Last year, I had the great pleasure of reading two very different books by Randall Jarrell: Auden, Kipling & Co., a collection of some of his literary criticism, and The Animal Family, a children’s book. I loved both of them so intensely that I knew that if Jarrell were still alive, I’d probably be following him around the country in one o’ they Ford vans, waiting for the next drop of wisdom to fall. Fortunately for both of us, that’s not going to happen. But I did put on my Christmas list, double-underlined, “Anything by Randall Jarrell,” and my husband, who knows ragged desperation when he sees it, gave me Jarrell’s only novel, Pictures From an Institution.
The novel is an academic satire (already winning points with me — it’s a genre I love) at the fictional Benton College, a women’s college much like Sarah Lawrence, where Jarrell spent a year teaching. The unnamed narrator follows Gertrude Morgan, a novelist who has come to teach writing for a semester, and her interactions with the established faculty at Benton: the President, Dwight Robbins; the music professor, Gottfried Rosenbaum; the science professor and his wife; the art faculty. Gertrude herself, a sharp and wicked personality to whom all interaction is merely fodder for her next novel, cuts a swath through the well-meaning, earnest, complacent life at Benton.
This book is sharply witty. Jarrell’s style is self-effacingly, almost apologetically funny. I sat and read it and nearly wept with laughter.
About Flo Whittaker:
After a few minutes with Gertrude you wanted to be good all day every day; after you had been with Flo you didn’t know what to do — honesty and sincerity began to seem to you a dreadful thing, and you even said to yourself, like a Greek philosopher having a nervous breakdown: “Is it right to be good?”
About the curriculum at Benton:
They had heard intelligent people say, as intelligent people say with monotonous regularity, that one gets more out of one’s reading and conversation than one gets from college itself. Benton decided, with naked logic: Why not let that reading and conversation be college, and let students do the ordinary classwork on the outside? –if they felt they needed to; for some of it might profitably be disregarded, all that part that is, in President Robbins’ phrase, boring. So the students’ conversation and reading and “extra-curricular cultural activities” and decisions about Life were made, as much as possible, the curriculum through which the teachers of Benton shepherded the students of Benton, biting at their heels and putting attractive haystacks before their even more attractive noses: they called this “allowing the student to use his own individual initiative.” There was more individual initiative of this kind at Benton than there was in Calvin’s Geneva.
About the faculty at Benton:
Most of the people at Benton would have swallowed a porcupine, if you had dyed its quills and called it Modern Art: they longed for men to be discovered on the moon, so that they could show that they weren’t prejudiced towards moon men; and they were so liberal and selfless, politically, that — but what words of men, or tongue of man or angel, can I find adequate to this great theme?
But the novel isn’t just one joke after another. I read several blurbs for this book that suggested a kinship with Dorothy Parker’s barbs, and I simply disagree. Jarrell is tender with his characters, loving their foibles even as he unerringly points them out. There is melancholy here, not just vice. Gertrude points up the failings of her colleagues in the context of the narrator’s observations of her own, grosser failings — a lovely mise-en-abyme — but in the end, Gertrude, the proudest and most razor-sharp character of them all, is also the one who changes the most, and for the best. I read online that most people think Gertrude is modeled after Mary McCarthy, who was at Sarah Lawrence for a semester at the same time Jarrell was. The two were close friends, and I see this as a loving portrait, poking fun and revealing greatness at the same time.
There isn’t a whole lot in the way of plot in this novel. It really is more pictures — vignettes — from this institution than anything else. But by the end of the book, I had fallen in love all over again, with academic life, with human beings, with Jarrell. I loved this book, and it will be a frequent re-read for me.