THERE IS SOMETHING of Byron about John Irving. Not only is it that he woke after the publication of The World According to Garp to find himself famous, but the extremity of his opinions and the nervous violence of his language recall that intemperate nobleman, and, like Byron, he would certainly say that love is no sinecure. Indeed, nothing in life is easy for Irving's characters, and in his five novels the still, sad music of humanity rises to the orgasmic uproar of a rock band.
Is this the New Romanticism? The acclaim that greeted Garp suggests that the author has found the keynote of at least a large portion of our romantic age. When he appeared in my city to give a reading some time ago he was greeted by an audience of women who threw the keys of their hotel rooms, and in some cases their panties, onto the stage, as they shrieked their admiration. This surely recalls the response to Byron, and the cult for Franz Liszt, whose cigar butts were snatched up in the street, and whose chair seat was on one occasion cut out and preserved as a relic by an admirer who must have been somewhat lacking in humor.
Those who admired Garp will find the new novel, The Hotel New Hampshire, very much to their taste. Irving has expressed himself strongly on the subject of reviewers, so I shall not commit the reviewer's sin of spilling the beans about his story. It is enough to say that it is in the powerful, reader- coaxing mode of his earlier books, and recounts the adventures of the Berry family, two parents and five children, as they seek some kind of repose in three hotels, two in New Hampshire and one, named for that state, in Vienna. Repose is not, of course, what they find, but they achieve a rueful fatalism, a stoicism that reconciles the four survivors to life.
The Irving bench-marks are all here: body-building, bears, Viennese whores, rape and the pleasures of sexual intercourse. It would be unjust to call this "the mixture as before," because it is fresh and newly invented. Irving is unusual among modern novelists because his mind has a determined color, and he writes of certain themes in all his novels not because he cannot think of anything else, but because these themes seem to him to have overmastering importance. To the present reviewer they seem to boil down to a romantic insistence on the supremacy of passion and a desire for poetic justice.
Passion, of course, is everywhere acknowledged. To desire something is to have it or be broken in the pursuit of it, and those who do not feel this impulse are necessarily secondary characters in the drama of life. This is now, and always has been, a principal ingredient of the romantic attitude.
Poetic justice, however, is much less widely recognized for what it is. As the courts become more lenient in their treatment of evildoers, urged in this direction by the popular humanitarianism of our time, there builds up below the surface of millions of minds a yearning to see evildoers get their lumps, and to get them in the coin in which they themselves traded. The murderer must die by his own weapon, the adulterer must lose his sexual power, and the rapist must himself be raped. This is a romantic attitude, but it has deeper roots; as Irving employs it, poetic justice takes on an unmistakable Old Testament character. Let them suffer as they made others suffer. Not a pretty doctrine, but it gives a warm glow in those dark caves of the spirit to which humanitarianism has not penetrated.
John Irving has obviously not achieved his position by dealing in trivialities. He has said his say about "new fiction" and does not seek to do anything new with language or form. Indeed, in some respect he appears to have retreated, and the wrap-ups which finish Garp and the new novel, in which the fate of every character is revealed, are reminiscent of some of the Victorians.
Conventional, also, is his insistence in the new novel on the magic of his heroine, Franny Berry, who becomes a film star and sex-symbol. But where Little Nell and Little Dorrit were extreme in their submissive virtue, Franny is extreme in her self-will and her violence of speech. She uses the bleakest words associated with scatology and sex to address her intimates as well as her enemies; but words grammarians call "intensives" when overused end as "privatives" and the supposedly irresistible Franny becomes a common scold. She must surely be the most foul-mouthed heroine in all of fiction, and as Little Nell and Little Dorrit are incredible in their virtue, so we think that Franny is incredible in her hysterical speech. She seems also to be inordinate in her sexual appetite, and demands of her brother exertions that put Casanova, who thought six orgasms at a session his best work, quite in the shade. Of course, John Berry is an iron-pumper, in the gym as in bed. We reviewers are expected to speak the truth as we see it, therefore it must be said that like Little Nell and Little Dorrit Franny is interesting as a character in romantic fiction but as a portrait of a woman she is not a success.
During the time that I was reading the complete works of John Irving, I read Leon Edel's Henry James for diversion, and inevitably reflected on the wholly disparate artistic attitudes of the two writers. Just as it is impossible to think of James describing a woman as "the best-looking piece of a--in all Vienna" it is impossible to think of Irving tip-toeing solemnly around a scruple, like James. The one delights in retention: the other lets it all hang out. James' plots proceed by indirection; Irving's tramp stolidly forward and sometimes his novels seem less novels than chronicles. James used language like a drowsy balm: Irving uses it like a firehose connected with a rather dirty main.
What a lot they could have learned from each other! What splendid heart- to-hearts they may yet have in Elysium!