In one way, the stories in the Schwartz collection and James’ story are similar: they share the same point of view, affectionate irony (James’ filtered through the first person), expressed in a wordy, meticulous style. They’re not similar in the ways that count. Reading the Schwartz was a slog; reading the James was a pleasure.
The stories in Successful Love are written in the dry, dispassionate prose of an uninspired academic paper or a bureaucratic report. It’s a good style for irony, but there must be openings between the lines, glimmers of life. That the story is not about its dryly depicted events but about its characters and events’ effects on them, should be implicit in such seemingly detached rapportage. It is not, in the nine stories of Successful Love. The characters are stick figures whose characteristics Schwarz sums up by listing the ways they differ from their stereotypes. A story on the comic side of the tragedy-comedy divide that is told in this way is a kind of joke – akin to a shaggy dog story. The sole purpose of Schwartz’ characters and what they say and do is to build up to the punch line. The punch line in Schwartz’ stories is: “See? The absurdity of life isn’t all funny, it’s melancholy too.”
Here is a bit from the novella-length “A Colossal Fortune”:
Monroe had slowly been overtaken by a sense of what he had done. And the realization made him want to tell Kitty what he had done as a way of confessing that he was, in all truth, wholly unworthy of her, he had violated the trust of his friends he had acted wantonly, foolishly and at the mercy of his own disappointment, he was without question a wholly worthless human being. He called Schenectady again and he told Kitty these things in a low tone and in a voice of resigned sincerity, and said again and again, as he described his sudden debacle, that he was obviously unworthy of her.
[Now you see how his style is like James’; and how it is not.]
While alive, Delmore Schwartz was known more as a poet than a short story writer. Unfortunately, he is primarily remembered as a sad case, a schizophrenic alcoholic who, for a decade or more, made a colorful and tragic nuisance of himself in Greenwich Village and became the subject of a Bellow novel. Secondarily, he is known as the author of the oft-anthologized short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”.
Much of that story’s fame is that it lives up to its grand, or grandiose, title, which has the same poignant resonance as the title of Gordon Lish’s renowned reworking of a Raymond Carver story: “What we Talk about when we Talk about Love”. Unlike Schwartz’ unsuccessful stories in Successful Love, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is not at all impersonal, detached and academic. It is the first person narration of a dream, as earnestly anxious and attentive to emotional detail as a patient’s relation of a dream to his analyst. Like a dream told to an analyst, the details of the dream have no more intrinsic value than do the details of a joke. What matters is what they all add up to at the end, what the dream means – spelled out in the story’s title.
“John Delavoy” is not great Henry James. Considering how high the bar is, it might not even be good Henry James. The plot is threadbare: the villain – a charismatic, yet shallow, literary lion, the editor of a celebrated literary magazine – outwits a pair of clever, principled innocents – the somewhat pompous unnamed narrator and the devoted sister of an important, yet insufficiently celebrated, novelist, recently deceased – but loses the girl. She marries the narrator and they live happily ever after.
Here is how lovers in the world of Henry James fall in love, marry and live happily ever after:
I placed my article, naturally, in another magazine, but was disappointed, I confess, as to what it discoverably did in literary circles for its subject. This ache, however, was muffled. There was a worse victim than I, and there was consolation of a sort in our having out together the question of literary circles. The great orb of The Cynosure, wasn't that a literary circle? By the time we had fairly to face this question we had achieved the union that—at least for resistance or endurance—is supposed to be strength.
I began to read “John Delavoy” after eleven at night. I was tired, my eyes were bleary, the back of my head ached. All I really wanted to do was go to bed. I told myself I would just read the Section I. After Section IV I promised myself I would go to bed when I finished Section V. I even dozed off briefly, but I could not put the story down until I finished it.
Why? That’s not a rhetorical question. I don’t know why. I certainly was not on the edge of my seat about whether or not the narrator’s essay on John Delavoy would appear in The Cynosure. My reluctance to stop reading had something to do with James’ style – not the style itself, but the use James puts it to: the dissection of conversations, gestures, motivations, into a continuous patter (as in a patter song) of emotive minutiae. I could not put the story down, not because I wanted to know what happened next, but through what intricate twists and turns James would take the feelings of the story’s characters – Mr. Beston, the crass editor, the self-important literary critic who was narrator, and Miss Delavoy. They and their problems were inconsequential. I simply had to see what the great virtuoso’s next trick would be.