Sunday, February 26, 2012

Jonathan Greenberg

Jonathan Greenberg is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Montclair State University. His new book is Modernism, Satire and the Novel.

Not so long ago I asked Greenberg what he was reading.  His reply:
English professors like to teach texts that we are “working on,” and since I am now writing a book about satire aimed at the college student and the common reader, much of what I am working on these days is satiric. Prepping a graduate seminar in American fiction last fall allowed me to discover some great American satires I’d never read before, and to reopen and reevaluate some old favorites. Let me talk about two.

The book that surprised me most in re-reading was Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. I recalled almost nothing of my earlier encounters with Lewis, and I must have dismissed him as an artless social realist who lacked the stylistic daring of his great high-modernist contemporaries. It’s true that the satire in Babbitt can feel polemical and obvious, and for intellectuals today a Midwestern Republican businessman is perhaps too easy a target. But although the plodding Babbitt (like his literary descendant Rabbit) often seems overmatched by the intelligence of his creator, this remarkable novel still manages to summon considerable sympathy in between its blasts of contempt. Polemicism aside, Lewis is a hugely gifted observer who fills his novel with one marvelously telling detail after the next. Babbitt’s daily interactions, whether with a bank president, a gas station attendant, or a seller of bootleg gin, realize with vivid precision the businessman’s character and the world of early ‘20s America. And however obvious some of the social satire may seem, Lewis’s critique of the bourgeois mind anticipates the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals in its diagnosis the standardization of culture. And besides, taking potshots at the capitalist class can still be great fun.

Now for a disappointment: Nabokov’s Pale Fire. My letdown in revisiting Pale Fire was almost embarrassing because of my great enthusiasm for the book in my college days; I felt that my younger self had been duped. I used to revere Nabokov to such a degree that I had allowed his strong opinions somehow to dissuade me from my admiration of Mann and Faulkner. Of course Pale Fire, even to my forty-three-year-old self, is still a remarkable accomplishment—enchantingly clever, often hilarious, beautifully constructed and polished to a brilliant shine. Yet it’s also surprisingly clumsy in places, especially in John Shade’s often lifeless heroic couplets. (Might Nabokov have deliberately styled Shade a mediocrity? Perhaps, but if mediocrity is the target, then Babbitt is a much more vibrant satire.) In my recent reading, the jokes about Kinbote’s homosexuality seemed sophomoric, the longing for the afterlife felt lame and irrational, and the story of Hazel Shade’s suicide came off as schmaltzy. The journalist Ron Rosenbaum once declared Pale Fire the twentieth century’s greatest book; this can only be true if you are the kind of reader for whom literary criticism is merely a game of puzzles and clues, as it apparently is for Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd. Yes, Nabokov’s ingenuity affords the reader great delight, whether he outsmarts you or whether you manage to keep with him. Lolita still retains all its glory, and I have a hunch that works I read years ago in translation (The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading) pack enough punch that they can sustain re-reading from the vantage of midlife. But if you’re looking for a great American novel from the early 1960s with a satiric bent, I’d suggest, off the top of my head, two other books instead, Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Read an excerpt from Modernism, Satire and the Novel, and learn more about the book at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue