A Family Romance
We are at a lavish, dizzy party, a kaleidoscope. It is taking place in a penthouse like a prairie, where one beautiful, enormous room opens into another, where the terraces open onto a landscape of jeweled, smoky city, where the Renoirs on the wall compete with Rouaults, where unobtrusive, omnipresent servants glide like serpents across ankle-deep carpets, summoning silver trays like settling doves out of the atmosphere. Someone who looks like (but it can’t be!) Blink, the star of stage, screen, and box, is talking about shooting water-buffalo last week in the Outer Catamarans, and a knot over there is discussing (while sampling) the mysteries of Caspian caviar. Buzz, tinkle, clatter. The drinks are—was that the host saying, “Of course, we have our own distillery”? A clink of ice, a rustle of taffeta, a burst of laughter, a voice out of nowhere saying, “And that’s why he never….” A laughing witch in a red dress is caught, as in a spotlight, over by the piano. Murmur, rattle, splash, mmmmmm, ha, I’d love to, didn’t we once, but what a wonderful idea, thanks I’d better not, did that really happen, and did you ever see eyelashes like that?
Suddenly out of this happy, shapeless confusion, there emerges a brooding, memory-tormented fellow, a confessional novelist, who attaches himself to our left ear and declares that, “for our entertainment,” he is going to tell us his story. This isn’t necessarily his personal story, we’re not that unsophisticated, but the story of an “I” whose problem can be looked at from either end: Given what he’s suffered and done, who is he? Or, given who he is, what did he do or suffer to make him that way? Exercising our insight on these problems is the entertainment offered us by the confessional novelist. But there are inevitable undercurrents of intention. A novelist writes to win fame and fortune; he writes to expose; he writes to bear witness; he writes to explain; he writes for revenge.
The fellow at our ear may have any or all of these jokers up his sleeve, but as there’s no real way to clear himself of suspicion in advance, he launches boldly into his story: “I was born many years ago, of poor but honest parents, in a little village in Siberia”—once he’s taken that first step, everything else follows. As he moves down the majestic corridor of years, it appears more and more clearly that the narrator has been ill-treated by somebody, a girl, who—did she run off with the other fellow just because she was dumb, promiscuous, mean, or all three together? or was it, in some measure, the story-teller’s own fault? He’s remorselessly honest, he doesn’t want to take advantage, he wants you to have all the facts before you make up your mind, he assures you it’s an interesting problem—and the hours stretch out before you. He describes her attractions (mostly physical), her weaknesses (mostly moral), and as you half-listen she sounds more and more like the laughing witch in the red dress over there just a minute ago. And you think perhaps (as long as you’re in this quagmire) you’d like to know what she has to say about the story-teller and his story, but she isn’t there any more.
And so—that or something like it is the hard destiny of being a fictional ipsonaut these days; one has to tell a story, and the pretexts for telling it have mostly been cut out from under before one begins. Two characters meet in an eighteenth-century novel (say, Tom Jones): immediately, spontaneously, they exchange “their stories.” It is a free space for social encounter and exploration; one feels the novelist spin out into it with the pure joy of a figure-skater. Now a man’s story carries heavy burdens of analysis, questioning, consequence; he can’t tell you who he is in two pages, he has to ask you in three hundred. And when the narrator preëmpts for himself the roles of scenarist, director, stage-manager, chorus, commentator, and male lead, all in the name of getting to the bottom of things, he becomes his own worst problem.
Domestic trial and error, reward and punishment, are the themes of three novels out of the current batch of four. Camden’s Eyes by Austin Wright and A Family Romance by Richard Wollheim have the special misfortune to be cut out of much the same bolt of cloth. They describe, with somewhat different nuances, much the same process of domestic disaster in a vaguely academic setting. Mr. Wollheim translates us inside the diary and so presumably the mind of an unmasterful London economist, who finds himself caught in a self-spun spiderweb of unworkable equations involving a wife (whom he calls chiefly X) and a mistress (known exclusively as Y). After much intricate, gamesmanlike calculation, he is pleased to find, with the help of hints from Michel Butor, that his existence has become an inverted mystery story. He has found the murderer (himself), and now need only discover the victim. With impeccable logic and a cup of strychnine, he accomplishes this final desideratum, and we leave him sitting by the cooling corpse of X (Y, for reasons of her own, has already edged off the page, so X was kind of inevitable), regretting that he cannot know what it feels like to be the poison seeping through her veins. It’s difficult to think that, if this was the sensation he was after, he missed much of it.
Camden’s Eyes, by Austin Wright, is not about an economist, it is about a historian (Camden), also hung up between a wife and a mistress, but with another element in the problem, the wife’s lover and somebody’s baby. Here the historian switches nervously from one point of view, one mode of diction, one set of pronouns, and one rhetoric of events to another—in successive paragraphs, between successive sentences, in mid-flight. The same event is thus described over and over, under different aspects, with different coloring, and with altered motivation imputed to the actors. Presumably the historian wants to be free himself, and to leave his readers free, to judge what lies beyond the power of his mind to decide; perhaps he thinks his existence as a narrator depends on a set of rhetorical choices which he’d rather blur or demur than accept.
His topic as a historian is restraint-in-kings, and he’s so well versed in the matter that he doesn’t want to be king even of his own narrative. Like his economist counterpart, he is in fact a cold and nearly dead fish—a shamefaced, unconvincing lover, a thought-entangled self-punisher, and altogether a grade-A zombie. His hangup is not murder but voyeurism, and in the act of snooping around looking for forbidden sex, he manages to diffuse his libido to the point where he feels it oozing away completely, along with his identity. The weighty pun in the title imposes itself at this point.
The first of these novels spikes its sadism with masochism, the second its masochism with sadism, but each takes it for granted that the various women dangling around the central consciousness are of interest only as they provide reflections useful to self-explanation and self-exploration. Y, because she seems to find this role a pain in the neck, seems a more interesting person than X, who accepts it and therefore (it’s possible to feel) deserves her fate. As for the historian, it’s part of his comic pathos that neither of his two females is vivid enough to do anything but respond mechanically to his leads—whereas what he wants from them is leads to which he can respond mechanically and thus perhaps become somebody. But on another level, being somebody carries a responsibility that both of these sick heroes clearly don’t want, and both books conclude with an act of self-abandonment.
Creepy first-person heroes are no novelty in fiction, and the modern reader doesn’t have to have diagnoses spelled out for him. Or does he? The confessional novel hides so many ambiguities under its surface, so many disguises and indirections are possible (as when confession on one point serves to block suspicion or earn secret credit on another, or when we confess at instant A only in order to look wounded and innocent at instant B), that it’s often hard to tell what masquerades as diagnosis from what is better understood as the protection of disease. And when the first-person narrator controls the whole mise-en-scène, it’s impossible to find secure fictional ground from which to assess him.
Not that we lack things to criticize, God knows, in our friends the historian and the economist; but there is a sizable area of penumbral haze around each character, where there is no knowing how deep or in what direction the criticism is supposed to go. Make it go too deep, and the reader can’t trust the narrator in anything, especially since his motives for telling the story are as suspect as motives can be; and if you can’t trust the narrator in anything, you might as well make up your own story. If only we could have a few consecutive words from Y, the laughing witch in the red dress—not the entangled, but the liberated Y, after she’s had the experience and gained some sort of perspective on the narrator. But he’s too cunning to allow her a word at that point, so we have to take him at his own impure estimate, minus the standard discount and something else for his flat style. And that doesn’t seem like the basis for a very precise moral estimate of anyone.
Ivan Gold’s Sick Friends looks and sounds very different, but at bottom it’s another first-person, domestic-difficulties book, bohemian not academic in setting and vocabulary, but equally steeped in tradition. Instead of the introvert professor, we find at the center of the novel our old acquaintance the sensitive-but-blocked writer—manly as ever, generous, sincere, and as honest as any stage-performer can be supposed to be. Very much the good guy, in short, always by his own account. Unlike the professors, he has a robust masculine vocabulary, and some sexual talents. Into his bed drifts a well-worn but still voluptuous, semidetached, and largely undirected lady of Armenian extraction—and to it they go, again and again and yet again, in vigorous mechanical detail. At first they are very good together, and being preternaturally simple of mind (despite much experience on both sides), they think this is quite enough, or at least that it carries all the other rewards along with it. Everything is bound to work out, thinks our hero: “I’d be an unbrave (which was all I had ever aspired to) Hemingway: do the work, fuck the special chick, and last.”
A modest, an almost Stoic ambition. But presently these pseudo-Hemingway people start to turn rotten and disintegrate just like real Hemingway people—whence, in due course, rage, self-confusion, mutual deception, and the grisly gambits of bustup. And so we enter upon the whole business of was it my fault or was it hers—knowing, as usual, next to nothing of her thoughts.
Not that this is necessarily deadly; the process of a gangrenous affair, which occupies the last two thirds of the book, is powerfully conceived and written. But it would carry more weight if we didn’t sense that in the affair the hero was quite capable of feeling, all along, that at least he was getting a novel out of it. Elaborate descriptions of sexual intercourse in the first part of the book are evidently supposed to establish a nexus of authentic passion between the characters; but here too a reader may well feel that Narcissus rather than Eros presides.
With a schlemiel for a hero, Mr. Gold holds better cards to start with than his academic counterparts; and he lays out some strong scenes. His confidence man analyzes himself profusely, and in patent bad faith; even as he snoops and pries into the mind of his faithless lady friend, he despises himself for doing so; we are continually made aware of looking into duplicity, jealousy, pain—the behind of his open mind. And yet this open operator, who seems to be giving away everything, often uses his buffoonery to achieve a carefully contrived reticence where it counts. The word “unbrave” in the sentence quoted above is a nice instance. On the one hand, it implies self-deprecation, since the hero lacks the highest virtue to which Hemingway was always aspiring; on the other hand, it directly implies that the brave thing to do (on paper, where we are) is to admit that you’re not brave. So you score points either way. (The word also implies that you can be Hemingway without being brave, so that his pretension on this point is detachable. It isn’t a fundamental rationale for the taut style, just a piece of extraneous vanity which we are better off without.) Only one thing is clear about the adjective—in using it, you haven’t let on what you really think of yourself. And that’s a point on which a little knowledge might help us readers to form a judgment of this narrator into whose hands we’ve perforce committed ourselves.
However skillful his vaudeville, however absorbing his “problems,” the hero of self-analysis invites disbelief because he stands on a stage and promises a show. Who expects truth under these circumstances? Who wants it? Mr. Gold says his hero’s friend is sick because she’s sick of Mr. Gold’s hero—that could very well be the healthiest thing about her, but one thing is sure, we’ll never learn it from him. In a word, heroes who use their ladies as show-cases, looking-glasses, or Indian clubs for muscular/moral display inspire chiefly a deep desire to hear—either in confirmation or criticism—a clear, dry contralto opinion. Not that the ladies as such have any privileged access to the truth. It just doesn’t seem fair that us good guys, with our Honest-John poses and our choice of all the best camera angles shouldn’t sometime be confronted with our dimensions as somebody outside the arrangement sees us.
Italo Calvino seems to have been reading Jorge Luis Borges. T Zero is a set of dry sketches in what will doubtless come to be known as the Argentine manner—brisk, intricate, pokerfaced, perversely logical and logically perverse. An interesting feature of the book is the gradual and ultimately complete effacement, in the course of it, of the narrator who was carried over from Signor Calvino’s previous book, Cosmicomics. This narrator is a metamorphic male monad named Qfwfq, who has managed to maintain some sense of identity in the course of his numerous popup incarnations down the corridors of geologic time and galactic space, along with total recall of his experiences.
Qfwfq as a narrative consciousness offers many opportunities for surprise, amusement, and insight. Perhaps he falls a little too regularly into the merely quizzical, but he also ricochets through the cosmos to fine comic effect. His trouble is that as he puts on humanity he also puts on triteness, as a vestment. When he tells us that the world used to be polished and mechanical but the moon dripped gooey life-stuff all over it, which after long and exhausting labors we’re just now clearing away and thus returning the planet to its original glistening geometry, Qfwfq isn’t much better than a pert little moralist for the conservation society. He’s better when he sits on the back seat of a recklessly driven Volkswagen, necking with a girl named Zylphia and reflecting on his experiences as a piece of undulating protoplasm in a warm, prehistoric ocean. If the bloodstream is an interior ocean (so that we don’t swim in it anymore as an exterior, common medium, but are swum in it), then what Qfwfq wants to do with Zylphia takes on a lot of inside-outside aspects, leading toward a set of violent, incompatible fantasies from which there’s hardly any better escape than a modern Liebestod, with the Volkswagen plunging blindly over a cliff into the literal, primordial ocean.
Qfwfq makes his final appearance in a long three-part love story which occupies the waist of T Zero under the title “Priscilla.” At various stages in this time-intoxicated fable, Priscilla appears as a micro-organism, a lady-camel, a frecklefaced Anglo-Saxonne momentarily resident in Paris, and some charges on an electronic tape. In eloquent Qfwfq’s mournful rhetoric, the fable turns into an elegy on romantic themes, a dark rhapsody in praise of death, sex, discontinuity, possibility, the permanence of change. And with this biological fantasia, exit Qfwfq.
The four last pieces in T Zero dispense with time-wanderers and biological doom in favor of a much tighter and more inward dialectic. Being meditations rather than narrations, they don’t have as many problems with a narrator. Like many of Borges’s pieces, they are explosions of perverse fantasy. Not all of them achieve dimension; as with Borges again, some are little more than jeux d’esprit. B, for example, is trying to catch and kill A; they are both trapped, motionless and apart, in an immense traffic jam. All A need do to get away is to suppose that the whole traffic jam consists of linked murderers and murderees. If A, who is being pursued by B only to prevent him from killing C in the car ahead, does in fact kill C, then B will have no further reason to pursue A, nor X to pursue B, and the whole chain of preventive murders will fall apart, together with the traffic jam. Though a man who lives in Turin must have many occasions to pursue reflections like these, they’re scarcely inexhaustible.
But in a set of variations on “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which concludes this volume, Calvino has written a truly extraordinary parable of the mind held captive by its own processes, from which its only escape is by understanding (if not accepting) them. As Abbé Faria digs frantically through the wall of the Château d’If, like a crazed mole trying always to escape, Edmond Dantès, the “I” of the story, sits in his cell, constructing mentally ever larger and more inclusive images of the prison. It begins as the island of If at Marseilles, but expands in time and space to become all islands and all prisons—Monte Cristo, Elba, Saint Helena, the enclosed world of a novel called “The Count of Monte Cristo,” from which Dantès, Faria, Napoleon, Alexander Dumas, Dumas’s two assistants, and presumably even Italo Calvino must all be extricated at once.
Or, perhaps, not extricated at all, since by the time Dantès has spun out of his cell a novel and an anti-novel, a prison-isle and a treasure-isle, an exile and a kingdom, there’s hardly anything left to escape to. In this fable, it’s easy enough to see Abbé Faria as the true hero of a fiction, who lives only for the page of his triumph, Dantès as its creator, who makes his world and his story (as convoluted as the human brain itself) out of what delays that triumph. The fundamental hostility of a narrator to his narrative surrogate may not be an inexhaustible source of meditation either, but it seems a good place for meditation to start.