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Ex Libris

April 13, 1986|RICHARD EDER

Show and Tell: This is my canary; this is a shell I picked up at the beach; this is a drawing of my bedroom before and after I tidied it. And what is the response? Nobody says: Your canary has fleas; your shell is broken; who cares about your room? The kindergarten child displays himself, and the world approves.

On a dull day early this week, a Washington source was telling the papers that President Reagan would like the next summit held in the summer so that he could give General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev a tour of American high spots. Nancy Reagan, it was reported, would like to take Raissa Gorbachev to an American supermarket. This is not a frill; this is substance, the source insisted.

If the Gorbachevs could only see us, the reasoning went, they would understand us. If they understand us, they will agree with us. ("You're not hearing me," we tell each other when we're hearing perfectly well; what we're not doing is agreeing.) The notion has come out at various bends along the summitry trail. At one point, we were talking about student exchanges so that Soviet youth could learn more about us. The notion that we might learn from them got less mileage.

Presenting a society's strengths to impress or cow a foreign visitor is not particularly American. That's what Potemkin villages and military parades have always been for. But the feeling that there is some kind of magic transcendence in our way of life, that our inwardness is to be displayed rather than sheltered by privacy, and that it can't be conveyed by explanations or arguments but only by spending the weekend--this approaches a national conviction.

If Marco Polo came to Kokomo, Ind., or Tyler, Tex., he would be lodged, toured and dined to a standstill. And after his 15-minute talk, what people would really want to know is not how things are in Outer Mongolia, but what do you think of us?

All this has its literary counterpart. We think of the 1920s generation--an Illinois Hemingway, a Minnesota Fitzgerald, a New York Henry Miller, discovering Europe and a wider world. What they discovered may have been one thing; what they wrote was American dramas on a larger stage; Show and Tell with Vin Rouge or champagne instead of milk and cookies. It took an earlier generation, an Edith Wharton or a Henry James, to genuinely grapple with the wider world; or a humbler talent such as A. J. Liebling or Janet Flanner to convey Frenchness for its own sake, even if through an American sensibility.

Since then, we have opened out a little. Vladimir Nabokov, foreigner though he was, managed to administer a bit of European detachment to our self-absorbed literary consciousness; rather like a banderilla implanted at a bullfight. It soon falls out, but the sting remains. Updike's invention of Bech reaches out to Nabokov's invention of Pnin; the latter representing the world's myopic displacement in America and the former, a myopic American displacement in the world. You imagine them meeting and, as a proof of their congruity, failing to recognize each other.

But whatever the sophistication of our writers, and their acquaintance with the world outside--Joan Didion and Central America, Paul Theroux and Britain, Philip Roth and Eastern Europe--there remains a fundamentally different quality in what American and European writers seem to be trying to express.

For one thing, contemporary European literature speaks more of the autonomous individual than ours does. It seems a paradox, in view of the traditional notion of Americans as individualists, and Europeans as bound up in a web of social relationships. In fact, it is the movement of history. Forty years after World War II, the Europeans write out of a terminal sense of invasion; of permanently ruptured social connections.

In Eastern Europe, the invasion remains literal; in Western Europe, it is more amorphous. What is thought of variously as modernity or post-modernity, as the American era or the post-American era, seems to provide writers with nothing to attach themselves to. They drive cars and go skiing in the Europe of the Common Market, but I know of no Common Market literature, except by antithesis.

The protagonists of Milan Kundera and Josef Skvorecky, with their tender detachment; those of Gunther Grass, Michael Walzer and Peter Handke, with their harsh and arid detachment; Alberto Moravia's domesticity of despair; the fabulous monsters of Michel Tournier; and the battlers of the postwar English novel, for whom class remains alive even though society does not--all these individuals are solitary points, however many attachments or enterprises they may be involved in.

They are detached not from their culture, but from the fate of their culture. Their values are tenuous, but cut loose from their circumstances. They jump, gratefully, out of history, as if escaping from a burning building. We, on the other hand, are still trying to find our way in, though with diminishing confidence.

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