The Magazine

"Picture" Perfect

Randall Jarrell's classic novel of academic life.

Dec 5, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 12 • By DAVID GUASPARI
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Pictures is filled with images of childhood and age, innocence and the Fall. It appropriately begins with Constance Morgan, who could qualify as a fairy tale heroine of the genus Neglected Stepchild. At an early age Constance lost not only her parents and grandparents but also (a Grimm touch) her twin sister. She has recently graduated from "a plain old-fashioned college" and become an assistant to President Robbins's secretary. To tout Benton, Constance is "of no importance." But Gottfried and his wife Irene know her value. So does the narrator, an unnamed faculty member difficult to distinguish from Jarrell himself--an Auden-loving, tennis-playing poet; a Germanophile steeped in painting and music; witty and married to a witty wife.

And "this was her last day"--her last, that is, as the president's assistant. It is the day on which the book proper will also end; and on it Constance will be born--by acquiring parents. She will become the secretary to her beloved Gottfried Rosenbaum. The richly cultured Gottfried (an Austrian-born composer) and Irene (a Russian-born singer) have not sloughed off the burden of the past, and they bear its marks. Gottfried greets his fellow man with a mix of good humor and Olympian detachment that amounts to a judgment on the human race: He could accept anyone because his expectations were so low that everybody met them. The Rosenbaums can open the world to Constance, as unburdened Benton never could have.

Her last day is, therefore, her first day, and its double nature underscores her (and our) final end. The narrator permits himself to wish that young and beautiful Constance, whom he's known all her life, might be suspended in her present state of becoming. He recalls her father saying that Constance didn't want to grow up--at which he himself had wondered why she had to.

Is the thought, or wish, that Constance need not grow up merely sentimental? The charge of sentimentality has been leveled at Jarrell's poetry, the accusation of yearning for an imaginary and idealized childhood. In Pictures, however, childhood and its usual associations--such as innocence and fairy tales--play a complicated role.

Fairy tales are not Disneyfied but dark: Constance, trying to learn German from an edition of Grimm's tales, works haltingly through the story of a woman who longs for a child, only to die of joy when she finally bears one. The innocence of the earnest social-improver Flo (who "live[d] before Original Sin") is not a virtue but a limitation. Childishness is the core of President Robbins's amorality. He remains in middle age a boy wonder, recognizably the Olympic diver he had once been, though regretting that years spent on his athletic career had allowed others a head start in the race to be called wondrous: "He possessed, and would possess until he died, youth's one elixir, Ignorance. . . . If you had said to people, 'Dwight Robbins was thirty-four when he was appointed President of Benton,' they would have said to you, 'You mean he's thirty-four!'"

Why, then, is the narrator's wish for Constance a blessing? One hint comes from Constance: She thinks of Gottfried as a child. Gottfried pretends, for example, to believe that all Americans eat pemmican and hunt buffalo--by which he recalls and savors the boyhood pleasures of reading westerns. That loyalty to childhood's joys was the source and subject of some of Jarrell's best poems. (One is called The Lost World.)

The great divide in Pictures lies between those who cherish the actual--children in the praiseworthy sense--and those who have confined themselves within worlds of their own imagining. Gottfried's respect for actuality extends to everyday social forms and duties. He has, after all, experienced what men stripped of society and tradition are like. Ponderous and heavyset, he negotiates the awkward travel connections necessary to attend the funeral of Miss Batterson, a former faculty member whom President Robbins had gladly turned out to pasture--while the president himself could manage no more than an expression of "grief in its Instant or powdered form."

Benton's relentless, progressive universalism has made it provincial--a Potemkin world inhabited by its builders, who believe it not just real but the measure of all things. Gottfried sums up their accomplishment in a parable: "The Patagonians have two poets, the better named Gomez; the Patagonians call Shakespeare the English Gomez."