September 20, 2017
John Gardner, Raymond CarverOn this day in 1982 the novelist and scholar John Gardner died at the age of forty-nine in a motorcycle accident. Academically, Gardner was a medievalist, as is reflected in his first popular novel, Grendel (1971), which retells the Beowulf story from the point of view of the monster. Other novels include The Sunlight Dialogues (1972), Nickel Mountain (1973), and the award-winning October Light, all set in upstate New York, where Gardner was born, or New England, where he did much of his teaching.
Among writers at least, Gardner is also much-remembered for On Moral Fiction, his denunciation of modern literature for having given up on the search for "life-giving" morality. This is a theme which the novels explore with more humor. October Light opens with the crotchety New England hero having just taken a shotgun to his television for its "hell made visible," Even the growly Grendel, a creature one part old bloodthirst and one part new doubt, can be funny. He knows there is more to life, and he spends time which is not occupied by kill-or-be-killed trying to puzzle it out. In this, he gets no help from mother, who shares his cave, smells, and is not Plato:
One thing Carver did not take away from Gardner's class is an interest in literary theory. Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City, etc.) was in turn a student of Carver's, and he tells this amusing anecdote from Carver's classroom:
Ray looked distressed. He nodded and pulled extra hard on his cigarette. ''Well, that's a good question,'' he said. After a long pause, he said, ''I guess I'd say that the point here is that we read good books and discuss them.... And then you form your own theory.'' Then he smiled.
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