One evening in the late fall of 1967, my father took me to dinner at the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel. We discussed wine, among other things, and I remember asking him how he could tell the difference, not between jug wine and a good Pinot Noir, but between that Pinot and something really great. How could a bottle of wine be worth 300 dollars? Was it really ten times better than the thirty dollar bottle we were drinking with our meal? Could you taste that? Or was it just a racket? He responded in typical style, grandiose, generous, and didactic.
He ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’57.
The Sommelier was a little shocked, but recovered quickly. He bought the bottle and uncorked it. We let it breathe for a few minutes before the taste test. God knows what it cost my Dad; but if his purpose was to educate me about the finer things in life, the money was well spent. The two bottles had nothing in common but their name, the color of the liquid inside and the fruit from which they both (presumably) derived. The Pinot had sharp edges, and sour note somewhere inside it. Compared to the Mouton Rothschild it was harsh and raw. The other wine was deep and mellow, resonant and smooth, no edges anywhere. It was deep, cavernous; it seemed to echo off your taste buds. And it was sweet, but not in flavor exactly: it contained the sweetness of spring air after a hard winter; or a the caress of a warm hand on lonely skin, those moments of extremity where a fingertip circling your knuckle breaks a dam of ecstatic emotion, more intense than the sexual encounter that eventually follows.
In human terms, comparing those two wines would be like setting a teenaged football thug at a Manchester United soccer match next to the Dalai Lama: hardly members of the same species, proof that evolution continues but is not evenly distributed.
My Dad was watching my face as I sipped the nectar. He was amused, pleased. “Now you understand,” he said.
All I could do was nod.
That moment came back to me this morning, taking a break from my reading of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children to pick up a copy of Black Dogs, By Ian McEwan. The former might be considered ‘popular literature’ , even ‘literary fiction’, far more serious and significant than the romances and thrillers that populate the sprawling floor of the local Borders store. Whether Claire Messud is really a better writer than the best of those genre writers is another question. What sets her apart from Ian McEwan interests me rather more this morning. Because she is not even close, no more than that well-made California table wine approached the authentic article in the cobwebbed bottle from the Plaza’s cellar.
But what is it? How do we measure this gulf?
Maybe it’s just sheer pleasure, the quiet ecstatic recognition of a unique sensibility, a mind that refreshes your own by simple contact, that enlarges your sense of the world and startles you into strings of tiny delighted revelations, popping like strings of forbidden Fourth of July firecrackers. Maybe it’s the sure-fingered dexterity of an original mind making the unexpected shape of each sentence. See for yourself.
Compare these paragraphs.
The first, from Messud:
What then were Julius’ accomplishments, those of which his father was so proud? The anxiety, surely, was that they were few, and fading. Known in college for his vicious wit, Julius had sashayed into New York – or, more precisely, into the offices of The Village Voice – with youthful certainty that attitude could carry him. And for a long time, it had: everyone in the downtown literary set knew who Julius was, and pointed him out to newcomers at parties. His devastating but elegant book reviews were often cited; his less devastating but no less elegant film and television reviews rather less so; but still: throughout his twenties, he lived a life of Wildean excess and insouciance that seemed an accomplishment in itself, the con temporary example of the enfant terrible. The insouciance, of course, masked endless and worrisome neuroses, to which Marina and Danielle were privy. He was a failure at intimacy, if not at sex (he had no shortage of partners; but they were shortly upon the scene). He was always broke (hence the threadbare cashmere), but it was vital, or so he maintained, that the secret of his penury not get about. “This is New York, guys. And people without money aren’t noble, they’re beggars.” He apparently did not suspect that everyone already knew. He was awar that at thirty he had stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade,wisplike, away; from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, to short, steps.
There is nothing desperately wrong with this passage. One could take exception to the flurry of sophisticated semi-clichés – ‘enfant terrible’,‘charming wastrel’ (which occurs twice, alas); “Wildean excess”. His wit and elegant book reviews are mentioned but the only actual quote from the man himself is a pedestrian one. His problem, skating on his poses with no actual posture to support the show, has a familiar ring to it: shades of Jay McInerney Brett Easton Ellis, to name only the generals in that particular army of disaffection.
Still, nice phrases and well-chosen details redeem the paragraph sporadically – “Actual sustained endeavor,” “threadbare cashmere” . But for every grace note there’s a clumsy misstep: “fade, wisplike, away”, “they were shortly upon the scene”. That last would normally be taken to mean “about to arrive” not “quickly departing.”
It adds up to ordinary, Nothing there quickens the blood.
Compare that to McEwan:
While I unwrapped the fruit and washed it at the handbasin and put it with the chocolate in the fridge and found a place, the place for the coffee, I conveyed messages from Jenny, love from the children. She asked after Bernard, but I had not seen him since my last visit. She arranged her hair with her fingers and settled the pillows around her. When I returned to the chair by the bed I found myself looking once more at the photograph on the locker. I too could have fallen in love with that round-faced beauty with the over-trained hair, the delighted, jaunty smile grazing the biceps of her loved one. It was the innocence that was so appealing, not only of the girl, or of the couple, but of the time itself; even the blurred shoulder and head of a suited passerby had a naïve, unknowing quality, as did a frog-eyed saloon car parked in a street of pre-modern emptiness. The innocent time! Tens of millions dead, Europe in ruins, the extermination camps still a news story, not yet our universal reference point of human depravity. It is photography itself that creates the illusion of innocence. It’s ironies of frozen narrative lend to its subjects an apparent unawareness that they will change or die. It is the future they are innocent of. Fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all – who they married, the date of their death – with no thought for who will one day be holding photographs of us.
This seems to me to be everything Claire Messud’s paragraph is not. Dense with detail, engaged, alive and specific while Messud remains detached and abstract. While ordinary language clutters her prose, McEwan’s matter-of-fact eloquence binds the moment to the reflections it inspires: the smile that ‘grazed the bicep’ of the loved one, the ‘over-trained hair’, the ‘ironies of frozen narrative’.
But perhaps the real difference here is not so much what the writers accomplish but what they attempt. Messud wants to portray the looming career crisis of her unexceptional character. McEwan wants to get at something much bigger, the nature of loss and mortality and the strange allure of photography. When Messud succeeds, we have an incrementally sharper view of a one banal individual. McEwan manages something else, something thrilling, one of the crucial functions of narrative prose: with ruthless clarity of thought he expresses a thought every reader has felt looming at the edges of his mind in some inchoate form, but has never been able to formulate with any precision. He returns to us our own ideas and emotions, fully articulated.
This is fine wine compared to the Pinot Noir of ‘mainstream fiction’ ; but fortunately it costs no more to enjoy it. Books aren’t priced like wine: Jack Kerouac and Jackie Suzanne, James Patterson and Marcel Proust, Faulkner and Follett, all cost the same in the used paperback pile at the flea market. And that’s a lucky break for all of us.
Because once you’ve had a bottle of the good stuff, it’s hard to go back.