The Magazine

His Novel Idea

The point of good fiction is not theory but storytelling.

Jan 26, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 18 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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But if you infer from this that students can be pushed or lured into sharing a teacher's preferences, think again. There was one great European writer, if only one, for whom my enthusiasm proved incommunicable, Thomas Mann. Mann's great novels, especially The Magic Mountain (1924), were landmarks for readers who came of age, as I did, in the 1950s. But when I tried to teach that epic novel 40 years later, it was beyond the reach of even diligent students, perhaps because grasping the dialectic between the humanist Settembrini and the reactionary cynic Herr Naphtha requires a sophistication in the history of Western ideas that no longer exists.

Mann posed other difficulties. His brilliant novella, "Death in Venice," which for me ranks with Tolstoy's best at the top of that form, so utterly spooks young American males, with their macho obsessions, that they seal off all human sympathy with the protagonist, Gustav Aschenbach. Aschenbach is an honored and distinguished writer, on vacation in wicked old Venice, who becomes infatuated with a beautiful boy. That homoerotic infatuation costs him his dignity and self-restraint; and to prolong his voyeuristic contemplation of the boy he declines to warn the boy's mother, also vacationing with her children at the same fashionable hotel, of an approaching cholera epidemic. The female students were at ease with poor old Aschenbach, but the boys tended to view the fallen literary man, despite his classical depth, as a predatory pedophile and no more.

One day I tried a trick. I wrote an alternative ending, in which Aschenbach's stern old father appears to him in a vision and shames him into warning the mother to gather her endangered children (including the beautiful youth) and flee the impending epidemic. A young man who'd been much disturbed by the story thought my ending was terrific, brilliant. Who had written it? he asked. I said: Never mind who wrote it, what I want you to see is that it turns a tragedy of sensibility into a maudlin soap opera. It was no sale; the boys in the back row merely pulled their baseball caps lower over their blushing faces. That was the last time I taught "Death in Venice." Mann wasn't a total washout, however. We did better with Buddenbrooks, the author's semi-autobiographical novel of a high bourgeois family's decline.

It was pleasant to find that college students could read difficult writers with appreciation and enjoyment, including James, Faulkner, Proust, and Joyce--notwithstanding the widespread superstition that all four are prohibitively difficult. And there were rewarding comic moments. In Joyce's Ulysses, which I taught in a six-week spring term (I've never worked harder), there is an amusing reference to the Nelson monument in Dublin (later blown up by the IRA). Joyce describes the great English admiral as a "one-handled adulterer." One student asked if it was an allusion to masturbation. The instructor was able to explain, fortunately, that Lord Nelson had lost an arm in a naval battle and had had a famous affair with Lady Hamilton: thus Joyce's clever tag, one-handled adulterer.

Wood's guides to fiction may, with luck, help turn back the tide of bad teaching that often begins with the saturation of English departments in esoteric literary theory, with its obscurantist dogmas. As Wood says more than once, the point of reading good fiction--along with the fun of watching the moves of accomplished narrators, as one does the sliders and knucklers of a great pitcher--is that it acquaints us with worlds, people of all sorts and conditions, that we may otherwise be too provincial or green to know. It cultivates our sensibilities; and in the shallow and vulgar world of American pop culture, young sensibilities need cultivating.

Wood will not supplant Booth or Forster. But How Fiction Works is exceptional. And for anyone who's tried to hammer a few tips on reading into hard but willing heads, it's a feast of remembrance.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Lions at Lamb House.