I have been reading Boswell by Stanley Elkin

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Ten to fifteen years ago this book was ubiquitous in the remainder piles and cardboard boxes on the pavements outside bookshops. So were a lot of other titles by the same failing publisher, Arena, all with cheap covers featuring nasty, very 80s artwork; but Boswell was the king and everyman of this unloved, occupying army. It took years for the deluge of this one title in its thousands of clones to drain away.
I’ve never seen a copy of this book on sale at full price. My copy was bought second-hand eighteen months ago, from the $1 cardboard box on the pavement. Of course, it had been previously bought as a remainder, with the tell-tale texta stripe visible across the bottom edge of the pages. The flyleaf is inscribed in biro, “To Mahgo, from Liz, Jeremy, Daniel and Adam xxx”. Real classy gift, guys. It must be nice having friends who care enough to chip in about a dollar each for a birthday present.
For years I shunned it when bookhunting – its uninspiring blurb (“It’s a journey of disillusionment, but it is his destiny.”) and egregious presence made it seem ersatz, like a placeholder, a stand-in for another, better book that might have stood on the shelf. It infuriated me. I doubt I would have accepted a copy for free.
My recent change of heart, to happily blow an Australian dollar on a copy, is because, after being out of print for years, it has been reprinted by The Dalkey Archive Press – a publishing house I have happily allowed to lead me by the nose when developing my literary taste. Its parent, the Centre for Contemporary Book Culture, also runs an online literary journal with a righteous bitchiness of the highest order, in addition to publishing a few interviews with Stanley Elkin, and giving some more persuasive writeups of his work than the back of the Arena paperback.
The doomed paperback’s blurb should have touted this as a contender for the Great American Novel: Boswell is a character as archetypal as Gatsby, Kane, and Corleone. Keenly aware of his own mortality, Boswell’s motivation is fame: not the attainment of it, but to exist in the presence of it. To be famous to the famous. Appropriately for the century, his vocation isn’t so much chosen by him as assigned to him, by a visiting technocrat at high school who tells Boswell he will be surrounded by greatness, but never be great himself.
How’s the writing?
Perry is a very popular mâitre d’ in New York, though I have never understood the reason. His dignity and aloofness seem spurious to me. I feel that they’re simply tools of the trade with him, ones he uses a little squeamishly, as a professional locksmith might use dynamite. I like to picture him at home in front of the TV with his shoes off and a beer from Nate’s kitchen in his hand. There are softer, sloppier Perrys inside him, I know…. I looked at this mâitre d’hôtel, at this head waiter who got his name in the columns and was the constant bête noir of a government tax man who worried about his tips.

Boswell’s compulsive pursuit of fame – not merely as an end in itself, but as an entity independent of his own status – makes the book beautifully prescient. It’s hard to imagine it seeming more contemporary when it was written, over 40 years ago, than it does now. The one thing that has dated is its more rarefied sense of celebrity, expecting a standard of fame sufficiently high to seem quaint today. Except: it is Boswell himself who conflates greatness with celebrity. His appreciation for greatness is indiscriminate, embracing anthropologists and gangsters as part of the same elite. As he progresses in his calling he stops seeking out Nobel laureates, and instead monitors who gets the most mentions in Time.

Today, with the indulgent granting of celebrity, however small and meaningless, to anyone who wants it badly enough, it would be easy for Boswell to become some sort of a celebrity in his own right should he choose to do so, simply by virtue of knowing the famous. If this seems to be the one aspect of Boswell’s world that doesn’t jibe with 21st-century culture, you will be equally pleased and appalled with the turn of the book’s final section, which includes some of the most heartwarming character developments I’ve read since The Way of All Flesh.
Now, cheapskate that I am, I’m searching for a second-hand remainder of the other Elkin novel Arena published, The Magic Kingdom. Anyone who makes a black farce out of a guy’s disaster-strewn attempt to take a group of kids with terminal cancer to Disneyland is welcome in my house.
  1. So you're cheap, but you have such good taste, Ben. I have heard of Mr. Elkin – will have to have a look for that in the library (which is what people use when they don't have any more shelf space. Like me.)

  2. If you're short of shelf space for your books, why not simply do what I do, and pile the buggers up on the floor? Alternatively: kitchen cupboards, window sills, inside your Steinway, in bed.

  3. I have both the Arena books and yeah, the covers are shit aren't they? Picked them up earlier in the year for a couple of dollars each, having read good things about Elkin. Might actually have to read them now.

  4. Not only are they cheap-looking (their covers for the Julio Cortázar stories are so hideous I even wondered if I'd made a mistake buying them) but they crease up in a nasty way when you actually bring yourself to open them. So you have to read Elkin, at least to avenge him of this horrible treatment at the hand of his British publishers.