I now address the subject of Frank Conroy - best friend since our first day as freshmen at Haverford until he split New York after early success went to his head and the breakup of his first marriage in the early 70s, and he moved to Nantucket - but confine myself to literary preference and his ability as a teacher in as much as I experienced it while we knew each other. The author of this piece writes:
“Frank Conroy (director, 1987-2005) had this style down cold—and it is cold. Conroy must have sought it in applications, longing with some kind of spiritual masochism to shiver again and again at the iciness of early Joyce.”
Joyce used the metaphor of the Rembrandt painting with an old woman paring her fingernails for DISPASSION. Dispassion and coldness are very different matters. Neither the talented musician Joyce nor Frank Conroy were cold, although both taught themselves to regard dispassionately – what the audience brings to a dispassionate representation is not their concern: in that sense they create projection screens, where the the author of this piece seems to find a lot of pearly grey! It is the mode of the scientific age and there are far colder ways of proceeding, Alan Robbe-Grillet’s engineering , Robert Musil when in the mode of the modern physicists,
The first important thing to know about Conroy as a writer is that he was nearly as good as jazz pianist, thus the musicality informing his work, also his sense of form (say in the longer stories in MID-AIR), will not come as a surprise. The last 50 pages or so of BODY & SOUL boogie as few if any other American books do – of what otherwise is a true dog of a book which abandons everything he knows about writing to mainly write in dialogue As compared to enraged, say like SOUL ON ICE. Here is a link to the Haverford College Alumni Magazine Obit, my own ten page letter in response seems to be no longer on line but I will post the unedited one at my art critic blog,
And a link to a long piece of mine on Elaine’s that makes mention of a less illustrious period in Frank’s life.
The other important thing to know about Frank is that he had autistic hyper-sensitivities, that is that as with Handke nausea came easily, e.g. he could not abide Ms. Nugent’s food – I only could because I have enough Prussian in me.
hen I was at Iowa, Frank Conroy, Engle’s longest-running successor, did not name the acceptable categories. Instead, he shot down projects by shooting down their influences. He loathed Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis, Barthelme. He had a thing against J.D. Salinger that was hard to explain. To go anywhere near Melville or Nabokov was to ingest the fatal microbes of the obnoxious. Of David Foster Wallace he growled, with a wave of his hand, "He has his thing that he does."
Conroy hated what he called "cute stuff," unless it worked, but it tended never to work. Trying to get cute stuff to work before a sneering audience is like trying to get an erection to work before a sneering audience. Conroy’s arsenal of pejoratives was his one indulgence in lavish style. "Cockamamie," he’d snarl. "Poppycock." Or "bunk," "bunkum," "balderdash." He could deliver these quaint execrations in tones that made H.L. Mencken sound like Regis Philbin.
Conroy would launch his arsenal from his seat at the head of the table. His eyebrows were hedges out from which his eyes glowered like a badger’s. He would have hated that metaphor. His eyelashes remained handsomely dark in contrast to his white hair and sallow complexion. He loved one particular metaphor that likened the crying of a baby to the squeaking of a rusty hinge.
His force of personality exceeded his sweep of talent—and not because he wasn’t talented. By the time I met him, he had entered the King Lear stage of his career. He was swatting at realities and phantoms in a medley of awesome magnificence and embarrassing feebleness. His rage and tenderness were moving. I adored him. He was a thunderstorm on the heath of his classroom, and you stepped into his classroom to have your emotions buffeted for two hours. Nothing much was at stake, but it sure seemed like it. He was notoriously bad at remembering the names of students. If he called you by your name, it was like seeing your accomplishments praised in the newspaper. "Should we sit where we sat last week," I asked during the second week of class, "so you can remember our names?" "Sit down, Eric," he said.
What did Conroy assault us in service of? He wanted literary craft to be a pyramid. He drew a pyramid on the blackboard and divided it with horizontal lines. The long stratum at the base was grammar and syntax, which he called "Meaning, Sense, Clarity." The next layer, shorter and higher, comprised the senses that prose evoked: what you tasted, touched, heard, smelled, and saw. Then came character, then metaphor. This is from memory: I can’t remember the pyramid exactly, and maybe Conroy changed it each time. What I remember for sure is that everything above metaphor Conroy referred to as "the fancy stuff." At the top was symbolism, the fanciest of all. You worked from the broad and basic to the rarefied and abstract.
Although you could build a pyramid without an apex, it was anathema to leave an apex hovering and foundationless. I’ll switch metaphors, slightly, since Conroy did too. The last thing you wanted was a castle in the air. A castle in the air was a bad story. There was a ground, the realm of the body, and up fhttp://chronicle.com/article/How-Iowa-Flattened-Literature/144531/rom it rose the fiction that worked. Conroy presented these ideas as timeless wisdom.
His delivery was one of a kind, but his ideas were not. They were and are the prevailing wisdom. Within today’s M.F.A. culture, the worst thing an aspiring writer can do is bring to the table a certain ambitiousness of preconception. All the handbooks say so. "If your central motive as a writer is to put across ideas," the writer Steve Almond says, "write an essay." The novelist and critic Stephen Koch warns that writers should not be too intellectual. "The intellect can understand a story—but only the imagination can tell it. Always prefer the concrete to the abstract. At this stage it is better to see the story, to hear and to feel it, than to think it."
Since Conroy during the years 1954 to say 74 was one of the few truly important figures in my life – Michael Lebeck was another - I am considering placing a portrait of him in the Appendix to my SCREEN MEMORIES, a memoirish book I will complete within the next half year. But let me say that initially, on meeting in 1954, I was fortunate to have had excellent literature teachers at Oakwood School, and to be someone who when he liked a writer read everything of hers or his. E.G. I knew Anna Livia Plurabelle by heart at the end of Senior High School. Freshmen year was devoted, every course, to Faulkner. Sophomore year, Kafka. Frank continued pretty much innocent of Lit Crit – however, responded most positively to my giving him Wallace Stevens as a marriage gift + introducing him to Walter Benjamin a few years later. I don’t know what he disliked about Salinger, perhaps not so much the writers but that the Glass family was so extensive.
Michael Roloff, Seattle