by Nicki Leone
“God save me from chatty, circumlocutory British prose and stories about women wanting to marry rich men.”—a reader’s response to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
“A snoozer. Sigh, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”—a reader’s response to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Every now and then I find myself embroiled in one of those discussions where people talk about why they disliked supposedly “great” books. Moby-Dick is too long, too weighted with irrelevant detail. The Grapes of Wrath is too depressing. Pride and Prejudice is just romance. The Great Gatsby is full of repellent people that no one in their right mind could care anything about.
I always find myself arguing on behalf of the book in situations like these, me against every other wine-swilling member of the book club. The author didn’t write this book to tell you what you want to hear, I point out, he wrote it because he had something to say. So what was it?
In other words, it’s not the book, it’s you. Not surprisingly, I don’t tend to last long in book clubs.
But those nonplussed readers would have had the last laugh if they had seen my struggles with W.M. Spackman’s An Armful of Warm Girl. If I were to emulate my friend who didn’t like Austen, I’d say it was a book about a man having a midlife crisis who, shocked when his wife leaves him with no warning, takes up with an old (married) lover while at the same time carrying on with one of his daughter’s friends in an attempt to shore up his bruised ego. If I was my Gatsby-hating friend, I’d say that it was a book about loathsome people who spend all their time drinking cocktails and sneaking around on each other, with no real consequences except the occasional hangover. Sort of like an episode of “Seinfeld,” only 40 years earlier and in a better part of town.
I could almost hear every person in every book club I’d ever been a part of telling me: The author didn’t write this because you wanted to hear it. He wrote it because he had something to say. So what is it?
William Mode Spackman is often accused of writing his life directly into his novels. Like many of his characters, he was born (May 20, 1905) into a well-off Quaker family from a long-established Quaker community. Like his protagonists, he was a graduate of Princeton; his first published novel, Heyday, reads almost like a tribute—or a eulogy—to the Class of 1927. His characters have a penchant for quoting French and Italian literature, and making allusions to the classics—all very much Spackman’s own métier. He studied French and Italian literature at Princeton, read the classics at Oxford’s Balliol College.
Although Heyday was not published until he was nearly 50, Spackman lived what might be called an interrupted literary life from the moment he set foot on the Princeton quad. His poetry was published in a couple of issues of a literary and cultural magazine just starting out in its first year—an upstart with a heavy-hitting editorial staff, called The New Yorker. Spackman also, in his sophomore year, became the editor of the college literary journal Nassau Lit, and had the distinction of being summarily removed from the position after writing and publishing an essay called “Sketches from a Madhouse”—which the Princeton administration deemed to be sacrilegious and obscene. “I understand he has been reading a good deal of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and T.S. Eliot,” commented the Princeton University president after he suppressed the issue with the essay.
These intimations of a bright literary future were suddenly eclipsed when the stock market crashed in 1929. Spackman, lost a sizable fortune, and came home from his studies at Oxford to financial ruin, a new marriage, and the immediate necessity of finding a job. As he would later portray that time in Heyday,
And now from that warmth, that youth, that careless confidence, to be plunged (and how soon) into this long frost of the human spirit! Abruptly, and for reasons there certainly was no professor to explain, everything we had been bred to and trained for, everything the College had polished us to attain—the easy good manners, the charm, the intelligence, the stations in life hereditary to the ruling caste whose blossoming generation we had been told we were—all this vanished under a mountainous rubble of avalanching quotations from a thousand chattering stocktickers; and suddenly nothing remained to us at all—our training and competence nothing, our prerogatives nothing, out intelligence with nothing to be applied to, our lives with nothing they could return to or think of as their own.
Spackman took work where he could find it: as a part time classics instructor, copywriter, account executive, radio scriptwriter, public relations assistant. Eventually, after World War II ended, he landed a more stable position as a classics professor at the University of Colorado, while also doing public relations work for the Navy. After a couple of years spent drumming Cicero into the heads of undergraduates, Spackman and his wife took a sabbatical to France, where he spent the time writing Heyday.
It was a hit. Or at least, enough of a hit that the author felt justified in quitting his teaching job to write full time. He wrote his next novel, An Armful of Warm Girl, in two years—and then spent the next 25 years trying to get it published.
W.M. Spackman is often called the literary heir to F. Scott Fitzgerald—his tense, despairing young men of tarnished Depression-era America serving as the natural next generation to Fitzgerald’s glittery Roaring Twenties youths. The same people, attending the same parties and drinking the same bootleg alcohol, inhabit the Long Island Sound of Gatsby and the brownstone apartments of Spackman’s Princeton cohorts:
Around one or two in the morning, at most parties of that era, the milling company would begin to dwindle, and take on a kind of planetary movement, like an orrery, endlessly tangential and revolving. Constellations of guests would widen or contract, sidereal outlines swaying and loosening and re-forming under the hurtling impact of accretions flung loose from other revolving or decomposing worlds and seeking new orbits to join; a whole galaxy would explode in a sudden surge for drinks all round, to scatter carrying with them to other spheres, in a rain of fiery intellectual matter, the jokes, the topics, the disputes, the ideas, which the parent-star had generated to a white and whirling heat.
(Some poets see the universe in a grain of sand. Some see it in a frat party.)
The same girls flutter around looking decorative and delicious, the same boys hover near them looking hungry, and all have the same jaded regard for the future, as if living in the moment were the only option. But the guests at Gatsby’s parties think the future is not worth worrying over, while those in Spackman’s world know it has been lost to them before they ever had a chance to seize it.
Heyday, like Gatsby, is about a man pursing a girl—each of them planets in their own orbit, each feeling the pull of the other’s gravity. The novel is somewhat awkwardly structured but beautifully told, sliding from one shimmering scene to the next while capturing both the charged hopelessness and the defiant gaiety of a generation robbed of its promise. Within the space of a few pages we hear why each of four men from the Class of ’27 committed suicide, and an account of a crisis at a dinner party where the escort hired to even out the seating turns out, unexpectedly, to be socially connected. Bright language and bitter humor are the hallmarks of Heyday; optimism, less so.
Most readers familiar with Spackman’s work discovered him not through his first novel, but his second. Heyday had long been out of print by the time Gordon Lish, editor of Esquire, came across serialized sections of the new book in an issue of Canto and demanded the editors at Knopf (who had rejected it the first time around) look at it again. It wasn’t that they had passed on it because they didn’t like the novel, but because a book about—how did I put it?—a man having a midlife crisis was not thought to be very marketable at the height of the feminist revolution. By 1978, though, the revolution was either over or no longer a threat to book sales, so when Lish brought the manuscript back around Knopf said yes. An Armful of Warm Girl, and its author (now in his 70s), finally found a publishing house to call home.
The melancholy tones of Heyday are not to be found in An Armful of Warm Girl. The main character, Nicholas Romney, is one of those Princeton boys from the era of Heyday, now “aged fifty years or as good as.” He’s irascible but charming, and has done well, bearing all the accoutrements of that success—a wife, a country estate with a folly, a wastrel son, a country club membership, a frivolous daughter—with the full sense of entitlement that this is how life should to be. So he is shocked, on returning from one of his golf games, to find that his wife is leaving him for reasons she doesn’t bother to spell out—presumably because they are self-evident. (They are not self-evident to Nicholas.)
In a bad temper he goes into town, digs out his 17-year-old little black book, and starts calling old girlfriends. After a few frustrating dead ends, he eventually reaches Victoria (now Mrs. Barclay) and informs her that his marriage is over, so why doesn’t she come have a drink with him?
It was at about this point in the novel that I started to feel real sympathy for my friends who were put off by Gatsby or Jane Austen. What a bunch of dithering, useless people!
The thing is, Spackman dithers beautifully:
Here were the rooms they’d made love in, the hallways of what greetings, what partings, the oval stair’s half landing too where once—Had she no memory of their love’s landscapes? or saw him as he, ah how constantly, saw her, coming toward him along some unforgotten perspective, some Roman street that year, a via, a viale, racing toward him waving perhaps, eyes shining
It is hard to stop reading. Every sentence seems to tumble the reader headlong into the next. His style flows seamlessly between Nicholas’s internal monologue and external dialogue, between half-conversations and interrupted thoughts as he pursues his old mistress (she is willing to be pursued) and manage the infatuation of one of his daughter’s friends (but he does not mind being pursued by her, oh no—not at all). It’s all done so smoothly that when the author does toss in a pointed barb it cuts through the language so sharply that you laugh before you even realize what you’ve read.
“[w]ho were all these children? by god they baffled him, this generation, they appeared to think sex was a branch of psychotherapy.”
The phrase most often used to describe Spackman’s books is “comedy of manners,” so the Austen comparisons are oddly apropos, given that one writes about marriage and the other about adultery; one author concerned with the qualities of a good character and one whose philosophy of life might be summed up by Nicholas’s own opinion about morality:
What is this business of homilies anyhow but mankind’s fatuous and age-old yearning for the Book of Answers! There never had been answers; never would be; merely a linguistic mistake of Greek philosophy’s we’d taken over, that if the word existed the thing it denoted existed too. Why, the only serious desiderata for a normal Indo-European are a pretty girl within grabbing range, a dazing drink, and somebody to knock down.
Style vs. Content
In his afterward to Dalkey Archive Press’ 1990 edition of The Collected Fiction of W.M. Spackman, Steven Moore writes that the author was in the habit of quoting Nabokov: “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash.”
Style, according to almost everything Spackman has ever written about literature, is everything. Content is extraneous. He despised the kind of academic reader who looks for “issues” in the story, who drones on about “the voice” or “the perspective” or “the themes” of the text. “A professor of literature is not so much trained to look at what he is reading as to find things to say about it,” was his comment about why most academics couldn’t give a decently informed opinion on Henry James.
For someone who always is asking of her books, “what does the author have to say?” this dismissal of content is a little disconcerting to me. For someone used to reading as a feminist, it’s almost an affront.
But the question does have an answer, even in the man-pursues-woman outlook that governs the works of William Mode Spackman. Ultimately, it is all about language, that bubbling, trippingly babbling beautiful sequence of words he strings together to say even the most mundane and sexist things so very gorgeously. In the way that folks say of certain actors “I could listen to him read the phone book,” one could say of Spackman, “I could read his grocery lists.” Style is the point. Style is his content.
Nicki Leone showed her proclivities at a young age when she asked her parents if she could exchange a gift of jewelry for a hardcover Merriam-Webster. Later, her college career and attending loans supported her predilection for working as a bookseller. Currently she works with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, developing marketing and outreach programs for independent bookstores. She has been a book reviewer for local magazines and newspapers, and the on-air book commentator for her local public radio and television stations. She is also past president and a current member of the board of the North Carolina Writers Network. She lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with a varying numbers of dogs and cats.
Nicki Leone’s previous features: Daniyal Mueenuddin’s Pakistan: Where East Meets East, Gaston Leroux: A Man of Heaven and Earth, Connections in Space and Time: The Stories of Josh Rolnick, Samuel Richardson: Persuading Pamela, Bruno Schulz: Living in the Republic of Dreams