An inquisitive examination of the impulse that yields literary improvisation—which is to say, literature itself.
A writer, Samuel Johnson observed, will devour a whole library in order to make a book. Certainly literary scholar and philanthropist Fertel (The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir, 2011) did just that, to judge by his 30-page bibliography, a tour de force of reading in the fields of literary theory and history befitting a George Steiner or Erich Auerbach. Fertel is not as straight to the point as those two predecessors, and his narrative sometimes wobbles on an unsteady axis built on the premise that improvisation “is the trace that is always already there, anticipating and in part belying Derrida’s profound originality.” The text is shot through with ideas Derrida-ean and Jungian, establishing that improvisation—the creative spirit that leads not just to such transgressive works of literature as Tristram Shandy, but also to the Trojan horse and similarly spectacular cons—is itself an archetype, a “kind of dark disruptive version ever in dialogue with the mainstream” and “a state of being where fundamental polarities of our being contend.” As such, improvisation is naturally a slippery thing to pin down but also easy to pin on whomever one wishes: Herman Melville is an improvisational writer as much as Jack Kerouac, and as for Shakespeare, well, he’s as versatile as Odysseus. Though the terms of argument beg for more precise definition, Fertel’s field bears plenty of fruit, particularly when he gets down to particulars, as when, fairly early in the book, he enumerates the stylistic conventions of improvisation: simplicity, free association, formlessness and the like. By that measure, Kerouac fits but formula-bound Homer doesn’t, but that’s the headache-inducing stuff that only a good analysis can cure.
A smart blend of psychology, philosophy and literary history, well-written if sometimes obscure; of broad interest to students of contemporary literary theory.