Paul West is more unknown than even Alexander Theroux. When he passed away in 2015, only The Telegraph and The New York Times objected to his obscurity by writing obituaries. So far he seems to have missed out on the rebirth that death tends to be for great but neglected novelists. I suspect that readers not only do not know that they lost a great stylist, but probably don’t know that they ever had him. In the future I fear that only fans of “phrasemaking,” to use one of his pet words, will continue to band around his books for bliss. But ours is a shrinking sect, and many who would become his faithful readers have perhaps never come across his name once. So any time is a good time to try to start a Paul West renaissance.
I used to read novels to while away the time; by the time I discovered West’s novels I was studying them as a would-be novelist; next I nearly gave up reading novels altogether because they no longer seemed magical or mysterious. Too many, old and new, are so sloppy and dull I wonder how the author mustered the energy and concentration to cobble together the parts of what seems to me like a trophy of twaddle. West is one of the few who still reminds me of the magic I felt before I began taking this stuff seriously. I mailed him one letter to Ithaca, New York, an embarrassing string of fawning eulogia. It was just a way of thanking him for inspiring me to be better as a novelist. His novels are composed so well that appreciating their composition is no less interesting than reading them.
Being a taxomaniac, I never lose anything. My archives inform me that I first read Ada or Ardor in 2013, Middle C, Agapē Agape and Darconville’s Cat in 2014, and four West novels in 2015. He was one star in a bright constellation shining just for me. Discovering him and the others coincided with my disappointment over my first novel. I didn’t have writer’s block; the problem is that as a writer I was a blockhead. The sentences came out easily, like sewage out of a broken pipe. My first draft left me despondent: the language limped on listlessly from lethargic cliché to lethargic cliché, dumb and deadened as if bored by what it was narrating. Then in came West who whiskered me away to the wondrous land of Purple Prose. He despised “prose with few discernible attributes, practiced mostly by writers whose names one does not remember except as having drowned in some poignant magma of anonymity.” He couldn’t conceive fiction as reportage. “I do not recall the names of minimalists, if indeed there are any writers wholly intent upon reducing the wonder and the enigmatic abundance of life to glum sentences whose only virtue is to be grammatically correct and not draw attention to their maker.” Such tirades have given him a reputation, if the word can be applied at all to him, as the scourge of minimalism. Even in his lifetime he knew that he was less famous for his novels than for the essay “In Defense of Purple Prose,” “perhaps my best-known essay,” he wrote in Sheer Fiction. That was my introduction to him. It resonated with me because I had unwittingly joined the minimalism militia during my first draft, hadn’t enjoyed its strict regime, and was looking for a way of deserting it for better opportunities. I had already found the way in the prose of Gass and Nabokov, but he elaborated on the theory with more panache than them. In his version, “purple prose” is more much more than the reviled concept teachers of “good style” advocate against. In his version purple prose is almost the essence of literature. Purple prose, for West,
is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing - showing off - the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.
When I read my first West novel, the oddly-titled Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, I finally understood what he meant by these words. At the time I didn’t know that it was the third part of a trilogy. Eventually I read Alley Jaggers and I’m Expecting to Live Quite Soon. The trilogy is an interesting artifact because it shows West shifting styles halfway through. Parts one and two are excellent realist novels about poverty, marriage, frustration, and madness: The tragedy in Alley Jaggers happens in the privacy of a young unhappy couple in post-war England, a land of tension and austerity, of rain, ruins and rage, of crummy houses stabbed with chilly draughts and in whose rooms a desperate underclass fantasizes about escaping from pervasive gloom. Alley Jaggers, an ape-man-like construction worker, displays latent creative powers (and shares West’s hobby for building airplane models), but he’s unable to find outlets for them, murders a young woman, rapes her corpse, and is institutionalized. The second part dealt with Dot, Alley’s wife, as she rebuilds her life in a community that stigmatizes her for being married to a murderer.
I picture parts one and two painted in autumnal tones. In the third part, Alley, with a psychiatrist’s help, has started living a more unrepressed life, and even if he remains a dangerous madman, the use of language has gone from grim to golden. Locked in a cell, he can only change the world inside his head, and only words do that. Alley has evolved from caveman to a wordsmith who seems to have escaped from Nabokov’s menagerie of madmen. The first two parts are realistic, if you will; the third part takes place mostly inside the mind and belongs to the ‘70s experimental novels that West trotted out like Colonel Mint and Caliban’s Filibuster. From this period’s output I think it’s his funniest, best and most readable because it’s also the most aesthetically pleasurable. The spark is missing from the other two, purple prose suffered because he put all his efforts in tearing the conventional novel apart without doing a lot with phrasemaking. In Colonel Mint he nearly stooped to the minimalism that he loathed.
Between the trilogy’s end and Life with Swan nearly 30 years elapsed. The difference is startling. Life With Swan, the love story between an English novelist-cum-literature teacher and a talented student who matures into a remarkable poet, constitutes one of West’s finest achievements. It wasn’t until I considered the trilogy in light of Life With Swan that I realized how sooty the tone in those earlier novels was. They’re sequestered in squalor. In Life With Swan, by contrast, the pages beam like pulsars. The action relocated from a cramped fate to an America bright with intellectual and emotional optimism. It’s a peahen to joie de vivre in luminescent wordplay. West didn’t look hard for content. By revitalizing a genre that has fallen out of favor, the roman à clef, West narrates the early days of his meeting the woman he’d spend the rest of his life with: the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman, here hidden, like in a Baroque poem, behind the anagram Ariada Mencken.
The plot is as vestigial as a distant star to the naked eye: the two lovers encounter some difficulties maintaining their relationship while pursuing careers in different cities; the couple worries about drifting apart; they must choose between career and love. The details are, as per the rules of the genre, culled from their biography: they did meet in a literature class West taught; he was older than her; and she is a famous poet. The narrator is particularly infatuated with Swan’s poetry. “It is hard to imagine how excellent her work was, her poetry at least,” he writes. Still maturing as a poet when she enrolls in his class, Swan shies away from showing her poems to her teacher. “But I had read them already in campus magazines and been astounded by the real thing. Finally, when I got to review her first book, I wrote that she was the best living lyric poet. There again, having noted her quality, I perfected her at once, I the fugitive from the courtly love of the Middle Ages, the johnnies or the johns who thought nothing sensual was good unless it contained a decisive mental component.” I didn’t even need to wait for the end to know that they stay together – and yeah, in this one love does conquer all.
This novel strikes me as that elusive chimera that novelists have been trying to capture since Flaubert confided that he’d like to write a novel about nothing, held together only by style. We’ve all read love stories before; love is so common a thing. Nothing overly original happens between book covers, or under bed covers; the narrator and Ariada are both artists and they demonstrate their mutual affection by stimulating each other creatively: “Creative people such as Swan and I tend to have more intellectual energy than others, and this spare energy gets into our behavior, indeed into the way we interact with uncreative people.” One example is their habit of giving each other silly pet names. Ariada is nicknamed Swan by the narrator, a practice Ackerman reveals in her memoirs One Hundred Names for Love. West, however, expresses this common emotion with words I had never read before. Life With Swan is a good example of how to write a plotless novel and keep it gripping for 300 pages.
West didn’t write for writing’s sake; his fiction addresses themes of evil, degradation, responsibility, creativity, the interaction between mind and reality. But he was also a novelist in love with words and the world, and in this novel love, words and the world are all woven together in an intricate, seamless artwork like Arab tiles. For me, the reader butting in and turning this into a ménage à trois, it is the intellectual component that the narrator brings to love that compels me continue reading. I like to wonder how West wrote. Did something in his mind burst and a flood of phrases rushed out like the Amazon River in a storm? The narrator lavishes on Swan the greatest treasures of his verbal genius: puns, riddles, neologisms, bewildering metaphors. The attention he puts in positioning each word is ultimately a reflection of his boundless love for Swan:
Perhaps the hurly-burly of everyday affection is not for me, but instead the absolute of idolatry, a heavy burden because the worry of it allows me no tolerance: if I don’t get perfection, I don’t want anything, anyone. This means I am a manqué of some kind, a monk who missed his vocation, a mystic who mislaid his universe. I must be the last of those who practiced courtly love, honoring not the person or the thing but the grail.
This is real amour fou, and much better written than Amour Fou.
Thanks to Swan, a naturalist with friends in unusual places, the narrator visits NASA and befriends Raoul Bunsen, a Carl Sagan-like figure soaring in popularity thanks to a TV show popularizing science. Bunsen opens Cape Canaveral to them at the height of the frenzy over the Apollo space satellite missions. I have no idea if this really happened, but it allows the narrator to sing the beauty of the cosmos. This is not a digression, or even a way of spicing up a plotless novel running dull, but an extension of the novel’s main theme: the narrator’s love for Swan is one aspect of his fascination with the entire universe. His love bathes everything through the medium of language. Purple Prose is a way of dignifying our presence in this vast universe; it augments our reporting of the experience of being alive. “Purple, it seems to me,” wrote West in 1985, “is when the microcosm fights back against the always victorious uncaring macrocosm, whose relative immortality we cannot forgive.” West read science books, hung out with scientists, and loved scientific metaphors. The essays in Sheer Fiction testify to his love for the cosmos’ mysteries and strangeness; for him there was poetry in cells and nuclei. Colonel Mint was about an astronaut’s possible encounter with an angel, and for his novel Gala he used “a framework based on the genetic alphabet”. He believed people and the universe to be intimately connected and sneered at “provincialists, the minimalists, the suburbanists, the hacks of all persuasions [who] haven’t the faintest idea of – or reverence for – the idea of humanity as a local fungus that has so far prospered, thanks to a whole train of biological flukes.” It seems to me that he didn’t know how to celebrate people without celebrating the universe; for him, both things blend thanks to the magic of language:
A trapdoor swung open as my world increased and I suddenly thought how Swan and I had a massive backdrop against which to relish each other. She already had a constellation, Cygnus, named for her, which was more than a head start; but surely we could do better than that, handing her a Stefan’s Quintet out of the universe’s nameless largesse. She would not be studying astronomy, or so I thought; but she would be under that umbrella of cosmic bravura, excited by incessant discovery.
West’s sentences stretch from New York into the stars and satellites and examine feelings as much as faraway galaxies.
Phrasemaking, a word repeated by the narrator, is a key to the novel’s process. I first came across it when I read “In Defense of Purple Prose”. In it West defends “the almost lost art of phrasemaking” from the verbally inept “who have never made up a stylish phrase in their lives, as if style had become taboo, a menace to people, gods and cars.” For West, phrasemaking constituted the writer’s duty: chopping clichés, creating new imagery, helping the lexicon find its way out of the labyrinth of stock sentences, in sum siccing a singular style on sedate readers. Life With Swan illustrates, sentence after sentence, mastery of language at a heightened state. His word-hoard alone astonishes me; how not to venerate a writer who combats acyrology? West had already impressed me tremendously with Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, a smorgasbord of wordplay concentrated in a short novel. With twice the room to play in, he prunes every page of flatness and packs them with puns to achieve an impossible purity. As far as I understand one of West’s mental processes, it seems words attract other words because of sounds; he seemed to be on the lookout for sounds and echoes connecting them. “That distant and obscure marriage of hers had been a mere kindergarten bauble, erased by one sunset or a good bubble bath, and she had reverted to who she had been before it, before before.” Another example: “Inured to praise, from me at least, my Swan gets on with life, lauded to death by her swain, but hardly put out if I forget to extol her; she has acquired such impetus she needs no extra shove.” And one more, the narrator commending Swan on her skills as a violinist: “Perhaps she played so well, with educated brio, because music dangled and was dandled on the fringe of poetry.” His use of paronomasia doesn’t just amaze me for its variety, going deep into the vocabulary, but for its quantity; they keep on coming. I love paronomasias myself; I’m always adding new pairs to a master-list already running into the thousands. I wonder how West went about this; did he keep lists too? Did he like to waste whole days away just making lists of words like a squirrel gathering walnuts for winter? Or did he think them up on the spot, as he moved along, every word at the tip of his tongue? This is more likely; the truth about lists is that they’re inopportune during the writing, they interrupt the flow; they’re a good exercise, they keep my mind focused on picking up words to add to them, and that’s a valuable memory exercise; but when it’s time to write, my mind conjures them instantly because I’ve trained it to do so. I think about such things when I read such novels as Life With Swan: what's the process behind their construction? West makes craftsmanship look fun.
Paul West reminds me a lot of his friend William H. Gass, not only because of their similar styles, but because both undertook a vehement defense of literary experimentalism while doing nothing forcefully experimental themselves. West was committed to character, drama, psychology, emotion, even when his essays insinuate otherwise. Almost every novel I’ve read by him has tended to have an interesting plot and rounded, lively characters E.M. Forster would have killed for, in pursuit of something tangible, moving in linear fashion towards satisfying climaxes. Caliban’s Filibuster is the most extreme exception to this, and it put me off precisely for being self-consciously experimental to the point of solipsism, although it was the breakthrough that led to the superb Bela Lugosi. West doesn’t generally assault grammar or avoid conventional punctuation; he’s not against giving characters names and motivations. I suspect he even suffered from a belief in traditional humanism – what a square!
The quest for innovation is ezrapounded into Anglo-American writers’ heads from a tender age; the theory, if not the practice, is welded to their literary tradition’s DNA. I wonder if the problem is etymological. The word “novel” itself promises news. In Portugal, on the contrary, we call it romance, so the connection between novel and innovation isn’t obvious to us. But in English they worship a different etymythology and so they can write an antanaclasis like, “A novel should be about novel things.” As an outsider looking in, I find this folly for innovation a fascinating phenomenon. Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men, for instance, looks Joycean on the page even before a single sentence has been read; West and Gass, however, although admirers of Joyce, stuck a lot closer to the models of Cervantes and Henry James. For them, I suppose, standing up for experimentation didn’t necessarily mean joining it; it meant keeping the novel open to new possibilities for whoever wanted to explore them. "For every discovery, every innovation, there will be a thousand banal returns to the fold," wrote West. Actual exploration mattered less to them letting the novel petrify around them again.
Writers can be divided roughly in two groups: there are the miniscule Novelty Nutters, who take dead aim at tradition and relish in demolishing conventions. Then there’s the Content Cult that doesn’t question conventions because the conventions they instinctively use have evolved towards their one goal: sending a message efficiently. Neither group, in my opinion, cares much about sentences. But a bad sentence is a bad sentence whether in a social realist novel or in an experimental novel structured after the tracks in Michael Jackson’s Thriller. (I hope your smirk was a way of hiding your despair at knowing that someone is writing that novel as you’re reading this essay.) A bad sentence in chapter 3 doesn’t become good if the chapter is shuffled to the position of chapter 6. Non-linearity doesn’t make miracles, it’s not Jesus to make lame sentences walk with vigor and rise clichés from the dead.
West, in my view, belonged in a third, rarer group not incompatible with the other two: those writers who delight in words themselves. Purple prose, he explained, involves “coming up with new and more imposing combinations of words,” an art at which he excelled. Once he wrote of Julio Cortázar that he “was not that experimental a writer, but happily combined matter-of-fact sentences with a hands-off attitude to imagination: What imagination wants, imagination gets.” Replace matter-of-fact with flamboyant, and you have a self-portrait of the artist.
Phrasemaking is a classic concept, going all the way back to Gorgias, the father of poetic prose. Francisco de Quevedo would have considered West a conceptista; Thomas Browne would not have winced at his rhetorical fioriture. He in fact wrote the way Baltasar Gracián and Emanuele Tesauro prescribed in their 17th century manuals. His prose has much to do with John Lyly, Jeremy Taylor, John Milton, and Herman Melville, and nothing to do with, say, the self-proclaimed current spokesman for the avant-garde, Tom McCarthy, whose conception of avant-garde, by leaning so heavily on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s anodyne prose, is very hostile to phrasemaking.
I don’t care what the writer believes in, what role he thinks he’s playing, so long as that belief helps him write well. If West needed to consider himself an experimentalist to write something like Life With Swan, who am I to complain? But it was West and virtuosi like Nabokov, Gass, and the unique Theroux (another conventional novelist who preaches experimentalism), who made me realize that being a brilliant sentence-to-sentence novelist is much better than being an innovative one.
Beautiful sentences, this is the truth about them, redeem the shabbiness of content. Life With Swan is, if you will, a novel of trite wisdoms: being alive is good, sharing your life with your beloved is even better. We tend to call these things truisms. West, in fact, spells out his big theme in the last lines:
I go into Swan’s bathroom, put on a feeble light by dimmer switch, and lean over the ingot, half-comprising an invocation to it that begins: Inkwell of nothing, in which we dip our eyes. If it is almost enough just to be alive, no wonder I thank my lucky stars for a gift of so much more.
Nobody will close the cover feeling wiser than Kant because of this.
But fiction doesn’t have to deal with big, important themes. We don’t need to look for big themes because they’re everywhere around us. Television has made them inescapable; we’re in thrall to the quotidian tyranny of theme. I’m old-fashioned enough to think that literature is about Beauty, because ordinary life itself sure isn’t, because we live in a world that tells us all the time that we don’t need beauty for our sanity, when I’m convinced the opposite is true. I appreciate the simplicity of natural beauty, like a sunset, catching a glimpse of horses grazing on a slope while I’m jogging in evening, or seeing a peacock spread its tail as I walk down a Lisbon avenue. That’s natural beauty. When it comes to man-made beauty, though, I prefer it complex; in the guise of literature, that means a specific type of language, ornate, overwrought, a beauteous, bosomy language, combinations I never imagined possible, calling attention to themselves, always signaling at me. It’s the sheer surprise of an unexpected word combination that redeems much of the trite wisdom in so many novels.
West, however, cared about ideas, which is not the same as caring about themes; novels were not complete without ideas. By ideas he meant the mind, an obsessively recurring word in his essays, and what he considered its synonym, imagination. For him the novel was a place for the mind to reveal itself, to reflect upon itself, to expand during its intellectual motions. This activity that falls under the term imagination covered a lot of ground; for him mind and heart were not separate but nourished each other; the display of rigorous thinking could be as dazzling as sheer fantasy. Mind and phrasemaking are interrelated because a playful mind is the engine of purple prose. Purple prose works best with odd narrators because, or makes them look odd, because oddness is the outer expression of a mind in the act of free play. That is the mind that carelessly transgresses the line of bad taste and dares new ways of rendering experience, new ways of embodying feeling, in sum new ways of arranging words. An excessive style contains excess of feeling, its strangeness surprises us with life, it tells us that the familiar is false; it plumbs boldly into the mind to retrieve new forms of presenting feeling and new reasons for being in awe of human existence.
Too many novels are nothing but trips through well-intentioned tripe about freedom, love, friendship, the beauty of life, hope, and the power of the human spirit. These are excellent values to uphold, who’d argue otherwise except the Surrealists and the Futurists? But why must these lessons be communicated – for that is what they are; they are merely communicated – in prose that remains as anesthetized as a torso undergoing surgery? Too many novelists affirm life programmatically; West, instead, affirmed life grammatically: his love for life wasn’t compressed in press-conference-room-like declarations, it was in the weave of language itself. A writer who starts a novel with this radiant, exuberant, minutely-crafted sentence
A puberty ago, I watched from my office window one afternoon as she descended into baking sunlight on the library steps in a Spanish-looking straw hat (Eton boating style), drape-swinging her legs in polychrome-striped bell-bottoms, behind her the terminal moraine of black hair that set her out from the crowd since she was ten.
is a writer truly in love with life because he loves the one tool that can sing such love: words. Don’t affirm life; embody it in your sentences; make life the style. Be conventional in your ideas, but extraordinary in how you express them. In an age when life-is-special has become a slogan to sell shirts; when we’ve all become cynically numbed to this truth, we need excessive, loud, bountiful, generous, extravagant novelists to show us that, yes, it really is.