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The art and science of Kay Nolte Smith, Novelist

by Greg Swann





Photo by Phillip J. Smith

The things that makes us angry are with us forever. Wounds heal. Scars fade. Pain is a thing easy to grow used to, easy to forget. The joys of life persist if we treasure them. But the incidents that ignite our fury--those we keep whether we choose to or not.

Though the best part of a year has passed, I can't purge from my mind a transaction that filled me with contempt and rage, my first encounter with dogmatic Objectivists. I met precisely two of them, members of an "officially sanctioned" group of "students of Objectivism" who had traveled from Washington, D.C., to Boston to hear Leonard Peikoff's Ford Hall Forum address. Two is no sampling, of course, and I don't hold them up as examples of anything except the way ignorance can pretend to itself that it is intelligence and self-blindedness can posture as vision.

The specific catalyst of my ire may seem small enough to the reader. I was asking what books they had read, appalled at how few they were in number, and how orthodox, when the topic turned to Kay Nolte Smith. "Didn't she write The Watcher?," one asked. Yes, I replied, but that's just her first book, and her worst. Had they read the others?

Others? They had not even known that she had written other books, a total of four at that time. Elegy for a Soprano had only recently been published, with considerable fanfare in the Libertarian press, and it took me a moment to fathom how it would be possible for them to avoid knowing about it. But then, in an integration of understanding, silently raucous laughter at the ridiculous, and bitter, undying contempt, I understood everything.

They knew of only The Watcher because Kay Nolte Smith's second book, Catching Fire, addresses with refreshing candor Ayn Rand's secret affair with Nathaniel Branden. Too much candor, I saw at once, for the keepers of the flames of "reason", "objectivity", "independence", and "egoism". They did not know of Smith's good books because the people whose advice they take on books, the Objectivist official-sanctioners, cannot admit knowledge of them. Like the commissars they claim to despise, the leash-holders of Objectivism cannot evade the consequences of their premises, but it saddens as much as it infuriates to think that Ayn Rand labored so mightily to bring forth a Mouch...

Experience is both a teacher and a master. It frees us, and yet we cannot escape it. None of us who were released from bondage by Ayn Rand can ever release ourselves from her bonds. Some, like those two boobs, aren't even trying. Others are--with no chance at all of success. Kay Nolte Smith can understand all of this, yet remain undismayed. Consider:

"Stalin had been dead for six or seven years when you wrote the violin concerto. He had been exposed. He was finished."

"The things he made one feel--they never finish. To hear yourself called an enemy of the people, because of your music...to see people turn away from you on the street, in the halls of your own building.... Do you remember Stassov? Taught composition at the conservatory. A colleague, and a splendid one, I thought. He understood what I was trying to do in my music. When your father died, I thought, well, thank God, a bit of Sergei's spirit lives on in Stassov. Then comes the denunciation, and two months after that comes Stassov's article attacking me and my music as decadent, to save his own hide. Such things do not go away just because the ugly little man who made them happen falls into his grave. They become part of your dreams, and then part of your music, until one day you wake up and realize you are composing music that is proper and safe. So you grab your pen and write something that bursts out, something you know Stalin would denounce if he were still alive--that is why you write it. And then you realize, dear God, in trying to escape him, you are still thinking of him." (Country of the Heart, p. 229, all ellipses Smith's.)

Kay Nolte Smith is an Objectivist novelist. With her husband, Phillip Smith, she was a student of the Nathaniel Branden Institute in the 1960's. She wrote with feeling and insight about the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen for Ayn Rand's magazine, "The Objectivist". Later, she and her husband worked to produce an Off-Broadway version of Rand's play "Penthouse Legend", better known as "Night of January 16th". Her first novel, The Watcher, published in 1981, is a paean to everything Rand held dear in fiction, from theme to plot to characterization to style; it is a novel that could have been written by Ayn Rand--and in a sense it was.

The story of Kay Nolte Smith, the novelist, is in many ways the story of Boris Nikolayev, the speaker in the passage quoted above. It is the tale of a talented, thoughtful writer striving to release herself from the prison of Rand's aesthetic, only to find that she can never be free. This is not as much a criticism as an acknowledgement of fact: as Nikolayev fought against Stalin's omnipresent influence, so Smith fights against Rand's. And both lose, for the very reason she names, because writing that which the dictator would hate is as much a recognition of his power as writing that which he would love. One can wonder if Smith created the story of Nikolayev as a reflection of her own view of her work, but it is beyond speculation that this is the case, whether she intended it or not.

Everything Smith writes is about Objectivism. Being myself an Objectivist (the truly egoistic, non-"officially sanctioned" kind), I can only guess about how her books might play to a non-Objectivist reader. Certainly, a lot of her subtle comments about the movement would come across strictly as narrative, with no deeper meaning. And, of course, Smith clouds all of this by hiding her real points behind the Big Issues that inhabit her novels. Her books are competently written, and they work well when viewed at the surface level of plotted narratives, so one may surmise that the non-Objectivist reader, or even the inattentive Objectivist, would not be troubled by confusions arising from hidden messages.

But it is in those hidden messages that Smith does her true communication. And it is in those carefully contrived passages that she writes of, and works to free, her own true spirit. It is the art of redemption, and in her secret communiques to souls long since pushed underground--the escape to imprisonment of an egoism disastrously gone wrong--Smith writes to redeem all of Objectivism, and all of the Objectivists who still see and hear with their own eyes, ears and minds.

But before we get too gushingly engrossed in the high praise Smith has earned and deserved, there are a few matters for which she must be taken to task.

The first of these is a dreadful verbal clumsiness. Understand, Smith is not illiterate, quite the opposite. Her understanding of grammar and of the novelist's sentence are marvelously complete. Her images, while perhaps too strongly influenced by the crunchy, mechanistic (and unwitting) Socialist Realism of Rand's prose, are nevertheless consistent and well thought-out. With a certain few exceptions she doesn't belabor the obvious, nor does she stint the obscure. And yet, perhaps more as the product of inexperience than inattention, she can be enervatingly hard to read. There are sentences one must read again and again, mentally recasting them, to grasp their meaning. Consider, for example: "He put out his cigarette and with his foot pulled over the low stool with a red velvet cover" (Country of the Heart, p. 215). Did he pull the stool with "his foot" or with "a red velvet cover"? Minimally, the sentence is crying out for commas. Optimally, it ought to be trashed and replaced with two others, one of which explains why the color of the upholstery on the stool is important (which, of course, it is not). Reading Smith in full focus, which is the only right way to read her, is to endure many such semi-comprehensible constructs. This is sad, because her bad sentences too often intrude on her good plots.

Smith has a number of odd ideas about names that make her books difficult to believe. She shares Rand's affection for unusual names, but unlike Rand she rarely succeeds at coming up with names that are memorable. Add to that the frequent name changes and we have a formula for confusion.

The name changes deserve a second word; they are interesting in several ways. There is justification enough in literature for changing the names of characters within a story--one need look no further than Rand's beloved Les Miserables. But if Smith is changing names strictly for literary reasons, then she is doing it too much. If, on the other hand, she's doing it in support of the metaphor of Objectivism for which I am saying her whole work stands, then it makes some sense, if only at the surface. There are few symbols more intimately bound to identity than one's name. In literature a character's name is changed only at the extreme: danger or self-loathing. This is not the place for a discussion of the psychology of name-changing in real life. But I find it interesting that so many NBI Objectivists changed their names. And I find it indicative that Smith replicates this pattern in her fiction, notably Catching Fire, Elegy for a Soprano, and Country of the Heart.

These are quibbles, though. There is a far more serious charge we can bring against Smith: Suspicion of Demographics. Take note, for example, that in every one of Smith's five novels, the female protagonist is unmarried, between the ages of 25 and 40, and, with the exception of Jac Sanda in Catching Fire, childless. This can be viewed as a reflection of reality, especially since Smith's novels are set in and around New York, home of the "man shortage". Or it can be viewed as another metaphor of the habitual childlessness of organized Objectivism. But one cannot help but wonder... Because it happens that the real-life counterparts of Smith's heroines, unmarried females from 25 to 40, are the best buyers of mid-list hardback books.

Perhaps that speculation is idle; this one isn't. Mindspell was certainly written as a prostitution to demographics. I have no evidence for this other than the book, but the book is all the evidence I need. Though it is undeniably Smith's work, in the philosophy and in the small touches, it borrows so heavily from the Gothic Horror genre that it becomes a genre work. I can picture the editorial conference that resulted in this book: "Kay, you see, it's not up to me, it's really not. The Watcher won the Edgar award and all, but it didn't sell so well... And, well, Catching Fire is a fine novel, you'll never hear me say otherwise. But--it just didn't seem to find an audience... This is your third book we're talking about, and, well... They told me upstairs; if this one doesn't sell, I have to drop you." And what we found on the bookshelves was a strange creature, a book that titillates the known irrationalities of horror readers while sternly defending rationality. And somewhere along the line, someone tacked on that little epilogue that destroyed the entire meaning of the book, yet left the horror reader with his prized uncertainties intact. It is a work that strives masterfully yet satisfies no one; the horror reader knows he is being preached to and Smith's faithful Libertarian/Objectivist reader knows he is being cheated; neither is fooled.

But I have the gnawing suspicion that virtually everyone is fooled by Kay Nolte Smith's real act, the artistic mastery that reduces my complaints to dust. For it is a very real artistry, and it really is an act. Consider The Watcher, the only novel of Smith's "Objectivist enough" to be known to the boobs above. On the surface, it is the story of an intransigent woman who defends herself from a murder charge and rescues her man from the clutches of self-defeat. But what really happens? The first question to ask any novel is "Who is changed?" The story of a novel is: what was learned by whom, and how did it change him? Smith adopts Rand's habit and conviction that change occurs in secondary and even off-stage characters, so it is easy for her to hide genuine dramatic problems behind stirring action. The Watcher owes much more to Rand, of course. Someone mentioned to me that Martin Granger too closely parallels Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead; in fact, he comes even closer to Walter Breckenridge in Rand's play Think Twice. But what is interesting is: who was changed and why? If they had really understood it, I doubt the Objectivist official-sanctioners would have recommended The Watcher, for the question it asks is: what are the consequences of renunciation of one's life's work?, a question thrust straight at John Galt in spirit, and official Objectivism in body. The book is about people who turn their backs on their whole lives, then learn why doing so was a mistake. Is it only my ear that hears that call going out to the victims of someone who also came to resemble Walter Breckenridge, Ayn Rand?

Like Rand's, Smith's novels are openly didactic. In reading the work of either, one can never lose sight of the author's own self-consciousness, self-awareness that this is a set piece, a subvocal drama, a morality play enacted in the imagination. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this, Smith's second book, Catching Fire, is set in the theater, and the central action occurs during a performance. But, as usual with Smith, the real action is backstage. In the foreground we have strong arguments about artistic freedom, unions, organized crime and the tragedy of illiteracy. But behind all that is the actual story, a love triangle. This one almost perfectly duplicates the affair Rand had with Nathaniel Branden (as reported in The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden). The passionate artist must choose between his desire for the young intellectual activist and his feeling of duty to the old intellectual passivist. As with any triangle, the story resolves when the hypotenuse embraces one strut, leaving the other to collapse. In Catching Fire, it is the passive Maeve Jerrold who dies in a futile defense of her values, and one can read this as a defense both of Branden's competence in the realm of action and of his successful resolution of the conflict between his spirit and Rand's. In the second way, we can look at it as a metaphor for the experience of all of the Objectivists who were cast loose by the formal movement over the years, the ones who succeeded, like the fictional Erik Dante, at separating their own desires from those of Ayn Rand. And following the first line, we can see the story in an even larger context: the activist Libertarian movement versus the passivist Objectivist movement. As a novel, Catching Fire is well done, if flawed by cliches in the lesser characters. But as a novel of ideas, it is a subtle tour de force.

Despite the devotion to demographics decried above, Mindspell also contains within it a cache of subversive Objectivism. In defense of the book, it is blood-curdlingly well written, and, though it is marred by coincidences that strain terribly the fabric of credulity, it works as a novel better than any of Smith's other books. And it is possible that Smith was trying to sever completely her bond to Rand's aesthetic, to "write something that bursts out, something you know Stalin would denounce if he were still alive". The action of the novel supports this view, in a way. Though it is "about" witchcraft, genetic engineering, psychology and the paranormal, debunking, love and Kennedyesque senators with hearts of gold, the real story, the ever-present undercurrent, is about emotional repression and the renunciation of past experience. These of course are the very symptoms of the "cultish" aspect of formal Objectivism, and it is valuable to note that the heroine has renounced her own parents. Mindspell is Smith's first close approach to the family bond, and her resolution does her credit. In any literature, "mother" is a powerful symbol: it can signify birth, growth, mutually voluntary dependence, identity or the universe as a whole. For Smith, "mother" is the fountainhead of identity, and so it matters to her characters very much who their mothers are, and what they do. In Cayla Hayward's reconciliation with her forebears, her acceptance of her own past experience and the unchangeable roots of her own identity, I see a communique to all those Objectivists who denounced their parents and their antediluvian friends, yet see no way clear to restore those relationships. Standing further back, we can see this as an argument against the use of irrational demands upon others as a barrier to one's own happiness, against using an ersatz egoism as a defense from the real thing.

Elegy for a Soprano, Smith's fourth book, was published less than a year before Barbara Branden's biography of Rand, and the two can be read as complementary subtexts, each a footnote to the other. The action (of both books) concerns a tyrannical genius and her coterie of sycophants. Ostensibly a murder mystery, Elegy is actually about loyalties and the burdens of choice. Although, as with The Watcher, it bears too close a resemblance to Think Twice, the novel distinguishes itself with brilliant inventiveness and masterful writing. Particularly in the narrative set in post-war Europe Smith is at her best; this prose has the haunting beauty of the best of fables, the misty, too-real reality of a dream. The book ends ambivalently, and perhaps this is a clue. For the underlying message of Elegy for a Soprano concerns the conflict between chosen and unchosen obligations, the strain that occurs when the real intrudes upon the ideal. When Dinah Mitchell asks herself which she really ought to revere, her doughty, helpless adoptive mother, or the ego-crushing mother she adopted for herself, Smith is demanding that we ask ourselves the same question. She provides us with no sure answer, which mars the novel but makes the novel of ideas. Again we face the Objectivist habit of renouncing one's own parents, but we are expected to acknowledge the exact nature of the transaction, what was lost and what was gained from the alternative. The soprano of the title, Vardis Wolf, is clearly a symbol for Ayn Rand--despite Smith's public denials. The four main followers, who are all suspected of Wolf's murder, suggest the Blumenthal/Weidmann clique who were Rand's main acolytes; out of this group came Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, Allan Blumenthal, and Leonard Peikoff, among others. The issue of pre-existing loyalty to each other is both symbolically suggestive and marvelous as a fictional device. This novel synthesizes a number of Smith's recurring themes: renunciation of past experience, denunciation of unchosen relationships, suppression of desires and the adoption of artificial wants. All of these are characteristic of the formal Objectivist movement, and the catalyst, a mother fighting for her daughter's identity against the girl's desire to renounce it, is both moving and revealing. Though, when we leave her, Dinah Mitchell is able to decide nothing, Smith seems to be suggesting that an "egoism" that demands self-renunciation is anegoic, that there can be no substitution for self, no matter how desperately it is sought.

Smith's latest book, the recently published Country of the Heart, is another narrative about loyalty and choice. The overt action concerns a Soviet composer and his failure to defect when he had the chance. For the most part, the writing is workmanlike and uninspired, and the novel borrows heavily from the espionage genre. On the surface, it seems to be nothing more than Ludlumesque spy-porn: normal life, incredible risk, normal life. Like Smith's other books, there is a hidden subtext of Objectivism, but unlike those others, there is nothing particularly artful or surprising going on in plain sight. The novel somehow manages to suggest a culmination, and a deeper reading reinforces that view. The dramatic problem is a middle-aged woman trying to understand why her father didn't defect from the Soviet Union when she and her mother did. The mother has a very irrational view of her husband, which suggests that the story might have originated in Ayn Rand's strange relationship with her husband, Frank O'Connor. The composer, Boris Nikolayev, can see the truth, yet does not grasp for it. This suggests another reading, that he symbolizes the Objectivists who heard about but did not read, or read but did not heed, Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand. And when, in the end, the mother and daughter decide to publish Nikolayev's secret notebook after his death, I am left wondering if Smith is not writing about herself, as a sort of epitaph to her spirit and to her fiction, or perhaps to the fiction she has produced so far. The recurring element of parents and identity is here replicated nicely in a number of ways, the most effective of which is the idea of a "motherland" from which one can never truly escape. If we follow that line, we come back to the passage quoted above, which in turn leads us back to the Objectivist subtext. The resolution of the heroine's love triangle on the side of non-repression is a positive sign, one may hope. Perhaps this shaded pond, crystal blue at the surface but murky in its depths, is Smith's final declaration of independence from Rand's stifling influence on her art.

I am a student of the Objectivist novel. So far as I know, this is a category in no one's brain but mine, but it is a matter of considerable passion for me. I follow the works of a number of writers whom I know to have been influenced by Objectivism, its aesthetic, or both. To date, there are only four names worth any kind of note. F. Paul Wilson produced four Objectivist-like Science Fiction novels. They're worth reading, because they're heavy on philosophy, though they lack any sort of subtlety. Wilson has since gone on to write gripping, competently written and meaningless horror novels. J. Neil Schulmann has written two Science Fiction novels, one of which, The Rainbow Cadenza, shows a promise that leaves me ravenous for his next book. Erika Holzer has published one book so far, the espionage thriller Double Crossing. The novel is wonderfully complex and very carefully integrated according to Rand's ideas about plotcraft, but there is nothing beneath it, nothing that attacks the reader from behind. Still, and particularly for a first novel, it is a fine book, and an excellent example of the perfectly balanced plot. But neither Wilson nor Schulmann nor Holzer compare to Kay Nolte Smith in terms of artistry. Though she's had her ups and downs, and though the technical mastery her Nikolayev exalts has been a long time coming, she is the only Objectivist novelist whose work compares to Rand's in terms of aesthetic importance.

What makes Smith's works art is not what she shouts, but what she whispers. She is enervatingly expert at leading the reader away from her real message, blinding you with a public point of view that is really no more than a screen for her quietly private truth, the truth of a self that can never quite hide itself. If we can borrow an image from the drama, it is as though we are seeing the role of a matron played by a very young girl, precociously wise and knowing, yet somehow too winsome, too timorous, and much too shy. And seeing this, seeing the "actress" who hides beneath the great load of "the tyranny of genius" a very becoming question about chosen versus imposed "loyalties", the distinction of love from admiration, one cannot help but wonder: is this an accident? When Smith asks to which of her "mothers" Dinah Mitchell owes her loyalty, is she asking the same question of herself? Is the childlike innocence of her subcurrents contrived, either by design or thoughtlessness? Or is it the resumption of the real life of the seventeen or twenty year old girl who long-ago interrupted her ego to attempt to become Ayn Rand? What makes this art, what allows us to ignore its sporadic clumsiness, its uneasy, deceiving bravado, is this: in her quiet way, Smith compels us to ask her questions of ourselves, each alone in the court of self-judgment. It is the art not of Athena, nor even of Joan, but of you, the you that only you can see. Whether she seeks to or not, Kay Nolte Smith bares her true spirit, and in doing it forces us to look honestly at our own.

And for that, despite everything, only one coinage is fair compensation: Bravo!

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