Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Thus did he see first, he the hill-bound, the sky-girt, of whom the mountains were his masters, the fabulous South.  The picture of flashing field, of wood, and hill, stayed in his heart forever: lost in the dark land, he lay the night-long through within his berth, watching the shadowy and phantom South flash by, sleeping at length, and waking suddenly, to see cool lakes in Florida at dawn, standing quietly as if they had waited from eternity for this meeting; or hearing, as the train in the dark hours of morning slid into Savannah, the strange quiet voices of the men upon the station, or seeing, in pale dawn, the phantom woods, a rutted lane, a cow, a boy, a drab, dull-eyed against a cottage door, glimpsed ,at this moment of rushing time, for which all life had been aplot, to flash upon the window and be gone.

When I began Look Homeward, Angel, I was thrilled.  Wolfe's ebullient prose, knotty and tinted with a kind of Lawrence-esque mysticism, seemed like something novel and exciting.  It seemed made for some Scottish moor, but it was about my own homeland of North Carolina, and I was looking forward to seeing it afresh in passages like the one above, seeing the "fabulous" in it--as in (as I think Wolfe means) it, the stuff of fable.

But I couldn't imagine what it would be like to read prose like that for five hundred endless pages.  Whatever skills Wolfe had, they did not extend to variation of style, and he seems not ever to have realized that florid prose works best in small, impactful doses.  At first I appreciated what I thought was a sense of ironic humor interjected into the novel, as here, when the hero, Eugene Gant (a not-so-thinly-veiled Wolfe) is born:

The heir apparent had, as a matter of fact, made his debut completely equipped with all appurtenances, dependences, screws, cocks, faucets, hooks, eyes, nails, considered necessary for completeness of appearance, harmony of parts, and unity of effect in this most energetic, driving, and competitive world.  He was the most complete male in miniature, the tiny acorn from which the mighty oak must grow, the heir of all ages, the inheritor of unfulfilled renown, the child of progress, the darling of the budding Golden Age, and, what's more, Fortune and her Fairies, not content with well-nigh smothering him with the blessings of time and family, saved him up carefully until Progress was rotten-ripe with glory.

As a mock-heroic, that's damn near peerless.  But the trouble is, as I came to suspect over the course of the novel, it's not mock anything.  Wolfe wasn't ashamed of proclaiming his own genius, and extends that privilege to his stand-in here.  The novel traces young Eugene's childhood, from his birth to the time when he enrolls in the University of North Carolina at Pulpit Hill (Chapel Hill, obvi) and then goes on to Harvard.  During that time he broods, carries on abortive love affairs, broods, ponders the mysteries of the universe, and broods some more.  His relationship with his family is destructive, except for a few siblings who ultimately die
But Eugene never grows in any significant way, perhaps because Wolfe didn't think he needed to--though that may be uncharitable.  It is peculiar in its repetitiveness.  The epigraph sets the keywords of the novel:

Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.  Where?  When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

That's sort of beautiful, is it not?  But these phrases are plucked apart, reorganized, and repeated maybe twenty times in the novel until you begin to wonder what they really mean--a question for which there is no answer.  Other lines are repeated purposelessly, and odd pet words, like phthisic, perhaps to save the reader of shuffling off to the dictionary more than a couple of times.  What Lawrence used to great effect, Wolfe uses like a child wielding a new toy, without discretion or pause.

This review seems overly harsh.  The book left a bad taste in my mouth, though I did like parts of it--especially Eugene's father, W.O., an interminable drunk with a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and turning domestic squabbles into high drama.  It seems no accident that he and Eugene's mother, a cold woman with a penchant for owning real estate (clear depictions of Wolfe's parents--his mother's boarding house still stands in Asheville, NC today) are the most clearly drawn of the mishmash of characters. 

According to legend, when the novel was published, the people of Asheville--here called "Altamont"--ran Wolfe out of town for turning them into unflattering novel-stuff.  I doubt any of them actually read the whole thing.  If they had, they probably would have murdered him.


R.M. Fiedler said...

This review made me laugh quite a few times.

And, fortunately, I now know not to read this book. Would you recommend any other Wolfe?

Christopher said...

I can't imagine they're any more satisfying.