l i t e r a r y l i v e s published five well-received books. His first collection, Roman Balcony and Other Poems, appeared when he was sixteen, and his first novel, Opening Day, when he was seventeen; by that age, he was also publishing poems and criticism in the leading journals of the time, including Eliot’s The Criterion. Using a small inheritance, he made his way to Paris and met many of the leading figures of the day, most of whom took him seriously. Enchanted by encounters with the likes of Breton and Max Ernst, he came back to England preaching the gospel of Surrealism; Gascoyne’s importance in bringing Surrealism across the channel was considerable. One of the enduring fruits of his passion was A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935) – a classic of its unusual kind. Another was the collection Man’s Life Is This Meat (1936), which included one of his most powerful and strange poems: ‘And the Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis’. You can almost hear Larkin splutter.
He was a fascinating man and this is a worthwhile, rich and readable biography. But it would not be fair to end without a caveat: even by present-day standards, the quality of fact-checking and proofing here is pretty shabby. Some of the goofs are quite amusing – I particularly enjoyed a reference to that hard-drinking, two-fisted Dublin novelist ‘Irish’ Murdoch – but others are just irritating. Here are a few. Shaw’s stage comedy of 1932 was entitled Too True to be Good, not Too Good to be True. Henry James wrote In the Cage, not In a Cage, and
Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake, not Finnegan’s Wake, as any fule kno. The ‘New School of Social Science’ is probably the New School for Social Research, the highly addictive drug is not heroine but heroin, and W H Auden’s famous poem ‘September 1, 1939’ opens not on Forty-Second Street but in ‘one of the dives/On Fifty-second Street’. The theatre director ‘Peter Brooke’ needs the last ‘e’ removing, though ‘wannaby’ wants just such an ‘e’ to become ‘wannabe’, and the poet ‘Wendy Milford’ is usually known as Wendy Mulford. And so on. Slovenliness of this order disfigures an otherwise valuable book. Both author and subject deserved better. To order this book for £30, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 36
‘It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are,’ writes Nathanael West in The Day of the Locust (1939), commonly regarded as the best novel ever written about Hollywood, that factory of broken j ay pa r i n i
California Nightmares Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West
By Joe Woodward (O/R Books 276pp £11)
Subscribe young Subscribe today for people who devour books www.literaryreview.co.uk dreams. West’s sad, even pathetic characters yearn for something they can never have – which can’t be had – and their lives spiral into chaos, slipping towards a violence that is beyond them and which no effort can bring under control.
The Great Depression took root in West (1903–1940), an American writer whose wild, sometimes grotesque fantasies have become part of our collective imagination. In this fresh, elegant biography by Joe Woodward – the first in four decades – West comes alive, a strange young man on the prowl, a crazy fool, a fantasist. ‘The dream life of Nathanael West,’ writes Woodward, ‘was surely a vivid one – wellsuited for novel writing and less-suited for Hollywood pictures.’ Yet he managed, in thirty-seven years, to assemble a small but permanent body of work, and – like Keats or Rupert Brooke or any writer of immense talent whose vision is cut short – one can only guess where he might have gone.
‘A writer is what a writer does,’ Woodward states at the outset. During his own lifetime, West was ‘always a writer on the verge of breaking out’. But even his two best novels – Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust – failed to find a sizeable audience, and his work for Hollywood studios was not successful. He moved in august circles, making friends with F Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett and S J Perelman. He met the latter, one of the great humourists of the century, while a student at Brown University, which he had entered on a false transcript. (Perelman later married West’s sister.)
West had large ambitions. As he wrote in Miss Lonelyhearts: ‘At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.’
In a sense, West was a slight latecomer to the so-called Lost Generation that Gertrude Stein had named. He was ambitious, of course, and understood the difficulties about anti-Semitism, which was virulent at this time. He changed his name from Nathan Weinstein to Nathanael West, heading to Paris in 1926, a
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West: slow burner young man on the make. As Woodward says: ‘West envisioned himself joining the great American migration started by such writers as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Edith Wharton, and later followed by Hemingway, Pound, Stein, and Fitzgerald.’ He spent a couple of years in the City of Light, working on a fairly bad (yet blessedly short) novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), which Woodward describes nicely as ‘a quilted tale, part Quixotic journey and part epistolary tale’. Its writer-hero enters from below the digestive tract of the famous Trojan Horse, embarking on a bizarre journey. It’s odd, freaky, and mercilessly scatological – a surreal piece of fiction that found few readers.
Miss Lonelyhearts came soon thereafter, and it was brilliant if anguished. ‘It’s a short, violent dance of tortured characters,’ writes Woodward. ‘Each is an absurd living among the absurd.’ It’s a truly haunting book about an advice columnist, a man who speaks to those in despair. There is nothing normal about anyone in this novel, or in any novel by West; he was drawn to the bizarre qualities that ‘normal’ people exhibit without even trying. The desperate correspondents who write in to get advice suffer from hackneyed prose, and their emotional desperation is the quiet desperation of most people. As he writes in Miss Lonelyhearts, West was ‘in the business of dreams’. He might better have called it the business of nightmares.
The critics liked Miss Lonelyhearts a great deal, with a reviewer in the New York Times calling it ‘one of the hits of the year’. For all the praise it garnered, though, the novel didn’t sell. But West had a knack for business, and he optioned the work to Twentieth Century Pictures for $4,000 – a huge amount of money in the midst of the Depression. ‘Soon after Columbia Pictures offered West a contract to come to Hollywood and work on an original screenplay for the studio.’ His fortunes seem to shift, then shift again.
He got to know Scott Fitzgerald well in Hollywood. The author of The Great Gatsby was now a sad alcoholic who struggled to write film scripts for MetroGoldwyn-Mayer during the day while, at night, writing his Pat Hobby stories – some of the best fiction ever written about Hollywood. Both Fitzgerald and West shared ‘a desperate view of Hollywood’, as Woodward notes. For West, a Jewish boy from New York City, Hollywood was the place to go when there was nowhere else that would have him. After 1935, it was home: ‘Everything good and bad that happened to him from this point forth had something to do with Hollywood,’ Woodward suggests.
Alive Inside the Wreck seems to imitate, to a degree, the prose of West, with its short sentences and neon-lit realism. It ’s a quick read, and it compresses large insights into brief spaces. Some of the criticism on display is quite remarkable, as when Woodward describes The Day of the Locust as ‘a novel of displacement, of displaced people’. West wasn’t much interested in the ‘real’ history of westward expansion into California, or the pioneers who settled in Los Angeles. What called to him was the dream factory, the shimmering town of Hollywood that had no roots in reality. And the protagonist of the novel, Tod Hackett, seems very close to a self-portrait of West; Tod is described as ‘a very complicated young man with a whole set of personalities, one inside the other like a nest of Chinese boxes’.
This is a remarkably good and succinct biography, well worth reading. It adds considerably to our understanding of West, taking on the fabled machinery of Hollywood itself, which often seems more a troubled state of mind that an actual place or industry. r f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 9