A FEW WEEKS after he finished this book, John Gardner was hurled from his motorcycle on a sharp turn two miles from his summer home in Pennsylvania and killed. Although some distinguished professors may wear black leather jackets and jeans as Gardner did, few pilot Honda 750s at high speeds. Doing so at 49 seemed to several of his friends almost suicidal.
The fatal crash was quickly compared to that of T. E. Lawrence, a writer of eccentric if dissimilar bent who, also in his late forties, was killed while driving his motorcycle at a reckless speed.
Just as consonant with Gardner's literary style as these smash-ups and far more in line with his sense of irony was The New York Times obituary page for last September 15, the day after his death. He shared it with Leicester Hemingway, a mediocre novelist and younger brother to Ernest. The Times took pains to describe how Leicester, Ernest and their father, Clarence, all killed themselves with guns, much less ambiguous weapons of self-destruction than motorcycles.
These vague coincidences will seem both appropriate and unsettling for the readers of On Becoming a Novelist. Gardner himself might well have used them to illustrate his theme that a certain strangeness is at the creative root of all great novels and of all serious novelists.
By his death, Gardner made this book his ultimate legacy, one dedicated to his students, narrowly written for those entering the field of novel-writing.
It may, however, also be interesting to creative writing teachers (I cannot imagine a better textbook), novelists (who probably won't learn anything new here but will find their joys and anguishes recognized), fiction groupies--God increase their dwindling number!--who enjoy studying the skeletal structure of novels (as some non-poets used to study the meters of poems) and the spouses and other indulgers of the above-mentioned.
It is not written for the general reader and may even be offensive to him. It is permeated with the elitism that characterizes all of us who try to write good novels, even those of us who fail badly to do so. Gardner puts it bluntly: "Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or 'way,' an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi- religious--a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand . . ."
Actually, as Coleridge said, there is no great art of any kind without a strangeness. Baudelaire speaks of poets as alien and alienating wretches whose mothers shake their fists at God and curse the night of their conception.
Gardner--as befits a novelist, who alone among artists is generally required to be explicit, to elucidate--precisely warns of this lonely, prideful separateness. He talks of "cracking the door now and then to the deep craziness of life itself . . . something happens, a demon takes over, or nightmare swings in, and the imaginary becomes the real."
At such rare moments, we are as one with our paper. Afterwards, we look and see writing better than we ever dreamed we could do. We cannot believe it is our own. Gardner writes of moments when Tolstoy, Dickens, Charlotte Bronte were thus possessed. I can tell you it happens to those who, by comparison, are hacks.
Most of On Becoming a Novelist is more practical.Gardner explores the qualities by which a writer can identify himself as a novelist: verbal sensitivity , a storyteller's special intelligence, a compulsion not just to talk but to write, an accuracy of eye. He sets standards for the would-be novelist to measure his work against: "creation of a vivid and continuous dream, authorial generosity, intellectual and emotional significance, elegance and efficiency, and strangeness."
Unlike many creative writing teachers, Gardner had the credentials for this kind of unequivocal advice. He published eight novels, ten volumes of criticism, and children's books, short stories, poems.
He was a relentless and meticulous reviser, one who would have made Proust wince. Indeed, some critics felt that his books' unremitting craftsmanship gave them a "worked over" quality that tended to rob them of spontaneity.
It would be sardonic if the future decided that this unconventionally garbed, slightly pot-bellied man who gunned his Honda around campus and rewrote Beowulf from the monster Grendel's point of view lacked the sudden, absorbing strangeness he considered necessary to write a truly great book. But it is a measure of Gardner's perspicacity that he probably would have accepted the judgment.