Except When I Write. Arthur Krystal.

Krystal, Arthur. Except When I Write. Oxford, New York 2011. NF; 2/22.

This author who is new to me wrote a piece of atypical fiction I read in a recent New Yorker. He’s a couple of years younger than I am so his experience covers some familiar territory: he wanted to be a writer in the 1960s (so did I) but found he didn’t have the knack for fiction (ditto). So he trained in the humanities at Columbia, became a journalist and then a published essay writer. His writing in these essays at times simulates 60s talk and attitude, at others feels more like somebody with an erudite conservative focus. That unusual contrast sent me to some of his essays hoping to find he hadn’t been sucked onto one side or another of what’s going on in politics and culture these days.

I don’t think he has been. In an essay called When Writers Speak Krystal points out that writing and being verbally profound or entertaining are completely different things. Good writing is a different kind of interesting than good conversation. Fair enough (some of us are no good at either). He introduces us to William Hazlitt, an early 19th century essayist I hadn’t heard of, who Krystal calls the first modern writer and who was a contemporary (and critical) of people like Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Byron. Hazlitt has enjoyed some recent attention among critics and is seen as a bit of a 60s-style counterculture bohemian: mercurial, told things as he saw them, married and then was thrown out by his wife, suffered unrequited romance with a girl 25 years his junior, and sadly died owing a mountain of debt. There is apparently a very nice hotel in London named after him which when he lived there was a tenement-type place. Krystal appears balanced in his approach to Hazlitt.

He then goes after Edgar Allen Poe as having written the first-ever detective story, and it’s interesting that there was a murder of a young woman in New York which Poe apparently solved in fiction published while the police were struggling to figure out who did the deed. It wasn’t so much the involvement of cops and crime as the novelty of the application of logic in a disinterested way to find out the truth, and the emotional satisfaction that succeeding at that, that Poe gave us. Again not much value judgement from our author.

For me the most interesting essay was A Man For All Reasons, an introduction to the life and work of Jacques Barzun who is considered the founder of cultural criticism. He died in 2012 at the age of 104 and wrote his greatest work From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life when he was 93. He taught Krystal at Columbia and they had a professional relationship outside the classroom. The exciting thing for me about Barzun is that at the same time as he was an almost impossibly encyclopedic expert in his field he is described as eschewing ideology. “Human affairs rarely contain problems with solutions. They contain predicaments and difficulty, which is a very different thing” he said, and “any attempt to graft a system onto what is really a series of multifarious events is doomed to fail.”

It seems Barzun was an eidetic genius who also genuinely got, in spite of living and writing in the middle of hundreds of systematic ideas, that humans can’t resist generality. Our tendency drowning in “multifarious events” is to grab onto ideas like big floating objects. I’m reminded of Peterson’s sixth rule in his Beyond Order: “Abandon ideology”:

Beware of intellectuals who make a monotheism out of their theories of motivation. Beware, in more technical terms, of blanket univariate (single variable) causes for diverse, complex problems.

Barzun was no intellectual snob in spite of being one of the most respected and senior arts people at Columbia University for over a generation: “I suspect highbrows (and low- and middle-) as I do all specialists, suspect them of making things too easy for themselves; and like women with a good figure who can afford to go braless, I go about brow-less.”

Krystal goes on to write about dueling, biography, F Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Depression, and then describes his own early adulthood where he discovered that he wasn’t going to write the Great American Novel. And what he has to say is to me personal and (without making too much of it) avoids political correctness but also the stuffiness we get from serious conservatives.

The specter of Jacques Barzun really captured my attention so now I’m reading a series of lectures he gave in the 1970s (on art) being the only thing he wrote that is available on Kindle. I did though order a hardcover copy of his From Dawn to Decadence to use as a reference rather than something to be read from beginning to end. And I just wanted to own it. It cost me a dollar for each year of the author’s long life.

(Krystal’s book) 8.3/8.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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