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Paul (Noden) West Biography

Paul West comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Eckington, Derbyshire, England, 1930; moved to the United States, 1961; became citizen, 1971. Education: The University of Birmingham, 1947-50, B.A. (1st class honours) 1950; Oxford University, 1950-52; Columbia University, New York, M.A. 1953. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force, 1954-57: flight lieutenant. Career: Assistant professor, 1957-58, and associate professor of English, 1959-62, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's. Associate professor, 1962-68, professor of English and comparative literature, and senior fellow, 1968-94, and since 1994, emeritus professor of English, Institute for the Arts and Humanistic Studies, Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Visiting professor of comparative literature, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1965-66; Pratt Lecturer, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1970; Crawshaw Professor of Literature, Colgate University, Hamilton, New York, Fall 1972; Virginia Woolf Lecturer, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1973; Melvin Hill Visiting Professor, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, New York, Fall 1974; writer-in-residence, Wichita State University, Kansas, 1982, and University of Arizona, Tucson, 1984; visiting professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1986. Contributor to New Statesman, London, 1954-62. Since 1962 regular contributor to New York Times Book Review and Washington Post Book World. Awards: Canada Council Senior fellowship, 1960; Guggenheim fellowship, 1962; Aga Khan prize (Paris Review), 1974; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1980, 1985; Hazlett Memorial award, 1981; American Academy award, 1985; Pushcart prize, 1987, 1991; New York Public Library Literary Lion award, 1987; Best American Essays award, 1990; Outstanding Achievement medal, Pennsylvania State University, 1991; Grand Prix Halpérine-Kaminsky for Best Foreign Book, 1992; Lannan prize, for fiction, 1993; Distinguished Teaching award, Joint Graduate Schools of the Northeast, 1993. Agent: Elaine Markson, 44 Greenwich Avenue, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



A Quality of Mercy. London, Chatto and Windus, 1961.

Tenement of Clay. London, Hutchinson, 1965.

Alley Jaggers. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Harper, 1966.

I'm Expecting to Live Quite Soon. New York, Harper, 1970; London, Gollancz, 1971.

Caliban's Filibuster. New York, Doubleday, 1971.

Bela Lugosi's White Christmas. London, Gollancz, and New York, Harper, 1972.

Colonel Mint. New York, Dutton, 1972; London, Calder and Boyars, 1973.

Gala. New York, Harper, 1976.

The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg. New York, Harper, 1980.

Rat Man of Paris. New York, Doubleday, 1986; London, Paladin, 1988.

The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

Lord Byron's Daughter. New York, Doubleday, 1989.

The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper. New York, RandomHouse, 1991.

Love's Mansion. New York, Random House, 1992.

The Tent of Orange Mist. New York, Scribner, 1995.

Sporting with Amaryllis. Woodstock, New York, Overlook Press, 1996.

Terrestrials. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Life with Swan. New York, Scribner, 1999.

O.K.: The Corral, the Earps, and Doc Holliday. New York, Scribner, 2000.

Short Stories

The Universe and Other Fictions. New York, Overlook Press, 1988.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Man Who Ate the Zeitgeist," in London Magazine, April-May1971.

"Invitation to a Vasectomy," in Words (Boston), Summer 1973.

"The Wet-God's Macho," in Remington Review (Elizabeth, NewJersey), Spring 1974.

"The Monocycle," in Carleton Miscellany (Northfield, Minnesota), Spring 1975.

"Gustav Holst Composes Himself," in New Directions 33. NewYork, New Directions, 1976.

"Field Day for a Boy Soldier," in Iowa Review (Iowa City), Spring1979.

"Dewey Canyon," in Conjunctions (New York), Spring 1982.

"The Destroyer of Delight," in Paris Review, Spring 1983.

"He Who Wears the Pee of the Tiger," in Tri-Quarterly (Evanston, Illinois), Spring 1984.

"Hopi," in Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), Fall 1986.


(Poems). Oxford, Fantasy Press, 1952.

The Spellbound Horses. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1960.

The Snow Leopard. London, Hutchinson, 1964; New York, HarcourtBrace, 1965.


The Fossils of Piety: Literary Humanism in Decline. New York, Vantage Press, 1959.

The Growth of the Novel. Toronto, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1959.

Byron and the Spoiler's Art. London, Chatto and Windus, and NewYork, St. Martin's Press, 1960.

The Modern Novel. London, Hutchinson, 1963; New York, HillaryHouse, 1965.

I, Said the Sparrow (autobiography). London, Hutchinson, 1963.

Robert Penn Warren. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1964; London, Oxford University Press, 1965.

The Wine of Absurdity: Essays in Literature and Consolation. University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1966.

Words for a Deaf Daughter. London, Gollancz, 1969; New York, Harper, 1970.

Doubt and Dylan Thomas (lecture). St. John's, Newfoundland, Memorial University, 1970.

Out of My Depths: A Swimmer in the Universe. New York, Doubleday, 1983.

Sheer Fiction. New Paltz, New York, McPherson, 1987; Sheer Fiction II, 1991; Sheer Fiction III, 1994.

Portable People. New York, Paris Review Editions, 1991.

Duets (text), photographs by James Kiernan. New York, RandomHouse, 1994.

A Stroke of Genius. New York, Viking, 1995.

My Mother's Music. New York, Viking, 1996.

The Secret Lives of Words. New York, Harcourt, 2000.

The Dry Danube: A Hitler Forgery. New York, New Directions, 2000.


Manuscript Collections:

Pattee Library, Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Critical Studies:

By John W. Aldridge, in Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), September 1966; New Literary History (Charlottesville, Virginia), Spring 1970 and Spring 1976: "The Writer's Situation II" in New American Review 10, New York, New American Library, 1970, and "In Defense of Purple Prose," in New York Times, 15 December 1985, both by West; interview with George Plimpton, in Caliban's Filibuster, 1971; article by Brian McLaughlin, in British Novelists since 1960 edited by Jay L. Halio, Detroit, Gale, 1983; "Alexander Theroux / Paul West Issue" of Review of Contemporary Fiction (Elmwood Park, Illinois), Spring 1991; Understanding Paul West by David Madden, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Looking back, I see myself as a late starter who, between thirty and forty, in a sustained and intensive spell of application, set down half a lifetime's pondering and moved from a restless contentment with criticism and fairly orthodox fiction to an almost Fellini-like point of view.

Imagination, as I see it, is an alembic in limbo; it invents, and what it invents has to be added to the sum of Creation—even though nothing imagination invents is wholly its own. I think the realistic novel has served its turn. Fiction has to reclaim some of its ancient privileges, which writers like Lucian and Nashe and Rabelais and Grimmelshausen exploited to the full. I think that only the plasticity of a free-ranging imagination can do justice to late-twentieth-century man who, as incomplete as man ever was, keeps on arming himself with increasing amounts of data which, as ever, mean nothing at all.

My own fiction I have come to see as—I want it to be—a kind of linear mosaic, which is what my second novel, Tenement of Clay, was in a rudimentary form and which two others—The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg and Rat Man of Paris—are in a much more advanced and demanding way. Actually, since both vocabulary and syntax are themselves fictive I don't regard my autobiographical writing as essentially different from my fiction: they're both part of the mosaic I invent.

* * *

For excellent reasons, Camden, the central character in Paul West's uneven, faintly gothic first novel, A Quality of Mercy, feels that "what was wrong was not that life was too much but that it was just too many. There was powder in the wind when there should have been crystals immune from every wind…. Life was an unknown and unknowable quantity." Although now, more than twenty-five years later, West's fiction has grown so rich and apparently diverse that good readers will be suspicious of generalizations, it is still possible to see him as an artist working out unexpected variations on the theme Camden hints at indirectly; the problem of contingency. The final human tragedy, Santayana coolly observes, lies in our awareness that everything might just as well have been otherwise, in our consciousness that we are accidental creatures gratuitously existing in random places and forms. We might have been Caesar or we might have been a victim of the Holocaust; and in times when few can go on believing that angels were destined to be angels and stones stones, this can be a devastating insight. There are writers—Sartre, for example—who are in fact appalled by the idea; there are writers like Wallace Stevens and Iris Murdoch who are often exhilarated by the inexplicable variety of being; and there are also a few writers, like Nabokov and West, who veer back and forth eloquently but uneasily between delight and disgust.

A good many of West's characters live condemned to this awareness of contingency, and to make matters worse, condemned to exist in exotic and unlovely forms. The archetypal figure is Caliban, an artist of sorts, howling for justice or at least freedom. In A Quality of Mercy there is Camden; in Tenement of Clay there are Lazarus, the defiant dwarf, and his mentor, Papa Nick, failed saint and keeper of a flophouse whose inmates he tries to reconcile to "the truth of life," and in helping them to swallow that truth to learn, himself, the proper "angle of drinking." In Caliban's Filibuster, there is Cal, the failed writer, and in West's finest novel Count von Stauffenberg, who must go on suffering beyond the grave for his failures. But clearest of all there is Alley Jaggers. At the start of that novel, Alley, longing for some dimly perceived beauty, is "enclosed and embattled but not closed up and defeated," but by the end he is both defeated and literally locked away. In Bela Lugosi's White Christmas Alley provides what is probably West's bitterest cry of rage:

I never applied for admission to your so-called universe. I was kidnapped into it from a better place … where it is more optional than it is here and now, about the time old God Almighty was in a poxdoctoring dither, not sure which day was which, and wondering why the bejesus he got involved with the whole thing in the first place.… My own feeling is this, in case you care, want it for your little black book: if only He'd kept at it all through the seventh day and maybe for all of the next week, we'd all of us be better off. It's just the same as saying the world—your so-called universe—is just a wee bit carelessly put together, fundamentally, firmamentally, fucked up, there being whole armies of folks with club foots, hare lips, folks with spines open to the fresh air and brains blown up as big as hunchback's humps, not to mention the deaf and the blind and the straightforward deformed, the slobberers and slaverers, the daft and St. Vitus dancers, the monkey-faced and the Siamese twins, folks whose hands grow out from their shoulders and folks with no especial sex at all. Don't tell me that twenty sets of quints can make up for all that. Why, it's like asking a pharmacist for an aspirin and getting gunpowder instead. Better to scrap it in the first place if he couldn't get it right or couldn't make up his mind … Whatever blueprint there was, well, it was just a bit smudged. There ought to be laws against great minds bringing universes into being just for fun. There: that's AJ's first book of the bible; I could have done better myself once I'd gotten the sun to co-operate.

"Blow it all up then?" asks Alley's equally failed analyst, to which Alley replies, " I would, except I'd be loth to give your old universe a helping hand with a dead hand of my own." It is natural enough to wonder where this view of things comes from, and tempting to conclude that it grew from West's experiences with his own deaf, brain-damaged daughter, Mandy. In such cases a parent's first response is often to ignore the handicap, to make it "go away"—or to make it go away by making the child go away. But there is another possible response: to see the handicap as a special kind of gift, and while trying to eliminate it still to "learn its nature by heart, as a caution." Words for a Deaf Daughter is the astonishing account of West's infinitely patient attempts to understand the world in which Mandy is enclosed but not, if he can help it, defeated; to grasp, by imaginative participation, the "super-sensitivity" which such children often possess. The "caution," that is, the lesson, turns out to be an awareness of just how arbitrary our definitions of sense and madness can be. The world West and his readers learn to look at through Mandy's eyes is a world in which things are seen with cleansed perception.

Words for a Deaf Daughter is "fact"; Gala is "fiction," or, as West puts it, "the scenario of a wish-fulfillment," in which an adolescent Mandy comes to visit her father in America and finally speaks to him. The importance of this wish-fulfillment is central to West's fiction and makes it imperative to remember that something like Alley's cry of rage is not really West's own cry. For all of the pain which these characters must endure, West sees that act of expression, of imaginative creation, as an act of defiance and achievement, a substantial addition to the sum of existing things. In a 1971 interview he remarked:

What a gratuitous universe it is, anyway; what a bloody surd … what with such defectives as waltzing mice, axolotls that should become salamanders but don't, children born without one of the human senses. Not that I'm harping on the universe's lapses rather than its norms; no, what impresses me finally is the scope for error within the constancy of the general set-up contrasted with the power to imagine things as otherwise—to rectify, to deform. What is man? He's the creature imaginative enough to ask that question. And although I know that the imagination had always to start with something not its own—hasn't complete underivedness—it can generate much pearl from little grit.

In The Wine of Absurdity he states even more emphatically that the imagination is "the only restorative each man has that is entirely his own … Imagination, trite and presumptuous as it may seem to express the fact, is the only source of meaning our lives can have." Thus imagining Mandy's visit and making her speak is a triumphant act; and having so imagined, West reports that "I can begin sentences with an I again, not so much glad or proud as astounded to be here on this planet as myself and not as a peppermint starfish, a thistle, an emu, a bit of quartz. Or a doorknob." It is the artist's imagination, then, which can turn Camden's irritating powder into crystals—if, of course, the artist has anything like West's drive and dazzling verbal resources.

—Elmer Borklund

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