- Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary Fiction and: Character in Literature and: Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction
Lee Lemon's Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary Fiction is an easy book; Jerome Klinkowitz justly calls the style comfortable. The fiction of five prose writers [End Page 686] (Lawrence Durrell, Doris Lessing, Patrick White, John Fowles, John Barth) is considered. With the emphasis on their views of their craft, the book is filled with their quotations. For Durrell, who has been most influenced by T. S. Eliot and Henry Miller, the "truth is not a matter of exclusion, but of inclusion." His art concerns the "mutability of all truth," and his works are most open and "uncertain." On the other hand, Lessing insists on the "wholeness of vision": fragmentation is the great evil. The key word for Lessing is integrity. To be a writer is to accept an awesome responsibility, but then there should be no separation between the artist and the human being: Doris Lessing is a harsh moralist.
"The case of Patrick White's fictional universe is a reverence for the mystery of things." Many of his main characters are saints, and each of them is able to "concentrate on something," to accept or create a mandata. "White's saints may by chance create a mandata; his artists create their mandatas deliberately and repeatedly." To White love and understanding are the rewards of a lifetime of reverent attention. For Fowles a commitment to art is a commitment to life: "the only escape from nothingness is our willingness to accept hazard." Our greatest fear is that we are a "nobody," but we cannot judge the standards of others by our own standards. One must choose self-determination; our best hope against time is art.
Barth's artists are the builders of funhouses: the work of the literary artist is to be a provider of pleasure. But the funhouse is not just a metaphor for art; it is a metaphor for life. Barth refuses to see the artist as primarily a moralist. Although he is interested in the restructuring of myth, Barth's strength is that he is so responsive to his time. Of the five artists dealt with, Lemon seems to have the highest regard for John Barth. But the nature of Lemon's consideration is such that it reinforces my own long-held conviction: Barth is a clever but superficial writer. As Lemon acknowledges, Barth is not Joyce.
The easy flow of the Lemon narrative is troubled by a small but important impediment. He begins with a reference to Joyce's Stephen Dedalus and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce's generation has given way to Fowles's. But on pages 204 and 206, in reference to Ulysses, he calls Stephen Dedalus Stephen Bloom. Imagine that. I looked for a revisionist footnote, but in vain. You'd guess that the writer or an editor would have caught this remarkable gaffe or whatever it is. But at least it seems that Lee Lemon has not read Ulysses. But maybe he doesn't need to. For, as he indicates, his concern is not for the artist but for portraits of the artist: by the time of Ulysses Joyce was no longer like the young Stephen; the portrait has given way to the novel. And I must conclude that Lemon's book has the immediacy and the verve of a book review in journalistic Time, where we are told what to think if we haven't read a particular book and what to say (the literary equivalent of buzz words) if we have read the book. It is an easy thing to do.
Baruch Hochman's main point in Character in Literature is that, although generated in and by a literary text, characters do not exist until they are retrieved by us: "we have...