Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sheila Heti, _Ticknor_

THERE REALLY WAS a George Ticknor -- one of the 19th century's leading scholars of Italian literature -- and he really did write a biography of the great 19th century American historian William H. Prescott (Conquest of Mexico, among others), but Sheila Heti's Ticknor is a tight little bundle of envy, resentment, thwarted ambition, and guilt, who is trying to write a memoir of his boyfriend friend, the great historian Prescott, but is continually sidetracked into fumings over being ignored by him in favor of more accomplished men, into recollections of his fitful lust for Prescott's wife, into vacillations over whether to attend the party at the Prescotts' to which he has been invited, and into pitiless self-accusations on all the above points.

Eventually Ticknor cautiously circles around to a tale from their school days -- a food fight in the dining hall, a thrown piece of bread that injures the young Prescott's eye, leading to partial blindness and a long convalescence (during which Ticknor himself is taking the Grand Tour)...did Ticknor throw the bread? If he did...does Prescott know? What long but never-mentioned shadow has the accident cast on their relationship? What mysterious role does it play in Prescott's later fame, since it is after his convalescence that he discovers his astonishing powers as a historian and becomes one of the most admired men in his community, while Ticknor lives alone, is the author of a handful of disregarded articles, and seems to dampen conversation wherever he goes?

Heti has calibrated the novel's (novella's?) tone with great exactness. Her Ticknor sounds a bit like what Henry James's John Marcher would sound like had he been genetically modified with the literary DNA of Dostoyevsky's Underground Man and Beckett's Molloy. The closest parallel, however, may be with Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, another tale of a biographer whose admiration of his subject has gone green-with-envy around the edges, who like Ticknor intuits that biographer and subject are locked in a struggle from which only one of them will emerge alive.

"Every great man nowadays has his disciples," Wilde wrote, "and it is always Judas who writes the biography."

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