Review of The Art Of Living And Other Stories, by
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/20/06
John Gardner is best known for his reinterpretation of the Beowulf myth with his novel Grendel. It was during the late 1970s and early 1980s that his name recognition and reputation were at a zenith. Then, he died in a motorcycle accident, and his lesser contemporaries buried him critically, because they were now free to do so. In his life he had buried the inferior writing of many of his contemporaries, and like the cowards they were, payback was a bitch to a man six feet under.
That said, while the stories in the collection are good, with a couple occasional lapses into greatness, Gardner was a writer that may have not had much more in him, expansively speaking. Yes, all the tales involve artists as supposed moments of epiphany, but I wonder how a better writer would have handled the lesser tales.
A brief summary:
Nimram is a terrific tale about a middle aged conductor of an orchestra named Benjamin Nimram. It follows him on a airflight home, where he sits next to a teenaged girl named Anne Curtis. They exchange pleasantries, then deeper conversations, and she ends up, after finding out who he is, attending his concert the next night with her parents. The tale is one of the better meditations on art, via conversations, that you will find in print.
Redemption is a tale thatís a bit too long and belaboring of its points, which follows the aftermath of an accidental death on a rural family, rumored to be an autobiographical tale. The ending is also a bit of a feint away from the taleís seeming subject matter. It is, in a sense, a typical New Yorker/Atlantic Monthly tale from the 1970s. Had it not been published in the latter magazine I wonder if Gardner would have trimmed and revised it. Or, perhaps, he was too close to the tale to see it objectively, as well its themes of the relationship between art and real life experience, the consequences of death for the left behind, guilt, and the struggle with self.
Stillness and The Music Lover veer into John Updike territory, but Gardnerís the superior writer. Stillness is a solid tale, but The Music Lover is a gem which explores the real effects of art, not the poseur pomposity that many bad artists assume. In it a man is moved to tears, literally, by the music he hears at a concert. The ending, in which the moved man is confronted by the musicís composer, perfectly renders the contradictory nature of human beings. The composer wants to know specifics of why the music so touched the man- the effect any artist seeks for his art, yet the moved man demurs, and instead tries to tell the composer of his personal life, the real reason, which has nothing to do with the music. In a word- brilliant.
Trumpeter is a silly fable about a dog, and The Library Horror puts to shame the many attempts at similar subject matter done by the overrated Jorge Luis Borges. In the tale, the characterís from a manís book collection come alive, and he is confronted by Raskolnikov and Achilles. Borges could have watched the old Warner Bros. cartoons and seen that his ideas were not anything special- ideas mean little in the face of execution. This is the motto for this tale- in both senses of the word execution.
The Joy Of The Just is too long and has a weak ending, as is the even longer fable Vlemk The Box-Painter, even though itís studded with some nice philosophical moments.
Come On Back is another terrific story, about the return to a hometown, and the suffusion of memories. The final image is beautiful and truly poignant. The whole tale reminds me greatly of Woody Allenís great 1987 film Radio Days, in its evocation of the past. The titular tale, The Art Of Living, is an ok piece, but compared to the best tales, weak and pellucid in its moral. Why itís the title piece I do not know- save for it perhaps encapsulating the theme of the book. Still, it should have been better.
Overall, latter day poseurs like the PC Elitists embodied by Jhumpa Lahiri or PoMo frauds like David Foster Wallace couldnít come close to the best these tales offer, and the worst in this book is still a notch above the best they are even capable of. Gardnerís main problem, when he fails, is not too much fat, merely wandering off the given trajectory of the narrative. His prose is not muscular, but lean and occasionally evocative. He is taut and focused at his best. He can write of dilettantes without a dilettantish air, like Updike, yet also humanize them. He can also write of lowlifes and treat them fairly, without moralizing- he is fair, but firm. He follows Anton Chekhovís urging to write objectively.
Read him that way, too.
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