Book of a Lifetime: The Immediate Experience, by Robert Warshow

Nick Harkaway
Friday 06 June 2008 00:00

I love The Immediate Experience, a collection of writings by US critic Robert Warshow which looks at the significance of movies, comics and theatre in 1940s and 1950s America. I'm fairly sure I love it for the wrong reasons. The right ones, I suppose, would be that Warshow is fascinating and insightful, and that even where he seems to be hiding himself, or falls prey to the sins of his time, he is revealing. His discussions of films like My Son John and Arthur Miller's play The Crucible in the light of his own distrust of Communism – but equally of anti-Communism and its brutal excesses – are relevant as Parliament prepares to consider extending detention without trial for terror suspects, and as courts are asked to accept evidence obtained by torture as long as we ourselves don't do the torturing. Then there's his dissection of two iconic figures, the Gangster and the Cowboy, and what they mean to people in the US – or, at least, to men in the US – about the country and what it is to be American. The book ought to be required reading for anyone dealing with US power abroad – and perhaps inside the country too. A friend of mine returned from Afghanistan with tales of an American officer leading his patrol into the mountains wearing a Stetson and a sheriff's badge.

But I love The Immediate Experience for other things. First, I love it for not revealing the man behind the curtain. Warshow's way of looking at his subject doesn't spoil it. He doesn't turn a spotlight on the warehouse of secrets; he walks through it with a lantern, stopping to look up in awe at the shadows. When he's finished, you know more about what's in there, but you retain a sense of wonder. Here he is on the Gangster, who is "the man of the city, with the city's language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring". Second, I love it for Warshow himself; son of a Russian-American leftist businessman (who ran for Congress as a Socialist), he was a code-breaker during the war and married his university sweetheart, Edith. She was diagnosed with MS in the late 1940s or early 1950s; Warshow must have been horrified. He died in 1955, two years before she did, of heart failure. There's a beautiful, terrible fragility to them both.

Last and perhaps most important: this book is a toolkit. You can't often learn about how to do writing by reading criticism. Few critics I know of would expect anyone to come to their work looking for instruction in creative prose. This is different. Warshow's way of looking at the world is one you can follow, which will lead you to stories and realisations which are very much a part of life.

Nick Harkaway's novel 'The Gone-Away World' is published by Heinemann

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