Wednesday, January 23, 2019
I often praise the Library of America, the great collection that is bringing together the bountiful harvest of our national literature in beautiful editions that are also probably the greatest bargains in today’s book market. Purposefully working through the list, even a professor of English discovers that writers who once were just names—Sarah Orne Jewett, say, or Lafcadio Hearn—are in fact geniuses so remarkable that one’s previous ignorance of their works will now seem calamitous, perhaps semi-criminal. I am having that experience just at the moment as I work my way through the approximately thousand pages of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy.
Only in my eighties have I found the stamina to take on this rather long story of the rather short life of an Irish-American kid growing up in the Chicago tenements but a century ago. Its arc is that of The Rake’s Progress without the satire or of the Portrait of Dorian Gray without the mysticism. All the major forces in young Studs’s life—his family, the Roman Catholic Church, the seriously bad-boy ethos of the neighborhood gang with whom he hangs out at the pool hall—are resources manifestly inadequate for his flourishing ; yet his self-destruction, however inexplicable and unexplained, is volitional, indeed almost perversely purposeful, and seemingly inevitable. Farrell, perhaps like Thomas Hardy, seems to locate it in biology.
Unsatisfied lust has been the principal sexual experience of young men in our western societies, and even today anyone who sets out to write a competent Bildungsroman needs to bear that in mind. So far as I am concerned that is one of several crises of the contemporary novel. They have plenty of unconvincing sex, but there is little convincing lust. It’s hardly worth describing life in a repressive society if you can’t examine repression.
In the first place, Studs is a product of a lace-curtain Irish domestic regime as fully constrictive as anything in Kate O’Brien or Joyce’s Dubliners. Yet the lower middle-class narrowness against which he ostensibly chafes actually directs his concepts of decorum, with inevitably catastrophic results. Young Lonigan longs to be a good Catholic. Nothing is more fundamental to understanding his character than the sincerity of that desire—unless it be its triviality. So he genuinely honors his brittle concept of “good girls”, just as he despises the young whores with whom he finds furtive and unsatisfying gratification.
There is a very brilliant chapter in the second volume (Young Manhood) set at Christmas, 1922, the year in which Studs has reached his majority. It is close to the exact center of the whole work. The Lonigan family Christmas Eve is ruined by a horrible squabble around the hearth, and Studs storms out for a night of dissipation—an old-fashioned word, but one fully justified by his old-fashioned loathsomeness. Yet Farrell presents this so brilliantly that, despite the appalling behavior of the young anti-hero, the reader must grant him a certain measure of sympathy. An all-nighter of cursing and quarreling, of tough-guy posturing, mindless drinking, and brutal lubricity in a “can house” (brothel) ends with a narrow escape from the police, a sprained limb, sleepless exhaustion, a raging hangover, the sickening implications of having missed midnight Mass, and a doomed resolution of immediate reformation as he sets off for the Christmas morning High Mass at his parish church.
The church is mobbed, and by accident of the crush he finds himself jammed into a crowded pew next to an unknown attractive young woman in a squirrel coat, a complete stranger. This woman, whom he dare look at only with feigned indifference and sidelong glances, becomes an instant sexual obsession whose power overwhelms the formulaic rote prayers and mental acts of contrition that are the thin substance of his actual spiritual resources. His fantasies concerning her will prey upon him for weeks and months. The intensity of his carnal desire is matched only by its fatuousness. Farrell’s is usually described as a late exponent of literary “naturalism,” the unsentimental and perhaps unliterary realism of Zola and such American masters as Frank Norris, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and Theodore Dreiser. Certainly the grittiness of Studs Lonigan, its inexorable sadness and utter lack of sentimentality, and the bleakness of its author’s own materialism, justify such a classification. But most surprisingly it is here engaging, quite possibly accidentally, with an ancient romantic trope in which the extravagance of erotic desire is expressed in terms of its pseudo-religious character. For church is virtually the canonical place for amatory trolling. In the Ars amatoria (Art of Love) wise-ass professor Ovid teaches that the temple is an excellent place to pick up girls. It is in a temple that Troilus, victim of an attack by Cupid, is stunned by the fairness of Criseyde. And it was in the church of Santa Chiara in Avignon that the hottest of the red-hot lovers, Francis Petrarch, fatally raised his eyes from his prayer book and beheld in a distant transept the unattainable beauty of Laura. Art imitates life, which reciprocates by reduplicating art. Respectable Samuel Pepys does not fail to record in his famous diaries his favorites genres of sexual predation, of which the “church grope” is perhaps his favorite sub-specialty.
The world of Studs Lonigan is precisely one lifetime away, my own. The book dates from 1935, I from 1936. Yet the world that it describes and scandalized is now vanished. The novels were banned in Boston and charged with an obscenity now nearly invisible; their remorseless delineation of fifty shades of brutal racism, on the other hand—that was simply the way things are. If you are among those who think that “things never change,” you might want to read this brilliant book. But it’s neither for the faint of heart nor for the heartless.