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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The rule-proving exception is Gertrude Johnson. She, a visiting novelist, is in Benton but not of it. Fiercely witty Gertrude is a pro. Her take on every character--speech and manners, furniture and dress--is that of an entomologist sketching a specimen pinned to the board. Gertrude's novels are beautifully made but will never be first-rate because "[she] saw the worst; it was, indeed, her only principle of explanation." An inverse to Gottfried, Gertrude demands much of others and uses contempt for their failures to fuel her work. She is a frighteningly clever adolescent who lives not in Benton's ersatz utopia but in Hobbes's State of Nature. Wanting, like all adolescents, to see through the world, Gertrude projects onto it a crude and convenient determinism: "The same water runs a prayer-wheel and a turbine. But to Gertrude this proved that a prayer-wheel is a turbine."

And yet, one can't help feeling grateful for, can't help seeing the Leibnizian necessity of, someone who could thus sum up President Robbins's welcoming address to the incoming freshman class. "You had to hear it not to believe it." Malice so stylish is a pleasure, if a guilty one. "After a few minutes with Gertrude you wanted to be good all day every day."

Gertrude and the narrator are twinned: writers, old acquaintances, childless, out of place at Benton, and gestating books about it. Gertrude had feared she might have blundered by accepting the job, until she met the president, looked around, and realized: The place is a gold mine. She had found her next novel. If Pictures itself were a novel, Gertrude's secret writing project would make something happen. It doesn't, beyond her occasional chats with the narrator about fiction. (They implicitly point out flaws in the book we're reading, such as the absence of plot and the presence of characters too gorgeously true to type. They might also have noted gross violations of the conventions of first-person narration--accounts of scenes the narrator could not have known about.)

Those parallels sharpen the contrasts: the novelist vs. the poet; the tone-deaf vs. the musical adept; the Gertrude who "did not know--or rather did not believe--what it was like to be a human being" vs. . . . a being whose moral superiority is left unstated but clearly implied.

Many readers find the narrator smug; and his obvious identification with Jarrell makes that especially off-putting. He repeatedly genuflects to the superior gifts of Gottfried Rosenbaum, but that can be dismissed as a gambit, since admiration of Gottfried is itself a sign of moral worth. The narrator, of course, is not a character but a device--an entertainer who disdains the machinery of dramatic movement and dares us not to be charmed by his voice. And that voice is constantly, bossily in charge, confidently judging all things. Even readers who have not taken the moral holiday of judging that all judgment is bad may need an occasional breather. Pictures bears us along, if it does, by its sheer zest and because its judgments do, after all, side with the angels.

Anyone who lives in a college town, or among some other group of self-denominated intellectuals, will recognize president Robbins and his snobbish wife, or Flo Whittaker and her pedantic husband. Pictures, however, directs our attention not toward the squabbles and intrigues of academic life but at what its characters see when they look at the world. It judges them by what they love.

The "progressives" of Benton (better to call them prelapsarians) embrace everything new in art and thought and politics, but their world is changeless. (The novel's stasis, an aesthetic flaw, is in that regard true to its subject.) The President is forever boyish, Flo Whittaker ceaselessly concerned:

Almost everything that happened to Flo and her family and friends was, after all, only private; and to her real life was public, what you voted at or gave for or read about in the Nation. Life seemed to Flo so petty, compared to real life. The trouble with women, people say, is that they take everything personally; Flo took nothing personally.

In Paradise nothing happens and the merely actual--the imperfect and unperfectible given, the passing thing that must be loved before it's lost--is of no importance.

"And so the last day came, and the last hour of the last day." The final chapter opens with this quasi-biblical incantation and makes of "last day" a refrain. The chapter's title, "They All Go," is odd since, in "They," the narrator includes himself. He has resigned to take a better job. Gertrude is leaving to finish her book, which will be quite different from the one we have just read. Constance will travel with the Rosenbaums, and by summer's end will have "transcended" Benton. The Whittakers will drag their long-suffering children around the country on an educational auto tour. And some foundation is sending President Robbins to make a Survey of Progressive Elements in European Education.

All endings are sad and all mean loss, a prospect reminding us that people are often better in practice than in theory. Gertrude dotes on Sidney, her rabbity third husband, who seems a blank to everyone else. Flo is ludicrous, but also selfless and kind. Her husband Jerrold, though a deadly pedant, is one of those rare people whose mind can be changed by an argument. Something about these absurd figures can be missed.

Missing from the list of persons to be missed is President Robbins. He may go, but he can't leave. When his campus empties, he mounts the swimming pool tower and launches himself into a swan dive. We last see him at the apex of his arc, the time-defying image of an athlete preserved at a moment of perfection--suspended, beautiful, "hung . . . upon the Wheel of Things." So maybe, after all, something about the president may, at some safely future date, be mourned--something of beauty, if not truth.

And after the last day, an elegiac coda: The narrator, on the way to clear out his office, is diverted by the sculptress in residence, who calls to him from her studio. He has always patronized this woman as being what she looks like, a bug he might set upon a leaf and shoo away. She has given no reason to think otherwise: To follow her technical talk "you would have had to be a welder," and to follow her philosophy and aesthetics "you would have had to be an imbecile." She now has something to show him, a brand new work, an anthropomorphized image of the East Wind. It is beautiful and moving, and she seems as stunned by this achievement as he. He has misjudged her. Has he misjudged Benton, too?

He will soon be gone, and rightly so, but will stay deeply loyal to moments, like this one, of inexplicable joy.

David Guaspari is a mathematician and computer scientist in Ithaca, N.Y.