WHEN, IN 1983, ROBIN LEARY ASKED WALKER PERCY, "What were perhaps your most significant transitions philosophically?" he replied, in part, "From Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky." He diplomatically added: "Though, in no case did I lose admiration for the former performance. It was a matter of further discovery." (1) The transition from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky is revealed in his first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), which, he said, was his "real Rubicon." (2)
To Percy, "Tolstoy" means, almost exclusively, War and Peace. We do not know exactly when Percy first read War and Peace. But we can infer from The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy that--despite Foote's preference for Dostoyevsky (3)--Percy thought of Tolstoy as his model when he began to write fiction. Caroline Gordon must have known of Percy's fondness for War and Peace from their meeting at Sewanee, for her December 11, 1951, critique of Percy's first novel, "The Charterhouse," uses the scene in which Prince Andrew tells his wife that he is going off to war to illustrate a point. (4)
By 1955, though, Percy must have switched allegiance to Dostoyevsky, for he wrote Foote that the artist must look "for truth within himself." Foote replied: "Look what happened to Tolstoy, another who wouldnt [sic] go there. He wound up writing fairy tales ..." (p. 104). Percy's avowal to look "for truth within himself' is manifested in "The Man on the Train," published the next year, 1956. This essay analyzes the literary presentation of alienation and the "obvious alternatives or deliverances from alienation," "rotation," and "repetition," (5) then argues that, as aesthetic categories, "rotation" and "repetition" offer no genuine salvation from alienation, which is an existential category. Percy cites an "honorable" example of rotation from War and Peace. "when Prince Andrei [Andrew] transcended everydayness and came to himself for the first time when he lay wounded on the field of Borodino" (p. 99). (6) Honorable or not, it is still a rotation, effecting no permanent relief from alienation. The only trouble is that Percy's statement is factually incorrect; the wounding to which he refers occurs at the Battle of Austerlitz, nearly seven years and over six hundred pages before Andrew's second (and fatal) wounding at the Battle of Borodino. The same confusion of battles Percy perpetrated at least five other times, in interviews from 1973 to one published the month of his death in 1990. Why did Percy unconsciously merge the two scenes? I would suggest that as time passed, Percy's memory suppressed the first scene to emphasize the second, in which Prince Andrew's wound reconciles him to his imminent death, a reconciliation that led him to experience universal love and, some critics argue, to convert to Christianity. I will have more to say about this later.
In "The Man on the Train" there is no mention of Dostoyevsky, because Percy by then regarded him as the master of the theme of the alienated person searching for God, hence not a creator of alienated fiction. Percy had read The Brothers Karamazov in high school, (7) and the way he later recalled that reading suggests that, in retrospect, he saw reading that novel as the beginning of his conversion: the edition he read was "fat as a bible, ... smelling like bread" (8)--an interesting memory, considering that Robert Belknap claims that the Bible is the central source of the novel. (9) Likening the novel to bread invokes John 6, the Bread Chapter, and the sacrament of Holy Communion that was inspired by it. Percy recalled reading Notes from Underground when he was convalescing at Trudeau Sanitarium from 1942 to 1944, (10) adding, in another place, that he had read a great deal of Dostoyevsky during those two years, (11) Again at Foote's urging, he read The Possessed in 1947 "and a great deal of the Russian novelists, for, maybe most of that year" (Corrado, p. 2). Several of Foote's letters to Percy during the Fifties suggest a continuing dialogue about Dostoyevsky's work. Even before The Moviegoer appeared in the bookstores, Percy publicly acknowledged its "antecedents": "Dostoevski, Rilke, and especially Camus." (12)
In his review of The Moviegoer, Brainard Cheney, a member of the Sewanee circle surrounding Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, founded Percy criticism by pointing out that the novel is specifically indebted to Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Camus's The Fall in its use of "a narrator-hero who reveals himself to be a villian [sic]--or, more exactly a damned man seeking salvation." (13) Unfortunately, the review then lapses into plot recapitulation, leaving Martin Luschei to develop the theme of the underground man in the first book-length study of Percy's fiction, which at the time consisted of The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman, and Love in the Ruins. Luschei frequently associates the character Binx with the character "Underground Man," and he does note that the narrator Binx, like the "Underground Man," directly addresses his audience. (14) But Luschei fails to follow the lead provided by Ralph Matlaw, whose edition of Notes from Underground he is using (p. 216n). In Matlaw's judgment Notes from Underground marks a "change in ideas and a refinement in techniques" (15) from Dostoyevsky's earlier work. Notes from Underground is "an extended monologue" but is "full of suggestions of dialogue" (pp. xvi-xvii) provided by those direct references. Pointing out that the "Notes were first announced under the title A Confession," Matlaw cites the admission of the narrator that he is writing a confession and adds, "Like all confessions, the narrator's confession postulates the existence of an auditor" (p. xvii). Surely Percy intended to pay homage to Dostoyevsky when he entitled his third novel "Confessions of a Moviegoer," a title shortened by editorial decision. (16)
Almost always the narrator of The Moviegoer, Binx Boiling, achieves an immediacy of presentation. But the Epilogue, in which Binx describes a succession of events that culminates over a year after the last event in the body of his book, destroys the facade of immediacy. Here Binx implicitly acknowledges that retrospection has enabled him to develop internal connections between the vignette-like scenes, to select only those details that contribute to the total effect, to create supporting characters necessary for the full meaning, and to cite precedent texts. In short, he acknowledges that he has written a novel, however autobiographical it may be. What he has done, then, is to write a confession of his conversion from Tolstoy's view that history is God to Dostoyevsky's view that only through God can we be saved from history.
Buried in Binx's account of the eight days leading to his thirtieth birthday is enough information for the reader to understand the existential crisis that came to a head on the eighth day. Binx thinks that his father was so overwhelmed by everydayness that he "got himself killed" (17) in the battle for Crete in 1941, when Binx was ten. Binx thinks that his mother, who soon married again and started a second family, takes refuge in everydayness. As a teenager Binx lived with his great-aunt Emily, who is a secular humanist with Stoic and High Art frosting. Binx receives a secular humanist education, which aspires to discover ever more inclusive laws until all knowledge is unified. One of the books which epitomizes "the vertical search," as Binx calls it, is War and Peace, the "novel of novels" (p. 70), which illustrates, as Tolstoy puts it at the conclusion of "Some Words about War and Peace," the "law of predetermination." (18)
By the time Binx graduated from college, as he later diagnoses himself (p. 88), he was both a scientific objectivist and a romantic, holding outlooks seemingly disparate but actually quite congruent. As an army lieutenant he wrote his aunt of his anticipation of combat in Korea: "How strange to think of going into combat! Not so much fear--since my chances are very good--as wonder, wonder that everything should be so full of expectancy, every tick of the watch, every rhododendron blossom. Tolstoy and St Exupery were right about war, etc." (p. 87). Like Prince Andrew before Austerlitz, Binx may have imagined himself as a leader in battle, for he admits that he had "dreamed of doing something great" (p. 9). And like Prince Andrew, he undergoes the ordeal of a severe wound: Prince Andrew opens his eyes to see the enormity of the sky for the first time (pp. 301, 311), while Binx opens his eyes to see a dung beetle "scratching around under the leaves" (p. 11). Prince Andrew decides that the sky symbolizes the nothingness that surrounds man; Binx decides that the dung beetle symbolizes the somethingness that man must understand, vows a search, but, having recovered, forgets about it (p. 11). Binx's reason for substituting dung beetle for sky becomes apparent later.
Upon his recovery and return to New Orleans, Binx had hiked the Appalachian Trail with two other romantics, looking for love in all the high places. When that quickly bored him, Binx rented Mrs. Schexnaydre's basement apartment in Gentilly, in effect announcing that he had become the Underground Man. Matlaw observes that Notes from Underground "may even be considered as a parody of confession" since it lacks the contrition that should precede confession (p. xvii). In his confession Binx, too, hides behind parody. Busily denying the search he would forget, he enacts three parody roles, that of model consumer of and ardent believer in the culture of scientific humanism, that of model consumer of movies and television for his imaginative life, and that of model consumer of novelty incarnate in female flesh. Sometimes, though, he does sound like the man who lives underground with Mrs. Schexnaydre, as when he admits that he kicks her dog, "old Rosebud" (p. 77), when he gets a chance and as when he sends a tape to Edward R. Murrow: "I believe in a good kick in the ass. This I believe" (p. 109).
All the while that he has been secluding himself behind his disguises, Binx has been gradually revealing his involvement with Kate, Aunt Emily's stepdaughter, who is drowning in her own kind of misery. Binx's failure in his latest rotatory seduction, that of Sharon, coincides with a crisis in Kate's life. Enter one Sam Yerger, who, Aunt Emily has hoped, would lift Kate's spirits. Yerger is a newspaperman and a novelist and a Hemingway wannabe, as William Rodney Allen points out, (19) but, of course, Hemingway was a Tolstoy wannabe. Yerger's magnum opus is a novel, The Honored and the Dishonored--a title vasty enough to suggest a Tolstoyan epic; Binx remembers that, according to the dust jacket, it deals "with the problem of evil and the essential loneliness of man" (p. 168). Apparently Yerger still has Tolstoy on the brain, for his solution to Kate's illness is to arrange for her to become a companion for a seventy-five-year-old Russian princess in New York. To Yerger, Kate is that kind of "Southerner who is so curiously like the old-style Russian gentry." Apparently he and Binx had once talked about War and Peace, for he describes his reaction as he watched Kate the night before: "She was the most fascinating woman in New Orleans and she damn well knew it" (p. 171), thus likening Kate to Prince Andrew's wife, Lise, "the most fascinating woman in Petersburg" (Tolstoy, p. 7). But then Sam turns right around: "My God, I said, there goes Natasha Rostov" (p. 171), who was to have been Prince Andrew's second wife. Binx can only blink, for Kate is nothing like Lise or any of the four personalities that Natasha successively displays. Later, Kate tells Binx that scheming Sam had proposed marriage to her (p. 192). Perhaps Sam would like to be like Anatole Kuragin, the seducer of Natasha. We last see Sam at Aunt Emily's dinner party declaiming about the threat from Russia; really, he is imagining himself at Anna Pavlovna's reception, the scene which opens War and Peace, declaiming about the threat to Russia posed by Napoleon. (20)
Stanley Edgar Hyman says that the character Sam Yerger "is preposterous from start to finish, and a mistake." (21) Perhaps there are two intertwined reasons for Yerger's existence. First, Percy wants to settle his score with Tolstoy before finishing the book. Second, Binx introduces Sam Yerger to picture the kind of man and novelist that he would have become, but for the grace of God. That Divine Action is several days off, though. First comes Binx's recital of his and Kate's Sunday-night trip to Chicago, Monday in Chicago, their trip back to New Orleans on Monday night and Tuesday, and Binx's upbraiding by his aunt on Ash Wednesday. Ironically, it is Aunt Emily who makes a "confession" (p. 222) and refers to shame (p. 223). Standing "at ease"--which in the military sense means "in a relaxed position but maintaining attention and silence"--Binx answers his aunt mostly with "Yes's," "No's," and silence. But Binx's narrative of the subsequent scene at the playground reveals his sense of utter despair, for Aunt Emily's Sartrean "look" has cast him into deep shame, the emotion that the Underground Man mentions on virtually every page of his confession. No longer able to stomach his parody roles, Binx experiences Sartrean nausea, choking out the word humans use when they feel shame or realize their inescapable entrapment, merde. Now he sees the world as "the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle" (p. 228). His first ordeal had offered him a vision, the "dung beetle," whose personal relevance he had not understood--he is the dung beetle. The second ordeal offers him the vision of Christianity's most famous convert, St. Paul: "I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung that I may win Christ" (Philippians 3:8). This time Binx suffers sufficiently to accept grace, rejecting, incidentally, the belief of Sam Yerger, his aunt, and Kate that only with the world in ruins will the survivors, if any, start over in innocence. Michael Kobre is convincing when he detects a confession in Binx's outburst. (22) Now with the "sacramental vision" that Allen Pridgen discusses so well, (23) Binx focuses his eyes not upon the aluminum sashes of the church across the street (p. 10), but upon the black man who has gone into the church. As Binx and Kate talk about the possibility of marriage, Binx observes the black man coming out of the church, wondering if a divine event has occurred.
In the Epilogue, Binx begins by tying up loose ends, just as in a proper novel. Then he says that he is not going to say anything about his search and that, since he is not going to say anything about his search, he will "make an end" (p. 237). But then he gives us the scene of himself with his brothers and sisters when he tells them that their brother Lonnie is dying. In response to their asking if Lonnie will be restored to health and wholeness on Resurrection Day, Binx affirms that he will. To which the twins, Donice and Clare, cry "Hurray!" (p. 240). Binx then changes the subject and quickly ends his narrative with a marriage scene, as in a proper novel. In 1971, apparently since no one else had picked up on his allusion, Percy revealed "a salute to Dostoevsky": "... in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha does the same thing with those kids. One of the kids says, 'Is it true we're all going to rise up on the last day and be together?' A little boy named Kolya had just died. And so Alyosha said, 'Yeah, that's true. We're really going to be there.' And the kids say, 'Hurrah for Karamazov!'" (24) This description he repeated to the French academics in 1986 (Interview MC, p. 167). Thus Percy completes his divorce from Tolstoy by shouting "Hurrah for Dostoyevsky." The only trouble is that Alyosha is talking to Kolya about Ilusha, who has died. Again, what this suggests is that Walker Percy, like the rest of us, remembered not the concrete particulars of a scene but the significance that the scene had for him. Still, for a novelist--as for the rest of us--a defective memory is a lot better than no memory at all.
(1) Robin Leary, "Surviving His Own Bad Habits: An Interview with Walker Percy," in More Conversations with Walker Percy, ed. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), p. 63.
(2) Dennis Corrado, c.o., and Fr. James Hinchey, "A Conversation with Walker Percy" pt. 1., Delta Factor, 2 (1995), 3.
(3) Jay Tolson, ed., The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (New York: Norton, 1997), pp. 29, 31, 55.
(4) Caroline Gordon, "Letter to Walker Percy, December 11, 1951," Walker Percy Papers, no. 4294, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, p. 1. A year later she was gossipy: "Sam Monk [Samuel Holt Monk] ... is the only person who ever noticed that Prince Andre's [sic] child ... stayed in the womb for thirteen months--I have always wondered whether while he was picking up that mistake he didn't miss the point of the book" (p. 2).
(5) "The Man on the Train," in The Message in the Bottle (New York: Farrar, 1975), p. 86.
(6) In his first reference to Prince Andrew's wounding, Percy does not mention the clouds that he sees, but his 1973 citation states, "Prince Andrey [Andrew] lying at the Battle of Borodino and looking at the clouds, makes a discovery; he sees the clouds for the first time in his life" (Zoltan Abadi-Nagy, "A Talk with Walker Percy," in Conversations with Walker Percy, ed. Lewis A. Lawson and Victor A. Kramer [Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985], p. 81).
(7) John Griffin Jones, "Walker Percy," in Conversations with Walker Percy, pp. 259-260.
(8) Linda Whitney Hobson, ed., Introduction, Walker Percy: A Comprehensive Descriptive Bibliography (New Orleans: Faust, 1988), p. xviii.
(9) Robert L. Belknap, The Genesis of "The Brothers Karamazov" (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1990), p. 106.
(10) Ashley Brown, "An Interview with Walker Percy," in Conversations with Walker Percy, p. 10.
(11) Walker Percy, "From Facts to Fiction," in Signposts in a Strange Land, ed. Patrick Samway (New York: Farrar, 1991), p. 188.
(12) Judith Serebnick, "First Novelists--Spring 1961," in Conversations with Walker Percy, p. 3.
(13) "To Restore a Fragmented Image," Sewanee Review, 69 (1961), 691.
(14) The Sovereign Wayfarer: Walker Percy's Diagnosis of the Malaise (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972), p 79.
(15) Ralph E. Matlaw, ed., Introduction, Notes from Underground and The Grand Inquisitor (New York: Dutton, 1960), p. x.
(16) Heather Moore, "Walker Percy's The Moviegoer: A Publishing History," Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin, 22, no. 4 (1992), 123, 132.
(17) Walker Percy, The Moviegoer (New York: Noonday, 1967), p. 25.
(18) In Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (New York: Simon, 1942), p. 1361.
(19) Walker Percy: A Southern Wayfarer (Jackson University Press of Mississippi, 1986), pp. 36-37.
(20) On September 10, 1980, Percy wrote Foote: "Frankly I never thought the opening of War and Peace worked--a monstrous bore in fact, cocktail party conversation" (Correspondence, p. 268).
(21.) Moviegoing and Other Intimacies," New Leader, 45 (April 30, 1962). 24.
(22) Walker Percy's Voices (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000), pp. 74-76.
(23) Walker Percy's Sacramental Landscapes: The Search in the Desert (Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Press, 2000).
(24) John C. Carr, "An Interview with Walker Percy," Conversations with Walker Percy, p. 66.
LEWIS A. LAWSON
University of Maryland at College Park…