Publication of Walter Pater’s Studies in the Renaissance in 1873 was a hugely important event (whether as cause or effect or both) in a sexual and aesthetic revolution defining an era stretching from the 1880s right up until 1939 (the death of Yeats in the January of that year is as good a marker as any).
Some commentators, with ample justification, have argued that this era embodies a Second Renaissance, a creative reawakening as potent as its quattrocento antecedent – though it has become almost impossible for us to see it in those terms. For instance, in the shadow of the Great War, it became fashionable to muddy these waters by positing symbolism’s later Modernist phases as the creation of “the Machine Age”: as if machines somehow had not existed in the Victorian era.
We, uncomfortably numb in our era of niggardly Puritanism, could care less either way.
The Second Renaissance was driven, as the first had been, by a renewed interest in classical materials. In the quattrocento, these materials had arrived entire, as Byzantine libraries were shipped to Italy to save them from destruction by Islamic hordes. In the 1870s, they arrived in fragments of parchment and papyrus, disinterred thanks to a new craze called archaeology.
Soon, everyone was thinking about the art of writing in terms of vivid fragments. Painters, sculptors and composers soon had their own take on this too.
And of course, the most influential critics were those who helped their readers make the most of fleeting impressions. Cue Walter Pater:
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood or passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swifly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?
To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.
“Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continually fell and which, as he was coming to realise, he loved more than anything in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained under the
grey, velvety sinter
left when matter dissolved, little by little into nothingness. And indeed, when I watched Ferber working on one of his portrait studies over a number of weeks, I often thought that his prime concern was to increase the dust.”
Concerning absolutely we should say, irrefutably, if it pleases you and fearing not one word of contradiction, Ferber
It surely says something (something neither good nor bad nor entirely unpredictable) that the 1981 Picador edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew is so hard to find on the second hand book market. I had assumed that late-1970s Bohemian intellectuals had gone for this one in a big way.
Perhaps this book (“it is as if Buck Mulligan had written Ulysses,” says the blurb) was just too much like hard work. And perhaps Sorrentino was closer to the truth than he ever knew when he stated scathingly, after an almighty struggle with his philistine publishers, that the book was aimed at “the eleven persons who can still read.”
I’m proud to reveal that I number myself among the eleven. Who, I sometimes wonder, are the other ten?
Mulligan Stew is, as it happens, my all-time favourite example of Modernist meta-fiction. And meta-fiction, should you need reminding, is the art of telling stories that make you think about storytelling, featuring narrators wrestling with the challenges of narration. Some people think this is a terribly new thing. It isn’t. Not all meta-fictions are Modernist: in exactly the same way that not all Modernist novels are meta-fictions.
In fact, the meta-fiction has an ancient pedigree. It’s part and parcel of the Arabian Nights, a story about a girl telling stories, some of which feature so many dreams within dreams that you’re not entirely sure if the narrator is still awake. Meta-fiction is also part and parcel of pre-Renaissance concept albums like the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales. Anything that features stories within stories or, like Hamlet, a play within a play, is at least flirting with meta-fiction. The absolute apogee was attained by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy; but even droney old Sir Walter Scott sets his dusty historical novels within elaborate framing devices, with narrators coming across tattered manuscripts of lost narration in obscure desk drawers.
Even more pertinently, from our perspective, the 20th Century’s most successful literary phenomenon, the whodunit, was successful precisely because it was (and is) a meta-fiction genre. The detective doesn’t solve puzzles. Not really. He or she is, in reality, a speculative, improvisatory narrator, making false starts, following blind alleys, before making compelling headway. We watch him (or indeed her) compiling a story for us before our very eyes. It’s an utterly engaging process.
But yes, it’s true that something rather special happened when elements of the Modernist avant-garde, desperate to show that they too could aspire to psychedelia, rediscovered meta-fiction in the 1970s. Actually, Tom Stoppard probably started the ball rolling in 1966 with his play on a play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He didn’t exactly trigger an avalanche: unless you consider Laurence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (1974-85) as an avalanche in and of itself.
But there were lots of notable efforts. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night is superb as is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Money by Martin Amis is a decent enough attempt. But none can match the sheer exuberance of Mulligan Stew, which features a writer whose characters run amuck like demented Marx Brothers when he’s not paying attention.
We may not see its like again. Certainly not while the current generation of literary Puritans are still running the show.
Meanwhile, though, if you’re one of the other ten people who can still read, please get in touch.