera to lay your story in that locale, you don’t know that a couple of capsules of barbital small enough to be swallowed will not only not kill a man—they will not even put him to sleep, if he fights against them.

Every detective story writer makes mistakes, and none will ever know as much as he should. Conan Doyle made mistakes which completely invalidated some of his stories, but he was a pioneer, and Sherlock Holmes after all is mostly an attitude and a few dozen lines of unforgettable dialogue. It is the ladies and gentlemen of what Mr. Howard Haycraft (in his book Murder for Pleasure ) calls the Golden Age of detective fiction that really get me down. This age is not remote. For Mr. Haycraft’s purpose it starts after the first World War and lasts up to about 1930. For all practical purposes it is still here. Two-thirds or three-quarters of all the detective stories published still adhere to the formula the giants of this era created, perfected, polished and sold to the world as problems in logic and deduction. These are stern words, but be not alarmed. They are only words. Let us glance at one of the glories of the literature, an acknowledged masterpiece of the art of fooling the reader without cheating him. It is called The Red House Mystery , was written by A. A. Milne, and has been named by Alexander Woollcott (rather a fast man with a superlative) "one of the three best mystery stories of all time." Words of that size are not spoken lightly. The book was published in 1922, but is quite timeless, and might as easily have been published in July 1939, or, with a few slight changes, last week. It ran thirteen editions and seems to have been in print, in the original format, for about sixteen years. That happens to few books of any kind. It is an agreeable book, light, amusing in the Punch style, written with a deceptive smoothness that is not as easy as it looks.

It concerns Mark Ablett’s impersonation of his brother Robert, as a hoax on his friends. Mark is the owner of the Red House, a typical laburnum-and-lodge-gate English country house, and he has a secretary who encourages him and abets him in this impersonation, because the secretary is going to murder him, if he pulls it off. Nobody around the Red House has ever seen Robert, fifteen years absent in Australia, known to them by repute as a no-good. A letter from Robert is talked about, but never shown. It announces his arrival, and Mark hints it will not be a pleasant occasion. One afternoon, then, the supposed Robert arrives, identifies himself to a couple of servants, is shown into the study, and Mark (according to testimony at the inquest) goes in after him. Robert is then found dead on the floor with a bullet hole in his face, and of course Mark has vanished into thin air. Arrive the police, suspect Mark must be the murderer, remove the debris and proceed with the investigation, and in due course, with the inquest.

Milne is aware of one very difficult hurdle and tries as well as he can to get over it. Since the secretary is going to murder Mark once he has established himself as Robert, the impersonation has to continue on and fool the police. Since, also, everybody around the Red House knows Mark intimately, disguise is necessary. This is achieved by shaving off Mark’s beard, roughening his hands ("not the hands of a manicured gentlemen"—testimony) and the use of a gruff voice and rough manner. But this is not enough. The cops are going to have the body and the clothes on it and whatever is in the pockets. Therefore none of this must suggest Mark. Milne therefore works like a switch engine to put over the motivation that Mark is a thoroughly conceited performer that he dresses the part down to the socks and underwear (from all of which the secretary has removed the maker’s labels), like a ham blacking himself all over to play Othello. If the reader will buy this (and the sales record shows he must have) Milne figures he is solid. Yet, however light in texture the story may be, it is offered as a problem of logic and deduction. If it is not that, it is nothing at all. There is nothing else for it to be. If the situation is false, you cannot even accept it as a light novel, for there is no story for the light novel to be about. If the problem does not contain the elements of truth and plausibility, it is no problem; if the logic is an illusion, there is nothing to deduce. If the impersonation is impossible once the reader is told the conditions it must fulfill, then the whole thing is a fraud. Not a deliberate fraud, because Milne would not have written the story if he had known what he was up against. He is up against a number of deadly things, none of which he even considers. Nor, apparently, does the casual reader, who wants to like the story, hence takes it at its face value. But the reader is not called upon to know the facts of life; it is the author who is the expert in the case. Here is what this author ignores:

1. The coroner holds formal jury inquest on a body for which no competent legal identification is offered. A coroner, usually in a big city, will sometimes hold inquest on a body that cannot be identified, if the record of such an inquest has or may have a value (fire, disaster, evidence of murder, etc.). No such reason exists here, and there is no one to identify the body. A couple of witnesses said the man said he was Robert Ablett. This is mere presumption, and has weight only if nothing conflicts with it. Identification is a condition precedent to an inquest. Even in death a man has a right to his won identity. The coroner will, wherever humanly possible, enforce that right. To neglect it would be a violation of his office.

2. Since Mark Ablett, missing and suspected of murder, cannot defend himself, all evidence of his movements before and after the murder is vital (as also whether he has money to run away on); yet all such evidence is given by the man closest to the murder, and is without corroboration. It is automatically suspect until proved true.

3. The police find by direct investigation that Robert Ablett was not well thought of in his native village. Somebody there must have known him. No such person was brought to the inquest. (The story couldn’t stand it.)

4. The police know there is an element of threat in Robert’s supposed visit, and that it is connected with the murder must be obvious to them. Yet they make no attempt to check Robert in Australia, or find out what character he had there, or what associates, or even if he actually came to England, and with whom. (If they had, they would have found out he had been dead three years.)

5. The police surgeon examines the body with a recently shaved beard (exposing unweathered skin), artificially roughened hands, yet the body of a wealthy, soft-living man, long resident in a cool climate. Robert was a rough individual and had lived fifteen years in Australia. That is the surgeon’s information. It is impossible he would have noticed nothing to conflict with it.

6. The clothes are nameless, empty, and have had the labels removed. Yet the man wearing them asserted an identity. The presumption that he was not what he said he was is overpowering. Nothing whatever is done about this peculiar circumstance. It is never even mentioned as being peculiar.

7. A man is missing, a well-known local man, and a body in the morgue closely resembles him. It is impossible that the police should not at once eliminate the chance that the missing man is the dead man. Nothing would be easier than to prove it. Not even to think of it is incredible. It makes idiots of the police, so that a brash amateur may startle the world with a fake solution.

The detective in the case is an insouciant gent named Antony Gillingham, a nice lad with a cheery eye, a cozy little flat in London, and that airy manner. He is not making any money on the assignment, but is always available when the local gendarmerie loses its notebook. The English police seem to endure him with their customary stoicism; but I shudder to think of what the boys down at the Homicide Bureau in my city would do to him.

There are less plausible examples of the art than this. In Trent’s Last Case (often called "the perfect detective story") you have to accept the premise that a giant of international finance, whose lightest frown makes Wall Street quiver like a chihuahua, will plot his own death so as to hang his secretary, and that the secretary when pinched will maintain an aristocratic silence; the old Etonian in him maybe. I have known relatively few international financiers, but I rather think the author of this novel has (if possible) known fewer. There is one by Freeman Wills Crofts (the soundest builder of them all when he doesn’t get too fancy) wherein a murderer by the aid of makeup, split second timing, and some very sweet evasive action, impersonates the man he has just killed and thereby gets him alive and distant from the place of the crime. There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business. And there is a scheme of Agatha Christie’s featuring M. Hercule Poirot, that ingenius Belgian who talks in a literal translation of school-boy French, wherein, by duly messing around with his "little gray cells," M. Poirot decides that nobody on a certain through sleeper could have done the murder alone, therefore everybody did it together, breaking the process down into a series of simple operations, like assembling an egg-beater. This is the type that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it.

There are much better plots by these same writers and by others of their school. There may be one somewhere that would really stand up under close scrutiny. It would be fun to read it, even if I did have to go back to page 47 and refresh my memory about exactly what time the second gardener potted the prize-winning tea-rose begonia. There is nothing new about these stories and nothing old. The ones I mentioned are all English only because the authorities (such as they are) seem to feel the English writers had an edge in this dreary routine, and that the Americans, (even the creator of Philo Vance–probably the most asinine character in detective fiction) only made the Junior Varsity.

This, the classic detective story, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. It is the story you will find almost any week in the big shiny magazines, handsomely illustrated, and paying due deference to virginal love and the right kind of luxury goods. Perhaps the tempo has become a trifle faster, and the dialogue a little more glib. There are more frozen daiquiris and stingers ordered, and fewer glasses of crusty old port; more clothes by Vogue, and décors by the House Beautiful. more chic, but not more truth. We spend more time in Miami hotels and Cape Cod summer colonies and go not so often down by the old gray sundial in the Elizabethan garden. But fundamentally it is the same careful grouping of suspects, the same utterly incomprehensible trick of how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poignard just as she flatted on the top note of the Bell Song from Lakmé in the presence of fifteen ill-assorted guests; the same ingenue in fur-trimmed pajamas screaming in the night to make the company pop in and out of doors and ball up the timetable; the same moody silence next day as they sit around sipping Singapore slings and sneering at each other, while the flat-feet crawl to and fro under the Persian rugs, with their derby hats on.

Personally I like the English style better. It is not quite so brittle, and the people as a rule, just wear clothes and drink drinks. There is more sense of background, as if Cheesecake Manor really existed all around and not just the part the camera sees; there are more long walks over the Downs and the characters don’t all try to behave as if they had just been tested by MGM. The English may not always be the best writers in the world, but they are incomparably the best dull writers.

There is a very simple statement to be made about all these stories: they do not really come off intellectually as problems, and they do not come off artistically as fiction. They are too contrived, and too little aware of what goes on in the world. They try to be honest, but honesty is an art. The poor writer is dishonest without knowing it, and the fairly good one can be dishonest because he doesn’t know what to be honest about. He thinks a complicated murder scheme which baffles the lazy reader, who won’t be bothered itemizing the details, will also baffle the police, whose business is with details. The boys with their feet on the desks know that the easiest murder case in the world to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with; the one that really bothers them is the murder somebody only thought of two minutes before he pulled it off. But if the writers of this fiction wrote about the kind of murders that happen, they would also have to write about the authentic flavor of life as it is lived. And since they cannot do that, they pretend that what they do is what should be done. Which is begging the question–and the best of them know it.

In her introduction to the first Omnibus of Crime, Dorothy Sayers wrote: "It (the detective story) does not, and by hypothesis never can, attain the loftiest level of literary achievement." And she suggested somewhere else that this is because it is a "literature of escape" and not "a literature of expression." I do not know what the loftiest level of literary achievement is: neither did Aeschylus or Shakespeare; neither does Miss Sayers. Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest. It is always a matter of who writes the stuff, and what he has in him to write it with. As for literature of expression and literature of escape, this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds. All men who read escape from something else into what lies behind the printed page; the quality of the dream may be argued, but its release has become a functional necessity. All men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts. It is part of the process of life among thinking beings. It is one of the things that distinguish them from the three-toed sloth; he apparently–one can never be quite sure–is perfectly content hanging upside down on a branch, and not even reading Walter Lippmann. I hold no particular brief for the detective story as the ideal escape. I merely say that all reading for pleasure is escape, whether it be Greek, mathematics, astronomy, Benedetto Croce, or The Diary of the Forgotten Man. To say otherwise is to be an intellectual snob, and a juvenile at the art of living.

I do not think such considerations moved Miss Dorothy Sayers to her essay in critical futility.

I think what was really gnawing at her mind was the slow realization that her kind of detective story was an arid formula which could not even satisfy its own implications. It was second-grade literature because it was not about the things that could make first-grade literature. If it started out to be about real people (and she could write about them–her minor nor characters show that), they must very soon do unreal things in order to form the artificial pattern required by the plot. When they did unreal things, they ceased to be real themselves. They became puppets and cardboard lovers and papier mâché villains and detectives of exquisite and impossible gentility. The only kind of writer who could be happy with these properties was the one who did not know what reality was. Dorothy Sayers’ own stories show that she was annoyed by this triteness; the weakest element in them is the part that makes them detective stories, the strongest the part which could be removed without touching the "problem of logic and deduction." Yet she could not or would not give her characters their heads and let them make their own mystery. It took a much simpler and more direct mind than hers to do that.

In the Long Week-End, which is a drastically competent account of English life and manners in the decade following the first World War, Robert Graves and Alan Hodge gave some attention to the detective story. They were just as traditionally English as the ornaments of the Golden Age, and they wrote of the time in which these writers were almost as well-known as any writers in the world. Their books in one form or another sold into the millions, and in a dozen languages. These were the people who fixed the form and established the rules and founded the famous Detection Club, which is a Parnassus of English writers of mystery. Its roster includes practically every important writer of detective fiction since Conan Doyle. But Graves and Hodge decided that during this whole period only one first-class writer had written detective stories at all. An American, Dashiell Hammett. Traditional or not, Graves and Hodge were not fuddy-duddy connoisseurs of the second rate; they could see what went on in the world and that the detective story of their time didn’t; and they were aware that writers who have the vision and the ability to produce real fiction do not produce unreal fiction.

How original a writer Hammett really was, it isn’t easy to decide now, even if it mattered. He was one of a group, the only one who achieved critical recognition, but not the only one who wrote or tried to write realistic mystery fiction. All literary movements are like this; some one individual is picked out to represent the whole movement; he is usually the culmination of the movement. Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway. Yet for all I know, Hemingway may have learned something from Hammett, as well as from writers like Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson and himself. A rather revolutionary debunking of both the language and material of fiction had been going on for some time. It probably started in poetry; almost everything does. You can take it clear back to Walt Whitman, if you like. But Hammett applied it to the detective story, and this, because of its heavy crust of English gentility and American pseudo- gentility, was pretty hard to get moving. I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.

With all this he did not wreck the formal detective story. Nobody can; production demands a form that can be produced. Realism takes too much talent, too much knowledge, too much awareness. Hammett may have loosened it up a little here, and sharpened it a little there. Certainly all but the stupidest and most meretricious writers are more conscious of their artificiality than they used to be. And he demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius, but an art which is capable of it is not "by hypothesis" incapable of anything. Once a detective story can be as good as this, only the pedants will deny that it could be even better. Hammett did something else, he made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues. Without him there might not have been a regional mystery as clever as Percival Wilde’s Inquest, or an ironic study as able as Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, or a savage piece of intellectual double-talk like Kenneth Fearing’s The Dagger of the Mind, or a tragi-comic idealization of the murderer as in Donald Henderson’s Mr. Bowling Buys a Newspaper, or even a gay and intriguing Hollywoodian gambol like Richard Sale’s Lazarus No. 7.

The realistic style is easy to abuse: from haste, from lack of awareness, from inability to bridge the chasm that lies between what a writer would like to be able to say and what he actually knows how to say. It is easy to fake; brutality is not strength, flipness is not wit, edge-of-the-chair writing can be as boring as flat writing; dalliance with promiscuous blondes can be very dull stuff when described by goaty young men with no other purpose in mind than to describe dalliance with promiscuous blondes. There has been so much of this sort of thing that if a character in a detective story says, "Yeah," the author is automatically a Hammett imitator.

And there arc still quite a few people around who say that Hammett did not write detective stories at all, merely hardboiled chronicles of mean streets with a perfunctory mystery element dropped in like the olive in a martini. These are the flustered old ladies–of both sexes (or no sex) and almost all ages–who like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty, even if the perpetrators sometimes look like playboys or college professors or nice motherly women with softly graying hair. There are also a few badly-scared champions of the formal or the classic mystery who think no story is a detective story which does not pose a formal and exact problem and arrange the clues around it with neat labels on them. Such would point out, for example, that in reading TheMaltese Falcon no one concerns himself with who killed Spade’s partner, Archer (which is the only formal problem of the story) because the reader is kept thinking about something else. Yet in The Glass Key the reader is constantly reminded that the question is who killed Taylor Henry, and exactly the same effect is obtained; an effect of movement, intrigue, cross-purposes and the gradual elucidation of character, which is all the detective story has any right to be about anyway. The rest is spillikins in the parlor.

But all this (and Hammett too) is for me not quite enough. The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fingerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an instrument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practising; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Late Bloomers

Picasso’s greatest works came early; Cézanne’s came late. Credit Illustration by Gerald Scarfe

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction. The only thing Fountain had ever published was a law-review article. His literary training consisted of a handful of creative-writing classes in college. He had tried to write when he came home at night from work, but usually he was too tired to do much. He decided to quit his job.

“I was tremendously apprehensive,” Fountain recalls. “I felt like I’d stepped off a cliff and I didn’t know if the parachute was going to open. Nobody wants to waste their life, and I was doing well at the practice of law. I could have had a good career. And my parents were very proud of me—my dad was so proud of me. It was crazy.”

He began his new life on a February morning—a Monday. He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 A.M. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.” His first story was about a stockbroker who uses inside information and crosses a moral line. It was sixty pages long and took him three months to write. When he finished that story, he went back to work and wrote another—and then another.

In his first year, Fountain sold two stories. He gained confidence. He wrote a novel. He decided it wasn’t very good, and he ended up putting it in a drawer. Then came what he describes as his dark period, when he adjusted his expectations and started again. He got a short story published in Harper’s. A New York literary agent saw it and signed him up. He put together a collection of short stories titled “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” and Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, published it. The reviews were sensational. The Times Book Review called it “heartbreaking.” It won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award. It was named a No. 1 Book Sense Pick. It made major regional best-seller lists, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. the Chicago Tribune. and Kirkus Reviews, and drew comparisons to Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Stone, and John le Carré.

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one. In some creative forms, like lyric poetry, the importance of precocity has hardened into an iron law. How old was T. S. Eliot when he wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (“I grow old. I grow old”)? Twenty-three. “Poets peak young,” the creativity researcher James Kaufman maintains. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the author of “Flow,” agrees: “The most creative lyric verse is believed to be that written by the young.” According to the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, a leading authority on creativity, “Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age.”

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently. Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot’s “Prufrock,” Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Frost’s “Mending Wall,” Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man,” and Williams’s “The Dance.” Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person’s game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.

The same was true of film, Galenson points out in his study “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.” Yes, there was Orson Welles, peaking as a director at twenty-five. But then there was Alfred Hitchcock, who made “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho”—one of the greatest runs by a director in history—between his fifty-fourth and sixty-first birthdays. Mark Twain published “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at forty-nine. Daniel Defoe wrote “Robinson Crusoe” at fifty-eight.

The examples that Galenson could not get out of his head, however, were Picasso and Cézanne. He was an art lover, and he knew their stories well. Picasso was the incandescent prodigy. His career as a serious artist began with a masterpiece, “Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas,” produced at age twenty. In short order, he painted many of the greatest works of his career—including “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” at the age of twenty-six. Picasso fit our usual ideas about genius perfectly.

Cézanne didn’t. If you go to the Cézanne room at the Musée d’Orsay, in Paris—the finest collection of Cézannes in the world—the array of masterpieces you’ll find along the back wall were all painted at the end of his career. Galenson did a simple economic analysis, tabulating the prices paid at auction for paintings by Picasso and Cézanne with the ages at which they created those works. A painting done by Picasso in his mid-twenties was worth, he found, an average of four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. For Cézanne, the opposite was true. The paintings he created in his mid-sixties were valued fifteen times as highly as the paintings he created as a young man. The freshness, exuberance, and energy of youth did little for Cézanne. He was a late bloomer—and for some reason in our accounting of genius and creativity we have forgotten to make sense of the Cézannes of the world.

The first day that Ben Fountain sat down to write at his kitchen table went well. He knew how the story about the stockbroker was supposed to start. But the second day, he says, he “completely freaked out.” He didn’t know how to describe things. He felt as if he were back in first grade. He didn’t have a fully formed vision, waiting to be emptied onto the page. “I had to create a mental image of a building, a room, a façade, haircut, clothes—just really basic things,” he says. “I realized I didn’t have the facility to put those into words. I started going out and buying visual dictionaries, architectural dictionaries, and going to school on those.”

He began to collect articles about things he was interested in, and before long he realized that he had developed a fascination with Haiti. “The Haiti file just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Fountain says. “And I thought, O.K. here’s my novel. For a month or two I said I really don’t need to go there, I can imagine everything. But after a couple of months I thought, Yeah, you’ve got to go there, and so I went, in April or May of ’91.”

He spoke little French, let alone Haitian Creole. He had never been abroad. Nor did he know anyone in Haiti. “I got to the hotel, walked up the stairs, and there was this guy standing at the top of the stairs,” Fountain recalls. “He said, ‘My name is Pierre. You need a guide.’ I said, ‘You’re sure as hell right, I do.’ He was a very genuine person, and he realized pretty quickly I didn’t want to go see the girls, I didn’t want drugs, I didn’t want any of that other stuff,” Fountain went on. “And then it was, boom. ‘I can take you there. I can take you to this person.’ “

Fountain was riveted by Haiti. “It’s like a laboratory, almost,” he says. “Everything that’s gone on in the last five hundred years—colonialism, race, power, politics, ecological disasters—it’s all there in very concentrated form. And also I just felt, viscerally, pretty comfortable there.” He made more trips to Haiti, sometimes for a week, sometimes for two weeks. He made friends. He invited them to visit him in Dallas. (“You haven’t lived until you’ve had Haitians stay in your house,” Fountain says.) “I mean, I was involved. I couldn’t just walk away. There’s this very nonrational, nonlinear part of the whole process. I had a pretty specific time era that I was writing about, and certain things that I needed to know. But there were other things I didn’t really need to know. I met a fellow who was with Save the Children, and he was on the Central Plateau, which takes about twelve hours to get to on a bus, and I had no reason to go there. But I went up there. Suffered on that bus, and ate dust. It was a hard trip, but it was a glorious trip. It had nothing to do with the book, but it wasn’t wasted knowledge.”

In “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara,” four of the stories are about Haiti, and they are the strongest in the collection. They feel like Haiti; they feel as if they’ve been written from the inside looking out, not the outside looking in. “After the novel was done, I don’t know, I just felt like there was more for me, and I could keep going, keep going deeper there,” Fountain recalls. “Always there’s something—always something—here for me. How many times have I been? At least thirty times.”

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ “ Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:

The imprecision of their goals means that these artists rarely feel they have succeeded, and their careers are consequently often dominated by the pursuit of a single objective. These artists repeat themselves, painting the same subject many times, and gradually changing its treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. Each work leads to the next, and none is generally privileged over others, so experimental painters rarely make specific preparatory sketches or plans for a painting. They consider the production of a painting as a process of searching, in which they aim to discover the image in the course of making it; they typically believe that learning is a more important goal than making finished paintings. Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods. These artists are perfectionists and are typically plagued by frustration at their inability to achieve their goal.

Where Picasso wanted to find, not search, Cézanne said the opposite: “I seek in painting.”

An experimental innovator would go back to Haiti thirty times. That’s how that kind of mind figures out what it wants to do. When Cézanne was painting a portrait of the critic Gustave Geffroy, he made him endure eighty sittings, over three months, before announcing the project a failure. (The result is one of that string of masterpieces in the Musée d’Orsay.) When Cézanne painted his dealer, Ambrose Vollard, he made Vollard arrive at eight in the morning and sit on a rickety platform until eleven-thirty, without a break, on a hundred and fifty occasions—before abandoning the portrait. He would paint a scene, then repaint it, then paint it again. He was notorious for slashing his canvases to pieces in fits of frustration.

Mark Twain was the same way. Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete. The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.

One of the best stories in “Brief Encounters” is called “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera.” It’s about an ornithologist taken hostage by the FARC guerrillas of Colombia. Like so much of Fountain’s work, it reads with an easy grace. But there was nothing easy or graceful about its creation. “I struggled with that story,” Fountain says. “I always try to do too much. I mean, I probably wrote five hundred pages of it in various incarnations.” Fountain is at work right now on a novel. It was supposed to come out this year. It’s late.

Galenson’s idea that creativity can be divided into these types—conceptual and experimental—has a number of important implications. For example, we sometimes think of late bloomers as late starters. They don’t realize they’re good at something until they’re fifty, so of course they achieve late in life. But that’s not quite right. Cézanne was painting almost as early as Picasso was. We also sometimes think of them as artists who are discovered late; the world is just slow to appreciate their gifts. In both cases, the assumption is that the prodigy and the late bloomer are fundamentally the same, and that late blooming is simply genius under conditions of market failure. What Galenson’s argument suggests is something else—that late bloomers bloom late because they simply aren’t much good until late in their careers.

“I’ve found someone else, Ned—someone with better seats.”

“All these qualities of his inner vision were continually hampered and obstructed by Cézanne’s incapacity to give sufficient verisimilitude to the personae of his drama,” the great English art critic Roger Fry wrote of the early Cézanne. “With all his rare endowments, he happened to lack the comparatively common gift of illustration, the gift that any draughtsman for the illustrated papers learns in a school of commercial art; whereas, to realize such visions as Cézanne’s required this gift in high degree.” In other words, the young Cézanne couldn’t draw. Of “The Banquet,” which Cézanne painted at thirty-one, Fry writes, “It is no use to deny that Cézanne has made a very poor job of it.” Fry goes on, “More happily endowed and more integral personalities have been able to express themselves harmoniously from the very first. But such rich, complex, and conflicting natures as Cézanne’s require a long period of fermentation.” Cézanne was trying something so elusive that he couldn’t master it until he’d spent decades practicing.

This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to accept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

Not long after meeting Ben Fountain, I went to see the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the 2002 best-seller “Everything Is Illuminated.” Fountain is a graying man, slight and modest, who looks, in the words of a friend of his, like a “golf pro from Augusta, Georgia.” Foer is in his early thirties and looks barely old enough to drink. Fountain has a softness to him, as if years of struggle have worn away whatever sharp edges he once had. Foer gives the impression that if you touched him while he was in full conversational flight you would get an electric shock.

“I came to writing really by the back door,” Foer said. “My wife is a writer, and she grew up keeping journals—you know, parents said, ‘Lights out, time for bed,’ and she had a little flashlight under the covers, reading books. I don’t think I read a book until much later than other people. I just wasn’t interested in it.”

Foer went to Princeton and took a creative-writing class in his freshman year with Joyce Carol Oates. It was, he explains, “sort of on a whim, maybe out of a sense that I should have a diverse course load.” He’d never written a story before. “I didn’t really think anything of it, to be honest, but halfway through the semester I arrived to class early one day, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m glad I have this chance to talk to you. I’m a fan of your writing.’ And it was a real revelation for me.”

Oates told him that he had the most important of writerly qualities, which was energy. He had been writing fifteen pages a week for that class, an entire story for each seminar. “Why does a dam with a crack in it leak so much?” he said, with a laugh. “There was just something in me, there was like a pressure.”

As a sophomore, he took another creative-writing class. During the following summer, he went to Europe. He wanted to find the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. After the trip, he went to Prague. There he read Kafka, as any literary undergraduate would, and sat down at his computer.

“I was just writing,” he said. “I didn’t know that I was writing until it was happening. I didn’t go with the intention of writing a book. I wrote three hundred pages in ten weeks. I really wrote. I’d never done it like that.”

It was a novel about a boy named Jonathan Safran Foer who visits the village in Ukraine where his grandfather had come from. Those three hundred pages were the first draft of “Everything Is Illuminated”—the exquisite and extraordinary novel that established Foer as one of the most distinctive literary voices of his generation. He was nineteen years old.

Foer began to talk about the other way of writing books, where you painstakingly honed your craft, over years and years. “I couldn’t do that,” he said. He seemed puzzled by it. It was clear that he had no understanding of how being an experimental innovator would work. “I mean, imagine if the craft you’re trying to learn is to be an original. How could you learn the craft of being an original?”

He began to describe his visit to Ukraine. “I went to the shtetl where my family came from. It’s called Trachimbrod, the name I use in the book. It’s a real place. But you know what’s funny? It’s the single piece of research that made its way into the book.” He wrote the first sentence, and he was proud of it, and then he went back and forth in his mind about where to go next. “I spent the first week just having this debate with myself about what to do with this first sentence. And once I made the decision, I felt liberated to just create—and it was very explosive after that.”

If you read “Everything Is Illuminated,” you end up with the same feeling you get when you read “Brief Encounters with Che Guevara”—the sense of transport you experience when a work of literature draws you into its own world. Both are works of art. It’s just that, as artists, Fountain and Foer could not be less alike. Fountain went to Haiti thirty times. Foer went to Trachimbrod just once. “I mean, it was nothing,” Foer said. “I had absolutely no experience there at all. It was just a springboard for my book. It was like an empty swimming pool that had to be filled up.” Total time spent getting inspiration for his novel: three days.

Ben Fountain did not make the decision to quit the law and become a writer all by himself. He is married and has a family. He met his wife, Sharon, when they were both in law school at Duke. When he was doing real-estate work at Akin, Gump, she was on the partner track in the tax practice at Thompson & Knight. The two actually worked in the same building in downtown Dallas. They got married in 1985, and had a son in April of 1987. Sharie, as Fountain calls her, took four months of maternity leave before returning to work. She made partner by the end of that year.

“We had our son in a day care downtown,” she recalls. “We would drive in together, one of us would take him to day care, the other one would go to work. One of us would pick him up, and then, somewhere around eight o’clock at night, we would have him bathed, in bed, and then we hadn’t even eaten yet, and we’d be looking at each other, going, ‘This is just the beginning.’ “ She made a face. “That went on for maybe a month or two, and Ben’s like, ‘I don’t know how people do this.’ We both agreed that continuing at that pace was probably going to make us all miserable. Ben said to me, ‘Do you want to stay home?’ Well, I was pretty happy in my job, and he wasn’t, so as far as I was concerned it didn’t make any sense for me to stay home. And I didn’t have anything besides practicing law that I really wanted to do, and he did. So I said, ‘Look, can we do this in a way that we can still have some day care and so you can write?’ And so we did that.”

Ben could start writing at seven-thirty in the morning because Sharie took their son to day care. He stopped working in the afternoon because that was when he had to pick him up, and then he did the shopping and the household chores. In 1989, they had a second child, a daughter. Fountain was a full-fledged North Dallas stay-at-home dad.

“When Ben first did this, we talked about the fact that it might not work, and we talked about, generally, ‘When will we know that it really isn’t working?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, give it ten years,’ “ Sharie recalled. To her, ten years didn’t seem unreasonable. “It takes a while to decide whether you like something or not,” she says. And when ten years became twelve and then fourteen and then sixteen, and the kids were off in high school, she stood by him, because, even during that long stretch when Ben had nothing published at all, she was confident that he was getting better. She was fine with the trips to Haiti, too. “I can’t imagine writing a novel about a place you haven’t at least tried to visit,” she says. She even went with him once, and on the way into town from the airport there were people burning tires in the middle of the road.

“I was making pretty decent money, and we didn’t need two incomes,” Sharie went on. She has a calm, unflappable quality about her. “I mean, it would have been nice, but we could live on one.”

Sharie was Ben’s wife. But she was also—to borrow a term from long ago—his patron. That word has a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace. But the marketplace works only for people like Jonathan Safran Foer, whose art emerges, fully realized, at the beginning of their career, or Picasso, whose talent was so blindingly obvious that an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris, at age twenty. If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.

This is what is so instructive about any biography of Cézanne. Accounts of his life start out being about Cézanne, and then quickly turn into the story of Cézanne’s circle. First and foremost is always his best friend from childhood, the writer Émile Zola, who convinces the awkward misfit from the provinces to come to Paris, and who serves as his guardian and protector and coach through the long, lean years.

Here is Zola, already in Paris, in a letter to the young Cézanne back in Provence. Note the tone, more paternal than fraternal:

You ask me an odd question. Of course one can work here, as anywhere else, if one has the will. Paris offers, further, an advantage you can’t find elsewhere: the museums in which you can study the old masters from 11 to 4. This is how you must divide your time. From 6 to 11 you go to a studio to paint from a live model; you have lunch, then from 12 to 4 you copy, in the Louvre or the Luxembourg, whatever masterpiece you like. That will make up nine hours of work. I think that ought to be enough.

Zola goes on, detailing exactly how Cézanne could manage financially on a monthly stipend of a hundred and twenty-five francs:

I’ll reckon out for you what you should spend. A room at 20 francs a month; lunch at 18 sous and dinner at 22, which makes two francs a day, or 60 francs a month. Then you have the studio to pay for: the Atelier Suisse, one of the least expensive, charges, I think, 10 francs. Add 10 francs for canvas, brushes, colors; that makes 100. So you’ll have 25 francs left for laundry, light, the thousand little needs that turn up.

Camille Pissarro was the next critical figure in Cézanne’s life. It was Pissarro who took Cézanne under his wing and taught him how to be a painter. For years, there would be periods in which they went off into the country and worked side by side.

Then there was Ambrose Vollard, the sponsor of Cézanne’s first one-man show, at the age of fifty-six. At the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet, Vollard hunted down Cézanne in Aix. He spotted a still-life in a tree, where it had been flung by Cézanne in disgust. He poked around the town, putting the word out that he was in the market for Cézanne’s canvases. In “Lost Earth: A Life of Cézanne,” the biographer Philip Callow writes about what happened next:

Before long someone appeared at his hotel with an object wrapped in a cloth. He sold the picture for 150 francs, which inspired him to trot back to his house with the dealer to inspect several more magnificent Cézannes. Vollard paid a thousand francs for the job lot, then on the way out was nearly hit on the head by a canvas that had been overlooked, dropped out the window by the man’s wife. All the pictures had been gathering dust, half buried in a pile of junk in the attic.

All this came before Vollard agreed to sit a hundred and fifty times, from eight in the morning to eleven-thirty, without a break, for a picture that Cézanne disgustedly abandoned. Once, Vollard recounted in his memoir, he fell asleep, and toppled off the makeshift platform. Cézanne berated him, incensed: “Does an apple move?” This is called friendship.

Finally, there was Cézanne’s father, the banker Louis-Auguste. From the time Cézanne first left Aix, at the age of twenty-two, Louis-Auguste paid his bills, even when Cézanne gave every indication of being nothing more than a failed dilettante. But for Zola, Cézanne would have remained an unhappy banker’s son in Provence; but for Pissarro, he would never have learned how to paint; but for Vollard (at the urging of Pissarro, Renoir, Degas, and Monet), his canvases would have rotted away in some attic; and, but for his father, Cézanne’s long apprenticeship would have been a financial impossibility. That is an extraordinary list of patrons. The first three—Zola, Pissarro, and Vollard—would have been famous even if Cézanne never existed, and the fourth was an unusually gifted entrepreneur who left Cézanne four hundred thousand francs when he died. Cézanne didn’t just have help. He had a dream team in his corner.

This is the final lesson of the late bloomer: his or her success is highly contingent on the efforts of others. In biographies of Cézanne, Louis-Auguste invariably comes across as a kind of grumpy philistine, who didn’t appreciate his son’s genius. But Louis-Auguste didn’t have to support Cézanne all those years. He would have been within his rights to make his son get a real job, just as Sharie might well have said no to her husband’s repeated trips to the chaos of Haiti. She could have argued that she had some right to the life style of her profession and status—that she deserved to drive a BMW, which is what power couples in North Dallas drive, instead of a Honda Accord, which is what she settled for.

But she believed in her husband’s art, or perhaps, more simply, she believed in her husband, the same way Zola and Pissarro and Vollard and—in his own, querulous way—Louis-Auguste must have believed in Cézanne. Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.” ♦

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