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Updated January 14, 2018


When John Ashbery died last summer, I was reminded of the novel he co-wrote with James Schuyler, A Nest of Ninnies, which remains largely unknown though it is one of the best post-modern works of fiction. Ashbery is known principally as one of the great American poets, in line with Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, but few people have heard of him as co-authoring a novel. If I remember his anecdote correctly, he and his poet friend Schuyler were sitting together when one of them, perhaps to break the silence, said, “Alice was tired.” Thereupon they decided that that could be the opening sentence of the first chapter of a novel of which they would write alternating chapters.

The challenge was that each writer would create some complication or dramatic problem at the end of his chapter which would oblige the other, first, to resolve the problem, thus maintaining a heightened interest in the plot, and then to create a new twist in the plot. This would force the other to invent interesting new situations in order to struggle his way out of the seeming dead-end in the fictional labyrinth and, having done so, direct the narrative towards a new bifurcation.

Now, some readers will think this a frivolous way to compose a novel. On the contrary, a writer who knows his literature could not be more serious than when playing around with formal possibilities that, when successful, result in an original work; indeed, some of the best fiction has been composed not by novelists who believe they have an important story to tell, but by writers who, when they begin a work, have no preconception, but only a vague intimation of an idea yet to be fully discovered. Sometimes the initial impetus is triggered off by a sort of crossword puzzle game playing or by the writer making up an arbitrary rule to challenge his inventive power that involves both his imagination and intellect. Of course, in many cases the result deserves to be thrown to the rubbish heap, but when it succeeds, as with Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a novel written without using the letter ‘e’, the result can be a lasting masterpiece. It is just that most readers of fiction stay with the traditional old-fashioned novels of which they can turn the pages without needing to think, or be bewildered by the new.

When he lived for some years in France, Ashbery discovered Raymond Roussel, one of the most radically original writers of now over a hundred years ago and yet — so appallingly backward are our educators — still known only to a few outside France. Roussel’s poems and novels are formal structures of language and the aesthetic pleasure they evoke far exceeds any interest to be experienced from his near contemporaries such as Albert Camus and André Malraux. Ashbery also worked as an art critic and some of his essays collected in Reported Sightings attest to his deep appreciation of contemporary art and prove that his critical eye could discriminate between the passing trendy sensation and a work of lasting value, for when we reread his essays, as the one on Giorgio de Chirico, we observe how correct his estimation of the artist was. He had a wide experience, too, of contemporary classical music and spoke of being impressed by Gyorgy Ligeti long before Ligeti became an established name.

While one cannot take a poem or a story and point to an image that might have a connection with a painting by de Chirico or a rhythm that echoes a phrase in a sonata by Ligeti, the fact is that a writer’s larger text is all the richer when his imagination has been deeply engaged in the other arts, for that engagement results in his creative instinct absorbing formal and stylistic subtleties, and freeing him, as Ashbery said in an interview, “to write without any question of form or anything like that although it’s not that I ignore them; I feel I’ve digested them.”

For such a writer, the process of creation is an experiment with language driven by what the imagination has consumed. In the opening paragraph of his long prose poem, ‘The New Spirit’, Ashbery wrote: “I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” As with the painter who, brush in hand, is driven to fill up the canvas either with pictorial imagery or to render the image as a minimalist abstraction, so the writer, for whom the puzzle of the self appears before him as the blank canvas, is driven to experiment with language, now filling up the page with words shimmering with the illusion of profound meaning and now, wondering if they are not merely meaningless babble, crossing them all out.

‘The New Spirit’ leads to two shorter poems, ‘The System’ and ‘The Recital’, and the group — published as Three Poems — is a long syllogistic presentation of metaphysical ideas that read both as essential philosophy and as pure poetry. Reality, Ashbery suggests, is “tattered enigmas” that enchant us with their appearance “only to grow dim at once and fade.”

Looking back on his work produced over half a century, many of Ashbery’s poems appear composed of simple, prosaic sentences that ought to convey easily comprehended ideas, but even as one snatches at the meaning of the accumulated sentences, one ends up holding reality’s tattered enigmas which, as they instantly begin to fade away, yet leave the echo of strangely beautiful poetry, though one’s desperate attempt to grasp a melody ends with one listening to silence. This is a very new — and some will say a difficult — form of poetry. ‘The Tennis Court Oath’ is a notable example of a poem that puzzles while it conveys a fine music: its succeeding sentences suggest meaning without conveying understanding, and the reader is not helped by knowing that the title refers to the occasion in the French Revolution when the Third Estate took an oath while assembled in a court where a form of tennis was played.

And the reader’s confusion worsens on then being told what Ashbery said in a conversation, that the poem has nothing to do with that historically important oath. It just happened that Ashbery wanted a title for his second book of poems and he thought The Tennis Court Oath would make a good title; therefore, he needed a poem with that title, but instead of writing one about the historical event, he simply took one of the poems in the collection, deleted its original title and called it ‘The Tennis Court Oath’. It amused him some years later when professors were writing articles on him, that some should devote research to the real tennis court oath of 1789 and believe they had found connections in his poem. There are none; or perhaps some that appear so to some readers, for our understanding is always coloured by the beliefs which prejudice all our thought processes. The mystery of meaning is locked within all expressions of any formally structured language; we believe what our faith directs us to believe and what we hear as truth is essentially a noise in the air.

The title poem of Ashbery’s later book, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, is one of the finest of 20th century American poetry and well exemplifies the composite tone of his voice: speculative, curious, observant, expressive both of commonsensical certainty and philosophical doubt on his obsessive subject of what can be known of reality, plus an epistemological investigation, for both of which the creation of a work of art is the central metaphor. His language is that of ordinary speech spoken spontaneously, as if he has engaged the reader in a friendly conversation, making the odd joke or expressing an art critic’s academic remark while maintaining an overall seriousness on the subject of metaphysical knowledge. We come away feeling that we have understood something important, risen from a depth where we’d received some ultimate perception, only to emerge into the murky light of the unknowable.

Perhaps the same theme runs as a deep vein within one of Ashbery’s impenetrable long poems, ‘Litany’, included in As We Know, where the book’s title has a hint of metaphysical curiosity and its informal tone (such as when we say, “As we know, nothing ever changes”) disguises the author’s serious intention. ‘Litany’ is printed as two columns across wide pages and the author’s note states that the two columns “are to be read as simultaneous, but independent monologues.” Considering that the columns, each composed of nearly 2,000 lines, are spread across 65 pages, the reader’s attempt to experience that simultaneity seems doomed. Should one read the poem in the left column first and then the one on the right? But that, though independent, would not be simultaneous. Should one get a friend to read aloud the poem on the right while one is reading the one on the left? But a confusion of words would ring in one’s ears and the quality of the friend’s voice and manner of reading would be a distraction. Ashbery would not say how one could experience the poem as he intended, and when I suggested that one way would be for the reader to tape himself reading one of the columns and then play the recording while reading the other column, thus achieving something simultaneously of the two independent monologues, he thought it an interesting approach but, smiling enigmatically, left it at that — which is how it should be, for an author has no obligation to instruct the reader. The poetry is in the mystery of the created language, which in ‘Litany’ suggests that our attempt to utter a presumably significant language only creates a confusion of words in the air, a transmission from the Tower of Babel such as the installation, Babel 2001, created by the Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles at the Tate Modern of a tower made of old radios and boomboxes, each tuned to a different station and transmitting the words spoken by urgent, desperately agitated voices, each with no doubt an important message, but together filling the gallery with meaningless noise.

What ‘Litany’ suggests about language and meaning can be said even of Ashbery’s shortest poems which all resist paraphrase, though, paradoxically, he is never obscure — one simply absorbs his meaning while experiencing his very distinctive voice. As with the poems, so with the novel he wrote with James Schuyler, A Nest of Ninnies, which too seems to have an independent, almost spontaneous existence. Though, according to his own version, their plan was to write alternate chapters, the entire text looks as though it’s been polished to remove any possibility of the style of any particular passage being identified as either Ashbery’s or Schuyler’s; in fact, the reader has no sense of the novel being written by either writer or indeed by any writer, for its formal and stylistic organisation is so precise that it seems to have an independent existence all its own, an organic presence in the reader’s intelligence.

A Nest of Ninnies has all the superficial characteristics of a well-made mainstream novel: people (a dozen or so characters), place (suburban New York), and time (20th century). There is an interesting story of the usual human-interest elements that has the reader entirely absorbed in the lives of the characters, but whereas a typical mainstream novel with its relentless meandering towards a climactic conclusion can be summarised and one can know what it’s all about, A Nest of Ninnies does not fulfil any mainstream expectations; it projects a motion picture sequence of the inter-related lives of its characters, a group of smart, opinionated, cosmopolitan people who adopt the latest cultural fashion and, conforming to the latest trend in speech or dress, consider themselves original and sophisticated.

The picture plays out in the reader’s mind with the vividness of a nouvelle vague film, and one can see it at different levels: as a natural portrait of society, as a satire, as a criticism of social decadence or a celebration of social refinement, for like any superior work of art, A Nest of Ninnies is so perfectly wrought that its ultimate meaning is itself, locked within its medium, a beautifully created language. Why, then, does it remain neglected? Perhaps its title is none too enticing, or perhaps its being originally identified as a literary game played by friends persuades people to leave it alone. Rereading it has been such an intense literary pleasure, and evoked so much admiration for its art, that it’s hard to believe that it will not one day be accorded its rightful place as a classic of American fiction.

The columnist is a poet, novelist and literary critic. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion. He is Professor emeritus at the University of Texas

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 14th, 2018