The Magazine

Debunking Delbanco

Sometimes style can impede the story.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By BARTON SWAIM
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Spring and Fall

by Nicholas Delbanco

Warner, 304 pp., $24.99

The English critic George Saintsbury once observed of a mediocre novelist that his novels had every quality of great novels except the quality of being great novels. I find that to be true of nearly every work of fiction--the ones I've read, I mean--published since about 1970. Many, indeed most, of today's highly rated novels are works of technical perfection and genuine stylistic originality. They're also not very good. Take any novel by Sebastian Faulks: Each of his books strikes you as brilliant while you read it; then you put it down and suddenly realize its moral emptiness.

Something close to the opposite is true of Spring and Fall. It has most or all the defects that blight second-rate fiction. And yet it is morally serious in a way that most contemporary fiction isn't, and for that reason alone it's worth noticing.

Spring and Fall is the story of two people, Lawrence and Hermia, who fall in love as undergraduates in 1962, drift apart, live for 40 years away from each other, then meet again on a Mediterranean cruise in 2004. Lawrence was at Harvard, Hermia at Radcliffe. He becomes an architect and then professor of architecture; she marries unwisely and lives for decades as a wealthy divorcée.

First, its flaws. Novels written by professors of English tend to contain far more "literary" stuff than real life does (the characters are always quoting Wallace Stevens or writing doctoral dissertations on Wordsworth) and one always has the sense that such academic novelists haven't ventured off campus with adequate regularity. Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. Whatever it takes to become such a polysyllabic entity, it probably isn't also what it takes to write great novels.

I may sound here like a poor imitation of Tom Wolfe, but Spring and Fall is the work of a man who has spent too much time thinking about his style. Delbanco has written nearly 20 novels, and yet he seems undecided about what he wants his style to look like. This sentence is from a scene in which Hermia watches as her father dies from a drunk-driving accident:

Hermia spent the entire time in Hyannis, waiting with her mother and listening to doctors and visiting the ICU and, when permitted, sitting at the side of this object attached to machinery, this arrangement of tubing and bottles and monitors with numbers flashing on a screen and lights that went green and then red.

The brutal straightforwardness of the sentence represents a certain kind of style; it's effective in its own way. But here's the next line: "A little, in the waiting room, she slept." So who's writing this, anyway? The writer of the first sentence, if he were more at ease with his style, would have written the second sentence like this: "She slept a little in the waiting room." Anyhow he certainly wouldn't have gone in for that slightly confusing literary inversion. This kind of stylistic indecisiveness pervades the novel.

It's not that Delbanco isn't a careful writer; it's that he's too careful. He worries too much about what readers will think. That is, perhaps, why he italicizes so many words; he's afraid his readers won't know where to place the emphasis. A typical paragraph contains these: "not so much a proposition as a proposal"; "money's no object, or not an objection"; "it's such beautiful property." After a while this gets in the way.

For the same reason, Delbanco likes to reword his phrases, as if we hadn't got it the first time.

"It was, she thought, a long wakeful nightmare, a dream she would have to endure.

"But this was a dream she couldn't stop dreaming, a nightmare she failed to escape."

This isn't the writing of a writer; it's the writing of a Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature.

These unfavorable impressions weren't assuaged by the fact that the novel's pages--and Spring and Fall has this in common with most "literary" novels these days--are crowded with the sorts of characters most people don't know: two professors of architecture, a professor of English, a wealthy art dealer, three artists, a reporter for Reuters, a literary agent, and at least two members of communes. And, on top of that, there's a heavy layer of what can only be called learning: allusions to classical drama and Sartre, quotations from Shakespeare and Pound, and abstruse discussions of architectural theory. Considered by itself, there's nothing necessarily wrong with any of this, but it won't convince any reader that this writer knows much about life. One wonders how long it's been since Nicholas Delbanco talked to a deer hunter, or ate a chili dog.

And yet, and yet--Delbanco has managed to put his finger on what, so far as I'm aware, no other contemporary writer of fiction has touched: The ways in which well-meaning people inherit the self-absorption of their parents and, despite their intentions, find themselves incapable of behaving selflessly to their husbands and wives and children. Hermia's thoughts, occasioned by Lawrence's youthful inability to love her exclusively, announce the book's theme:

"Fidelity meant faithfulness; it meant wanting only one thing. It meant there was no difference between what you had and what you wanted, no space between the space you occupied and where you hoped to be."

But in her self-absorbed confusion, Hermia finds another, more attractive, abstraction: "Integrity meant oneness; it meant staying faithful and true to yourself." We want another, but mainly we just want ourselves.

For the next four decades Lawrence and Hermia, both decent and well-intentioned people, stay faithful to themselves. They help their friends; they provide for their children; they don't lie--or anyhow, don't lie without good reason. But somehow, in the confusing and heartbreaking situations in which everybody sometimes finds himself, they always manage to choose their own interests over those of their spouses and children. Lawrence, understandably but also rather conveniently deciding he's "not cut out" for fatherhood, goes his own way and lets his ex-wives raise his children. Hermia genuinely loves her daughter, but not sufficiently to direct her.

So had their parents done before them. Indeed, as any post-Boomer might suspect, it is possible that the "greatest generation" was not. Just look at their children. It is a melancholy fact that catastrophic wars make survivors more interested in making themselves comfortable than they would have been otherwise: In Europe, the war generation set up socialist governments; in America, people let their children raise themselves.

Lawrence and Hermia are textbook Boomers. At several points Delbanco subtly raises the point that his two principals are (though they're far from realizing it) merely living out the soft narcissism handed to them by their parents. Asked by his sister whether he's ever thought of himself as having repeated the mistakes of mom and dad, who also divorced, Lawrence at first pretends not to hear the question, then spouts off some contemptible banalities about believing in marriage but not his own particular marriages. Both Lawrence and Hermia were made to find their own ways, morally and in every sense but financially, and both have spent their lives wondering why their chief pursuits never satisfy: in Lawrence's case, sex and academic accomplishment; in Hermia's, unrequited love for a daughter. In the absence of moral direction, they live by clichés, glib slogans, and thoughtless political allegiances--the true legacies of the sixties.

Barton Swaim is writing a book on 19th-century Scottish literary critics.