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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If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you feel guilty. . . . Many a Benton girl went back to her nice home, married her rich husband, and carried a fox in her bosom for the rest of her life--and short of becoming a social worker, founding a Neo-Socialist party, and then killing herself and leaving her insurance to the United Nations, I do not know how she could have got rid of it.

--Pictures from an Institution

RANDALL JARRELL is most often remembered not as a poet or teacher but as a critic--a discerning and influential appreciator (of Frost and Whitman, for example, when neither was fashionable), but also a hit man with a double-oh number, a Gatling gun who fired devastating one-liners: "[These poems give] the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter." Praise and blame sprang from the passionate belief that poems mattered.

His only work of fiction, Pictures from an Institution, turned 50 this year. It is sui generis--set at insanely progressive Benton College, but not a "campus novel" and not, in fact, a novel at all, if such niceties as plot, character development, and dramatic conflict are insisted on. It is, as the title suggests, a gallery of portraits. It is above all a performance, an exuberant high-wire act its author could classify only as a "prose book." One is tempted simply to quote--for example, the famous description of the president of Benton College as "so perfectly well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins."

As might be expected, Pictures delivers an impressive body count. As might be feared, it occasionally assaults the reader with epigrams, each trying gamely to top the last. (At least one critic has said that it's the sort of book you can put down.) But more than enough hit home to make the book great fun, even as it acquires emotional depth from a core of sadness. Like much of Jarrell's poetry, it's about loss. When earnest Flo Whittaker (a kinder, gentler Mrs. Jellaby) inevitably quotes, "We must love one another or die," Gottfried Rosenbaum, the book's moral center, replies, "We must love one another and die."

The archetypal loss is the loss of paradise--but Benton College is a paradise in the form of a cliché, the Idea of the Idea of heaven:

In Spring the air was full of apple blossoms and Benton was like--like Spring everywhere, but more so, far, far more so; in Winter the air was full of snowflakes, the red-cheeked snow-booted girls stood knee-deep in their pedestals of snow, and the frost-crystals of their window panes were not frost-crystals at all but cut-outs, of Matisse's last period, that had been scissored from the unused wedding dress of Elaine the Lily Maid of Astolate; in Autumn all Benton was burning, and the students walked under the branches of fire--how was it that they walked among the flames, and were not consumed?--and picked the apples the blossoms had grown into, and threw the cores on the tennis courts where Yin and Yang [the President's dogs] and the Rosenbaums' blue Persian played with them.

The prose is, typically, determined to err on the side of excess, with flourishes that can amuse even those of us forced to look them up. (In Le Morte d'Arthur Elaine dies for love of Lancelot.) And Jarrell the poet gives his catalogue a meaningful form: The seasons run backward, from spring to winter to fall; and, with time's arrow thus uncertain, apples might well precede the blossoms they grew from. Temporal and causal succession have no place in a paradise--even a comical one in which the animals with true gravitas are pets. (It's they, after all, who play with the girls.)

The passage is also seductive, provoking nostalgia for experiences the reader is unlikely to have had but might have wished for. Gottfried's sardonic references to the supposed epoch in which "the state has withered away" will remind us that paradise on earth is always an illusion, and rarely amusing. The charm of Benton, though not sinister, is suspect. Benton offers "second childhood. It had sloughed off the awful protean burden of the past: of Magdelanian caves and Patmos and palm-leaf scriptures from Ceylon; of exiles' letters from Thrace or the banks of the Danube . . . So, most of their burden flung off, the people of Benton went light and refreshed upon their way."