January 2, 2020
Author: Chilton Williamson
Blessed are they who live in a non-political age, insofar as there is any such thing. Aristotle, who defined man as the political animal, would have denied the possibility. Perhaps the curse of Cain is responsible.
The model polity, in terms of domestic politics at least, should be economy as the Greeks understood the business: the responsible, efficient, and humdrum business of running a household, in this case an extended one. Obviously this is not work to which the best minds are suited, nor should they be burdened with it. A good government is one run by very ordinary people in a very smooth and unobtrusive way and with a minimum amount of oversight by their betters, whose time is thereby reserved for better things. The problem, of course, is that –in a democracy especially–even the most ordinary people grow bored with routine and anonymity, get above themselves, and aspire to something better: seizing the reins themselves and driving the coach in their own chosen direction. In order that they may not do so, the superior men need at all times to pay attention to what they are up to. “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance”—and so forth. To get away, if only for a few days, from the present political obsession I spent a couple of days at the New Year reading two books I came across at a local book shop. I had never heard of either of them, despite being well familiar with their authors and their other works.
Raymond Chandler thought that Scott Fitzgerald “had one of the rarest qualities in all literature….[T]he word is charm….It’s a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite, the sort of thing you get from good string quartettes.” Chandler believed too that Fitzgerald only just missed being a great writer. Save in the case of Gatsby, perhaps, I’ve never thought he ever came close. Tender Is the Night, it seems to me, is a failure for the simple reason that Dick and Nicole Diver not only lack charm, despite their creator’s insistence that they are charming; they are not even very well-drawn or interesting characters. Still I thoroughly enjoyed The Pat Hobby Stories, of whose existence I was previously unaware. Written during the last year of Fitzgerald’s life and serially published in Esquire between January 1940 and May 1941 by Arnold Gingrich, these brief narratives (they average about 2500 words in length) concern the fortunes (all of them bad) and adventures (all trivial and sordid) of a 49-year-old Hollywood writer who enjoyed great success in the Hollywood studios before the talkies came in at the end of the ‘20s and has scrounged out a living since as an alcoholic has-been hanging around the lots picking up infrequent assignments lasting four weeks and for which he is paid two-hundred-fifty dollars by the well-paid higher-ups for whom he has become an object of condescension and a sad joke. To supplement his irregular income, Pat resorts to minor scams that involve him in ludicrously comic situations from which he escapes with no real loss except to his pride. Not all the stories are especially well-conceived or well-written, but they do sketch a bitter and plausibly dreary picture of an industry that from its inception in the early 20th century has been undermining, demoralizing, and ruining civilization. Reading them, I wished that Chandler had set one of his own novels directly in Hollywood instead of around its edges and let Philip Marlowe do his worst with it, while playing around, as usual, with his usual blondes.
Graham Greene, who was a great writer though an uneven one, was also an artist of a very different sort from Fitzgerald. (Evelyn Waugh, in his review of The Heart of the Matter, put his finger better than anyone on Greene’s genius.) Having so far read only one hundred-odd pages of Brighton Rock, I am struck by two things. One is the truth of Flannery O’Connor’s critical insight that Greene, a highly uneasy Catholic, redeemed Catholicism in his work by making it appear sordid. The other is the striking likeness between this novel of his and those of Cormac McCarthy, born five years before Brighton Rock was published. Greene’s protagonist, whom the author refers to habitually as “The Boy” (though we learn from other characters that his name is “P. Brown”), is a dead ringer for any one of the cold inhuman killers, beyond good and evil, so common to McCarthy’s novels and whom even P. Brown’s impersonal authorial appellation recalls to the reader’s mind. The story, about the leader of a protectionist racket in Brighton in the ‘30s, gets off to a slow start. Once it attains momentum however, it gallops on apace.
The world would be a better place for more literature, and less politics. Alas, the opposite seems in store for it. And for us.