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Everything Is Real, But Some Things Are More Real Than Others

ISSUE:  Spring 1979

Foreign Fictions: 24 Contemporary Stories From Canada, Europe, Latin America
. Edited by John Biguenet. Random House. $4.95.

This book is as up-to-date as they come. There are some wonderful stories in it as well as some that are less than wonderful, and an objective reviewer would have to tender a dart or two in addition to his bouquets. In defense of the forthcoming darts, it ought to be noted here that this writer has nothing against (indeed, he has a great deal for) what is sometimes called Postmodern Fiction. Malcolm Cowley speaks for a lot of traditionalists as he takes out after the experimenters in an essay entitled “A Defense of Story-telling,” which forms one of the chapters in his recently published And I Worked at the Writer’s Trade: Chapters of Literary History, 1918—1978.But Cowley’s anger is of a special kind. It is old man’s anger, as ancient as the Greeks. Old men are always mad at the young. It is one of their duties to be that way, and Cowley falls right in line as he hits out at Barth and Vonnegut and Heller and other writers of the anti-story with its anti-moral. And as he yells, Cowley sounds like no one so much as Catullus, shouting, “Oh, this age! how tasteless and ill-bred it is!” My annoyance, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the war between the generations and everything to do with a deep-seated irritation at certain critics’ and writers’ attitudes toward their work. One judges not lest he be judged, but there comes a time, as H. L. Mencken wrote, when a fellow must spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

First things first. Probably the feeblest literary genre is the introduction. Most of them are rambling and gassy, rather like a sixth-grade report. This one talks about abandoning “the strictures of realism in favor of more inventive narrative techniques.” Strictures? More inventive? Is the new always better than the old? Is Mondrian better than Rembrandt because he painted little colored squares instead of crummy old ordinary people? Merely inventive technique can result in a book like Georges Perec’s La Disparition, a full-length mystery that does not contain a single “e”—no mean feat in English and a next to impossible one in French with its past participles, its many nouns ending in “e,” and its articles le and les.Yet consider: if one depicts a man writing who can’t use a pen or a pencil or a typewriter because those words contain the letter “e,” then of course one must have him write with an amaryllis or a woodchuck. Yet is that great fiction, or fiction at all, or is it merely inventive technique? A soprano may sing the scales higher and faster and louder than anyone else, but she hasn’t made music until she has sung a song.

And for all the change between Catullus’s day and Cowley’s, the songs don’t seem to be all that different. The introduction to this collection also tells us that “realism is an invention of the industrialized world,” but in my copy of The Odyssey there are fairly precise instructions on how to slaughter a heifer and build a boat. It is true that during the last part of the 19th century Flaubert and James and Trollope wrote with great conscientiousness and craftsmanship a kind of fiction that they described as realistic and which currently serves as but one of many models for contemporary prose, yet a far more important point is that the real is always present in literature, and it is only the varying proportion, usually slight, of real to unreal in any given work that determines whether that work is destined for the realism pigeonhole or some other. And speaking of what is real and what isn’t, one cannot help noticing that the title page of this book reads 25 [not 24] Contemporary Stones, etc.; obviously the “true” introduction was counted as one of the “fictitious” tales by some hasty editorial assistant, who may have been trying to tell the reader something nonetheless.

It has always seemed to me that most writers, no matter their country or era, are saying that life is stranger than the average person is able to realize. The novelist George P. Elliott once observed that characters in Southern fiction are often seen as grotesque, but only by non-Southerners. No Southerner thinks that Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is exaggerated or “made up,” because everyone who lives in the South knows people like hers. Elliott says that G. K. Chesterton made the same point about Dickens’s characters—they seem unusual only to those who don’t know the actual people of London. To put it another way, O’Connor’s and Dickens’s characters are strange indeed, but not to those who have grown so accustomed to their real-life counterparts that they can no longer perceive the strangeness. After her husband complains about the lion under the kitchen table, a woman in Heinrich Boll’s “Unexpected Guests” (one of the stories in this collection) says, “What isn’t unusual?” The husband has no answer; soon he comes to love the lion, and at the end he is sorrowful when someone comes to take it away.

Most of the stories in this book, like Boll’s, rely precisely on the idea of the unreal intruding into the real, which is to say that the convention of realism is entirely necessary in these stories, for without it there would be no contrast. Again and again these tales describe some odd interruption that becomes tolerable and perhaps even desirable, which is the story of the daily lives of most of us, had we but the ability to realize it. Let us be Ishmael, then, and celebrate the marvellous complexity of the universe rather than Ahab, who views it through blinders. Let us also keep our writers and other artists well fed, for we need them to remind us just how peculiar things are.

So the extent to which writers can help us to realize the complexity of the world strikes me as a better critical yardstick than how realistic they are. If that is the case, then some of the writers in this book are going to be found wanting. One has to grit one’s teeth all the way through Robbe-Grillet’s “Scene” and say this-is-another-parable-about-the-sterility-of-modern - life - which - I - feel - obliged - to - read - though - I’m - not-quite-sure-why. Henri Michaux’s “I Am Writing to You from a Distant Country” is a story with virtually no impact. The biographical note says that Michaux was awarded the Grand Prix National des Lettres and refused it, yet I can only wonder that it wasn’t the other way around, since the story— which is of that genre of bloodless, pseudophilosophical melodrama in which two disembodied characters talk, talk, talk themselves and the reader to distraction—reads precisely like the kind of thing one would write to win a French literary prize yet isn’t quite good enough even for that. Both Robbe-Grillet and Michaux are practitioners of what I call the Literature of Detachment. So is Nathalie Sarraute, whose “Tropism: V” reminds us that another word for detached is humorless, not in the sense of fiction having to be funny but in the sense of an author being able to consider herself and her writing with a certain healthy irreverence, a quality likely to be absent in someone who has lived too long in a self-made literary paradise. I don’t mean to be especially severe with the French, but having studied their language and literature for some years and being only recently returned from a ten-month stay in Paris, I can only concur with a wicked (but accurate) statement that Richard Kostelanetz made in The End of Intelligent Writing, where he criticizes “the pretentiousness of both style and content” in the works of “European (i.e., Parisian) literati” who have not permitted “the “elitist” inclinations perhaps intrinsic in the profession” to be corrected by any contact with or acknowledgment of the culture of the masses.

Then there are the many truly imaginative and mind-opening tales.(From the short catalog that follows I will omit lonesco’s “Rhinoceros,” always a favorite even though it has now become the Mona Lisa of postwar literature, too familiar to judge.) Julio Cortázar’s “The Southern Thruway” is the account of a days-long traffic jam on one of the auto-routes into Paris. This is a highly realistic tale, as anyone knows who has ever driven those roads, especially on a Sunday afternoon (which is when the action of the story begins); it is only by means of the slightly far-fetched notion of making the traffic almost totally immobile that Cortázar brings our ordinary world into sharper relief. IIse Aichinger’s “The Bound Man” treats a fellow who wakes up bound one day, accepts a job in a circus, learns to love his rope, kills (while still bound) a dangerous wolf, and is freed by a loving but misguided woman whom he is forced to flee. Milan Kundera’s inappropriately titled “Nobody Will Laugh” deals with the mordantly comic consequences of an art professor’s refusal to further the career of an inept but persistent amateur; anyone who has ever been importuned by a hopeful yet untalented supplicant will indeed laugh—sourly—at this story. In “The Smallest Woman in the World,” Clarice Lispector reminds us that little things can often set off pathological reactions, the little thing here being an African midget whose photo in the newspaper seems to bring out the worst in everyone who sees it.lan McEwan’s “Solid Geometry” is the story of a man who tries to counter his wife’s dopey occultism with historical research and mathematical formulae; when he discovers the scientifically certified yet little known secret of making people disappear through certain yogic manipulations, he rids himself of his blathering helpmate during a bout of lovemaking, and realism triumphs over nonsense with a vengeance. Finally, it would be hard for me to imagine a right-minded person who wouldn’t want to go “On a Journey” with Slawomir Mrozek and use his wireless telegraph system in which uniformed employees of the Post Office stand by the roadside in seemingly endless chains, shouting messages from one to the next. Mrozek’s is a crazy world yet a possible one, and to contemplate it is to open our minds to the sanity-saving possibility of nuttiness everywhere.

If I had to choose a single work of contemporary foreign fiction to teach or take to the coast for a weekend, I think I would pick Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (incorrectly cited in the biographical notes to this book as The Baron of the Trees) or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Borges’ Ficciones.But if I had to select a book which comprehensively and objectively represented (for better or worse) the kind of fiction that is being written and read the world over, I would pick Foreign Fictions.That recommendation notwithstanding, the book should be a big seller; already I envision tens of thousands of bewildered sophomores buying it for English 203 (“Literature Since 1945”). I just hope they get someone who can help them help themselves, via the stories, to see how much fuller their world is than they ever knew, and not some grooveball professor who’ll tell them yeah, man, realism is on the skids because this new stuff is just too far out to be true! That’s a lie—always was, always will be.


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