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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Another long-forgotten writer's writer so-called: William Goyen

In my quest for forgotten novelists - saw recent NYTBR review of a bio of a writer I'd never heard of, William Goyen, and picked up his first novel, The House of Breath, to see what I'd been missing. Novel published in 1950 and then, after 25 years of obscurity, reissued in a special edition by Random House in 1975 to be greeted by: Even more obscurity! Goyen, like the recently departed James Salter (another writer I'll probably look into again) had the misfortune of being cast (type) as a "writer's writer," but I'm not sure that's accurate - he wasn't even a writer's writer, as so few read him. House of Breath, from first 30 pp or so, is quite astonishing as a work of style - a bridge from Thomas Wolfe and perhaps Faulkner to some of the postmodern stylists, most notably the hyper-writer John Hawkes. It's a work of almost pure description: begins w/ a fairly powerful scene of the adult author having a kind of mental breakdown in a public park, perhaps?, as he is overwhelmed by his own sense of failure and then by memories and recollections of his youth - in what appears to be a deep Southern pine-woods landscape - from bio notes it seems to be a Texas boyhood, but you can easily imagine these as recollections of Mississippi or NC - and Goyen goes on for several chapters of extraordinary prose, overheated and superabundant, like Wolfe always and Faulkner sometimes, about the landscape, the waterways, the house of his youth and its decor, to a degree about the large family - although this does not so far appear to be a novel about character or plot; it's a novel of evocation. Also not to be confused with the memiorist-novelists, les enfants de Proust, as this is a flood of memories, most of them sensory, not a recollection of lost time, lost youth. As I persist, if I persist, the value of the novel will have to be not just whether it swept me up but whether there's a point to it all, whether we come to understand why this childhood led to the adult who is suffering and who is overcome by these memories. Hawkes wrote similar fiction 25 years later (another writer's writer, but fortunately for him more of his time and well-embraced by an academic set) but Hawkes's work was far more sensual, or actually sexual - perhaps that's one thing he needed to break out of the writer's writer prison (although it didn't help Salter, either).

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