My most attentive cousin has been very keen that I should read a 1992 novel All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I was sorry not to have heard of this — by all accounts — substantial American author. This evening, moved and absorbed, I finished the book.

 

There is no doubt that the strength of the narrative lies in the consistent focus on the moral progress of the main character, John Grady Cole, who in addition to natural gifts, such as his way with horses, is brave and truthful, loyal and ingenious in adversity. Given that he seems to be about 17, his sinews and fibres, all of which are ultimately laid pretty bare, are all the more impressive. He is allowed three encounters in the course of the book — with Alejandra, the great-aunt and the judge — which must suffice for him, since there is no ‘home’ to go back to, only divorce and death, and he must be always ‘heading out.’

 

However, there is always the question of style that does not quite dissolve (the best style is unnoticeable) but remains to bug the reader. The Hemingway style has, 60 years later, become merely an affectation, though it is taught as orthodoxy in all American creative writing classes. (Even in Hemingway’s own later works there had entered in an element of self-parody.) The style adopted by McCarthy is sub-Hemingway and one finds, for instance, nine ands in eleven lines. (If a school child produced this, he would be told to rewrite the passage in self-contained sentences.) The early pages of any book contains much self-consciousness, as if the author were clearing his throat; here McCarthy seems to need to establish his illiteracy as one of this democratic credentials (dont, wont without punctuation) before exploiting his very considerable poetic and descriptive gifts. So the affected style both restricts and frees the writing in complex ways.

 

In the 1920s or 30s there was a famous spat between Hemingway and Aldous Huxley, subsequently analysed as “vernacular” versus “mandarin” by Cyril Connolly in Enemies Of Promise. And there is no doubt that there is a real difference in educational standards at stake, which surfaced again in “Redskins” (Ginsberg) versus “palefaces” (Lowell).

 

But in spite of his flourishing of these credentials there is no doubt — for instance in the monologues of the great-aunt and in the more “European” sections — McCarthy can handle and originate complex ideas in a compelling manner. These passages are among the least obscure in the book. But still the stylistic tic remains, the punchy rhythms, the unspoken dialogue, the show of inside knowledge of Spanish and horsecraft, the occasional portentous (but meaningless) sentences that can hardly convince anyone above high school level.

 

There is less of this literary static as the book unfolds but it never altogether goes away. The author seems attached to the style as a camouflage which allows him to get away with unmanly things like descriptions of moonlight. His successes of this kind may well validate his positioning of himself as a boll weevil in the great tree of Hemingway.  Still more, it may protect him against the overwhelming pressure on a writer of our time — what Virginia Woolf called “the spirit of the age” — the lure of journalism.[1] One only has to look, today, at the line-up presented as pioneers alongside the late Norman Mailer — Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S Thompson — to see the dangers. The result is that in the USA Ezra Pound is considered a poet, though he wrote no poems, and Mailer is considered a novelist, though he wrote no novels.

 

So far be it from me to unpick this instinctive writerly strategy of Cormac McCarthy, given that the result is a true novel, authentically compelling, absorbing and, no doubt, difficult to shake off.

 

But one cannot fail to wonder at the continuing influence — the prevailing orthodoxy — of the “school of Hemingway”.

 

 

11-Nov-07


[1] Media, publicity, celebrity, the dwindling of the “private” sphere to the advantage of the “public”.

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