Going West

Share this

For most of 1988 I moved about London, from house-sit to house-sit, transporting all the essentials of my life and trade in a 2CV: typewriter, reference books, minimal wardrobe. At some point during that nomadic interlude, a friend of someone I hardly knew asked me pointedly whether I had read the works of Nathanael West, hinting that if I hadn’t I ought to. Perhaps he judged West’s acerbic satire of disillusion and forlorn hope peculiarly apt to the mild chaos of my existence.

So I bought a copy of Nathanael West’s complete works and read them, straight through. (My record of response to such recommendations had not always been so pliant. A close friend whose judgement and taste I absolutely trusted once pressed on me a copy of Lolita. I kept it unopened for months, even through a stay in hospital. When, finally, I did open it, the seduction was total, intoxicating, from the first page.)

I’d heard of West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and the title of The Day of the Locust ruffled memory – perhaps of the 1974 film adaptation, directed by John Schlesinger – but that was all I knew of the writer born Nathan Weinstein, of German Lithuanian immigrants, in 1903. He studied, lackadaisically, at Brown University, Rhode Island, passed off his cousin’s coursework as his own, scraped a degree, and meantime drew bizarre cartoons and wrote weird scraps of fantastical narrative. In 1926 he changed his name to Nathanael West, claiming inspiration from the nineteenth-century American reformer Horace Greeley’s injunction to ‘Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.’

His immediate destination was eastwards, however, to Paris, cultural hotbed of post-war Europe – jazz cafés, experimental art and literature, surrealism, Dadaism. Here he wrote his first novel, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a strange, subversive, scatological confection set inside the Trojan Horse, wherein Balso Snell encounters a series of B

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

About the contributor

Graeme Fife has written plays, stories, features and talks for BBC Radio and has broadcast on the World Service. His books include Tour de France: The History, the Legend, the Riders and The Terror: The Shadow of the Guillotine, France 1792–1794, published in 2004, source of much of his favourite reading.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

reading mode