I want to distinguish at the outset three types of prose narrative—novel, tale, romance—which are currently thought to be indistinguishable. The only difference now recognized among types of fiction is one of length, which can help us tell a short story from a novel and helped (once upon a time) to tell a short story from a short-short story. But I am not going to be dealing in these remarks with short stories as a separate class. Most of them fall under the headings I have just named. They can be divided into 1) abbreviated novels, 2) brief tales, 3) fragmentary romances. If the form has a definite character of its own, I have been unable to determine it.
Nor will I be dealing with the “novella,” which to me is only an affected name for a shortish novel or a longish short story. Originally, in Italian, it was applied to stories or “histories” like those in Boccaccio’s Decameron. In French, it became nouvelle, as in Cent nouvelles nouvelles. Here, as in the Decameron (though not in the Heptaméron of Marguerite de Navarre), the little narratives tended to be licentious. In German, the Novelle, thanks to the Romantics, became a genuine form, with naturalization papers; in our time it was favored by Thomas Mann. But in English the word for short novel is novelette, which quickly became pejorative, meaning a rather cheap love story and giving rise to the damning adjective “novelettish” before passing out of use altogether. Nobody talks of novelettes any more.
Another class of prose fiction is the fable—from the Latin fabula, which in turn goes back to an ancient term fari, meaning simply “to speak”—the root, incidentally, of fatum, or “fate,” i.e., “what has been spoken.” I shall not be discussing fables either, though they did not go out with Aesop. The obvious contemporary example is Animal Farm, but I think 1984, a cautionary tale, must be a fable too, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, most of Golding, probably, also Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and quite a lot of science fiction.
Fables, with or without talking animals, are allegories—allegoria, the description of one thing under the image of another—and, whatever a novel may be, it is not an allegory. It lives in its own right; its characters are not personifications; their names do not refer to abstract conditions or qualities such as “Pilgrim,” “Everyman,” “Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy,” “Patience.” If a character in a novel is named “Krook,” as in Dickens’s Bleak House, this is not shorthand for a dishonest person—never. Mr. Krook with his rag-and-bone shop and his weird cat Lady Jane is something much queerer and more complex than that. And the statement I have just made—“A novel is not an allegory”—can be developed syllogistically, like this: “No novel is an allegory,” “X is an allegory,” “X is not a novel.” Apply it to a specific case: “1984 is a parable for our times. A parable is a form of allegory. No novel is an allegory. Therefore 1984 is not a novel.” Such little tests can be useful.
Adding to the confusion in this sphere is a tendency of reviewers to read no matter what novel as “a parable for our time”—at best an unctuous pronouncement, evoking the laying on of hands. But to try to read a true novel as an allegory does not deepen the meanings in it; rather the contrary. It leaches any meaning that is not didactic out.
Novel, tale, romance—these are the classes of prose narrative I shall be alluding to, and, before I can comment on some mutations in their current behavior, I shall have to make clear what those classes are or were. Of all these forms the tale is the oldest and maybe the most persistent. Unlike the novel and the romance, it is pre-literate in its beginnings, and something oral still clings to it, however sophisticated it becomes. A tale always has a teller and, around him, an implied circle of listeners, with the suggestion of a campfire. The teller is the guarantor of the tale’s authenticity, which is why he remains present even in late developments of the form such as Conrad’s “Marlow” stories, where the veteran ship’s officer spinning his yarn is more an ornament than a necessity for validating a far-fetched account. We would believe Lord Jim, I think, without Marlow’s attestation to the truth of it. But it is Marlow’s voice that reminds us that the story of the young, untried first mate and his instant of cowardice is not a novel but a tale.
The teller, I must add, now and then creeps into the novel, where he does not belong, but he functions there as a sort of Master of Ceremonies (Don Quixote) and quickly drops from sight. Whenever he creeps in (and it is important that you note this), even though he invariably appears as an “I,” a first-person singular, he is not the same as the “I” of an autobiographical novel like David Copperfield or even of a pseudo-auto-biographical romance like Great Expectations, whose hero, Pip, though he writes in the first person, is not Dickens himself when younger. The same could be said of Jane Eyre, another pseudo-autobiography: the lucky heroine (“Reader, I married him”), despite some points in common, is someone different from Charlotte Brontë, who had no Mr. Rochester in her life. The “I” of the tale, as opposed to the “I” of novel or romance, is never a participant; he is an observer, a witness who comes forward to testify to an event in itself unusual or even unlikely on the face of it. In Conrad’s tales, he may double or even triple, as though to give auditory perspective, like an echo: the author, Joseph Conrad (“I” Number One), hears a story from his old acquaintance Marlow (“I” Number Two), a trust-worthy commentator, and it may happen that Marlow, lacking firsthand knowledge of some part of the tale, relates what he has heard from still a third narrator. In principle, you could go on indefinitely, with infinite regression as in the picture on the old Quaker Oats box.
A strange light on the secret nature of the tale is cast by etymology. “Tale” in French is conte, in Italian conto, in Spanish cuento; in German it is Erzählung; in Dutch, vertelling. It is clear, to start with, that the Germanic words have a different linguistic root from the Romance-language words. And in most of these Western languages there is a separate word, often a more common one, for a narrative other than a tale: one, own “story,” deriving from the Latin for “history”; the French récit, German Bericht, Dutch verhaal, meaning literally “a report.” Now all the words for tale, even though they stem from two independent roots, have to do with counting, with adding up, or directly with the word for number. I will illustrate it in Italian: conto=”tale” and=also “bill” (“Il conto, per favore” in a restaurant); contare is “to count” and also “to relate.” Here it is in German: erzählen (to tell), Erzählung (tale), Zahl (number). And Dutch: vertelling (tale), vertellen (to tell), getal (number). There is the same thought buried in the English “recount” (“He recounted me a tale”). The teller of a tale, then, is indistinguishable from the teller behind the counter in a bank, who tells out your money, rapidly adding.
I find this deeply mysterious. What is it trying to say to us? Conceivably, it only points to a metrical origin of all formal narration: “Tell me not in mournful numbers.” “Meter”/”measure.” Verse, like cloth, is measured in feet. Yet that does not satisfy my curiosity, partly because human speech (the “telling” and “erzählen“) cannot have started out as verse but rather in grunts related to gestures—of pointing, for example. Perhaps the telling refers, rather, to a need for listing in orderly sequence evident in early narratives, intent on documenting a tradition. “These are the generations of Shem: Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood: and Shem lived after he begat Arphaxad five hundred years, and begat sons and daughters. And Arphaxad lived five and thirty years and begat Salah….” Or the Homeric catalogues.
In any case it seems to me that the counting, the addition of particulars, implicit in those words for tale in so many different tongues must refer to the piling up of incident, the “And then…. And then?” that E.M. Forster speaks of in Aspects of the Novel but that applies in any narration. It applies, I feel, with particular force in the tale, where the anticipation of the listeners is keyed to a spoken narrative where incidents are doled out, as it were, one after another, like haricot beans, each having equal weight, without the increasing pressure of “building” toward one or more climaxes that is typical of the novel. In a tale we wait to hear what will come next, but the waiting is less suspenseful than it tends to be in the novel; from long practice in listening, we can afford to be patient while our teller counts out the bills that are our due reward.
Cervantes, often cited as the inventor of the novel, had a wonderful understanding of every form of narrative and exemplified it in Don Quixote. That he appreciated the effect of counting, of simple accumulation, so profoundly rooted in the tale is shown in Chapter 20 of Part One, where the knight orders Sancho Panza to tell him a tale to help them both pass a wakeful night in the outdoors. Sancho Panza obliges, bidding his master, as the condition of his storytelling, that he keep mum and not interrupt.
“I say then,” recounts Sancho, “that in a village of Estremadura there was once a goatish shepherd (I mean that he tended goats), and this shepherd, or goathered, as my story goes, was called Lope Ruiz, and this Lope Ruiz fell in love with a shepherdess, who was called Torralba, which shepherdess called Torralba was the daughter of a rich flock master, and this rich flock master—“ “If you tell your story, Sancho, that way,” interrupts Don Quixote, “and repeat everything you have to say twice over, you will not finish in two days.” “My way of telling it,” replies Sancho, “is the way they tell all stories in my country, and I don’t know any other way of telling it.” “Tell it as you please then,” answers Don Quixote, “and since it is Fate’s will that I can’t help listening, go on.”
Thereupon Sancho continues his story, till he gets the goatherd to the bank of a river (duly named) with his flock of goats, which he wants to take across. But, instead of a ferry, he can find only one fisherman with a boat so small that it will hold only a man and a goat. “All the same,” says Sancho Panza, “he spoke to him and arranged with him to carry himself and his three hundred goats across. The fisherman got into the boat and carried one goat across, returned and carried another, and came back again and carried over another—Now keep an account, sir, of the goats the fisherman is carrying over, for if one should slip from your memory, the story will end and it will be impossible for me to tell you another word of it. I’ll go on, then, and say that the landing place on the other side was very muddy and slippery, which delayed the fisherman a good deal on his ferrying back and forth; all the same he came back for another goat, and another, and another—“
“Reckon that he has ferried them all over,” interrupts Don Quixote, “and stop coming and going in that manner or you will not finish getting them over in a year.” “How many have gone over so far?” inquires Sancho. “How the devil do I know?” says Don Quixote. “There you are!” comments Sancho. “Didn’t I tell you to keep a good count? Well, the tale is ended, thanks be to God, for there’s no use in going any further.” There in fact the tale ends. Like somebody in a fairy story, Don Quixote, heedless of Sancho’s warning, has broken a spell. It is like the legend of Cupid and Psyche. As Sancho remarks, philosophically, “as far as my tale is concerned there’s nothing more to add, for it ends where the mistake in the counting of the goats begins.” In short, being a true tale, it is endless and can only be stopped.
Don Quixote, needless to say, is a reader of romances—a higher class of narrative. The romance is to the tale as Don Quixote is to Sancho Panza. His impatience with Sancho’s patient adding of one goat to another is a literary criticism: he misses the foreshortening (“Reckon that he has ferried them all over”) familiar to him in his beloved romances of chivalry. In this sharp difference of tastes, Cervantes himself does not take sides. Don Quixote, after all, addled reader of romances, and Sancho Panza, methodical teller of primitive tales, are both characters in still another literary genre—the newborn novel. And in one sense, certainly this Don Quixote, ancestor of a whole new tribe of fictions, is something more than a “straight” fiction. It is an extended piece of technical commentary, studded like a ham with piquant samples of every known type of literary composition. Such variousness and amplitude are characteristic of the novel. You will not find the like in tales or even in romances, despite their habit, or vice, of digression.
Both the tale and the romance deal with the marvelous, with faraway, fabled lands (“Heart of Darkness,” Invisible Cities), with forests, jungle (Green Mansions), distant, barely navigable rivers, and especially islands (Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, Lord of the Flies), desert by preference. Both are close relations of the literature of voyages and exploration (Hakluyt, The Oregon Trail, Two Years Before the Mast, The Green Hills of Africa), and it may be hard to separate, within a single author, e.g., the Melville of Typee, travel report from Polynesian romance.
The tale’s distance from its listeners, when not geographical, may be an effect of inhabitual weather: tempests, floods, extremes of heat or cold. Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom,” an almost clinical description of the sucking motion of a giant whirlpool, is a classic account of the malevolence that natural forces when irritable seem to possess. But the necromancy practiced on an ordinary and familiar environment can produce an effect of strangeness to a frightening degree. Whereas romances are rarely fearsome, even when teeming with dragons, tales quite often are. The fear that must underlie even our most cordial relation with the elements has an established place in them. I think of “Rock Crystal” (“Bergkristalle“) in the wonderful collection Colored Stones (Bunte Steine, 1853) of the Austrian Adalbert Stifter; it tells of two children, brother and sister, lost in a mountain snowstorm at Christmas-time while returning from a custom-honored three-hour walk to their grandmother’s house down the valley. The quite ordinary and familiar two-horned alp traversed by the shoemaker’s children is a mountain more magic than any of Thomas Mann’s imagining.
All the tales of Colored Stones have minerals for titles—“Granite,” “Chalkstone,” “Tourmaline”—and the central fable in each has to do with the rescue of children from some menace jutting out of the everyday—the folkish model, I suppose, would be “Hansel and Gretel.” Yet even in his longer works, which are not so deep in enigmatic Nature, Stifter has the faculty of “making it strange.” His long novel or tale or romance—I hardly know what to call Der Nachsommer, the book every German-speaker remembers from school-days—centers on a fairy-tale house behind a trellised gate, das Rosenhaus, every inch covered with roses, as though it were made of petals; there is a birdfeeding station at every window and, inside the simple and practical but delectably wealthy dwelling, are a great marble staircase, to mount which one must don felt slippers, a marble hall, a sculpture gallery, a picture gallery, a scholar’s library, inlaid furniture of rare and curious woods, a collection of musical instruments, drawers upon drawers of prints and drawings. Attached to the estate are farm buildings, dairies, a cabinet-making shop, a grotto, cold frames, hothouses, watering devices; the whole ingenious paradise, which runs like a Swiss watch, has proceeded from the brain of a mysterious, white-haired, plainly dressed owner whose aristocratic name we do not learn till we are more than halfway through the story.
Like a novel, it has a young narrator who doubles as hero and like a novel it is compendious and extremely instructive, giving lessons in mineralogy, gemcutting, castle restoration, furniture restoration, church architecture, soil irrigation, agronomy, ornithology, meteorology, botany, landscape architecture, the growing of cactuses in greenhouses, in particular the Cereus Peruvianus—I cannot begin to tell you everything that is in that book. Like a romance, it has high-born characters (with the exception of the “I” and his friends) and the complications, misunderstandings, false-seemings, endless journeying typical of the genre.
What decides me, finally, that it must be a tale (yes, a protracted fairy tale) are the relatively low birth of the hero (“Mein Vater war ein Kaufmann” is the first sentence, and “die Mutter,” he is quick to tell us, “war eine freundliche Frau“) and the fact that despite his adventures in learning to know the world and every single thing in it, he is never an active agent, as the hero of a novel or a romance should be, but even in love always passive, docile, wondering, wonderstruck, like someone in a dream. It has a queer, troubling likeness to a Bildungsroman in that the hero, whose full name we never know, is constantly acquiring—as is proper maybe for a merchant’s son—knowledge that is sensed as tangible property while he himself, like a Tom Thumb, does not grow or age.
The novel is set in society, whether of country folk, thieves, or worldings. The tale is set in Nature or the crannies of History; the romance is set in a Nowhere, without a capital city or foundation myth but generally endowed with a name, be it Graustark or Amazonia. A novel, with all due allowances, lays claim to being true; that is why plausibility is one of the main criteria by which its events and characters are judged. In the tale (as I have indicated) the presence of a living narrator is proof of veraciousness, as though the fellow appeared before a notary public: “Before me personally came…,” to affirm that in some far-off place or time such-and-such events happened, wonderful as it may seem. While the reverse of veraciousness and of plausibility is the romance’s stock in trade.
Emma is believable; Middlemarch is believable—there were and still are quantities of Lydgates and Rosamonds and a fair share of Mr. Casaubons. Madame Bovary is believable. All of Balzac is believable; no oath is needed to certify that things like those described happen with due regularity. You can say that of any true novel. It reminds you of what you know. Anna Karenina, they say, originated in the suicide of a lady who lived near the Tolstoys; several smart social arbiters, we learn, “sat” to Proust for the Duchess of Guermantes. But the force of a tale derives from the sense that it is scarcely believable but true, both at once. Very different from the sensations of the reader of a novel: you are willing to credit it because someone who was there—a fictional someone—is telling you.
That is the situation with Wuthering Heights, a highly improbable story. So much so that it needs two narrators to convince us: Mr. Lockwood, the new tenant of a house close by, succeeded by his housekeeper, Nelly Dean, who in her youth was in service at Wuthering Heights. If a non-participating narrator is a fairly sure sign that the story we are reading is a tale, the multiplication of such narrators suggests that something “smells fishy” in the whole case, perhaps because of an uncertainty of genre. Moreover, there can be two different sorts of first-person narrator in one and the same book. For example, Lolita, which purports to be a “found” manuscript, is introduced by Narrator A, who explains that he has merely edited a text written in prison by a certain Humbert Humbert (Narrator B) shortly before his trial. This framing device lets the reader know in advance how the story will end, with its teller’s death. An unromantic, even antiromantic piece of information that informs us, also, that we are on the frontier of novel-land.
To repeat, a romance is improbable on the face of it. Nobody but Don Quixote would confuse romances with real life. Look at “romance,” sense 3, in the big Oxford dictionary: “A fictitious narrative in prose of which the scene and incidents are very remote from those of ordinary life; esp. one of the class prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the story is often overlaid with long disquisitions and digressions.” By its very nature, the romance is unhistorical, the antithesis of recorded history. Sidney’s Arcadia, written for the entertainment of the Countess of Pembroke, his sister, is a good example in English of the genre: the king of Arcady, Basilius, has two shepherdess daughters, Pamela and Philoclea, who enlace destinies with two shipwrecked princes to engender a typical vine-like, branching plot, which has no more to do with the annals of antiquity than the decorative patterns of twining garlands and vegetable motifs on a pillar of the day.
Curiously enough, this is not the case with the tale, which is embedded in history like ore in a mountain fissure. In his beautiful essay “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin speaks of a tale by Johann Peter Hebel that tells of a young miner entombed in the bottom of his tunnel on the eve of his wedding. The bride never marries, and one day many years later, when she has turned into a wizened old woman, a body is brought up from the abandoned tunnel that she recognizes as her betrothed, preserved by the action of iron vitriol from the normal processes of decay. To show how Hebel was able to make graphic the lapse of a long period of years, Benjamin quotes the following sentences.
In the meantime the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, and the Seven Years’ War came and went, and Emperor Francis I died, and the Jesuit Order was abolished, and Poland was partitioned, and Empress Maria Theresa died, and Struensee was executed. America became independent, and the united French and Spanish forces were unable to capture Gibraltar. The Turks locked up General Stein in the Veteraner Cave in Hungary, and Emperor Joseph died also. King Gustavus of Sweden conquered Russian Finland, and the French Revolution and the long war began, and Emperor Leopold II went to his grave too. Napoleon captured Prussia, and the English bombarded Copenhagen, and the peasants sowed and harvested. The millers ground, the smiths hammered, and the miners dug for veins of ore in their underground workshops. But when in 1809 the miners at Falun….
And, speaking in his own voice, Benjamin adds:
Never has a storyteller embedded his report deeper in natural history than Hebel manages to do in this chronology. Read it carefully. Death appears in it with the same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.
Likewise the tales of Kleist set the marvelous in a historical frame: “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” “The Earthquake in Chile,” “Michael Kohlhaas” (which tells about a merchant or horse trader, a real popular leader or rabble-rouser of Luther’s time). Then there is the stranger-than-fiction “The Marquise of O—,” taking a queer old story already known to Montaigne but placing it in the campaign of the French Revolutionary armies in northern Italy, where the Russian Suvorov won a series of initial victories for the allied side and was rewarded with the title “Prince Italysky”—pure musical comedy—by the mad czar.
In Kleist’s tale, a contested Lombard fort falls to the Russians in a night attack, during the course of which the commandant’s daughter, the widowed Marquise, saved by a Russian officer from rape by his men, gratefully loses consciousness but then, nine months later, inexplicably gives birth to a child. She advertises in the newspaper for the father to come forward, and he proves to be none other than her savior, Lt.-Col. Count F—. The tale has a miraculous ring to it on more than one score; not only is a child conceived, as it were, immaculately, in the fury of battle, but Suvorov’s Russians let loose in Italy appear somewhat supernatural, outside the order of things, like visitants from space. The uncanniness of the pivotal event is enhanced by the circumstantiality of the narration, which seems dipped in “magic realism” as the logistics of the campaign, the aristocratic command structure, the postings of Count F—(to Constantinople, to Naples, to what is evidently Milan) are duly set forth, like colored pins on a military map.
It was Suvorov who in his younger days, in Russia, in Catherine’s time, had put down the Pugachev revolt, which twenty-eight years after “The Marquise of O—“ was to figure as the real subject of Pushkin’s tale, or story, The Captain’s Daughter. Indeed, the Cossack pretender Pugachev, who called himself Peter III, had some of the characteristics of a Russian Michael Kohlhaas, the protagonist of Kleist’s tale. If Kleist’s tale is superior, with something in it of a primeval contest, this may reflect the fact that the stubborn Lutheran horse dealer has a grudge against the way the world is organized.
Both Kleist and Pushkin, insofar as they were Romantics, responded to upheaval, revolt, and counter-revolt, contemporary or “historical,” and to the attendant wandering of peoples. In this literature, it is as though the uprooting, the turning upside down, created by the victories of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns—whose tremors were felt as far away as the black Haitian empire of Dessalines—had revived a climate of fear similar to that of primitive times, when tales were told in the firelight. No Romantic taleteller was exactly a revolutionary, but many were drawn by the infernal quality of rebellion, by the ferocity, as of devils incarnate, so well evoked by Kleist in “The Betrothal in Santo Domingo,” and even in “The Earthquake in Chile,” where wickedness unbridled is released in the “higher classes” by a natural, non-political disaster.
The Romantic period in northern Europe, following the “time of troubles” brought by Napoleon’s armies, was the highest point of achievement of the modern tale. It may mean something that England, untouched by Napoleonic invasion, has no tales to show from this period—Stevenson came later, and Scott, an antiquarian, cannily used the Border ballad material and the inspiration of the German Romantics to invent a sure-fire genre—the historical novel. In America, possibly in the wake of our own revolution and internal migrations, we had the tales of Hawthorne; we had Melville; we had Poe. Evangeline, had Longfellow turned it into prose, might have been an ideal tale: the wanderings of the Acadians, like a Biblical people under sentence of eternal exile, across the face of a new continent—virgin early-American forest scenery. But Longfellow’s hexameters are unsuited to the telling of a tale. Verse in general lacks the requisite flatness of tone, suggestive of the annals of a reign or a parish register, indicated by Kleist’s “(Aus einer alten Chronik)” prefacing “Michael Kohlhaas.”
It is worth noticing that tales flourish in northern countries. The romance, on the other hand, seems to have thrived on the Mediterranean littoral, where its forebears were the epic (above all, the Odyssey) and the pastoral. It may be that the deep northern forests and wooden cottage architecture are a reason for the difference—the same difference observable in the linguistic fact that there are no equivalent words in Romance languages for “uncanny,” “weird,” “fell,” “grim,” “grisly,” and so on. The only translations that I have ever seen for any or all of them into French are étrange, inquiétant, mystérieux, bizarre.
Walter Benjamin found an affinity between the teller of a tale and the craftsman or artisan: “If one wants to picture these two groups [of storytellers] through their archaic representatives, one is embodied in the resident tiller of the soil, and the other in the trading seaman.” Then, as he tells it, in the Middle Ages an interpenetration of these two archaic types took place through the trade structure. The resident master craftsman and the traveling journeyman worked together in the same room: “If peasants and seamen were past masters of storytelling, the artisan class was its university.”
There is surely some truth here, especially as the telling of a tale responded to a rhythm of work—weaving or spinning. It may be more than chance that Silas Marner, by that archetypal novelist George Eliot, has the atmosphere of a tale about it: the miser’s heap of gold in the workman’s lonely cottage, the turning bobbin and shuttle, the sinister forest quarry and the skeleton it secretes. The hero, after all, is a handloom weaver (like Stifter’s father), solitary and half-demented, toiling at an already archaic craft. There are tale-like elements, too, like a fitting under-music, in The Mill on the Floss, noticeable in the part played by the river that turns the wheels that grind the grain that nurtures the miller’s family—the familiar River Floss that, slowly becoming unrecognizable, claims the lives of the miller’s children, Maggie and Tom, in a great climactic flood.
If the tale is native to northern countries—I think not only of the German-language Romantics sprung from Des Knaben Wunderhorn but of the Danish Isak Dinesen in our own day and her predecessor J.P. Jacobsen, originally a botanist—the novel, on the contrary, is a foreigner. It is remarkable how few German examples there were in the nineteenth century—the great period of the novel elsewhere. A single one is inevitably mentioned: Fontane’s Effi Briest. But what else? Not Stifter’s Der Nachsommer. Certainly not The Sorrows of Young Werther, even though it shares an epistolary form with Clarissa Harlowe, twenty-five years its senior. Werther, rich in sentiment, is weak in character. Yet psychology, as it used to be called, is the strong suit of the novel, which has room to show the growth of relationships between people, just as it has room to show children growing up (David Copperfield) and the growth of a tendency in a single human soul (The Mayor of Casterbridge). There is no psychology in Werther, no observation of a remotely “clinical” kind; if there had been anything resembling detached observation, the book would not have produced a rash of sympathetic suicides.
When the German tale expands, it is likely to turn into a romance, or into what we in English like to call the Gothic novel, though there is nothing Gothic or novelistic about it. Even in the present century, the true novel is rare in the German language. Buddenbrooks is the best example but also, more modernist, The Man Without Qualities. I find The Magic Mountain hard to classify: on its medical, sanatorium side, it is a novel, but then it drifts off into parable and loses its novelistic bearings. The rest of Mann is mostly tales: Felix Krull, Tonio Kröger, Death in Venice, “Mario and the Magician.” His best work, in my view (apart from Lotte in Weimar, a delightful novelette), is Doctor Faustus, a “big” book that draws on nearly all the varieties of fiction, while avoiding the heavy archness he was inclined to when self-important (think of the Joseph books), to isolate and define the nature of Germanness—a problem posed to him by the National Socialist triumphs, on the one hand, and by the Apollonian figure of Goethe on the other. For his Faustus, Mann found clues and analogies not only in Goethe’s drama and in the magus of legend but also in Martin Luther, in the émigré Anabaptists, in the history of music, the twelve-tone scale, and in the spirochete of syphilis, all but omnipresent in the life histories of Germanic artists. One clue that escaped Mann’s notice in this congeries of early symptoms of the disease of National Socialism was the fact I have just alluded to—the strange paucity of novels in the Germanic tongue, a paucity manifest in his own output.
The novel, after all, is the literary form dedicated to the representation of our common world, i.e., not merely the common ordinary world but the world we have in common. The faculty for apprehending it—this world conterminous with each of our separate life experiences and independent sensibilities, this world that lies between us—is, of course, common sense, the faculty we need to serve on juries, assess job offers, judge the character of strangers…. Common sense, also known as the reality principle, rules the novel, commanding the reader to recognize only events and personalities that do not defy it. A person like Heathcliff flies in the face of common sense, which declares that there are no persons like Heathcliff, no Mr. Rochesters either, whatever authors would fain believe.
Common sense (Sancho Panza) may be the same as traditional wisdom, the wisdom of the species. This faculty inheres in all of us, just as the golden theorem of Pythagoras, once demonstrated, is ineluctable for every brain; it was greatly valued by Tolstoy as a moral dowsing rod within everybody’s reach. It is how a mere child, like Natasha, is able to distinguish good from evil, just as well as, in fact better than, men and women of the world. Common sense tells you the way things are, rather than the way your covetous ego or prehensile will would like them to be. And the sparsity of novels, the great carriers of the reality principle, may help to explain German defenselessness in the face of National Socialism, which—to us, incredibly—was not recognized by most Germans as a monstrosity until Hitler had perished in his bunker.
Even today German writers of fiction persist in the traditions of the tale and the romance. Günter Grass is the clearest case. The Tin Drum is too prolix to be a tale, though it has some earmarks of the type—the dwarf hero and his magic drum, for instance—but the general effect, it strikes me, is of something more like a plebeian romance, with multiple adventures though without love interest. Some of his later fictions—The Flounder, for instance—are closer to the pure tale. The German tale, unlike those of other languages, has found it hard to separate from the fairy story, especially the Märchen with animals in the place of characters: I think of Mann’s The Holy Sinner, in which the hero, an early Christian saint, turns into a hedgehog.
It is obvious that these categories of mine cannot be hard and fast. And it may be that there are some fictions that will not fit into any of them, even with some letting out of the seams or determined squeezing. Leaving aside the hopeless conundrum of Gulliver, what is one to say of the picaresque novel—Moll Flanders or Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveler? Is there any reason in these cases, beyond habit, to have recourse to the term “novel” at all? The best reason, I suppose, is the extensive, all-but-encyclopedic accounts they contain of social types and class shadings. And along with that you find an extraordinary, non-poetical language, a prose that is the quintessence of the prosaic. Without the picaresque, the classic novel ran the risk of being “gentrified.”
Even when fictions resist being classified in these traditional drawers marked “Novel,” “Romance,” “Tale,” the effort to see them typologically is productive. It is more enlightening to look on Dr. Zhivago as a prolonged tale of journeys and transformations, death and resurrection, forests and bandit-like figures, than to treat it as a novel and expect it to make novelistic sense, like all those earnest reviewers who complained that it was implausible and had too many coincidences…. It is not a novelist’s assessment of the Bolshevik Revolution (Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 and its sequels, by contrast, are precisely that); it is a terrifying and beautiful tale set in the still pioneer geography of the vast Russian terrain against the wild and shifting scenery of revolt and revolution. Reviewers sought to “relate” it to Tolstoy, but the vital relation (as often happens with the tale) is to non-fiction, above all, to Aksakov and his exquisite recollections in Family Chronicle and Years of Childhood, of the Orenburg region in the Urals (Pugachev territory, by the way) and of an arduous pioneer railroad trip of the whole family to Siberia.
The least useful procedure is to assume that any fiction of a certain length is a novel or that a novelist of standing, say Hardy—exception made for the occasional short story—could sire only novels. Or that a habitual teller of tales—say Conrad—could sire only tales. In fact, as I see it, Nostromo and Under Western Eyes do not belong to the same family as Lord Jim, “The Secret Sharer,” “Heart of Darkness,” though all have the same father. Similarly for Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure (novels), ought to be distinguished from The Return of the Native and Far From the Madding Crowd (tales). The problem is where to put Tess. The important role played by Nature, Tess’s insistent misfortunes, the cruel tricks of coincidence, her wanderings and execution suggest a tale; yet arguing against that are the social pretensions of the Durbeyfields, the “psychology,” so finely analyzed, of Angel Clare, not to mention the implicit critique of the industrialization process as it touches English agriculture.
Like Tess, some of the most arresting fictions of modern times are puzzles in this respect, and it may even be that an inherent anomaly contributes to a disquiet that they engender. I am thinking of Joyce’s “The Dead,” a very long story, which would be a full member of the novel family were it not for the ending. At the outset “The Dead” looks like an intensely social narrative firmly set in the mundane (classically novelistic) world of professions, politics, careers. Like War and Peace, it starts at a party.
In the first sentence, as if on the threshold, we meet the servant who is helping the guests off with their outdoor things: “Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” This is everybody and nobody talking—the collective voice of the party. It is a dance, we quickly learn, an annual Christmas event given by Gabriel Conroy’s aunts, and, as in a real novel, we are told what refreshments the guests are served, as well as about the speech Conroy, a middle-aged literary man, must deliver to honor the old ladies, his thoughts during the music and the dancing, his passage-at-arms with a partner who is a strong Irish nationalist, and finally the lust he begins to feel for his wife, as they make their way home to their hotel through the snowy streets. There is even the un-talelike suspicion that Gabriel Conroy and his wife Gretta must be something like Joyce and Nora. But a song, “The Lass of Aughrim,” sung at the party has reminded Gretta sorrowfully of a young lad in Galway who died for love of her when she was a girl living with her grandmother. Gabriel’s designs on her body are thwarted; in their room she cries herself to sleep, remembering Michael Furey. And Gabriel goes to the window. At that moment the short novel is transformed by incantation into a tale:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
Note the echoic effects of “soul swooned slowly…snow falling faintly” and, again, in inversion with direct repetition “falling faintly…faintly falling,” none of which would “go” in a novel, any more than a lad dying for love of a girl, both being offensive to the robust spirit of prose.
The mutation, I think, in this exquisite early story is an eerie premonition of Ulysses, published eight years later. Here an essence or, one might say, concentrate of novel is changing form as we listen and watch the process of transformation. It was a crucial moment. The surface shifting of genre, like a sex change, was testifying to a deep disturbance in the underground structures of the novel. After this, the novel would never be the same again, though the unsettling of its clear and stable identity did not become noticeable to the public or even to other writers until Ulysses revealed the whole truth.
To account for what had happened I am going to come back to the first sentence of “The Dead.” But before doing that I want to note, very summarily, signs of a decomposition of narrative that became evident soon after the appearance of Ulysses and was surely to some extent its result. An outstanding case is Faulkner, who responded to the Joycean example in various and quite contradictory ways. On the one hand, he constrained the novel to revert to the tale in works like As I Lay Dying, Light in August, “Old Man” (from The Wild Palms), or to outright saga, as in “The Bear” and parts of The Hamlet, and, at the end of his life, to allegory (A Fable)—a romance, somewhat unconvincing, called Sartoris was designed for The Saturday Evening Post.
On the other hand, and at the same time, he sought to reconstitute the traditional, pre-Joycean novel; his enterprise, taken as a whole, clearly has Balzacian aspirations: Yoknapatawpha County lays claim to being a microcosm of the comédie humaine. Yet the individual pieces of that broad jigsaw are far from resembling the historical realism of nineteenth-century practice. Take The Sound and the Fury, a stream-of-consciousness narrative that has obviously felt the effect of European modernism and is therefore regarded, justly, as the most experimental and difficult of Faulkner’s fictions—the opposite of what we think of as Balzacian.
In fact, though, the situation of the stream-of-consciousness narrative was not so simple, even for Joyce himself or Virginia Woolf, its leading practitioners. The interest, for them and for their followers and imitators, was in narrowing the narrative focus to the perceptual screen of a single consciousness or (more commonly) several consciousnesses, multiple fields of vision. We were allowed to see only what would appear on such a screen, often a half-shuttered or impaired one; evidently, once you started on this kind of experiment, you would soon be trying out various types of distorting lenses to see how the world looks through them—the artist’s eye (Lily Briscoe), the madman’s eye (Septimus Smith), the idiot’s (Benjy in The Sound and the Fury).
Strangely (as it may seem now, given the long-term results), the aim of the new techniques was a greater realism—the distortions being conceived as truer to the laws of perception than old-fashioned straight narration. Moreover, the use of multiple consciousness (as in Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, Mrs. Dalloway, but also in USA, Les Thibault, Les Chemins de la liberté, right up through The Naked and the Dead) was also aiming at a greater realism, though of another kind, inspired by the social sciences. A democratization of the novel seemed to have been decreed, as specimens of every category of human being demanded equal representation; the hero was demoted or sent into exile, and each human unit was allotted an eye of its own. Between the two wars, thanks to multiplicity and stream of consciousness—separately or in combination—the novel, though fractured, retained its ascendancy.
Few tales were published in this period, narrators had all but vanished, and romances had been sentenced to best-sellerdom—So Red the Rose, Anthony Adverse, Gone with the Wind. The novel’s besetting problem—credibility—seemed to have been bypassed, since multiple viewpoints (“Einsteinian relativity”) denied the possibility of objective truth. In painting and sculpture, a similar development had occurred, and there too the process had begun (with the Impressionists) in a search for a greater realism and fidelity to the laws of perception that entailed the resolute junking of perspective.
The war and what it uncovered made drastic demands on the public’s power of belief, and the effect on the novel, though slow to be felt, has been radical and long-lasting. The old problem of credibility, with Auschwitz and Hiroshima, affected not travel tales but real central events, whose dominant trait was unreality, utter unlikelihood encroaching on the stable and familiar and slowly expanding its empire to include space, the gulag, nuclear terror. It was up to the novel, as custodian of the reality principle, to react. But, though the expectation was widely felt, there was no prompt response, unless one counts the parable of 1984. The only indication that the novel was preparing to buckle down and help us believe the unbelievable was the return of the narrator—first noted, if I remember right, in Lolita. Not so long afterward came works dealing, not yet with the death camps but, more modestly, with such questions as the making of a fascist: Moravia’s The Conformist and The Tin Drum of Günter Grass, which showed the Nazi era, appropriately, from the “low” viewpoint of a grocer’s household in Danzig, with a dwarf child banging a toy drum as the focal consciousness. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Sophie’s Choice, The White Hotel followed, each portraying, in one way or another, a survivor of the death camps whose individual experience is meant to relay, through letters, journals, flashbacks, interior monologue, a “found” manuscript—fiction’s familiar devices—“the central experience of our time.” All were best sellers, but none succeeded in carrying literary conviction; it is maybe not a good idea to reduce the incredible to a state of fictional believability. A persuader figure like Mr. Sammler makes the horrors still impinging on his consciousness seem considerably more unlikely than they were in factual reports.
There are some kinds of material with which the novel in its governing common sense is unequipped to cope. The trench experiences of World War I were at the very limit of the novel’s powers. In the matter of “the novelist’s responsibility,” silence would be preferable to the musings of a narrator like Stingo. Possibly it is a matter of tact.
In contrast, I want to return to the first sentence of Joyce’s “The Dead,” which shows what the novel can deal with and what, more and more in our time, it has been condemned to deal with, like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill. I refer to the phenomenon of banality and repetition—Flaubert’s curse.
“Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.” Now maybe that does not strike anyone but me as worthy of notice. “What is new in it?” the reader may well ask. Or, rather, what was new in it when Joyce put it down? Fortunately, the question is easily answered. What is new is in the word “literally,” which of course is not to be taken literally—nobody is literally run off her feet. This should lead us to ask who is saying this silly, exaggerated thing. Not Joyce, clearly, not the narrator (there is no narrator), not Gabriel Conroy, the protagonist—he would not use a commonplace expression like that. If you listen carefully, you will overhear (as I have suggested) everybody talking, or nobody talking, which amounts to the same. And this new, strange vox populi was Flaubert’s invention (coincidental with early versions of the phonograph); you would not find it in Jane Austen or Balzac or George Eliot or Tolstoy though all of them were much concerned with the quality of ordinariness and its pervasive expressions, the noise that Heidegger called chatter.
This sound of echoing clichés, further amplified today by the new means of mass communication, must have a large responsibility in what is called the death of the novel, which depends on social intercourse for its characteristic life, on parties like Anna Pávlovna Scherer’s at the opening of War and Peace, on public meetings and every kind of get-together—think of the comices agricoles in Madame Bovary, think of the fete for needy governesses in The Possessed, think of Proust. The discovery Joyce made in “The Dead,” surely, was the seedy, moribund state of this whole field of human commerce, once full of life and variety, now good for nothing (he must have concluded), serving no purpose that could be considered “creative,” not even the ends, always rather questionable, of satire. The reversion to myth and incantation, as Gabriel at the end stands at the window, is a judgment on the rest.
The mechanization (by now automation) of the social in the modern world has affected not only public events. It has penetrated the inner life of the modern person, so that it was bound to become apparent in the stream of consciousness like a pollutant in a river from the dumping of factory waste. Joyce, particularly sensitized to these effluents, would soon be noting the internalizing of triteness in Ulysses—in Molly Bloom’s monologue and the occasional riot, as in the Oxen of the Sun episode, of parody and pastiche. And it became the entire subject of Finnegans Wake, which is an encyclopedia not of knowledge but of the trash collected in the human consciousness jointly by Everybody-Nobody. (Nothing is totally new. The Wake had been anticipated, albeit mildly, by Bouvard and Pécuchet’s “Dictionary of Received Ideas.”)
Yet the lint in the recesses of our gray matter, as in the inside of our pockets, could not fail to be inartistic, and I doubt that Finnegans Wake, for all its musicality, spiraling form, and so on, was designed to give pleasure, as works of art do. Rather, it seems almost designed to give offense, as though Joyce fully accepted the price to be paid by the man who would write a novel in the present age. It is hard to guess whether he foresaw that he would be forgoing readers of the customary kind for scholars and specialists, whose pleasures in the act of reading are perverse to a repellent degree. Probably he did, being a churlish spirit, trained to sour amusement. His contempt is open: anybody not caring for his “trashy” masterpiece is free to turn to tales and romances; we see the author indicate with his stick the scraps of them strewn about his vast dust heap. But for anyone still desirous of that baggy thing called a novel, Finnegans Wake, he can assure the world, is the only choice left.
I do not disagree. If there was ever a theme set, like a fairy-tale task, for the modern novel, it was not the horrors (“Heart of Darkness”), not the incredible or the apocalypse, but the universal ordinary, which presents no believability problem, except to the higher reason. As has often been said, Finnegans Wake was a dead end; it led nowhere for those who came after. The letter scratched up by the chicken in Earwicker’s back yard incriminating the householder with its nonsensical banality may well have been the novel’s suicide note.
May 12, 1983