The Not-So-Light Fantastic

Falstaff

by Robert Nye
Little, Brown, 450 pp., $8.95

October Light

by John Gardner
Knopf, 480 pp., $10.00

Terra Nostra

by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 778 pp., $15.00

People have been talking about the death of the novel ever since it was born, and it seems that one of the few things we can safely say about the form is that it is always on its last legs. In 1814, for example, an anonymous writer in The Critical Review suggested that “the era of the novel” was almost over. In fact, the novel usually marks its repeated decline by looking monstrously healthy, and no one glancing at Gaddis’s JR, or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, or Gardner’s Sunlight Dialogues would think the genre was wasting away. The three fat novels under review confirm this line of thought.

And yet, curiously, none of this means the novel is not dying. There is a perspective in which the novel, now and on half a dozen other occasions in its history, can be seen as not only dying but dead, and what we hold in our hands becomes the burly ghost of one of several yesterdays, a book which borrows all its life from a style and a readership which are gone. Most of the books in this category are either bad books or mere echoes, but there are also masterpieces: the novels of Proust and Thomas Mann, for instance, which carefully prolong an old pace into a new age. Gardner’s October Light and Fuentes’s Terra Nostra take the whole question one step further. Neither bad books nor echoes nor masterpieces, they are so plainly responses to the sickness of the novel that it’s hard to know what to do with them. Are they last takings of the patient’s pulse? Epitaphs? Funeral games?

Of course there is also a sense in which the novel is flourishing, and always will be as long as we have an appetite for well-told lies of any length. Nye’s Falstaff, the imaginary autobiography of Shakespeare’s splendid old scoundrel, is an excellent representative of this continuing life, and a good example of what a talented writer can do with a string of shaggy dog stories and some fine lines.

The danger with Falstaff is that we shall lose him to melancholy, as Orson Welles does, albeit with some panache, in his lugubrious film Chimes at Midnight. Indeed, Shakespeare suggests that Falstaff dies of Hal’s rejection of him, and that his heart, in Pistol’s words, is “fracted and corroborate.” Nye’s solution to this problem is to have Falstaff simply survive this upset, fight at Agincourt, make his fortune in France, and retire to Norfolk to dictate his memoirs to a gaggle of amanuenses: three secretaries, a servant, a priest, and a stepson. Nye then works in the right touch of sadness by having Falstaff see Hal much later, in France, already sick, the marks of death upon him. And there, as in Shakespeare only later, Falstaff cries out “God save you, my sweet boy,” and is ignored.

True to form [Falstaff says], King Henry the 5th gave …

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