Thursday, April 16, 2015

Friday's Forgotten Book: Blix (Frank Norris)

Although it turns a little mushy at the end, this is generally such a superior example of romantic fiction as to make virtually all modern Hollywood rom-coms seem ridiculous. Norris (1870-1902) describes the growing companionship between newspaperman and would-be novelist Condy Rivers, and doctor-to-be Travis Bessemer (aka "Blix"), in turn-of the-century San Francisco. They go beyond the social conventions of their day to simply have fun together. They treat each other as equals, and the educational and professional aspirations of the young woman are accepted without fuss. You can easily tell that this novel must have felt thoroughly fresh and contemporary when it was published, and it hasn't become musty in the years that have passed since then. Frank Norris's excellent prose style makes it a pleasure to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis. The Bay Area atmosphere is delightful, and a sub-plot about finding romance in the personal ads is neatly handled, introducing members of a different socio-economic class into the story-line.

This is an autobiographical novel. Norris was the same age as Condy when he wrote about him, and was at that time involved in a romance which led to his marriage shortly after the book appeared. Blix pleased no less stringent a judge than Willa Cather, then a young reporter in Nebraska. It deserves another look by discerning readers.

Norris is, like Cather, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Zora Neale Hurston, one of those authors that I feel a particular kinship with; they are very personal favorites. Norris hooked me with McTeague, which as a young man I read at a record pace because I found it so completely absorbing. Everything I read about Norris only made me feel that much more linked to him; his early passing at 32 a real sadness to me. His relatively uncelebrated novel Vandover and the Brute, published posthumously, struck me as the equal of McTeague and a "lost" classic. (Literary historian Martin Seymour-Smith thinks it Norris's best work.)

I had been a long time getting to The Octopus, the first in Norris's uncompleted "Trilogy of the Wheat" (The Pit is the second), but when I finally read it, I immediately re-discovered what I love about him. The Octopus is written in very long chapters that seem to be designed like symphonic movements, and the first is a dilly: a sweeping dramatic panorama that introduces most of the major characters; that seems to climax in a visual panorama, seen from a hilltop, of the entire "world of the novel"; and that then double climaxes in a moment of genuine power and shock.

The protagonist of this first chapter, Presley, is a Frank Norris-like figure, a would-be poet who wishes to capture the "epic" of the American West, but, one immediately senses, hasn't the gifts to do so. Norris himself was much closer to the West's true literary champion, and he certainly sets himself Presley's exact task -- even though no one could live up to Norris's Homeric conception of what that champion would need to be. Norris is shrewd enough to realize that the very elements which get in the way of Presley's naive conception of the Western epic are actually close to the heart of the matter:

He had set himself the task of giving true, absolutely true, poetical expression to the life of the ranch, and yet, again and again, he brought up against the railroad, that stubborn iron barrier against which his romance shattered itself to froth and disintegrated, flying spume. His heart went out to the people, and his groping hand met that of a slovenly little Dutchman, whom it was impossible to consider seriously. He searched for the True Romance, and, in the end, found grain rates and unjust freight tariffs.

Norris knew that those "grain rates and unjust freight tariffs" were an element of the American True Romance of business from which the story of the West cannot be separated -- except in naive poetry. 

Norris, a writer of power, is not without his flaws by our standards, especially in his handling of racial and ethnic matters. Critic Richard Chase sees in him a "a tension between Norris the liberal humanist and Norris the protofascist, complete with a racist view of Anglo-Saxon supremacy, a myth of the Superman, and a portentous nihilism"; Kevin Starr expands on this theme in his introduction to the Penguin edition of The Octopus and notes the anti-Latino and anti-Semitic elements in the novel's characterizations. I would not exonerate Norris of these charges, since I remember being startled by the "protofascist" Nietzschean elements in his nautical potboiler Moran of the Lady Letty. Norris was a complex, self-contradictory thinker, a man of his time and at odds with it, and a novelist of quite remarkable gifts -- and I realize that in so describing him I am putting forward a formula that, tweaked by a word or two, could encapsulate almost any writer in world history that I like.

POSTSCRIPT: This is almost (but not quite) entirely gratuitous for me to remark, but Norris was also one of the most foxily handsome of all American writers. I wonder if I am reading too much into all the photographs of Norris that I have seen that he seems quite aware of his own sexual magnetism:

Martin Seymour-Smith says, I'm not sure on what authority, that Norris "had been very worried by the consequences of his (apparently ordinary) sexual excesses"; but whatever the truth of that, there is a palpable element of that sort of sexual panic in both McTeague and Vandover -- one more element in the fascination that Norris holds.


McTeague: A Story of San Francisco (Twentieth Century Classics)

Vandover and the Brute

The Octopus: A Story of California (Twentieth Century Classics)

Moran of the Lady Letty


  1. I've long been an admirer of Frank Norris - since university, at least - and as a young man spent a good amount of time and energy trying to amass a collection. No small feat in Montreal, during the days before the internet. Blix, discovered in the dark corner of a Boston bookstore, was read with great pleasure in an afternoon. It struck me then a young person's novel, which is why it's been sitting on the shelf ever since. You've convinced me to return to it. McTeague is a masterpiece, but my favourite has always been Vandover and the Brute. It's good to see that I'm not alone in my opinion. I had no idea.

    A talented writer and, yep, handsome fella. He ranks with Jack London on both counts.

  2. Thanks so much for the comment! I am a big fan of your blog. I'm always trying to expand my knowledge of Canadian literature.

  3. The only Norris I've red is OCTOPUS (high school) so this comes as a complete surprise.