Here’s a word of thanks to the New York Post for reminding me to stay away from fiction. Never mind that Rupert Murdoch’s print platform here in New York City has an knife to twist in the morbid flesh of District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr, whose liberal instincts latched onto the most politically correct accuser in recent history: a “very pious devout Muslim woman,” a refugee from rape and genital mutilation in her native Guinea, assaulted by the head of the world’s top economic agency, the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. There isn’t enough cocaine in Hollywood to inspire scriptwriters to invent such a poster-child for political-correctness.
As the whole world knows, she also is implicated in laundering drug money and various other criminal associations. Strauss-Kahn will walk on the Sofitel caper, even while a French writer sues him for an attempted rape in 2003. As my favorite American novelist once wrote, I haven’t had so much fun since the hogs ate my kid brother.
You can’t make this stuff up; we know that for a fact, because people have tried, from Tom Wolfe in his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, going back to the 1937 Carole Lombard film Nothing Sacred. But a candidate for the presidency of France so afflicted by satyriasis that he would solicit (or accept) oral sex from a hotel maid, plus a district attorney programmed by political correctness to buy the frame on first glance? Compared to these creeps, Emma Bovary looks like Joan of Arc.
Try to imagine which actors might credibly depict the protagonists in the docudrama, and it is clear how hard it is to trump reality. One does not want to watch a portrayal of an aging sex addict; one wants rather to avert one’s gaze and change the channel. Then there is the chambermaid, who, when her sylvan shrewdness fails before the plodding evidentiary procedures of the modern world, throws herself to the floor and howls? It is less salacious than distasteful, embarrassing rather than prurient.
Half a century ago, the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel gave us compelling portraits of aging satyrs in Tristana and Viridiana, played by the inimitable Fernando Rey. But L’Affaire DSK would stump even Bunuel, whose cheerful detestation of humanity and capacity to laugh at our most profound misery made him the definitive filmmaker of the 20th century (see The biblical world of Luis Bunuel, Asia Times Online, August 28, 2007).
Like Kafka and other absurdists, Bunuel saw clearly into flaws in our culture, but what makes the business at hand more than absurd is the cross-cultural dimension: the clumsiness of the Guinean’s attempt to game the American criminal justice system, and the district attorney’s grotesque gesture towards cultural sensitivity.
It was Tom Wolfe, in fairness, who predicted that the “new journalism” would replace the novel. The best writers I know write reporting rather than fiction, and with good reason. No-one could invent an aging roue like Strauss-Kahn or a shrewd but Machiavellian bungler like his accuser. But it is just as hard, perhaps even harder, to invent seemingly ordinary folk. Even the humdrum lives of obscure people are stranger than anything the novelists might invent. They spend all their waking hours inventing themselves, after all, and for the most part would be horror-stricken to find their inner lives portrayed for public view.
The strangeness and brutality of commonplace human impulses informs the first great work of modern fiction, Fernando de Rojas’ 1499 “tragicomic” verse-novel La Celestina. Its protagonist, a perverse old procuress, sets in motion a set of disasters that kill most of the cast.
It was the runaway bestseller of the 16th century, translated into all major European languages, and an overshadowing influence on Elizabethan theater. No character quite so destructive – not even Iago, or Mephistopheles – has turned up since. Celestina, the founding work of Western fiction, is an exception that proves the rule.
Compared with real lives – even rather dull ones like mine and yours – fiction is orderly and comforting. The vast majority of fiction consumed by the public provides a fantasy alternative for people who do not like their lives.
Novels begin where fairy tales end, with the “living happily ever after” part, which is never quite happy; as Mephistopheles told Faust, people really don’t like life (“from the cradle to the bier, no one has ever digested that lump of sourdough”). They want a more digestible substitute, and it is the job of fiction to give it to them.
Soap operas and pulp novels offer women what spectator sports offer men, or role-playing games offer cubicle nerds: a chance to live out a less disappointing existence in fantasy. Fortunately the power of these devices to help us suspend disbelief remains low enough to allow us to turn off the television or step away from the computer from time to time. But I live in dread of the day when someone perfects virtual-reality sex, complete with wetsuit; civilization may come to sudden end.
Great fiction differs little in function from the popular variety: it puts into order a messy and frightening world. The trouble with Jane Austen’s fictional women is that they found husbands, while their flesh-and-blood creator did not. The object lesson is that if you are clever enough to figure out what men want, you are either too wise to marry them, or too intimidating for them to marry you, but that is not what Austen wants to say; it is an instance of what William Empson called unintended irony.
As for Fyodor Dostoyevsky: There are countless unrepentant sociopaths who consort with prostitutes without finding spiritual redemption. Sociopaths as a rule are dull, because they lack empathy, and stories about them are dull – as Truman Capote showed by horrible example. But we find it fascinating to wander the inner space of Raskolnikov and his savior, Sonia the prostitute, for Dostoyevsky’s story reassures us that some good must reside even in the most depraved scum.
Charles Dickens reduces our anguish over the travails of children in mid-Victorian England by arranging a storybook outcome for David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, not to mention Tiny Tim. My capacity to be reassured, sadly, is much diminished over the years and I find such plots tediously contrived.
There are exceptions, but they prove the rule. The first great novel in the modern sense offers poor reassurance, for its hero shoots himself; but precisely because it offers such an accurate portrait of the inner life of a conflicted young man, it is painful to read. This is J W Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, an international bestseller when it appeared in 1772. It is the first modern novel because its subject is modernity itself: Werther personifies from the first generation of Europeans with the enlightened privilege of inventing their own identities.
Given this new freedom he dissociates, falls in love with a friend’s wife, and blows his brains out. It is no longer read, not because it is too romantic, but because it is too realistic. It is well that Werther is ignored, for it used to provoke suicides, and still might do so if today’s readers had the fortitude to finish it. Few of us are cut out for freedom. Given the chance to chart our own course, we drive straight off the nearest cliff.
Goethe, in my view the outstanding modern man of letters, drew the consequences of freedom with a clear eye. At least he offered an ending, and with it wrote both the prologue and the epitaph for the modern novel. Werther is the young Goethe, who after all did not kill himself, but instead grew up to become Faust, whose story lacks a satisfactory ending; he learns that “only he deserves freedom as well as life who must conquer them every day.”
His attempt to conquer of each day goes haywire, lasts until a band of angels bears him away with the shibboleth, “We can redeem the man who always strives.” For that we slogged through 5,000 lines?
Most great novels give us a whiff of freedom but not its fulfillment. Don Quixote rides out in his madness, a metaphor for the megalomania of Spain, and Huck and Jim raft towards freedom on the Mississippi – but the bad boy of Hannibal and the lunatic of La Mancha have nothing to do for an encore. Book I of Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn conclude with forgettable situation comedy. Book II of Quixote repeats Book I as much as Huckleberry Finn repeats Tom Sawyer. It is understood that the adventure will repeat itself. As Joyce said, Finnegan, begin again. It is as tiresome as the children’s ditty whence the phrase derives.
The problem with “happily ever after” is that life always ends badly, that is, in death. Our troubles start when the adventure is over and we have to start living. This is illustrated by a the story of the elderly Jewish woman who asks her husband to take her to the theater.
“I don’t want to go to the theater,” the old Jew responds. “It’s boring.” His wife remonstrates, “How can you say it’s boring? Theaters exist because people go there to be entertained!” The old man sighs and explains, “When he wants, she doesn’t want. When she wants, he doesn’t want. And when they both want, it’s over.”But it isn’t over, for now we have to live, which is to say we contrive to cheat death. “Why do men chase women?,” asked Rose Castorini in Moonstruck. Because “they want to live forever.” Just ask Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
One way to address the problem is found in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, one of the masterpieces of the past century. Its construction eliminates the possibility of an ending, for it deals with the Austrian elite on the eve of World War I; the reader knows what the protagonists do not, namely that their world will come to a crashing end within a few months. Musil’s people approach the apocalypse asymptotically without ever reaching it. That is a modern solution, but an unsatisfactory one. Musil published one volume of his great novel, and dissipated the rest of his life in drafts of alternative endings for a never-published second.
It is hard to write a novel about life without an unsatisfactory conclusion. That is why so many writers fall back on the genre novel, for example the mystery, where the subject is not a life, but merely a case. Or they drift into the absurd, and inflate a short story into novelistic length, like Gabriel Garcํa Marquez. Stories do not have to encompass a life, but only a moment of it, which may explain why the genre does better than the novel.
Because the novel by its nature focuses on the inner world of its characters, it distracts attention from the social dimension of our existence; our lives do not belong to us, but to past and future generations as well. The generational genre in popular fiction perfected by Edna Ferber a century ago, James Michener a generation ago, and a host of best-selling imitators, gets at this concept (“the sprawling story of a family you really don’t want to know about”).
Two great exceptions – neither included in the received canon of critically-approved great novels – prove the rule. One is Jan Potocki’s The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, loosely structured on Lucian’s Philopseudes, which offers stock types rather than characters, and whose chilling subject is the final end of European culture. Like Lucian’s frame story of tales within tales, Saragossa starts out as an apparent story of the supernatural.
No spoilers, but nothing is what it appears to be. A great subterranean conspiracy unifies all the messy loose ends of Western civilization, and its denouement trumps all the surprise endings in fiction: it is not the end of the world, just the end of us. Thomas Pynchon’s V is a children’s book by comparison. After completing the novel, Potocki melted down his favorite sugar-bowl into a silver bullet and shot himself. It makes wonderful beach reading.
The other exception is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, whose subject is the mortality of peoples rather than individuals (see Tolkien’s Ring: When immortality is not enough, Asia Times Online January 4, 2004). These two remain my favorite novels of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, but that is because I really do not care that much about prose as an art form, and I really do not care what happens to Pierre and Natasha, nor to the Misses Bennet, Ivan Karamazov, Stephen Daedalus, Hans Castorp and Augie March. If invited to dinner with the pack of them I would find an excuse and demur.
I’d rather stay home with the New York Post and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And when news from the Manhattan district attorney’s flea-circus goes quiet, there’s the Barack Obama administration and its Middle East clown show. What comedian could have invented an American administration that wants to boot Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi out and keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power, but succeeds at neither?
Compared to Obama’s advisers Samantha Power and Valerie Jarrett, Ms. Diallo Nafissatou late of Guinea looks like a world-class strategist. Satire herself stands mute and astonished before the likes of Cyrus Vance, Jr and Obama. Fiction has been in trouble since the Spanish critic Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote The Decline of the Novel in 1925. These gentleman may have given it an inadvertent coup de grace.