Roger Shattuck doesn't walk--he bounds. As the spry 76-year-old scholar leads PW across an open field of melting snow to his study, a hut perched at the edge of a primeval forest in the shadow of the Green Mountains of Vermont, he barely pauses to navigate puddles. Dressed in the well-worn woolens and soft brown corduroy of a gentleman farmer, he is in his element. And once we arrive at his remote refuge, it becomes clear that woolens are as essential inside as out. Though the tiny shack is brilliant with sunlight, furnished with a small stove and crammed with age-brittle books that act as insulation against the Vermont chill, there is no electricity. No matter. Shattuck still works by kerosene and Remington. "I'm not a fast writer," he confesses.
A Proustian retreat for the eminent Proust scholar? Not quite: too cold, too bright, no bed. On and off over the last 35 years, Shattuck and his Canadian wife, Nora, have inhabited the pleasant log cabin nearby. As a college professor of French and English literature, Shattuck has also lived in Paris, Boston, Virginia, Texas, and, briefly, on a Fulbright grant, Senegal. Whatever the outpost, he continues to write his thoughtful volumes on literary and cultural topics, managing to leapfrog the academic community that has often disapproved of his old-fashioned, let's-get-back-to-the-book (as opposed to text) approach, and addressing himself to the educated general reader. In addition to Proust (on whom he has written three books, including his current title, Proust's Way: A Field Guide to Reading 'In Search of Lost Time,' he has taken on the iconoclasts of modernism (in The Banquet Years and The Innocent Eye); the wild boy of Aveyron (The Forbidden Experiment); the Marquis de Sade (Forbidden Knowledge); and the holy implementers of America's school curriculum (Candor and Perversion). Shattuck has never been published by a university press.
"I read Proust kind of late," he recalls of his persistent intellectual obsession. "He won't go away." Seated in the cozy living room of the pine log cabin that opens out onto dazzling views of the snow-capped ranges, Shattuck, with his finely sculpted face and pointed gray beard, possesses a soft-spoken, dignified manner and a goodly bit of New England reserve--one would not have suspected an obsessional will lurking here. "And every time I think it's all over," he adds, "I get called up and asked to do a lecture or something." His most recent work on the famously eccentric French author of marvelous sentences synthesizes Shattuck's two previous books (published 30 years ago) into a fresh consideration of Proust and his translators. It's an "affirmative and corrective" work, Shattuck insists, and aims to entice more readers daunted by the length of Proust's uvre to explore his flexuous prose. "You can always pick up Proust and you are enchanted again."
Shattuck's own literary odyssey began, naturally, in Paris. As a Yale student, the former New York City prep school boy interrupted his college education to serve as a combat pilot in World War II. After the war, Shattuck headed for Paris like everyone else, to be a writer. His ability to summon up a couple of lines of Auden's "Night Mail" for an interview with the pioneer documentary filmmaker John Grierson, who had made a film from Auden's p m, landed him a plum job at UNESCO handling the phones in a language he had yet to master. A letter of introduction gained him access to Alice Toklas, who was working on her cookbook. Alice needed ingredients in that hungry time (heavy cream, Dutch butter) and Shattuck volunteered his PX privileges.
"We worked out a wonderful exchange," Shattuck recounts with a wicked wryness. "In return, she asked me to many luncheons. You sat for her meals on her own embroidered upholstery of patterns made by Picasso. She introduced me to lots of people." He recalls a few offhand: Thornton Wilder, Frances Bacon, Braque, Cocteau, Fernande Olivier--Picasso's first mistress, then in her 60s. "She was quite a flirt. She wanted to give me French lessons."
Toklas also read Shattuck's first stories, as did Richard Wright. A half dozen of them were placed "in fairly good places," Shattuck acknowledges--"Workout on the River" appeared in Best American Short Stories of 1953. His first was the legendary Bernice Baumgarten of Brandt and Brandt. Meanwhile, Shattuck was translating Guillaume Apollinaire, whose work he had stumbled upon in the library as an undergrad. "James Laughlin walked into my Paris apartment one day, all six feet four of him, and said, 'I hear you're working on Apollinaire. We'd like to do him in the New Directions poetry series.'" It was the work of that poet that opened up to Shattuck the still unchartered reaches of the avant-garde.
Back in New York and married to Nora, who had danced with the Ballets Russes and Ballet de Paris, Shattuck worked as a junior editor at Harcourt Brace. But he was not able to find time to write his book. Armed with Toklas's introductions, and a kind of three-year postdoctorate fellowship from Harvard (though he had no doctorate), Shattuck took a hiatus from his publishing job and finished The Banquet Years: The Arts in France 1885-1918, published by Harcourt in 1958. Joan Daves handled the foreign rights; she remained his agent until her death in 1994. The seminal study of the work of Alfred Jarry, Henri Rousseau, Erik Satie and Apollinaire as representatives of their age made the front-page book review of the Herald Tribune--when reviews still garnered front-page stature, Shattuck notes with some satisfaction. The book also enjoyed "a phenomenal piece of luck," in that the new man at Harcourt, William Jovanovich, grudgingly agreed to produce only 3,000 copies, which disappeared immediately. "Anchor, one of the first reprint houses, picked it up," Shattuck explains, "so that the book had huge sales in paper it wouldn't have had in hardcover." The work is a classic on the subject and is often required reading in college courses.
An "exciting interlude" ensued when he headed next for the University of Texas at Austin to help create a new humanities department. Shattuck and his colleagues founded the Texas Quarterly and the National Translation Center. He also took up reading A la recherche du temps perdu in earnest, giving a paper on the novel's optical imagery, which eventually became his first study, Proust's Binoculars, published by Jason Epstein at Random House in 1963. Shattuck notes, "Two years later, Frank Kermode approached me to do a title in Viking's Modern Masters series. The second book was a commission." Marcel Proust appeared 10 years after Proust's Binoculars; Shattuck does well writing on commission. The literary biography won a National Book Award in 1975.
Abandoning the Groves of Academe
By the early '70s, however, Shattuck had grown fed up with university politics. The deconstructionists and semioticians--whom he has called strip miners and clear cutters of the literary, intellectual and moral environment--had inaugurated the Age of Appliances, applying ideology and methodology to the classics he loved to teach. Shattuck vehemently repudiated that age. In 1971 he quit his job at the University of Texas, where he had become embroiled in administrative disputes, and moved around, from Vermont to the University of Virginia to Paris. His next two books emerged partially as "a revulsion against my own field."
In Paris, his family of four children watched Truffaut's film L'Enfant sauvage, about a mute, mysterious, uncivilized boy who stepped out of the woods in France one day in 1800, and were instantly captivated. Shattuck seized on the idea of presenting the story back in this country as a way of teaching high school students. The novel-like book that resulted, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, took Shattuck more than five years to complete. It was published in 1980 by his former mentor at Harcourt, Robert Giroux, who had moved on to Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "It never, to my regret, made the slot I aimed it for," rues Shattuck, who had hoped to see it taught in schools along with Helen Keller's The Story of My Life.
He turned to modern art. In The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts, also published by FSG, Shattuck explores in a loose series of essays the state of the arts in France since 1935. He ends with two barbed polemics on criticism clearly directed at the structuralists: "How to Rescue Literature" and "The Poverty of Modernism." "After I finished The Banquet Years, I didn't think I'd write about art anymore. I'm not an art critic," says Shattuck. But with the publication of these essays, "I was kind of blackballed by literary people. I wasn't asked to conferences or lectures anymore. Visibly, palpably, there was no more interest in my writing... and this drove me to talk about painting."
For the next 11 years, during which he supported himself by teaching mainly at Boston University, Shattuck set his mind on a book project that had no encouraging prospects and no publisher. It would be a "literary study of great myths, epics and stories about the powerful motive of curiosity" and its longest chapter, denouncing what Shattuck believes is the wrongheaded and even dangerous rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade, was sure to act as a lightning rod for critics. Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, was turned down by numerous publishers; it eventually found an enthusiastic editor in Robert Weil at St. Martin's. "The word that's occasionally used is that it's too 'prescriptive,'" Shattuck says. "Here's a book that doesn't conform to conventional intellectual traditions... And no one will touch it in England." Widely reviewed, the work confirmed some critics' view of Shattuck as a conservative fuddy-duddy; other literary figures, like Nadine Gordimer and Harold Bloom, hailed him as a courageous intellectual renegade.
Weil, along with agent Jennifer Lyons, who took over Joan Daves's agency, have conspired to rejuvenate Shattuck's literary career--despite some resistance from the author. "I was thinking I had climbed the big mountain with Forbidden Knowledge," quips Shattuck, who has retired now from teaching. "But they've invented a new crime: the invasion of retirement. It's good, and I'm grateful, but they've pushed me pretty hard to do two more books." While Shattuck had hoped merely to bring his two now-out-of-print Proust titles back into print with the same press, Weil, who had moved to Norton, convinced him to come up with a whole new book. Proust was back in fashion, enjoying recent autobiographical glossings by Alain de Botton and Phyllis Rose. Shattuck dismisses these treatments as "self-indulgent." He prefers to compare reading Proust to traveling on the Texas "loop roads," which don't exactly lead us anywhere except back to the highway of our lives, "mature, changed, informed."
The conservation of the core tradition in the humanities (he dislikes the word "canon") is an issue dear to Shattuck, and in Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education and the Arts, published in 1998 by Norton, he brings together a group of unsparing critical essays about education. "Nineteen Theses on Literature"--originally addressed to Shattuck's newly formed splinter group from the Modern Language Association, the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics--seeks to answer the question of why one should study literature at all. Shattuck and his ALSC members, 2,000 strong, are crusaders bent on wresting literature from the nefarious clutches of politics (including race, class, gender, and gay and lesbian studies) and theory (methodology and abstraction).
His old-world sense of honor is outraged. "I've stuck my neck out on education matters and I think it's a proper responsibility both to follow up and do more," Shattuck says. He reveals that he has just run for election to the local school board and won. "I'm very concerned about the content of what is being taught." If he had his way, he would teach in the manner of his books: by telling stories and parables. And through the lost art of reading aloud.
He is cagey about immediate book plans--"I'm a little superstitious"--and even his editor has no idea what he'll come up with next. "I have a list of about seven book projects, of books I think ought to be written," says Shattuck. "I'm not going to be able to write them. I don't know that I'm even going to write one of them," he considers. "But I probably will."