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 no sign whatsoever of having heard a small party of English soldiery salute him with an unusual mode of address, or of having even noticed an old fat English knight by the side of the road, his cap in his hand, and tears blinding his eyes.
Nye’s Falstaff is bawdy rather than melancholy, and often seems to have stepped out of Rabelais rather than Shakespeare. “Lord, I went at it with a whopping will,” he says, correcting the record about what happened in Windsor Park with the merry wives of that neighborhood. “I rogered and rammed and ploughed them until they thought the sky was raining potatoes and thundering to the tune of Greensleeves.” The bawdy can seem tiresome—there is a predictable chapter on Falstaff’s prick, and a lot of rogering and ramming whenever the pace threatens to slacken—but generally it takes on a rather attractive pathos, for we are rarely allowed to forget that Falstaff is not bragging, but lying, and that his “cunterbury tales,” as he calls them, are a “requiem for a life he never lived.” “This is a work of fiction,” Falstaff’s stepson says, indignant:
I say that this is a monster. That this is like someone’s dream. That he is a made-up man. That this made-up monster uses words I never heard on any living tongue. That he is a lie. That he is a lie that lies and lies and lies.
Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a consummate liar, of course, counterfeiting death on the battlefield at Shrewsbury with such perfection that death itself, in the shape of the corpse of Hotspur, seems provisional (“how if he should counterfeit too and rise?… Why may he not rise as well as I?”). But here we have Shakespeare’s fiction inside Nye’s fiction inventing fictions, and the result is not self-consciousness or a contribution to literary theory but an exhilarating sense of a mind living its life again by making it up. “Lies about my whole life.” Falstaff writes in a scribbled confession to his priest. “But try & explain: some true lies?”
Sometimes Nye has Falstaff sounding too much like your hearty British soldier, borrowed from Kipling and coarsened up (“When I was a few farts more than twelve years old I went to be page to Thomas Mowbray…. Mowbray himself was a little slit-lipped twat, with a spiky beard like a thrush’s”), and occasionally he resorts to the dubious expedient of translating Shakespeare (“Hours would only interest you if they were cups of sack. Minutes if they were capons. Clocks if they were bawds’ tongues”). But then there is a brilliant chapter on farting (“It was what you might call a stained-glass fart. I mean: not uproarious, but deep and rich and altering the color of the light”), and a Falstaff who not only borrows names from Shakespeare (“Now this Brokeanus was married to a lady called Goneril, or as some say it, Gladys”) but also craftily quotes Eliot, Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Coleridge, and maybe Hopkins is not a man to be trifled with. Falstaff’s true lies point us past him to Robert Nye, who, like his much admired Rabelais, doesn’t hide his sources and will not segregate his learning and his jokes.
Falstaff, like Faust and Hamlet (and unlike Macbeth or Othello or Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina, say), is a character who is larger than literature. When you return to the texts which are supposed to contain him, you find hints rather than realizations. And in this sense Falstaff is not in Shakespeare (or in Nye). John Gardner is also after something which normally escapes literature, only in the opposite direction. He wants to suggest that many clichés are true, which I suppose no one doubts. The question is how useful their truth is, and the difficulty is how to make them seem true in a book.
We are told of a character in October Light that he is “not so naïve as to doubt that the trashiest fiction is all true, as the noblest is all illusion.” But the only serious way for a writer to act on this notion, I suspect, would be to write trashy fiction unrepentantly, and Gardner can’t bring himself to do this. It is also very hard to write trashy fiction when you don’t believe in your own trash. What Gardner has written (in collaboration with his wife, he informs us) is a playful philosophical take-off of trashy fiction, which is about as lighthearted as the Declaration of Independence, and which an old lady in his novel finds and reads, with us peeping over her shoulder.
It is a tale of marijuana smugglers given to chatting about the meaning of life, and offers us a black girl who says to herself, “Pearl, chile, you out of you mind,” an obsequious Oriental who says, “We glatified you come to our humble estabrishment,” and a black hood who says, “I’m the dialectical method, man. I am the essential nature of bein’, existence, ineluctable modality, Jack.” The fact that these people are clearly parodying themselves doesn’t really help, it merely freezes them in their limbo between coyness and pretension. The same goes for the clumsiness of the device of having this story found and read in the novel. It is an intended clumsiness, no doubt, but what is it intended to do? When the old lady reading the story thinks of its “impishness” and the “delicate way” it works, we can’t really smile at the old lady’s literary taste, because if the story isn’t impish and delicate (and it isn’t), it certainly isn’t anything else.
Some of these things can be said about the novel in which the smugglers’ tale is embedded. A woman thinks, “Everywhere you looked, it was the Bicentennial. Did people have no fucking shame?” But we have to wonder where Gardner’s shame is, since October Light is a bicentennial tour of old Vermont, all brisk weather and cold light and Yankee orneriness, the account of a feud between two old people, brother and sister, neatly illuminated by quotations from Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, John Adams, and their contemporaries. This is a novel in which people say, “By thunder,” “By tunkit,” and “Heavens to Betsy,” and are described as being “meaner than pussley broth” and “crazy as a loon.” However it is not a novel which places any faith in this vocabulary, and when it wants to say something it reaches for another one: “and the image before him he would have called, if he’d known the word, symbolic.” There must be dozens of Vermont farmers who are more at home with the word “symbolic” than they are with pussley broth.
October Light is also full of artful symmetries and juxtapositions and prophecies. A boy said to be “born for hanging” hangs himself in an attic. October, the time just before the “locking” of northern roads and rivers, is also the time in which the brother locks his sister in her bedroom, but the “unlocking” of spring is just around the corner, and the old woman comes out of her room at the end of the novel, and the old man opens a metaphorical door which leads him to understand the mystery of his hanged son’s death.
The quarrel between brother and sister results from their disagreements about the modern world—he’s against it, she’s for it—and from her now having to live on his charity. This allows Gardner to throw up allegories by the handful and just let them drop: the brother and sister are England and America, America and the Third World, men and women, whites and blacks. When a character protests against this projection of a private wrangle on to history by saying, “Oh Sally dear, what’s the country got to do with it,” Sally, the sister, smartly replies, “The country’s got everything to do with it. It’s the haves and the have-nots, that’s what it is.” Again, as with the impishness and delicacy of the inserted story, we are no doubt meant to feel Sally’s got something wrong here. But what is it she has got wrong?
Her perspective is backed up by the whole novel, the whole heavy investigation of the divided American character, angry nostalgia on the one hand and sloppy liberalism on the other. Certainly these factions do exist in America now, and do loom large; the cliché is true to this extent. But it is not a cliché that Gardner can properly animate in his novel, and it seems to me too crude anyway, too flat and too big to do anything except squash the discussion it is supposed to start. Can we really take another long debate about whether television scatters the mind and whether workmanship is what it used to be?
And yet October Light doesn’t altogether fail. There are all kinds of rooms in the house of fiction, and missing the truth of trash and the truth of good novels, Gardner still manages to get across what I’ll call the truth of allusion. I can’t believe in Gardner’s cut-out characters as they stand, but I don’t feel they’re simply fakes. Sally says of the tale she’s reading that “it came close enough to life to remind her of it,” and I would say much the same about October Light. Gardner understands the loneliness of stubborn people, and the violence that apparently simple and stable lives may contain: the old man wants to kill his sister with his shotgun, and she rigs a trap for him which fractures her niece’s head when she comes into her room too quickly; a man is killed by fear, by the sight of a child dressed up to scare him; the old man, drunk, drives his truck off a mountain road. Sally finds a pattern in her trashy story that seems to have “crept into the book from the real world,” and what has crept into October Light from the real world is Gardner’s loyalty to people and lives he can’t quite catch in fiction, and to the apparently dying, old-fashioned form he can’t believe in and can’t let go.
Carlos Fuentes has better reasons for believing in the novel than Gardner has. Gardner is writing in a country where people are doing drastic things to the form, blowing it up, like Pynchon and Gaddis, and chopping it down, like Barthelme and Renata Adler. Fuentes is surrounded by writers like Cortázar, García Márquez, Donoso, Vargas Llosa, and Sarduy, architects of a glittering if not golden age in Latin American fiction. Fuentes’s new work places him closest to Donoso, and there has clearly been a beneficial mutual influence between the two men. Donoso has said that his Obscene Bird of Night* owed a lot to Fuentes, and Fuentes was no doubt heartened by the success of that brilliant and difficult book. What almost all of these Latin American writers have in common is a devotion to fiction as phantasmagoria, to what is perhaps the major discovery of the New Novel in Latin America: fantasy given the dense texture of reality both frees the writer from a narrow naturalism and speaks to an authentic, shared sense of the world as proliferating nightmare.
Yet Fuentes, like Vargas Llosa, remains an Old Novelist in many ways, devoted to the patient elaboration of a reliable world. It is true that Terra Nostra begins in a wonderful hallucination of Paris in the year 1999, the millennium on the doorstep, the Louvre turned to crystal and the Arc de Triomphe turned to sand, executions in Saint-Sulpice and women in childbirth sprawled along the boulevards, flagellants parading day after day and figures from famous novels and plays roaming the city: Jean Valjean up from the sewer, the hero of Balzac’s Peau de chagrin clutching his piece of skin, Marguerite Gauthier, from La Dame aux Camélias, coughing quietly above the panic. But then a young man named Pollo Phoibee, after a line in a poem of Pound’s, falls into the boiling Seine and is washed back through time to sixteenth-century Spain, where the rest of the novel, apart from trips to Renaissance Venice, Alexandria, and a newly discovered America, and apart from occasional flashes forward into later times, is firmly set. Terra Nostra settles down, that is, where it seems as if it ought to be taking off.
It’s not that Fuentes is pedantic or timid about historical accuracy—he marries Philip II to Elizabeth Tudor instead of Mary, and converts that somber king’s grandparents, Philip the Fair and Juana the Mad, into his parents. And it’s not that he doesn’t write well and doesn’t invent brilliant details and juxtapositions. The time-traveling hero discovers in Spain that he is one of three identical brothers, each having twelve toes and twelve fingers and a blood-red cross ingrained in the flesh of his back. He is also the half brother of Philip II, grimly engaged in the construction of the Escorial, his despairing defense against change and time and heresy. This is vivid enough, and elegantly executed (and very well translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, as the book is throughout). And there is more.
There is a queen conjuring the devil and turning herself into a bat; a mourning royal wife roaming the highways of Spain with the embalmed corpse of her husband; Cervantes at the battle of Lepanto, and later, about to start work on Don Quixote; Don Quixote himself; Don Juan. There are magi, monks, cabalists; bottles thrown into the sea (one of which contains a narrative from Tiberius’ Rome, and another Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”). There is a man in Venice who has created what he calls the Theater of Memory, a place where the spectator stands on the stage and sees in the auditorium a shifting set of images which represent everything that might have been but wasn’t; Odysseus dead in the wooden horse, a baby girl born in a manger.
But in spite of all this, and in ways impossible to illustrate in brief (or even in fairly lengthy) quotation, Terra Nostra really is an Old Novel. Nightmare or not, Fuentes’s Spain is too scrupulously fixed and predictable. If Donoso and García Márquez are like Dostoevsky, say, writers in a fever, seeking to catch us up in a plausible hysteria, then Fuentes and Vargas Llosa are like the Flaubert of Salammbô, naturalists of the dream, so that Fuentes’s sixteenth-century Spain becomes less fantastic than Fuentes’s modern Paris, and the Peru of Vargas Llosa’s novels is merely everyday Peru broken up by technique.
This is intentional, of course, an artistic and no doubt a temperamental choice. But it does turn the writer back toward that always dying animal, the novel grounded in the seen world and public experience. All good stories are slow stories, Thomas Mann said, but one of the implicit rules of phantasmagoria seems to be that it must move fast, however long it takes. And Terra Nostra moves like a pavane. When phantasmagoria reproduces not the feel of material reality but only its remorselessly stable appearance, then the liberation proposed by the New Novel is rejected, and we are back sleeping in the nightmare within which, at least, it had seemed possible to be awake. History, that is, can be confronted or evaded, but there is very little to be said for converting an evasion into a prison more confining than the one you’ve just got out of.
But this, in the end, is Fuentes’s point. Terra Nostra is about escapes which can only be longed for, about a new world which is merely a grimace of the old, about flights into time which are simply flights into predetermination. Philip of Spain lives on into the twentieth century only to awaken in Franco’s monument of the Valley of the Fallen; a man in a dream kills his brother in Tenochtitlan, the ancient lake-capital of the Aztecs, only to have to kill him again in another time, or another dream, in the modern Mexico City.
Insistently, throughout the book, through speakers in the jungle of Vera Cruz and the ghetto of Toledo, Fuentes insists on the promising properties of the number three, which will save us from the strife represented by the number two. Yesterday, today, tomorrow are more than mere past and present; life, death, and memory (for which another name might be fiction) are more than living and dying. The city founded by triplets will be spared the devastations that come upon cities founded by twins. And in anticipation, perhaps, Fuentes has divided his book into three parts: the old world, the new world, the other world. But the book, like reality, keeps sliding back into warring pairs: then and now, old and new, men and women, memory and oblivion. And it is the solidity of these pairs, the purely wishful quality of the liberating trinities, that gives the novel its final flatness, as well as its moving last chapter. It is flat not because Fuentes can’t imagine a way out of time and history, and not because history congeals to such thickness in his hands, but because Fuentes, in spite of his own good intentions, really does seem to prefer the tidiness of despair to the disorder of faint hope.
The last chapter is extremely moving because there Pollo Phoibee, who has already turned into Cervantes and now sits in Paris playing cards with characters from the novels of contemporary Latin American writers, finally turns into Fuentes himself and confesses the last sad truth about then and now. This novel’s long sojourn in the Spanish past has not led us away from the present but only revealed to us how completely the present may be swamped by memory. If Philip the Fair’s four sons dominate the book, it is because Spain, even now, dominates much of Fuentes’s moral universe: Spain, as he says, “this land, land of Vespers, Spain, Terra Nostra.” Earlier in the book Juana the Mad speaks of Spain’s legacy as “the image of death as an inexhaustible and consuming luxury,” and among Latin Americans perhaps only a Mexican would have enough gloom in his character and culture to be drawn to this inheritance, either in reality or as a subject for a novel. And only a Mexican, perhaps, would experience the past as such a crippling and irresistible burden, an old world which simply eclipses all new and next worlds.
January 20, 1977