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The Man Who Wasn’t There

Marbot: Eine Biographie Crampton, will be published in September by Braziller.)

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer
Suhrkamp Verlag, 326 pp., $20.90 (The American edition of Marbot, translated by Patricia

In this book Wolfgang Hildesheimer, the German novelist and author of a recent biography of Mozart, purports to resuscitate a forgotten figure in English nineteenth-century art and letters; a writer whose achievement—as was the case with Beckford, Byron, Swinburne, Wilde, and many others—was in some way linked to sexual “deviation.” According to Hildesheimer, the work of Andrew Marbot has passed largely unnoticed because his ideas were too novel and radical for his own time. For this short-lived amateur art historian was the first scholar ever to have searched for the psychological roots of artistic creation, thus anticipating some of the discoveries of the psychoanalytical theory of art.

A precocious achievement indeed. As we learn from Hildesheimer’s meticulously written biography, his hero’s upbringing favored the direction of his research. Sir Andrew Marbot (1801-1830) was born at Marbot Hall, Northumberland, into a family of Catholic landowners. His father was a country squire with few interests beyond hunting; his mother, Lady Catherine, had been raised in Italy and was possessed of a livelier, more educated mind. Her father, moreover, the third Viscount Claverton, had been British minister-resident in Venice from 1784-1797; in this capacity he acquired masterpieces by Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, and Guardi. His guests at nearby Redmond Manor included Turner and Raeburn, De Quincey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. The combined influences of Lord Claverton, his paintings, and his guests triggered the grandson’s lifelong passion for art. In addition, a Jesuit tutor provided him with a solid grounding in the liberal arts.

At age twenty Andrew was ready for his Grand Tour. It took him by way of London and Paris to Italy, always in pursuit of artistic interests. He soon started jotting down impressions of paintings and the first adumbrations of his future theories. Marbot made friends with the leading art scholar, Baron Rumohr; he spent one month with Byron and his circle at Pisa. Upon the death of his father in 1822 he returned for two years to England, but he spent the remainder of his life on the Continent where his studies increased steadily in breadth and depth. He died mysteriously in Urbino, where he kept house with a mistress.

Most of these facts, Hildesheimer explains, were known from an earlier biography by an American, Frederic Hadley-Chase (1888). Marbot’s writings were accessible, under the title Art and Life, in a posthumous edition by his tutor, Gerardus van Rossum (1834; German translation 1839). Hildesheimer, however, does not conceal his pride in his own research, which produced, among other interesting details, Marbot’s hitherto unrecorded interview with Goethe. He tells us with some excitement how his own view of his subject changed dramatically when a descendant of the tutor’s heirs put at his disposal all of Marbot’s manuscripts, including his private papers. For then Hildesheimer realized that there had been a secret behind Marbot’s busy intellectual life and aloof manner. His premature insights had been conditioned by his own extremely vulnerable psychic disposition. The trauma that drove Marbot to the point of becoming, as it were, a Freudian long before Freud was an incestuous relationship with his mother.

This fateful passion forms the core of the biography. Well versed in psychoanalysis himself, Hildesheimer shows that Marbot’s thinking, his responses to contemporaries, and, not least, his few relations with other women were all affected by this deeply disturbing experience. The biographer uncovers yet another aspect of his hero’s tragedy. Passionately concerned with the secret of artistic creation, Marbot suffered from the fact that he himself was denied creativity. This was perhaps the deepest cause of his untimely death—according to Hildesheimer’s plausible conjecture, a suicide.

Hildesheimer reconstructs this life with empathy, tact, and authority. Numerous excerpts from Marbot’s writings add greatly to the book’s interest, as do the illustrations. These include Marbot’s portrait in a lithograph by Delacroix, which conveys with all his worldliness a faint trace of insecurity; a portrait of his mother by Sir Henry Raeburn, which goes a long way to make their aberration humanly understandable; his down-to-earth father, also in a portrait by Raeburn; the grandfather’s refined features in a portrait by Anton Graff. There are, furthermore, photographs of the two houses, Marbot Hall and Redmond, the seat of Lord Claverton; reproductions of paintings about which Marbot has written; finally, drawn by lesser hands, portraits of the three women to whom he eventually became attached: Ottilie von Goethe, Anna Maria Baiardi, Teresa Guiccioli.

But, alas, upon consulting a few books and museum catalogues, one finds the Delacroix lithograph represents not Andrew Marbot, but one Baron Schwieter (see illustration). According to the National Gallery of Scotland, the female portrait by Raeburn is not Lady Catherine Marbot, but Mrs. Scott Moncrieff. The portrait of Andrew’s father is in London’s National Gallery, but it is of Colonel Bryce McMurdo; his grandfather’s hangs in the Reinhart Foundation, Winterthur, as a mere Herr von Beust. “Marbot Hall in Northumberland” is Raynham Hall in Norfolk, and so on. And in case anyone wants more proof: there is no trace of the Marbot and Claverton families in the Dictionary of National Biography, nor does the National Union Catalogue list titles such as Marbot’s Art and Life, or a biography by Frederic Hadley-Chase.

Hildesheimer has invented his hero, his hero’s writings and Victorian biography. He has added the illustrations as representing the characters of his story. And one can only congratulate him on their selection: each looks exactly as the character it is meant to portray should look. He is as shrewd in his verbal commingling of fact and fiction. In many places he works with the most unabashed interpolations, e.g., “In a letter to his friend Felix Guillemardot of 30 July 1825, Delacroix speaks of Andrew’s sharp discernment….” 1 The “excerpts” from Marbot’s writings, inevitably in German, are often interspersed with short phrases from the English “original,” as if to clarify the meaning in passages difficult to translate. In impeccable scholarly fashion, Hildesheimer sifts the evidence or makes conjectures about missing information. He takes issue with his uncritical predecessor, Hadley-Chase, he rages against the tutor’s sloppy editing of Marbot’s writings, and he refers repeatedly to a forthcoming modern edition that will include the private papers. At the climax of his story, he even refers to the incidents surrounding the incest as “events which evidently many of us would rather refuse to believe but which are true nevertheless, insofar as things past are still true at all.”

The result of so much cunning is a sustained illusion of authenticity. Nevertheless, the book is not a hoax, for it lacks deceitful intention. It has the format of a novel, it has no footnotes, and Hildesheimer himself suggests that he is writing a fictitious biography. He uses the pretense of authenticity as a mode of representation, as a narrative device. But to what end?2

In his other works Hildesheimer seems to enjoy using hoaxes, practical jokes, and mystification. Readers of his short stories and his two previous novels may remember how, in Tynset (1966), the narrator relates how some time after the war he used to frighten presumptive Nazi criminals with anonymous nightly phone calls saying, for instance, “The cat is out of the bag, you’d better get out!” In Masante (1973) the narrator approaches a young lady in the Musée Condé under Piero di Cosimo’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci; in order to please her, he invents the biography of the Renaissance beauty, characteristically including incest: “Simonetta, I said, was in love with her father, Cardinal Vespucci, whose lute-playing beguiled an aging Pope’s sleepless nights….” Yet in Marbot, Hildesheimer does not seem to intend to mystify or to parody scholarship, as Nabokov has so delightfully done in Pale Fire.

His true intention becomes clearer if one reads two statements of his literary creed. The first is a lecture, “The End of Fiction,” delivered in 1975 in Ireland; the other is the introduction to his great book on Mozart (1977).3 In both he argues that it is no longer possible to write traditional fiction. Not only are all conventional plotting devices exhausted; but no hero—whether he is the writer’s alter ego or not—can be taken as representative of our time because the “anomalous machinery” that determines our destinies transcends his, or any other person’s experience. “Today, villainy is worldwide, its syndicates elude fictionalization, they appear as a near-abstract principle.” In his novels, the “anomalous machinery” appears in haunting visions. In the 1975 lecture, however, he doubts whether a writer can still take his stand vis-à-vis the world by means of language. Only action—or silence—are appropriate.

The modern writer is, of course, free to write a true biography, i.e., to revive a historical figure. With the hindsight of history, the social and historical dynamics of the past are easier to survey and, in order to understand his main character, the writer can use the most advanced psychological knowledge. Still, he will never be able to present the full truth about a historical character—least of all when he is dealing with genius. Hildesheimer relates movingly how in his struggle with Mozart he was always faced with the impenetrable “strangeness” of his subject.

It was therefore understandable that he should resort to a fictitious biography. For only if he created a hero and put him into a socio-historical setting could he hope to gain perfect control over the character in his interaction with “his” time. Only in a mind of his own making could he read as in an open book. In this way, Hildesheimer can be said to have attempted in Marbot what he believes is the highest goal of literature: to transform fiction into truth.

That his imaginary hero anticipates insights of much later aestheticians and psychologists does not undermine the credibility of the story; for the plot is, as we have seen, based on the very premise that Marbot is ahead of his time. The question whether his views and discoveries are in keeping with the spirit of the 1820s is irrelevant. In the history of ideas the same sudden leaps that science knows under the name of mutations occur. Whoever finds it hard to believe that Marbot uses Turner’s art in order to vindicate every artist’s right to his own subjective vision should be reminded that, precisely during Marbot’s “lifetime,” writers such as Novalis, Tieck, Jean Paul, Hoffmann, Balzac, Coleridge envisioned, each in his own way, the possibility of abstract art.4 Nor should the historically conscious reader raise his eyebrows when Marbot’s speculations adumbrate the mechanism of repression, or the function of art as wish fulfillment and catharsis. Poets and sages of all times have intuitively grasped fragments of that strange knowledge which Freud systematized.

Hildesheimer takes great care to show that in every instance Marbot’s insights are the outcome of experience. The five-year-old sees at his grandfather’s house Tintoretto’s Genesis of the Milky Way—the infant Hercules between a seductive mother and a not-too-trust-worthy father—and the same spark kindles his love of painting and his sexual curiosity, with his mother as the inevitable object. Much later, having conquered, enjoyed, and, reluctantly, renounced that “unknown territory” which he discovered by way of the painting, Marbot reflects upon the privilege of the artists—their singular gift to express, and thus rid themselves of, those wishes which, if unfulfilled, forever obsess and sadden their uncreative fellow men.

It becomes clear that the lengthy “excerpts” from Marbot’s writings are meant not only to illustrate the genesis of his theory, but also to reflect his desperate attempts to come to terms with his trauma. Marbot wants to understand himself; hence his search for the unconscious roots of artistic creation, and his insistence that the content of a work of art is not its subject, but the artist himself and his inner life. He does away with normative aesthetics because he rejects the moral norm. His interpretations of paintings are not just artful evocations of the visual facts, but self-revelations. Watteau’s Gilles tells him about the painter’s loneliness and melancholy. In Botticelli’s Primavera he is fascinated by the theme of “sinfulness reconverted into innocence.” Marbot ponders the connubial mystery in Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding Portrait and traces the incestuous undercurrent in Hamlet. Delacroix’s Sardanapalus reveals to him the interaction of sexuality and death. As Hildesheimer writes, Marbot “substituted active libidinous execution by theoretical penetration into the art of its representation, and into the secret of creativity. However, this object-displacement led him beyond the spiritual heights of pure, disinterested knowledge; it led him on the other side down again into the psychic depth of the death wish.”

Ever since his separation from his mother, he has been moved by a longing for annihilation. Only artistic creation of his own can help him over her loss; but he is not an artist. As “biographer,” Hildesheimer can reflect upon the sources of his character’s behavior to an extent inadmissible in ordinary fiction (Proust is a case apart); thus he analyzes the incest in its pathological, ethical, and romantic aspects. The two come together on the eve of Andrew’s Grand Tour; their affair has its precarious blossoming after the death of his father. They part in order to spare the younger children the consequences, but they remain obsessed by each other. Lady Catherine repents and confesses to her son’s former tutor; Andrew loses his faith and denies the concept of sin. But that does not set him free, either. Nor does he find solace with other women.

Marbot finds confirmation of his despair in the poetry of Leopardi and in the philosophy of Schopenhauer; but he objects that both lack consequence. Why does Schopenhauer, evangelist of the renunciation of the will to live, reject suicide? Why is Leopardi, in spite of his misery, still alive? Through a series of especially poignant events, Hildesheimer traces Andrew Marbot’s growing resolution to commit suicide.

What are we to make of this sad life? It is hard to resist reading this book as a reflection on the deep absurdities of experience. If we play Hildesheimer’s game, we can also say that Marbot’s life at least has not been lost. For who could ask for a sweeter resurrection?

  1. 1

    Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are my own.

  2. 2

    A discussion of Marbot in the London Review of Books (August 5-18, 1982) produced a paradox. J.P. Stern reviewed the book as if its hero had been real. Only one or two barely perceptible hints at his fictional character are buried in the review. Stern’s parody was meant, I think, as a tribute to Hildesheimer’s success in “transforming fiction into truth.” But a letter from Hildesheimer (London Review, September 16-October 6, 1982) rebuked him for his gullibility.

  3. 3

    Published in the US by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982. The New York Review, November 18, 1982.

  4. 4

    See Otto Stelzer, Die Vorgeschichte der abstrakten Kunst, Denkmodelle und Vorbilder (Munich, 1964).

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