I should say, perhaps, that there all sorts of pastimes that don’t require reading much at all. And there are many things to read besides fiction. What is the allure of the novel? In the earliest times of reading I can remember, I went from the sense of mystery and the occult—I suppose that need to know while also being a bit afraid of what knowing would mean was enough of a drive—to a sense that there were writers of fiction who understood something about human nature not available in non-fiction. But why? Because nonfiction tended to take the path of hearsay or of personal, anecdotal testimony, or of the historical record. Very limited, in other words. The great fiction writers could claim omniscience, if they so desired, or could mimic a limited perspective—for narrative purposes. I cut my teeth in reading literature with the stories of Poe and that was a lesson in how the teller makes the tale.
In those days of reading I was recalling in the previous post, I was being led by something more powerful: the sense that novelists were “artists,” by which I believe I understood that there was a perspective on the world that, to my mind, was more valuable than that of the historian or philosopher. It was, I supposed, the perspective of one who has “withdrawn” from the world to a certain degree, if only to have the distance to write about it. And yet to do that perspective full justice with a unique immediacy not found in non-fiction writing. Some might say this is simply the storyteller’s perspective—available to some degree in all eras, as Pavel’s study makes clear—so why equate it with an artist?
That idea came from the time when my reading took place, in part, but was also due to my own lights at the time. My first love was art—pictorial art. And the notion of what a painter was—someone who makes images/representations of actual things or images/representations of imagined things—infused my notion of what a novelist was. But that notion was already infused with the ideal of the artist that existed since the Romantic period at least. Shakespeare himself had been renovated by a Romantic perspective, and that view stayed with me through Hesse’s evocations of Goethe and Nietzsche and the latter’s conception of the role of art for the coming century (the 20th) affected not just how I read the fiction of our century, but also affected some key writers of the first part of that century.
All well and good. Such was the sense of the high art novel in that time I would probably rather be living in—the 1920s, when my parents were born—than in the 1960s during which the legacy of the early greats became the basis for work on a lesser level and, eventually (about the time I was coming of age), an abandonment of such high art concepts altogether. Y’see, in the years when I was first learning to walk, something called Pop Art was born, and the notion of “pop”—in all sorts of areas—over-ran the former notion of “high art,” except as a thing of the past.
It’s no accident that, by the time this was abundantly apparent to me (after a period in my teens and early twenties living in the past), I became, in my mid to late twenties, a student of art history and the history of the novel. If, as Macbeth says, “the greatest is behind,” then why not spend your time there. A book like Pavel’s The Lives of the Novel returned to me, while reading it, that sense of discovery I had when I finally began to study the lit and art of earlier eras in earnest. It almost became possible to forget the 20th century! What’s more, it became possible to look upon an earlier period—say the 13th century—as fully achieved, not as something “on the road” to somewhere else, NOT as a “transition.” This was important because it gave structure and scope to my sense of history as “our” history at the same time that it gave me a conviction about a world that would be forever indifferent to “what came later,” sealed in its forms and its grasp of the entire world—a world in which there was, simply, no North American continent—or, even better, the 17th century, during which the powers of Europe were content in their grasp of their place at the apex of the known world, which included the savages out there in the Americas.
A thorough-going mutt of northern Europe—Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Scandinavian, Celtic—I made no claim for racial or national purity, but. Something in what I was pleased to see as the homogeneity of the British Isles did, I think, make me uncomfortable with how sprawling and unsurveyed was this huge continent of ours. I cleaved to the eastern seaboard, not without reason. And Tocqueville rather re-awoke my awareness of how important New England is for any version of what these United States means to me.
But no, not purity—durée. What I wanted was the sense of something that would “endure.” One should bear in mind, too, that my sense of the enduring was furnished by Catholicism—visited upon me by grace of that leetle bit of Celtic in the bloodline—(by which I mean an ancestor from Catholic Ireland)—and so there you find a mythic sense extended from the beginning of everything (“let there be light”) up to the incarnation of “the Word made flesh” (the year One), and thence to, well, if not The Second Coming, then at least to some kind of apocalyptic “end of history” moment that will let us see what it was all tending toward. Eschatology enacted here. And those old Puritan New Englanders had plenty of that sense of Christian history.
It was somewhere in those pre-college study days that some sense of what might really be in store, for me, in literature came to light. Before I ever enrolled in a formal curriculum, I read, following my own interests, much poetry. For in poetry I found a more emphatic sense of artistry in writing, if only to demonstrate that my sense of “artist/writer” was not “storyteller.” The poets I read were not telling stories, mostly. They were marshaling imagery, rhythm, music, and voice for the sake of “objects.” Objects which, like non-pictorial paintings, existed to demonstrate “an aesthetic.” Why might not extended narratives do the same? My key point of departure for such was Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, and the kinds of writers it influenced. When Rimbaud referenced “my cursed childhood education,” I knew whereof he spoke. Much of the fulmination in Season was about the great swindling of the imagination that came with the oppressive sense of knowledge—of what the past was, of what, based on that, the future might be. The eclipse of the enchanted, we might say, in favor of the everyday. Rimbaud objected, strenuously. Or at least a marvelous teen persona he invented did. And that was enough to make me think that such might be the task of anyone of sufficient imagination. And such an idea was not really at odds with “Pop,” because.
Because of Pop Music, or Rock Music, or whatever one was disposed to call it. It was music for the young, music—no, songs—that invented a persona too. The persona of the plugged-in, of seekers of “the sound.” Poetry, on the page, would always be about that too—or at least for anyone who bore a sense of “the lyric.” And why was it that, at some point, the lyrical storyteller gave way to the prosaic one? Which is a way of saying that I found myself in pursuit of lyrical fiction, where, as I was saying, the object, the made thing, the aesthetic qualities of rhythm and music and imagery would take precedence over “what happens next” and “who is speaking.” The point not to be missed, of course, is that any artist, any poet, any lyric persona, is still a creature of the everyday. No one escapes temporality. The “manner of speaking”—no matter how original or deliberate—must always derive from some horizon of interpretation, must exist in a mind that has come to consciousness at such and such a time in such and such a place. Yes, even Beckett’s “unnameable.”
(to be continued)