The Dogs of Men and War: Charlie Newman and His Lost Novel
June 14, 2013 | by Alexander Nazaryan
It is best to dispense at once with the salacious stuff of Charlie Newman’s life: he was a drunk, a bastard, and a boor. His marriages did not last. His books did not bring fame. When not poisoning his liver or relations with both family and fellow writers, he taught college, smoked a pipe, and trained dogs.
Only the very last of these facts is relevant when reading In Partial Disgrace, a fantastically odd posthumous novel for those who like their beauty strange, their plots unruly, their ideas ambitious. It has been patched together by his nephew Ben Ryder Howe—a former editor at The Paris Review–and released this spring by Dalkey Archive Press. The book is set in a fictional European land called Cannonia, its history based on that of Hungary but its name quite clearly derived from the Latin for dog, canis. The main character, Felix Aufidius Pzalmanazar, is a dog breeder, and there are roughly 0.7 references to the canine species on each page of this gorgeous mess of a novel, which is what Pale Fire (a novel Newman adored) might have read like if given a heavy-handed edit by Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Millan.
The dogs Newman bred in real life he called the Uplander—a reference to a remote Shenandoah Valley breeding facility he ran with two partners. As the novelist Joshua Cohen notes in his introduction to the novel, this was a Hungarian breed commonly called the Wirecoat Vizsla, which “[Newman] managed to smuggle into the States” after visiting the Central European nation during the relatively gentle “Goulash communism” years of the 1980s and 90s. A brochure from Hungry Mother Kennels from 1989 called “Everything You Wanted to Know (and more) About THE UPLANDER: America’s Newest & Most Versatile Dog Breed” is plainly revealing of Newman’s canine outlook on life. To call the pamphlet rhapsodic is an understatement. According to Newman, the Uplander is in possession of a “fine temperament,” which “can be defined as full enthusiasm without nervous tension.” How’s that for hyperbole? “Their fearlessness is based on self-confidence more than aggression, just as their protective instinct seems more family oriented than territorial.” This goes on for twelve single-spaced pages—far more a love poem than a sales pitch.
Ezra Pound once wrote, in a joking little poem, that “When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs / I am compelled to conclude / That man is the superior animal.” Newman’s novel is almost a direct refutation of that point, juxtaposing the self-control and nobility of dogs with the savage venality of man, awash in the blood of rival nations and empires and lacking faith to all but the cruelest of masters. Because Howe assembled the novel from notes that Newman left behind after passing away in 2006, In Partial Disgrace does not have much narrative cohesion, its story alternating between Iulus, the son of Felix, and Rufus, a CIA operative retrospectively reflecting on Iulus’s career as a “triple agent” who passes information to the Soviets, Americans, and Cannonians alike. The central action, however, involves Felix attempting to provide the Professor with a well-trained dog. The latter, a psychologist from the land of “Therapeia,” is an obvious stand-in for Freud, whom Newman appears to have disliked nearly as much as Nabokov did (probably because both men were romantics pining for a pre-modern Europe whose death Freud in effect announced).
Howe salvaged In Partial Disgrace from multiple drafts, much as Michael Pietsch recently did with David Foster Wallace’s posthumous Pale King, and there result is a sort of Boschian landscape that treats mystery as superior to cohesion. And that’s fine, because Newman was not, as far as I can tell, much of a plotter anyway—the richness of his imagination did not go to inventing narrative twists and turns. That would have been too facile, would smack too much of childish diversion. Nor can I say that his characters are memorable in the way that, say, Herzog or Mrs. Dalloway are memorable.
But I can forgive Newman his shortcomings as a novelist, and you should, too. For he had the gift of wisdom and understood, further, that the purpose of literature was to transmit this wisdom to his readers. I do not mean that he was a sage, but only that he sought insight, and then to dress that insight into the resplendent vestments of art. A star student of literature at Yale who later edited the TriQuarterly Review, Newman could write with the grace of Nabokov while wielding what Hemingway called the writer’s most indispensable tool: a “bullshit detector.”
That insight comes from a feeling of remove. When Iulus describes his father, it is clear that Newman is talking about himself: “he was proud to take his place as a contrarian crank in a technological, profane, ego-based, and psychologically-oriented world,” later adding that “he knew we were entering the age of weakening reality.” The dogs that both men—the protagonist and his creator—trained were a sort of bulwark against this weakening.
As Howe told me, there is “remarkable consistency from book to book in Charlie’s ideas … the ideas aren’t inchoate or haphazard.” Though he published other novels, like White Jazz and There Must Be More to Love Than Death, it is 1985’s The Post-Modern Aura, a study of postmodern literature, that most intensely concentrates his worldview. If the Modernists had lamented the demise of the old order, Newman positively howled for it, lambasting the “intrinsic devaluation of all received ideas.” Little is spared in Newman’s scorched-earth campaign against an age that is “quintessentially one of instability with immobility. In cultural matters, inflation abstracts anxiety, suspends judgment, multiplies interpretation, diffuses rebellion, debases standards, dissipates energy, mutes confrontation, undermines institutions, subordinates techniques, polarizes theory, dilates style, dilutes content, hyperpluralizes the political and social order while homogenizing culture. Above all, inflation masks stasis.”
But this sort of thing is too much on its own, like coffee without sugar or milk. A critic in the Los Angeles Times admired the book’s energy while deriding its acidity, concluding that “Newman is a better novelist than he is a cultural critic.” I agree. In Partial Disgrace (is the title starting to make sense yet?) is far mellower, Newman’s ideas attenuated just enough by all the necessary allegories of fiction. Plus, while The Post-Modern Aura merely rails against man, In Partial Disgrace finds affirmation in the dog—which, when properly trained by Felix, is a creature of dignity and control, unlike its human counterparts, who are forever making war, never content to just lay out in the sun, to lap at water, to merely live. Felix’s dog-breeding is based on an unshakeable article of faith: as he tells the oft-skeptical Professor, “Ultimately, the dog believes in civility.”
But that civility does not come about on its own—neither in humans, nor dogs, nor any other species. Newman calls Felix “a strong believer in the leash.” This lament for order may remind you of Yeats’s warning that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.” More proximal and mundane is the recommendation of the Cesar Millan, the celebrity dog trainer, who advises a fixed-length leash for walking dogs, since flexi-leashes “make it harder for you to communicate with your dog and easier for her to go wherever she wants.” Once has the feeling that Cesar and Felix would have been good friends.
As for Felix and the Professor, that is another matter. As the two “practice their competing therapies upon the dog in question,” it becomes clear that Felix sees his cerebral client as removed from the elemental energies that would make one attuned to other beings, whether human or canine. Felix says of him that he is “clouded by misunderstandings of a literary nature.” His intellect is vast but ungrounded, leading to the free-form “creativity” that Newman derides in The Post-Modern Aura for bringing about the “sheer quantity and incoherence of information.”
Iulus remains a secondary character, Ishmael to his father’s Ahab. It’s worth noting, however, that his full name is Coriolan Iulus, the first of those names deriving from that of the misanthropic Greek general of whom Shakespeare says, in “Coriolanus”: “He’s a very dog to the commonalty,” suspicious of Greek democracy for the civic chaos it supposedly engenders.
All this may lead you to conclude that Newman is a conservative crank pining for some Nietzschean fever dream of a Europe rife with Wagnerian warriors. I think he is, rather, a disappointed romantic (though maybe all romantics are disappointed) who believed that his fellow man was not at his best in the twentieth century. Few but the most Panglossian optimists would argue that point. Thus both Felix and Newman turn to dogs, perfecting what they could of the world. An older Iulus recollects “father’s fine dogs, those superior animals who moved through life with aristocratic detachment and dignity, cool and not always accessible.”
As Newman put it in his dog-breeding pamphlet, “With such dogs we take their canine attributes—devotion, beauty and utility—for granted, and call [them] ‘almost human,’ by which we tend to flatter ourselves.” Such flattery was not for Newman. The humanity he saw may have been partially disgraced. The dog remained exalted.
Alexander Nazaryan is a writer living in Brooklyn.