Christopher Buckley on the Five Best Books About Literary Breakdowns

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Christopher Buckley about “Five Best: Literary Breakdowns”:

The Crack-Up
By F. Scott Fitzgerald (1945)

1. Looking down on the coffin of her friend Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker uttered the briefest heart-rending eulogy in recorded history: “You poor son of a bitch.” This collection of essays, letters and notes was edited by another friend, the critic Edmund Wilson. The main, though by no means sole, attraction are the three title-themed essays Fitzgerald published in Esquire in 1936, in which he looks back at a golden past while facing a bitter present and uncertain future. (Short-lived; he died, at 44, in 1940.)

His mentally ill wife, Zelda, now a patient in a sanitarium, Fitzgerald holed up in a crummy hotel in Hendersonville, N.C., determined to stay off booze while subsisting on potted meat, apples and crackers. Here, alone, he turned inward and produced his De Profundis triptych, a record of sorrows, regrets and terrors, crystallized in his lapidary trope that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Hemingway, demonstrating yet again the quality of his friendship, denounced the essays as an act of puerile exhibitionism.

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold
By Evelyn Waugh (1957)

2. Evelyn Waugh called this, his next-to-last novel, his “mad book,” based as it was on an episode in the early 1950s. In poor health and afflicted with chronic insomnia, Waugh took nightly sleeping draughts of bromide and chloral, washed down with crème de menthe. Increasingly antisocial and seeking privacy in which to write, he boarded a ship—in the novel named SS Caliban—bound for Ceylon. Waugh began to have hallucinations and hear voices of passengers plotting to kill him. He was so rattled he jumped ship in Alexandria.

Back in London and genuinely believing he was demonically possessed, Waugh asked the Rev. Phillip Caraman, a distinguished Jesuit priest, to perform an exorcism on him. Father Caraman sent him to an eminent psychiatrist, who diagnosed the problem. (See “bromide,” “chloral” and “crème de menthe,” above.) Pinfold is one of Waugh’s most intimate romans à clef, not only for the mordantly funny journey aboard the Caliban, but also for its opening section, a self-portrait of the artist in late life, featuring his arguably even more ghastly ordeal of being interviewed by the BBC.

Hamlet
By William Shakespeare (1603)

3. Dad’s ghost appears and tells you his brother poisoned him with eardrops so he could become king and marry Mom. Would you have a breakdown? Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, Shakespeare’s most famous, is an interior dialogue about whether he should kill himself. Doctoral theses have been written about the prince of Denmark’s mental condition. Why doesn’t he act? Wherefore all this “I have of late . . . lost all my mirth” moaning and groaning? Where’s the rub? “The Hamlet Syndrome,” according to an online scholarly article, is “the notion that feigned madness—whether purposeful malingering or a failed insanity defense—often signifies actual madness of a lesser sort.” Whatever.

Meanwhile, let us be grateful that Hamlet dragged his slippered feet. If he’d sprinted straight from the parapet to run Uncle Claudius through with bare bodkin, think what a wealth of gorgeously phrased navel-gazing and existential dithering would be forfeit. Salman Rushdie, challenged one bibulous night to rename Shakespeare plays using the template of Robert Ludlum novel titles, proposed for this one “The Elsinore Vacillation.” Bravo. There’s the rub.

Heart of Darkness
By Joseph Conrad (1902)

4. Joseph Conrad’s novella had its origin in an 1890 voyage he made up the Congo River as master of a steamer. It was one of his less popular works until more than two decades later when T.S. Eliot published “The Waste Land” and “The Hollow Men,” two norm-shattering poems much influenced by Conrad’s dark tale. Eliot used the deathless line “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” as the epigraph of the latter poem.

Conrad’s masterpiece likely owes much of its modern readership to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film “Apocalypse Now,” which moves the action from the Congo to Vietnam and re-imagines colonial agent Kurtz as a deranged U.S. Special Forces colonel who’s taken “going native” to a whole new level. In the film, Marlow, the narrator of “Darkness,” becomes the unenviable Capt. Willard, tasked with going upriver and eliminating Col. Kurtz “with extreme prejudice.” The horror, the horror! Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe denounced Conrad as a “bloody racist,” but this seems a rather straitened view, alongside the novella’s devastating critique of notions of racial superiority and colonial rule.

A Fan’s Notes
By Frederick Exley (1968)

5. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition of Frederick Exley’s hilarious and harrowing account of “that long malaise, my life,” the critic Jonathan Yardley writes that it may be “the confessional memoir against which all others must be measured.” Mr. Yardley so esteemed the book that he wrote a biography of Exley, a Homeric-level alcoholic who in the course of his lifelong malaise was institutionalized three times.

Masterpieces, literary and otherwise, are usually accidental—unplanned and unanticipated. “There was nothing in Fred’s family,” Mr. Yardley notes, “to suggest that this tormented, self-destructive man had it within him to write a book of such harsh honesty and brutal beauty . . . torn from the innermost core of himself with determination, persistence and courage.” Like many other literary gems, Exley’s memoir was rejected by a dozen publishers—until 1968, when Harper & Row, fearing libel actions, brought it out as a “novel.” One reviewer hailed it as “the best novel written in the English language since ‘The Great Gatsby.’ ” Some might ask: Could it be the Great American Novel?

Christopher Buckley is a novelist, essayist, humorist, critic, magazine editor and memoirist. His books have been translated into sixteen foreign languages. He worked as a merchant seaman and White House speechwriter. He has written for many newspapers and magazines and has lectured in over 70 cities around the world. He was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.

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