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A Place To Come To

A Place To Come To by Robert Penn Warren Random House; 401 pp.; $10.00.

By Julia M. Klein

TIME PAST AND TIME PRESENT: neither can impinge on the solitude of Jed Tewksbury. Jed clings to his solitude and mourns it. Other characters are constantly telling him things like, "You don't know what you are, Jed Tewksbury." Jed's response is invariably an access of self-pity or an attempt to escape, through sex or work, into the "shadowy sanctuary of timelessness." Without a sense of geographical belonging--Jed has rejected his Southern roots--he lacks the resources for self-definition, and his cry of homelessness "I had no place to go. Not in the world." becomes a metaphysical lament.

In his latest novel, Robert Penn Warren combines a Southern preoccupation with the past with a typically modern concern with selfhood and alienation. His protagonist literally revels in his aloneness, his rootlessness, his inability to love. Nor is he content with a mere demonstration of his problems; instead, he explains them to us, over and over again, in a style that mixes the lofty literary references of academic--Jed is a medievalist at the University of Chicago--with Faulknerian neologisms and strings of appositives.

All this exposition constitutes one of the novel's main failings. Dialogue and action often take a back seat to first-person narration in contemporary fiction; still, when the narrator's chief preoccupation is his own lack of selfhood, the novelist faces an imposing task. In this case, he succeeds only in order to fail. Evoking Jed's self-confessed insubstantiality by equipping him with poetic phrases and intellectual rationalizations in place of emotions, Warren purposely forfeits the possibility of making his protagonist a fully rounded, artistically engaging human being. Jed is a small triumph of characterization, but a pyrrhic one nonetheless.

That A Place to Come To works as well as it does is largely due to Warren's poetic mastery of language. While his diction is less lush than Faulkner's his syntax less consistently run-on, he possesses a marked gift for penning phrases laden with metaphorical richness. His characters struggle to evade the "doomful tangle of time" and watch music flowing over faces like "the flow of fate as it returned upon itself." In winding torrents of words, they unthread the skein of illusions cloaking their lives, acknowledging its demise in cold, sudden, one-sentence paragraphs. Tone, metaphor and meaning hook up violently, flare and subside.

THE MAGIC of Warren's language creates a web of images more vivid than the characters they describe. What one remembers from Warren's novel is first of all a series of word-pictures--of Jed's mistress tapping her sandal hypnotically in the glow of the firelight, of his wife, dying of cancer, lifting up her bony hand to him in pain and entreaty, of Jed himself holding a gun to the head of a German officer sneering "Heil Hitler!" The lingering force of these images is linked to the mode of narration; Jed tells his story--an odyssey which takes him from Dugton, Alabamaa to academic renown and personal tragedy back to Dugton again--by summoning up a series of scenes from his past. The novel, like his entire life, represents an attempt to come to terms with his roots, to discover in the sturdy consistency of his mother and the recklessness of his drunkard father a source of self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Beginning with the half-comic death of his father, in the act of urinating, and ending with his mother's death almost half a century later, Jed milks his memory for fragments of meaning. The narrative proceeds chronologically, skimming rapidly over Jed's academic career, slowing down to capture the degeneration of his love affair, and focusing finally and most persistently on his moments of existential angst. Jed's own formlessness is thrown into relief by his encounters with a cluster of well-drawn minor figures, from the cheerfully mundane Cudworths, whose very name suggests the unquestioning content of cattle, to the impeccable Mrs. Jones-Talbot, for whom the study of Dante is a ritual of appreciation for a lost Italian lover.

Warren's depictions of major characters are less exact, particularly in the case of Jed's mistress, Rose (nee Rozelle) Carrington. Rose exists only as Jed imagines her-a compound of firelight and sweating sexuality. She is a medley of images, of bare feet and huddled fur and surrender. But, like Jed, for whom she ironically represents a form of ultimate reality, she is less a character than a poetic creation--evoked, but in the end, not completely present.

Through the death of Jed's first wife, the ending of his affair and his subsequent remarriage and divorce, Warren skillfully ties his protagonist's sufferings to his pastlessness. For Jed, reality is both elusive and painful, and escape from pain involves flight into a world without time. The costs of such flight are severe, but in A Place to Come To they are too often intellectually understood rather than emotionally endured.

FOR ALL ITS WEAKNESSES, Warren's novel builds to its climax with subtle power. Having left Dugton at his mother's insistence, Jed never returns during her lifetime. Her death brings him back home again, to sleep in his old bed and listen to his stepfather's reminiscences. In a deeply moving passage, he joins his stepfather in a rite of appreciation for the woman who urged him to deny his past.

"Now we have known the last/And can appraise/Pain past," Warren writes in his poem "History." What that appraisal means for Jed is a denial of his old denials, a desire to pray and to week beside his mother's grave. And now that Jed, beside that grave, has finally found a place to come to, he discovers that he also has a place to go.

THE MAGIC of Warren's language creates a web of images more vivid than the characters they describe. What one remembers from Warren's novel is first of all a series of word-pictures--of Jed's mistress tapping her sandal hypnotically in the glow of the firelight, of his wife, dying of cancer, lifting up her bony hand to him in pain and entreaty, of Jed himself holding a gun to the head of a German officer sneering "Heil Hitler!" The lingering force of these images is linked to the mode of narration; Jed tells his story--an odyssey which takes him from Dugton, Alabamaa to academic renown and personal tragedy back to Dugton again--by summoning up a series of scenes from his past. The novel, like his entire life, represents an attempt to come to terms with his roots, to discover in the sturdy consistency of his mother and the recklessness of his drunkard father a source of self-knowledge and self-mastery.

Beginning with the half-comic death of his father, in the act of urinating, and ending with his mother's death almost half a century later, Jed milks his memory for fragments of meaning. The narrative proceeds chronologically, skimming rapidly over Jed's academic career, slowing down to capture the degeneration of his love affair, and focusing finally and most persistently on his moments of existential angst. Jed's own formlessness is thrown into relief by his encounters with a cluster of well-drawn minor figures, from the cheerfully mundane Cudworths, whose very name suggests the unquestioning content of cattle, to the impeccable Mrs. Jones-Talbot, for whom the study of Dante is a ritual of appreciation for a lost Italian lover.

Warren's depictions of major characters are less exact, particularly in the case of Jed's mistress, Rose (nee Rozelle) Carrington. Rose exists only as Jed imagines her-a compound of firelight and sweating sexuality. She is a medley of images, of bare feet and huddled fur and surrender. But, like Jed, for whom she ironically represents a form of ultimate reality, she is less a character than a poetic creation--evoked, but in the end, not completely present.

Through the death of Jed's first wife, the ending of his affair and his subsequent remarriage and divorce, Warren skillfully ties his protagonist's sufferings to his pastlessness. For Jed, reality is both elusive and painful, and escape from pain involves flight into a world without time. The costs of such flight are severe, but in A Place to Come To they are too often intellectually understood rather than emotionally endured.

FOR ALL ITS WEAKNESSES, Warren's novel builds to its climax with subtle power. Having left Dugton at his mother's insistence, Jed never returns during her lifetime. Her death brings him back home again, to sleep in his old bed and listen to his stepfather's reminiscences. In a deeply moving passage, he joins his stepfather in a rite of appreciation for the woman who urged him to deny his past.

"Now we have known the last/And can appraise/Pain past," Warren writes in his poem "History." What that appraisal means for Jed is a denial of his old denials, a desire to pray and to week beside his mother's grave. And now that Jed, beside that grave, has finally found a place to come to, he discovers that he also has a place to go.

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