Saturday, November 14, 2009

David Vann on Blood Meridian

Ah synchronicity, don't you love it? I've just finished David Vann's Legend of a Suicide and am in the process of doing a review of it, and here he is in today's Guardian writing about Blood Meridian.

When he first read Blood Meridian, he was actually in the process of writing the main section of Legend of a Suicide. That does figure, as landscape, an essential element of McCarthy, is similarly very strong in Vann; the brooding sense of menace, too, of how close we all are to losing the veneer of civilisation, is reminiscent of McCarthy. Vann does particularly well, however, to maintain his own voice: McCarthy's is so strong and distinct it woul be easy, if reading him a lot, to fall unintentionally into parody or imitation, but Vann's beautiful, crisp language is very different from McCarthy's biblical registers.

McCarthy is 'the writer all American writers have to measure themselves against', according to Vann. High praise indeed, and possibly not misplaced. He concludes with an interesting statement:

A great American novel can only be anti-American, and Blood Meridian, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, focuses on our greatest shames, in this case our genocides and our desire for war, contemplating in its final chapters the slaughter of the buffalo; also the slaughter of innocence in the form of a dancing bear, and the slaughter of any would-be penitents, including the kid. The last look west has to see nowhere else to go.

I'm curious about this idea of anti-Americanism. Is that true of the great American novel? Certainly, American writers have never been afraid to be critical of America, from Huck Finn onwards, but the essential core still seems to me to be highly positive about America. Critical yes, but anti no.


Mark said...

I agree with you, not Vann. To be honest it sounds a little dumb. I actually was thinking immediately of Huck Finn as a novel that wrestles with and confronts and criticizes the problems of America without being at all anti-American. McCarthy's Border Trilogy doesn't seem anti-American either. Nor Willa Cather...

I do think that today to be considered great, a novel would do better to be anti-American than vice versa. I'm currently 2/3's of the way through Underworld by Delillo. At this point I'm only finishing because (a) I have 600 pages invested already, (b) I hate quitting on books, and (c) about every hundred pages there are a handful of pages I really love (except that I absolutely love the "Pafko at the Wall" section at the beginning). The rest of it makes me roll my eyes out of my head.

I'm thinking now also of the Human Stain and American Pastoral. Neither of which I would ever call anti-American... They are incredibly critical, but there is an element of love for America in there too... neither of those novels seem to resolve for me. In fact I wrote on my blog fairly recently how the American Dream becomes the American nightmare, but there's none of the smug-anti-Americanness that I sense in many of Roth's contemporaries (

Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy definitely skirts a little closer to anti-Americanness, but even that I would never call flat-out anti-American.

Court said...

I would also agree with you, Tom. I can't think of a great American novel that is also anti-American. American Pastoral is, as Mark said, highly critical, but not at all anti-.

I'm told David Foster Wallace could be anti-American, but I've not read any of his longer stuff, so I couldn't say.

On a slightly different note, I think it is a mistake to read Blood Meridian (or any great novel, really) through the lens of a political or symbolic viewpoint. Blood Meridian is a great novel because it is a great novel. Its relative anti-anything (or pro-) is merely in the eye of the critical beholder, seeking to find something clever to say. Or so I think.

I agree absolutely that McCarthy is the standard by which American writers judge themselves. Who else still living is even, to steal a phrase, the shadow of his shadow? No one I can think of.

Donigan said...

I am halfway through the 900 pages of Roberto Bolaño's "2666." I took it to Italy and Sicily these last couple of weeks as my travel reading. It is the first work of his I have read.

For me, "great" writers (and I don't really know how that word can be explained and used most of the time), are, among a few others, Thomas Mann and Robert Musil -- thematically, stylistically, literarily, they are giants. This book of Bolaño's is the first time I have backed off in awe and realized I was holding a rightful successor to giants like Mann and Musil. He is their bohemian, hep cat progeny.

Compared with Bolaño, McCarthy is while a fine writer and an important part of the literary canon, a one trick pony compared with Bolaño. If you want to know what is possible, read 2666.

Like the enclave of giants to which Bolaño rightfully belongs, it is works like these that stretch us as far as we can go, or farther than we desire.

McCarthy is an American writer. Bolaño is a universal writer.

Mark said...

I'm excited to read 2666. I've been hearing more and more dramatic and positive things about it.

At the same point in time I have to say your last sentence seems nonsensical to me. The idea that someone can transcend their historical circumstances and write universally seems false. And I don't believe that those who try would succeed in creating great literature.

Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzergerald are generally considered the giants of early 20th cent American lit, yes?... and they are thoroughly American, and not really 'universal'--even Hemingway. That doesn't mean they are inaccessible to non-Americans, of course, but it would be impossible to divorce their work from their historical time and place.

That's one reason why I am still interested in the perhaps tired 'Is TS Elliot American or British?' question.

Brad Green said...

Shakespeare was a universal writer. He speaks to everyone no matter their cultural influences. He always will until humans no longer act like humans.

One might view Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea in the same light. Thematically, that's a universal work, no matter from when or whence you come.

Mark said...

Try to imagine a French person writing Shakespeare. Or someone even a hundred years later. You can't. Wouldn't happen. And if it did, it would be affected, hollow-sounding crap that no one would remember or care about.

This is because Shakespeare, like every human being, was a historical person, tied to a time and place. That doesn't reduce him. Rather, by establishing him in his rightful place you understand the true extent of his greatness. When you understand what he was building on, how much he changed, and how much after him was at least partially derivative, his work expands in stature. If you don't know any history at all, he could come across as pompous (again, if anyone today tried to write like him, he'd be rightly dismissed as a hackneyed turd) and cliched (oh so cliched).

Let's move on to the incredibly obvious point that Shakespeare can only speak to people who know the English language and know it pretty decently. Sure you can translate, but then are you really reading Shakespeare? Not exactly. Or you could update it to today's language. Otherwise known as absolutely butchering it.

What I'm reacting to here is a lack of realism. Sorry, no one can escape his historical place--though we can and do change it.

Tom Conoboy said...

Some excellent discussion here.

I bought 2666 a while ago because everyone says it is stunning, but I haven't managed to get round to it. Your comments, Donigan, make me want to read it even more, so I will have to accelerate it up my list.

McCarthy as a one-trick pony: yes, I feel his great weakness is that he can't stop himself from going back over the same old 'd'you think God exists? Can he save us' shtick. The new novel is going to be a big one, apparently (in length, anyway) and I think it is going to be the key one that decides whether he is truly a great or just a good writer.

Stretching further than we desire: that is a very fine way of putting it.

Universal writer: I think I see what both Donigan and Mark are saying. Yes, a writer must unavoidably come out of their particular historical circumstances. Even if, like the early modernists, their writing is deliberately subverting the customs and thinking of the time, it is still influenced by that time. However, I do think that great writing transcends history and society, and says things across generations and across cultures. It speaks to humanity, if that doesn't sound too pompous.

Certainly, you can't divorce Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald from America in a particular time, but that doesn't mean that what they write is not universal in its reach. Hills like white elephants transcends everything: it tells a universal story.

Try to imagine a French person writing Shakespeare. Or someone even a hundred years later. You can't. Wouldn't happen. And if it did, it would be affected, hollow-sounding crap that no one would remember or care about.
I think that's missing the point a bit. To call the greats universal is not to downplay the historical and cultural references which informed their writing. On the contrary, there is something in the writing which is so immense it talks to everybody. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan English because he lived in Elizabethan England. If he lived in America in the forties, he would write like an American in the forties, and his work would be very different. But it would still be great, because of the genius of the man. He has profound things to say and his profundity will always shine through.

And in this way he does escape his historical place.

Donigan said...

The British writer John Baker has a rather gobsmacked review of 2666 here:

I ditto Tom's response regarding how writers attain universality, so I'll just agree and let it go.