Page 22


William Goyen form seldom used in this century the Romance. Hawthorne’s definition of that form in The House of Seven Gables is deceptively simple: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstance, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation.” Following Hawthorne, Goyen has written his long and short fiction with an ern’ phasis on the fanciful and mysterious in setting, plot, and character, and he has maintained fidelity to truths of the human heart. James Korges observed in his perceptive article on Goyen in Contemporary Novelists that the writer uses the form of the Romance and his poetic prose “to evoke deep psychic states” and that instead of emphasis on realistic details the interest is in various “states of being.” Indeed, it is these evocations of “states of being” that gives Goyen’s fiction much of its psychological power. 10 OCTOBER 29, 1982 Goyen uses a recognizable world of Trinity, Houston, New York, and New Mexico in his work, but he constantly mythologizes his settings and his characters, drawing upon Greek and Roman sources as well as Frazier’s The Golden Bough. To the mythologies from many ages and cultures, Goyen brings his own though they are private, their meanings in his fiction. Goyen’s finding of form and language and style took place before 1950, when The House of Breath was published. He received a master’s degree from Rice in 1939 and taught for a year at the University of Houston before enlisting in the Navy. During the war he served as an officer on an aircraft carrier. It was during those terrible years that he began to plan to write his first novel. His account of that period delineates his state of being at that time: “I thought I was going to die in the war. I was on a terrible ship. It was the Casablanca, the first baby flattop. There were always holes in it, and people dying and it was just the worst place for me to be. I really was desperate. I just wanted to jump off. I thought I was going to die anyway, be killed, and I wanted to die because I couldn’t endure what looked like an endless way of life with which I had nothing to do the war, the ship, and the water . . . I have been terrified of water all my life. I would have fits when I got close to it. “Suddenly it was out on a deck in the cold I saw the breath that came from me. And I thought that the simplest thing that I know is what I belong to and where I come from and I just called out to my family as I stood there that night, and it just . . . I saw this breath come from me and I thought in that breath, in that call, is their existence, is their reality . . . and I must shape that and I must write about them The House of Breath.” After the war, Goyen settled in Taos, New Mexico, where he met and became a protege of Frieda Lawrence and where he wrote a large part of his first novel. He was never a part of the band of mindless worshippers of Lawrence, but Frieda and Lawrence’s works did influence the young writer. THE HOUSE OF BREATH, a subtle, fragile novel, established Goyen as an important writer. It defies easy summary, for it is visionary and non-linear. As Robert Phillips has pointed out, “The structure of this memory-novel is a simple one: the narrator, in a moment of despair, mentally returns to the world of his childhood. He invokes all his relations and companions and even familiar elements of the natural world. Chapter One introduces the sensibility of the narrator and establishes his despair. The voice of the narrator then opens each subsequent chapter by introducing a new character or new memory. The breath of the narrator is the medium for building the entire world. . . .” The best general introduction in English to Robert Phillips’s William Goyen, published by Twayne in 1979. In the three decades since The House of Breath appeared, Goyen has written plays, published novels, short stories, poems, and non-fiction, as the list to follow shows. He has lived in London, Rome, Germany, New York, and Los Angeles. He has had considerable artistic recognition in France and Germany, but much of his later work has been ignored or misunderstood in Texas and in this country. He has presented states of being often from Jungian recesses of the mind and truths of the human heart truths not always admitted with compassion and in his later works, most notably Come, the Restorer, with high comedy. I have refrained from explicating individual works of Goyen, concentrating instead on his language, his use of the non-realistic Romance, his perceptive evocations of states of being. Readers should make their owri discoveries in the fiction of one of America’s most distinguished writers. George Hendrick is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at ChampaignUrbana.