The Book Club

Goodbye, Columbus!

Dear Philip,

Our last day in the Book Club. And only now do I discover our real connection: we both love Rachel Ingalls! Now there is a writer of true originality and strangeness: Mrs. Caliban is a great novel–the real Secret Life of an American Wife –and many of the short stories are works of odd, slant genius that stay in one’s mind for years.  Typical of those Modern Library fatheads to have overlooked her, but then, she’s no Booth Tarkington.

I think everyone, not just you and me, reads in a gendered way (also a classed and raced and ethniced way).  Naturally, one brings one’s whole self to a book, and the effort to enlarge one’s imaginative sympathies, which is one of the traditional humanistic reasons to write and read, can be a struggle. So, sure, Philip Roth’s sexism is likely to be more vivid to me than to you–but please note this is not the sum total of my response to his work! Basically, I just like the way he puts words together: that natural, vigorous colloquial style.

My point, or Gornick’s point, about the response of late-Victorian male writers to feminism was not that they liked it, while today’s big male writers don’t.  It’s that whether or not they liked it, they apprehended it at a serious level, they recognized that gender relations were changing in deep ways, and they responded to it–James, who was, as you say, no feminist, as much as H.G.. Wells, who (sort of) was. As for Gissing, he’s another really interesting overlooked writer. New Grub Street and The Odd Women are both terrific–more interesting a hundred years after publication than I think most of today’s “major” books will be in 2098.

Writing about books is a funny thing. One analyzes and analyzes, but in the end the question of pleasure overrides. I had various criticisms of I Married a Communist –and our discussion brought them to the fore for me.  But I enjoyed reading it tremendously. Even the silly plot is exciting while it’s happening, and all those vicious women are evoked with amazing distinctness and robustness. And–to end where I began–he evokes the spirit of an era in a way few have done. 

I’ve really had a good time corresponding with you.  Maybe some day we’ll meet in what is perhaps mistakenly known as real life.

Goodbye and cheers,