[Perspective] | On Charles Newman’s Peripatetic Life, by Joshua Cohen | Harper's Magazine
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From the introduction to Newman’s magnum opus, In Partial Disgrace

In Partial Disgrace, by Charles NewmanFrom the introduction to In Partial Disgrace, a posthumous novel by Charles Newman, out from Dalkey Archive Press on March 5.  

Charles Hamilton Newman — among the best, and best-neglected, of American authors — had intended to write a cycle of three volumes, each volume containing three books, for a total of nine. But when he died, in 2006 at the age of sixty-eight, all that had been completed was an overture — or just the blueprints for a theater, the scaffold for a proscenium.


Charles Newman was born in 1938 in St. Louis, Missouri, city of the Mississippi, of Harold Brodkey, William S. Burroughs, T. S. Eliot — three eminences who’d left. Newman never had that privilege. His father made the decision for him, moving the family — which stretched back two centuries in St. Louis, to when the town was just “a little village of French and Spanish inhabitants” — to a suburban housing tract north of Chicago, adjacent to a horseradish bottling plant. The prairie, the imagination, lay just beyond. A talented athlete, Newman led North Shore Country Day School to championships in football, basketball, baseball. Yale followed, where he won a prize for the most outstanding senior thesis in American history. He befriended Leslie Epstein, novelist, and Porter Goss, future director of the CIA under Bush II (more on “intelligence” later). Study at Balliol College, Oxford, led to a stint as assistant to Congressman Sidney R. Yates (D., Ninth District, Chicago), which lasted until Newman was drafted into the Air Force Reserve, which he served as paramedic. Korea was avoided.

In 1964, Newman returned to Chicago: “I have been forced by pecuniary circumstances to deal with other men’s errors and nature’s abortions, to become . . . an educationist!” He became a professor in the English department at Northwestern, where he turned the campus rag, TriQuarterly, into the foremost lit journal of the second half of the century — weighty words for weighty writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Czes?aw Mi?osz, E. M. Cioran, Frederic Jameson, Susan Sontag, Robert Coover, John Barth. TriQuarterly was the journal that notified the city — New York, publishing’s capital — of the progress in the provinces. Academia would resurrect American letters, at least relicate in library stacks amid the slaughterhouses, the grain and missile silos. The counterculture usurping the culture, standards in decline, artistic degradation — the complaints of Newman’s seminal essays, A Child’s History of America (1973), and The Postmodern Aura (1985), could also be used to rationalize his behavior: the dalliances with coeds, the boozing, the pills. With his job in jeopardy, his journal too, in 1975 Newman moved to Baltimore, where he directed the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

This is where the account, or just Newman, gets hazy. He quit Hopkins, or was fired again, or quit before he’d be fired, or was fired before he could quit, went off to raise hunting dogs in the Shenandoah Valley (more on the dogs too, in a bit). The failure of that venture, or a feud with a neighbor that left him arrested, or wounded in a shovel attack, or both — either that or a brief bout of sobriety, or its attendant hypochondria that required better health insurance — led him back, by a commodius rictus of recirculation, to St. Louis, city of Brodkey (a stylistic peer), Burroughs (with whom he shared a tolerance for self-abuse), Eliot (whose adoption of a foreign identity prefigured Newman’s own interest in Hungary — about which, again, stay tuned). After Chicago this was his second homecoming, third chance. Fortune smiled gaptoothed. Newman was already the author of New Axis (1966, a novel following three generations of a Midwestern family from Depression striving, through middle-class success, to a striven-for, successful-because-failed, Aquarian rebellion), The Promisekeeper: A Tephramancy (1971, a novel that risks, as its subtitle suggests, a divination of the ashes of the American Dream, forecasting a country unable to communicate except in reference, satire, parody), and There Must Be More to Love Than Death (1976, a collection of three texts, of a series of twelve that would remain unfinished, each in a different vein: a junkie veteran suffers naturalism, an operatic baritone frets over farce, a photographic memory prodigy is worried by the very concept of nonfiction). White Jazz — Newman’s best completed novel, about a computer programmer surfeited, even satisfied, by his function as a mere line of code in the program of this country — had just been published. The year was 1985. Reagan had just been whistled for an encore.


For Newman — the peripatetic New Man — the imagined place was always a proxy, or preparatory study, for a reimagination of the self. The move to Chicago turned his family from prosperously rooted burghers to panting arrivistes; his sojourn in Virginia turned a genuine wildman into a playacting gentleman-farmer (it was Giovanni da Verrazzano who first referred to Virginia as “Arcadia”), and it was his first trip to Hungary, in 1968, that turned an intellectual citizen of an unintellectual republic into an adventurer, or apprentice dissident — a champion of everyone’s free speech because a champion of his own.

Hungary, the Midwest of the Continent: The Magyar state, Pannonia to Antiquity and Cannonia  to Newman, is located at the very middle of Mitteleuropa, a crossroads, an east/west divan, immemorially margined — made marginal — by Teutons and Slavs. The second crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was carved into thirds and landlocked — losing its only port, called Fiume by the Hungarians, Rijeka by Yugoslavia — after World War I. The brief communist coup of 1919 gave way, in 1920, to a parliamentary government subservient to a sham regent whose most notable previous credential was his inept admiralty in Austro-Hungary’s sinking joke of a navy. Miklós Horthy allied his nation with Hitler, who returned the compliment by invading in 1944. Nearly half a million Hungarians perished in World War II — nearly a million if Jews can be counted, or counted themselves, Hungarian. Soviet occupation, backing the puppet regime of Mátyás Rákosi, was challenged in 1956 by the election of Imre Nagy — a marionette who snipped his own strings. A multiparty system was, temporarily, restored; Hungary withdrew, for a breath, from the Warsaw Pact; revolution simmered in the streets. Moscow responded with tanks. 20,000 people died in the fighting. After crushing the resistance, the Kremlin installed János Kádár in a dictatorship that lasted until 1989, to the fall of the original “Wall” — not the concrete slabs of Berlin, toppled in the fall of that year, but the dismantling of the barbed-wire fence along the Hungarian/Austrian border, earlier, in spring.

The country Newman arrived in had just dragged itself out from under the treads, dusted off, and limped back to the factories. 1968 was the year of Kádár’s New Economic Mechanism, an appeasement measure introducing certain free market principles — giving nationalized businesses a modicum of control over what products they produced, in what quantities, even over what prices the products would be sold at — to an economy whose central planning was increasingly outsourced to Budapest. This was the period of “Goulash Communism;” Hungary was “the happiest barrack in the Socialist camp” (whether these descriptions originated in Hungary or Moscow, or even in the West, and whether they were intended seriously or in jest, are still matters of musty debate). Hungarians could choose to buy either domestic crap, or foreign pap, in a selection unprecedented since the Kaisers; they could even travel widely — from Moscow to Yalta, Kamchatka to Havana. The Hungarian press was less strict than that of any other Soviet satellite. All of which would account for how Newman got into the country. None of which would account for what he was doing there.

If visiting communist Hungary was already crazy, editing a journal out of Budapest might’ve been — sane. Newman’s New Hungarian Quarterly published samizdat literature but not in samizdat — in public. It disseminated stories, poems, and essays that anyplace else, anytime else, would’ve been banned. Though Newman never became fluent in Hungarian, he did become expert at editing, for free, translations, also offered for free, more accurate and artistic than anything being produced at the time by the Western capitalist publishers and the university faculties that slaved for them — institutions that though they lacked contacts with their Hungarian counterparts, anyway followed the example of their Hungarian counterparts and chose the works they rendered based as much on politics as on aesthetics (not to mention the criteria of “marketability” — an American term translating to “censorship”). How Newman got away with it all, I don’t know. Neither do I know how he managed to make repeated trips to Hungary throughout the 1970s and ’80s, nor how he managed to smuggle into the States, though on separate occasions, a brace of the dogs he’d breed — Uplanders, also called Wirecoat Vizslas — and two of his three Hungarian wives (Newman met his third Hungarian wife in the States; another wife was Jewish; yet another longtime companion, Greek).

I can only wink, drop the name “Porter Goss,” and refer to a scrap of paper stuck in a crack of Newman’s Nachlass: “An intelligence officer’s most obsessive thought, and I ought to know, is whether his time behind the lines, in deep cover, is going to be counted toward his annuity” (italics mine). If Newman wasn’t in the CIA, he was certainly interrogated by it. If Newman wasn’t an agent, or even an agent-manqué, he would certainly have enjoyed pretending to be one, or the other, or both — shadowing in and out of character for his Hungarian hosts, and for the KGB stooges who tailed them (after 1956, Hungary was the only communist country not to have its own secret police).

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether Newman’s fascination with Hungary originated on-assignment, or merely as an inexplicable esprit de parti. The truth is that Newman always pursued estrangements and alienations, not just as opportunities to reinvent, but also as psychological defenses — as refuges, as amnesties.

In the Eastern Bloc, literature could define one’s life, civically. A Hungarian’s criticism of the regime could be a one-way ticket if not to gulag anymore, then at least to penury and oblivion, whereas a famous, and famously self-aware, American abroad had to be on guard against incarceration as much as against romance, the tendency of even petty bribery to become just another thrill. Newman was almost cripplingly sensitive to the perverse honesties, or ethics, of the East, where the bestseller lists were openly rigged, and the large advances of Manhattan were not convertible to moral currency.

It makes sense, then, that when Newman decided to fictionalize Hungary, the present was exchanged for the past. It wasn’t just the Danube that had burst its banks, it was history too — a history that culminated both in the tortured tergiversations of György Lukács and the author’s own touristy traumas. Newman’s passport redeemed him, even while it mortified. He didn’t like his face or name, except when they were praised, and he didn’t like his nationality, except when it could be condemned in prose (that was praised). Whenever he lost faith in the struggle to keep life and literature separate — much as Buda and Pest are separated by Danube — he clung to the belief that life was literature, in the same way that Budapest is built atop the rubble of Aquincum, and Magyar identity merely the false construct of a racial purity atop the tribal burial mounds of Celts, Mongols, Turks.

It followed that Hungarian literature wasn’t just the literature Newman helped to translate from the Hungarian; it was also all literature, in every language — about Austro-Hungary, Ottoman Hungary, Antiquity’s Hungary, caravanseraing chronologically back to the clunky coining of the Hunnic runes. Newman’s tradition would provide sanctuary for the liturgies of seceded churches, the decrees of rival courts, as much as for the slick escapism of interwar pulp fiction — written in a fantastic dialect called Ruritanian: the world’s only vernacular intended more for the page than for the tongue, the jargon preferred by creaky Empires for diplomatic correspondence with breakaway Nation States, and the unofficial code of international dreamers.

Ruritania is a fictional kingdom eternally located at the infinite center — not necessarily of geographic Europe, but of European psychogeography — though British author Anthony Hope (a pseudonym of Sir Anthony Hope Hawkins, 1863–1933), initially founded it somewhere, or nowhere, between Saxony and Bohemia, in his trilogy of novels — The Prisoner of Zenda, The Heart of Princess Osra, and Rupert of Hentzau — characterizing it as a German-speaking, Roman Catholic absolute monarchy. Despite it being perpetually in the midst of dissolution, that dissolution would mean only, paradoxically, more ground. Even as class, ethnic, and religious tensions threatened conflict, territory was taken at every compass point. War could not destroy it, peace could not bore it — every dark passage, be it to throne room or dungeon, met intrigue along the way. Ruritania’s annexations only acquired for it more names, as if noble honorifics: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire expanded it northeast toward Russia and called it Zembla; George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark hexalogy expanded it southeast to the Carpathians; in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Mad King, it’s located east toward the Baltics, as Lutha; in John Buchan’s The House of the Four Winds, it’s a Scandinavian/Italian/Balkan mélange called Evallonia; Dashiell Hammett, in one of only two stories he ever set outside the States, had his nameless detective, the Continental Op, meddle in the royal succession of Muravia; Frances Hodgson Burnett further clarified the cardinalities by positioning her Samavia “north of Beltrazo and east of Jiardasia,” names that should be familiar to every good mercenary as demarcating the borders of “Carnolitz.” Newman called his Ruritania “Cannonia” — a toponym echoing the martial ring of “cannon,” with the authority of “canon.”

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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