Lust for Life

Paul Berman is the author of "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968." His essay is adapted from the introduction to a new edition of "Martin Eden," to be published by the Modern Library later this year.

There is a passion for reading and study that some people feel intensely and others never will: an extravagant passion that leads to sleepless nights wandering from the bookshelves to the magazine table, a passion for spreading open a book and caressing its pages, for studying its fonts and its stitched and perfect bindings. It is a passion for speech rhythms, storytelling and argument. It is a cerebral passion but not just cerebral.

The passion for reading and study tends to be wonderfully ambiguous, an escape which also manages to be a passion for self-assertion, a passion for succumbing to the personalities and arguments of masterful writers and for mastering personalities and arguments oneself.

It is a playful passion and a passion for brain-wracking labor. Sometimes the passion feeds on itself until it blossoms into very nearly a sexual passion, partly an ache and partly a thrill, something felt with the skin and the muscles as much as with the head and the heart, a desire.


The French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about this passion, which he called, slightly mischievously, “The Pleasure of the Text.” Writers, according to Barthes, are seducers prowling for lovers. Readers are innocents hoping to be seduced. Literature is flirtation.

But it takes more than a philosopher’s skill to speak passionately about a passion, and surely one of the strangest of those descriptions, one of the most disturbing, appears in Jack London’s novel “Martin Eden.”

London wrote “Martin Eden” in 1909 when he was 33. He was already universally admired for having produced “The Call of the Wild” (the greatest dog novel ever written) and his tales of the Alaskan gold rush, a hero of the typewriter who celebrated his success by voyaging at huge expense through the South Seas, all the while pounding out his daily quota of words. He wrote “A Piece of Steak” on that expedition.

But mostly he worked on “Martin Eden.” The book recounts what was, by 1909, a familiar tale: the story of a young man who clambers upward from dark anonymity into the glamorous world of literary fame, only to reel in horror at the crassness of the magazines and the book publishers and the crafty hypocrisies of the upper class.

George Gissing wrote a version of that story in “New Grub Street,” about the literary life of England in the 1880s, and likewise Balzac in “Lost Illusions,” about the literary life of France in the 1830s. (All novels about young people trying to make a career in literature are called “Lost Illusions.”) But Gissing and Balzac were insiders in the world of publishing, grizzled veterans who knew how to sprinkle a sophisticated dust over their portraits of struggling writers and sinister editors. London was an outsider’s outsider. He was a bitter young man from the California working class, self-taught, without advantages in life, a tough guy who actually did go to Alaska and hunt for gold, not that he found any.

The charm of “Martin Eden” rests in good part on London’s early experiences. There is a pathos in the opening scenes: young Martin entering the home of the wealthy Morse family, Martin all too aware of his sailor’s gait and unpressed pants and workingman’s syntax, Martin terrified by table manners, Martin panicked by the servant’s effort to bring him food, Martin sputtering with amazement, “You’ve gone to the university?” Every one of those details, in its precision, appears to have been lifted directly from memory. But London’s special inspiration in “Martin Eden” was to take those tender and accurate working-class observations and charge them with a muscular and even sexual energy, slightly addled.

Martin gazes at the Morses’ ethereal daughter, Ruth, and falls in love and gazes at a pile of books on the table, and likewise falls in love. The girl; the books. The books; the girl. Maybe the books more than the girl. And he plunges into a campaign to conquer the books and the girl, alike. This is the heart of the novel: Martin’s 19-hour days of reading and study, his pilgrimages to the Oakland Public Library, his grand assaults on mathematics (which defeats him) and philosophy (where victory is his), his effort to write his own stories and poems and essays, his submissions to the magazines, his failures, his zeal to succeed. And at nearly every station of his campaign, a peculiar cloud of oddly violent sexuality hovers overhead.

Martin and Ruth discuss Longfellow. “A wave of intense virility seemed to surge out from him and impinge upon her.” She can’t take her eyes off his neck. A “wanton thought” crosses her mind. She would like to put her hands on his neck. Her own “undreamed depravity” shocks her. London says of Martin, “The old familiar blaze of health rushed out from him and struck him like a blow.” The images are volcanic. Lava seeps upward.

But how long can a volcano go on erupting? A simple ambition keeps Martin motivated, at the start. But once his byline has begun to appear in the magazines and even on books, once he has made himself acceptable to the hoity-toities of the upper class, his disillusionment is sharp.

The cheap commercial spirit of the magazines does not escape him. The fabulous world of the educated elite begins to look tawdry. And his energy turns angry, sometimes with justice, sometimes in ways that seem a tad excessive. “You are disgusting,” he says to Judge Blount at the dinner table, though Judge Blount doesn’t seem especially disgusting. Ruth tells Martin, “You are unbearable.” He delivers gas-bag philosophical harangues, full of fury. Then his anger takes another turn, and he drops into a black depression and even delirium.

Martin’s delirium, which dominates the last portion of the book, might seem hard to explain, if you looked for its causes only in external events. But keep in mind the inner pressure that has been pushing him forward. His bitterness and exhaustion are all too real. Yet London makes us half suspect that Martin’s collapse owes as well to something else: to his amorous or sexual passions, not just to his disappointments and fatigue.

Martin’s engagement to Ruth falls apart, and he takes up with a working-class girlfriend, Lizzie, who adores him. “My God!” Lizzie sobs, “I could die for you. I could die for you”--in another of the several moments in this novel that seem to have dropped onto the page from lived experience.

But Martin cannot respond to Lizzie, just as he cannot respond to Ruth. Ideas of sexual purity, of chastity and cleanliness hold him back. Those ideas are London’s, too, and are bound to make us smile today. (“ ‘You know what marriage means.’ Ruth shuddered and clung close to her mother.”) And yet those ideas, in their Victorian prissiness, express something genuine in Martin. Filth and impurity do worry him. It is because, as he makes his way from one social class to another, he begins to feel that he has become two men: a wealthy Martin of the present, who is civilized and clean; and a proletarian Martin of the past, who is a fistfighting barbarian. Each Martin regards the other with revulsion.

This feeling--a fear of being two instead of one, a horror at his own skin--does seem to have been London’s deepest note. Every page of “The Call of the Wild” vibrates to that tone, every new adventure in the history of Buck, the friendly California half-St. Bernard, who discovers in himself the buried biological instincts of an Alaskan wolf.

Only, in “Martin Eden,” London takes that same creepy and uncomfortable two-ness and shows it to be, most of all, an ambivalence about women. The civilized Martin of the present has his eye out for a goddess, a divinity, someone to worship. But the proletarian Martin of the past has known everything but goddesses: factory girls, women of the cattle camps, cigarette-smokers and thus downward to the repellent and the disgusting, the “gin-bloated hags of the stews, and all the vast hell’s following of harpies,” “the scum and slime of the human pit.”

And the two Martins, past and present, cannot square their different attitudes. Lizzie tells him frankly, “Something’s wrong with your think-machine.” But what is Martin to do? The muscular dynamism that draws women to him is genuine, and so is his ambivalence. He sinks into delirium and even into suicide because, in his bitter exhaustion, the mixture of ambivalence and desire, dog and wolf, becomes more than he can endure.

The novel tells a story of education, and the story of education ends up being, in its peculiar way, a story of desire. It is not Barthes’ courtly French tale of flirtation and seduction. It is a story of emotional extravagances much too big and ungainly for ordinary life. The passion for reading and study, the lust to conquer books and to be conquered by them, the mania for ideas, the cerebral passion that is more than cerebral--this turns out to be, like any deeply muscular and emotional drive, fully capable of going wrong.

London tells his story a little clumsily sometimes. So what? In Martin, he created one of the great twisted heroes of American literature, an “isolato” out of Melville (who is openly saluted), brilliant, inflamed, self-destructive, manic, a hero doomed from the outset because his own passions are bigger and more complicated than any man could bear.