This is a book to rejoice the heart, as it reminds us what literature is meant to be. In a beautifully concise introduction, Slatoff gently chides the aggregate of post-New Critical critics as he places his own work in a context he calls "reconstructive." [End Page 694] By whatever name, this book recalls to the reader the joy of literature as "an occasion for coexistence imaginatively with a fictional person's way of feeling."
By treating literature as an active and actual force in readers' lives, Slatoff offers a valuable corrective to a culture overpopulated with people who simply stand mute as the Kitty Genoveses of the world die before their eyes. Of the many significant questions he raises, the most central focuses on the metaphor of his title, distance: from what distance should we engage the sufferings of others? Too great a distance leads either to the indifference Auden attributes to the peasants in Brueghel's Icarus in his poem "Musée des Beaux Arts" or to the aesthetic delight Mussolini finds in the explosion of a bomb in the midst of a group of Ethiopian horsemen, which was "like a rose bursting into bloom, and most amusing." Standing too close, by contrast, in the words of George Eliot, is "like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." Variations on these three perspectives shape Slatoff's approach.
In each of his ten chapters, Slatoff implicitly asks each literary character, "How would you respond to the unacknowledged drowning of Icarus in Brueghel's picture?" Often he not only personally engages his chosen characters in conversation but pits them against each other as well, thereby creating a thoroughly absorbing exchange of ideas whose slant constantly alters as the discussants change.
Typical of the frequently amusing thrust of this deeply serious venture is this self-revelatory comment, "There is enough of Shrike [the cynical editor in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts] in me to envision Miss Lonelyhearts leaping into the water to save Icarus and drowning both Icarus and himself in the process." In repeated imagined encounters of this sort, Slatoff forces the reader to engage seriously what most of us prefer to avoid: how close dare I, can I, or should I approach my fellow human beings? In contemplating this question he is extremely fair, even to those who, like the young Nick Adams in Hemingway's "Indian Camp," turn away from suffering, but perhaps unduly harsh toward others, like the Conrad of The Secret Agent, whose stance implies scorn and detachment from aspects of his subject.
Overall, fairness wins out as Slatoff rings intriguing changes on his theme, rejecting the twin extremes of excessive distance and total merging, as represented respectively by Robinson Jeffers and Walt Whitman. Throughout his search for what cannot exactly be called "answers," Slatoff fulfills the promise of his title, narrowing the distance between reader and author; even occasional disagreements with individual assessments add to the overall sympathy the reader feels for the project as a whole. [End Page 695]