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Artistic License: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior

by Brooke Allen
244 pages,
ISBN: 1566636655


Post Your Opinion
Libertines, Liars, and Other Writers
by Matt Sturrock

It was the book's sub-title that spoke to me: Three Centuries of Good Writing and Bad Behavior. Those feelings of apprehension, envy, and even animus that can threaten when first cracking the spine of a review copy were instantly banished by spiking levels of prurient interest¨an interest that peaked with my reading of the author's preface. Brooke Allen writes: "The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above." She continues: "[O]nly the habitual perversity of the pedagogue could have turned this rogues' gallery of weirdos into the dim procession of canonical 'dead white males' that now sends college students to sleep."
Allen's apparent purpose, I feared, might drive the more salacious members of her audience nearly demented with pleasure. She would launch a 244-page Lit Crit raid on the dungeons of academe, liberate all those radicals, insurrectionists, and plain ornery SOBs from ages past, and unleash them, enlarged and vivified, onto a trembling and titillated public. Her book would double as an encyclopaedia of villainy, a malignant little tome filled with three hundred years' worth of fiends, deviants, and delinquents whose antics would both delight and instruct.
After a more thorough inspection, however, the reader's exultation sours to remonstration. Why, why, does the book contain an essay on Jane Austen, "a highly religious woman . . . exceptionally kind" who "led an uneventful life"? What is L. Frank Baum of the Oz novels, "sweet-natured . . . a loving husband and father. . . reasonable and liberal", doing in such a book? And why is there a piece on Gerald and Sara Murphy, not writers at all but "the beautiful couple" in 1920s C(te d'Azur¨wealthy, gracious, generous, and perhaps a little nanve, who befriended and supported the callously unappreciative Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Where's all this Bad Behavior we were told lurked inside?
There is, to be fair, a piece on George Gordon, Sixth Lord Byron, that capricious, pan- sexual libertine (or as Allen rightly puts it, "one of the great shits of history"), but his is a legacy that's in little need of resurrection or reassessment. What about those Mephistophelean figures of lesser reputation? Why couldn't our author have given us, say, Richard Savage, the poet and playwright, mentor to a young Samuel Johnson, who killed a man in a coffeehouse brawl and died in debtors' prison? Give us Knut Hamsun, Nobel Prize winner and hectoring lunatic, whose almost unbearably distressing novel, Hunger, dwarfs in its impact all the outrT, on-page stylings of contemporary bad boys like Bret Easton Ellis or Will Self. Give us Jean Genet, thief, prostitute, and vagabond, whose novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, shocked Parisian society with its explicit sexual content and galvanised the Left Bank intellectuals who would go on to champion his work. Give us Mary Lamb, Tobias Smollett, Ernest Dowson, Delmore Schwartz, John Fante, Paul and Jane Bowles, or Malcolm Lowry. History teems with dangerous or otherwise transgressive writers; surely more appropriate subjects than some of those selected could have found their way into this collection.
In addition to the Austen, Baum, Murphy, and Byron pieces mentioned earlier, Allen gives us fourteen others that divulge, sporadically, biographical detail of varying naughtiness. Samuel Pepys fondled his maids. William Makepeace Thackeray squandered a handsome inheritance on wine parties and cards. Wilkie Collins drank and ate his way to liver disease and gout. Henry James wrote a surpassingly cruel critical attack on a friend that may have driven her to suicide. Particularly impressive in the annals of author misconduct is Laurence Sterne, penurious electioneer, agnostic priest, and philandering consumptive whose bawdy masterpiece, Tristram Shandy, has the singular distinction of having influenced both Nietzsche (who called Sterne "the most liberated spirit of all time") and Monty Python (whose performances, Allen points out, are indebted to Sterne's "peculiarly English species of humour").
Allen revels in such details, and she has a talent for marshalling the pertinent facts to expose her subjects' idiosyncratic or paradoxical elements¨the better to reveal their humanity. Her language is a potent blend of the academic and the colloquial, perfect for her capsule indictments of some truly reprehensible characters. (William Saroyan is deemed "a monster of narcissism . . . a devouring egomaniac, a clinical paranoiac" and elsewhere, most signally, "a case study in the limits of raw talent.") Moreover, she boldly advances arguments that smash head-on into received critical wisdom (for instance, James Boswell, long held to be "a toadying sycophant" and "glorified stenographer", is here reborn as a figure¨"very recognizably a man of our own world"¨whose literary eminence begins to eclipse that of his own receding biographical subject, Samuel Johnson.)
And yet, all this information, all this critical revision, ultimately raises more questions than Allen is permitted to answer. Every essay in Artistic License originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Hudson Review, and The New Criterion, or served as the introduction to a Barnes & Noble Classic edition. It's mostly old journalism, then, with many of the pieces feeling frustratingly short; you can sense the author's intelligence surging against the strictures of the essays' modest formats. We never get any extended meditations on the most pressing matter: namely, why the catalytic connection between talent and destructive behaviour exists at all.
Allen states in her preface "that there is no such thing as an 'artistic temperament'; there never has been." The comment seems disingenuous¨an excuse in advance, perhaps, for the book's failure to offer up the uniformly bad behaviour its cover copy promises. There may not be a single temperament, but there is one that supersedes all others¨the one that impels artists to court ruin so they can bring us the truth. Think of all the uncountable writers of the past hurling themselves against sceptical peers, condemnatory families, a hostile state, or an indifferent public, enduring poverty, battling addiction, weathering periods of intense self-loathing and self-doubt, chasing "the divine spark of madness" as Allen puts it, and all so that they might catch and crystallize for us a small piece of recognizably authentic experience. So many lives wracked and forsaken: they are owed more than a batch of repackaged book reviews, however formidable their author. As I finished reading Artistic License, I found myself wishing, unavailingly, that Allen had used these essays as a starting point for a more searching and in-depth book on this subject.
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