The following article by Liz Rosenberg is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced in part or in full without the author's express written consent. It was originally published in the Boston Globe:
NOVELIST, TEACHER, HUSBAND, FRIEND
REMEMBERING JOHN GARDNER
by Liz Rosenberg
One of the hardest things about the death of a beloved is that we lose our connection to the living sensibility- how the loved one saw the world; his or her cast of mind, with all the familiar or mysterious twists and turns. When the deceased is an artist, things remain, and years later you may find yourself suddenly faced with that mind at work engaged in a new, albeit very-long distance conversation with the dead.
The novelist John Gardner was my first husband; he died 15 years ago almost exactly, six days after we had been divorced. We were together seven years in all. Before he was my husband, he was my teacher at Bennington College; during and after the divorce we remained best friends. We spoke in the early hours of the morning on the day that he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49; his last words to me were "I love you terribly." I am not going to pretend to be objective about him, or his writing.
The novelist John Gardner was my first husband; he died 15 years ago almost exactly, six days after we had been divorced. We were together seven years in all. Before he was my husband, he was my teacher at Bennington College; during and after the divorce we remained best friends. We spoke in the early hours of the morning on the day he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49; his last words to me were "I love you terribly." I am not going to pretend to be objective about him, or his writing.
More than a dozen of his books are out of print, including Nickel Mountain, Freddys Book, and Mickelssons Ghost - -a situation so inexplicable, so wasteful, it makes one wonder about the sanity of the publishing establishment. In honor of the anniversary of his death, I thought I would look not at his books I love best, those which I think have earned him an enduring place in American literature -- the short, jeweled frenzy of "Grendel," which he wrote in six weeks time; or the slower pace pastoral beauty of "Nickel Mountain," has most tender novel, which he began as a college student -- but at a handful of later books he published when we were together. As is so often the case, I saw these books less clearly than other works that had been created at a greater distance from me.
Rereading John, I have had those startling moments of coming again upon his mind at work - and there never was such a mind for swiftness, brilliance, associative power, the search for larger meanings. John was an electrifying public speaker and teacher for those very gifts. I have seen him begin with a seemingly simple observation on Aristotles idea of - the energy that drives a story relentlessly forward - only to swerve sideways into talk on metallurgy, alchemy, Achilles shield and its relation between civilization and art, a loop to Mozarts method of composition, something in the news, a sharks ability to scent blood in the water before it is measurable there, and - as if hed never wandered astray - back again to profluence.
One cannot precisely recapture the effects of the live performance, but something of its trajectory remains in the three great nonfiction teaching books he wrote toward the end of his life. On Moral Fiction come first, and caused him untold grief. It is a passionate book that argues that the making of fiction is a moral process, a "laboratory" in which we can safely test our most precious ideas to see if they stand - or fall. It also dared to suggest that there might be a connection between the values of a civilization and the values of its art. The book was wildly misunderstood on every side, most of al by those who read it carelessly or not at all. Fellow writers attacked him on the cover of The New York Times as a hatchet man out to get them. Right-wing spokes- people welcomed him, and he was invited to join the America Nazi Party, which so enraged him that he instantly sent back a telegram with expletives he somehow convinced the operator to include.
His own publisher, Knopf, would not touch the book, so Basic Books bravely published it. Nearly overnight, he turned from darling of the literary establishment to its parish. I often wished he had not named so many names in his attacks on contemporary writing- of course Tolstoy had done the same in his book, "What Is Art?- but John felt that he had to be specific, and, I think, needed to prove even to himself that he was not afraid. Perhaps he should have been. Even now, his reputation as a writer is overcast by resentment, and it may take 20 or 30 years to get the grudge-bearers off his back.
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers came next, and was intended more specifically as a teaching book, or guide. Just at the time of its composition, in 1978, John was diagnosed with colon cancer, and the prognosis was not good. He thought of books as of the Etudes the dying Chopin wrote for his music students. In it, he tried to cram as much as he could of what he had learned about the art of fiction: advice, exercises, exhortations, and examples.
I have memories of John, hooked up to an intravenous machine, minutes before his surgery, typing away on that manuscript. He himself used it later, carried it around in a thick black binder, so it came to be known to his students as "The Black Book" long before it was published, post humously, in 1983. Just yesterday a student approached me, saying and rereading The Art of Fiction, teaching herself how to write from the book. It is a dense, nearly encyclopedia guide to young writers, and those looking for a quicker fix often turn to On Becoming a Novelist, which was Johns own condensation of The Art of Fiction, written still later under money pressures and other duress. Nonetheless, something about the anxiety of its composition gave it a sharper focus than the longer work: I have always preferred it, somewhat guiltily, to The Art of Fiction, and have loved its breeziness of tone.
But On Becoming a Novelist can get serious in a heartbeat:
"What the novelist does besides despise false novels is try to write true ones....Good fiction sets off, as I said earlier, a vivid and continuous dream in the readers mind. It is "generous in the sense that it is complete and self-contained....It does not leave us hanging, unless the narrative itself justifies it inconclusiveness. It does not play pointlessly subtle games....And finally, an aesthetically successful story will contain a sense of lifes strangeness, however humdrum its making."
There are his last works of fiction, many of them peculiar even by the light of "lifes strangeness" - among them the almost-fairy-tale book, Vlemk, The Box Painter, about a painter who creates a likeness of a princess so perfect it speaks and condemns the artist to silence; the better-known Mickelssons Ghosts with its country characters who fly, and its final assemblage of ghosts; a young-adult novel/tale, In the Suicide Mountains, which proved how inventive the light-footed this heavy-duty novelist could be.
Written in the face of discouragingly high rate of teenage suicide amount his sons friends and acquaintances, In the Suicide Mountain brings together a dwarf; a lovely peasant girl who "beneath the pink ribbons of her lacy dress...had the muscle of a drafthorse, and under her burst of yellow hair the acumen of a banker", Prince Christopher the Sullen; and "the notorious six-fingered man, the man no jail in the world can hold" - all of them potentially suicidal. The book contains famous Russian tales within the larger tale, fiendishly clever plot twists , and moments of pure froth as far as prose goes: "This wisp of a maiden was as indifferent to his ugliness as an ostrich would be to an oyster." Like Grendel initially rejected by publishers as "too violent for a childrens book," In the Suicide Mountains fall betwixt and between categories.
There was also the tale-within-a-novel of Freddys Book, similar in form to his award-winning, junk-novel-within-a-pastoral, October Light. The frame device of Freddys Book - that of a monstrously huge young man, the lonely son of a lonely old scholar, who sides his Gothic manuscript through the door of the narrator-is one of the most purely beautiful and spooky pieces of prose I know. Her is the close of the final scene, just before the inner tale begins:
"He struggled with the door, too low and narrow for him, and at last, silently, he bent down on one knee, and I made out that he was pushing something toward me through the moonlight, some inert gift or offering, the object wobbling in the frail, flecked light, moving in at me as far as his enormous arm would reach. He lowered the object and dropped it on the floor. It struck the carpet with a thump. Slowly, he drew back his hand. After that he rose, stood motionless a moment, then, without a sound, drew the door shut. I heard floorboards creak. He seemed to move more lightly now, as if it had been a great weight hed carried, that gift hed brought, the object lying there solemn in the moonlight, mysteriously still and sufficient on the dusty gray carpet"
------ Freddys Book.
The book was published to very little notice, and almost no acclaim. Life has never been easy for literary giants. It was not always easy for John, yet in his short, brilliant Achilles-life he left behind a remarkable, various body of work. After all these years, I still love it, and him.
|Liz Rosenberg, poet and novelist, teaches English and writing at the
State University of New York at Binghamton.
THE BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE, SEPTEMBER 21, 1997