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BOOK REVIEW : Critic Measures 15 Novelists' Religious Roots Against His Own : THE ASPECT OF ETERNITY by Bruce Bawer ; Graywolf Press $25 , 320 pages

August 09, 1993|MICHAEL HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If writers were ballplayers, a newspaper reviewer like me would be a manager in spring training, asking, as Casey Stengel asked of the hapless 1962 Mets: "Can't anybody here play this game?" I'd squint out of the dugout at books by rookies and veterans like, hoping to find as many of major-league caliber as possible--in other words, worth a few hours of a reader's time.

No problem with Bruce Bawer's collection of essays on 15 modern novelists "with a strong religious, mystical or visionary element." He's a strong hitter, a good enough fielder, a graceful base runner. Suit this guy up.

Bawer, though, is a critic, and a critic is a lot pickier than a reviewer. He's more like a sportswriter voting on candidates for the Hall of Fame, judging the life's work of established writers by the strictest of standards: Could they carry Tolstoy's bat or Flaubert's glove?

And his answer, in most cases, is bound to be no.

This is especially true if the critic, like Bawer, is an upholder of tradition. He denies being "a neoconservative, whatever that (is)," but in these essays, reprinted from New Criterion magazine, he repeatedly dings writers for anti-Americanism (considering the greater sins of the Soviet Union), for romanticizing nature and primitive peoples (considering how much these writers depend on modern industrial civilization) and for nihilism and childishness.

A former "atheist and Aristotelian" who is now "on the other side of a baptism," Bawer wants his religion straight--no "dippy Eastern mysticism" or psychopathology masquerading as faith.

Graham Greene offends on several counts. His brand of Catholicism is a product of a sick, anti-sexual upbringing. He is anti-American and, worse, chummy with communists. His heroes "are motivated by ideas that the average intelligent reader . . . cannot take seriously." Bawer asks: "How, then, can Greene legitimately be called a great writer?" Should have stayed in triple-A.

Doris Lessing is guilty of both "raging egoism" and leftist politics, which Bawer sees as related. Feminists who "clutched ('The Golden Notebook') to their bosoms" were misled. At best a platoon player.

James Baldwin had the right idea at the beginning--that art, like religion, transcends racial protest--but gave in to hatred of whites (and of America). Benched indefinitely.

John Fowles' work has declined since "The French Lieutenant's Woman" because the "bad ideas" that had always lurked in his fiction--the elitism, the bullying God-figures--have taken it over. Up for waivers.

Bawer, in fact, seems to believe that literature can be no better than the philosophy that underlies it. Most readers would agree, but it's a tricky argument to sustain. (Tolstoy blasted Shakespeare for his moral relativism, and Shakespeare conspicuously survived.) At times, Bawer is so intent on finding personal, neurotic reasons for a writer's ideas that it's as if no real environmental problems existed, or that the United States wasn't deeply corrupted by the process of winning the Cold War.

A few odd readings result. Bawer says the girl in Fowles' "The Collector" is "very unsympathetic" and the kidnaper a victim of the author's class prejudice--not my reactions at all.

And Bawer goes beyond lamenting John Updike's "tendency to legitimize selfishness and dehumanize sex." He says the collapse of communism somehow shows that the "Rabbit" novels have been "irrelevant . . . to the deeper truths of American life in the last 30 years," whatever those may be.

But if debatable ideas can be problematic in fiction, they are invigorating to criticism. Bawer states his positions bravely. He has read these novelists with care and, usually, with discernment, and he writes about them lucidly and elegantly.

He is judicious and generous toward Willa Cather, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ford Madox Ford. He notes Jean Stafford's artistic triumph over the disasters of her life. He asserts the importance of two relatively unsung writers: Penelope Fitzgerald and 85-year-old William Maxwell.

His favorite, not surprisingly, is Flannery O'Connor. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Down Georgia way, where O'Connor "rebelled by attaching herself fervently to a distinct set of traditional . . . ideas about the human condition" based on her Catholic faith. "To read her stories alongside those of almost any of her contemporaries," Bawer says, "is to see, in those other writers, a frivolousness and superficiality of which one was hardly aware."

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