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Doctorow’s Last Class

Toby Lloyd

Once, while I was a graduate student at New York University, learning the dubious craft of Creative Writing, I attended a party where I was introduced to a young man whom I was told was “also a writer”, with the idea, presumably, that we would get along. He was earning his Masters up at Columbia, our rival program. When I told him where I studied, he eyed me wearily and asked me who my teachers were. Naturally, I began by mentioning E. L. Doctorow, the biggest name amongst my professors. The Columbia student waved his hand dismissively and said, “Doctorow is not in the first rank of American writers.”

            “Who is?” I asked.

            “Richard Ford.”

Ford was one of the bright stars of the Columbia faculty, of course. It had been some years since anyone had tried to intimidate me along the lines of “my dad could beat up your dad”, and, rusty in the art of playground one-upmanship, I had no ready comeback. In fact, I was caught off-guard—I’d thought Doctorow’s reputation (a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, Two Pen Faulkners, Three National Book Critic Circle Awards, etc., etc.) was pretty much unassailable, at least by a twenty-something brat with gelled hair and a gold stud in his ear. What would he have said if I’d led with Jonathan Safran Foer?

From then on, this young man repeatedly forgot my name, disagreed with everything I said, and directed hideous overtures towards every woman unfortunate enough to catch his roving eye. At the end of the night I thought yes, Richard Ford, with his recurring protagonist, Frank Bascombe—that prolific philanderer who abandons literary fiction to pursue the less romantic calling of the sports writer—is exactly the sort of novelist that my companion would like: for him those books were pure wish fulfillment. The irony that Ford (a writer I too admire, and perhaps the best performer of his own work I’ve seen) was himself taught by Doctorow, and has openly acknowledged his debt to the older man, is one that I failed to point out. I regret to say that, wary of my tendency to clam up during semi-drunken literary debates, I did not defend Doctorow’s literary achievement. I regretted it when he was alive, and I regret it more now.      

I was in the last class of students Doctorow ever taught. He was 83 years old when I met him, not quite “ideally bald”, like Nabokov’s Pnin, but sprouting white professorial tufts over his ears, his hairline having long since retreated to the back of his head. The class he taught was entitled “The Craft of Fiction”: each week we read a novel and then met to discuss its composition. The first time Doctorow shuffled into the classroom I felt the rush that comes on whenever a face I’ve known from the flaps of dustjackets manifests itself in flesh before me. He was a tall man with a strong build grown frail, and his speaking voice was so quiet, at times, that had it belonged to anyone else in the room he wouldn’t have heard it. “You’ll have to speak up,” he warned us that first day, “I’m deaf in one ear.” An injury from his days of National Service. He wanted us to speak up? No, no, good disciples that we were, we had come to listen.

The rooms of the Lillian Vernon Creative Writing House, where all of the teaching in the NYU MFA program takes place, are decorated with a series of black and white stills of important authors. In our classroom hung a picture of John Updike caught in profile in a cluttered studio. Seemingly oblivious to the photographer, Updike sits scrutinising a draft, looking less like a writer than a painter at his easel. From the adjacent wall, Susan Sontag leans forward under her thick curtain of hair, her wise face turned up as though to listen to the class discussion. And among these photos of the quick and the dead, in this hallowed list of poets and novelists that includes Toni Morrison and Galway Kinnell, Philip Roth and John Ashberry, Grace Paley and Dereck Walcott, is a photograph of Doctorow himself, twenty years younger than he was when I knew him, and already quite bald. The fact that his picture hung on the wall behind him while he taught, the face of the image looking over the shoulder of the living man, only added to the sense that we were in the presence of an author who had climbed right down from the pantheon in order to meet us.

“I don’t want any English Literature Department talk in this class,” he said, after telling us of his hearing trouble. Having earned my bachelor’s degree in England, where the universities do not offer ‘electives’ or ‘minors’, I was fresh to the formal study of Creative Writing.  Consequently, Literature Department talk was the only kind of book talk I knew, and it had just been banned from the room. I had no idea what form our conversations would take. I would soon learn.

It meant that we were to approach the texts with a looseness that scholarly practice would never allow. Doctorow led from the front, saying things like this: “Broadly speaking there are two types of writers. There are the dandies, those who call attention to the language on the page, and then there are the writers who use words like a scrim, a translucent fabric through which another world can be seen. Ray Carver was a scrim writer, isn’t that so? Hemingway was another. Nabokov, on the other hand, was a dandy. But then, what do you expect? The guy spent his afternoons chasing butterflies.” Kafka was a third scrim writer, and the first whose work we studied in the class. When discussing The Trial, Doctorow asked us if there was anything in the novel that might have been done better. “Even great writers can be criticised,” he said. One of my classmates suggested, somewhat halfheartedly, that a particular line was overwritten. Overwritten that is, not necessarily in Kafka’s German but certainly in so-and-so’s English. Doctorow smiled indulgently. “Well,” he said, “I always thought he could have come up with a better way of finishing off K. I didn’t like that he was stabbed.”

Throughout the course Doctorow approached the texts as a fellow practitioner, identifying not with the characters, as an involved reader is supposed, but with the author, that burdened stage manager, whose job it is to see that all those fictional people are in the right place at the right time. He imagined Joseph Conrad, for instance, halfway through writing The Secret Agent, stopping to ask himself “Wait, how do I get the mother out of the way in order to get Verloc and his wife alone for my climax?” Hence, the chapter detailing the mother’s departure, and with it Stevie’s unforgettable interaction with the coach driver, are born out of the most mundane of logistical problems. “Isn’t that so?” Doctorow said after making this point, resorting to his favourite rhetorical question.

If these anecdotes have made it sound as though Doctorow did not appreciate the more spiritual side of writing, the way one utilises the unknown expanses of the imagination, it is because I have misrepresented him. One of the prevailing lessons he had to offer was that we should embrace the uncanny way that at a certain point fiction seems to generate itself. He drew our attention to the fact that many of the episodes in Tom Sawyer occur first as fantasies in Tom’s head, and then as events in the narrative. So, then, who dreamed up the novel – Mark Twain, or the little boy he invented? “Look again at the opening line of The Trial,” Doctorow bid us, on another occasion. “‘Someone must have been spreading slander about Josef K., for one morning he was arrested, though he had done nothing wrong.’ Perhaps when Kafka wrote that, it was all he knew.” Just imagine: a single sentence setting in motion a cascade of falling dominoes that led to the creation of one of the masterworks of the twentieth century.

At the back of every MFA student’s mind, and all too often at the front as well, is the idea that they need to find amongst their professors a mentor. This creates a certain amount of jockeying for position, an atmosphere of overt competitiveness not unlike the one I encountered at that party on the Brooklyn rooftop. Understandably, MFA students feel a lot of pressure to network: two years is not a long time, and at the end of it everyone will be sent back out into whatever life they had led before, populated by few (if any) published writers. Perhaps because I am English, the idea of consciously seeking out mentorship is to me anathema. I was brought up to believe that the only clubs worth joining were those that actively sought you as a member. Better to scorn those who don’t want you than to flatter them with your attentions. Moreover, anyone who lobbies to gain entrance anywhere is a bore. This world view is the strange synthesis of pride and humility that back home was thought to be good manners. Self-advocacy was to me, quite literally, a foreign prospect. I cringed at the idea of requesting office hours—what was I doing taking my professors’ time, these people had books to write! Meanwhile, others were quite happily buddying up with the Guggenheim Fellows and National Book Award Winners who comprised our faculty.

I don’t think anyone in my class seriously thought Doctorow might take them under his wing. It was clear from the outset that this man was too important and (probably) too old to help any of us out in a practical, let-me-pass-this-on-to-my-agent sense. (Although, of course, none of us realised quite how little time he had left.) Far from being disappointing to me, Doctorow’s inaccessibility gave his course a purity, a freedom from the kind of petty one-upmanship that threatened to poison our classes. The interest Doctorow took in us was as a group, rather than as individuals. By the end of the semester he had not learnt our names. Not that I blame him. He had been teaching, at this point, for over thirty years. Who can say how many fresh faces he had seen appear brightly above the desks in that time, only to vanish again some fourteen weeks later, their afterglow growing dimmer with the coming months and years? How many ghosts of other students sat superimposed in the room with us while we listened to that thin voice, and scribbled notes on scraps of paper, and looked up at that easy smile, breaking at the bottom of his aged face?

And yet, despite the moat-like distance he maintained between us and him, it was possible to glimpse the man he was through the fiction he taught. The list of books he chose, more so than any other syllabus I encountered, was highly personal. The course began with Poe, the “genius hack” after whom our teacher was given the name Edgar, a trivial fact maybe, but one that seems to have haunted Doctorow. (He often brought up his infelicitous connection with America’s “greatest bad writer” in interviews.) The following week we read Heinrich von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”, the novella that provided the template for Ragtime, our teacher’s best known work. It was met by muted enthusiasm from the class. “When I first read Kleist, I was blown away,” Doctorow said, sadly. “You don’t look to me as though you’ve been blown away.” This was not the only time he was disappointed with us. But his disappointment was less that of the scolding high-school teacher, and more that of the friend who plays you his favourite song, and then blushes when you tell him it’s not your thing.

The final book we read was W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants. Doctorow concluded the class with an anecdote. “Sebald was due to come to New York, you know, and myself and a few other writers made plans to receive him. Then we heard that he had died in a car crash. There was some speculation that he had committed suicide, but then, no one kills himself with someone in the passenger seat.” How terribly sad this recounting was in our teacher’s solemn voice, so full of pathos and understanding. Sebald, the most contemporary writer on the syllabus, was the only one Doctorow stood a chance of meeting. (Except Faulkner, to whom Doctorow once spoke unwittingly on the phone while working as a receptionist. “Excuse me,” the aspiring novelist said to the Nobel Laureate, “but you have the same name as…”) And yet in a sense, all of these books were written by authors with whom Doctorow had experienced a missed encounter—never coming face to face with any of them, he met through their books.

And that, ultimately, was what Doctorow had to offer us. In the face of all the men on the make out there, all the young careerists with gold studs in their ears, exchanging insults and jockeying for position, Doctorow taught a course that was less about how to get your name into print than it was about how to commune with the dead. There is an idea that as long as writers are still being read they are, in some sense, still alive. When the news broke that my old professor had died, I revisited his last novel, Andrew’s Brain, which was published shortly before I met him. There is a passage, quite early on, in which the eponymous hero is writing a journal at the suggestion of his therapist. Doctorow, as Andrew, writes: “And now, later, the wind has come up and blows snow against my window and I must turn on the light. I have nothing to read here but the cabin owner’s complete works of Mark Twain, MT embossed on the cracked binding. How MT dealt with his life was to make a point of explaining children to adults, and adults to children. Isn’t that so?” And there he was again, looming over my shoulder, speaking right into my ear.

~

Toby Lloyd is a freelance writer who studied English at the University of Oxford. He lives and works in London.

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