Thursday, 9 April 2015
"The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny thirty times a day for months on end. And on most days he received more than thirty letters, all of them alike, stamped from the cookie dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife."
King James had the bible translated into English. Nathanael West has transmigrated it into the language of hard-drinking, utterly cynical newspaper men, creating a book at once funny and heartbroken, perhaps as bereft of hope as any book I have read. Indeed, it is a rare pleasure to read a book almost as pessimistic as I feel.
Miss Lonelyhearts, firstly, is a man who took on the 'agony aunt' column in 'the New York Post-Dispatch' in order to further his career. Now even he refers to himself as Miss Lonelyhearts. Even his identity is inauthentic. He is a figure of fun for his editor, Shrike, who makes a joke of Miss Lonelyhearts' earnestness and quasi-priestlike position. "'The Susan Chesters, the Beatrice Fairfaxes, and the Miss Lonelyhearts are the priests of twentieth-century America.'"
Susan Chester's 'operator' was a journalist who was friends with SJ Perelman, a good friend of West, and his brother in law. A night all three spent reading letters addressed to Susan Chester was one of the main inspirations for Miss Lonelyhearts. The letters describe lives of quiet agony and desperate yearning and are mostly edited versions of the originals. Here are some excerpts:
"I have 7 children in 12 yrs and ever since the last 2 I have been so sick. I was operatored on twice and my husband promised no more children on the doctors advice as he said I might die but when I got back from hospital he broke his promise and now I am going to have a baby and I don't think I can stand it my kidneys hurt so much. I am so sick and scared because I can't have an abortion on account of being a catholic and my husband so religious. I cry all the time it hurts so much and I don't know what to do. Yours respectfully, Sick-of-it-all"
This, the first letter, suggests that 'religious' and good may be diametrically opposed at times.
Another is from a girl who was "born without a nose", and it directly interrogates the christian dogma of the fallen state of man, and the Buddhist idea of rebirth: "What did I do to deserve such a terrible bad fate? Even if I did do some bad things I didnt do any before I was a year old and I was born this way. I asked Papa and he says he doesnt know, but that maybe I did something in the other world before I was born or that maybe I was being punished for his sins. I dont believe that because he is a very nice man. Ought I to commit suicide? Sincerely yours, Desperate"
The son of a preacher man, Miss Lonelyhearts wants to offer the consolation of religion but is afraid of Shrike's laughter and his own allergic reaction to the Xtian messiah: "Christ was the answer but if he did not want to get sick, he had to stay away from the Christ business. Besides, Christ was Shrike's particular joke. 'Soul of Miss L. glorify me. Body of Miss L, save me. Blood of...' He turned to his typewriter." Miss L is paralysed by good intentions, alcoholism, rage, despair, and lust. And also by the insolubility of some problems, and his inability to manage a philosophy that can either assimilate or dismiss the tragic yearnings he is privy to in the letters he receives.
The book takes the prospective salves one by one, dismissing all as hopeless. Shrike suggests he just trot out the trite solutions that are the commonplace of self-help books and agony aunts: "'Art is one of Life's Richest Offerings.
'For those who have not the talent to create, there is appreciation. For those...
'Go on from there.'"
But Miss L feels a deep need for something more meaningful. He harbours a deep desire to turn to Jesus, even though he knows it for just another lie. In a reversal of the Garden of Eden story Miss L presents Jesus as the snake that tempts him:
"As a boy in his father's church, he had discovered that something stored in him when he shouted the name of Christ, something secret and enormously powerful. He had played with this thing, but had never allowed it to come alive.
He knew now what this thing was - hysteria, a snake whose scales are tiny mirrors in which the dead world takes on a semblance of life."
This song, possibly inspired by West's novel, is from As Thousands Cheer, a contemporaneous revue from Irvine Berlin and Moss Hart.
Miss L doesn't just feel attracted to religion, he diagnoses himself with a 'Christ complex' and in the mock heroic style that West deploys we are invited to see him as a kind of shadow Christ. "He walked into the shadow of a lamp-post that lay on the path like a spear. It pierced him like a spear." West himself formed a group called "The Prince Myshkinites" and dubbed himself Prince Myshkin, after the hero of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. Dostoevsky is referenced more than once during the book and indeed the call of Father Zossima seems to perfectly encapsulate Miss L's deepest desires: "He got undressed immediately and took a cigarette and a copy of The Brothers Karamazov to bed. The marker was in a chapter devoted to Father Zossima.
'Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.'"
Miss L's desire to embrace a kind of ectsatic religious is balanced/negated by the utter cynicism of Shrike and his disciples, who are at one stage referred to as "machines for making jokes": "Like Shrike, the man they imitated, they were machines for making jokes. A button machine makes buttons, no matter what the power used, foot, steam, or electricity. They, no matter what the motivating force, death, love, or god, made jokes." Miss L's embrace of the Russian author's mysticism is perfectly punctured by the greeting "How now Dostoevsky?" from one of Shrikes disciples.
It is worth noting at this point that Shrike is named after the bird known as The Butcher Bird who kills its victims by impaling them on thorns. I am struck by the fact that if Miss Lonelyheart's illusions avoid Shrike's thorns they are punctured on the crown of thorns he insists on wearing. Shrike himself uses a particular type of comedy, suited to puncturing Miss L's earnestness: "He practised a trick used much by moving-picture comedians - the dead-pan."
Jay Martin, in his book "Nathanael West - The Art of his Life" points out that dead pan can refer also to the ancient God of the wild, who in one myth was supposed to have died at the time of the crucifixion. There are certainly plenty of references to the deadness of the world. One feels that Pan is not the only god who has died: "Last year, he remembered, May had failed to quicken these soiled fields. It had taken all the brutality of July to torture a few green spikes through the exhausted dirt.
What the little park needed, even more than he did, was a drink. Neither alcohol or rain would do. Tomorrow, in his column, he would ask Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Desperate, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband, and the rest of his correspondents to come here and water the ground with their tears."
One of the chapters, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Lamb, relates a dream in which Miss L, then a student, follows a night of revelry with the sacrifice of a lamb:
"Their way led through the streets of the sleeping town into the open fields beyond. It was spring. The sun and the smell of vegetable birth renewed their drunkenness and they reeled between the loaded carts. The farmers took their horseplay good-naturedly. Boys from the college on a spree.
They found the bootlegger and bought a gallon jug of applejack, then wandered to the section where livestock was sold. They stopped to fool with some lambs. Jud suggested buying one to roast over a fire in the woods. Miss Lonelyhearts agreed, but on the condition that they sacrifice it to God before barbecuing it."
The sacrifice is a failure, the knife blade breaks with the lamb still living. Spooked, the three boys bolt and in the end Miss L is the one who goes back to "put the lamb out of its misery". The "vegetable birth" seems redolent of Pan, the lamb clearly a Christ figure. The scene is left to "the flies that swarmed around the bloody altar flowers".
And what has replaced Gods and Wonder? Cheap dreams sold in newspaper advertisements: "the grey sky looked as if it had been rubbed with a soiled eraser. It held no angels, flaming crosses, olive-bearing doves, wheels within wheels. Only a newspaper struggled in the air like a kite with a broken spine." While Miss L might despair at the hollowness of the answers he can give his correspondents and the threadbare nature of the dreams offered by society he feels a respect for their yearning for meaning and fulfilment. It is not just the letter writers who find themselves sold short. In the speakeasy we are presented with a bunch of men telling disturbingly misogynistic stories. Miss L, in full "Love a man even in his sin" mode, understands that this violence is their revenge on the world "His friends would go on telling these stories until they were too drunk to talk. They were aware of their childishness, but did not know how else to revenge themselves. At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty, and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything. Money and fame meant nothing to them. They were not worldly men."
Miss L himself takes violence beyond stories, and feels at a few points during the book that he needs to be violent "to be supple". One particularly disturbing incident (even more so than the misogynistic stories of gang rape, for they are somewhat distanced by being bar-room stories) occurs when the drunk Miss L and another journalist meet an old man cottaging in a park. They bring him to a speakeasy and try to get him to tell his sad story but he doesn't want to. This was a time when being gay was a crime and he clearly does not trust the two men. Miss L then gets violent and starts to twist his arm ("He was twisting the arm of all the sick and miserable, broken and betrayed, inarticulate and impotent. He was twisting the arm of Desperate, Broken-hearted, Sick-of-it-all, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband."), only stopping when someone hits him from behind with a chair. It seems at times that he must go further, for: "Like a dead man, only friction could make him warm or violence make him mobile."
West doesn't allow easy responses to the book. He has put much of himself into both Miss Lonelyhearts and Shrike. When Miss L meets one of his correspondents and sleeps with her (very much at her instigation) it is clearly a version of an event in West's own life, also used in The Day of the Locust, when, while working as night manager in a cheap hotel/rooming house he allowed himself be seduced by a woman who couldn't pay her bills. Indeed, his work in hotels would have brought West into close contact with much human misery, especially as it was at the time of the Great Depression. His own family had fallen from a height but not to the bottom. Here he could see how bereft people had been left, and perhaps it was one reason why the Susan Chester letters hit such a chord within him. It was a way he could have a character meet with misery on a daily basis but it was not autobiographical. It gave him the space to make his story more universal, and also to include newspaper, advertisers and makers of dreams within the scope of the book. "Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes - all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the bicep and to develop the bust. He should therefore realize that the people who came to El Gaucho were the same"..."as those who wrote to Miss Lonelyhearts for help."
West was trying, as Joyce did for Ireland, to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race". At one point when a character hears that the discussion she is joining is about religion she mentions her interest "in the new thomistic synthesis". Shrike replies "What do you take us for - stinking intellectuals? We're not fake Europeans. We were discussing Christ, the Miss Lonelyhearts of Miss Lonelyhearts." He then proceeds to pull out a newspaper cutting about a new sect who were set to offer up "Prayers for the condemned man's soul will be offered on an adding machine." The confusion of capitalism and religion is captured perfectly here, as is the desire for truth, numbers seeming the only things that tell the truth. It is worth noting that the biggest selling book in America in both 1925 & 1926 was Bruce Barton's The Man Nobody Knows. "Barton describes Jesus as "the world's greatest business executive", and according to one of the chapter headings, "The Founder of Modern Business", who created a world-conquering organization with a group of twelve men hand-picked from the bottom ranks of business."(From Wikipedia) Miss L considers America itself as suffering from a version of his own malaise: "he examined the sky and saw that it was canvas-colored and ill-stretched. He examined it like a stupid detective who is searching for a clue to his own exhaustion. When he found nothing, he turned his trained eye on the skyscrapers that menaced the little park from all sides. In their tons of forced rock and tortured steel, he discovered what he thought was a clue.
Americans have dissipated their radical energy in an orgy of stone breaking. In their few years they have broken more stones than did centuries of Egyptians. And they have done their work hysterically, desperately, almost as if they knew that the stones would some day break them." One can't help seeing the story of West's own family here. His father was a property developer from a tradition of stone workers. The buildings that brought wealth also brought that wealth crashing down. Also, in terms of the book developing a distinctly American style, it is interesting to note that West saw it in terms of a comic strip and many of the chapters can easily be visualised as a series of tableaux, often with a climactic action scene.
Shrike's shrieks provide the books high points, masterpieces of blasphemy and rhetoric, devastatingly funny but always teetering on the edge of despair. Harold Bloom says that "Shrike is also consumed by religious hysteria, by a terrible nostalgia for God." And his destruction of Miss Lonelyhearts is balanced, because "Shrike has destroyed himself first, for no one could withstand the sustained horror of Shrike's impaling rhetoric, which truly can be called West's horror." Shrike cannot take his own despair seriously and everything he says is for an audience, either to make people laugh or in an attempt to seduce, sometimes both: "'I am a great saint,' Shrike cried, 'I can walk on my own water. Haven't you heard of Shrike's Passion in the Luncheonette, or the Agony at the Soda Fountain? Then I compared the wounds in Christ's body to the mouths of a miraculous purse in which we deposit the small change of our sins. It is indeed an excellent conceit. But now let us consider the holes in our own bodies and into what these congenital wounds open. Under the skin of man is a wondrous jungle where veins like lush tropical growths hang along overripe organs and weed like entrails writhe in squirming tangles of red and yellow. In this jungle, flitting from rock-grey lungs to golden intestines, from liver to lights and back again, lives a bird called the soul. The Catholic hunts this bird with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures, the Negro with blood. I spit on them all. Phooh! And I call upon you to spit. Phooh! Do you stuff birds? No, my dears, taxidermy is not religion. No! A thousand times no. Better, I say unto you, better a live bird in the jungle of the body than two stuffed birds on a library table.'
His caresses kept pace with the sermon. When he had reached the end, he buried his triangular face like the blade of a hatchet in her neck.'"
He also comes up with my favourite buck-yourself-up line in literature - "Forget the crucifixion, remember the renaissance." I find myself imagining Shrike's self-help book......
It strikes me that I haven't really touched on the sexual shennanigans in Miss L. Miss L is engaged to Betty, a perfectly nice girl, although Miss L finds her very niceness difficult to take, and feels that her sincerity and understanding are all based on false premises, premises the letters have made impossible for him to believe in: "Her world was not the world and could never include the readers of his column. Her sureness was based on the power to limit experience arbitrarily. Moreover, his confusion was significant, while her order was not." West himself was semi-engaged for quite a while but felt unable to commit to marriage, feeling that he couldn't make enough from writing and afraid of being pushed into a career he had no interest in. Miss L ends up taking out his problems on Betty, when she is concerned for him rather than angry or judgemental when he acts badly: "What a kind bitch you are. As soon as anyone acts viciously, you say he's sick. Wife-torturers, rapers of small children, according to you they're all sick. No morality, only medicine. Well, I'm not sick. I don't need any of your damned aspirin. I've got a Christ complex. Humanity...I'm a humanity lover. All the broken bastards...' He finished with a short laugh that was like a bark."
He also pursues Shrike's wife,with Shrike's knowledge. However she will not sleep with him and returns to Shrike although always threatening to leave him this time. Shrike himself also pursues other women using his wit, as in his 'sermon' quoted above. All in all, the ingredients of a light-hearted bedroom farce, even down to a pants-less Shrike emerging into the hall to see who had brought his wife home. Finally Miss L meets one of his correspondents who asks him to phone her as she feels that she needs to meet him in person. Unlike his model Jesus, Miss L fails to resist temptation, and as the physical embodiment of the letters she crushes Miss L even further. "The life of which she spoke was even heavier than her body. It was as if a gigantic, living Miss Lonelyhearts letter in the shape of a paper weight had been placed on his brain."
Miss L's efforts to 'pass the chalice' of his job are also shot through with a bleak humour. "Shrike would never fire him. He made too perfect a butt for Shrike's jokes. Once he had tried to get fired by recommending suicide in his column. All that Shrike had said was: 'Remember, please, that your job is to increase the circulation of our paper. Suicide, it is only reasonable to think, must defeat this purpose." Another time, having briefly entered a rapturous meditation on the purity of children, Miss L shakes himself and asks: "What in Christ's name was this Christ business? And children gravely dancing? He would ask Shrike to be transferred to the sports department."
I really must try to finish this post before it is longer than the book, which is a remarkable feat of concision. West had said to friends that he could improve Dostoevsky with a pair of shears and here he shows it could be done.
But first I must deal with a couple more of the books themes and some of the influence the book has had on the novel since. West is an early writer to pick up on entropy, a word that would become strongly associated with William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon. "He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against nature...the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worth while." Order and meaning, West seems to suggest are only temporary illusions but ones we must fight for. The city seems chaos to Miss L, who develops "an almost insane sensitiveness to order". "Nor could he do anything with the harsh clanging sound of the street cars and the raw shouts of hucksters. No repeated groups of words would fit their rhythm and no scale could give them meaning."
Many other writers have been influenced by him, perhaps none more so than Flannery O'Connor, although O'Connor professed a strong faith, her books often teeter on the edge of a very Westian chaos. Indeed Good Country People could be seen as a typical Miss Lonelyhearts letter told from the point of view of the letter writer. Muriel Spark, too, seems to have much in common with West, and Beryl Bainbridge. Also Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. Saul Bellow's Herzog can be seen as a reverse Miss Loneyhearts, writing rather than receiving letters, but still unable to find meaning. West's own ad copy for his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell suggests that he was importing a French sensibility into the english-language novel: "English humour has always prided itself on being good-natured and in the best of taste. This fact makes it difficult to compare N.W.West with other comic writers, as he is vicious, mean, ugly, obscene and insane." "In his use of the violently disassociated, the dehumanized marvellous, the deliberately criminal and imbecilic, he is much like Guillaume Apollinaire, Jarry, Ribemont-Dessaignes, Raymond Roussel, and certain of the surréalistes."
It is a book that will undoubtedly leave many feeling squeamish, due to its brutal honesty. West, and his two projected selves in this book, Miss Lonelyhearts and Shrike, are not presented in a heroic light. Far from it. Their actions and words are cynical, self-centred and often violent, disturbing and damaging. But I feel that West justifies this. If we are to have a philosophy that can include the writers of the Miss Lonelyhearts letters we must look deep into ourselves and acknowledge not only our strengths and our sympathies but also our capacity for rage and violence, our narcissism and our deliberate credulity. Sometimes they can be confused: "Miss Lonelyhearts felt as he had felt years before, when he had accidentally stepped on a small frog. Its spilled guts had filled him with pity, but when its suffering had become real to his senses, his pity had turned to rage and he had beaten it frantically until it was dead."
The book remains defiantly modern, still able to shock readers more than eighty years after its publication. I was worried that I might no longer find it as powerful as my younger self did, but if anything, it seems even more prescient and filled with great writing than I remember. I won't leave it too long before I read it again. It is very short, the work of a long train journey. I cannot think of any book which I could comfortably describe as better than this.
I read this in concert with Jacqui at JacquiWine's journal. Her response, fittingly the opposite of mine, is here.
Some of the books and sites I trawled through for ideas. I didn't read any thoroughly so please forgive me if I have misrepresented them.
Miss Lonelyhearts - Nathanael West edited by Harold Bloom
Nathanael West - The Art of his Life - Jay Martin (Secker & Warburg 1970)
Nathanael West - Robert Emmet Long