Friday, 27 November 2020

Ascent with Pan-American Accent

"Was the success of One Hundred Years of Solitude inevitable?” asks Álvaro Santana-Acuña towards the end of his remarkable anatomy. “Of course not. The shelves of national libraries have scores of literary works that are written in astounding language, narrate masterful plots, and describe unforgettable characters. And yet these works did not become classics. The question of inevitability in the success of classics is connected to the issues of contingency, causality and counterfactuals.” Well, talk about holding a mirror to reality! Fifteen years ago I would have read Ascent to Glory: how “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was written and became a global classic as a teenaged fan of Gabriel García Márquez’s legendary novel. However, while I was reading it in the early days of November 2020 I was also finishing the third draft of a four-volume biography of Tomaz de Figueiredo, a Portuguese novelist no one in Portugal reads anymore, read just barely in his lifetime, utterly unknown abroad, whose novels were out of print for almost half a century and who is generally unknown to both public and an academic world that has never claimed that he’s an important, pioneering, or simply good novelist. For me Tomaz is the greatest post-war Portuguese novelist, but this is literally just my opinion. I’ve been holding on to it since I discovered him in 2015, which was also around the time I started the biography.  

Literary biographies are usually written to explain why great authors are great, or to lambast previous epochs for not having had the sagacity to intuit the greatness of a great author. It is taken for granted that greatness is an inherent quality, present since birth. It is relatively easy to explain why a book loved on its publication has become even more beloved half a century later. But it’s sort of egocentric to presume to lecture people about the unseen greatness of a writer no one spotted before. It is superstitiously believed that quality always comes to the top; and since only “great” books are studied it’s a self-fulfilling fantasy that will not admit ruptures, for if a book isn’t studied it isn’t great. Santana-Acuña also discusses canonical works versus classics: books that, being important, depend on other institutions for their survival, basically the Dalkey Archvie Press catalogue; versus those perennial sellers which never go out of print because they keep finding readers in every new generation. In my case, as what I hoped would be a simple essay for a book blog ballooned into 1000 pages and a few months of work into five years and going, I realized that what was interesting was explaining why Tomaz was never considered great, what social, political, literary, economical, personal factors meshed into a hood of invisibility and hostility that rendered him something below a minor writer. I had to recreate what it meant to be a novelist in Portugal. This is more or less what Santana-Acuña did, an endeavor that took him ten years. The result is an intelligent, appealing, instructive book.

Ascent to Glory is divided in two parts: my enthusiasm stems mainly from the first part, which painstakingly paints the background against which One Hundred Years of Solitude was imagined, executed and launched into the world. It is crisp, nitid, precise.

The second part, an attempt to chart its growth since the launch into a “global classic”, seems more arbitrary: it’s composed of snippets of reviews across decades, which means that he could keep adding, subtracting, swapping and it wouldn’t make much of an impact on the overall foretold result. Transcribing different Amazon stellar reviews or using some other negative dude from Goodreads instead of one Nathan ‘N. R.’ Gaddis wouldn’t affect the point that a classic is destined to have fans and detractors, it’s this ongoing conversation that keeps it alive and under discussion. Instead of the anonymous, why not, say, Portugal’s preeminent living novelist, António Lobo Antunes, who’s regularly badmouthed García Márquez and claims that Solitude has aged badly? It’s arbitrary because there’s no end of other examples he could have used to make the same point.

Not so with the first part, which is a thorough recreation of a period in Latin American fiction. It’s so well-researched that it has completely humbled my delusion that I was well-read on the history of the “New Latin American Novel”, the alternative name to the “boom”, which writers tended to dislike because of its commercial and mercenary overtones. I’ve read or am more or less familiar with the important sources, José Donoso’s rancorous memoirs, Luis Harss’ panegyric disguised as book of interviews, Carlos Fuentes’s string of essays culminating in La Nueva Novela Hispanoamericana (1969), the Paris-based Mundo Nuevo magazine, the campaigning the influential critic Emir Rodríguez Monegal carried out in USA – but I’m just an amateur in his presence. It’s a pleasure being led by such competent hands. The book’s novelty rests on its going beyond publicly available sources; it delves often into material prior to 1967 that was left in magazines and newspapers, for instance interviews; apropos of that, the University Press of Mississippi’s Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez is a paltry, clumsy resource, it contains only interviews with an already global best-selling author. Santana-Acuña shows, by turn, shows a struggling writer very obsessed with achieving glory.

Most stories about obsession are not pretty, and this is no exception; it’s not a mafia story, but it involves a group self-named the “Mafia”, operating from Mexico, whose members, young, up-and-coming novelists, decided to take over the world by storm devising marketing campaigns to convince it that Latin American literature has achieved a level of complexity as good as the European or the US novel. Its mastermind is Fuentes, his associates are Donoso, Fuentes’ childhood friend, Vargas Llosa, Cortázar, and García Márquez. Santana-Acuña displays a battery of numbers and facts to explain why they so badly wanted commercial success; obviously it’s all about economics. Before the 1960s, in spite of the shared language, books barely circulated from nation to nation; as such Latin America, for all its size, had a meager book market: readers were scarce, print runs small, publishers paid little to no royalties, and sometimes there was no option but self-publishing. Jorge Luis Borges’ debut book, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923), had a print run of 300 copies: it was self-published; Julio Cortázar’s debut book, Bestiary (1951), took a decade to sell its print run of 200 copies. Because of this there was not a lot of incentive to write long novels; the poem, novella, short-story were better acclimatized to society. If the general press was anything like the Portuguese at the same time, any decent diary or weekly carried poems, short-stories form the local consecrated names, which means not only that people didn’t have to buy books to get literature, but that writers didn’t feel compelled to write beyond the newspaper reader, with all the constraints that entails.

The writer, given these obstacles, was always a weekend writer, he kept a day job, like the journalism that García Márquez subsisted on for a long time, and wrote in his free time. That’s one of the reason why the Mafia was so obsessed with exporting and internationalizing Latin American literature, that was the only way they could become full-time professional writers. They certainly succeeded: Vargas Llosa’s The Leaders (1959) had a print run of 1 300 copies; The time of the hero (1963), 4 000; Conversation in the Cathedral (1969), 10 000; and Captain Pantojas and the Secret Service (1973), 100 000. Santana-Acuña indicates that this was a 7,600 percent increase in just over a decade.

For a while Vargas Llosa had more commercial clout than García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude had only a first print run of 8 000 copies. Vargas Llosa benefited from the editorial boom in Barcelona: Spanish publishers, especially Seix-Barral, for several reasons found it profitable to promote Latin Americans and also created mechanisms to increase their international sex-appeal. Seix-Barral, carrying out this objective, was instrumental in creating a series of prizes in the early 1960s that ended many times in the hands of Latin Americans, taking their reputations ahead of them, ushering them into other countries. First there was the Formentor Prize and its smarter sister, the International Literature Prize, which under the regulation translated the winners in thirteen different countries simultaneously. The Formentor winners are mostly nobodies nowadays, but the first International Literature Prize was shared by Borges and Samuel Beckett. Seix-Barral also created the Biblioteca Breve Prize, which Vargas Llosa won in 1962; because of this he was next year’s frontrunner to the Formentor, but lost to Jorge Semprún. It didn’t matter, the success of that one prize brought him the aforementioned print runs. García Márquez, by contrast, by 1962 was the author of four books that had not left South America nor travelled well within the region, not to mention that he was far from being a promising talent: one anonymous reviewer even called Leaf Storm a “shitty novella”, which is scientific according to my remembrance of it. When Solitude came out, he expected it’d be a moderate hit, but even so guessed that he’d need to publish a novel a year to live on writing. Nothing told him that he’d the world’s 49th most translated author.

Thanks to networking, before One Hundred Years of Solitude was even published, García Márquez’s friends spread across the world had touted his name in twenty countries in three continents, meaning his name had been read by hundreds of thousands, creating expectations. They published work in progress, granted interviews before releasing novels, went on book tours. García Marquéz was so finnicky over controlling the means of communication with the readers that his opponents nicknamed him “García Marketing”.

Whether or not the Boom came out of a fierce marketing campaign has been under debate for decades now. Donoso thought so; Monegal likewise. It was also an idiom-bound club since in the long run it excluded non-Spanish-speaking authors, namely Brazilians. Although João Guimarães Rosa wrote the continent’s best novel, Grande Sertão: Veredas, it has never achieved the worldwide fame of Terra Nostra, Conversation in the Cathedral, Hopscotch, The Lost Steps. Of course a famously awful translation into English didn’t help. But Rosa also led a sheltered life, away from the spotlight, he took decades to write books, never planned to become a professional writer if that entailed having to rush one book per year as García Márquez planned at one point. Although he was respect by his peers Vargas Llosa, Rulfo, Monegal, Sarduy, he was never fit for the Mafia’s maneuvers. He died in 1967 right when the Boom was reaching its apotheosis. The Brazilians never got over not getting aboard the Boom Boeing to world stardom; since then they’ve been bemoaning their missed chance. In 1962, around the time the Mafia was planning to export the New Latin American Novel, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon (1958) had become the first novel from that region to enter The New York Times’ bestsellers list; the next Latin-American novel to achieve this feat was One Hundred Years of Solitude. But nothing came of it. Santana-Acuña’s random second part could have incorporated Dalton Trevisan’s alleged reaction at finishing One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Brazil deserved a novelist like this.” Doesn’t every country? Because of this bad luck they’ve been very sensitive to the Boom’s business backstage. I was first introduced to this matter when João Cezar de Castro Rocha, a Brazilian scholar connected with Stanford, published in 2015 an article in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. Castro Rocha, apropos of Xavi Ayén’s book Aquellos años del Boom: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa y el grupo de amigos que lo cambiaron todo (2014), an 800-page history of the Boom, remarked that the Mafia’s correspondence, some of it held at American universities, told very clearly the day-to-day history of how the Boom was planned. I always wanted to learn more but never actually expected to.

Nevertheless, greed and personal affirmation doesn’t explain the obsession. There was also a mission to bring Latin American literature to the world’s attention. Before the 1960s it was still a minor, local literature that no one took seriously. However, first of all Latin Americans had to create a sense of union, a transnational, collective identity. And that took a century to build. Santana-Acuña informs that the term “Latin America” was coined in France in the 1850s by two expats, Chilean Francisco Bilbao and Colombian José María Torres. Torres also coined “Latin American literature” in 1879 in order to argue that the region did not have a literature of its own, one imbued with inherent characteristics, but instead only imitated Europe; I find this fascinating since this is exactly the debate that was going on in Portugal at the exact same time.

Throughout the 20th century Latin Americans had ample opportunities to tighten their views of a shared history. They were very good at organizing themselves. They had the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana, Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos. There was a 1962 Congress of Intellectuals in Chile. São Paulo organized in 1954 a Congress of Writers which was attended by William Faulkner. (Santana-Acuña doesn’t allude to this in spite of the importance he attributes to him). In those international congresses and symposia they debated and discussed what “Latin-Americaness” was.

What was a “Latin American literature”? How was such a chimera achieved? First of all, its proponents had to defeat a group of thinkers who believed that each nation should develop, explore its own characteristics; thinking like this had grown into regionalism and realist subsets like: costumbrismo, from costumbre, customs, as in “novel of customs”, about everyday life, habits, behavior, rituals; and indigenismo, about the lives of the indigenous people, idealized in a very Romantic, very folklorish way as the soul of the continent, the authentic culture, never mind the fact most had been exterminated by then and the remaining were dying away in reservations or hiding away in jungles. Other thinkers, however, wanted the novel rising above its localism and embracing cosmopolitanism while at the same time applying “Latin-Americanism”, the belief that all those different nations shared a common history that goes beyond minor differences. They wanted a tricky balancing act, a merging of the local with the universal, novels that demonstrated Latin American reality while at the same time speaking to all readers about “universal” themes.

In order to achieve this they had to trick themselves in several ways: not only did they have to believe those regional differences were minor, but they also had to pretend a good deal of their history didn’t even exist, or if it existed was mediocre and embarrassing. Santana-Acuña here and there reminds readers that Latin-American Literature before 1960 was really just like any other literature in the world (he then makes the mistake of agreeing that the New Latin-American Novel was somehow different from contemporary novels, but we’ll get there); the region in fact went through the same phases as European literature since the 18th century: neo-classicism, Romanticism, Realism/Naturalism, Symbolism, Modernism. This is an important reminder because people still live under the impression that the major tendency of Latin American literature is a mirage called “the marvelous real” or “magical realism”, which sounds a lot like a literal translation of “real meravilloso” into English by someone not very fluent in it. The fact is that Latin American literature is composed exactly of what most European literature is composed of: boring realism. Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, Alejo Carpentier went to tremendous lengths to erase this from history or to downplay it, or to simply besmirch its results, because they believed that this insistence in localism and indigenismo had held their literature back from exportation, although it’s what held thousands of European novels from ever being translated too. Localism is the default mode of most national literatures because most writers tend to believe they’re supposed to write about the reality they experience; up until the 1960s writers were expected to write for a community, and only a few crossed frontiers; some weren’t even known outside a region. This situation changed when UNESCO started promoting translations in the post-war.

The Mafia’s marketing campaign, then, went to great measures to imbue the New Latin American Novel with a cosmopolitan identity, whatever that may be. For them apparently it was nothing more than writing like European modernists while adding social commentary about cartoonish dictatorships and banana massacres to the mix. It was this pursuit of a cosmopolitan-but-also-local style that made them play up the exoticism of things like “magical realism” and “neobaroque”. They needed to create a new identity for themselves, their own, but at the same time infuse it with modernist techniques that proved Europeans their disciplines had learned their lessons and were their equals. It’s miraculous it yielded such amazing results!

Santana-Acuña concisely and clearly explains the rise of “magical realism”, originally a term from European painting from the 1920s that entered the vocabulary of tertulias presided over by Latin American intellectuals living in Europe, namely Miguel Angel Asturias, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Carpentier, allegedly the coiner of the “marvellous real”, at least he used this expression in the prologue to The Kingdom of this world (1949). They were living in Paris at the heigh of Surrealism and so were vulnerable to being influenced by an art form that eschewed rationality and order and value dreaming, fantasy. For them, those characteristics could better represent Latin American reality than old-fashioned realism; bizarrely they believed that Latin America’s reality was by nature anti-realistic and also mentally adverse to the Enlightenment. It had never struck them that Surrealism was invented in Europe precisely because Europeans were also fed up with reality in literature being represented by old-fashioned realism. The whole point of Modernism was precisely to replaced Realism/Naturalism with a new art form that showed reality more directly. We can extrapolate, based on Kafka, Bruno Schulz, Woolf’s Orlando, Volter Kilpi’s Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia, Sándor Szathmári’s Gulliver's Return: A Sequel to Voyage to Kazohinia, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita, the remarkable oddity that was James Branch Cabell, that if Modernism’s growth hadn’t been hampered by Marxist-imposed return to realism in the 1930s, serious literature would have taken a massive turn to the fantastic. Instead it went undercover and surfaced only at times.

The fun part is that magical realism was partially inspired by Franz Kafka, which every writer in his twenties including García Márquez was reading and emulating badly in the 1940s and 1950s. Asturias, Carpentier, Uslar Pietri introduced the “marvellous real” and wrote fiction based on its premises, but magical realism was never a main tendency until One Hundred Years of Solitude invented thousands of copycats quick to cash in on its formula. Up to the ‘60s Latin Americans debated the same things their European cousins did: whether or not to give up literary realism.  The Realism War was heating up in the 1940s, European Communist Parties everywhere held sway over writers who kowtowed to the tenets of Zhdanovism and chastised deviations from the 19th-century model. The famous Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs was a watchdog keeping Modernism under check and fighting everywhere against radicals: he had famously upheld the 19th-century novel as the model for engaged novelist against the bourgeois, the vehicle of the revolution, and his disciples everywhere applied his doctrines. Brazil, for instance, was by the 1930s one of the major centers of the realist novel in South America: Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, José Lins do Rego were all committed realists, Amado even kept close connections with international communism and travelled to Russia. In Argentina Héctor P. Agosti’s Defensa del Realismo (1945) spread the Gospel According to Saint Lukacs. I’m no expert on the continent, but I presume more examples can be found in Chile, Cuba, Colombia.

Magical realism, then, was a blasphemy that slowly insinuated itself in the novel, much in the same way the European and US novels were being corrupted by a few anti-realists like John Hawkes and Italo Calvino. The expression “anti-novel” was precisely invented in Europe around this time, by Sartre, in part to identify and gripe about certain post-war novelists who were destroying the conventions of a proper novel, namely the 19th-century novel as practiced by Balzac. Sartre wasn’t thinking about Latin Americans yet, but was already fretting about Nabokov. Around the same Juan Rulfo published Pedro Páramo (1955), Calvino published The Cloven Viscount (1952) and Günther Grass The Tin Drum (1959). Nabokov had already written the dystopia Laughter in the Dark (1947). To anyone observing from a panopticon, it would be obvious that, magical realist or not, a slowly growing current of the post-war novel was doing everything in its power to push past realism. The New Latin American Novel was hardly special in that regard.

Then there’s my beloved “neobaroque”, which if I understood Santana-Acuña correctly was at first the distinguishing element of the New Latin American Novel, ahead of “magical realism”, which only upstaged it in the 1960s thanks to García Márquez’s floating ladies and growing bank accounts. The Latin Americans, in their anxiety to emancipate themselves from Spain, devised a new aesthetics of language which involved affronting the Spaniards by rejecting modern Spanish spoken in Spain and cultivating the style of the 17th century, the style that went to America with the conquerors and civilization builders, the style of Cervantes and Góngora, which isn’t a style at all because Cervantes wrote colloquial prose and Góngora labyrinthine poetry. What they were looking for was an affected archaic flavor, out-of-touch vocabulary, a free-flowing syntax. García Márquez, trained in journalism and thus sparse and concise like his master Hemingway, wasn’t originally too fond of this style which he dubbed “rhetorical leafiness”. In 1963 he told an interviewer that in his fiction he sought to solve this “most salient vice in Latin American fiction”. His goal was to tell stories “in a direct, clear and concise way.” Two years later he started a novel now famous for its non-linear structure, using a vocabulary that seemed antiquated to Spaniards. In this he was inspired by Carpentier, who told him that in Explosion in the Cathedral he didn’t use words invented after the 18th century.

By consciously distinguishing themselves from Spanish novelists via this deliberate outdated Spanish, the matter of Realism once again comes into equation. Franco’s Spain was a hotbed of social realism because it was considered inappropriate to indulge in formalism and modernist experiments in the dictatorship: Spain needed no-nonsense realism, sparse language, sobriety, realistic stories of workers, strikes, the downtrodden and their struggles towards freedom and dignity. Because of that, noble as the Spanish novel was, it was also dull, badly written and badly evaluated abroad; curiously, although Barcelona’s editors could export Latin Americans, they couldn’t export their own novelists; since Franco had risen to power practically not a single Spanish novel had achieved global success, with the exception of Camilo José Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942). Carlos Barral, at Seix-Barral, was fed up with social realism’s straightforward style and very much in love with Spain’s baroque language, its adjectives, long sentences, metaphors. So evidently he gave preference to those Latin Americans who were reviving this beloved past.

Santana-Acuña is sloppier when it comes to the history of the “neobaroque”, probably because he knows readers are only familiar with magical realism. However, I still learned a few new things. He shows convincingly that they inherited their concept of baroque from Faulkner, whom they considered an honorary Latin American writer. This is interesting because it refutes the idea that their continent is inherently baroque: they actually needed to import their “identity” from abroad; the idea of the baroque wasn’t naturally in their minds, which is understandable since it wasn’t in anyone’s mind that that possessed “good taste” at the time. Mind you, this wasn’t the first time: Rubén Darío also got his Góngora from the French symbolists, and then he passed him onto the Spanish poets of the Generation of ’27. In 1927, when they celebrated 300 hundred years since Góngora’s death, the Academy was virulently against them bringing back such execrated peddler of obscurity. The young poets persisted and set in motion a revolution in appraisal. In 1961 Gerardo Diego, the main organized of the celebration, was invited to attend the 400 years of Góngora’s birth in South America. Góngora had finally been rehabilitated after 200 years of darkness. Mind you, Faulkner himself was called a “a Dixie Gongorist” by a North American critic; Fuentes, who was instrumental in converting Faulkner into a baroque precursor, was still miffed about this in a 1983 interview to The Kenyon Review.

Ironically, the word “neobaroque” was coined in 1955 by a Brazilian poet, Haroldo de Campos, from the part of Latin America least associated with the Boom. Campos was hardly into “Latin-Americanism”, he was a full-blown cosmopolitan, a modernist whose complex and challenging essays mentioned avant-garde musician Pierre Boulez and whose tastes veered toward even headier things. For him “neobaroque” was not a singular feature of Latin America, it was a common feature of modern fiction; it becomes obvious from his description of it that had written his article twenty years later he would have simply called it “post-modernist”. Since he didn’t have jargon within reach he had to improvise. One of the features of post-war fiction is precisely the profusion of terms to express a shift away from conventional realism: neobaroque, nouveau roman, magical realism, the fabulators, terms that sought to express an ongoing process that no one quite understood yet what it was and where it was going, but which was undeniably going on.

A few years later, Cuban poet José Lezama Lima was worrying about how to imbue Latin America with its own identity; being an expert on Góngora, he came up with a creole identity for the continent: here was a people born from the mixed blood of Europeans, African slaves and indigenous people. Such a messy mixture seemed baroque, after all the baroque wallows in the free play between heteroclite elements, impurity, waste, deformity, excess, it has no patience for rounded, complete, classic perfection. He explained all this in La expresión americana (1959): he didn’t use the word “neobaroque”. In fact, although Santana-Acuña keeps repeating it throughout the book, he never quotes anyone from the Mafia actually using it. That makes sense because Campos’s neologism passed unnoticed in the pages of a Brazilian newspaper and was published in book form only in a 1965 anthology of concrete poetry-related texts and manifestos. By then, the main texts of the Mafia had been written and García Márquez was away in Macondo. Fuentes, Carpentier, Lima simply called it “baroque”. The word “neobaroque” was rediscovered only after the boom was over; in 1972 Severo Sarduy, unaware of Campos’ earlier usage, used it in an essay for América Latina en su Literatura. Sarduy went further than Lima, his master, and extended “neobaroque” into one of the defining features of Latin American literature since its origins, which is utter nonsense, but they needed these myths to create a sense of identity. Carpentier didn’t use it in his 1975 conference “Lo barroco y lo real meravilloso”, and I think it was never a popular term. I guess that makes sense, they couldn’t be neo- because they were claiming that their identity had always been baroque. Sure, there were thousands of realist novels they had to get rid off to convinces themselves of that, but they were baroque, don’t you doubt it, and Europeans and Americans were thankfully illiterate about those thousands of novels anyway, so it was really easy for everyone to take their word for it.

Mind you, they didn’t just reclaim 17th-century baroque, they appropriated everything from Spain’s that modern-minded Spaniards had thrown in the garbage bin: Don Quixote, picaresque novellas, chivalric romances, which is exactly where the Latin Americans went for inspiration; all the parts of their literary history that they deemed in “bad taste” was precisely what the Latin Americans built their literary identity on. Vargas Llosa once said that The Green House was based on the structure of chivalric romances, and since it’s as boring and unreadable as they are, it’s probably true. Reinaldo Arena’s lovely Hallucinations has all the elements of the picaro, but mixed with surrealist flights of fantasy, it’s one of the best-kept secrets of the Boom. García Márquez also claimed to have been inspired by chivalric romances and Don Quixote. This at a time when Gonzalo Torrente Ballester bemoaned that Spanish novelists were embarrassed about Don Quixote; GTB was already writing “magical realist” novels before they were money magnets – his came out too soon to attract money – and went on to write a seminal study of Don Quixote as a literary “game”.

If you want success, Ascent to Glory suggests, first invent a label for yourself, join a group, promote a brand. The Mafia did just that and so did their main adversaries. Here Santana-Acuña follows the textbooks when he pits the New Latin American Novel against the nouveau roman. He quotes several Mafia members disparaging it; inevitably García Márquez’s interview with Harss pops up.

The nouveau roman in fact shares many characteristics with the Mafia, but at a national scale: it was a tightknit group of novelists connected by a language, French. It was born from post-war aspirations to halt the “death of the novel” by doing away with realism which was causing the doing-in. Its members met each other, defended, praised each other, traveled together, formed a front against detractors. They were loud enough to give the impression that they were a powerful movement with international appeal. Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Sarraute were sweeping awards in France, scandals with disgusted jurymen were making them martyrs and also bestsellers. Although many Frenchmen couldn’t stand the nouveau roman, there was something prestigious about post-war France, in spite of the invasion and the destruction, still having the power to launch an avant-garde movement. Whereas Latin America was struggling to get inside the international arena, France was struggling not to lose its power as global tastemaker. The nouveaux romanciers attracted attention quickly, went to international symposia together. In the I Coloquio Internacional sobre Novela (1959), held at Formentor, Robbe-Grillet was invited to a panel to debate whether or not it was necessary to get rid of realism to save the novel. Obviously he thought it necessary. In order to spread their Gospel, they did just what the Mafia did: they published in international magazines, toured the world giving lectures about the “new novel”, published landmark essays like The Age of Suspicion (1956) and Towards a New Novel (1963). Monegal criticized Robbe-Grillet “for the tenacity with which the author manages his propaganda”, which is comical coming from one of the most diligent cheerleaders the New Latin American Novel then had. In no time nouveau romanciers seemed like the hottest thing from Europe and signaled the future; Portugal and Spain, trying to modernize their novels hampered by social realism, looked up to them and tirelessly imitated them. However, in Italy, the UK, the USA and even France they weren’t beloved by peers and public.

Nevertheless, history isn’t shaped by facts but by perception. In August 1963, the Soviet Writer’s Unions invited Western novelists to attend a symposium in Leningrad to discuss “the novel and realism”: the invitees were mostly proponents of the nouveau roman: Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and Butor, who unable to attend ended up replaced by Bernard Pingaud, author of the “The School of Refusal” (1959), one of the earliest essays on the nouveau roman. That means that by 1963 even the Russians equated “Western novel” with “nouveau roman”. Think about the implications of that for a moment. For the Latin Americans, there was no European novel outside the nouveau roman. Never mind the simultaneous activity of Raymond Queneau, Torrente Ballester, Tomaz de Figueiredo, Anthony Burgess, Carlo Emilio Gadda, Calvino, Giorgio Manganelli, just to name those that for me mixed modernism, anti-realism, excellence and fun. Likewise they knew nothing about John Barth, John Hawkes, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Nabokov obviously. Fuentes in his interviews only acknowledges the likes of William Styron and Norman Mailer, respectable second rates. But as Santana-Acuña inadvertently shows, the Mafia, for all their cosmopolitanism, were comically ignorant of newer names, they had not progressed past the idolatry of Joyce and Kafka, Hemingway and Faulkner. These two happened to die in 1961 and 1962 respectively, which gave their fans the impression that American literature had gone to the grave with them, and even the Americans thought so: Hugh Kenner once called Faulkner “the last novelist”, he also didn’t cotton much to Nabokov and Pynchon. These recent deaths helped strengthen the gloomy presentiment that the novel was dead. Let’s not judge Latin Americans too harshly; even most Americans, being as mathematically dumb as they can always be trusted to be, have nowadays no idea who Gass, Hawkes, Coover, Elkin are.

If the Mafia looked at Europe, they didn’t see A Clockwork Orange, better written than most Boom novels, or GTB’s Don Juan (1962), or Tomaz de Figueiredo’s Dom Tanas de Barbatanas (1962-64), more baroque than anything that ever came out of the Boom, or even the Cosmicomics, Zazie in the Metro (which influenced Three Trapped Tigers, Cabrera Infante dixit), The Magic Toyshop. What the Latin Americans saw, and they were mainly looking at Europe since although their entrance into the big wide world was via Barcelona, the destination was always Paris, still the world’s cultural capital and the tastemaker; what they say was the nouveau roman, a well-organized group with a clear program for the novel, editorial muscle, international renown, disciples in multiple countries – a minuscule output of the European novel, but awfully vociferous; one of the benefits of living in the age of social networks is that now we understand better how a handful of nobodies can shout loud enough to make it look like they’re legion. So the nouveau roman had a label; and the Latin Americans had a label too. Thus the history of the novel in the 1960s is framed as the battle between two labels for control of the novel. Those who didn’t belong to a label, Burgess, Calvino, Queneau, Tomaz, stayed in the outskirts of the war, crafting excellent novels without applying cockamamie theories, but being left out of this confrontation of international proportions. I’m belaboring this point because Santana-Acuña pays lip service to the inane legend that the global novel was slowly bleeding to death, losing vitality, sort of stagnated in realism, until the super-duper Latin Americans showed up and showed everyone how to save it from some specter thanks to galleons rotting in the jungle, sleep diseases and never-ending rain. It’s a funny fantasy.

I’m not drifting away from Santana-Acuña’s study; sadly he didn’t tell this part of the story very well. Why was One Hundred Years of Solitude so well received? Because he’s a sociologist he mostly provides materialistic explanations: shameless networking, chronic cronyism, mind-melting mass marketing, fabricated glowing reviews in advance. That explains part of it. But he ignores a simpler, less quantifiable, more ethereal explanation: readers were fed up with dull nouveau roman novels in which nothing happens and wanted passports to fantasy again. It’s not hard to wrap your head around the fact that between the paper-gizmos churned out by Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, Claude Simon, Butor, or the straightforward, dreamy, dumb rollercoaster fun that is One Hundred Years of Solitude, anyone will prefer the latter. The growing ebullience over the New Latin American Novel which culminated in the hysterical, hyperbolic canonization of an entertaining but ordinary novel mostly stemmed from the relief people felt at having decent things to read again. It’s hard to ascertain who needed it the most: One Hundred Years of Solitude provided a layman with the same pulpy thrills as sci-fi or a fantasy novel without the social stigma then attached to these genres; but it also allowed sophisticates to indulge in pleasures forbidden in avant-garde circles without looking like they were betraying their class. In fact, I’d wager that One Hundred Years of Solitude did more for those sophisticates than for the layman who doesn’t care what people think of his reading habits. It was the intellectual who needed it; it was he who had pushed the novel so far into elitism for a few, who forced the divergence between art and trash. Decades before they had smeared plot as a childish remnant of a barbaric past that the novel needed to get rid of in order to achieve adulthood. Well, when they got what they craved and fathomed a possible where they’d have nothing to read but what Ulysseses, they recoiled in fear. It’s not surprising that France had a major role in promoting the New Latin American Novel, that several of its intellectuals were behind it. By the 1980s they were relieved at the “retour du récit”, the return of plot. They were the ones who had more to lose.

Nowadays it’s hard to reconstruct what I’m getting at, so many barriers and hierarchies have tumbled down since then that it’s not easy to appreciate what was the mindscape of people who wanted to belong to the avant-garde. Trying to explain the weird beliefs that propelled thinkers like Roland Barthes is a bit like trying to communicate with an alien life form. Many sophisticated Frenchmen truly believed that in the future, now, we would all be reading nouveau roman novels, they were genuinely convinced that human beings had evolved to such a point of intellectual maturity that they were anxious to get past the infantility of reading for the “story”, to know “what’s going to happen next”, that have “characters” who want to “achieve things”. I’m not making this up. We just need to peruse Lucien Goldmann, a Marxist sociologist who was a big deal in the 1960s. Goldmann believed that the modern novel in that current phase of capitalism had to abolish character because capitalism itself had abolished individuality. The nouveau roman was just a better representation of reality than those outdated novels that insisted in that bourgeois ideologically-charged social construct called the “individual”. Let me quote a lengthy but lucent passage from Cultural Creation in Modern Society (1971):

   One of the best-known studies of Robbe-Grillet has been published by an American professor. In this extremely intelligent, penetrating study he has demonstrated that each of this author’s narratives contains a narrated story which, with some ability to follow the text very closely, can be extracted; and that in certain respects this story ultimately resembles those narrated in the novels of the liberal capitalist era. From this he concludes that Robbe-Grillet’s originality lies primarily in the fact that his way of narrating the story is different from that of earlier writers.

   In the course of a long discussion with this critic I tried to maintain that if a writer narrates things differently it is because things themselves have become essentially different, and therefore he can no longer say them in the accepted way. The discussion ended with the analysis of a passage from Jealousy: “The light, rubber-soled shoes make no sound on the hallway tiles.”  The critic says, “Clearly, this involves a jealous man who walks very softly so as not to make noise and surprise his wife.” I replied, “Perhaps what is essential is simply that Robbe-Grillet wrote not ‘a man walks very softly’ but instead ‘the light… shoes… make no sound,’ probably because what was essential was the fact that in today’s world the shoes carry the man: the motor of events is no longer man but inert objects.”

   The reply, of course, was, “This is no doubt an amusing, ingenious witticism, but nevertheless a witticism.” Then I asked my interlocutor to choose between two statements which I would present and tell me which he found more accurate, understanding that the answer to the problem at issue would depend on this choice. One could say that every year between July and August some millions-of people in advanced industrial countries take vacations, carrying cameras and taking photographs which they then show to their friends and family. Or one could say that every year, in rarely explicit, usually implicit accord with certain travel agencies, the boards of directors of Kodak and the major camera firms decide to produce a certain number of cameras which will travel around the world, while a certain number of other cameras sold in previous years will remain in circulation. These decisions once made, the cameras set out on their travels with a corresponding number of people to operate them. Which of these formulations gives the best account of the phenomenon’s essential reality?

   Any serious sociologist, I think, will choose the second.


I could just as easily have quoted equally inhuman passages from Barthes, Robbe-Grillet, Foucault, Pingaud. Since we still read about people and not shoes, since most popular and best novels of the last decades have been about men and women, their hopes and dreams and ambitions, and what they do to achieve them and the obstacles in their way, like most novels since Chariton, it’s pretty obvious that this was just galimatias, gibberish, gobbledygook. Nowadays I stare and gape at such nonsense and wonder how intelligent people ever truly believed that humans would one day want to read novels about shoes instead of themselves. Thankfully we are immature, infantile little creatures who just want to read about a beauty flying up to the sky, and a young baron living in trees, and little Alex doing the ultra-violence, and Indian kids who get magical powers, and murders committed in a 14th-century Benedictine monastery. The real mystery isn’t why One Hundred Years of Solitude was a big hit, it’s what went wrong with the minds of perceptive cultural critics (“any serious sociologist”) that they strongly believed that we could raise about this wonderful imperfection and attain such a level of abstract dullness to the point of finding emotional and intellectual succor in shoe stories.

The nouveau roman program has long since faded into oblivion, but it was very popular in the 1960s. The funniest thing is that Robbe-Grillet engineered his human-less novels precisely to countermand the tendency to reduce novels to political readings, in order to stress his autonomy from most French novelists affiliated with the French Communist Party. But you can always trust wily communists to find a way to sneak ideology into anything that pretends to remain pure of worldly affairs. It didn’t take long for culture critics to saturate theories of the novel with Marxist jargon about superstructures, commodification, production. Many defenders of the nouveau roman were associated with some form of communism: Barthes, Goldmann, Jean Ricardou, Phillipe Sollers and the other Maoists from the Tel Quel magazine. French Marxists desperately wanted to believe that bourgeois society was on the verge of collapse and nothing reassured them as much as the novel’s signs of putrescence: if novels were an invention of bourgeois society to admire itself, these changes in the human behavior and representation meant something profound beyond mere aesthetics – it portended that the bourgeoisie was itself in crisis. Not really, it just meant that a handful of novelists didn’t like to use characters.

Communists had a change of heart in the 1950s regarding the avant-garde: previously they had hounded modernists, but suddenly they realized that using the 19th-century bourgeois novel to destroy the bourgeoisie was a contresens. Obviously, if you wanted to affront the bourgeoisie you had to assault its certainties about the novel, stall the plot, eviscerate the character, etc., until you were left with a soulless shell of shit. I’m not into the “death of the novel” nonsense that was going on in the 1960s, I’m too well read to believe in that moronic fairy-tale, but I have no doubts that the French novel gleefully committed suicide when other nations were helping create the greatest age of the novel ever. More than half a century later, it still hasn’t recovered from the damage. Its best living novelist is just Michel Houellebecq.

The Latin Americans triumphed because their overall project refuted the nouveau roman. “Magical realism” and “neobaroque” are like custom-made inversions. Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute were no less realists than the conventional realists they opposed; they abhorred fantasy the same way they abhorred anything that gave novel life and movement. John Barth, mocking the French in 1965, got that very clearly: “From what I know of Robbe-Grillet and his pals, their aesthetic is finally a more up-to-date kind of psychological realism: a higher fi to human consciousness and unconsciousness. Well, that's nice. A different way to come to terms with the discrepancy between art and the Real Thing is to affirm the artificial element in art (you can't get rid of it anyhow), and make the artifice part of your point instead of working for higher and higher fi with a lot of literary woofers and tweeters. That would be my way. Scheherazade's my avant-gardiste.” In the same way the Latin Americans were looking back to Don Quixote, chivalric romances, Barth was looking back at Scheherazade, storyteller supreme. As for the neobaroque, anyone who has read a nouveau roman will notice that the language is invisible; even Hemingway seems Melvillian by comparison. Sarraute denigrated “formalists” in The Age of Suspicion, whereas Robbe-Grillet preached the excision of metaphors, precisely one of the main components of 17th-century Spanish baroque. His buddy Barthes concocted and preached a silly theory of minimalism called “writing degree zero”. Once again, the label-less were not oblivious to this: Burgess, Nabokov, Gass, Tomaz crafted prose rich in metaphors, neologisms, alliteration, archaisms, palindromes, paronomasias, inner rhymes, puns.

García Márquez, while he was busy with his new novel, stated in a 1965 interview that he was going to eschew the realism he had used up to then. “For me, this is a liberation, after four books repressed by the chastity belt of rigor and the poor reality of notaries.” In this new novel, he promised, everything was going to be “Pantagruelic”. Here’s a synchronicity for you apophenics out there: Barth also gave an interview in 1965: “The people who get upset, I think, by the fact that so many of the writers and poets teach school nowadays, are people from the '30s, when you were supposed to go around the country and get dusty and sleep in haystacks. You couldn't write Kafka's novels that way. A man who spends his time hoping physical freighters - never mind spiritual ones - may write The Grapes of Wrath, but he isn't going to write The Castle, and he's not going to write The Magic Mountain, and he is not likely to write Finnegans Wake. I'll take those over U.S.A. or Tropic of Capricorn. A university-type might not write The Naked Lunch, and I'm glad there are people like Burroughs to take the dope and all so I don't have to do it; on the other hand, I might write Gargantua and Pantagruel, and I'd settle for that.” The difference between them is that Barth by 1965 had already written a Pantagruelic novel: The Sot-Weed Factor. He wasn’t exceptional for that, many were doing riffs on Rabelais and Cervantes. Opposing “refusal” was what Barth later called “replenishment”. Whereas the nouveaux romanciers manufactured novels that divested themselves of character, space, time, dialogue, plot, life, fun, style, and fanatically militated against the genre’s rich history, others wanted to put everything back in the novel. Calvino said that The Baron in the Trees was a Don Quixote of the Enlightenment. GTB brought an immortal Don Juan to 20th-century Paris. Burgess was mixing science fiction with literary ambitions and social commentary in a remarkable way. Dom Tanas de Barbatanas is a Rabelaisian novel full of that grotesque realism that Bakhtin would only write about three years later.

Not all Frenchmen were elated at this mass suicide; Aragon and Céline despised the nouveau roman. Sartre, who had given up novels, thought that it alienated novelists from their duties toward the Revolution. But its most important opponent was a figure Santana-Acuña mentions here and there: Roger Caillois. Caillois worked for the UNESCO at its Latin American cultural section, had lived in Latin America. He was a fan of Borges, knew the region and its literature well. He worked at Gallimard where he created an important collection, “La Croix du Sud”, which since 1952 had been translating Latin Americans into French. Since Borges was part of this collection and Gallimard was one of the publishers that subsidized the International Literature Prize, Caillois probably had a hand in maneuvering the French delegation into proposing him for the prize that he shared with Beckett in 1961. Legend has it he tried to get Guimarães Rosa this prize too. So he was obviously a man of exquisite taste. Caillois had attended the 1963 Leningrad symposium, and he was no fan of the nouveau roman. Caillois’ famous prediction is quoted in the book: “Latin American literature will be the great literature of tomorrow, as Russian literature was the great literature at the end of the last century, the literature of North America that of the years 25-40, now it is the time for Latin American literature. It is the one called to give us the masterpieces that we expect.”

What was expected, though, Santana-Acuña doesn’t quite explain. In Portugal the Latin Americans arrived via France. In 1971 a Portuguese student living in Paris, interested in this new trend, interviewed Caillois for the Diário de Lisboa. Caillois didn’t mince words: the nouveau roman was dead, there was an excess of realism, fantasy was necessary to restore balance and rejuvenate the novel; the novel was evidently in crisis in Europe and the USA, and they had much to learn from the Latin Americans. For him the problem with European avant-garde is that it had degenerated into inhuman formalism, whereas those who didn't abide by the avant-garde stuck to outdated social realism, again equating avant-garde with nouveau roman: “Why, in Latin America happened precisely the opposite: social problems provoked an aesthetic explosion in which realism and magic seem the same.” The Latin Americans, he argued, could make readers look at the world with awe again. The Latin American continent itself, its gigantic mass, seemed like an invitation to think above everyday drab reality: “It fills us with a sort of feeling of cosmic generosity.” This is what was expected: novels that reconnected readers with the world, that used fantasy and myth, that weren’t realist but maintained a responsibility toward society, that had a point of view, that transmitted joy over life. The European reader, in his view, had long suffered from being denied fantasy and was fumbling in the dark back toward imagination, not quite knowing how to get there. The guide, of course, would the Latin Americans. They themselves popularized the imagine of poor Europeans amputated from imagination. Vargas Llosa stated in “Primitives and Creators” (The Times Literary Supplement, November 14, 1968) that the North American and European novel “agonizes between hermetic formalist acrobatics and a monotonous conformity to tradition”, bold words from the novelist who had written the decent but nothing special realist novel The Time of the Hero. This, by the way, is utter nonsense. Spanish censors thought Three Trapped Tigers was a Latin American version of the nouveau roman, which kind of makes sense now that I think about it. The Italian press called Sarduy’s Gestes a mixture of nouveau roman and cha-cha-cha, which sounds groovy. Fuentes’ awful A Change of Skin, with its multiple narrators, temporal shifts, and stream of consciousness, remembers Sarraute’s Planetarium and Claude Mauriac’s Le Dîner en ville (1959), an odious, obstreperous new low for the nouveau roman. Cortázar’s dull Hopscotch, with its multiple order of chapters, was just a less radical variation of an experiment Frenchman Marc Saporta had done with Composition No.1 (1961), a spineless book in which leaves can be rearranged in whatever order the reader wants. This kind of stuff was popular after 1945. Campos tried to do it in a book called Galáxias, but was talked out of it by Guimarães Rosa; B.S. Johnson wrote a “book in a box”, The Unfortunates (1969). It’s simplistic to split both sides as if they didn’t overlap. After all, they were all self-conscious modernists first and foremost at odds with 19th-century realism, and there are only so many ways of rejecting it without looking like one of the other 100 guys around you rejecting it too. What mattered were the results of those techniques.

Then Miguel Angel Asturias wrote in Latinoamérica y otros ensayos (1968) stuff like: “Europeans go to the library, to the anthropological or sociological study, to the movies, but that lessens their imagination. The Europeans have lost their capacity for fabulation, however the novel is, above all, fable.” This is funny because the previous year Robert Scholes had written a book called The Fabulators in which he analyzed a trend in European and American novelists who emphasized pleasure in storytelling and applied myths: his list included John Barth, Lawrence Durrell, John Hawkes, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Southern, Iris Murdoch. It’s a very American- and Anglo-centric list; he conceded he could have added William Golding (who wrote a novel from the POV of Neanderthals; show me a Latin American that did that), Burgess, Amis Kingsley, and Nabokov. “There are, in fact, too many to deal with in a single book.” He could of course have added other North Americans and Europeans. His book is interesting because Scholes also sets up the Fabulators against the nouveau roman, particularly Robbe-Grillet’s attempt to “dehumanize” language “by eliminating his metaphors, which he sees as the most pervasive and insidious way that language insists on humanizing everything that it represents. But this cannot solve the problem, because all language is a human product and thus must humanize all it touches.” The writer “willing to accept the word as his medium” must then “move away from the pseudo-objectivity of realism toward a romance or an irony which will exploit language’s distinctively human perspective on life.” Scholes keeps coming back to this: life, humanism, imagination. He’s like a child giddy at the unwrapping of Christmas gifts: “My love for fabulation has its roots in the reading I first learned to like. The reading I liked best as a boy was the most imaginative I could find.” Those were Greek myths, fables, then historical novels, detective novels, all trashy genres by the 1960s. Then he grew up and realized that pursuing a teaching job while admitting to such pablum was a bad idea if he wanted to keep his job. “From then until now I have been reading, finding writers like Conrad and Faulkner to revere and others like Joyce and Proust to admire. But it seems to me now that all these years I have been waiting for something for my own kind of writer to come along. Now, I recognize in the writers I have called fabulators the proper grown-up fare for such a boy as I was. And I am most grateful.”

When we take into consideration this strain of fiction, the words of Fuentes that their literature was “truly revolutionary” because it put myths at the center of their works, is just one more dumb statement I a long time got used to expecting from him. What it proves is that they were not very good at paying attention at the best fiction being done in Europe and North America. The first reviewers of The Sot-Weed Factor wondered if Barth was familiar with Lord Raglan’s “The Hero” archetype; he wasn’t. The poor Latin Americans spent so much energy loathing the nouveau roman they missed out on the joy of Nothing like the Sun and Pale Fire. What a masochistic way of wasting your time.

Curiously, one of the fabulators was Durrell, who was then popular because of The Alexandria Quartet, a novel very much like One Hundred Years of Solitude, mixing softened modernist techniques of multiple POV and temporal disruptions with a melodramatic love story written in overwrought prose. Burgess comically said that it “melts into a romantic wash a little too close to the old lending-library sadistic- sentimental exotic escapism beloved of the dreaming shop-girl.” Likewise he wasn’t impressed with García Márquez, arguing that the “imputation of greatness has more to do with content--especially when it is social or political-- than with aesthetic values. One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book which impressed me rather less than it seems to have impressed others, has undoubted power, but its power is nothing compared with the genuinely literary explorations of men like Borges and Nabokov.” The thing is that people were sick of literary explorations; they wanted precisely populist, easy-going, enjoyable humanist fiction.

The Latin Americans were operating in South America, North America (Donoso advised a US publisher to publish Hopscotch), Vargas Llosa’s London, Barcelona, home of the Spanish publishers and agent Carmen Balcells, and Paris, the destination of most political exiles, expats, and the where the Mundo Nuevo’s officers were. They were united by a language, Spanish, spoken in a whole continent and beyond. The French could only replicate the structure within tiny France; unfortunately the linguistic variety in Europe could never allow Grass, Burgess, Calvino, Queneau, Tomaz, GTB to come together to promote the “New European Novel”. But what would the New European Novel be if nothing but the Expected European Novel? The civilized world expects Europeans and North Americans to deliver nothing but excellent novels, that’s what they’ve been doing for centuries now. A Clockwork Orange is a great novel, but it’s just one more great novel next to Great Expectations, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway. Santana-Acuña sort of misses that it was also exoticism that lit the fuse that went Boom. In the 1960s left-wing intellectuals deposited their hopes for a socialist utopia in the periphery. The Cuban Revolution had just happened, which put the continent under a romanticism-tinged spotlight, an aura of rebellion that appealed to intellectuals anxious to see the bourgeoisie replaced by socialist utopias. Latin America became a major player in geopolitics between the Americans and Russians. The world wanted to understand it, and the easiest and quickest way was to read its fiction. The Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation supported it with grants, fellowships, aid to translators. The timing was perfect because from the periphery good novels were coming out by Chinua Achebe and V. S. Naipaul, perplexing the Metropolis with their sophistication. Latin America was no exception: Pedro Páramo, Conversation in the Cathedral, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Baroque Concert, are as good as anything from the center, and actually better than many overrated Western “classics”. Thus readers of the New Latin American Novel were also involved in a historic event, a transcendental moment in history when a region of the planet known mostly for tangos, parrots and caudillos suddenly achieved maturity.

Santana-Acuña shows, more than how a novel becomes a global classic, that if you want to conquer the world you must first of all invent a label, join a group. If you invent a label, then you can fill it up with lots of claims, it’s irrelevant if true or false; then you keep foisting them on others until they’ve been brainwashed past any resistance and kind of just uncritically accept the message inside the label. I couldn’t help noticing that Santana-Acuña shies away from qualitative judgements; as a sociologist he doesn’t dare emit an opinion about whether the books he’s talking are good or not. It’s even likely that he accepts at face value the spiel that’s been drilled into his head by the admirable bibliography he had to read. That’s the impression I had when he discusses one of the “counterfactuals”, the five books he thinks could have occupied One Hundred Years of Solitude’s spot but didn’t for several vicissitudes. I’ve only read one of them, but I was left wondering if we had read the same novel at all. According to him José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966) is one of the many fabulous neobaroque novels growing across Latin America as ostentatiously as ceiba trees. He praises its “innovative language and narrative style”. Its glory, however, is what prevented it from being “consumed by mass readers”. To illustrate his point he quotes the following passage: “The Colonel’s worktables: he was also an engineer, a fact which bred in his soldiers – as they raptly watched him cover blackboards with coastal-artillery problems – the same devotion that might have been shown a Coptic priest or an Assyrian huntsman-king.” If this isn’t brainwashing, I don’t know what to call it. This morsel of journalese hostile to mass readers? A simple, orderly sentence? Mind you, the rest of the novel is just as journalistic. And yet perceptive reviewers read it at the time and saw something else. A jubilant Edmund White wrote for The New York Times: “There is scarcely a line in the entire narrative that could be mistaken for anyone else's writing—or for prose in any familiar sense of that word.” Really? Well, let me have a shot at it, I’ll stick just to the first pages of the English edition:

“Baldovina's hand separated the edges of the mosquito netting and felt around, squeezing softly as if a sponge were there and not a five-year-old boy.”

“Baldovina was desperate, disheveled.”

“To assuage her terrified urge to run away, she pretended to search for the servant couple at the other end of the house.”

“Very slowly, they advised her to rub him with alcohol, since he must have been bitten by an ant lion while playing in the garden.”

“After those rooms, the toilets, followed by two other side rooms.”

This one could have come from Hemingway, and given their obsession with him, who knows if Lima didn't nick it from him: “The manservant and his wife greeted her arrival with carefree surprise.” Here's one that's genuinely good: “The house, in spite of its sumptuousness, had been built with the linear unimaginativeness of a fisherman’s shanty.” “Linear unimaginativeness” is a lovely finding of a phrase; sadly it’s the novel’s main problem too. If this garbage is innovative and daring, I wonder what they’d make of Paul West’s first paragraph of Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas (1972):


‘Upchuck,’ yells AJ. ‘What speed I couldn’t tell, except it’s like how Satan would be after two thousand million years of going without his greens, misering his sperms, and then one day out with his weapon big as a spaceship with a pearly warhead and working himself off both-handed. Floom, swoosh, it pours out, red-white-hot big flying rocks of come from out his balls underground and up the chute with a roar like that bomb at Hiroshima. Except it isn’t just one weapon, it’s millions of them jabbing up above ground wherever you look and shooting high into the newly manufactured sky as if millions of jets have written con trails in milk, all curling and twining into one another, and then down it comes, the debris heavy as the world itself, the sperms big as elephants and buses, denting terra firma, blasting its chin and cheekbones off and melting everything in sight. The land’s bubbling, there’s steam everywhere, and those who don’t get their heads smashed in by what’s falling out of the sky will have their feet burned off by what’s flooding the ground. Except there’s nobody here to see it at all. Just as well. If I’d been that Lord Byron, I’d have had a private jet full of king-size beds, and then at six hundred miles an hour I’d be going at it night and day back and forth across the Atlantic, nonstop, or just from London to Baghdad and back, with a special stock of vitamin spills in the bomb bay and oysters by the million… Nonstop forever. That’s how to keep the roses in your cheeks. It’s a doddle once you’ve learned how.”


The syntax is more serpentine, the vocabulary is more varied. Just the phrase “misering his sperms” alone provides a more surprising combination of words than Lima's whole dull novel does. West doesn’t bother to set scene or explain what’s going on. Who is AJ? Where is he? Why is he so verbose? Why is he cunt-crazier than Alex Portnoy? If the reader can put up with this outrageous wall of words, he can begin to learn the answers. Paradiso, by turn, opens like any traditional novel, setting a scene, introducing the cast of characters, describing them physically, showing them going about their routines. Is there a novel set in the tropics that doesn’t show someone putting a hand through a mosquito net? That’s Lima’s gift, whatever he touches turns into cliché. Ah, look, Baldovina’s disheveled and desperate! By golly, who remembered to use those two epithets in a row to describe a character before him?! Can’t you just feel she’s a deep, rounded character with a teeming inner life? How could this sand grain of a novel pose any threat to mass readers? I’m still looking for Mr. White’s glowing review to Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, him being such a degustador of refined prose and all. Ah, but you see, that’s the moral of the book: be label-less at your own peril! Lezama Lima can’t complain, his status inside and outside Cuba is pretty solid. Most American readers have never even read a Paul West novel, let alone heard of him.

Now that we have a good exposé of how One Hundred Years of Solitude became a global classic thanks to astute cronyism and shameless marketing, perhaps one day we can have a book explaining what went spastic with people like White, what MKUltra program made reviewers transform ordinary novels into otherworldly objects. At one point I started getting the same vibes I got from Frances Stonor Saunders’s The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, about how the CIA interfered with popular tastes in order to promote painting, music, literature with a pro-American-way-of-life slant, that promoted liberal, capitalist values, or simply avoided political meaning at all in a real-art-shouldn’t-debase-itself-with-such-petty-things sort of way. I don’t see any difference between Fuentes’ Mafia and the CIA. It’ll be decades before anyone can undo the mess the Mafia’s marketing did, hyperinflating the quality of novels that ranged from so-so to pretty good, with one or two exceptional masterpieces. Most of the Boom, at the end of day, doesn’t live up to its hype. I don’t contest it has good novels, it’s just that all the hype has not yet convinced me that its exponents surpassed what most Europeans and North Americans were doing at the same time. Believing that is essential to maintaining the Boom’s mythical status; that’s nice, but I never did like Kool-Aid.

Besides Santana-Acuña’s fear of stepping outside popular opinion, his sociology hits the same metaphysical wall all sociology sooner or later hits. He can explain the forces of marketing really well, but he can’t explain how García Márquez went from that “shitty novella” to such an inventive, human, comical, poetic novel. He tries to demonstrate that he received feedback from readers, writers, critics, who helped him hone his skills and turn him into the writer we love; but the Mafia was providing similar help to all its members and no one else but García Márquez wrote a novel of this magnitude. As much as sociologists try to do away with the muse, the unconscious, “talent”, “inspiration”, “creativity”, “Jesus the imagination” or the atheistic “imagination”, the truth is that the creative process can’t be reduced to an outcome of social networking. He can explain why a novel becomes better known than others; and I’m glad he doesn’t deliver the usual palaver that quality always comes to the top if you just wait long enough. Even better, he doesn’t believe in that sham category “universality” to explain why books have mass appeal. However, he can’t explain why I consider Ada or Ardor vastly superior to One Hundred Years of Solitude. All the Mafia’s marketing can’t override my personal aesthetic beliefs. Something at the core of our being can always sense the bullshit and refuse to play. I’m reminded of Wendel Potter’s uplifting message at the end of Deadly Spin: marketing companies spend billions to make us do or buy things against our will; that is a testament to human resistance, since so much money spent means we’re not easily pushed around. What a gloomy world it would be if people couldn’t build mental defenses against the loudspeaker shouting that Cortázar, Fuentes and Lezama Lima are actually amazing novelists.

Tuesday, 27 October 2020

The Lingual Life

I always hoped Steven Moore would be the one to write this book, the first critical study of Alexander Theroux.

Readers of challenging, unconventional fiction eventually come to know its most vocal paladin. He practically inaugurated William Gaddis Studies; he’s the author of a two-volume The Novel: An Alternative History, equal parts perspicacious and heretical. He’s reviewed most of those big novels you love, and you probably thumb through My Back Pages for more suggestions. He’s edited, prefaced and annotated several books on oddities like Ronald Firbank, W. M. Spackman and Chandler Brossard.

So stellar a reputation precedes him that I was giddy with expectation. However, it turns out Alexander Theroux needs to be rescued from him. A Fan’s Notes is a seminal book because for now it’s the biggest source of information on him, but I hope it gets quickly superseded.

If anything, it proves that Moore needs to write his memoirs: he’s been a bookseller, was on campus during the heydays of the nouvelle critique, witnessed the Realism War and followed the rise of the post-modernist novel; he edited the Review of Contemporary Fiction and managed to hang around and out with many remarkable writers. He’s a good raconteur, intimacy with the best fiction has enabled him to deliver good turns of phrase, and he’s never dull to read.

Once Moore had in mind a third volume of The Novel, covering the 20th century, but backed out due to the effort it entailed; he was understandably fatigued; nowadays he’s just been putting his old material in order. A Fan’s Notes stems from that archival mode: it’s a hodgepodge of previous essays on Theroux and new material on unilluminated aspects of his career. When I heard about it months ago, I assumed it would be like his William Gaddis, with original, insightful essays about at least each of Theroux’s major novels: Three Wogs, Darconville’s Cat, An Adultery, and Laura Warholic. That was precipitous of me: there’s no stand-alone chapter on Three Wogs; An Adultery receives a handful of pages, although interesting enough to make me appreciate it more. Laura Warholic, instead of meriting literary analysis, inspired a chapter on the stressful, secret history of its creation full of false starts, abrupt changes, unwholesome additions to an ever-growing manuscript rife with typos, much to the chagrin of Moore, who volunteered to proof-read for what he estimated would be a two-month gig but dilated into an eighteen-month prison term in a cell with a not-that-perfectionist crank but as tenacious and pugnacious about editorial interference as the perfectionist kind. I can’t blame him for needing to get it out of his chest.

The case of Darconville’s Cat is the strangest: it’s the one novel that receives literary analysis, but Moore just reprinted a 1986 essay without insightful updates; a new, brief addendum called “Darconville’s Cat Redux” just reiterates and condenses its main points. I was left with the impression that Moore since then has not given it much thought. This neglect is all the stranger since he’s famous for saying, “This is the novel I had been waiting for all my life, I realized, nor has the succeeding decade dimmed my ardor. I want to be buried with this novel clasped to my heart.”

The chapters on Theroux’s short-stories inedita, his poetry, his public feud with his more successful brother Paul, and his fumbling around with non-fictions help round out a still mysterious figure and oeuvre. I particularly loved the chapter on literary criticism, proving that we urgently need a selection of his essays and book reviews to better understand his personal views on language, the craft, the art of the novel.

I love The Novel’s premise that, contrary to what Ian Watt argued, the novel did not rise fully formed in 18th-century Great Britain as a medium for realists like Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson to mirror society in their pages, but instead has always been a wild, unruly farrago of forms that defies fossilization as much as it stimulates formalist exploration. In Moore’s revisionist paean to formalists, the realist novel is in fact an abomination of normalcy in a long history of weirdness. He argues this with a swathe of suasion by showing how ancient novels from Greece and Rome, Arab-language countries, China and Japan, deploy and use with sophistication and self-consciousness so many of the techniques we tend to identify with avant-garde fiction. Mind you, this is still news for laymen, not for novelists. John Barth as late as 1971 regarded realism “as a kind of aberration in the history of literature.” Borges said pretty much the same in a 1949 Buenos Aires conference; so big a platitude this was for him he didn’t even bother to keep the text for posterity.

Because Moore is the rare scholar – indeed he’s rare because he is a scholar in a scholar-less age – with one foot on po-mo fiction and another one on literary history, I expected him to apply The Novel treatment to Theroux’s novels, namely showing how his novels have technical similarities with their millennial predecessors, sharing a sort of creative continuum. Moore, however, wasn’t interested in this at all; he’s even reticent to accord them a humble spot in post-modernism, which is fine by me since I don’t even believe “post-modernism” is a thing. Moore, however, not only very much thinks it’s a thing, it’s a thing he thinks very highly of. That becomes problematic when he uses it to evaluate everything else.

Moore was born in 1951, which means he came of age at a time when the most exciting names were Gaddis, Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, Stanley Elkin; he was twenty-two when Gravity’s Rainbow hit bookstores. By then the Realism War had moved past its trench days and armies were bayonetting each other over the fate of the novel. It’s hard to pinpoint its start; the German Romantics had a go at the English novel, which they saw as stiflingly prosaic and materialistic; however the crisis didn’t gain momentum until the end of the 19th century. One of the earliest documents against the Realist novel was J.-K. Huysman’s preface to the 2nd edition of Against the Grain (1903), or as I like to call it, “The Original Literature of Exhaustion”: “At the date when Against the Grain was published, in 1884 that is to say, the state of things therefore was this: Naturalism was getting more and more out of breath by dint of turning the mill for ever in the same round. The stock of observations that each writer had stored up by self-scrutiny or study of his neighbours was getting exhausted.”

After an impetus from the early Modernists, Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Rilke, Musil, Svevo, Pirandelli, Raul Brandão, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Mário de Andrade, Miguel de Unamuno, Andrei Biely, it seemed like Realism was finally going to wrinkle away. Those were the grand obituary days: wherever you turned you’d find José Ortega y Gasset, Viktor Shklovsky, Woolf, the fine French folks at the Nouvelle Revue Française, any other naysayer joyfully declaring the death of the Realist novel. In retrospect they seem like a more massive challenge to ruling tastes than they actually were. Perhaps they could have stood a chance if Realism hadn’t been inadvertently saved by fascism the moment novelists were asked to commit themselves to saving the world, to changing society; by the 1930s European politics were turning shitshape real fast: Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal, Szálasi in Hungary were pushing every intellectual into communism, which breathed new life into the seemingly moribund realist novel. The 1934 I Soviet Writer’s Congress ruled out Modernism as bourgeois decadence, subjectivity was out, the inner monologue was a symptom of alienation, the proper form of the novel for a responsible writer was, as Stalin decreed, the 19th-century Realist novel, and that rippled across every Communist Party.

Realism never goes away, it has ups and downs; a down moment became a mass movement after 1945 when intellectuals suddenly realized maybe the Soviets weren’t stupendous saviors after all: information about their totalitarian society was leaking into the West, and it was hard not to be nervous now that they too had nuclear bombs. The intellectual’s role, so clear and morally simple during the war, was now getting servile and ambiguous. Meanwhile changes were going on with the novel, a bit everywhere, unconnected yet, but in a couple of decades it would all look coherent enough. Borges’ 1946 preface for The Invention of Morel is one of the best refutations of Realism ever. Nabokov was at Cornell failing insolent students who factored in “content” in aesthetic judgement. In 1949 Alejo Carpentier coined “the marvelous real”. In 1955 Angel Flores used for the first time in English the expression “magical realism”, apparently a major current in Latin American fiction: Flores was wrong, what he detected was a local subset of a global change via-a-vis Realism. Nabokov, in the preface to the 1958 edition of Lolita, said that the word “reality” should only be written with inverted commas. Italo Calvino was writing a fantasy trilogy, Our Ancestors. By the 1960s many young novelists were giving up Realism: Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum hardly fits that label; Barth wrote The Sot-Weed Factor, an extravagant historical novel, outlawed by socialist realists: evidently the proper subject of the novelist is the present, those are the circumstances he must change. The historical novel was by then a discredited genre, as unliterary as science fiction or the detective novel. Science fiction, of course, is what Anthony Burgess would do in A Clockwork Orange, and Gadda and Robbe-Grillet had already usurped the detective novel to destabilize and mock the conventional novel’s attempts at mirroring objective, total reality. Hawkes’ apocalyptic fables set in Europe since 1949 seemingly influenced Pynchon’s doing V. Coover quickly changed from the early realism of The Origin of the Brunists to the fabulation of Pricksongs and Descants, while Angela Carter was rewriting fairy-tales into sexy beasts. Barth’s 1967 “The Literature of Exhaustion” simply repeated a common mantra at the time that Realism had run its course. The same year Robert Scholes published The Fabulators, an early attempt at explaining what would one day be called postmodernist fiction. Incidentally, 1967 was also the year One Hundred Years of Solitude came out. A year before Scholes had co-written The Nature of Narrative, building on Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, a study of other narrative genres upstaged for too long by the hegemonic novel. It was a timely study because novelists, consciously or unconsciously, since 1945 had been appropriating lowbrow genres and even non-novel forms to create new types of novels. So the chivalric novel underlies Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House; Coover made a political novella out of the Cat in the Hat, whereas Cortázar  turned a Mexican comic book into Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires; Nabokov composed a poem, wrote a commentary on it, and called it a novel; Tomaz de Figueiredo used the Greek panegyric to structure Dom Tanas de Barbatanas; Bellow put Herzog sending letters, although Barth topped it with LETTERS; John Fowles mixed metafiction with the Victorian novel in The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Manuel Puig organized Heartbreak Tango as a series of used the feuilletons, whereas Aunt Julia and the Scripwriter pastiched radionovelas. Calvino pastiched different genres in If on a winter’s night a traveller. Ishmael Reed also turned to the detective novel with Mumbo Jumbo. Or else they wrote novels but kept reminding the reader that they were novels, fictions, a gross violation of realistic aesthetics: the narrator directly addresses the reader; the characters suddenly realize they’re characters; tropes are parodically used to foreground their artificiality; Cortázar gave readers the option of reading Rayuela in two different sequences, nothing could make it clearer it’s just an artefact, not a mirror of reality.

Throughout the world, a new type of novelist arose that didn’t want a proper novel, some didn’t even want a novel at all. There was strong sense of militancy on both sides of the Realism War; either you stood up for Realism or you condemned it, there was no room for indecision and appeasement. It was difficult for college students not to get involved: novelists took over creative writing programs, met on campuses for conferences, went there to give readings and to discuss whether or not the novel was dead, or just the realist novel, whether the concept of realism needed to be broadened, or whether it should be dispensed with altogether. To make it harder to ignore, the anti-realists were also infiltrating the syllabus, as Barth gleefully remarked in 1965: “It’s the spectacle of these enormous universities we have now, all over the place, teaching courses in us! These birds in your series, like me, who haven't even reached menopause yet, Notable Nobodies in the Novel, and already they're giving courses in us. Remarkable. Amusing. And I suppose it's admirable on the part of the American universities. But I wonder what effect it will have on literature. For example, where I work there are 600 English majors - maybe 6,000, I don't know. Some can't read and write. But imagine 600 people in central Pennsylvania knowing and caring who Hawkes and Donleavy are - maybe before Hawkes and Donleavy find out themselves! Now that means that a born loser like The Sot-Weed Factor might even be gotten away with, because 2,000 kids in northeast Nebraska or somewhere have to read it in a Modern Novel course.”

Moore, who matured in tandem with this crisis, has since then taken up the defense of all things po-mo. When he discovered Theroux in 1981, “I assumed he was a recruit to the U.S. fiction vanguard of the time – Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Davenport, Gaddis, Gass, Mathews, McElroy, Pynchon, Sorrentino”, but this was premature. In Moore’s mind, in spite of his “ornate style and manipulation of literary forms”, it’s a mistake to group him with them since “the underlying conservatism of his work and his preference for linear storytelling make this an awkward grouping.” At the same time it’s hard to fit him in with the alternative since “that same style, formalist concerns, and general excessiveness disqualify him from the ranks of more traditional novelists like Bellow and Updike”. Moore’s solution is to create a vaporous third category, “literary outsiders like Frederick Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’), Ronald Firbank, and Djuna Barnes, whose work has little in common with that of their contemporaries and which instead amalgamate curious byways of literary tradition and eccentric genius into something unique.” This is not very “operative”, as they say in lit crit: Nabokov was politically conservative, but no one denies him his position as po-mo primus inter pares; JD Salinger was an outsider and The Catcher in the Rye is a hopelessly bland 19th-century realist novel. An ornate style hardly exists in Barth and Coover, it’s certainly nowhere in Mulligan Stew. At the same time it’s simplistic to say there are no traces of tradition in po-mos: what else was Barth doing but using tradition when he modelled The Sot-Weed Factor after Henry Fielding’s novels?

Actually, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint what po-mo is exactly: Ihab Hassan once made a longish list of nouns hoping perhaps that they’d gain self-awareness through the miracle of simplexity and hand him meaning on a plate. It’s got stuff like: “Anarchy”, certainly not a noun I’d associate with Nabokov or Gass’s masterful control of the text; “Exhaustion/Silence”, showing that he had trouble with a paradigm that included such verbal antipodes as Beckett and…. well, anyone who wasn’t Beckett, I guess; “Rhetoric”, because Finnegans Wake is lisible compared to The Voyeur; “Anti-Narrative/Petite Histoire”, as opposed to Modernism’s “Narrative/Grande Histoire”, I mean, just look at all the grand history taking place on 16 June, 1904, oblivious to World War I, George Steiner was still inconsolable 60 years later, meanwhile Terra Nostra is a laborious 900-page feverish interpretation of one of the most cataclysmic events in history, the meeting of Europeans and Amerindians.

Moore exaggerates the importance of non-linearity. Gass once remarked, “I think that the notion that contemporary fiction is anti-linear is too simple.” He gave Barth and Hawkes as examples. We could add West, Nabokov, Burgess. There’s nothing but linearity in that Victorian double-decker that is The Recognitions. Calvino, in an essay in The Uses of Literature, claimed around this time that he was reconnecting with fables and linear storytelling precisely because the fashion in continental Europe toward non-linearity and anti-plot had already unveiled its boring results in the novels of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute. Barth himself opposed Beckett’s “literature of silence” with the return to plot and storytelling. By the way, given that Moore has read Theroux’s thesis on “The Language of Samuel Beckett”, he missed an opportunity to investigate postmodernists’ conflicted relationship with him. Raymond Federman once spoke of Beckett having closed the door behind him regarding the erasure of language and story; he had gone as far as he could but those after him didn’t have to follow him. The underlying premise of The Fabulators is that there was a widespread return to storytelling, some of it linear, perfectly harmonious with formalist exploration.

Moore, however, is not ready to give up this elegant dichotomy: referring to Darconville’s Cat he states shocked that “The story is simple, the plot unfolds in linear fashion, and the moral is clear.” You can almost hear the disappointment. Oh, if only it were a bit unreadable like The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow, he sniffs. “It’s a rare, perhaps unique example of a novel that reads like a best-seller while deploying the kind of literary pyrotechnics associated with rarified postmodern fiction.” The counterargument to this is that Cat was not a best-seller, unlike the “maximalist, encyclopedic” Gravity’s Rainbow, whose “elaborate style and range of references” notwithstanding has been uninterruptedly reprinted since 1973 whereas Cat flopped and has been out of print since 1996.

Darconville’s Cat is linear but it breaks down the plot with intromissions from other genres, interpolating a love story with digressions, fables, poems, essays, lists, fragmenting it, creating tension between the narrative’s forward impulse and what Shklovsky called “deceleration”. It is a slow, frustrating read, not just because the style is so extravagant the right reader should pause to savor it, but also because Theroux is doing everything to delay the conclusion. It’s strange that Moore doesn’t acknowledge the validity of this technique, since The Sot-Weed Factor is elementarily legible by comparison. He’s right that, reduced to its plot, Cat sounds “conventional and melodramatic”, but the same argument has been used by everyone who just wants to read for the “story”.

I’d insert Theroux in a homemade tradition of language suspicion. From the start American fiction has always been about tricksters, grifters and confidence-men using the gift of the gab to get victims to do their bidding. The classic example is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man. However, you can already hear the tone of future con artists in Captain Ahab’s unctuousness:

“Starbuck, of late I’ve felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know’st what, in one another’s eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act’s immutably decreed. ’Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates’ lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. ’Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, ye’ll hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?”

I’d follow this man to the voting booth! The Pequod is a brilliant allegory of American democracy, a community constituted by semiliterate lower-class workers who follow a well-off madman with extraordinary charisma and rhetorical resources in pursuit of an “enemy” that has caused them no harm, and it all ends in doom. To my mind this has always been an essential aspect of American po-mo. ‘60s fiction was nostalgic over rhetorical play, but at the same time it had lost innocence over the neutrality of language; it became common for villains or morally dubious characters to be rhetorical wizards: I’m thinking of Humbert Humbert, Charles Kinbote, and also crazy Alley Jaggers in West’s Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, a neglected masterpiece, and Dick Gibson in Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show, insane, manipulative, egotistic, in love with the sound of their own bullshit, smooth-talkers who cheat, lie, oppress, fakes who reinvent themselves through shoptalk, monsters who amplify themselves with a grandeur that hides their ethical hollowness. Dr. Crucifer, the evil master of eloquence, is right at home in this monstrous menagerie. Darconville’s voice practically disappears whenever he enters a chapter:

“R-R-Revenge!” cried Dr. Crucifer, his voice resembling the tearing of a strip of calico. He was almost unable to pronounce the word from happiness as he pressed the pistol into Darconville’s hand. “It is a wonderful witty word much disliked by those to whom the thing signified by it is nevertheless dear. Harden your heart. What good is kindness now? All delight comes to an end, hence the chief pleasure in the next beginning: spill the thing’s blood and water a mandrake! It’s only justice! White, to use the parlance of chess, is always morally justified in attacking, so let black see to black – remember, in describing a capture only the capturing and captured pieces are mentioned, never slyness of method or means. Say nothing and you won’t have to repeat it. But be chaos: fast in action, dirigible in absence. She doesn’t have the right to own the area she’s in.”

Theroux’s not different from his contemporaries in showing the pollution of everyday language. Three Wogs uses language charged with racial clichés

Picric, antagonized, scuffing forward with a leer, Fu Manchu readily confirmed a common fear: a distorted mind proves that there is something on it. A girl in a diaphanous shift squirmed to bounce free of the ropes which held her, like a network of fistulae, to a scaled gold and emerald table, a simulated dragon of smooth wood; a purple gag she was unable to spit free. The yellow, moonshaped face of Fu Much, poised between inscrutability and simple lust, both of which disputed for mastery, twitched in a decisive way and then his ochre fingernails, as if plotting a map, curved over her arm, onto her shoulder, up to her clavicle. Suddenly in the midst of depositing into the ashtray a slice of cellophane from her second pack of cigarettes, Mrs. Proby screamed. An unsherette came running down the aisle and ranged various shocked groups of people with the long beam of her flashlight.”

for the same reason The Public Burning is written in a patriotic sociolect:

   On June 24, 1950, less than five years after the end of World War II, the Korean War begins, American boys are again sent off in uniforms to die for Liberty, and a few weeks later, two New York City Jews, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, are arrested by the FBI and charged with having conspired to steal atomic secrets and pass them to the Russians. They are tried, found guilty, and on April 5, 1951, sentenced by the Judge to die – thieves of light to be burned by light – in the electric chair, for it is written than ‘any man who is dominated by demonic spirits to the extent that he gives voice to apostasy is to be subject to the judgement upon sorcerers and wizards.’ Then, after the usual series of permissible sophistries, the various delaying moves and light-restoring countermoves, their fate – as the U.S. Supreme Court refuses for the sixth and last time to hear the case, locks its doors, and goes off on holiday – is at least sealed, and it is determined to burn them in New York City’s Times Square on the night of their fourteenth wedding anniversary, Thursday, June 18, 1953.

   There are reasons for this: theatrical, political, whimsical. It is thought that such an event might provoke open confessions: the Rosenbergs, until now tight-lipped and unrepentant, might at least, once on stage and lights up, perceive their national role and fulfil It, freeing themselves before their deaths from the Phantom’s dark mysterious power, unburdening themselves for the people, and might thereby bring others as well – to the altar, as it were – to cleanse their souls of the Phantom’s taint.

Both show how ideology is conveyed and maintained by pop culture and mass media to the point it infects everyday language. Around the same time Roland Barthes said that language is fascist, American novelists were showing how. The Eisenhowerian diction of “light” and “darkness”, the dehumanization of the enemy as “the Phantom”, are no more comical than the cinematic Yellow Peril stereotypes that confirm Mrs. Proby’s fears of Asians invading “her neighborhood”.

Theroux is aware that rhetoric in the past was a vital part of life. “The glory that was the ancient hero – Odysseus, Achilles, Aeneas, Beowulf, even Hamlet and Milton’s Satan – was, in fact, often bound up with the glory of his speech; his gift that way seemed to be the linchpin of that very heroism, the logical extension of his grandeur,” he says in the “Metaphrastes”. Curiously, a year later Gass said in an interview: “In my book, if anybody gets to be the hero, he’s got the best passages. Hamlet has the best lines. Milton’s Satan has the best lines.” He was talking about Jethro Furber, the preacher in Omensetter’s Luck. Furber was a minor character in the first draft. In another interview he said, “He is certainly the central, pivotal character because he has the best lines, and people have been puzzled about that because it moves him toward a heroic status.” I don’t want to belabor the similarities between Furber and Crucifer, but it’s telling that both of them have more powerful rhetoric than their subdued audiences.

I’d hate to give the impression that I care whether or not Theroux is allowed into the po-mo playground; I’m amused by this point because Moore persists in it. He turns particularly tetchy when Theroux gives irreverential smacks to po-mo aristocracy. His targets include: a Barth novel, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Sorrentino’s awesome Mulligan Stew, Gravity’s Rainbow. Moore is right to point out that he often criticizes other for vices he himself commits; however, what he regrets is the lack of a brotherhood. What a relief when he gives a break to his longstanding reservations to applaud Against the Day, “it is gratifying to see Theroux finally come over to Team Pynchon”, although Moore doesn’t explain why it’s such a big deal if intelligent readers don’t like Gravity’s Rainbow. (I badly want to know the source in page 156 of Nabokov’s alleged inability to understand it). Hugh Kenner wasn’t that impressed, see A Homemade World. Neither was Gore Vidal. Nor John Banville. Theroux’s impatience over Pynchon’s obscurity comes across better than Gass’s standoffish attitude every time his name comes up: Theroux at least gives the impression that he thinks Pynchon’s a decent writer.

Moore has the habit of thinking in terms of a po-mo platoon instead of individuals. He makes it look like they knew each other early on, were friends, read each other, had the same goals, when in fact most of them didn’t know each other, didn’t read each other, and had no idea they were part of a tendency when they started publishing. Besides a covert distrust of Realism, little else connected them. Sure, later on once in a while they got together, after the label “Post-Modernists” was invented; once Gass, Coover, Hawkes, Barthelme threw a party; Pynchon didn’t attend so they placed a potted plant in his chair. (And next year’s big trend in MFA theses will be: what plant species was it, and what does it all mean?)

Instead of talking about po-mo like it’s a real thing, it’s more productive to group writers according to what they do with language. Theroux’s place is next to Nabokov, Gass, West, Elkin, but not Coover, Barth, Barthelme, Sorrentino, Pynchon, Gaddis, regardless of their other and many qualities. “Well, like Sir Thomas Browne, I’m great on resting places,” Furber says in Omensetter’s Luck. This isn’t just name dropping, it signals a galaxy of references shared by these writers who were more attuned to style than to shenanigans. Theroux, West, and Gass evidently returned to Elizabethan and Baroque authors, Lyly, Shakespeare (the Willie in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife), Marlowe, Donne. Whereas from Barth and Pynchon I get the impression that language is immaterial, for the others it’s the only material.

Fortunately, Moore has always abhorred theory, a novel for him is a concrete, singular object and cannot be reduced to obfuscating jargon and general ideas, the point is to bring its process of creation closer to the reader; I read literary essays so I can refine the reasons to admire the genius of a writer. That’s why The Novel was so triumphant. Po-mo is just a gale in the ocean of the novel; and like a gale, it merely rained down what once came up from that ocean. Although Theroux is conversant with his contemporaries’ techniques, he’s fed by Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance literature, plus Catholic liturgy and the Patristic tradition. Moore is engaging when he identifies a quote buried in a paragraph, or tracks down a source from which Theroux got his research, like Gustav Davidson’s A Dictionary of Angels, or shows how a previous text was appropriated by him. I had not yet realized that “Childe Roland” in Three Wogs used and subverted Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”. In these moments he instructs like an old-time scholar; it’s just a pity that they’re so rare. The ideal Theroux scholar would be proficient in all the above-mentioned fields, but Moore shows his anti-Catholic prejudices, which is fine in everyday life but a big obstacle in literary analysis.

In every Theroux novel someone tries to educate or aestheticize an object of desire: Reverend Which Therefore with Cyril, Darconville with Isabella, Christian with Farol Colorado, Eugene with Laura Warholic. They idealize them or superimpose a fantasy on them. This betrays a need to control an otherwise disenchanted, ugly, mediocre world. Theroux knows what the protagonists don’t, that this is bound to fail; as such they can only be prepotent and suited to tragicomedy. In this sense, all his novels are a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, minus the happy ending. However, behind their failures is a sympathetic author raging against his time. It’s this need to evade his own time that makes his fiction a unique nexus of traditions.

Theroux’s wide learning is dissimulated in the most overt elements. Consider Darconville’s Cat’s: “Isabel is first invested with the entire literary heritage of romantic love, then stripped and reviled with the English language’s disturbingly large vocabulary of misogyny,” writes Moore. This isn’t just structural symmetry; this is a shout out to ancient rhetorical education. According to Laurent Pernot in Epideictic Rhetoric, Greek Sophists assigned their students an exercise called antilogiai, pairs of opposing discourses on the same topic. The technical term in Latin is laus et vituperatio, praise and vituperation. Well into the Renaissance this was part of the curriculum: “Along side of the satirical epistle flourished the satirical description, an obvious subject for a school exercise… Every schoolboy learned how to describe a woman’s beauty, and how to write an ‘invective’ against women,” wrote F. J. E. Raby in A History of Christian-Latin Poetry.

Darconville’s Cat is also steeped in an ancient genre called “rhetorical paradox” or “paradoxical praise”, “the formal defense, organized along the lines of traditional encomia, of an unexpected, unworthy, or indefensible subject,” explained Rosalie Littell Colie in Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. From Antiquity to the Renaissance there’s no shortage of encomia to flees, gnats, rats, avarice, baldness, debts, down to the most famous example, Erasmus’ Praise of Folly. The paradox, when oratory was a major part of life, was a genre much appreciated for its rhetorical inventiveness, once upon a time audiences loved to be dazzled by a speaker with bold, surprising arguments and wordplay. You can detect this thrill at shocking common sense in the chapter “Hate” in which Crucifer praises hate as if he were Montaigne’s mad brother. In fact, Crucifer’s praise of misogyny is very much in the tradition of the paradoxical praise.

Laura Warholic is clearly a modern-day Menippean satire: it conforms to what Northrop Frye wrote about it in Anatomy of Criticism:

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusi­asts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. Here again no sharp boundary lines can or should be drawn, but if we compare a character in Jane Austen with a similar character in Peacock we can immediately feel the dif­ference between the two forms. Squire Western belongs to the novel, but Thwackum and Square have Menippean blood in them. A constant theme in the tradition is the ridicule of the philosophus gloriosus, already discussed. The novelist sees evil and folly as social diseases, but the Menippean satirist sees them as diseases of the in­tellect, as a kind of maddened pedantry which the philosophus glori­osus at once symbolizes and defines.

“At its most concentrated the Menippean satire presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern,” continues Frye. “The intellectual structure built up from the story makes for violent dislocations in the customary logic of narrative, though the appearance of carelessness that results re­flects only the carelessness of the reader or his tendency to judge by a novel-centered conception of fiction.” Theroux’s characters, have silly names, Eugene Eyestones, Micepockets, Rapunzel Wisht, Ratnaster, Discknickers, but no more ridiculous than Pangloss (“all languages”), Pantagruel (the all-thirsting one”), Diogenes Teufelsdröckh (“God-born devil-dung”). I was disappointed to learn from A Fan’s Notes that “Warholic” is an actual Polish surname, because a warholic, someone addicted to war, is the perfect summation of Laura’s personality – it’s the sort of unsubtle symbolic surname Petronius or Rabelais would have given to a character. The characters in Laura Warholic, being faithful to their genre, do what Frye describes, they spew and spout lots of gibberish and galimatias about things they have encyclopedic knowledge about and refuse to engage with the world without mediation from their verbal schemata. As such, they seldom engage in proper conversation; they don’t communicate so much as they preach, they overpower their audiences with jargon and argot. Speaking as a Thomas Love Peacock enthusiast, this is the most normal novel Theroux has yet written.

In “Theroux Metaphrastes”, his apologia pro stilo suo, he writes. “Words, among other things, are to style what the clapper is to the bell. And style is a heretic, blasphemously undemocratic. It shows no direct Terentian commitment to humanity. Who wouldn’t call it, however, the purest of prayer?” I can’t help but think of William Blake: “Prayer is the study of Art. Praise is the practice of Art.” Which leads me of course into Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “The Poet Speaks of Praising”:

Oh speak, poet, what do you do?

                                                  --I praise. 

But the monstrosities and the murderous days,

how do you endure them, how do you take them?

                                                  --I praise.

Where Theroux strikes me as an old-fashioned conservative, is not in his politics, it’s in the fact that he profoundly believes that beauty is immanent to literature. The world fascinates him so much he can’t help give it back ennobled and augmented by language. But then he’s Catholic, and since God is the Word, how could he not? This matter goes beyond the idle discussion in the 1960s’ about whether literature should “represent” the world or “create” an autonomous one. The world in Giles Goat-Boy is certainly not ours, it’s a creation, but it’s not more beautiful for it. I don’t mean beauty in the sense of good sentiments, positive messages, hackneyed morality, the avoidance of horrible content. Darconville’s Cat is a litany of horrors, but even when Crucifer is listing ways of killing women language imbues him with grace. Theroux’s language celebrates everything it casts its attention upon, even what’s sordid, vicious, bigoted. This is another instance of his conversation with tradition. “It was Proust, after all, who taught us that art by no means represents a copy of reality, rather it creates a truer, a nobler, more poetic reality,” he said. He may have learned that from Proust, but this wasn’t Proustian wisdom. The 17th-century Italian poet Giambattista Marino said that the poet’s goal was to create “meraviglia”, wonder. Novalis ordered: “All the world must romanticized.” Theroux belongs to an idealistic tradition that rejects materialism and the Enlightenment, from which Realism stems, and that continues to treat language as a medium endowed with divine power. Once poets made poetry to praise either God or his Creation, which was a byroad to Him. St. Augustine composed sermons in rhymed Latin because God was worth the effort. It was the Enlightenment that defiled language, previously used in the poem and the sermon, and reduced it from a creative medium to what it is nowadays, a tool to report the news and to write academic papers, a trite, desiccated system of simple coordinates to move thoughts from A to Z in a way most people can follow. In the wake of Bacon and Descartes, language became prose, and prose was what essays and scientific treatises were written in. And because they were now written for their fellow men and not God, everyone followed Pascal’s recommendation: “It is not among extraordinary and fantastic things that excellence is to be found, of whatever kind it may be.” So Marino was out. “We rise to attain it and become removed from it: it is oftenest necessary to stoop for it. The best books are those, which those who read them believe they themselves could have written. Nature, which alone is good, is wholly familiar and common.” Just let that simmer for a while: the best books are those you think you could have written. Every time Pascal opened his mouth to talk about eloquence he sounded, like many of his coevals, very much like the simpletons Theroux lambasts in the “Metaphrastes”. At times it seems like he’s excoriating less the idiots of his time than Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Sprat, Bouhours, Antoine de Rivarol, as if he were an atavist fending off the inevitable. “O let the long-nosed, umbrella-carrying joy-killers kick the pins out from under metaphor and simile, color and allusion.” Was this a snipe at poor Diane Johnson or rancor at Hobbes? Hobbes condemned metaphors in Leviathan’s chapter “Abuses of Speech”. In “Causes of Absurdity” one learns that the sixth way of causing it implies using “Metaphors, Tropes, and other Rhetoricall figures, in stead of words proper.” Rivarol called them “ce perpétuel mensonge de la parole”, the word’s perpetual lie.

This is the main reason why I love Theroux’s novels and his truculence; sure, I may enjoy his characters, his vast erudition, the satire, the structure, but none of that matters much without a defense of style. God may not be around anymore, but I don’t see why we mortals can’t have Latin sermons composed for us. Plainness may be acceptable in a scientific essay, although even Descartes threw good metaphors into Discourse on the Method, but language is the way we peer into ourselves, connect with others, see the world and make sense of life; when language goes wrong, life itself suffers, impoverishment follows, experience is diminished. Literature cannot give back reality, it can either grunt about it or sing it; as time goes by, fewer and fewer writers make music out of language. That makes Theroux a valuable repository of an ancient tradition.

At one point in the “Metaphrastes” Theroux lists several writers important to him; one of them is the Cicero of Letters to Atticus. Moore is baffled at this choice; I’m baffled at no Gorgias, the father of poetic prose. Cicero’s perfectly understandable, he’s the bedrock of the rhetorical curriculum; during the Middle Ages he was the main authority since Aristotle’s Rhetoric was out of reach. Cicero is also the legendary cause of the Renaissance, thanks precisely to Petrarch finding a manuscript of Letters to Atticus. It’s worth bearing in mind that children throughout Europe, when they enrolled in the Trivium, were battered with his texts, considered the most perfect models of Latin usage; students learned rhetoric from copying him in Latin. Without Cicero there would have been no Lyly, no Marlowe, no Shakespeare.

Cicero is the also the source of the doctus orator, the learned orator, a polymath fluent in all knowledges, the ideal to which the Ancients aspired. Browne and Burton, the great encyclopedists whom Theroux emulates, wanted to be a doctus orator. Moore wrote a lovely essay about the “tradition of learned wit” in Darconville’s Cat, but fails to acknowledge Cicero’s importance in inventing it.

Given that Theroux was a student of Hugh Kenner, as I’ve learned from reading this book, I wonder if his teacher exposed him to his pals Marshall McLuhan, Walter J Ong, Eric A. Havelock, scholars who devoted their lives to studying the rise and fall of rhetoric from Antiquity to the Renaissance, and also Christians who passionately defended a tradition that they saw curtailed and endangered by the Enlightenment.

A Fan’s Notes is not a depressing book, but it leads to a sad conclusion: almost nobody besides Moore has engaged with Theroux’s fiction. He refers from time to time to someone else’s essay or thesis, but the impression is that no one cares about his rich, allusive, funny, challenging fiction. It’s not a unique misfortune: Paul West and Stanley Elkin seem stuck in Logos-less limbo. Gass probably hasn’t slipped into it yet because he’s kept “relevant” thanks to a sentence of his about coaches and American fascism culled from a novel few have actually read. America’s most rhetorical novelists from the last fifty years, its best manipulators of language, don’t interest academics whose job is supposedly to study the books that use language to its fullest potential. I have no idea what interests literary critics, but it’s probably not literature; I even suspect Academe is not a place where the beauty of language is relished for its own sake anymore.

The myth of the doctus orator was one of the first casualties of the Enlightenment, which also invented the specialist. Up until the 19th century, educated Europeans believed that a man could tame all the knowledge in the world. Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Thomas Young are routinely touted as the last men who knew everything. In the field of mathematics, Leonhard Euler and Carl Friedrich Gauss are candidates for the last mathematician who knew all mathematics. Theroux, then, is not just a throwback, he’s an exasperating provocation to our modern mania for sub-specialization. Steiner, who always had a troubled relationship with Academe, was the last scholar to call himself “generalist” with pride. “Specialization has reached moronic vehemence,” he said. “Learned lives are expended on reiterative minutiae. Academic rewards go to the narrow scholiast, to the blinkered. Men and women in the learned profession proclaim themselves to be experts on one author, in one brief historical period, in one aesthetic medium.”

It may be that Theroux is writing for a scholar who doesn’t exist anymore, and yet when Kenner, Frye and Steiner were still alive they didn’t care either. McLuhan probably could have revealed the intricacies of his learning with nitid simplicity. As late as 1958 Frye complained, “Western literature has been more influenced by the Bible than by any other book, but with all his respect for ‘sources,’ the critic knows little more about that influence than the fact that it exists. Biblical typology is so dead a language now that most readers, including scholars, cannot construe the superficial meaning of any poem which employs it.” The problem is specialization: most academics have given up trying to master the whole. McLuhan was simultaneously at home in Ciceronian rhetoric, Patristic exegesis, Mallarmé’s poetry and media theory. At the close of The Classic Trivium, his gorgeous book on the Elizabethan Age, he wrote: “Many facts contributed to make it an age of rhetoric, and even of conflicting rhetorics; but we have long persisted in viewing it in the light of the violent reaction against what Huxley called ‘that pestilent cosmetic, rhetoric.’ It required, perhaps, the advent of such a successful devotee of the second sophistic as James Joyce, to prepare the ground for a scholarly understanding of Elizabethan literature.” Ideally, there should also be scholars paying attention at how Elizabethan literature continues to resonate in contemporary fiction. However, students are now reared not to step outside their narrow fields. An expert on Renaissance rhetoric will want nothing to do with the 20th-century novel. Experts on Menippea don’t acknowledge that it’s still being practiced; I recall David Musgrave addressing Midnight’s Children in Grotesque Anatomies, but that’s about it, they usually stop in the 18th century.

My enjoyment of Theroux’s novels isn’t hindered by my knowing that they’re inaccessible to me beyond what’s simply on the surface; but I’m painfully aware that they’ll always be less real and that their innermost part will remain mute. I hope a scholar one day comes along and makes them sing.