When I was young I was soft-hearted, and I was often offended by the way bullying authors would use helpless minor characters as the butts of their jokes. Recently I took another look at some of the books that made me feel this way, and I found that there was a pattern. The characters being ridiculed were all, in one way or another, uncool. Two were wimpy librarians, two were oafs and klutzes, and one was just “awful” (a word Hemingway seems to use a lot).
Perhaps my soft-heartedness was not altruistic at all. Perhaps I was just looking at my own future, and realizing that at several key moments in my life I would suffer the bitter consequences of insufficient coolness. The oaf / wimp combination might seem unusual, but there’s an explanation. In my early childhood I was a wimp and was bullied by my oafish friends, but by the age of about fourteen, by dint of hard work and determination, I had succeeded in meeting the minimum local oaf standard, and so when I went out into the great world, an oaf was what I was perceived to be.
So let’s get down to cases.
1. Melville’s address to the sub-sub librarians of the world in the early pages of Moby Dick, expressed in a tone of mock sympathy, struck me as unnecessarily mean:
The pale Usher- threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality. So fare thee well, poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am. Thou belongest to that hopeless, sallow tribe which no wine of this world will ever warm; and for whom even Pale Sherry would be too rosy-strong; but with whom one sometimes loves to sit, and feel poor-devilish, too; and grow convivial upon tears; and say to them bluntly, with full eyes and empty glasses, and in not altogether unpleasant sadness- Give it up, Sub-Subs! For by how much more pains ye take to please the world, by so much the more shall ye for ever go thankless! Would that I could clear out Hampton Court and the Tuileries for ye! But gulp down your tears and hie aloft to the royal-mast with your hearts; for your friends who have gone before are clearing out the seven-storied heavens, and making refugees of long pampered Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael, against your coming. Here ye strike but splintered hearts together- there, ye shall strike unsplinterable glasses!
I suspect that Melville here was exorcising his own inner wimp, like Norman Mailer killing off the bad, whiny Jew in The Naked in the Dead — but still, this kind of thing is unnecessary and inappropriate and should not be tolerated.
2. In The Revolt of the Angels, Anatole France is beastly to Monsieur Sarette, an impoverished schoolmaster who had become the librarian of the quaint 350,000-volume library of an old aristocratic family. Sarette had devised a shelving and cataloging system so complicated that no one but him could ever find a book there, and because he had made it his goal to preserve the library intact, he refused ever to lend out a book out — even to the library’s owners. Granted, he was a silly old fool, but France punished him by having his library taken over by a band of rebel angels who strewed his precious books all around the library every night — and even left inkstains on some of them. When M. Sarette staked out the library one night, he was physically attacked and knocked unconscious, and ultimately he was driven mad and locked up in an asylum.
Monsieur Sarette loved his library. He loved it with a jealous love. He was there every day at seven o’clock in the morning busy cataloguing at a huge mahogany desk. The slips in his handwriting filled an enormous case standing by his side surmounted by a plaster bust of Alexandre d’Esparvieu….. the borrowing of the smallest book seemed like dragging his heart out. To refuse a volume even to such as had the most incontestable right to it, Monsieur Sarette would invent countless far-fetched or clumsy fibs…. Sometimes he woke at night bathed in sweat, and uttering a cry of fear because he had dreamed he had seen a gap on one of the shelves of his bookcases. It seemed to him a monstrous, unheard-of, and most grievous thing that a volume should leave its habitat…..Chapter 2When he awoke the fire was out, the lamp was extinguished, leaving an acrid smell behind. But all around, the darkness was filled with milky brightness and phosphorescent light. He thought he saw something flutter on the table. Stricken to the marrow with cold and terror, but upheld by a resolve stronger than any fear, he rose, approached the table, and passed his hands over the cloth. He saw nothing; even the lights faded, but under his fingers he felt a folio wide open; he tried to close it, the book resisted, jumped up and hit the imprudent librarian three blows on the head. Monsieur Sarette fell down unconscious. (Chapter 4).
I felt at the time, and still feel, that France should have been able to make his big literature-of-ideas points without being quite so cruel to poor Sarette, who hardly deserved to be treated quite that badly, as though he were a real villain.
3. The book Zuleika Dobson is about Cool itself. For compelling coolness-reasons which cannot be expressed in finite human language, every man at Oxford was in love with Zuleika, and in the end they all commited suicide for love of her. Even the pitiful and mediocre Noaks presumed to fall in love with Zuleika (though he did not have the courage to die). At one point, as a token of his love, he even offered her his iron ring (which was reputed to ward off rheumatism). To his astonishment, and ours, she accepted it for mysterious Zuleika reasons which we will never understand. But this moment of good luck just draws our attention even more sharply to his wretched uncoolness (of which we have already been informed at his every appearance), and in the end, he is very firmly put in his place.
He wore a black jacket, rusty and amorphous. His trousers were too short, and he himself was too short: almost a dwarf. His face was as plain as his gait was undistinguished. He squinted behind spectacles…. Little Noaks was squatting in the front row, peering up at her through his spectacles…. Zuleika: “As for you, little Sir Lily Liver, leaning out there, and, I frankly tell you, looking like nothing so much as a gargoyle hewn by a drunken stone-mason for the adornment of a Methodist Chapel in one of the vilest suburbs of Leeds or Wigan, I do but felicitate the river-god and his nymphs that their water was saved to-day by your cowardice from the contamination of your plunge.”
At the time I read Zuleika Dobson, I was bespectacled and short, as I still am — and indeed, almost dwarfish. Probably I should just have declared my conflict of interest right then and there and moved on, rather than forming an opinion of the book — an opinion which was, under the circumstances, almost certain to be unfair.
4. The Sun Also Rises. When I first read this book, I never did understand what was so awful about Cohn. I understand better now: he was just plain uncool. He cared too much, and in the wrong way, about Hadley — the psycho bitch from hell who keeps things hopping throughout. Cohn had studied boxing in order to avoid being bullied, and he was able to whip up on guys who gave him trouble or who got in his way. But he fought in a scientific, Jewish way, not in a cool way, and he cared too much about winning. He was just plain awful.
“Didn’t you send him with a letter to me in New York last winter? Thank God, I’m a travelling man. Haven’t you got some more Jewish friends you could bring along?” He rubbed his chin with his thumb, looked at it, and then started scraping again.
“You’ve got some fine ones yourself.” “Oh, yes. I’ve got some darbs. But not alongside of this Robert Cohn. The funny thing is he’s nice, too. I like him. But he’s just so awful.” “He can be damn nice.” “I know it. That’s the terrible part.”
5. Finally, Charles Bovary. This whole piece of mine was conceived on this thread, where I was accused of the “Charles Bovary heresy.” Charles never seemed like that bad a guy to me. I thought that the ridicule he faced on his first day of school (and afterwards) was unfair. He was guilty of wearing an elaboratelt ridiculous hat, which Flaubert spends half a page describing with the help of hat-words not found in the Petit Larousse. Like M. Sarette, Charles was guilty of playing dominoes. Like Noaks, Charles was guilty of being an impoverished, reasonably diligent, but untalented student. He was doomed from the start. When he wanted to dance with his wife Emma, she talked him out of it with the same sarcastic incredulity with which Noaks’ elegant roommate in Zuleika Dobson dismissed the idea that Noaks might actually have fallen in love.
Every guy I knew growing up was a Charles Bovary. My dad was a Charles Bovary. I wasn’t going to have to marry any of them, so I liked them all fine. I am somewhat of a Charles Bovary myself. His big country wedding sounded like an enhanced version of the kind of weddings we had where I grew up — a lot of fun, really.