Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Dream Life of Balso Snell by Nathanael West

If Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) strayed into surreality from time to time, West’s debut novella, The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931) is the full lobster telephone. In it, Balso is wandering through Troy and discovers the Trojan Horse and decides to enter it. There are only three potential routes – the mouth, which is too high to reach, the navel, which leads to nowhere, and the nether parts. ‘O Anus Mirabilis’ it is, then, and he enters the horse’s back passage. His troubles begin.

In a picaresque adventure, Balso meets in quick succession a number of bizarre characters, each with a story to relate. There is an art-lover who initially acts as his guide; Maloney the Areopagite, naked but but for his derby hat and employed in writing the life of Saint Puce, a flea who lived in the armpit of Jesus Christ; a vile twelve-year-old boy who styles himself after Raskolnikov and wants to sleep with his schoolmistress, Miss McGeeney; Miss McGeeney herself, talking incessantly about Samuel Perkins, whose life she is chronicling; and a beautiful hunchback called Janey Davenport, who falls in love with Balso but who turns out to be a character created by Miss McGeeney in her epistolatory novel. It's all a dream, then, or a nightmare. Balso realises that the wooden horse is ‘inhabited solely by writers in search of an audience’ and, despite his best endeavours, he continually becomes that audience. To what end?

The Dream Life of Balso Snell is undoubtedly an odd novel, seemingly taking delight in decrying the artistic environment of which it, itself, is undeniably a part. West himself called it a ‘protest against writing books’, and it seems he wants to have it both ways: to be of the modern literary age and avowedly against it. Such contradictions are a feature of much modernist literature. In his rejection of virtually everything, Balso could be read as a clear descendent of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. And, like the Underground Man, he is two-dimensional. At least, though, Balso is two-dimensional in the context of a dream, where you might expect life in only two dimensions.

However, in another sense, the Underground Man is not the most apt comparison. Many critics have dismissed Balso Snell as nihilistic, but I do not get that sense. To satirise, even ridicule, contemporary arts is not necessarily to exhibit nihilistic tendencies. Rather, I think West’s debunking of his artistic environs is more in the way of a parody of the heroic quest myths from Odysseus onwards which so informed modernism (Joyce’s Ulysses the most obvious example) and contemporary, especially American literature (the whole myth of the west, after all, is merely the quest rewritten in chaps and spurs). If Balso is on a quest he is going to be sorely disappointed. And so it turns out: his peregrinations through the bowels and intestines of the Trojan Horse do not bring knowledge or revelation or happiness or reconciliation. At least, that is, until the novella’s conclusion, when it is possible to make a strongly humanist reading of the text.

At this point, while Balso is furiously wooing Mary McGeeney, he tells her: ‘ And when dying, will you be able to say, I turn down an empty glass, having drunk to the full, lived to the full? Is it not madness to deny life? Hurry! Hurry! for all is soon over.’ As mottos for life go, this is pretty good. It is followed by the finest, funniest, most ecstatic, most gloriously accurate depiction of the sexual act I’ve ever read. I’ll quote it in full, because it deserves it:

Sir! Stamping her tiny foot--imperative, irate. Sir, how dare you, sir! Do you presume? Down, Rover, I say down! The prying thumbs of insolent chauffeurs. The queen chooses. Elizabeth of England, Catherine of Russia,
Faustina of Rome.

These two noes graded into two yes-and-noes.

No...Oh...Oh, no. Eyes aswim with tears. Voice throaty, husky with with repressed passion. Oh, how sweet, sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart. Oh, I'm melting. My very bones are liquid. I'll swoon if you don't leave me alone. Leave me alone, I'm dizzy. No...No! You beast!

No: No, Balso, not tonight. No, not tonight. No! I'm sorry, Balso, but not tonight. Some other time, perhaps yes, but not tonight. Please be a dear, not tonight. Please!

But Balso would not take no for an answer, and he soon obtained the following yeses:

Allowing hot breath to escape from between moist, open lips: eyes upset, murmurs love. Tiger skin on divan. Spanish shawl on grand piano. Altar of Love. Church and Brothel. Odors of Ind and Afric. There's Egypt in your eyes. Rich, opulent love; beautiful, tapestried love; oriental, perfumed love.

Hard-bitten. Casual. Smart. Been there before. I've had policemen. No trace of a feminine whimper. Decidedly revisiting well-known, well-plowed ground. No new trees, wells, or even fences.

Desperate for life. Live! Experience! Live one's own. Your body is an instrument, an organ or a drum. Harmony. Order. Breasts. The apple of my eye, the pear of my abdomen. What is life without love? I burn! I ache! Hurrah!

Moooompitcher yaaaah. Oh I never hoped to know the passion, the sensuality hidden within you--yes, yes. Drag me down into the mire, drag. Yes! And with your hair the lust from my eyes brush. Yes...Yes...Ooh! Ah!

The miracle was made manifest. The Two became One.

Seriously, even that master compiler of lists, Donald Barthelme, never produced anything better. It is a virtuoso ending, full of life and vitality, the absolute opposite of the stultified, writerly, self-obsessed, self-hating characters so deliciously parodied earlier in the novel. Thus, the ending immediately invites you to return and re-read those early chapters with new insight. A world of people, not a world of arts. It’s a fascinating binary opposition, not one I have considered before. The Dream Life of Balso Snell is a thought-provoking polemic.

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