Leopardi the greatest Italian poet in succession to Dante, Petrarch, writes: "There are two truths which most men will never believe: one, that they know nothing, and the other that they are nothing. And there is a third, which proceeds from the second---- that there is nothing to hope for after death." And true to that he was able to write about his own "work": "I never achieved any real work. I have made attempts..." and Finally, "if I were a poet..."
By now most people are familiar with the line from E. M. Cioran that each book is a postpone suicide. He was referring to his own books and of course we want that quality in any book we read so I think that while I would hope my own writing might postpone my suicide, I also am aware reading certain books postpone suicide and that is how I remember originally reading both SAPEEDBOAT and PITCH DARK by Renata Adler, both published in hardcover by Knopf in the late 70s and early 80s of the last century.
Both books are fragmented and have a wonderfully cold distant narrator who assumes the reader is widely read, has seen many movies, listens to music and has traveled.
Now republished by New York Review Books I am pleased that the books have not dated and still remain the sort of novel I think of as being right in the center of what everyone should read but so rarely find, in particular from American writers published by American publishers.
The uniqueness of form in the Adler books is what has always held me and I of late have realized that this form comes--- if such can be written--- from Joan Didion’s PLAY IT AS IT LAY, published as far back as 1970 and while I am sure it is as they say a stretch, I also seem to detect the voice of Mike Hammer as transcribed by Mickey Spillane in I, THE JURY and VENGEANCE IS MINE. Didion’s novel was always viewed as flawed because of its Hollywood setting but that is what makes it special as only Nathaniel West has done justice to that seductive place…. Everything else about Hollywood excepting only the Hollywood pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald who of course you remember Cioran mentioning that it was with THE CRACK-UP “in which he (Fitzgerald) describes his failure, his only great success.”
From the opening of SPEEDBOAT: No one died that year. Nobody prospered. There were no births or marriages.
From PITCH DARK: We were running flat out. The opening was dazzling. The ending was dazzling. It was like a steeplechase composed entirely of hurdles. But that would not be a steeplechase at all. It would be more like a steep steep climb.
From PLAY IT AS IT LAYS: What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.
Adler presciently refused, I am told, to allow her novels to appear in paper in the much hyped Vintage Contemporaries back then so that they could nestle next to Jay McInerney’s novels which were the flavor of the month as had been shortly before, The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas… and I refuse to mention the title of another extinct novel by another once-upon-a-time famous writer John Irving. McInerney’s novels are today mentioned but not really read… they are tied to their moment and when the moment goes…: at least he has married well a number of times and lives in great comfort which is a fitting purgatory: you remember, he’s the guy who once was…
SPEEDBOAT and PITCH DARK have survived because they are written in the moment for that one really existing flesh and blood reader, as Osip Mandelstam mentioned, who lives two hundred years in the future.
There have been no more novels from Adler. She fell into the law and has written books after getting a law degree. The heart sinks. How much more interesting she would have been to be around if she had taken up mathematics as did Paul Valery? The law is designed for those who want to give the appearance of thinking but really simply want something of…. do I dare use the word relevance… a sad human failing.
Maybe I am mistaken about Adler’s work after these two novels. Maybe there will be the notebooks as Valery devoted his life to and her thinking of the law, though I doubt it as there is a uniqueness to Valery who writes for instance in volume 4 of the English version of his CAHIERS/NOTEBOOKS:
Crime = the mask falling away. Social life covers everything in a plaster-cast, and allows only those movements that preserve this artificial character. Violence of those movement that smash the mask.
Criminals would not be punished if the judge were forced to imagine in the extreme the circumstances in which they had been put and which drove them to commit a crime. The judge accords criminals a freedom that he himself has, not being what they are, and thus condemns them as not being what they are.