- The Dream Life of Balso Snell and the Vocation of Nathanael West
Nathanael West's first novel, 1931's The Dream Life of Balso Snell, is an anti-künstleroman; it's a portrait of a young artist discovering his powerlessness. The title character, a lyric poet, takes a nightmare tour through the bowels of the Trojan Horse, meeting a series of failed and frustrated writers along the way. Each surrealistic episode underscores the futility of the literary vocation and gleefully mocks the pipe dreams of amateurs who aspire to wealth and immortality. Fittingly, it may seem, Balso has usually been written off by critics as a freshman effort best left forgotten. Over the years, even the author's most enthusiastic readers have dismissed it. Daniel Aaron, who was at the vanguard of the West revival of the mid-twentieth century, called Balso "a privately printed little exercise that never should have been printed at all" (114). Anna Weinstein, West's own mother, claimed: "all it says is 'stink, stink, stink'" (qtd. in Martin 227). Deborah Wyrick, one of the book's few defenders, sums up the novel's customary place in the West corpus: "critics agree that it is formless, chaotic, a juvenile pastiche of bathroom jokes, college magazine parody, and borrowings from contemporary avant-garde authors" (157).
Echoing West's own claim that he had published the novel as "a protest against the writing of books" (qtd. in Siegel 4), Wyrick then goes on to make a case for Balso as a Dadaist minor-masterpiece: "West's aesthetic sensibilities transform ugly material into a beautiful composition . . . that, by its very artistry, celebrates that which it wishes to destroy" (164). Wyrick seems to believe that the author set out to create a bad [End Page 59] book, but was too talented to pull it off. More recently, Jonathan Veitch has offered a similar view of Balso as satisfyingly subversive, arguing that the novel "undertakes not just a disavowal of high modernism and the idealism of its art-for-art's sake aestheticism, but a critique of nothing less than the grand tradition of Western culture upon which it depends. That critique results in a thorough housecleaning, an operation that will dispense with everything from Plato to Picasso" (27). Wyrick and Veitch see the novel as a bomb hidden within a piece of art, much like the ancient Trojan Horse itself.
As a form of cultural protest, Nathanael West's bomb is a dud. But the novel shouldn't be summarily dismissed as worthless juvenilia either. In this essay I argue that Balso's form and content are shaped more by Nathanael West's professional fears, inexperience, and feelings of cultural belatedness than by his disgust for the literary bent. Balso deserves our attention today not for the artistic myths it weakly tries to dispense with, but for what it strongly reveals about the vocation of authorship in general and the apprenticeship of Nathanael West in particular.
When the novel's title character proclaims: "Interesting psychologically, but is it art?" (22), he could be speaking about the book itself. In its randomness and frenetic pacing, in the pretentious way it attacks literary pretension, in its questioning of the belief that art can edify us, Balso reads more like an anxiety (of influence) dream than an assault on the Western canon. The primary target of the author's satiric attack isn't literature; it's his own desire to write and publish. West's book isn't "a disavowal" of high modernism; it's a late entry within it. In Balso, West is stumbling toward finding his writing voice amidst a chorus of louder voices. He's also worrying out loud if a Depression-era audience for serious literature will still be out there to listen when he does.
According to biographer Jay Martin, by 1931 Nathanael West had already been working on a version of the manuscript for nine long years. In the late 1920s, with most of the novel completed, West had briefly flirted with quitting his comfortable job in a New York City hotel and lighting out for Paris; on his visa he had even optimistically...