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Looking for Genet: Literary Essays and Reviews.

Alfred Chester (1928-1971) is a fine and unjustly forgotten fiction writer, but his nonfiction work - essays, reviews, letters - could be just as amusing and poignant. Chester had a reputation for being a "meshuggener" (crazy man). Certainly he was troubled and unstable, but his writing was lucid. He was aware of the unsettling effect he had on others and took it into account when describing his relations with them.

Chester thought of himself first as a novelist and short story writer, but his fiction didn't sell. On the other hand, there was a demand for his literary reviews and articles in publications such as Commentary, the New York Review of Books, and Book Week. Whether living in New York, Morocco (where his happiest days seem to have been spent), or France, Chester was frequently broke and had to accept reviewing assignments. He was a good reviewer who backed his opinions with logical arguments. He often wrote negatively about other writers but did not give them short shrift.

Among the authors he lambasts here are fairly easy targets like Salinger and Updike, but also people like Nabokov and Sarraute, whose positions in the pantheon seem assured. His review of Nabokov's Pale Fire is among the most interesting pieces in this collection. He admires the book's unique construction but thinks it fails because Nabokov simply isn't funny. "Nabokov's sense of humor is on the same level - though not with the same object - as German scatological humor: excrement is funny simply because it is excrement. To Nabokov a thing is a riot by virtue of being itself, with the sous-entendu that he hates it."

Chester was gay and didn't try to hide it. Here he reviews John Rechy's City of night which he thinks "reads like the unTrue Confessions of a Male Whore as told to Jean Genet, Djuna Barnes, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Thomas Wolfe, Fanny Hurst and Dr. Franzblau." A great admirer of Genet, he provides us with a very complex and perceptive analysis of Our Lady of the Flowers. Chester also has a very strong Jewish identity. His parents were Russian immigrants and he attended a yeshiva. He relishes Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern as only a connoisseur of middle-class American-Jewish life could.

Though he gives us reasons for saying what he does, I was kind of surprised to find that Chester took some pretty reactionary stands. In his Sarraute review he states, "for in point of fact while these writers may be Really New to the French they are not so Really New to us who have grown up on Joyce and Faulkner and Virginia Woolf and who a generation ago wished the interior monologue God-speed on its journey into retirement." He thinks Sarraute is a boring writer, I don't. Where does that leave us?

Even more than his reviews, I like Chester's essays. His previously unpublished "Letter from the Wandering Jew," the longest piece in the book, is also the most memorable. Here he recounts his history as a Jew, from his yeshiva days when he first tasted bacon, to his last months, spent in Israel. Strange that a man driven so crazy by his association with Jewish people and institutions would try to make a life there. Chester, the outsider, looking for a place to rest, to belong.
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Author:Pekar, Harvey
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:549
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