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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut


Anne-Laure Tissut

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1It is no coincidence that American novelist Paul West should have been welcomed at François Rabelais University in Tours. Indeed there is a kinship between West and Rabelais, for their learning, verve, and flamboyant, grotesque style. The other kinship springs from West’s repeated avowal of feeling like a freak, which is what any institution devoted to the Humanities passes for in today’s society whose primary concern is communication rather than Belles Lettres.

2If not a freak, West is at least an unclassifiable writer. The innumerable topics he deals with range from European History, ancient Egypt, the Hopi Indians of North-American mesas, to microscopic life and the Milky Way, a variety which is reflected in the bibliography included at the end of this volume. If I refrain from giving any titles here, it is out of respect for West’s justified annoyance with an all-too common habit consisting in replacing an intellectual engaging with texts themselves by the off-hand displaying of their titles. The diversity of West’s work is also visible in that of the critical approaches adopted by the authors in this volume.

3After having introduced Paul West’s works, David Madden highlights the postmodern features of four of West’s historical novels, in which the readers’ conceptions of history and reality are submitted to radical questioning—The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, Sporting With Amaryllis, The Dry Danube: A Hitler Forgery, and Cheops. Madden extends the discussion to argue that “[a]ll of West’s novels, and particularly his historical fictions […] remind readers that the world, human experience, and history are not fixed, stable, ready-made, but the products of imaginative construction.” (32)

4Thomas Byers demonstrates how French Paul “Ouest” actually is, mainly for his being considered above all a stylist, while many a contemporary American writer would seem more concerned with political and historical issues. Through close-readings of The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, Byers shows to what extent Paul West’s novels actually “fulfill […] this moment’s criteria for interest in fiction in the USA.” Byers concludes that West may be “everywhere the étranger,” according to “the inevitable fate of the artist whose very calling is defamiliarization,” but who then is also likely to “find a welcome anywhere.” (44)

5Judith Roof chose to set West’s early novel Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas in perspective, through a comparative analysis with Beckett’s L’Innommable and Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist. Availing herself of the concept of “archeologies,” Roof traces the evolution of narrative from one novel to another, eventually to suggest that in the “detritus worlds” of the three authors, “style itself has become narrative,” no longer representing any preexisting objective world.

6Joseph F. Pestino applies Julia Kristeva’s reflection on “the abject” to Paul West’s Rat Man of Paris and Lord Byron’s Doctor. Pestino traces both protagonists’ progress from “apocalypse” to “salvation,” showing how a traumatized individual may come to terms with the unspeakable through a resolutely creative act.

7Alfonso Lingis explores the relationship between words and suffering as illustrated in the essay written by West after his two successive heart attacks, A Stroke of Genius: Illness as Self-Discovery. Lingis shows how the utterance of pain, as it brings together writer and readers, “can soothe and heal.” Indeed, with “the author dotingly become his own raw material, poring over symptoms with near-philatelical zeal” (West, 1995), and “the body’s music” changed into that of Purple Prose, words show off their power to “cast over things strange auras and spells,” so that the experience of pain ends up in asserting the beauty of the world anew.

8Anne-Laure Tissut chose to focus on the temptation or/and threat of silence that looms as early as Paul West’s first novels.

9Robert Lima relates his two consecutive, almost reverse encounters with Paul West.

10From those different points of view, a portrait is sketched progressively, of a writer (or of his “Other”) of his obsessions—with war, planes, the cosmos, both the beauty and horror of life. Simultaneously a corresponding portrait of his style is drawn, characterized by proliferation as much as by its author’s wide-ranging interests. West’s is a splendidly baroque style, evincing an unfettered, ever-active imagination. With exceptional energy, West’s works convey his potent love for life and powerful ability to wonder. The amplitude and vividness of his prose is fueled by perpetual word-play, started with his mother the distinguished pianist and continued with Swan, alias Diane Ackerman, the accomplice with whom Paul West shares the utmost intimacy with words.

11Language is questioned throughout West’s texts, each of which seems to be claiming “I am style” (Sheer Fiction, 47). Stylistic sophistication and refinement, often combined to horror and barbarism, enhances a crux lying at the heart of the human condition, a paradox that may only be coped with by creating. The author’s creative ideal is embodied in the recurring image of illuminating monks, whose devoted application is implicitly advocated as an attitude of resistance, according to the advice given by West’s mother. She demanded that anything, even the most mundane or daily, be done creatively, and her favorite words were “method” and “to shape”: “The main thing in all human activity was to ‘shape,’ meaning to be decisive and on the qui vive creatively speaking.” (My Mother’s Music, 18)

12As Paul West has been writing to the strains of his “Mother’s Music,” the authors of the studies included in this volume have been inspired by the music he created from a typewriter’s keyboard: the music of Purple Prose Paul West.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2009

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