Nicholson Baker. 2009. The Anthologist: A Novel. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Back before the Iron Curtain came down I had a friend named Yuri from Siberia, whose friends called Yuri the spy. As any good spy, he spent his day reading everything available and his nights throwing wild parties.
At one such party, a professor and Russian ex-pat marveled reading from Pravda, the official communist party newspaper: How could a country that produced such brilliant thinkers as Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud also produce such villains as Adolf Hitler and the SS?
What’s the big deal? I asked.
He explained: In a country where it is dangerous to speak the truth, everyone speaks in code so Goethe, Braham’s, and Freud translate as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Stravinsky and Hitler becomes the party leader and the SS becomes the KGB. So in Russia even the street drunk is easily an accomplished poet, while in democratic countries where people expect the truth, poets are rare and usually eccentric.
In Nicholson Baker’s novel, The Anthologist, we meet an eccentric poet named Paul Chowder. An obviously educated man, Paul is a pathetic figure. He pales before his one task in this narrative: To write an introduction to an anthology of poetry that he has assembled. His cowardice in not rising to the task provokes his girl-friend to leave him. He is too proud to teach and the college where he previously taught refuses to take him back so he is unemployed and is forced to do odd jobs to earn money to support his poetry habit. He spends most of his time contemplating poetry while sitting in a plastic white chair in the barn behind his house. If that weren’t enough, many of his favorite poets lose heart and end up committing suicide.
Let me try to unpack what is going on here in terms of genre, the task, and the context. This is a work of art, which implies your mileage may vary.
Some readers may wonder why an author would use the novel form to introduce the audience to the history and mechanics of poetry. This is a reasonable question.
The Anthologist presents itself as a cross between two interesting books: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.
The first book comes to mind because it follows the daily life of Ivan Denisovich with such detail that would not be expected. Denisovich is essentially condemned to live out his last days in a freezing death camp, like millions of others before him. He is special only in his dignified persistence in not dying. We might infer that Solzhenitsyn pictures Denisovich as the image of God. We care about Denisovich because he could be any one of us and, as God’s image bearer, his life is precious. Paul Chowder is no different, except for the observation than he is named for a favorite seafood item carried by every Boston restaurant.
The second book comes to mind because Sophie World chronicles an introduction to Philosophy, much like Paul Chowder provides a treatise on poetry. Being a novel means that the structure and history of poetry is revealed, helping to move the plot forward and to develop Chowder as a character. For most readers, this is a fresh approach to an otherwise dry topic.
The task of writing an introduction to an anthology might on the surface seem to be a rather straightforward writing task. We get a clue to the problem presented as Chowder is told that he must write forty pages. His proclivity to review in his mind the social context of many previous anthologies provides another clue. Anthologies make or break the poets included and he knows all these poets personally. He never says it directly, but his role as kingmaker clearly bothers him. Why else casually mention the vast number of poets that have committed suicide?
Paul Chowder provides a window into the despair of the postmodern era.
While Catholic art focuses on sacred events and traditions, Protestant art pictures God in everyday people and items of life. Where Catholic art features the Madonna and Child, the cross with Jesus still on it, the communion elements, and baptismal pictures, Protestant art introduced the beauty of landscapes, still life, and peasants at work that all point to God as creator. Secular art obsesses about physical things and strips away the reference to the creator. Madonna is stripped naked and stripped of her relationship to God to become mere pornography. In poetry, words no longer point beyond themselves, have meaning only relative to one another, and become hollow symbols. Despair and suicide are a natural consequence of such meaningless art.
In such a world, Paul Chowder’s task becomes a deconstructionist’s power play—the quality of poetry that points nowhere is completely in the eye of the editor: The anthologist. Chowder is like the father driving his two kids who is confronted with an accident and is given Sophie’s choice—give up one child or the other—and unable to decide he freezes. Worse, he describes his own poetry as a plum, because it does not often rhyme. So constitutionally unable to play the kingmaker, Chowder sits in his white chair in the barn and stares into space.
Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist is a fascinating book. One need not unpack the social critique to enjoy the artful descriptions. Baker was born in New York City, studied at Eastman School of Music, and received a B.A. in English from Haverford College.
Gaarder, Jostein.1996. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. Translated by Paulette Møller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. 2009. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Orig pub 1962). New York: Penguin.
 @nicholsonbaker8. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/1229/nicholson-baker
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