DSK and the death of the novel
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
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
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
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
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.
Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. Comment on this article in
Spengler's Expat Bar
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