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Douglas Kennedy — a novelist to read

Through my daughter, as much a bibliophile as her father, I recently discovered the novels of Douglas Kennedy. Her birthday gift to me was Leaving the World, a novel she described as “beautiful, but sad”, which propelled me and my partner into a very rewarding fictional journey of discovery. I haven’t come across references to Kennedy in literary circles, but I would recommend his work very highly to anyone who appreciates serious, insightful, rich, non-kitsch literature.

To be sure, Kennedy’s novels do not represent what Roland Barthes calls “texts of bliss” (“jouissance”), where the reader finds herself in such unfamiliar linguistic and spatio-temporal terrain that nothing can be understood in ordinary, everyday, familiar terms. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, with its evocative and elusive blend of magical realism and a kind of time-surpassing allegorical slant (which makes it an extremely difficult book to interpret), is such a “text of bliss”: mythical figures like demons interact with ordinary mortals as if this is quite normal. Kennedy’s novels belong to the more down-to-earth “texts of pleasure” (“plaisir”) variety, where one easily recognises the extant quotidian world of the north-east coast of America and the socially and economically variegated cityscape of Paris, France (where most of their narratives unfold).

This does not detract from their existential and moral power to move readers to the point where they can recognise in the contingent events that befall Kennedy’s characters a mirror, or rather, a prism, through which the colours of their own very human lives are refracted. In this respect, Kennedy’s narratives provide ample opportunity for readers to experience the closure of what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls the “hermeneutic circle”, which commences with broad (linguistic) “understanding” of something, proceeds through an explicit “interpretation” of the matter at hand, and finally comes to completion in “application”, that is, an insight into the way that what has been interpreted applies to one’s own life.

One might argue that Kennedy’s texts are informed by a deep undercurrent of pessimistic Schopenhauerian belief in the inescapable suffering of human life. All his characters suffer traumas of some kind — one could even say that his novels belong to a category of “trauma literature”. (For more on this, see my paper “Trauma and literature: Derrida, 9/11 and Hart’s The reconstructionist”. Journal of Literary Studies 24 [1], March 2008, pp. 32-58.) Some of them attempt suicide to end the pain. And, consonant with Schopenhauer’s counsel that suicide is not an ethical way out of suffering (because it paradoxically affirms the will to live, but to live without pain) they either desist in the end or fail in their attempt and find a way to live with the lingering pain.

Here his characters resemble the mythical Sisyphus, repeatedly pushing the rock up the hill only to watch as it rolls down before the endless toil starts all over again. Or they could be Samuel Beckett’s unnameable character who “can’t go on” but because she or he “must go on”, decides to “go on”. So, for instance, Sara Smythe (in the novel ironically titled The Pursuit of Happiness) loses her first and second child before they are born, as well as her brother and her lover, the former betrayed by the latter when he is forced by Joseph McCarthy’s minions to name one person with a history of sympathising with communism. Her brother is so devastated by the effect of his blacklisting on a successful career in television comedy writing that he spirals down until he literally drinks himself to death. Sara, having left the man she loves, finds redemption in rescuing his wife and children from crippling debt when he dies of leukaemia.

Like his other narratives, The Pursuit of Happiness is narrated in a chronological format that resembles a psychoanalytic anamnesis, or prehistory of the events in the life of the patient that led up to the trauma in question, in this case first from the perspective of the lover’s daughter, who unwittingly benefits from Sara creating a trust for her and her brother, and then from Sara’s perspective, to the point where the two narratives meet, and merge. As in the case of his other novels, too, it is a Bildungsroman, predicated on the principle, that a person’s character is “formed” by the events constituting their lives, especially so in a moral sense, and that it is the negative or painful events that have the greatest ethical shaping power. Arguably the novel from Kennedy’s imaginative genius that most exemplifies this psychoanalytical Bildung-structure is The Woman in the Fifth, where the anti-hero arrives in Paris at the beginning of the novel in a shattered state of “tristesse” and one only gradually learns, in retrospect, what has happened in his life to inflict such unmitigated trauma.

In State of the Union, the recently married protagonist, Hannah, has a desperate, as much as rebellious sexual fling with a would-be sixties revolutionary (but never with the intention of abandoning her husband and baby son) only to be betrayed by him 30 years later when he publishes his memoirs as a supposedly penitent, Bush-era Republican convert. Hannah’s life, already frayed by the disappearance of her wayward daughter, comes apart when her past moral blunder is widely reported in the media, resulting in her husband, Dan, summarily leaving her. It is Hannah, however, who deals with the trauma in a manner that tests, and eventually affirms, her deeply ethical character.

The most enjoyable of Kennedy’s tales that we have read so far is the one that was a present from my literarily canny daughter, Leaving the World, whose protagonist, Jane, resolves at an early age never to marry having been constant witness to the mutual resentment, if not hatred, between her parents. She does, however, inadvertently have a child with a talented but unpredictable film buff, and her daughter becomes the joyful centre of her life. Because of her boyfriend’s ambitions in the cinema world, things deteriorate between them, despite Jane assisting him and an associate financially with an important project. As if this is not enough disaster strikes in that part of her life that matters most to her.

In what follows, Kennedy’s narrative inventiveness takes the reader on a difficult and winding path of guilt and self-redemption on Jane’s part — not with any attendant sentimentality but in an utterly believable fashion that eschews the lugubrious traps of kitsch literature. His novels are not subject to the Hollywood and pulp-romance syndrome of “everything will work out in the end”, nor to one of inescapable doom and gloom. As in any recognisably human life, his characters experience joy, but all-too-human suffering, too. Above all, his fiction demonstrates what I would argue is a kind of “law” of human life, namely, that words and deeds have consequences, sometimes far beyond one’s best, and worst, expectations.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

2 Comments

  1. Maria Maria 16 November 2011

    What I love about Kennedy’s novels is his literacy – in literature, cinema, music, philosophy – which runs through his stories like a rich, multi-coloured thread. These broadly intertextual allusions give depth to his characters when they reflect on music, a certain film, and so on, at those opportune moments when these works cast light on their own predicaments. And his understanding of world literature, music, etc., is impressive. I think it is in Leaving the World (?) where the story of Madame Bovary interacts with Jane’s own story in a marvellously illuminating way, just as her listening to a justly famous violin concerto (I think it was Brahms’; evocatively described by Kennedy) when she is in the depths of despair, makes her state of mind so much more accessible to the reader. And until I read him, I thought I knew the history of cinema, as well as some particular films, quite well – well, I had to reconsider that after reading Leaving the World! Do you know if any of them have been filmed? They certainly lend themselves to being translated into film, especially The Woman in the Fifth. The scene on the balcony between Harry and Margit is one of the sexiest, most erotic literary sequences I have ever read. Imagine what Greta Schiacci and Daniel Day-Lewis, or Ralph Fiennes could do with that in front of the cameras…

  2. Koos Kombuis Koos Kombuis 17 November 2011

    My wife and I discovered Douglas Kennedy about 2 months ago, and since then we have read every book of of him we could lay our hands on. What a refreshing author!

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