THE COMPLETE WORKS OF NATHANAEL WEST (421pp.)Farrar, Straus & Cudahy ($5).
"After such knowledge, what forgiveness?'' asked T. S. Eliot as he entered the dry season of 1920. At about the same time, another American writer who devoted his life to illuminating this bleakly ruthless question was growing up. Manhattan-born Nathan Weinstein. who later went by the name of Nathanael West, was a knowledgeable man, and nothing he knew induced him to forgive anything. In his brief life (he died* in 1940, aged 37), West wrote only four brief novels, but they were a full life's work. He wrote during that great interlude of negation, the Depression, when the "System" seemed to be breaking down but among the whimpers of the jilted bachelors of arts of that drab time, West raised a man's voice in savage rage against the general condition of man.
As their titles suggest, the novels are a queer quartet: The Dream Life of Balso Snell (1931), Miss Lonelyhearts (1933), A Cool Million (1934), and The Day of the Locust (1939). During his lifetime,
West's books were virtually ignored, but for some readers they have long been collector's items. In the bland climate of U.S. letters, true satire rarely flourishes, but the chilling ferocity of West's satirical attack would be rare anywhere. It involves not only a total rejection of common American ideals, but a Swiftian loathing for the texture of life itself. In his earliest work West recognized this of himself, in the character of a Cultured Fiend who says: "I was completely the mad poet. I was one of those 'great despisers' whom Nietzsche loved because 'they are the great adorers; they are arrows of longing for the other shore.' "
Laugh at the Laugh. When West first started to bat about with his phosgene-filled clown's bladder, he was an expatriate boulevardier in Paris, sporting umbrella and plaid overcoat among the beards and corduroy of the lost generation. The Dream Life of Balso Snell seems on the surface like one of those near-sophomoric, painfully private japes played for the semiprivate public of a little magazine. It concerns the dream adventures of Balso Snell, a poet, who enters a Trojan Horse from the rear end ("Anus Mirabilis!"), and encounters a number of symbolic characters in the murky interior scenery.
Art religion, and hope itself are derided in the mad figures inhabiting the horse. One is a naked but derby-hatted fellow named Maloney the Areopagite, who is writing the life of Saint Puce, a flea that was born in Christ's armpit. Another is John Raskolnikov Gilson, an eighth-grade schoolboy who wants to sleep with Miss McGeeney, his English teacher. In order to make his views known ("How sick I am of literary bitches. But they're the only kind that'll have me"), the boy has written a pamphlet that sounds very like West's own credo: "I always find it necessary to burlesque the mystery of feeling at its source; I must laugh at myself, and if the laugh is 'bitter,' I must laugh at the laugh. The ritual of feeling demands burlesque . . ."