Lucien Chardon in Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions
Honore de Balzac’s 1843 novel Lost Illusions is still, as far as I am concerned, the best book ever about today’s literary scene — never mind that it was about Paris in the 1820s. More important than the period details, or the fact that the technology was a bit different (no Twitter!), are the people, who don’t change. Ambition, vanity, sycophancy — there’s nothing new under the sun. Aspiring poet Lucien Chardon, like many of his modern counterparts, relies on financial support from his more practically employed loved ones back in the provinces. He taxes their finances as he tries to navigate Paris’s literary demi-monde and gets sidetracked by a scene in which it is all too easy for him to give way to his worst impulses. A must-read for any aspiring writer.
Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red & The Black
This is one of my favorite books of all time. A bright, ambitious, and handsome kid from the provinces, young Julian Sorel is mocked by his father and brothers for his bookish ways. Eventually, he is sent off to work as a tutor in a wealthy family. Stendhal’s novel chronicles Sorel’s romantic misadventures, and constant vacillations, which are fueled by his insecurity, vanity and ego. A lot of people consider him an antihero, but personally I find Sorel to be frighteningly relatable. One very small example of Stendhal’s genius: Sorel’s inner monologue, as he tries to draw up the courage to attempt his first seduction, of the virtuous Madame Renault, is priceless — and eye-opening. Once you read it, it makes sense that his pride, that is, his fear of looking foolish and unmanly, dwarfed his feelings of desire and was what actually propelled him forward. That’s probably been true for many of us at like moments, but we didn’t realize it — we believed our own PR — until Stendhal showed us otherwise.
Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s Middlemarch
When we meet Ladislaw in the early part of the book, he is going through an artistic phase, studying with a German portrait painter. He also dabbles in poetry. He’s a clever, big-hearted guy who doesn’t know how to make a place for himself in the world. It’s an uncomfortable position, feeling oneself to have potential and yet seeing no outlet or channel for it, and also feeling ignored and belittled by the wider world; as George Eliot writes, “it is a little too trying to human flesh to be conscious of expressing oneself better than others and never to have it noticed.” Eventually, Ladislaw finds direction by devoting himself to progressive politics (which probably isn’t so foreign a choice to many of today’s politically engaged, young literary men). Ladislaw is not one of Eliot’s best-drawn characters — his love for Dorothea is rendered a bit sentimentally and is one of the weaker aspects of Middlemarch — but his unfocused and yet passionate ambition, as well as his uneasy relationship with his eventual employer, the ineffectual and foolish, though not unkind, Mr. Brooke, is so brilliantly done that many a young editorial assistant will recognize in it his or her relationship with the boss man (or woman).
Orlando in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
So, Orlando is the only person on this list who is not exactly a man. Or to be more precise, who is only sometimes a man. He is also the one on the list whose life spans four centuries. But Virginia Woolf’s fabulous tale of the beautiful, age-defying, gender-shifting Orlando is also a spot-on depiction of the immortal life of the writer. Of the young Orlando’s earliest attempts, back in Elizabethan times, Woolf pokes fun at a young writer’s penchant for imitation. She writes:
He was describing, as all young poets are forever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself… After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing; green in literature is another.
As Orlando progresses, we are witness to more of the frustrations of the wealthy young gentleman who has fallen prey to the “disease” of literary ambition:
He would give every penny he has (such is the malignity of the germ) to write one little book; yet all the gold in Peru will not buy him the pleasure of a well-turned line.
When he finally meets a real poet, a man he admires, a peer of Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare, Orlando thinks he will find someone to whom he can unburden his soul. (He has much to learn about the careerism of the working writer.) Orlando naively tries to turn the dinner conversation to poetry. Here’s what happens:
At the first mention of the world, the poet’s eyes flashed fire; he dropped the fine gentleman airs he had worn; thumped his glass on the table, and launched into one of the longest, most intricate, most passionate, and bitterest stories that Orlando had ever heard, save from the lips of a jilted woman, about a play of his; another poet; another critic. Of the nature of poetry itself, Orlando only gathered that it was harder to sell than prose, and though the lines were shorter rook longer in the writing… Shakespeare, he admitted, had written some scenes that were well enough.
Amory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise
It’s hard to pick only one Fitzgerald character — so many sad young men to choose from — but Amory Blaine, the hero of Fitzgerald’s first, autobiographical novel about creative, idealistic Blaine’s time at Princeton, is as good a place as any to start. Besides, some of Fitzgerald’s best characters, who strike me as most “literary,” such as Dick Diver from Tender Is the Night, aren’t technically writers. (Diver is a psychiatrist.) I also think Fitzgerald himself is a terrific example of a sad young literary man, not just because he died young — and if not sad, at least broke (he was probably sad, too) — but also because he offers such a great, and truly admirable, example of what I’d call the literary temperament, which I think does come with certain psychological downsides for the author. In a letter to his daughter, he wrote, “I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective equality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” This gets me every time. One especially sees that objectivity, and can imagine the toll it took to achieve, in Tender Is the Night, and the way Fitzgerald shows Diver’s humiliating, if also tragic, decline.
Nathan Zuckerman in Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer
There’s so much Roth to choose from, but in The Ghost Writer, Roth so beautifully captures not only the relationship between a young writer, barely out of college (where he was a superstar), and one of his literary idols, but also the familial cost of the young writer’s ambition. When the book opens, Zuckerman is feeling alienated from his much-loved father, who disapproves of a short story that Zuckerman plans to publish. Zuckerman’s father thinks the story will embarrass their family and reflect poorly on Jews generally. Zuckerman is hurt; he also thinks his father is exaggerating the danger and missing the point (the point for Zuckerman, as for most young writers, is getting his story published, regardless of anything else). But there is so much generosity on display in the evenhanded way Roth presents Zuckerman’s father’s response — although Zuckerman is a stand-in for Roth, he grants Zuckerman’s father so much integrity and makes his plea so affecting that it’s hard not to feel for him. As such, it’s a highly effective dramatization of the age-old tension between writerly ambition and family feeling.
Charles Highway in Martin Amis’s The Rachel Papers
There’s a devastating moment in Martin Amis’ gem of a first novel when the almost-lovable, pretentious poseur of an antihero, the clever, devastatingly insecure, and constantly scheming Charles Highway is interviewing for a spot at Oxford. Highway has written a paper in his usual style — full of pompous nonsense. (He’s a 19-year-old so well-read and so concerned about seeming cool that when his girlfriend asks if he’s read Daniel Deronda, his response is “certainly not,” though of course he has read the book.) During his interview, the don tears Highway’s paper to shreds but agrees to let him into Oxford anyway, giving him some sound advice. He urges Highway to be more simple and sincere, and tells him to, “stop reading critics, and for Christ’s sake, stop reading all this structuralist stuff. Just read the poems and work out whether you like them and why.” The reader can’t help but hold out hope that this will be a turning point for the young poseur — but this is Martin Amis we’re talking about, not exactly a writer known for heartwarming transformations. He slyly drops this bomb, right near the end of the book — Charles, talking to his father, says: “I wondered whether I couldn’t go to my second-choice college. I know it’s not as good, but I didn’t much like the don who interviewed me. He’s got a lot of crappy ideas.”
Chip Lambert in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections
Who can ever forget poor Chip’s screenplay — the one with all the breasts, page after page of breasts? I also love Franzen’s description of the desperate writer’s struggle to convince himself that a bad piece of work isn’t all that bad:
For weeks now, he’d been awakening most nights before dawn, his stomach churning and his teeth clenched, and had wrestled with the nightmarish certainty that a long academic monologue on Tudor drama had no place in Act I of a commercial script. Often it took him hours — took getting out of bed, pacing around, drinking Merlot or Pinot Grigio — to regain his conviction that a theory driven monologue was not only not a mistake but the script’s most powerful selling point; and now, with a single glance at Julia, he could see that he was wrong.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we?
Sam/Mark/Keith in Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men
The three protagonists of Gessen’s book get incisively at many aspects of trying to become a writer during those formative post-college years. I think Gessen is especially good on some of the humiliations that tend to go hand in hand with such aspirations. One of my favorites is a well-observed moment with Sam, a Harvard grad who has been contracted to write the Great Zionist epic (a comically imposing task, something immediately apparent to anyone but a cocky kid just out of school). At one point, Gessen writes,
Though skilled in debate, [Sam] reserved too much respect for his antagonists’ moral fervor, for their loud-mouthed certainty. He invariably felt like a journalist, making the precise, well-mannered objections that would set his opponents off… Also, despite his numerous prep sessions with Talia, Sam was a little shaky on the facts.
Speaking only for myself, I can relate to being often more interested in how my opponent thinks and in understanding the roots of his or her passion than in arguing my own position. This is not usually very effective. And as a person who reads far more fiction than nonfiction, I can also relate to the part about being shaky on the facts. Sam Mitnick, c’est moi.