Thursday, February 24, 2011

Randall Jarrell's "Pictures from an Institution": Book Review

What a strange novel. I knew of it vaguely as about Mary McCarthy's stint at Sarah Lawrence in the postwar idyll when college jobs appeared easy to get and the literate spoke of German poetry in the original and listened to twelve-tone music, but Jarrell's only fiction's certainly exceedingly odd. It meanders, it ruminates, it penetrates, all in an elusive style permeating tone, voices, conversations from a curiously placed, not quite omniscient, narrator sounding a lot like the poet himself.

Moments of mockery, as in the performance of "The Life of Nature" ballet by students, or poignancy, as with Constance's immersion in the Grimm's tale of the Juniper Tree, alternate. Gertrude as the McCarthy stand-in for me seemed less engrossing. Descriptions such as "torn animals were removed at sunset from that smile" make her seem more evilly enjoyable than she really is as a figure to be caricatured. "She's the worst Southerner since Jefferson Davis" is a great line, all the same. I guess you, as was Jarrell, had to be there.

Other characters such as the boyish booster President of Benton College, and his dull wife, and other cowed faculty (few students make much of an impression, tellingly, and few scenes take place in class) float by with similar blends of observation and detachment. The attention given Dr. Rosenbaum appeared enormous given the relatively small role his part added up to in terms of advancing the storyline. The college appears as if remote from the rest of the world, even as it determinedly (this being 1954) imposes its progressive values on generations of women, bohemian or polite, mannered or gawkish. "Living around colleges the way you do, you've just lost your sense of what's probable," Gertrude chides the narrator.

Gertrude's predecessor goes off to another college.
"Somehow, after sixty years in it, the world had still not happened to her, and she stood at its edge with a timid smile, her hand extended to its fresh terrors, its fresh joys--a girl attending, a ghost now, the dance to which forty years ago she did not get to go."
There's not much plot, which is the point our narrator makes about Gertrude's own attempts to make out of this bucolic college year a ripping satire. "Her books were a systematic, detailed, and conclusive condemnation of mankind for being stupid and bad; yet if mankind had been clever and good, what would have become of Gertrude?" Such remarks keep you turning the pages, even if it's a slow, skewed, and oddly paced narrative.

I valued this novel for its sudden, unpredictably placed, passages of insight.
"Poor moths attracted to the lepidopterist, who trade them their soft wings for the hard conclusion that they are typical specimens of genus A, species B, sub-species C--and who murmur with their last breath that he is a typical lepidopterist!"

"Someone at a travelogue cannot help feeling, even if he knows better: 'Lucky coolies, to be there in the midst of the romance of the East!' But they aren't in it, they are it, so it is no good to them."

"The people of Benton, like the rest of us, were born, fell in love, married and died, lay sleepless all night, saw the first star of evening and wished upon it, won lotteries and wept for joy. But not at Benton."

Saying "I guess," the narrator notes, is a tic of Americans. They cannot match their jaded, harsher, crueler European counterparts. But, I guess that nobody other than a poet could have written this eccentric, eloquent, enigmatic, and enduring, novel. It's an acquired taste that may come and go as you read it, but it should linger, as the passages I cited do, at their own offbeat, barely registered, moments. (Posted to Amazon US & 9-24-10)

No comments: