Since the war we have seen many pleas for a return to the older, pre-Flaubertian models, not only in the matter of point of view but in the general structure and interests built into the novel. The false restrictions imposed by various forms of objectivity have been attacked frequently, sometimes with great acumen based on personal experience in writing novels. But it would be a serious mistake to think that what we need is a return to Balzac, or to the English nineteenth century, or to Fielding and Jane Austen. We can be sure that traditional techniques will find new uses, just as the epistolary technique, declared dead many times over, has been revived to excellent effect again and again. But what is needed is not any simple restoration of previous models,
assured Wayne C. Booth at the closing of The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). As remarkable as his lesson may be, its title is misleading since ugly Rhetoric was made to sit at the back while the professor’s pet pupils Point Of View and Narrator hoarded his ogling.
Booth’s willpower would have required a boost of boldness to have acted otherwise. We previously saw that the rhetorical branch of the curriculum was pestiferous after the 17th century. Once fiction was a means to elasticate eloquence: poetry was a subset of rhetoric, the same manual served the poet and the preacher, both of whom were orators; that explains a particularity about Shakespearean drama, a John Lyly romance and a John Donne sermon: they tended to sound a bit the same. “Nearly all our older poetry was written and read by men to whom the distinction between poetry and rhetoric, in its modern form, would have been meaningless”, stated C. S. Lewis once. This wasn’t caused by conformity, lack of curiosity over the particular, a slavish devotion to emulating classic models in detriment of the unique. It reflected a worldview whose lynchpin was language itself, as Henri Irénée Marrou summed up in A History of Education in Antiquity (1948): “Learning to speak properly meant learning to think properly, and even to live properly: in the eyes of the Ancients eloquence had a truly human value transcending any practical applications that might develop as a result of historical circumstances; it was one means for handing on everything that mad man man, the whole cultural heritage that distinguished civilized men from barbarians.” This pedagogical view was still in force in the Renaissance: the point was not to sound the same, but to sound great, and as to what that meant Shakespeare, Lyly and Donne had more or less the same ideas since they all learned rhetoric from the same preceptors, who were mostly Cicero and Quintilian recycled and passed down the millennia with very little new input by ongoing commentators.
But the 17th century brought in rationalism and empiricism, it made the particular a pastime, which in turn led to a philosophy of realism and its offspring, the novel, the greatest monument to the particular, the ordinary, and the detail the world had ever seen. It also introduced taxonomy in rhetoric, a strict division of tasks, an identity style for each genre. Poetry like poetry, whatever that may be, and prose like prose, ditto, should each one sound and look henceforth and forthwith. Functions were assayed, hierarchies assigned, deviations assailed. Now people used prose to communicate truths, preferably in the form of essays, maxims, pensées or reports, whereas Pegasus-winged poetry pissed whimsy from Parnassus.
As the novel after Don Quixote developed out of the old romance – let’s assume for the sake of argument that they were different genres – point of view became the problem of the novelist in the age of realism. Who told the story? Why? How? That didn’t bother rhetorical-minded authors because rhetoric flattens everything into a samey showiness. No one but the student of rhetoric is speaking in Richard III, in Euphues, when Donne uses an epanode right at the start of “Death's Duel”: “Buildings stand by the benefit of their foundations that sustain and support them, and of their buttresses that comprehend and embrace them, and of their contignations that knit and unite them. The foundations suffer them not to sink, the buttresses suffer them not to swerve, and the contignation and knitting suffers them not to cleave.” One of the creepiest side-effects of rhetoric is teaching people what epanode mean. Whoever the characters may be, they’re first and foremost devices for the author to whirl words into wonder, so Shakespeare’s princes and Euphues talk in puns, alliteration, hidden witticisms and allusions. “Lyly, like Shakespeare, not only utilizes vocal ornament — i.e., sounds that are pleasing to the ear — but also relies heavily on similes and antithesis to express ideas”, wrote Sky Gilbert. You could just as easily have replaced Lyly with Gorgias. Euphony, similes and antithesis, which some experts treat as a separate beast called “Baroque”, were the fireworks Gorgias had lit two millennia before to dazzle the hell out of the Athenians.
But the push toward realism brings up the question of who is talking, and how he should be talking. Evidently Robinson Crusoe doesn’t talk like Euphues, but then again not quite like Moll Flanders either, and certainly mistress Roxanna has not constituted a coalition of coyness with prudish Pamela. The novel, born of philosophical realism and constantly aiming at the extremities of the realist spectrum, punching against new limits of tastefulness and decorum as soon as it erased the previous one, replaced rhetoric with point of view, which assigns the proper words to the proper characters when the novelist wants to be anything but proper. Rhetoric, being idealistic, did not tend to operate with “shit”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “piss”, “cum”, etc., but point of view saddles the novelist with this burden like the ugly blind date your best friend hooked you up with. Since realism was the rule, the race was on for raciness, and soon we had Balzac’s courtesans and Henry Miller’s cocks. At this point the novelist, unlike the student of rhetoric, lost control over diction since words now had to be “true” to character. And since in real life most people can barely string into shape one memorable sentence in their lifetimes, soon words were crawling inside a shit pipe to spring ordinary illiterates from the Shawshank of rhetoric into another prison: verisimilitude. As Ian Watt stated in The Rise of the Novel, “‘Point of view’ was to become the crucial instrument whereby the writer expressed his moral sensibility, and pattern came to be the result of the hidden skill whereby the angles at which the mirror was held were made to reflect reality as the novelist saw it.” By the end of the 19th century the fussy Henry James was allocating most of his resources to getting point of view just right, he needed to know how his narrators knew the things they were narrating, how what they said was plausible insofar as their characterization had been established. The novel, then, inherently strove toward impersonality, toward the erasure of the author’s voice: he became more and more the invisible god prophesized by Flaubert, an arranger whose presence was felt in the background, in the effect as a whole, but mute upon his creatures, vowing not to intrude with commentary. By Ulysses this silence had reached as far as it could go: in spite of the usual divisions between realists and Modernists, two synonyms really, stream of consciousness is the apotheosis of the 18th-century novel’s project to be the handmaiden of the philosophy of realism. It reached total external perspective, just Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus ambling about Dublin, their consciousnesses a radio channel emitting without filter a supposedly realer register of experience.
It was Hugh Kenner (in Joyce’s Voices) who came up with the Uncle Charles Principle to name Joyce’s innovative technique in which the narrator’s prose is contaminated by words belonging to the character under focus, including malapropisms and clichés. Modernism in general favored verisimilitude over rhetoric, considered a province of Philistia. However, stream of consciousness and similar techniques, useful as they may be for specific goals, were a dead end unless novelists wanted to keep regurgitating bad broken prose ad infinitum ad nauseam. Rhetorical-minded novelists like Burgess and Nabokov, we saw in part 2, as much as they admired Ulysses, were openly hostile to stream of consciousness and avoided it. The deficiency in linguistic verisimilitude, and the Uncle Charles Principle makes it quite clear, is that it inevitably leads to bad prose because, well, just listen to yourself talking one day – we open our mouths and two words later the idiom has been ripped like a bodice in chick lit. We grunt and cough and interject and hm! and yeah, yeah and aw… at each other, we barely form full sentences in real life. It’s hard work using the minimum, let alone Nadsat, alliteration and multilingual puns. Realism became a tyranny not just of content but of fiction’s soul: style, language. At first this wasn’t problematic since ordinary words and swearing were so novel a thing their presence alone, in whatever shape, was enough to hold the public’s fascination. We now smile when we think poor Norman Mailer had to spend his early years writing “fug” instead of “fuck”. But as social mores and taboos loosened up, the frisson of scandal wore off and Norman became normal, after two centuries of yeah, yeahing and aw…ing, some novelists decided, “Fuck that, let’s go back to rhetoric.”
Booth was certainly correct that traditional techniques would make a comeback, even if he acknowledged it with grudge rather than glee. Brought up in the realist tradition, The Rhetoric of Fiction is a hymn to Jamesian novel-making, which Booth did not think needed tinkering in spite of two centuries of realism’s hegemony:
It would be mere foolishness to claim that the passion for realism that has produced such experiments has been wrong. No theory that has helped to stimulate valuable fiction should be dismissed lightly, however one-sided it may appear. Further, the interest in realism is not a ‘theory’ or even a combination of theories that can be proved right or wrong; it is an expression of what men of a given time have cared for most, and as such it cannot be attacked or defended with rational argument. One can show, I think, that it has sometimes had harmful consequences in the hands of dogmatists, but we can be quite sure that any exclusivist doctrine we tried to substitute for it would be fully as dangerous.
This hearty cry for continuation was proclaimed right after he sang the praises of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, one of the novels that tried to take objective realism as far as it could go, with dire results:
In Jealousy such repetitive and seemingly inconsequential detail is made to carry a great weight of emotion, because we become more and more deeply immersed in the tortured consciousness that produces the unimpassioned observations. But Jealousy is less than 35,000 words long—hardly a third longer than Molly Bloom's final interior monologue. We can endure unmediated, mindless sensation or emotion for as long as a hundred-and-fifty short pages. But it is no accident that Jealousy is very short. The effect of such a novel is of an extended dramatic monologue, an intense expression of one quality of mind and soul, deliberately not judged, deliberately left unplaced, isolated from the rest of human experience. It is, thus, less closely related to the traditional forms of fiction than to lyric poetry.
Actually, many novelists were tired of the French nouveau roman, aka l’école du regard, aka chosisme, because it was anything but emotional, because it was downright dehumanizing, because it was boring as bromide, as Booth admitted in a roundabout way: if Jealousy were such a joy, surely he’d regret its being only 150 pages. When I got to the last page of the longish Ada or Ardor I wished Nabokov had kept going for another 2000 pages. “Fortunately, the alternative to dogmatic realism is not dogmatic antirealism. There are many other routes we can follow”, he promised. Maybe; but effectively there was what authors actually did. You’ll remember that part 2 ended with J. M. Castellet dismissing self-conscious narrators because the public had become too sophisticated to believe in them like in the backward days of Cervantes and Sterne. Evidently Castellet and Booth derided the fabulous: a cursory census at literary criticism before 1960 shows a strenuous commitment to realism. James’s The Art of Fiction created an industry of sycophants who turned his personal approaches to fiction into dogmas everyone should abide by under penalty. Then in 1934 the Soviet Writers Congress added a political injunction to realism: revolutionary writers were called to adopt “socialist realism”, the official aesthetic of the Soviet Union. So for more than half century into the 20th century, Percy Lubbock, José Ortega y Gasset, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Claude-Edmonde Magny, Roland Barthes, Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Hector P. Agosti, Mário Dionísio, Georg Lukacs, and countless others, regardless of ideology, agreed that fiction should be realistic. Watt gave its origins grandeur. And Booth evidenced how difficult it was for someone steeped in this mentality to foresaw a change or to even deem it necessary during the much announced death of the novel.
Actually the public was desperate to believe in fantasy again. And fantasy was just around The Magic Toyshop’s corner. By 1945 realism had more cracks than Stendhal’s centennial mirror. Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions were out by then. Meanwhile the translation of Nabokov’s Despair into French had set in motion a chain of events that would culminate with Sartre coining the term “anti-novel”. Sartre’s negative review stemmed from his disgust at Nabokov simultaneously using outdated plot conventions to generate the plot and mocking them, making it a very self-conscious novel. “Metafiction” wasn’t around yet. “Bookish” was the word Sartre used: a book made out of books, could there be something more rhetorical than that? Nabokov, to make matters worse, poked fun at Dostoyevsky, who was a major celebrity in France since André Gide’s study (1923), and who had progressed into Existentialism as a sort of precursor, so he was as sacred as a cow could be for an atheist. Sartre’s complaints were predictably grounded on the tenets of realism: Dosto showed mankind, real humans whereas Nabokov made “literature” (you need to say it with that particularly French intonation that makes it sound like that smutty magazine your mom just fished under your bed); Dosto addressed ordinary problems and spoke about men to his fellow men, whereas Nabokov probably read too many books and was pretentiously making art for art’s sake atop his Ivory Tower. He didn’t yet use the word “anti-novel” either, Despair needed a dressing-down, a damn good thrashing, not the dignity of new jargon, it was early enough to dismiss it as a fluke instead of a fiat lux and a flux. Sartre didn’t reckon there was a momentum going on till he provided a preface for Sarraute’s Portrait d'un inconnu (1948). By then the flux had turned into flushing a clogged toiled and shit was coming out fast: “One of the most singular aspects of our literary epoch is the occasional appearance of exciting and completely negative works that could be called anti-novels.” A menacing list of titles ensued. A few sentences were enough to sketch many pertinent characteristics: “Those anti-novels maintain the outward appearance and outlines of the novel; they are imaginative works that present us with fictional characters whose story is related. But this is better to deceive us; the aim is to pit the novel against itself, to destroy it under our very eyes (at the same time as it would seem to be erected), to write the novel of a novel that does not, that can not develop, to create a fiction that might be to the great works created by Dostoevsky and Meredith what Miró’s canvas entitled Assassinat de la peinture is to the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens.” Keep that in mind, novels after 1945 are deceptive texts pretending to be novels. He was on to something; we’ll get back to that. The preface was translated by Beth Brombert into English in 1955 as “The Anti-Novel of Nathalie Sarraute” (Yale French Studies, nr. 16), adding to its popularity in the coming decade. Synchronically the same year Angel Flores used the term “magical realism” in English. Trust me, that’s not a coincidence. We’ll get back to it too.
Booth et al, hiding away from reality in the redoubt of realism, were probably not the fittest critics to notice the new tendency. A better guide to the novel’s new stage is Robert Scholes. In 1966, Scholes and Robert Kellogg published The Nature of Narrative, which went against the prejudice of interpreting the history of narrative as an evolution toward the novel. Of all the origins books, this is my favourite. Watt studied the origin of the novel apart from romance; Booth charted the making of the realistic, objective narrator since Flaubert. After the rise of the novel it had become customary to treat former narrative fiction not as autonomous genres in their own right and with their own logic and tropes, but as stages toward the novel, or else as weak species that had failed to survive. You see that attitude at work in Auerbach, Watt and Booth. R&R didn’t believe that. They divided narrative into two major groups: romance and novel. This division wasn’t random or simplistic, it was historical. They quoted from Clara Reeve’s The Progress of the Romance (1785), an early attempt at defining both genres at a time when each one still met favor with the reading public – Reeve herself wrote romances – although the novel was already clearly supplanting it in popular taste:
I will attempt this distinction, and I presume if it is properly done it will be followed—if not, you are but where you were before. The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written. The Romance, in lofty and elevated language, describes what never happened nor is likely to happen. The Novel gives a familiar relation of such things as pass every day before our eyes, such as may happen to our friend, or to ourselves; and the perfection of it is to represent every scene in so easy and natural a manner, and to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses of the persons in the story as if they were our own.
As the novel sough its own identity it embraced and imposed the philosophy of realism, which meant the receding of rhetoric and reverie, of phrasemaking and fabulation. The novel, unless it wanted to be confused with its rival, should eschew idealism in favor of high quotients of quotidian, it should present ordinary people and report their ordinariness unflinchingly. By the next century Stendhal took his mirror, the novelist’s best friend, down the street on a leash. They soon swapped places on the leash while plot and fantasy were allowed to expire.
But even as the novel asserted itself thanks to Daniel Defoe, who introduced objective realism, and to Samuel Richardson, who paved the way for subjectivity, introspection, the inner monologue, Proust and Joyce, Watt was warily aware that a third path resisted being closed off. Henry Fielding’s theory of “the comic epic in prose” forced him to recognize that it “undoubtedly lends some authority to the view that, far from being the unique literary expression of modern society, the novel is essentially a continuation of a very old and honoured narrative tradition.” Watt had to accept that this “view is certainly widely enough held, albeit in a rather general and unformulated way, to deserve consideration.” Reared by realism, he too could not see what was ahead; at one point he even claimed that “it is likely that the epic influence on Fielding was very slight, mainly retrograde, and of little importance in the later tradition of the novel.” I wonder if a few years later he read John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, explicitly inspired by Tom Jones and which any manual will inform you inaugurated the age of post-modernist American fiction. This is relevant because, as R&R pointed out, the “plot of Tom Jones, for example, is essentially a Greek-romance plot.” The same can be said of The Sot-Weed Factor. Let’s keep that in mind: a post-modernist novel is a type of narrative that behaves like pre-novel modes of fiction. Barth was going way back: in fact he was just mirroring the books he’d read. He often talked in interviews that when he attended college, in order to pay tuitions, he worked at the library; this gave him ample time and opportunity to read Indian and Persian epic poems, The Arabian Nights, the Sanskrit Ocean of Stories (Kathasaritsagara), etc. He also often bragged that he didn’t know American literature very well. Like many people who became writers after the war, he took a nonchalant approach to literature, he read for pleasure, not to check boxes on a highbrow education syllabus. As such he had no problem indulging in books outside the bounds of official good taste.
The divide opened between romance and novel also affected judgements of taste regarding content. Evidently ordinary people about whom novels were written did not stop craving the thrills of romance denied by novels. So ordinary people went looking for romance somewhere else, leaving the novel about their ordinariness to be enjoyed by an elitist minority that thought itself superior to ordinary people for not sharing their tacky tastes. To punish the lowbrow’s desertion they hid romance under a flurry of pejorative names: serial, feuilleton, penny dreadful, dime novel, pulp fiction. It was Rocambole for the rabble and Rastignac for the refined. There was finally high culture and low culture, art and entertainment. Dreary realism on one side and fantasy, horror, pirates, love, cowboys, sleuths, sci-fi on the other. The plodding thickened when Modernists realized they could even do away with storytelling since no one was reading them who actually cared about such childish trifles as plot anyway. Then after World War II the French thought, “Why not do away with characters too? And setting? And meaning?” At this point the novel had nearly finished its transformation into what it was meant to be all along: a form of descriptive essay of reality, like the 17th-century philosophical prose texts from which it was born, say Discourse on the Method, a receptable of pure abstract content, of ideas, not of drama or of life, of entities that move around animated by desires and ambitions, of invented stuff, not even of verisimilitude, but of reasoning in motion. Hence why in the 1950s and 1960s so many pitted the “idea-novel” and the “problem-novel” against the “spectacle-novel”. “Prose-spectacle”, as Barthes called it in his derangedly paranoid essay “Ancient rhetoric”, was a devious contraption invented by Gorgias, a shill who sold out to the Man, who allowed “learned discourse, an aesthetic object, ‘sovereign language’, ancestor of ‘literature’” to be “entrusted to men of state” for apparently nefarious purposes. Whatever purpose language served, it certainly wasn’t to provide spectacles.
The novel had to reach the brink of boredom to finally reconnect with its epic origins. Nabokov, Burgess, Italo Calvino, John Barth, Tomaz de Figueiredo, Gabriel García Márquez, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester (GTB), Robert Coover started in realism before being responsible for undermining it. Many of them publicly lashed out against the nouveau roman, sensing in it a grave danger. For realism is castrating, but the nouveau roman spelled for many the death of fiction itself. So its legacy, even if no one follows it anymore, was inadvertently positive since it showed others the perils of taking realism too far to the point of dehumanization and ennui.
Sartre’s negative review (1939) of Despair was an early sign. Borges’s essays “Narrative Art and Magic” (1932) and “Partial Magic in the Quixote” (1949) outlined modes of fiction that discarded the instability of verisimilitude in favor of artistry. Borges argued in the former that the problem with realism is that it absolves everything since it convinces us that everything can happen in any way without order, harmony, elegance. For him, this was the opposite of art, which is ordered, harmonious, a pattern of carefully-composed parts integrated into a whole. I’ll just quote from the end of “Narrative Art and Magic”: “I shall try to summarize the foregoing. I have described two causal procedures: the natural or incessant result of endless, uncontrollable causes and effects; and magic, in which every lucid and determined detail is a prophecy. In the novel, I think that the only possible integrity lies in the latter. Let the former be left to psychological simulations.” One would not need to look long to find Nabokov sharing similar views.
Another Borges piece is relevant to fiction’s process of changing back into romance: in 1940 he wrote the prologue for Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. A fitting prologue to a fine fabulation novel, it was framed by Borges as a riposte to Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art. Gasset had argued that the age of the plot was over, “I doubt very much whether an adventure that will interest our superior sensibility can be invented today”, and considered such invention “practically impossible” in his time. Instead (I’m quoting Borges now) “he upheld the cause of the ‘psychological’ novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile.” He disagreed with the Spanish philosopher on the grounds trod in 1932: “The typical psychological novel is formless.” Art is artistry and artifice, a man-made artefact, there is no point in it trying to compete with the natural chaos of the universe since it is not natural in the first place. “The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible: happy suicides, benevolent murderers, lovers who adore each other to the point of separation, informers who act out of fervor or humility… In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos.” Instead of trying to suppress that fact, the fictionist may accept it and deal with it, to gain control of contrivances in how they relate to the ultimate goal of the completed work. “But the psychological novel would also be a ‘realistic’ novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of verisimilitude. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day.” Instead of retching more and more realism, which will just keep seeking chaos, it was time to go back to a type of fiction historically adverse to chaos and naturalness, a formal fiction that doesn’t try to pretend it’s realistic and so can have the elegance and harmony of artifice. But since no one used the word “romance” anymore, Borges called it by its name in 1940: “The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to be a transcription of reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the seven voyages of Sin bad, or the Quixote.” See, The Golden Ass, a direct descendent of Greek romance. It all makes perfect sense. This also explains why Borges was so captivated by detective novels: for him they were the epitome of order and artifice, since in their rigorous economy of means to an end nothing is left to chance, each part should ideally contribute to the dénouement.
Borges had often heard that “our century lacks the ability to devise interesting plots”, but “no one attempts to prove that if this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots.” He disagreed, “during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots” as the current era, even if the critics weaned on Jamesian and Flaubertian realism failed to admit it (although many secretly read detective novels). Here was, then, a salient aspect of the new fiction for Borges: it would be heavily plotted, convoluted even, fabulous in a way controlled by reason.
Borges was outlining an aesthetic of self-conscious fiction. It’s not surprising that “Partial Magic in the Quixote” is one of the earliest manifestos of metafiction. Robert Alter knowingly named Partial Magic: the novel as a self-conscious genre (1975) after it.
There were other signs. In 1949 Alejo Carpentier published the novel The Kingdom of this World. In the preface he named for the first time the “marvelous real”, which would become one day “magical realism”: “First of all, the sense of the marvelous presupposes a faith. Those who do not believe in saints will not be cured by the miracles of saints, nor will those who are not Don Quixotes be able to enter body and soul into the world of Amidis de Gaul or Tirant lo Blanc. Certain statements made by Rutilio in Los trabajos de Persiles y Segismunda about men being transformed into wolves are entirely trustworthy, because in Cervantes' time it was believed that people would be afflicted with wolf madness.” As talk of the novel’s death reached deafening decibels and romance seeped into the novel, the Quixote started showing up close to fabulators like a talisman, in the most startling guises. It’s as if the novel could only defend itself by ransoming the past it had smugly forsaken. Did you know that Angela Carter worked on a sci-fi TV show, The Adventures of Don Quick, loosely based on Don Quixote? That Calvino called The Baron in the Trees “a kind of Don Quixote of the ‘Philosophy of the Enlightenment’”? Tomaz called Dom Tanas de Barbatanas “a Quixote of vileness”. Nabokov, who wasn’t fond of it, wrote Lectures on Quixote. GTB wrote a brilliant essay, El Quijote como juego. Coover evoked Quixote in Pricksongs and Descants. Barth claimed in “The Spanish Connection” that Don Quixote is the actual father of post-modernism. And it goes without saying that most of the Latin-Americans reclaimed the Quixote as part of their heritage in the Boom’s heyday. In 1998 Carlos Fuentes said, “Every book, whether they be Spanish or Hispano-American, belong to a single territory. It’s what I call the La Mancha territory. We all come from this geography, not just Manchegan but manchada, tainted, that is to say mestiza, itinerant, of the future.” Yeah, well, not when the Boom was starting it didn’t! Around ’64, ’65, GTB was writing articles for the Faro de Vigo newspaper, and he often let loose his anger at the embarrassment his fellow Spaniards felt at Cervantes, such an outdated, clumsy writer.
Before all of them, Borges penned a short-story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, about a man who writes Don Quixote line by line: “Those who have insinuated that Menard devoted his life to writing a contemporary Quixote besmirch his illustrious memory. Pierre Menard did not want to compose another Quixote, which is surely easy enough - he wanted to compose the Quixote. Nor, surely, need one be obliged to note that his goal was never a mechanical transcription of the original; he had no intention of copying it. His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided - word for word and line for line - with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” First Menard tries to reproduce the biographical conditions which shaped Cervantes - Catholicism, 17th-century Spanish, “fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 - be Miguel de Cervantes.” He gives that up not because it’s impossible but because it’s not challenging enough; instead he strives to arrive at the Quixote while remaining Menard and through his own experience. The narrator, infatuated with Menard, finds his version of Quixote superior to the original, even though they're word by word the same. For me this short-story works as a parable of post-modernism which is in itself an aesthetic of emulation. Sartre accused Despair of bookishness, of making fun of conventional and outdated novel tropes, of being a text disguised as a novel. As Menard’s pedant scoffs: “To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminution.” Menard’s post-war peers weren’t beneath making novels tongue-in-cheekily simulating other novels. The novel’s slow transformation into a mere impersonal inventory of things didn’t leave another available venue except the opposite of impersonality: bookish self-consciousness.
Although when R&R argued that the novel was just one narrative genre amongst many, not necessarily the best one, they were trying to rehabilitate the romance, their theory came after praxis. When Scholes, now flying solo, published The Fabulators (1967), a diverse canon was already available to him in order to demonstrate post-war fiction’s return to romance, or, as he preferred, “fabulation”. Not a fan of realism, he was attentive to novels that flaunted their contempt for it and instead sought inspiration in pre-novelesque traditions.
R&R discussed an interesting theory put forth by Henri Focillon in The Life of Forms in Art: supposedly all artistic forms tend to follow a cyclical pattern that goes through four stages: primitive, classic, mannerist and baroque. Focillon believed that after the baroque said art form returns to the primitive stage. R&R weren’t convinced, even though they recognized that traces of the primitive could be found in the contemporary stepping back to picaresque novels. However, they insisted that literary forms did not obey the pattern of plastic arts, so for them the novel after having arrived at the baroque stage, when Joyce, Faulkner and Beckett “twisted and strained the realistic norm to breaking point”, instead of going back to the primitive it sort of developed a dual baroque: “But literary forms are not precisely the same as forms in the plastic arts such as Focillon had in mind, and the novel's turn toward the baroque means a re-turn toward narrative romance as well as a renewed interest in primitive myth.” I think it’s unnecessary to multiply the baroques. I never read Focillon’s book so I have no idea what he meant by a slippery word like baroque, but given its publication year (1942) I’ll go out on a limb and assume he had in mind the gamut of prejudices of the time: prolixity, ramification, artificiality, opacity. As for R&R, their pithy remark about twisting and straining puts them the in same ballpark wherein the baroque was kicked against grammar and clarity. I think we can make the two extremes touch. Primitive narratives and the baroque share an interest in design and pattern; we saw above that for Borges the magic mind and tight narrative design operate under the same logic. Likewise, tales from the early days of civilization were deeply concerned with rhetoric, namely “The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant”, an Egyptian Middle Kingdom period tale (2040 to 1782 BCE) predating the writing down of The Iliad, Greek tragedy, Gorgias and Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric. After Steven Moore describes it in The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800, he says: “The Egyptians enjoyed didactic tales and instructional literature, but valued rhetorical skill above all.” The Arabian Nights, with its nestled tales within tales and self-reflective narratives, is structurally baroque. The Arabs delighted in the rhymed prose of the maqama. Gorgias helped invent the theory of rhetoric that was customary and mandatory in the Renaissance, so why wouldn’t Baroque writers write like “primitive” fiction?
For an example of a “primitive” novel that combined phrasemaking and fabulation we need only turn to Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a novel we’re all missing out for not knowing Latin. The book is a hero’s quest filled with magical, comical events and metamorphoses. But it’s also a stylistic tour de force, an example of amplification. Apuleius was a master stylist who used archaisms to simulate antiquitas obsoleta, an obsolete antique style. Plus, his lush descriptive passages abound with isocolons, double or triple or quadruple clauses usually of equal length. A fabulator who very much loved triple adjectives, and was even pastiched because of them, was Alejo Carpentier. So did Durrell. Apuleius also had a penchant for homoioteleutons, clauses ending with the same syllables, forming rhymes. Apuleius, then, did not use the Uncle Charles Principle, he did not care about linguistic verisimilitude, about prose sounding “natural”, whatever that may be since prose is a man-made technology; he didn’t worry whether his readers felt it was realistic. He used this outlandish style to tell weird stories with a convoluted plot about a guy who turns into a donkey and undergoes lots of bizarre adventures before being turned back into a man by a goddess. As such, Apuleius fuses both fabulation and phrasemaking, a rich style to go with bizarre stories. In The Anatomy of Satire (1962), Gilbert Highet gives a handy description of the effect for us Latinless fops:
“The chief difficulties in appraising the book are, first, its superlatively elegant style (we do not expect a violent and ridiculous story to be told in prose more recherché than that of Marcel Proust, and yet Apuleius is not parodying any particular school of writing), and, second, the genuine charm and sweetness of its conclusion, and of a few famous episodes, notably the tale of Cupid and Psyche. The explanation of the first is that plain prose, blunt and factual, would be both gross and unconvincing. Apuleius is following the most eminent of all conjurors, Ovid, who makes incredible transformations credibly by describing them with eloquent imaginative detail and suave grace. His prose is as scented and as sinuous as a magical spell.”
Violent and ridiculous stories told in recherché prose, now there’s a fit description of Lolita and A Clockwork Orange!
After 1945 writers steely handcuffed to the novel tradition were trying to accommodate it to the vibrations of romance, looking to strike a balance, a trade-off. After all, the novel did bring new useful criteria of verisimilitude, it developed new ways of showing the concrete, of mapping detail, as opposed to previous fiction that could be sketchy and generic apropos of psychology, geography, setting, period. Those were conquests even anti-realists were not willing to give up. As much as Nabokov derided realism, he also hated generalizations. “Caress the details”, he advised his students, but such advice had not been heeded by Shakespeare, who was clumsy with details and let anachronisms slip into his plays. Even the 18th-century anti-realist Fielding had to make peace with this improvement over the classics, since, according to Watt, he “prescribed a greater emphasis on verisimilitude for the new genre than that current in epic or romance. He qualified this, however, by admitting that since ‘the great art of poetry is to mix truth with fiction, in order to join the credible with the surprising’, ‘complaisance to the scepticism of the reader’ should not be taken to a point at which the only characters or incidents permitted are ‘trite, common, or vulgar; such as may happen in every street, or in every house, or which may be met with in the home articles of a newspaper’.” Fielding aimed at a synthesis, retaining the novel’s positive conquests without getting rid of romance’s best qualities. Although this compromise announced what we now call post-modernism, novelties in early stages tend to be anything but tolerant and mild; so after the novel crushed its rival it was sustained for nearly two centuries by its desultory drive toward more and more realism: the public flocked to it to delight in scabrous, sordid details, in exposés of intimate acts previously kept indoors, gazing like a voyeur the limits of decorum being tested. In previous times, when sexual mores were stricter, a novel simply by being set in a whorehouse could be mesmerizing because of its taboo matter. No matter how deep the naturalists dug into the dirt, they could not seem to deplete the soil of its filthy riches. No pathology was left behind, no indiscretion, no paraphilia known at the time, so there were titillating novels about adultery, pederasty and incest. However, what happened behind closed doors started to lose its frisson as it started spending too much of its time outdoors. After the cousin incest novel came the brother/sister incest novel, which only the son/mother incest novel could top (Eça de Queiroz did all three, all recommended), and after that the public yawned. By the early 1900s Gasset was predicting that readers were tired of novels They weren’t, they were tired of trite, common, vulgar realism. They lacked enchantment, fantasy, which had been relegated to lowbrow fiction. So people now either indulged in guilty secrets or they heroically flagellated themselves with the dull forefathers of “literary fiction” while sighing for entertaining novels again. Well, they were out of luck because the elitist Modernists sure as hell didn’t care about their comfort. And after that blip came the recrudescence of naturalism (known in France as “populisme”), and socialist realism, and objective realism, and behaviorist realism, and critical realism: whether you turned to Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dos Passos, Caldwell, or to Malraux, Sartre and Camus, all the way up to the nouveau roman, all roads led to realism.
The novel since the 18th century had pretended to be something else other than textual forms. The epistolary novel quickly outstayed its welcome. The novel-disguised-as-diary didn’t go much further than A Journal of the Plague Year. “In the eighteenth century the novel was an art fundamentally in search of a soul, a nature, a form. The early novels borrowed their forms from already existing prose works”, claimed Gass in 1980; “they are literally made-up copies of these works or of standard verbal habits and uses of the time. We can divide these forms into the printed and the oral. Diaries and journals were being printed, as were histories and autobiographies, correspondence, philosophy, journalism, as well as oral events like sermons, lectures, and debates. Why would any writer need to make up such material? One reason was that the traditional forms left out all the interesting parts. The letters, for example, would probably have concerned the corn bill, or something of this sort, and would not have contained all the love notes to the chambermaid. Made-up works could therefore include more interesting and agreeable elements for pleasure and uplift.” Since the novel sprang up from philosophers who wrote essays and treatises and from journalists who wrote news and articles, the early novels aspired to assert their rigor by imitating their shape. “You imitate prose forms that are usually regarded as factual descriptions. Realism in literature is by and large an imitation of prose forms designed to render the facts of the world. You imitate texts that are presumably about life.” Except they only imitated the external form, like a polite psychopath who ingratiates himself into all habitats; but the demands of fiction, even when it tended toward verisimilitude, made its content clash with its pretensions to truth, allegedly unlike philosophy and the news press. With time and practice, it settled into a neutral machine of textual exposition in linear chronological order, an elongated local news. Novelists in fact even started getting their plots and ideas from the newspaper. Flaubert, for instance, caught a glimpse of a provincial bourgeois lady in a newspaper and figured that could be worked into a decent novel.
However, even though Flaubert depended on the newspaper, he led the charge toward a new brand of imitation. In the 19th century there was still a stigma attached to novel writing, as Jane Austen courageously reminds us in the great Northanger Abbey. Poetry had been pushed off its pedestal but was still the touchstone. It was a very schizophrenic time: the novelist wanted to measure up to the poet whereas the poet wanted poetry to look more prosaic. Baudelaire asked in 1869: “Who among us has not dreamt, in moments of ambition, of the miracle of a poetic prose, musical without rhythm and rhyme, supple and staccato enough to adapt to the lyrical stirrings of the soul, the undulations of dreams, and sudden leaps of consciousness.” As for Flaubert, finishing Madame Bovary (1857) was a toilsome work which forced him to think of sentences as verses. “What a bitch of a thing prose is! It's never finished; there's always something to redo. Yet I think one can give it the consistency of verse. A good sentence in prose should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous. That at least is my ambition (of one thing I’m certain, no-one has ever conceived of a more perfect type of prose than me”, he half groaned half gloated in 1852.
Poetry was one possibility, painting another, or else a musical partiture. In order to rescue the novel from association with lowbrow commercial fiction, the artistic novel strove to behave like anything but what fiction had been up till then: a narrative about events. Instead its titles and subtitles started boasting words like: portrait, étude, scene, fugue. The artistic novel, instead of unfolding linearly, behaved liked music, with leitmotivs, parallel structures, and polyphonic voices interweaved; or else it was static like a lyrical poem, in which case it need not tell a story, it could just be a jumble and bundle of scenes, images, moments incapable of cohering into a whole. Soon it even came to welcome subtitle such as “fragments”, pointing out that it need not even show something complete, it was enough to give a glimpse, to imply, to suggest instead of naming, like Mallarmé said poetry should do. Gass once more: “Novelists did not recognize the problem, namely, that when they borrowed forms not constructed for their medium, they were taking on forms that did not necessarily have the properties they wanted. If they turned to the arts, they had ready-made aesthetic qualities available; but the novels might be all the worse for that because other aesthetic modes might indeed be antithetic to the fictional mode. If, for example, novelists turned to the poetic novel, they said ridiculous things like something I used to say: the techniques of fiction are simply the techniques of the poem. That really does not work out.”
It had a more successful go at aping drama. This may sound contradictory since the stage was historically home to eloquence; but Booth showed that plays possessed a virtue much envied by narrative realists: plays are not narrated. Their impersonality was emulated by novelists such as James who progressively did away with the narrator. Show, don’t tell became the new motto. That’s easy in theater where there’s no narrator, just people on a stage. But how can prose not tell something? You can at beast dampen its tellingness, for instance by getting rid of direct commentary, by using a neutral description that attaches no values to what it describes, that simply states. Drama, however, prepared the novel to next ape cinema, “that hideous crime I will pass over”, joked Gass. Let’s not. The stage still needed to command rhetorical powers since it had to keep an audience engaged. But when the novel tried to look like cinema it was after its visual sparseness, another way of dampening tellingness. Curiously, if this thinned language, it also, as Claude-Edmonde Magny once showed, led to a new type of periphrastic prolixity. Instead of writing “He was tired” (for who can judge whether or not a character is tired? That is passing judgment already), the novelist should imply: “He yawned”, or “He rubbed his eyes”, or “He got up from his desk. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He gulped it down in a second. He looked at the empty cup in his hands. He poured a second cup and it went down as quickly as the first. He returned to the desk to resume writing A Farewell to Arms.” This telegraphic style started before cinema but gained respectability due to the habit of film goers growing up into novelists, and in the case of Americans of going to Hollywood for paychecks. Furthermore, we can’t ignore the similarities between this process and behaviorist psychology, which downplayed the importance of “inner life” and asseverated people could be understood only by external description of their movements. Apparently this method of implying would allow the reader to “participate” fuller in the construction of the novel’s meaning since the author now stepped back and relinquished some of his omniscient denoting power, leaving the reader free to fill in the lacunae with his own value judgements. This was especially popular after the war when the democratic spirit was in full swing. Why wouldn’t the lazy masses love to learn that they were equal partners in the creation of meaningful works of art? But the reader could only be given so much power at the cost of the writer abdicating even more of his responsibility toward language. Rhetoric reached an all-time low. It was around this time that novelists all over the world started showing up who put it back at the top of their priorities.
But before that happy ending, we still need to talk about the novel’s last attempt at imitating something else: finally consciousness itself. “The apparent breakthrough in this Pickwickian history was the interior-monologue stream of consciousness coupled with structures, depending on the point of view, as in Ulysses or As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury”, wrote Gass. “Almost immediately, this was seen to be another made-up copy-but a copy of our interior talk. Now this interior talk was first thought to be more fluid and without form, a stream of consciousness, and the novelist could mold it to his own designs. It was also first felt to be much more realistic and dense in detail and, from the author's point of view, more satisfactorily voyeuristic.” The objective was the same as always: getting rid of artifice for the sake of a more direct, unobtrusive communication of a sensation of lived experienced; showing life from the point when it’s not yet rational enough to let its experiencing of itself be tainted by the malignant “rhetoric”, a word that got a really bad rep from the 19th century onwards. To show life at its most authentic, fulfilling the demand of verisimilitude, meant eviscerating rhetoric. If it only left us with banal formless chitchat, it was not the author’s fault if that’s how the mind’s verbal landscape really is.
The problem with interior monologue and stream of consciousness aspiring to authenticity is that no one is positive what their exact form is, since we can’t see them, we can only guess them from our personal experience that can’t be communicated with anyone else except through language, which ruins everything since the moment you put something down in words you can no longer be sure whether or not it’s deformed by rhetoric. There’s absolutely no reason to assume that Molly Bloom’s monologue is more realistic than previous verbalization of experience since we lack the original to compare them to. Nabokov dismissed stream of consciousness because a good portion of consciousness is languageless. Since verbal forms can only use words, Joyce had to muster all his persuasive powers to convince us that consciousness relies more on language than it does, only because the constraints of the form he was working with dictated it. In short, he had to use rhetoric to fool us into thinking he’d abandoned it for the “real thing”. That is one example of how form affects content, and a reminder of why it’s so dangerous to expect “fiction” to be “truthful” and “verisimilar”.
Gass, unequally convinced, thought that “our own consciousness also borrows forms and modes, including such standard devices as a point of view. A broadcast establishes a point of view through which our stream of verbal consciousness is transmitted. To the degree that this transmission takes place, it does other things such as replace ordinary sensuous experience with talk.” When Gass wrote “Philosophy and the Future of Fiction” he was committed to creating a novelistic form that was wholly itself, that did not mimic preexisting forms. The Tunnel (1995) was his attempt at “whether or not fiction can find a form characteristically and fundamentally its own.” As early as 1969 he had declared that as his mission (Gore Vidal mocked him for that in the infamous “American Plastic” essay), but eventually he confessed that he had failed. The Tunnel is a monologue by a misanthrope rambling and grumbling about his life in non-linear fashion, like so many disposable novels that strewn the past century's floor like popcorns at a movie theater. If anything will save it from being crushed by time’s sticky sole it’ll be the symphony off its sentences. For even though Gass did not innovate at all in terms of form, his 600-page barrage of alliterative sentences marked one of the most amazing revivals of euphuism since the Renaissance. That a novelist born in 1924 was imitating a writer born in 1553 is yet another example of how anti-realists went back to previous modes of rhetoric and narrative forms.
Unexpectedly, Gass scorned the “imitations of earlier works, as if, by parodying or imitating earlier novels’ structure, you somehow could avoid the problem.” He also seemed to distinguish these from the “monster of present-day metafictions.” “These are works which contain, one way or the other, explanations and references to themselves. They are fictions about fiction; not in the obvious sense in which one of the characters is a writer, for that can be taken up in the traditional form. Rather metafictions are fictions in which the content of the work being structured is the structure of traditional fiction”. To illustrate he listed: Doctor Faustus; The Counterfeiters; Remembrance of Things Past; Finnegans Wake; Orlando; At-Swim-Two-Birds; Pale Fire; The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop; Lost in the Funhouse, and works by Stein, Beckett, Borges. I find this awkward because to my mind an early central aspect of metafiction is precisely the self-conscious imitation of genre novels’ structures.
By 1945 the mounting planetary dilemma amongst critics and novelists was: realism or the avant-garde? Anyway that was the overt dilemma everyone posed and passionately debated. To me, however, a more interesting dilemma was going on: which avant-garde? Now this dilemma was barely articulated then, and it gets lost even now in textbooks that continue to reiterate the same stale story. But it’s preposterous to conglobe in “avant-garde” wildly disparate results like the nouveau roman and Lolita.
Long before Barth published “The Literature of Exhaustion” it was generally known that realism had worn itself out for the present moment and only limped on due to the inertia of most novelists comfortably inhabiting a shapely skeleton that didn’t sustain any living organs anymore. The exhaustion of realism was declared by J.-K. Huysmans in his 1903 preface to Against the Grain, and it constitutes the main argument behind José Ortega y Gasset’s The Dehumanization of Art (1925).
What no one knew was what to replace it with. In the 1940s there were two options, two trends if you will. One of them was mostly Eurocentric, based in France but with a smattering of German existentialist angst thrown into the mix. In a 1949 essay Harry Slochower pointed out the following: “French literature has not produced a literary myth comparable to the Greek Prometheus, the Roman Aeneas and Divine Comedy, the Spanish Don Quixote, the German Faust or the American Moby Dick. Its classical stature consists less in outstanding single works by individual authors than in joint, collective products of schools and academies.” Stinging and untrue as this may be, it’s not too remote from what Borges said in “The Paradox of Apollinaire” (1946). The French certainly excelled at organizing groups, schools, movements, and given their worldwide prestige, no one beat them at exporting ideas, at making themselves the guiding light of world culture. This is what allowed them to quickly establish three different groups that dominated part of the response to outworn realism:
First the surrealists, a dying breed in the 1940s, in steep obsolescence, but who had kept alive the Terrorist love for the “destruction of language”, an expression that migrated and nestled into many of Barthes’ essays and turned into the dead-end experimentalism of the likes of Marc Saporta.
Then the existentialists, a miserable bunch that loved to feel miserable, led by Sartre and Camus, playing with Heideggerian angst and producing verbally simplistic stuff like Nausea and The Stranger, dull novels about “emotional cripples”, as Mary Midgley (Beast and Man) called Meursault, characters detached from others, pitiful cells of alienation. This was when the malaise of incommunicability entered literature; it was a slow process: Walter Benjamin had once stated that WWI soldiers came home unable to talk; Heidegger developed in Being and Time a logic of silence which he called sygetics; man, it became common wisdom to affirm in the right esplanades, is thrust into an unintelligible, absurd world, and he can despair, feel angst, or revolt as Camus recommended. It goes without saying that neither silence nor shouting requires sedulous, labyrinthine language.
Finally the rising nouveau roman school, really a tag applied to a bunch of autonomous novelists doing different things, none of them that particularly nouveau: Sarraute was just rehashing Woolf’s tunneling minus the poetic prose – in Sarraute’s hands, tunneling or sous-conversation as she preferred was shoddy stream of consciousness in subpar newspaper prose; Robbe-Grillet, as Barth often taunted him, was only looking for a higher degree of realism.
Although these three groups were often antagonistic, they promised Europeans a direction away from 19th-century realism. Sometimes they even made tense truces. For instance, in Portugal the first nouveau roman novelists came from the ranks of surrealist poetry; Vergílio Ferreira, an existentialist novelist, even though he disliked Robbe-Grillet’s theories since they negated the Being at the base of existentialism, was instrumental in getting younger writers into nouveau roman since he harbored a personal grudge socialist realism, then Portugal’s main literary movement. The periphery looked up to France’s guidance. Juan Goytisolo’s earlier novels followed the socialist realist trend in Spain, but by 1966 he had turned to Claude Simon, although one could argue that Count Julian managed to be even more insipid that his novels about bored bourgeois. In England the nouveau roman was adopted by Christine Brooke-Rose, although no one noticed. In Italy the existentialist go-to-guy was Alberto Moravia, whereas the nouveau roman was represented by Germano Lombardi’s Barcelona (1963) and Edoardo Sanguineti. Sontag tried the nouveau roman with dire results, unless I’m not up to date on Death Kit being now considered a modern American classic. Brazil endured the existentialist balderdash of the always reliably insufferable Clarice Lispector.
During the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s this triad is what novelists and critics meant by “avant-garde” whenever alternatives to realism came into discussion. And did they come! Take for instance Georg Lukacs’ The Meaning of Contemporary Realism (1958). Lukacs, a Hungarian critic, was the main authority on socialist realism; he kowtowed the line laid out at the I Congress of Soviet Writers (1934) that decreed that socialist realism was the aesthetic exclusive to revolutionary writers. He was a soldier always ready to give his life for the phalanx of facts. In his 1938 essay “Realism in the Balance” he defended the return to realism after the excesses of decadent modernism, you know, Joyce, Kafka, Proust. In 1948 he aimed his guns at the new enemy: Existentialisme ou marxisme? Although Lukacs did us the honor of framing a question, the right answer was a given. Well, not ten years later it wasn’t! In the meantime Stalin had died, and in the wake of destalinization the II Congress of Soviet Writers (1954) deliberated that revolutionary writers, although socialist realism continued to be preferred, were now at (KGB-) (Stasi-surveilled) liberty to embrace once debased currents like existentialism in pursuit of the revolution. Which means that in the late fifties Europe was deluged by Marxist-driven existentialist novels following the lethargic, emotionally empty lives of the bourgeoisie. The characters shamble about as if they have recently been in the presence of psychic vampires. These novels continued to be comically Manichean, except instead of portraying heroic farmers and factory workers they vilified the whole middle class.
Strayed, Lukacs, like the other turncoats? No, he stayed staunchly and stalinistically averse to this blasphemy. But in 1958 he realized that his base was shriveling into impotence. In the Introduction he couldn't have been more forthright: “Let us begin by examining two prejudices. The first is typical of much present-day bourgeois criticism. It is contained in the proposition that the literature of ‘modernism’, of the avantgarde, is the essentially modern literature. The traditional techniques of realism, these critics assert, are inadequate, because too superficial, to deal with the realities of our age.” What was trying to supplant socialist realism? A literature that posited loneliness as the center of existence. “Man, thus imagined, may establish contact with other individuals, but only in a superficial, accidental manner; only, ontologically speaking, by retrospective reflection. For ‘the others’, too, are basically solitary, beyond significant relationship.” Loneliness, in this sense, was elevated to a “universal condition humaine.” Lukacs, being no fool, knew who to point the finger at for such angst-ridden doggerel: “I would like, in the present study, to spare the reader tedious excursions into philosophy. But I cannot refrain from drawing the reader’s attention to Heidegger’s description of human existence as a 'thrownness-into-being' (Geworfenheit ins Dasein). A more graphic evocation of the ontological solitariness of the individual would be hard to imagine. Man is 'thrown-into-being'. This implies, not merely that man is constitutionally unable to establish relationships with things or persons outside himself; but also that it is impossible to determine theoretically the origin and goal of human existence.” Heidegger conceived man as an ahistorical being, which to him meant an uprooted Being, linkless and unable to relink with other beings. Sartre picked this up and turned it into the famous statement “existence precedes essence”, found in his 1945 lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism. To Lukacs’s mind, and I think his diagnosis was spot on, this kind of man is condemned to a meaningless, empty life. From the euphoria emanating from the writings of the main existentialist philosophers, this is an awesome situation to be in because it allows man to be free to invent himself. Of course there’s no evidence that Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Kierkegaard (certainly not Kierkegaard!) ever lived happier, fuller lives than anyone else, nor that they were in possession of the Truth; in fact the tendency of protagonists in existentialist novels to be miserable, unhappy, murderous, psychopathic, suicidal, insane, was so high that Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism begins damage-controllingly with him assuring the audience that existentialism does not I repeat does not wallow in viciousness and is not obsessed with the darker aspects of life seriously it’s a humanism I swear you must believe me! Even though I detest socialist realism, I sympathize with Lukacs. Incidentally, Vergílio’s novels are riddled with suicides, which became a comically bad trend in Portugal in the 1960s after his mediocre copycats started imitating him. By the way, he wrote the introduction to the Portuguese edition of Sartre’s Existentialism Is a Humanism: it’s actually longer than the lecture itself.
Nowhere in Lukacs’s diatribe did he mention the other alternative to the avant-garde, an absence which makes sense. Although France was a broken country, with a dying empire and an economy that had to be rekindled thanks to American loans, and even though New York was about to overtake Paris as the world’s cultural capital (part of that story is expertly told in Serge Guilbaut’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War), France was still culturally powerful enough to set the international agenda and to control the narrative to make it look like that nothing else existed outside it or without its sanction. So, for instance, in 1963 the Soviet Writers Union decided to have a debate in Leningrad with the West on realism, the novel, and the avant-garde. The Soviets specifically requested the West’s avant-garde novelists to be present (it’s a pity it wasn’t part of a plot to poison them all). They got in touch with COMES, the European Community of Writers, which in turn contacted the Western avant-garde writers invited by the Soviets. The stars of the show were Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and Bernard Pingaud who replaced Michel Butor; also invited were Frenchmen and Italians likewise associated with the nouveau roman. So, for the Soviets the avant-garde novel and the nouveau roman were one and the same thing.
By 1959 the nouveau roman had already become a household name that commanded prestige and assured the presence of its practitioners at key events. That year Robbe-Grillet and Butor attended the First International Colloquium on the Novel, held in Formentor, where realism and the novel’s social utility were topics under heated discussion. Furthermore, the nouveaux romanciers started nabbing major French awards, making them exportable commodities. Claude Ollier got the Médicis in 1958. Claude Mauriac got the Médicis the following year. Butor got the 1956 Fénéon for L'Emploi du temps and the 1957 Renaudot for La Modification. Robbe-Grillet was launched into fame when The Voyeuer won the Prix des Critiques, whose ensuing scandal included jury members quitting the jury and Barthes and Blanchot coming to his rescue when the press attacked him. Sarraute didn’t do badly, she got the 1964 Prix international de littérature. This made them massively visible and the face of change: soon they were touring the world giving lectures on, God help us!, novel-writing: at least Butor and Robbe-Grillet were in Lisbon, spreading moral support to their Portuguese congregation peddling novels that haven’t been reedited in over more than half a century. Their speedy success sent to the peripherals the idea that if they wanted to be translated into French they had to write nouveau roman novels.
For a couple years, then, it looked like the future of the novel would be tedious, plotless, plain-style novels that hold themselves in high regard because they take the names out of characters, destroy conventional punctuation, pulverize the timeline, all the while remaining faithful to the trappings of realist plots, dissolving themselves into pointillistic reports on ordinary events (Butor, like a typical 19th-century Frenchman, loved adultery predicaments), all told in kindergarten prose that makes Hemingway look as elaborate as a Bossuet sermon.
Fortunately, however, there was another sort of avant-garde writer. He was humorous, relished extravagant plotting, did not succumb to angst and misery. Stylistically, he was a formalist, he cared about intricate, euphonic, sensuous writing; he shared some of the anxieties of the “Terrorists” about worn-out language, but his solution did not take the route of destruction or surrealistic nonsense. He believed in the much-maligned rhetoric, he did not scoff at metaphor; for him alliteration, lipograms, palindromes, palinlogues, paronomasias were the fulcrum of the job. He was baroque, euphuistic, Gorgianic. He built on the romance tradition that had been in decline since the Age of Reason, he was bored by ordinary people doing ordinary things, he craved myth, fable, he wanted imagination’s emancipation. He didn’t belong to a school, in fact this branch of the avant-garde didn’t have a center or a headquarters, it was spontaneous, so spontaneous few saw it underway. It was happening a bit everywhere at the same time, it was planetary unlike the local nouveau roman. In Portugal there was Tomaz de Figueiredo; in Spain GTB; in France Raymond Queneau, sometimes Georges Perec; in Italy Carlo Emilio Gadda, Giorgio Manganelli and Italo Calvino; in the UK Lawrence Durrell, Anthony Burgess and Angela Carter. Germany had Günter Grass. Latin America amassed Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and many more. The USA was lucky enough to have Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, Paul West, Alexander Theroux, Stanley Elkin.
Some people could argue that I just listed a post-modernist syllabus, but I find it a term of little importance. I’m interested in a set of post-war writers whose characteristics evince a return to the Homeric mind I talked about in part 1, to the epic, to romance.
We saw in part 2 that Jean Paulhan devised a rhetoric of self-consciousness in order to extricate himself out of Terror’s tangle. Borges and Nabokov also moved in that direction. There’s nothing new about self-conscious novels, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy fit the bill. What’s important is the timing and the impression of a crescendo. Realists scoff at the self-conscious novel because it reminds the reader that he’s reading only fiction. Readers had been raised since Flaubert to revere the invisible narrator-god, so this was grating rather than gratifying intellectual play. When Sartre dismissed Nabokov’s Despair he focused his wrath on the novel’s self-conscious send-up of worn-out tropes used by Dostoyevsky and on his composing it out of bits and pieces of the novel’s tradition. (The review was originally published in Situations I; there’s an English translation in Critical Essays, The University of Chicago Press, 2017) Sartre had philosophical reasons to object to self-consciousness. the same year he chastised François Mauriac, whom he believed constrained the characters’ freedom. For an existentialist man is born free. Nabokov’s line “My characters are galley slaves” is the kind of the thing that have Sartre nightmares. “François Mauriac and Freedom” is an outline of how existentialist characters should behave – or misbehave: they must act erratically, perform extreme acts like pointless murder, filial apathy and suicide because they need to affirm their absolute freedom, even from the constancy of coherence we usually expect a character’s personality to exhibit after it’s been established. Besides updating James’s complaint about Trollope’s toys, it’s another instance of how impersonality kept creeping into the novel’s matrix regardless of its iterations
Despair was philosophically problematic because self-consciousness exposes the delusion of impersonality. It implies a puppet-master pulling the strings, a conductor, a creator not invisible but deeply compromised with the work. After all, a reading mind must be behind all the tropes and outdated conventions being mustered into mockery with mastery. What’s unprecedented about this, at least insofar as the short history of the realist novel was concerned, is that novelists were taught to make novels out of two things: either the external world or their inner world. Either Zola climbing down the mine shaft to report back on the lives of miners; or Proust’s Marcel manically chasing lost time. But the novelist did not make novels out of preexisting novels, nor out of tradition, and if he did he certainly did not call our attention to it and break our spell.
However, this procedure became popular around World War II. Mind you, I don’t think it had anything to do with the war, I’m just using it as a convenient time mark: fiction changes in response to the wearing out of possibilities within itself, not because of what goes on in the world – novelists are creative people dodging daily drudgery, they want to be original, to stand apart, to be authors, not copyists. Although self-consciousness is an ancient technique, it became abundant because realism had reached its apex and attempts at going further were killing the novel. Writers everywhere started feeling a nostalgia for the old-fashioned intrusive narrator who comments on the narrative. Around 1941 Tomaz de Figueiredo started writing a novella narrated by a narrator whom internal evidences indicates is “Tomaz de Figueiredo” and who addresses the reader directly; it was published in a newspaper the following year and in book form in 1954, to which he added two more parts. Although it looks like a trilogy of novellas, Tomaz called it a novel. It uses the Quixote’s old plot device of the “found manuscript”, except the manuscript, which narrates true crimes, was real and Tomaz stole it from town hall records when he held a governmental job. Bits of it are interspersed with his own prose. Tomaz could be lyrical and baroque or colloquial and archaic, sometimes all four simultaneously, but in Procissão dos Defuntos he toned down the phrasemaking to give the narrator an appropriate chatty tone, so I think I can translate a bit from pages 106-107 without ruining it too much:
The unravelling of this quite truthful and straight story is taking such a turn that the narrator now feels like sticking his nose in it, antagonizing the canons of objectivity and subsequent ones.
He doesn’t know what it is! The style chasing the subject, the calamus after the style, and producing a procacious succession of obsolete ways and sayings, so that the reader has perhaps given up being one.
The subject, alas, so rancid, seems to ask for it, and perhaps the lion’s share of the blame will not lie on the one stretching the dough, being to blame only for not having let the legal documents he took it from and other old books crumble in peace and humidity.
Jadedly he felt like freeing himself of literary ambitions, turning to the primitive novelesque ingenuity, and from such plainness these pages will come out. He pledges himself, out of penitence, not to write in the end another narrative which he could quite easily undertake, and which, if it weren’t for Alexandre Dumas having existed, he’d call without a doubt Twenty Years Later.
He pledges, pledge he does, although pledges are not to be relied on when it comes to writers, to whom determined subjects whet their gluttony. So let’s wait and see, since the writer’s quill also happens to be God’s instrument of justice.
Snakes and Lizards could likewise be called the complementary narrative, since cases in it would be related that would make hair stand on end.
In the style will be the pain, somewhat Visigothic, and critics will accuse the author of being older than Braga’s See.
|Older than Braga's See|
Evidently he breaks his pledge and the third novella is precisely entitled “Snakes and Lizards”. He also got one prediction right: the critics in 1954 were not amused. Thirty years later they’d read José Saramago’s novels and rave at his originality. And that’s perfectly fair because this was not the norm, a narrator crushing the illusion of realism so brazenly, reminding the reader he’s not reading a slice of life, but a fiction, a made-up thing. It’s certainly an unsettling feeling, there’s something frivolous about fiction being made-up stories for adults. Critics in 1954 were raised thinking literature is serious stuff, real stuff, filled and dealing with real problems. At one point where the narrator wonders why he doesn’t just interrupt the narrative and go pick up an unread Thomas Mann off the shelf: many must have thought the same, if anyone embodied the serious novelist back then was Mann. Procissão dos Defuntos is an anti-novel like Despair, a fiction mocking fiction and about the making of fiction. Tomaz turned the true crimes into a sort of feuilleton which he used to parody popular detective novels. Countless others were certainly doing similar things around the world, but it was such a diffuse activity no one saw yet a tendency building up.
I’m a huge fan of synchronicities, so for me it’s meaningful that Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man was reedited for the first time since 1857 in 1949, the same year Borges wrote “Partial Magic”. Melville’s wonderful, bizarre romance was unsettling by the conventions of its time and bombed horribly. But in 1949 it was finally beginning to make sense:
WHICH MAY PASS FOR WHATEVER IT MAY PROVE TO BE WORTH.
But ere be given the rather grave story of Charlemont, a reply must in civility be made to a certain voice which methinks I hear, that, in view of past chapters, and more particularly the last, where certain antics appear, exclaims: How unreal all this is! Who did ever dress or act like your cosmopolitan? And who, it might be returned, did ever dress or act like harlequin?
Strange, that in a work of amusement, this severe fidelity to real life should be exacted by any one, who, by taking up such a work, sufficiently shows that he is not unwilling to drop real life, and turn, for a time, to something different. Yes, it is, indeed, strange that any one should clamor for the thing he is weary of; that any one, who, for any cause, finds real life dull, should yet demand of him who is to divert his attention from it, that he should be true to that dullness.
There is another class, and with this class we side, who sit down to a work of amusement tolerantly as they sit at a play, and with much the same expectations and feelings. They look that fancy shall evoke scenes different from those of the same old crowd round the custom-house counter, and same old dishes on the boardinghouse table, with characters unlike those of the same old acquaintances they meet in the same old way every day in the same old street. And as, in real life, the proprieties will not allow people to act out themselves with that unreserve permitted to the stage; so, in books of fiction, they look not only for more entertainment, but, at bottom, even for more reality, than real life itself can show. Thus, though they want novelty, they want nature, too; but nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. In this way of thinking, the people in a fiction, like the people in a play, must dress as nobody exactly dresses, talk as nobody exactly talks, act as nobody exactly acts. It is with fiction as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.
If, then, something is to be pardoned to well-meant endeavor, surely a little is to be allowed to that writer who, in all his scenes, does but seek to minister to what, as he understands it, is the implied wish of the more indulgent lovers of entertainment, before whom harlequin can never appear in a coat too parti-colored, or cut capers too fantastic.
One word more. Though every one knows how bootless it is to be in all cases vindicating one's self, never mind how convinced one may be that he is never in the wrong; yet, so precious to man is the approbation of his kind, that to rest, though but under an imaginary censure applied to but a work of imagination, is no easy thing. The mention of this weakness will explain why  such readers as may think they perceive something harmonious between the boisterous hilarity of the cosmopolitan with the bristling cynic, and his restrained good-nature with the boon-companion, are now referred to that chapter where some similar apparent inconsistency in another character is, on general principles, modestly endeavored to-be apologized for.
In a couple of decades no one would find it weird anymore when the narrator suddenly started talking directly to the reader in the middle of the book. “Partial Magic in the Quixote” was included in Other Inquisitions (1952). From the start Borges made it clear that he was fed up with realism:
Compared with other classic books (the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Pharsalia, Dante’s Commedia, Shakespeare's tragedies and comedies), the Quixote is a realistic work; its realism, however, differs essentially from that practiced by the nineteenth century. Joseph Conrad could write that he excluded the supernatural from his work because to include it would seem a denial that the everyday was marvelous; I do not know if Miguel de Cervantes shared that intuition, but I do know that the form of the Quixote made him counterpose a real prosaic world to an imaginary poetic world. Conrad and Henry James wrote novels of reality because they judged reality to be poetic; for Cervantes the real and the poetic were antinomies.
That in itself is not surprising. What’s surprising is his interest in self-conscious techniques:
Why does it disturb us that the map be included in the map and the thousand and one nights in the book of the Thousand and One Nights? Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of the Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet? I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed that the history of the universe is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they are also written.
In 1956, Barth published his first novel, The Floating Opera, in which yet another narrator directly addresses the reader. Barth had recently read and been influenced by Machado de Assis’ The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which by another synchronicity had been translated into English in 1952. It’s one of the few 19th-century novels that owes a clear debt to Laurence Sterne. Another one was Travels in my Homeland, which both Machado and Tomaz were fans of. Brás Cubas is dead, he narrates from the Afterlife, and his narrative assumes a digressive form that goes into the composition of the book the reader is reading: he talks about cutting, adding, rewriting chapters, of mistakes he left in, of things he could have improved; he makes promises to the reader he fails to keep, his memory has lacunae. By 1970 William H. Gass found a name for all of this: metafiction.
Why did what we now call metafiction gain so much momentum at this particular time? Why not before or later? To my mind metafiction was important because it opened a path to the impasse over where to go after realism. Novelists, readers and critics either downplayed the crisis of the novel or bleakly failed to see anything ahead of it save its tombstone. Let’s think of metafiction as a way of deprogramming their minds from the rigidity of realism. The more they were reminded that fiction is fiction the more tolerant they became of types of content that do not require the illusion of verisimilitude. This could have been stated in many ways, but metafiction back then carried an ostentation about it, the brusque touch necessary to awaken people who had for so long been lulled into confusing fiction with reality. Having an obnoxious narrator – many in the early metafictional novels are – beating them about the head that they were just reading a novel, that a narrator is just playing with Trollopian toys that say and do what he wants them to say and do, was a necessary excess to drive home a serious philosophical point about the nature of fiction, namely that it’s dangerous to mistake it for truth.
The reader had to be constantly reminded that fiction is false, deceitful, treacherous. It’s no wonder, to me at least, that so many post-war novels besides having a picaresque structure are in love with rogues and swindlers like their 16th-century Spanish counterparts. The lover of synchronicities would point out that it’s not surprising that critics suddenly became interested in the history of the picaro, as attested by R. W. Lewis’s The picaresque saint: Representative figures in contemporary fiction (1959) and Robert Alter’s Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel (1965).
Lolita is about a deceitful sexual predator who pretends to be a decent husband in order to get access to a child, and then he pretends to be repentant for the reader to feel compassion for him. Mann’s unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years is also about a conman and a crook. Let’s marvel at the synchronicity of having two confidence-men so close together, Melville’s and Mann’s: I can’t resist adding that Felix Krull came out in 1954, the same year The Confidence-Man received a critical edition that helped elevate its status. Lolita came out the following year. But there was more: William Gaddis’ colossal The Recognitons is filled with hustlers, swindlers, cheats, liars, and the protagonist is a painter who makes forgeries of Old Masters. Curiously, GTB’s Off-Side (1968) also involves an art forger. In Gaddis’ next novel, J R, a kid builds a financial empire using an adult as an iron front. Falseness was part of Camus’ The Fall. Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962) is about one Charles Kinbote who may not be the literary critic he claims to be. John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig (1961) is set in London’s underworld and follows sleazy people carrying out illicit activities. Tomaz’s Dom Tanas de Barbatanas (1962) is a panegyric clearly written by a biased narrator who changes historical events to present his employer’s life in better light. In GTB’s Don Juan (1963) the narrator strikes an acquaintance with a mysterious stranger who claims to be the original Don Juan living in 20th-century Paris – or maybe it’s an elaborate ruse. By the way, Pierre Menard is described as loathing “those parasitic books that set Christ on a boulevard, Hamlet on La Cannabière, or don Quixote on Wall Street.” I wonder if GTB was already aware of Borges’ short-story. A conman is the protagonist of Stanley Elkin’s first novel, Boswell (1964). Conning people is what Father Jethro Furber uses his outstanding rhetorical powers for in Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck. The theme of forgery and fakes is present in Joseph McElroy’s A Smuggler's Bible. In John Fowles’ The Magus the twisted Conchis gets Nicholas Urfe involved in a bizarre game which blurs reality and fantasy. I don’t think I need to belabor the point. Novel after novel, the reader was being trained to become sceptic, even about fiction’ content. He was being educated to stop treating it as a report and rather as a game, to delight in the wonder as if it were a magician’s trick. As GTB asked, “Why is it so hard to accept that this writing business is just a game?” Pushed a bit further, it could even be construed as a “lie”: that is the premise Giorgio Manganelli developed in La letteratura come menzogna (1967), a watershed essay whose unavailability in English is unexplainable.
This opened new venues for storytelling. Once novelists and readers agreed that novels don’t have an obligation toward empirical truth, something far more interesting than metafiction is allowed to flourish: fantasy. That’s why for me it was no coincidence that “magical realism” got into the English language around the same time. Both are part of the same phenomenon. Once upon a time fantasias like The Master and Margarita and The Third Policeman showed up once in a generation. By the 1960s there were dozens of them annually. One way of adding fantasy was to treat novels rather as containers of myths. Carpentier envisioned in Literatura y Conciencia Política en América Latina a sort of Homeric backtracking, the post-realist novel would restore “the collective epos, the epic of the masses, of human travelling, of human will.” He’s describing the characteristics of Homer’s epic as we saw in part 1: a narrative low on introspection, about people doing things, full of episodes and movement, an encyclopedia of a whole culture. Carpentier, like so many at the time, was fed up with psychology and the type of abstract thinking that had sicced Plato on epic storytelling.
This may be the hardest part to explain, but well into the 1960s there was a widespread concern over the obtunding of readerly imagination. It went beyond the usual disdain for fantasy elements associated with lowbrow fiction; it was more subtle and serious than that: there were worries modern people had actually lost the faculty to enjoy anything but realistic fiction. Edoardo Bizzarrri, Guimarães Rosa’s Italian translator in the ‘60s, worried about his reception in European since his metaphysical, telluric tales sampled with mild fantastic elements, were no longer what Europeans were used to reading: “Naturally, we’ll have to take some risks with the European public”, wrote back Rosa, “- perhaps today excessively materialistic, rationalist, political, positive, intellectualizing, or plebeianizing, drawn apart from the pure magical, always more lost the sensibility and receptivity to the ‘beatific’.” He was proud that even the French “rationalists” were responding well to his “atmosphère de rêve”: Rosa didn’t hide his sense of mission to widen a spiritual dimension of the soul contracted by the Enlightenment. One of the effects of Cartesian rationalism and empiricism was precisely in establishing a scale of values, with realism and tragedy at the top of artistic merit, and fantasy, crime, melodrama, science fiction, thrillers at the bottom. And yet these were also the years when Calvino wrote about children living in trees, Barth gave us Gilles the goat-boy, Angela Carter brought back the Gothic, and Kurt Vonnegut, Burgess and Thomas Pynchon appropriated science-fiction for their own ends. Fowles wrote a thriller, The Collector. They had artistic ambitions, and yet they dabbled in material that serious authors twenty years before would have avoided out of social embarrassment or written for money and under a pseudonym. I think metafiction helped change that snotty attitude. A novel like One Hundred Years of solitude would have been deemed ridiculous in the 1920s and 1930s, it needed the mental environment fostered by metafiction to thrive in. In fact, for all the lore about the exuberant current of magical realism coming out of Latin America, many Latin American novels at the start of the boom – The Time of the Hero, The Green House, Where the Air is Clear, Rayuela, Paradiso, Three Trapped Tigers, Explosion in a Cathedral – were slice-of-life novels about vapid bourgeois like so many of their European cousins.
The standard textbook at some point talks about how postmodernism subverted hierarchies between low and high culture and mixed genres. They usually make a very bad job of explaining why. Some will try to make it look like it was part of a conscious or unconscious political design to level social classes and usher in socialism. Marxist critics love to spew gibberish like that. Here’s some of that poppycock:
It is in the late 1950s and early 1960s that we see the beginnings of what is now understood as postmodernism. In the work of the American cultural critic, Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation (1966), we encounter the celebration of what she calls a ‘new sensibility’. As she explains: ‘One important consequence of the new sensibility [is] that the distinction between high” and “low” culture seems less and less meaningful.’
The postmodern ‘new sensibility’ rejected the cultural elitism of modernism. Although it often ‘quoted’ popular culture, modernism was marked by a deep suspicion of all things popular. Its entry into the museum and the academy as official culture was undoubtedly made easier (despite its declared antagonism to ‘bourgeois philistinism’) by its appeal to, and homologous relationship with, the elitism of class society. The response of the postmodern ‘new sensibility’ to modernism’s canonization was a re-evaluation of popular culture. The postmodernism of the 1960s was therefore in part a populist attack on the elitism of modernism. It signalled a refusal of what Andreas Huyssen in After the Great Divide (1986) calls ‘the great divide … [a] discourse which insists on the categorical distinction between high art and mass culture’.
That’s rubbish: was there anyone more elitist than Nabokov? Tomaz belonged to the rural aristocracy, despised democracy, proudly wore a ring with his family’s coat of arms all his life. Barth was bored by politics, he regretted his one try at a political speech during Vietnam. To me it’s more sensible to say that mixing high and low culture was a consequence of a more pressing objective: to return to the romance; what happened is that romance had been ghettoized into so-called low culture. They stampeded into it because that’s where the remnants of romance were secluded, waiting for a paladin to set them free.
What was in bad taste once became usable again. Burgess criticized Lawrence Durrell for making The Alexandria Quartet too melodramatic. I actually agree with him, but that’s missing the importance of being melodramatic then: it was a way of mitigating the inhuman aridness of serious fiction. According to Havelock, Plato sought to replace heroes with concepts. “A history of the Greek mind furnishes a stage on which the players in the great comedy of ideas conduct their business with each other. These are not men and women but rather words and thoughts which cluster in competing formation and manoeuvre to challenge us and win our attention while they seek to elbow each other off the boards.” The Platonic mind and the Cartesian mind eventually lose interest in people, they play only with concepts and ideas. The rich dramatic life of Homer’s epics disappears. It was this dehumanization that provoked such inflamed reactions against the nouveau roman. García Márquez, while he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, explain in an 1965 interview that his forthcoming novel would merge “traditional common places: rhetoric, exalted sentimentality, abuse of telluric elements, melodrama, soap opera.” Few said so frontally what was on the minds of so many. Not many critics realize that One Hundred Years of Solitude did so well not because it’s a great novel –I think it is – but because it shamelessly gave the public what “serious fiction” denied it: an easy-to-read story filled with interesting, likeable characters who get involved in fantastic adventures and romantic entanglements.
Fantastic elements were cropping up in fiction everywhere at the same time partially because the politics of fiction also changed. Roger Garaudy’s D’un Réalisme Sans Rivages (1963), a realism without margins, was written in response to Lukacs’s The Meaning of Contemporary Fiction. Garaudy defended that realism needed to widen its definition and to be more inclusive; some could argue that in the wake of realist fiction’s crisis he was trying to recruit previously forsaken works into its ranks: a case in point was Franz Kafka, whom Garaudy now upheld as a realist provided we amplified our scope. Kafka’s choice was not innocent since Lukacs had traditionally pitted Mann’s wholesome, healthy modernism against Kafka’s subjective, self-centered, alienated decadence. Although Garaudy’s attempt at turning Kafka into a realist deserves a few quibbles, the essay itself was an important signal. Garaudy was a respected communist novelist, a member of the French Communist Party; other communist critics, who dominated European literary outlets, started taking into consideration fantastic novels that years before would have struck them as silly. This helped prepare the peaceful reception of magical realism.
The lover of synchronicities points out that as novelists were taking a turn to the grotesque, the satirical, the comic, the fantastic, companion essays were coming out: E. C. Riley's Cervantes's theory of the novel (1962), G. K. Hunter's John Lyly, the humanist as courtier (1962), Gilbert Highet's The anatomy of satire (1962), William Van O'Connor’s The Grotesque: An American Genre (1962), Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965), Rosalie Colie’s Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (1966), books very much interested in the history of the novel and in non-realistic strains, and in obscure figures. I think it’s perfectly understandable why the loquacious Lyly, who had been a laughing stock since the 18th century, would be up for a positive review. Four years later Gass’s first euphuistic novel came out: Omensetter’s Luck. And one could make the case that Burgess’ Nothing like the sun (1964) owes more to Lyly’s prose style than to the Shakespeare he was paying homage to. Guillermo Cabrera Infante started writing Three Trapped Tigers in 1961 with The Satyricon in front of his eyes (check his interview at Mundo Nuevo, n.º 25, Jul. 1968). Günter Grass was often compared to the 17th-century German picaresque writer Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen. Angela Carter said that we were living in Gothic times. Ishmael Reed came up with NeoHooDoo. Many Latin-Americans were under the spell of what they called “Neobaroque”. Barth emulated Tom Jones, and he and García Márquez expressed the nostalgia for big Rabelaisian books. Wherever you looked, modern fiction’s frame of reference seemed to be some other century other than the 20th.
Novelists, deeply aware of narrative as a genre with a long history –now’s the time to recall Sartre’s complaint about the “anti-novel” - started writing bookish novels that pretended to be novels. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Let’s split it in four categories:
1.Novels that pretend to be historically-dated subforms of the novel: Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman is a “Victorian novel” that uses its tropes but is simultaneously aware that it’s being written by a contemporary novelist who knows how Victorian novels behave. Barth often said that The Sot-Weed Factor was an attempt at mimicking Henry Fielding, the big, picaresque 18th-century English novel. His LETTERS (1979) was an attempt at bringing back the epistolary novel. For that matter so was Wolfgang Bauer’s The Feverhead (1967). And Bellow’s Herzog. Calvino’s pining for old chivalric romances is all over The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount. Also variants of previous literary texts: for instance Manganelli’s Pinocchio: un libro paralelo, or Calvino’s Invisible Cities which retells the story of Marco Polo’s voyages.
2.Novels that pretend to be something other than narrative forms: Pale Fire combines a 999-line poem, commentary to said poem and an index. Malcolm Bradbury’s Mensonge, a faux-essay on a faux-French structuralist, is an update of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus and an admirable addition to the genre of Menippean satire. Queneau’s Le journal intime de Sally Mara is a novel disguised as a diary. Borges’ short-stories designed as essays and book reviews deserve an honorary inclusion.
3.Novels that appropriate so-called popular genres that once belonged to the romance tradition or modern-day forms of entertainment: Ada or Ardor, Gravity’s Rainbow, Plus, The Wanting Seed, A Clockwork Orange (sci-fi), The Name of the Rose, That Awful Mess in Via Merulana, The Erasers, Who Killed Palomino Molero?, Death in the Andes, The Last Days of Louisiana Red (detective novel), The Collector (thriller), Heartbreak Tango (soap opera), Procissão dos Defuntos (feuilleton), Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires (comic book); Coover’s The Cat in the Hat for President (children’s book); The Public Burning (vaudeville, variety show). Anthony Burgess did a 007 spy-novel parody called Tremor of Intent: An Eschatological Spy Novel. For westerns there was Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, OK: The Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday. Coover did the erotic sadomasochist novel in Spanking the Maid.
4.Novels that adapt forms predating the novel itself, especially from the oral tradition: Barth, Coover and Carter were very much interested in fables, myths, fairy-tales, as seen in Chimera, Fireworks, The Bloody Chamber and Pricksongs and Descants. John Gardner’s Grendel (1971) is a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. This was when Calvino actually compiled three volumes of Italian Folktales. GTB updated Don Juan’s myth while showing his encyclopedic knowledge of its many versions across history. Mario Vargas Llosa said that The Green House was inspired by chivalric romances. It has also been shown that Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas also owes something to Grail quest narratives, in fact Rosa listened to sertanejos telling medieval tales of knights. A few years ago I was reading Laurent Pernot’s Epideictic Rhetoric; my jaw dropped when I turned to page 32: in front of me I had a diagram of the ancient Greek panegyric’s structure, and that’s when I discovered that Dom Tanas de Barbatanas follows it one topos at the time.
Sometimes it’s not easy to draw a line between categories. When Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children, a great fabulation, he was seeking an effect akin to pop storytelling, to Bollywood: “As you can see, I wanted to write a novel of vaulting ambition, a high-wire act with no safety net, an all-or-nothing effort: Bollywood or bust, as one might say. A novel in which memory and politics, love and hate would mingle on almost every page. I was an inexperienced, unsuccessful, unknown writer. To write such a book I had to learn how to do so; to learn by writing it. Five years passed before I was ready to show it to anybody. For all its surrealist elements Midnight’s Children is a history novel, looking for an answer to the great question history asks us: what is the relationship between society and the individual, between the macrocosm and the microcosm? To put it another way: do we make history, or does it make (or unmake) us? Are we the masters or victims of our times?” What’s interesting is that the plot about swapped babies, a poor one given to a rich family, and a rich one to a poor family, is simultaneously the plot of soap operas and of biblical myth, Moses.
Panegyrics, chivalric romances, fairy-tales and myths, the picaro, Pinocchio: we could say that part of post-modernism was an attempt at writing not novels but narratives that fall into the forsaken tradition of the romance, or that are at least nostalgic for the rich world of verbal and imaginative possibilities obstructed by the tenets of verisimilitude. When Burgess channels Elizabethan literature or Gass puts sacred oratory in the mouth of a troubled preacher, the allure toward a denigrated past is the same. After two centuries giddy over what realism could do, novelists started worrying about it couldn’t do any longer.
There were other reasons besides revitalizing a dying genre as to why the past became such a radiant beacon. Pocket books made buying books cheaper, meaning publishers could put out more classics and more people could buy them. Also, UNESCO promoted reading heavily after the war’s end since it believed that reading was essential in fostering peace among nations. At the same time literacy was rising and more people were getting into writing who weren’t necessarily part of an educated elite that turned its nose at popular fiction. Barth wrote myths into his fiction because that’s what he grew up reading. Remember that before the 1940s novelists were usually not people who had studied literature: they were doctors, farmers, journalists, bank clerks, company men, ambassadors, consuls, clerks, or rich, but not professors of literature. But people born around the 1920s started attending college and enrolled in literary studies and became teachers of literature and the first creative writing programs. Borges, Nabokov, Barth, Hawkes, Gass, Elkin, Gardner, Burgess were literature teachers or did the conference circuit. GTB even taught in the USA for a while. They were also professional reviewers, which means they spent most of their time thinking about fiction: Burgess sold the advanced copies he received and bought booze. For them, writing about writing was everyday reality. If Stendhal’s mirror happened to pass along them it’d reflect them teaching literature. So it got into fiction. As Gass said in 1972, writers started writing about what they read, and what they read was adventure novels: “I think the materials that previous writers used were often things they experienced in their ordinary lives, things in the street and so forth. But of course we’re library bred now. Now the things that are most intimate for writers are other books. The biggest experience often in writers’ lives is reading Don Quixote or something. So instead of talking about your love affair when you were young you talk about your love affair with Don Quixote.”
As the novel bounced from realism back to romance, the return of novelists to a mythical started giving postwar fiction the properties that made Plato fret over The Illiad. The characteristics of their fiction is similar to Homer’s epic: plotting, action, low on analysis and psychology; with elements of fantasy and a taste for eloquence. The history of the realistic novel since the 18th century is a history of losses and refusals: it refused fantasy, then extravagant plot, then language; for a time in the 1920s and 1930s it was all about psychological analysis; for others it was about social analysis; Robbe-Grillet ultimately refused even social issues, psychology, and analysis, even meaning itself.
The Illiad was to be read aloud, and the Greeks and Europeans in general praised eloquence well into the 18th century. Homer’s characters are always busy giving speeches, they are performative, they had to be in order to be easier to memorize. So you get the impression that they’re always addressing you. The realistic novel doesn’t address a reader, it reports to no one in particular. The psychological novel, with its inner monologue and stream of consciousness is no less mute, the voice of ego ultimately rebounds on itself. But the novels of Gass, Nabokov, Elkin, Burgess are clearly meant to be heard. In that sense they’re giving a performance like the rhapsode who sang from memory The Illiad on public festivities.
Walter J. Ong observed that the effect of Ramist rhetoric was the muting of voice: “By its very structure, Ramist rhetoric asserts to all who are able to sense its implications that there is no way to discovery or to understanding through voice, and ultimately seems to deny that the processes of person-to-person communication play any necessary role in intellectual life.” Much Renaissance fiction is discourse. Utopia is a tale someone tells someone else during a meeting. The Praise of Folly, as the title indicates, is a speech given by Folly herself. Euphues is mostly dialogue. But Ramism prized the eye, not the ear, the silent printed word instead of the orators’s cadence. “In Ramist rhetoric dialogue and conversation themselves become by implication mere nuisances. When Ramus first laid hold of the topics (that is, what he styles ‘arguments’), these were associated with real dialogue or discussion, if only because they existed in both dialectic and rhetoric conjointly and thus kept dialectic in touch with the field of communication and thought-in-a-vocal setting which had been in historical actuality the matrix of logic itself. But by the application of ‘Solon’s Law’, which severed rhetoric from dialectic with savage rigor and without any profound understanding of the interrelationship of these two disciplines, the topics, relegated by Ramus to dialectic (or logic) exclusively, were in principle denied any oral or aural connections at all. To the Ramist, Dryden’s admission that he was often helped to an idea by rhyme was an admission of weakness if not outright intellectual perversion.”
A Sarraute novel, say Planetarium, directs its incessant inner monologue at no one in particular, it’s only concerned with sounding like the “realistic” inner voice, which Sarraute thought sounded like journalese being assembled by a hack on a deadline. Eric A. Havelock identified in Plato’s Socrates the type of self-absorbed mind that would later turn into Beckett’s and Sarraute’s monologists chattering away in the dark: “The character of the abstraction is correctly formulated as an act of isolation, separating the 'itself in itself' from the narrative context, which only tells us about this 'itself' or illustrates it or embodies it. A great deal of Socratic energy probably went into defining the thinking subject (psyche) who now was separating himself critically from the poetic matrix where all experience had been represented in image-sequence.” We begin to find similarities with these modern self-centered voices from the literature of silence. Again Havelock on Plato’s style: “The new contemplation is to be serene, calm, and detached. It is to be like the 'inspection' of a religious rite as opposed to participation in a human drama. Plato has changed the character of the performance and has reduced us to silent spectators. But we remain sightseers. Are we not simply being invited to avoid hard thinking and relapse into a new form of dream which shall be religious rather than poetic?” Characters who do not participate in human drama, precisely what Lukacs complained about existentialism; we change from listeners into readers, the eye takes over the ear, the properties of euphony are made irrelevant. Who listens to Sartre or Camus or Robbe-Grillet to delight in the sound of their prose, what’s the gain in that? But one is foolish not to read Lolita out loud:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
Those monosyllables, those proparoxytones, those short, stony words with their tonic syllables at the start – “the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth”. Out loud is how literature was planned in the Renaissance. “Most of the best Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry is dialogue at root”, wrote Ong. “This is true not only of the stage, but of the lyric as well (although here only one side of the dialogue is commonly set down), and so true as to be to a commonplace. We may wonder to whom Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed, but there is no mistaking that in them he is talking to someone, real or imaginary.”
The shushing came with Ramist pedagogy. Morris W. Croll talked of a 17th-century turn to melancholy and essayism, two joint phenomena that prize silence over speech: “Melancholy, in fact, was the root of the bitter wisdom of the seventeenth century”. When Montaigne ponders he’s talking to himself, not to a listener, not even a reader. These conditions are quite similar to the existentialist angst of post-war French fiction and Sarraute’s version of the nouveau roman. According to existentialist wisdom, men are creatures incapable of communicating, hermetic systems, they don’t communicate so much as they ramble inside their prisonheads, as in Sarraute’s novels. In Robbe-Grillet’s case, even if the narrator is pointing outside the mind into the world of objects, he has nothing to say about them other than to state that they’re there, they’re literally Dasein. As much as the French thought this was awesome, many were not impressed. Fuentes, who was more into the mythic mode, accused the “French anti-novel” of taking “realist procedures to their final expression: that of a descriptive world of objects seen by objects in the most fragmentary sociological stage: the French nouveau roman could well be called the novel of capitalist realism.” Screw that, he said. I’m not sure Fuentes’s fiction actually provided a better alternative, but as a publicist he helped create an environment for a different approach to fiction.
To this muting there were solutions, both part and parcel of the romance: phrasemaking or fabulation. Either way purports to please us with performance. Either you’re telling something very interesting, or you’re telling something in a very interesting way. Few novelists manage to be both phrasemakers and fabulators; they either give more importance to language or to the imagination. Elkin was definitely a phrasemaker when he explained: “Rhetoric is there, not only to perform for us, to show its triples and barrel rolls, but to introduce significance into what otherwise may be untouched by significance.” He was saying what Emanuele Tesauro said in the Cannocchiale Aristotelico (1654), one of the greatest rhetorical manuals of the Baroque period.
Rhetoric is a way of elevating language, and as such it’s weirdly tolerant even of cliché. Paulhan had advised that the solution to Terror was not a more rarefied language that became too outlandish till no one understood it. Why not use cliché knowingly and jokingly instead? Coover’s The Public Burning is a good example of how cliché is put at the service of performance in order to elevate the novel into a fuller experience: at times it seems to be narrated by the voice of living American Cold War propaganda, it’s gorgeous. As Gass said, “Coover is really concerned to transform the reality of the event. Here you have the Rosenberg case which is so dismaying in its reality, so it provides an immediate challenge. It is a challenge to the art to take a journalistic event and treat it in terms of the jargon of the time, all the cliches, all the monkey business, transform it into an event in the book which will then manage to digest this into the work of art.” This was different than New Journalism, a hybrid monster, an attempt at having your objective cake and eating it with the help of fiction to wash it down: “Whereas with somebody like Truman Capote you are just using artistic tricks, fictional devices to jazz up and make your account more journalistically exciting, chilling, and so forth; perfectly standard devices and certainly not reprehensible, but it is not, I think, a desire to transform those events into art”. The Public Burning, unlike In Cold Blood, does not purport to be anything but fiction, and as such it has unlimited powers of expression that Capote denied himself when he decided to write a “non-fiction novel”. Coover was free to play, so besides Nixon he got Uncle Sam and the Phantom, whereas Capote was stuck with the bare facts. Capote could only retell the events of the murder whereas Coover could tell the Rosenberg execution while also showing an orgy in Times Square and having Uncle Sam sodomize Nixon.
A character says in Elkin’s Boswell: “But do you notice how as one goes back the birthdays become less certain while the year of death is always absolute, fixed? Do you think that's an accident? Listen, death is realer than life.” Rhetorical play did not imply lack of seriousness. For Gass, “The electricity of Elizabethan drama is total. They are talking always of life-and-death matters, but they are standing there playing with their mouths.” Here’s a self-reflexive passage in Omensetter’s Luck: “Like a schoolboy released to his summer, he capered in the garden. He knew how the orator, the actor, felt; what they sought in their success. He could tickle them and they would laugh; he could spank them and they’d howl; he could caress… and sighing, they’d respond. He was an honest preacher at last. Through this thicket, now, he could thrust his stick to stir the soul.” Many of the narrators of this type of fiction conjoin orator and actor, they relish giving a performance, but their prowess is put at the service of complex moral tangles, or to renew our vision of the world. Phrasemakers and fabulators, in spite of their constant disparaging of realism, were quite realistic, but then again so are Homer’s epics. Havelock said, “The appeal of mimesis is therefore alien to ‘thinking’ (phronesis).” Many of these authors want to show the world in its concrete glory. In order to be reverential of life, people do not have to work overtime to pin down the world outlook of the nasturtium, but we may try to; nor must we linger too long on the curious aroma of mulled disappointment that hovers in the hallways of university literature departments, although we may”, wrote Paul West. “We simply have to heed the presence of all our words and the chance of combining them in unprecedented and luminous ways. Prose is malleable, not ordained. Phrasemaking is often a humble, almost involuntary virtuosity. And purple, whatever it may seem to catcalling wallflowers as it flaunts by with eloquence raised to its highest power, is bound, because of what it does so well, to cause exhilaration.”
As such, this fiction tends be mimetic, representational, oriented outwardly and full of drama, descriptions, people doing things. We can see the contrast between the avant-gardes even in novel size: whereas existentialist and nouveau roman novelettes tend to be slim, the new romance writers regularly aimed at 500, 600, 700, 800, 900 pages. Plato reduced things to archetypes, an ideal Form, the melancholy Cartesians looked inward, the angst-ridden existentialist favored the ruminating activity. Whereas the chosiste Robbe-Grillet covered the world with things unused by humans and repeated it five times, the romance writer likes multiplicity and the personal, instead of repeating he generates new incidents, which is why they’re picaresque. In 1976, Edward Mendelson wrote an essay, “Encyclopedic Narrative From Dante to Pynchon”. He thought he had come up with a new type of novel: in fact there was nothing unique about Gravity Rainbow: Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, Fuentes’s Terra Nostra, Fernando Del Paso’s Palinuro de México, Tomaz’s Dom Tanas de Barbatanas, GTB’s La Saga/Fuga de J. B., brought massive stores of arcane knowledge into the novel, as if nostalgic for an ancient time when the epic poem was a complete educational program in itself. It’s as if novelists were trying to compete with Homer’s encyclopedism, to create their own summulae of a culture.
Nabokov and Burgess parodied stream of consciousness (see part 2) precisely because it renders language duller. Hugh Kenner once joked: “How very alike are the half-conscious minds presented by Mrs. Woolf or Dorothy Richardson! – one semi-transparent envelope much like another, ‘stream of consciousness’ an undifferentiating verbal soup.” Kenner was an infamous Woolf trapper, but I don’t think he was off the mark. When psychological verisimilitude pushes poetry out of prose, language true to character, since characters tend to be ordinary schmucks, kowtows to custom and cliché. One way of solving this is to make characters into exquisite sophisticates for whom eloquence is verisimilar, a solution often used by Nabokov’s pedantic polyglots. Another one was not caring about giving characters words they wouldn’t “realistically” use. Gass once told an interviewer, “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. Furber is what the book turned out eventually to be all about.” A year before, Alexander Theroux, annoyed at a bad review, wrote a prickly manifesto, “Theroux Metaphrastes”: “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”. Both made it explicit around the same time that they did not want to follow the Uncle Charles Principle but to emulate the epic. Instead of realistic speech, they wanted the stage’s eloquence.
Anyway, phrasemakers got eloquence back. Many new novels began assuming a listener, I don’t mean exclusively self-conscious and metafictional novels, although that was also part of why metafiction made a comeback. In Procissão dos Defuntos, the anonymous narrator spends two thirds of the book talking to the reader, often digressing away from the plot. John Barth’s first novel, the underrated The Floating Opera (1956) does the same:
“No, come along with me, reader, and don’t fear your weak heart”;
“So, reader, should you ever find yourself writing about the world, take care not to nibble at the many tempting symbol she sets squarely in your path, or you’ll be baited into saying things you don’t really mean, and offending the people you want most to entertain.”;
“To see a pair of crabs, of dogs, of people – even lovely, graceful Jane – I can’t finish, reader, can’t hold my pen fast to the line: I am convulsed; I am weeping tears of laughter on the very page!”
“My heart, reader! My heart! You must comprehend quickly, if you are to comprehend at all, that masks were not assume to hide my face, but to hide my heart from my mind, and my mind from my heart. Understand it now, because I may not live to end the chapter!”
For reasons I never understood, Barth scholars keep failing to see how ahead of its time this novel was. But even novels playing it straight assumed a reader or a listener, either inside or outside the book. In Lolita Humbert Humbert addresses a “jury”; in A Clockwork Orange Alex addresses “O my brothers” all the time. The slow-going Omensetter’s Luck picks up when it centers on preacher Jethro Furber, whose jolty sentences enliven the book. Darconville’s Cat has at least one great monologue by Crucifer. Elkin’s The Dick Gibson Show implies an audience by setting the story in the radio world. Gaddi’s awesome J R got rid of most description and narration and reduced the novel to chattering voices, creating some of the best dialogues ever. Dom Tanas de Barbatana’s unreliable panegyrist wants to vindicate his employer’s name to whoever’s reading his panegyric: the panegyric was a genre traditionally read out loud at funerals; plus Dom Tanas is gifted with extraordinary eloquence (he’s not, that’s one of the jokes), and the book abounds with speechifying. Rosa’s tremendous Grande Sertão: Veredas is a former jagunço’s monologue directed at an implied interlocutor. In Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, The Supreme, the Supreme revels in bombastic language. The Public Burning ends with Nixon saving the American empire with a speech in front of a crowd in Times Square. In Our Gang, Philip Roth’s parody of Nixon, Trick E. Dixon ends up running against Satan for Hell’s leadership; the final political speech is hilarious:
My fellow Fallen:
Let me say at the outset that I of course agree with much of what Satan has said here tonight in his opening statement. I know that Satan feels as deeply as I do about what has to be done to make Wickedness all that it can and should be in the creation. For let there be no mistake about it: we are engaged in a deadly competition with the Kingdom of Righteousness. There isn’t any question in my mind but that the God of Peace is out, as He Himself has said, ‘to crush’ us ‘under His feet,’ and that He and His gang of angels will stop at nothing to accomplish this end.
In GTB’s Don Juan the pair claiming to be Don Juan and Leporello stage a play about Don Juan, once again emphasizing an audience. Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Three Thrapped Tigers begins like a cabaret show:
Showtime! Señoras y señores, Ladies and gentlemen. And a very good evening to you all, ladies and gentlemen. Muy buenas noches, damas y caballeros. Tropicana! the MOST fabulous nightclub in the WORLD - el cabaret MAS fabuloso del mundo - presents - presenta - its latest show - si nuevo espectáculo - where performers of Continental fame will take you all to the wonderful world of supernatural beauty of the Tropics”
This sets up the mood for the GCI’s linguistic playfulness. Maybe I’m stretching it, but Carpentier’s Baroque Concerto also points to the performative since the characters attend the premiere of Vivaldi’s Opera Motezuma (1733).
As novelists sought to emulate romance and epic once again, they gave their characters the opportunity to mouth off like epic heroes. They assimilated the rhapsode’s performative skills. Gass, a natural-born phrasemaker, put it very clearly: “If you start talking about speech acts, what you are doing is connection the notion of writing with a concept of performance. I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying.” But he preferred the lonely resistance to the image’s tyranny: “By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write.” He said this in 1976: the eye/ear antinomy had been under debate for a decade now thanks to McLuhan (“Man was given an eye for an ear”, he joked in The Gutenberg Galaxy), and Havelock who wrote more seriously: “But effective as the alphabet was to prove, its functional victory was slow. Down to Euripides (to repeat what has been said earlier) it was still very largely used (aside of course from inscriptions) for the transcription of communication that had in the first place been composed not by the eye but by the ear and composed for recital rather than for reading. The writers of Greece, to repeat, remained under audience-control.” It’s known that folks like Barth were aware of McLuhan’s books and anxious about threats to the book. To make it worse, some critics jubilantly fostered the subjection of books to other media. Cinema, remarked Castellet in La hora del lector (1957), changed writing and reading. “Until then, the collective sensibility was used to hear narrating, however with the coming of cinema it gets used to familiarized with see narrating. It’s not strange, then, that cinema had a major importance – certainly decisive – in the formation of the new literary technique of objective narrations.” Castellet, like so many who thought of fiction inn terms of evolution, was sure there’d be no backtracking. Scholes wasn’t so sure: the writer “who is willing to accept the word as his medium”, he said, “must move away from the pseudoobjectvity of realism toward a romance or an irony which will exploit language’s distinctively human perspective on life. In competition with the cold and lidless eye of cinema the sightless book must turn to the dark world of the imagination, illuminating it by the uniquely human vision to be found in words.”
Here and there you can find signs that some novelists were more alert than others to this threat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gass had been a Havelock reader: “I always wanted the words to be in the mouth. Not just in the eye, but in the mouth. To be chewed. I think always the great writers, at least the ones I admire most, are the ones that put things in your mouth.” What Gass called the “new mode” was “not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed.”
Only the ingrained convention of silent reading by this time lead so many to write “reader” when obviously they meant “listener”, for what they were doing was giving an aural performance not unlike Greek rhapsodes. Gass in his preface to In The Heart of the Heart of the Country often addresses an ideal reader, even as he instructs him on how to listen, on how to be a good listener: “Shall this reader be given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper? yes”, he hopefully pleads. The modern romancer couldn’t escape this tension: on the one hand he was rhetorical and equally tired of realism’s plain prose of realism and disgusted at the silence that existentialism and the nouveau roman led to; but although he longed for the days when the rhapsode enthralled audiences (audire, to listen) with his voice and verb, he was also aware that he was sentenced to write novels, a genre inextricably connected to silent reading, loneliness, anti-social feelings. If the novel was invented for a reason, it was rather to be a Beckett novel or a Robbe-Grillet novel than The Tunnel. When Saint Augustine composed sermons in rhymed prose, he knew a congregation was going to listen every rhyme. But why write a 600-page alliterative novel for silent readers? It’s silly, and yet how fortunate we are that Gass wrote it!
Back in the ‘60s new fiction had excellent critics promoting it like Scholes, Joe Bellamy, Larry McCaffery. I learned a lot from them. But lately I’ve been thinking that those best at explaining it were writing about media and ancient fiction. I fear the misleading tag “post-modern” carries with it the assumption that it has nothing to do with pre-Modernist fiction. But I’ve gained better insight into so-called post-modernist fiction from when I read Ong, McLuhan, Kenner, Havelock, Willey discussing Renaissance pedagogy and Greek oratory than thanks to Ihab Hassan’s silly noun-filled tables. In 1966 Rosalie Colie published Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox. In ancient times, “paradox” meant a speech that praised something despicable, negative, disgusting, or counter-intuitive to standard morality. The classic example is Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. In Antiquity there were paradoxical encomia of lice, mice, baldness, debts, ants. Francisco de Quevedo’s Gracias y desgracias del ojo del culo is literally a speech praising and blaming the anal cavity. The challenge of the paradox, a purely rhetorical genre, is to find words to defend the indefensible. “Fiction gives language an opportunity to happen”, Elkin once said. Paradox proves it better than any other genre. The more repulsive the theme the more satisfying the sense of accomplishment. Lolita is a paradoxical encomium of Humbert Humbert written by himself, the same way Folly gives a speech in her own praise. Jorge de Sena’s “Defense and Justification of a Former War Criminal” (1966) lets an SS high official mouth off an apologia pro vita sua:
But in the scholarly peace of my retirement, in the bitterness of ours defeat, and in the grief of seeing forgotten or scorned the pure, altruistic disinterest of my doctrines, so logical, so just and so practical (as my experience demonstrated), I am aging calmly. Nothing weighs on my conscience, which is pure; and I know that if many outdid themselves, in cowardly zeal, in the performances of their duties (or, after all, because they performed them begrudgingly), I was the arbiter of an extraordinary endeavor, of the greatest scientific and sociological scope, which only the defeat of our armies and the pressing advance of the enemy destroyed. One certainty, however, remains with me: Humanity, when it frees itself from the millennial slavery of ideals and interests contrary to the realization of its superior destiny, will recognize the merit of my ideas. Numerous indications reveal this to me.”
Unhinged gorgeousness. This kind of rhetorical play reached its zenith in Gass’ The Tunnel, in which William F. Kohler tries to assuage the Third Reich’s guilt.
The turn to Homer, to the ear, is also marked by a newfound respect for fantasy and myth. The other avant-garde, even as it sought to supplant realism, crammed even more stultifying realism. The praise of boredom and banality reached new heights. Here’s Barthes doing what he did best: “The minuteness with which Robbe-GriIlet describes the object has nothing tendentious about it; it completely establishes the object, so that once its appearance is described, it is exhausted; if the author leaves it, he does so not out of submission to a rhetorical propriety, but because the object has no other resistance than that of its surfaces and, once these are ‘covered,’ language must withdraw from an encounter which could only be alien to the object, given over to poetry or eloquence.” Surface, description – Plato’s big dream of the pure mind, the untethered Cartesian ego, flying above the flux of happenings and events, detached from the pragmata, observing an object from all angles and then reporting back. There’s a name for that, Barthes knew it: it’s objectivity, it’s what realists and naturalists did back in the 19th century; it’s what Italian, Spanish and Portuguese neo-realists did in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. By the early ‘40s they got a sciencey cue from B. F. Skinner and John Watson and called it behaviorism, the practice of just describing things from the outside, just movements, the type of stuff a camera lens would capture, no more no less. A considerable part of the history of faulty “realism” involves adding pseudoscientific modifiers to make it look scientifically valid and unattackable in an age that cowers at anything with a whiff of the lab coat: objective realism, dialectical realism, critical realism were actual things back then, even though they all meant the same sorry thing; the reason they had to change so often is because the pitfalls of realism were constantly being denounced; but instead of doing away with it for good another theorist came along trying to repackage it into a new formula that allegedly solved past reservations. Terms like “objectivity” and “realism” were so abusively bandied around that there’s something almost superhuman about Barthes’ tenacity to pretend he was praising something innovative that could even be remotely construed as avant-garde when he praised chosisme. From my perspective Robbe-Grillet was just inflicting the same mediocre realist novels that flooded Portuguese bookstores between 1939 and 1980.
Barthes, for all his self-hype about standing for the avant-garde, was just another link in the history of the realist novel. As much as he often tried to cast off the Cartesian in him, he was a product of French culture and all its myths about itself. As such, he placed external reality over the imagination, analysis over drama. His emphasis on the visuality of Robbe-Grillet’s fiction harkens back to the 17th-century conditions that led to the rise of Baconian empiricism and Descartes’ scientific method. So chained was he to the outward shell of things that he even believed interiority was a myth, exactly the kind of gobbledygook fostered by Skinner that made him look like a nutjob during the psychedelic revolution. The psychedelic revolution was for psychology what the romance revival was for the novel, a change from the outer into the inner, liberation from the constraints of objective reality, newfound respect for the role imagination plays in shaping our view of reality.
Rhetorically, phrasemakers and fabulators fit in the epideictic branch. To quote Aristotle: “Rhetoric falls into three divisions, determined by the three classes of listeners to speeches. For of the three elements in speech-making – speaker, subject, and person addressed – it is the last one, the hearer, that determines the speech's end and object. The hearer must be either a judge, with a decision to make about things past or future, or an observer. A member of the assembly decides about future events, a juryman about past events: while those who merely decide on the orator's skill are observers. From this it follows that there are three divisions of oratory-(1) political, (2) forensic, and (3) the ceremonial oratory of display.” Of the three branches, the epideictic is the closest to our modern conception of fiction, it’s the one that serves no utilitarian purpose, it exists to give delight, to entertain through the display of the speaker’s oratorical prowess. Elkin once more: “It's not so much a question of persuading an audience of the outlandish or unlikely, as of persuading them of the possibilities inherent in rhetoric. Rhetoric doesn't occur in life. It occurs in fiction. Fiction gives an opportunity for rhetoric to happen.” CS Lewis, lamenting the gulf between the modern reader and the ancients, once said that “rhetoric is the greatest barrier between us and our ancestors.” For a while, the novel returned to rhetoric and made it appealing, even commercial. It wouldn’t have been that successful if phrasemakers hadn’t also been fabulators, since rhetorical play tends to bore ordinary readers unless it’s shaped by a strong plot. That’s why One Hundred Years of Solitude and Borges’ plain-prose short-stories are better known than superior stylists.
Romance triumphed whereas the nouveau roman withered away because of where each tendency stood on the matter of pleasure. “An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money”, claims the narrator in chapter 1 of Tom Jones. “In the former case, it is well known that the entertainer provides what fare he pleases; and though this should be very indifferent, and utterly disagreeable to the taste of his company, they must not find any fault; nay, on the contrary, good breeding forces them outwardly to approve and to commend whatever is set before them. Now the contrary of this happens to the master of an ordinary. Men who pay for what they eat will insist on gratifying their palates, however nice and whimsical these may prove; and if everything is not agreeable to their taste, will challenge a right to censure, to abuse, and to d—n their dinner without control.” Two centuries later Toward a New Novel was contemptuous of the reader who seeks to read for pleasure; Robbe-Grillet believed all along that the future of fiction laid in continuing the elitism of the grouchy Modernists who likened reading to attending church service for the elected happy few.
However, Burgess was more Fieldingian than Joycian when he told The Paris Review in 1972: “All my novels belong to the one category — intended to be, as it were, serious entertainment, no moral aim, no solemnity. I want to please.” Nabokov talked about “aesthetic bliss”. Tomaz, who wrote Dom Tanas following a depression and a stay in a madhouse, hoped it’d entertain readers. Scholes, the first critic to realize there was a return to fiction that prized pleasure, wrote in The Fabulators: “Of all narrative forms, fabulation puts the highest premium on art and joy.” You’d never find agreement with such blasphemous view in the essays of Barthes, Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. To entertain, though, is what the rhapsode did when he sang for an audience. Durrell, in respect to the nouveau roman, said that “I believe in giving value for money in an old-fashioned sense. And if I put on a show at the Roman Embassy I want it to be a good show.” A show, that's nice. “Epideictic” comes from the Greek epideíknūmi, “to show, to display”. Startled by this, the interviewed asked, “You wouldn't mind, then, being defined as a storyteller?” “No. Good God knows, we need some.” The interviewer wondered if he thought of himself, like Yeats, as one of the “‘last Romantics’”. “Oh, I think that I'm first of the new Romantics. I think that the backswing is coming.” How prescient he was.
A big portion of “post-modernism” would have been called before the 18th century “aemulatio”. Writers in the past sought to emulate their predecessors in order to surpass them. It wasn’t slavish imitation. Books were made out of books, with variations which gave then their autonomy and originality. The history of the novel is short compared with the previous paradigm of imitating and besting classic models. The practice of aemulatio ended with the Enlightenment, which considered everything it touched superior to the outworn forms of Antiquity. In English it’s known as The Battle of the Books, to use Swift’s term; the French call it the “Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes”: intellectuals took sides on whether to follow antiquity or modernity, and the moderns won with privileged contempt for the past. This included the novel, Enlightenment’s child. There are surprising pages in The Rise of the Novel detailing Defoe and Richardson’s contempt for Homer and in fact most pre-novel fiction. Again, the sole exception was Fielding. No wonder he’s so often a link between the post-war novel and the pre-novel narrative. After the novel undertook a rescue operation of itself from itself, it was finally free to decide what it wanted to become. I fear it’s decided to stay more or less the same it was before, even though it can never go back to the sterile contempt for fantasy and plot that marred so many novels pointlessly trying to prolong Modernism. Evidently we can never get rid of realism, nor do I think that’d be desirable, since realism is the worldview that built the civilization we live in.
However, I think that a cycle has been closed and that we’re witnessing a recrudescence of socialist realism, of the direly humorless, plain-style, politically-engaged literature of the 1930s and 1940s, although since the Soviet Union is gone it’s been dissolved in culture under new aliases: woke culture, cancel culture, social justice movements. This is happening because social and political conditions now are quite similar to the’30s: lots of unemployment, fascist movements on the rise, wars, social inequality, massive public debt. The novel born from this mindset shows already many of the characteristics of their predecessors. When Sartre created Les Temps Modernes (1945) he boldly broke with tradition when he announced that, “contrary to custom, we will no more hesitate to pass over in silence an excellent book which, from our point of view, teaches us nothing new about our era, than to linger, on the contrary, over a mediocre book which, in its very mediocrity, may strike us as revealing.” Boldly, though? In 1933 The Anvil magazine (“Stories for Workers”) came out with a very revealing motto: “We prefer crude vigor to polished banality.” It’s fascinating how political writing and bad writing walk so garishly hand in hand. Of course Sartre would rather give room to shlock with partisan platitudes instead of good literature that did nothing to advance whatever humanist cause that defender of Stalinist and Maoist mass murders was busking to his acritical zombie zealots that week. You only need a cursory glance at most literary outlets from the past five years to realize we’re all living inside Les Temps Modernes. The same mistakes are already being made, namely: judging the merit of novels on their author’s politics even if they’re absent from the text; assuming characters’ opinions reflect the author’s; inflating the quality of dreck that communicates comforting good feelings attuned to progressive thought; putting the spotlight on people perceived as marginalized; giving “voice” to the “voiceless”; intimidating editors into vetting certain books (can’t wait to see who’ll be this age’s Feltrinelli); rushing to address topical themes and taking a simplistic moral stand on them; confusing words with things; empowering Manichean schemes that pit evil rich people against good poor people, a socialist realist classic recently reenacted by Sally Rooney; believing that books contain truths; and of course writing ugly lest rhetoric get in the way of the transparent message the world needs to hear for its own sake.
I’m mostly concerned with the quality of writing, but the danger also involves the uncritical confidence writers have in language who use it solely to make propaganda. When they want or feel pressured to send messages they fall in the habit of not questioning the medium they use to send them. They become receptive to being popular opinion’s mouthpieces, they start worrying about the right opinion: they amputate their imagination, enforce self-censorship, start believing in the worldview their base wants them to believe in, stop asking unpleasant questions that may get them banned from social networks or lose an agent and a six-figure deal.
You’d think rhetoric-crazy novelists would be more exposed to the risk of falling prey to its charms and lose sight of external reality, but anecdotal evidence suggests the opposite is true. When Gass created a monster who exculpates Nazis he didn’t mean it, although there’s no doubt that Sartre meant it when he thought it was necessary to whitewash the Soviet Union’s monstrous crimes lest revolutionaries be demoralized, since cheating and millions of corpses were morally nothing compared to the blessings of upcoming utopia. Pamphleteers who use words as means don’t mistrust them because they’re busy using them to convey unexamined certainties. Guys like Gass, Nabokov, Burgess, Elkin had a more troubling relationship with words because they knew how dangerously shifty and clumsy they are. Phrasemakers are better at understanding Plato’s fear that the Muses sent poets words that hoodwinked audiences. “Someone charmed by myth may be tempted to believe in it: and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth”, summed up Roger Scruton in Beauty: a very short introduction. There’s a book by Sabine Hossenfelder, Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which illustrates this conundrum: in physics it’s become an article of faith that theories need to be “beautiful”, that somehow they must be elegant besides truthful. This is hardly scientific since “elegance” and “beauty” are in the eye of the beholder. Now, according to Hossenfelder physics are being held back for some time now because scientists got locked into this mindset and discard theories that seem to lack elegance, harmony, beauty. It’s silly to expect theoretical science to exhibit aesthetic criteria when around us nature and our bodies are full of waste, useless appendages, bad solutions to problems, unstable structures, inefficient systems. It’s as if scientists expected harmony, excellence, precision, perfection to be found in the wild when they are phantoms – very enjoyable phantoms – of consciousness and specifically of art. That is why Nabokov, inverting the usual roles, spoke of “the precision of poetry and the excitement of pure science” Art unlike slipshod nature exists to make things look good, whole, inviolable, constructed, symmetrical, integrated, ordered, finished.
The risk of works that look too artistically good is that they can trick us into thinking that what’s written with them is morally good or truthful. That’s why Gass worried about writers who used literature to teach us morality. Gass and John Gardner were once in a debate about morality in fiction in which Gardner took sides with the view that fiction communicates experiences that makes us better at understanding moral values, maybe it even makes us better people. Gass didn’t agree: “Philosophy has its own disciplines, its own methods of coming to clarity about these issues, so the way one talks about them won’t twist the conclusions.” As the name “fiction” implies, it’s meant to deform. Philosophy has in-built defense mechanisms to submit claims “to the rigors that are concerned with the production of clarity, logical order, truth, and so on.” A syllogism, like an equation, has no place for rhetoric; its purpose is not to be beautiful but to give out truthful statements.
As rhetoric is once again rent apart from fiction like a wife beater on a restraining order, it also loses its ability to think critically about its own matter, language itself. We’re putting ourselves again at the mercy of literalism, of surface, of a fiction of judgment calls on first impressions. It seems that writers periodically need to diet on extravagance and language and to consume large quantities of tedious topicality to function. I try not to feel too worried by reassuring myself that these things are cyclical and that eventually there’ll be a short blip when writers start caring about being verbally excellent again. These lobotomy periods have always been followed by the return to fabulation and phrasemaking, and that’s what I’m looking forward to.