When Philip Roth's latest novel The Humbling was released, it took a few weeks before the critical reviews catched up with it. And some reviews I've read (here, here, and here) provoked strong reactions, with some worthwhile critical insights. I read the book and enjoyed, but a masterpiece it is not.
That's when I came across Leon Wieseltier's review, which is not exactly a review in the traditional sense, but uses The Humbling as an example of what has been lost in fiction of late. The first three paragraphs of his review are simply stunning in my opinion, and anyone who cares about literature should take the time to read and think about them. He begins first with a quote:
"We loved not the insolent and importunate splendours of perfect light. Cobwebs and wholesome dust—we needed some of both in the corners of our minds. They mature the wine of the spirit perhaps. We would almost always have had, as it were, a topmost and nearly inaccessible file of tomes, which we never read, but often planned to read – records peradventure of unvictorious alchymist and astrologer. Thither a sunbeam never penetrated and unmasked. The savour of paraffin and brick-dust should never cling about it. Unfortunate (we thought) is he who has no dusty and never-explored recesses in his mind!"
Leon then explains:
That is Edward Thomas, in one of the extraordinary essays, collected in homely little books of imperishable beauty that he produced before he turned to poetry. I return to those sentences often in this culture of perfect intellectual confidence, in which everything is sooner or later penetrated and unmasked—this culture of explanation, in which all the ancient problems are either solved or scorned, and every obscurity of human life, every fog and every cloud, is just a research paper away from satisfactory clarification. There is no riddle of existence that cannot be resolved, or robbed of its sting, in a David Brooks column. We are lucid now, and efficient; we are the quickest studies who ever lived. We throw no shadows. We know how things really work. We have the definite measure of everything. (Happiness, for example, is defined for us by social science; is an objective of public policy). Even as we cozily admit our fallibility, we exempt nothing from our brilliance. We dispel inwardness with our analysis of it. Hurriedly and without any suspicion that precious things are being driven away, we march smartly through all the pains and all the perplexities, and we call this dream of transparency, this aspiration to control, this denial of finitude, reason.
He then ties it to the novel:
Reason is precisely what it is not. Reason is more provisional, more modest, more patient. Reason is not a festival of ideas or a catalogue of best practices. It is also not an omniscient narrator. But the culture of explanation, the illusion of mastery, extends also to our novels. So much contemporary American fiction also seems researched, worked up, instrumentalized, by skillful minds eager to display their skills. Writers go prowling through eras of history or fields of science in search of their next project, disguising the absence of a calling as curiosity. They become experts. (And critics call the results of their expertise “richly imagined.”) A subject is needed and one is discovered, something fascinating, something exotic, something cool, and with a plentitude of information, of natty and newly acquired knowledge, it is mastered, and settled, and the career moves on. But when Flaubert devoured volumes on agronomy in preparation for the great scene of the agricultural fair in Yonville, it was not because he was wanting in a subject or a style: the particulars—“geological strata, atmospheric phenomena, the properties of the various soils, minerals, types of water, the density of different bodies, their capillary attraction”—were welcomed into a prior poetical and spiritual conception. There is nothing vain about his facts. They are not effects. The death of Emma Bovary is not designed to provoke in the reader a swift celebration of the intellect of the writer, of his accomplishments in knowledge and knowingness. It is unforgettable for other reasons. Even if Flaubert was Madame Bovary, Madame Bovary was not Flaubert. A great writer knows when to disappear, and why. He is prepared to be bested by his children. His words are soaked in a sense of what is beyond words.
I've not read Leon Wieseltier that much, except for his fine book Kaddish years ago, so I wasn't sure if this is how he always begins reviews. But even now, over a month since I've read these sentences, I'm still trying to wrap my head around them. I really have nothing to say about them, but they make me think more deeply, humbling my own self-styled knowingness against the mystery of human nature and mortality.