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Sep 25, 2010

Poetic Justice

By BRENDA WINEAPPLE
Published: September 24, 2010

Imagine Stephen Dedalus in a fiction workshop surrounded by 20-something neophytes. Better yet, picture Huck Finn, having lit out for the territory, handing sections of his new memoir to Tom and Aunt Sally. Though this may seem amusing, today thousands of hopeful authors distribute their self-portraits to other hopeful authors who sit around seminar tables in one of the hundreds of writing programs thriving nationwide.

Why students flock there and what they hope to learn are the subjects of Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel, “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost.” Chang, a writing-school success story, certainly knows the scene. A 1993 graduate of the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and its director since 2006, Chang has also received fellowships from Stanford University, Princeton and Radcliffe. In 1998, she published a superb first book, “Hunger: A Novella and Stories,” a taut, incisive study of Chinese immigrants in America and their almost wordless struggle to adapt to a new life. Then, in her ambitious, graceful 2004 novel “Inheritance,” she catapulted her characters back to mainland China, where, during the Japanese occupation and the Communist takeover, two sisters are separated by love and stubbornness.

Now Chang drops a pair of would-be writers into a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest. Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris, budding poets, are enrolled in a seminar taught by Miranda Sturgis, the school’s “brightest star.” At 31 — slightly older than his classmates — Bernard couldn’t care less about publishing his poems, applying for fellowships, winning prizes or finding a teaching job. To him poetry is a religious calling; he will devote his life to writing and rewriting one long epic. Roman, however, craves a more worldly recognition of his gifts. Vigilantly, he submits his verse to literary magazines and keeps meticulous files, noting that “strategy was said not to matter, only talent; and yet strategy must matter.”

Spanning the careers of both men, “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” mainly follows Roman, whose need for maternal and poetic validation sends him briefly into Miranda’s arms. But although his poetry is rewarded and remunerated, Roman agonizes over the meaning and validity of his success. When, a few years after his graduation, he learns that Miranda headed the jury awarding him the Detweiler, his first national prize, he accuses her of impropriety, wailing, “You knew that if you gave me the prize, we would have to be in touch.” He never sees her again.

The issue here is provocative: to what extent does one’s (symbolic or real) intimacy with one’s teachers open professional doors — or undermine one’s sense of achievement? At least initially, Bernard and Roman raise questions worthy of Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverk├╝hn, or any thoughtful student or teacher: What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity? Can writing be taught? Does one ever improve? Yet the central characters in “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them. (Although Bernard can explain what poetry is by quoting Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”)

Roman wants to keep his prizes and his pride, but a prepossessing narcissism defines his character. This narcissism is, in fact, shared by the novel’s other characters. And because Roman is the book’s center of consciousness, we see these others as he does, which is hardly at all. Ditto Roman himself. Early on, we learn that he was influenced by Wallace Stevens but not how or why. Similarly, Bernard’s avocation is corresponding with “the writers of our time,” evidently to connect to them in some indefinable way. By and large, both characters inhabit a closed world where students replicate their teachers’ successes and failures. One of their classmates becomes a professor of English in a small college in New Mexico. Another, though she dies young, achieves her aim to be a “distinguished poet of the avant-garde.” Yet another jumps to an uncelebrated death from a Long Island ferry.

Unsurprisingly, Roman the go-getter snags a Pulitzer Prize and a faculty post that requires little teaching. He reads his work in Berlin and Rome and Mexico City. But isolated and self-doubting, he thinks, Prufrock-like, that he’s seen the moment of his greatness flicker. He missed the experience, never quite articulated, of what Chang calls “some powerful transcendence for which he had held his breath.”

Chang presumably intends to ­deliver more from her slim novel than this gentle, if schematic, send-up of writing schools and the careerists who populate them. After all, the title of Bernard’s poem, “All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost,” hints at what writing can mean to those who are passionate about it. His subject is the friendship between the fur trader Louis Joliet and the Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette, who paddled and portaged together through Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. Marquette, who eventually died of dysentery, left a record of the expedition. There is no chronicle of Joliet’s death, but as Miranda tells Bernard, the two men’s relationship is significant precisely because it doesn’t fit “into a conventional mode.”

Still, the vaunted lesson isn’t quite clear: do trappers, like go-getters, disappear from history only to be resurrected by true poets? Poor Roman, when he finally reads Bernard’s poem, feels as if the top of his head has been taken off. Unfortunately, we have to trust Roman’s word when it comes to Bernard’s genius; we never see a line of his poem or learn what Bernard thinks it means. And we must also take at face value a friend’s remark that Bernard quotes approvingly: “A wasted writer is one who spends his life pursuing false work in the hope of hiding from his own secrets. The luckiest writers cannot hide from them.” Which secrets might those be? Roman’s affair with Miranda? His suspicion that he’s not as good a poet as he wants to be?

True, Roman eventually comes to acknowledge what he has long denied: that while Bernard sought “One Great Reader,” he had desired “One Great Judge” to appoint him “the greatest poet of my time.” Yet there are no such judges, just fallible humans. Miranda had given Roman the Detweiler “out of love,” he finally realizes, and he had been cruel to her in the aftermath. Yet while Chang apparently intends otherwise, such epiphanies quickly pass. Quite soon, “there was nothing left of either love or cruelty.” Each of us, Roman rationalizes, “is born into our own time and eventually the things we held as the center of the world, dearly, unforgivingly, must fade.”

Poetry is presumably a stay against all that will be forgotten. But nothing is lost: after his friend’s untimely death, Roman finds in Bernard’s mail an unopened offer from Farrar, Straus & Giroux to publish his long poem. How this coveted house knew about the poem is anyone’s guess, but the implication is that talent will out, that even the most reclusive poet will rise to the top — and that if you go to a prestigious writing program to learn to write, as T. S. Eliot did not, “All shall be well, and / All manner of thing shall be well.”

Brenda Wineapple teaches in the graduate writing program at the New School. Her most recent book is “White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.”

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