Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prize

Death of the Author – ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ by John Kennedy Toole

11 May

Ignatius P. Reilly

It’s taken 4 years since it was first recommended to me, but I finally got round to reading John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I think the reason it took so long is that I’m one of those people who doesn’t respond well to recommendations, particularly with books, and the minute anything becomes a runaway or cult success (Cloud Atlas, The Curious Incident of  the Dog in the Night-Time etc), I react against it as if suffering from some sort of allergy, terrified I might find it over-hyped, or get caught up in the hype and lose all critical objectivity.

As such, A Confederacy of Dunces came to me with an intimidating pedigree. Recommended to me by people, including my partner and fellow writers, whose opinions I value, it won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is, by almost all accounts, an American classic.

For the uninitiated, Confederacy tells the story of 30-year-old Ignatius P. Reilly of New Orleans, a corpulent and flatulent behemoth who lives with his long-suffering mother, and when not sponging off her spends much of his time shouting at cinema screens, eating, farting, masturbating, farting and eating. Inspired by the 6th Century philosopher Boethius, Ignatius rages against what he sees as the decadence of modern culture, and in the course of the novel we meet the eccentrics who get caught up in Ignatius’s farcical attempts to turn even the most mundane of jobs into a revolutionary movement; first using his post as admin officer for a trouser manufacturer to stir up civil unrest among the black factory workers, then using his hotdog stand as the linchpin of an attempt to infiltrate the US Army and government with gay men.

"So... Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?"

“So… Are we doing Y.Y.M.C.A.A. or something?”

Toole wrote the novel while serving in the United States Army in the early 1960s, and spent the remainder of his short life struggling fruitlessly to get it published before his suicide, at the age of 31, in 1969. It was Toole’s mother Thelma who took up the baton and spent the next 10 years sending her son’s manuscript to publishers, agents and authors, finally gaining the attention of Louisiana writer Walker Percy, who was instrumental in getting Confederacy published in 1980. It became a cult hit, and has enjoyed a loyal, committed fan base ever since. But what of the novel itself?

I should point out that before reading it last week, I’d made one other attempt2 or 3 years back, but gave up, finding it just too misanthropic. Friends had told me this was one of the funniest books I would ever read, but between the over-the-top dialogue and hyperactive slapstick I sensed a deep and bitter hatred, something angry and unpleasant, that overshadowed the comedy. As genuinely funny and broadly comic as Confederacy often is, knowing its author committed suicide in despair stained the comedy with something much more tragic.

Now that I’ve read the thing cover to cover, I’m unshaken in my belief that Confederacy is a tragic work. Tragic because of its situation – Ignatius is a parasitic and grotesque man-child who leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. But tragic too, because it feels unfinished. The story I often hear of its publication history is that here was a case in which those who read Toole’s novel before his death clearly got it all wrong. It’s a work of genius, and they were fools not to see it the first time around. If only they had recognised his talent while he was still alive etc…

"Also... Why is there no justice in this world?"

“Also… Why is there no justice in this world?”

My feeling is that each and every person who rejected Toole’s novel, as it stands, was right to do so. The tragedy of A Confederacy of Dunces is not that publishers failed to recognise its genius, but that the author didn’t live to work with an editor bossy and skillful enough to whip the thing into better shape. Instead what we have is a novel with many colourful and well-realised characters, funny situations and the occasional gem of dialogue, all-but-buried beneath mountains of meandering plot, needless repetition, and grindingly clumsy changes in point of view that make it feel more like a polished and very promising first draft than a finished novel.

If there was ever a book that challenges the whole Barthesian concept of the “Death of the Author” (i.e. the principle that we should separate a work completely from its author’s biography) it’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Here, it’s impossible to separate author and work. The work exists in its current state precisely because of its author’s depressive personality and his premature death. A less anxious, less depressive writer may have gone back to the drawing board and either reworked his unpublished novel or begun something else. An author less dead would have had the opportunity to do both.

Harsh, but true.

Harsh, but true.

Having said all this, we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss A Confederacy of Dunces as something over-hyped, because there is still so much to love about it. The characters, as already mentioned, often leap off the page. The novel’s opening and climactic chapters are fine examples of prose farce, so much tauter and more finely tuned than its flabby midriff, proving that Toole was more than capable of disciplined and carefully-structured storytelling. It is a shame, then, that his death (and again, we have to keep coming back to it) all but ruled out anyone going in there and hauling out the padding; all those dialogues that go nowhereor the supporting characters who feel sketchy and half-formed compared to so many of their co-stars.

As enjoyable as A Confederacy of Dunces undoubtedly is, it seems to me unlikely a novel in this state by a living but previously unpublished author would have seen publication; even more so that it would have won the Pulitzer. If we read A Confederacy of Dunces without bearing any of this in mind, we’re left with something very interesting and very funny but also very, very flawed.

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Stuff I Love – 2: Philip Roth’s later novels

15 Nov

The literary world was… well… if not exactly shocked, then at least saddened by the news, last week, that the novelist Philip Roth is to retire at the tender age of 79.

Roth’s career spans more than 50 years, from the publication of his short story collection Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 to his novella Nemesis in 2011. In that time he’s written 26 books of fiction, 2 nonfiction works on writing and literature, and 2 memoirs. His novels cover a lot of ground, from the broad satire of 1971’s Our Gang (a very thinly-veiled attack on the Nixon administration) and gross surrealism of the following year’s The Breast (in which the main character turns into a 155lb breast) through to the heart-stopping drama of American Pastoral, and his final hit-and-miss quartet of novellas, referred to collectively as Nemeses.

They feature none of the above.

What’s striking about Roth’s career is just how successful so many of these later novels are. Where many authors see their talents dwindle in later life, Roth went from strength to strength. Of course, this is often a matter of perspective, and though American Pastoral won him the Pulitzer, there are many critics who still prefer his earlier, bawdier novels, like the notorious Portnoy’s Complaint, but having read some of his earlier work and a lot of the later novels, and while there are still vast swathes of stuff left for me to read, I’d say I fall squarely into the Later Roth camp.

Not this one.

But what, then, do I mean by “Later Roth”? Where do we draw the line in the sand? Before, or after the first quartet of novels featuring Roth’s alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman; starting with 1979’s The Ghost Writer and ending with The Prague Orgy in 1985? I’d argue later, and specifically from Sabbath’s Theater (1995) on. I couldn’t tell you exactly why this is; I’m not enough of a Roth scholar to say if that’s a fine place to draw a line, but it feels like the point at which Roth goes from being a very good novelist with a successful body of work behind him, to being arguably America’s Greatest Living Author – a title that’s been almost a given since the deaths of Saul Bellow in 2000 and John Updike in 2009.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. I win.”

So, using that imaginary line in the sand, here are my Top 5 Later Roth Novels:

5) Nemesis (2010)

Roth’s final novel is the story a polio epidemic in mid-1940s Newark – the location to much of Roth’s work – and the trials and tribulations of  23-year-old teacher and playground supervisor Bucky Cantor. Cantor, riddled with guilt at being unable to serve in World War II, due to his poor eyesight, finds himself waging a personal war against the outbreak. A deeply moving novel about blighted opportunities, and – a recurring theme in Roth’s work – the way in which history impacts upon the lives of ordinary people. This was the perfect antidote to 2009’s toe-curlingly dreadful The Humbling.

4) The Plot Against America (2004)

Roth’s one and only dabble with alternate history, The Plot Against America explores a 1930s and early 40s in which Charles Lindbergh, not FDR, is US President while Europe falls, country by country, to the Third Reich. Taking its cue from the 1941 speech Lindbergh made in Des Moines, in which he warned of the “ownership and influence (Jews have) in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government”, Roth imagines a world in which the famed aviator turned politician signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, and the creeping antisemitism that begins to affect Jewish families in the US, including a fictionalised version of Roth’s own parents and brother. While his reading of history is occasionally a little off, and his speculations unlikely, The Plot Against America can be read just as easily as an attack on the Bush administration’s handling of the so-called ‘War On Terror’, or on the threat charismatic bigots and a mob mentality can pose to any apparently civil society.

3) The Human Stain (2000)

Turned into an icky, almost unwatchable film starring a woefully miscast Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman, The Human Stain is the penultimate Zuckerman novel, but as with all of the later Zuckermans its main character is in fact someone else; in this case university classics professor Coleman Silk. Silk is accused of racism, when his use of the word “spooks” (he means ghosts) is willfully misinterpreted, first by a student, then by a bitter and jealous colleague. The novel explores his doomed relationship with semi-literate cleaner, Faunia Farley, and his secret past: Having passed himself off as white and Jewish throughout his career, Silk is in fact biracial African American, and disowned his family in order that his career should progress unimpeded by the racism of the 50s and 60s. The Human Stain is a brilliant exploration of race, sexuality, and the political machinations of academia. The character of Faunia’s estranged husband, Lester, is one of Roth’s finest and most disturbing creations.

2) Indignation (2008)

It’s interesting that of the four Nemeses novellas, the two which work best are those – Nemesis and Indignation – which focus mainly on young, college-age protagonists. Here the setting is 1951. As boys his age are dying in the Korean War, Marcus Messner lives under the fretful tyranny of his father, a kosher butcher, in Newark. Terrified that his son will wind up in the army, and get sent off to die, Marcus’s father fusses about him with a paternal concern that’s overwhelming, driving Marcus west, to study at the conservative – and very Christian – Winesburg College, Ohio. There, his fervent atheism and – you’ve guessed it – indignation see him enter a downward spiral of futile conflict and sexual misadventure. Funny and heartbreaking in almost equal measure, this is the finest of the Nemeses novellas.

1) American Pastoral (1997)

There’s an accusation often levelled at Roth’s novels, and particularly the later works, that they all cover much the same ground (Carmen Callil walked off the jury for the International Mann Booker after it awarded Roth the prize for that very reason), and there is some truth in that. Certain things can be taken for granted: The protagonist’s Newark upbringing. A blue collar father, along with detailed descriptions of that father’s working life (in Everyman, watchmaking; in Indignation, kosher butchery etc.) The impact an historic event or events will have on that protagonist’s life. All of this is true of American Pastoral, but this is where those themes and motifs are at their most perfect. In Swede Levov we have the Jewish American man as all-American Hero. Levov is tall, handsome, blonde-haired (I can’t have been the only reader picturing a younger Robert Redford playing the part); a high school sports star who married a beauty queen, before becoming a successful industrialist (he inherits his father’s glove factory). Levov has it all, but then of course the man who has it all and keeps it could never be the protagonist of a novel, and so American Pastoral is really about the failings and transparency of the American Dream, and how that dream can be so very violently ruptured.

American Pastoral is ten times more powerful than an earlier work like Portnoy’s Complaint could ever be, because while that novel sets out to shock us with toilet talk and wank jokes, American Pastoral is shocking in its frankness about our real taboos, the ones we’ll never be comfortable discussing, but does it with great warmth, compassion and honesty. A deserving, resolutely politically incorrect Pulitzer winner, and the pinnacle of Philip Roth’s entire, 53 year career.