TAC Bookshelf for the Week of November 5
Gilbert T. Sewall, contributor: Since Roz Chast’s drawings first appeared in The New Yorker, I’ve been a fan. Her unique characters, text, and line radiate intelligence and wit. Do I have an all-time favorite cartoon? Perhaps it is “Recipes from the Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook” that includes “Free Will Soup.” (“Fill a pot with water. Then add anything you want, or add nothing, or pour the water out. It’s up to you.”) Angsty Tuna and Any Cake at All are also on Chast’s table. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? was her extremely moving account of her parents’ long, semi-tragic decay, never flinching from the awful approach of the Grim Reaper. Full of pathos and love, it is a book for all adult children of parents on the downhill slope.
Chast’s latest, Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York, is craftily designed for all Gotham enthusiasts and would-be insiders. Despite some phoned-in drawings and disappointing filler photos, the echt Chast, funny-but-true moments abound. “What’s that smell?” / “I don’t know, but let’s keep walking,” goes one exchange. She has a fond eye for the city she grew up in and deplores bizarre Gotham glitz, like her “Stupid $30,000 Purse Store.” On Chast’s block Gluten Free Pho, A Taste of Bulgaria, and International House of Rabbit are restaurant choices. The subway bag lady announces with pride, “My cat drives the G train.” New York, Chast muses, is all about variety and change. “I try not to freak out every time a favorite restaurant or bookstore closes,” she writes. “I’m not nostalgic for the grittier, Taxi Driver incarnation of New York of the ‘70s and ‘80s.” Her affection for urban life is unstudied and genuine. Chast has long mocked her own suburban phobias and phantoms, but there—where her book starts—amid out-of-town philistines and zombies people exist who are … Republicans. The word gets its own page in 150-point scare scarlet. It’s a shame that Chast or her editor decided to begin a lovely tone poem with the cheap shot. Partisan declarations of this kind seem to be creeping into every corner of New York’s arts and letters. The results are not clever or comedic—even when they pretend to be. They spoil the fun and worse.
Grayson Quay, contributor: I recently finished reading Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, the story of a Catholic British colonial deputy police commissioner drawn into moral and spiritual crisis by an extramarital affair.
Although John Updike is often considered the great novelist of adultery, the “Catholic agnostic” Greene certainly gives him a run for his money. Both, of course, made a point of practicing the same infidelity they preached in their novels. But where the bedrooms Updike peers into tend to be those of bored, befuddled, post-religious suburbanites, Major Scobie, Greene’s protagonist in The Heart of the Matter, falls into his mistress’ bed with eyes wide open.
Scobie stumbles into the affair while attempting to comfort a young, vulnerable widow. He won’t break off the affair because he doesn’t want to upset his mistress, and he won’t leave his wife because he doesn’t want to upset her either. Scobie is a man obsessed with fulfilling what he perceives to be his emotional duties to others. The entire thing is a bit of a stretch. “If [Scobie] really felt that adultery is mortal sin, he would stop committing it; if he persisted in it, his sense of sin would weaken. If he believed in hell, he would not risk going there merely to spare the feelings of a couple of neurotic women,” George Orwell wrote in his review of the novel.
I’m sympathetic to Orwell’s critique, but Orwell was an atheist and was, as Evelyn Waugh wrote of him, “never… touched at any point by a conception of religious thought.” As any seasoned sinner (like me) could tell you, it’s perfectly possible to sin, know you’re sinning, and keep sinning with the full understanding of what you’re doing. In fact, that’s about as close as I can get to a working definition of what the Catholic Church calls “mortal sin.”
Greene himself knew this firsthand. Although he and his Catholic wife remained married, he abandoned her and their children in order to engage in multiple affairs (this article lists at least five). He even shopped around at various confessionals until he found a priest who would offer him absolution for adultery even though he fully intended to commit it again.
In some sick way, it seems as though Greene felt closest to God when he was sinning as visibly and defiantly as possible. How else can we account for the lurid tales of his adulterous trysts behind church altars?
Although I enjoy the conundrums of conscience that lie at the core of Greene’s Catholic novels, the more I learn about his detestable personal life (which included not only adultery, but also strong Communist sympathies), the more difficulty I have with his books.