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The New Historical Romance

ISSUE:  Spring 1986
Christine/Annette. By Albert J, Guerard. Dutton. $17. 95.

As if in defiant celebration of his retirement at 70 from Stanford University, Albert J. Guerard published last June his seventh novel, Christine/Annette. Five of his six books of criticism (Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Andre Gide, Conrad the Novelist, and The Triumph of the Novel: Dickens, Dostoevsky, Faulkner) celebrate the forms of the modern novel. It is the quiet triumph of Christine/Annette to affirm the hospitality of the novel to the techniques of other genres. Just as Guerard himself has nurtured the disparate inclinations of his former students—from the antirealism of John Hawkes and the zaniness of Mark Mirsky to Alison Lurie’s witty novels of manners—so his new narrative proceeds through a variety of forms: an anonymous narrator’s introduction to a fragmentary personal memoir; private letters; newspaper stories; a screenplay written by one of the characters about the central figure; and even a transcript of an aged survivor’s incoherent, tape-recorded reminiscence. One entire page is given over to a drawing that reproduces, in Spanish, the crude lettering on Christine’s tombstone.

Yet Guerard has not abandoned a fundamental commitment to clarity. Except for the brief tape recording near the end of the novel, every page advances his narrative in prose that will not be obscure, not even when it is most allusive. Proustian and Faulknerian echoes resound throughout the novel, in sentences that cannot be misread.

To my ear, it is the echoes of William Faulkner that are most resonant. The central quest that moves the plot, Charles Strickland’s effort to learn the story of his dead mother’s life, deliberately reminds us of Quentin Compson’s research and conjecture in Absalom, Absalom! And the elusiveness of Christine Laroche Strickland reminds me of Charles Bon and Thomas Sutpen even while Guerard’s lyrical evocation of a 15-year-old girl’s freedom to explore Paris (at the cost of her reputation), shortly before World War I, reminds me of Faulkner’s attitude toward little Caddy Compson and her muddy drawers in The Sound and the Fury.

In this modern historical romance, as in many another before and after The Scarlet Letter, the mysterious character re-created by an editor or survivor is a beautiful woman, and one of the main social themes is the cost exacted from the female beauty. The Thomas Sutpen figure who “abrupts” into the life of Christine in 1914 comes from a newer, more vulgar Southwest than the Mississippi of 1833. He is Dexter Strickland, a businessman and swindler from Houston. He rescues young Christine from certain arrest as an enemy alien in Berlin, in 1914, by marrying her and using his American passport and his influence on the American consul to get her out of Germany. This 17-year-old French bride is soon marooned—first in Houston, where she relieves her boredom and takes some revenge against her absent husband by giving lavish parties; and then on a bleak ranch near Mexico, to which the vindictive cuckold has exiled her and their seven-year-old son. She flees to Los Angeles, presumably dies there in an accident in 1922, and is supposedly buried at the ranch.

But her son, who inherits a trust fund after his swindling father disappears, goes to Paris with his guardians in 1929. And as a 15-year-old, unwittingly reenacting his mother’s innocent exploration of the Parisian demimonde, Charles Strickland recognizes a unique gesture of his mother’s in an actress who appears for a moment in a German film. Over the next 44 years, then, he persists, gives up the quest, resumes it, and at last finds some confirmation in fragments of surviving circumstantial evidence and in the testimony of a screenplay and a tape recording.

Albert Guerard has always been interested in the fictive nature of memory. Especially in his autobiographical memoir The Touch of Time: Myth, Memory, and the Self, he has delighted himself and his readers with memorable instances of conflict between his own memory and the documentary record, and occasionally he has insisted that his memory’s disputed version of an event has an independent authority that is not to be easily shaken by contemporaneous evidence from any other source. If memory does not, like Hester Prynne’s love affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, have “a consecration of its own,” it does have its own authority, its own life in the mind. And of course any narrative based on other documentary authority must be stitched together by an imagination that in its own way is as fictive as the individual’s private memory.

Readers of The Touch of Time and a few other autobiographical pieces by Guerard will therefore not be surprised to learn that his new novel incorporates as Charles Strickland’s experience incidents that Guerard’s published testimony has already claimed as his own: a meeting, in boyhood, with the film star Lya de Putti, whose beauty and grace captivate the ten-year-old and recur as ideal qualities in his adult fantasies; and an interlude of perfect adolescent freedom in the Paris of 1930, when a 15-year-old’s French landlady and guardian does not know that his American school keeps American rather than French hours, so that the boy is free to roam over Paris for several hours every afternoon.

It is on this issue of imagination and reality that the screenplay, and the film in which the boy catches sight of his mother, give unusual depth to the varied forms of narration in this lovely novel. In the “real” story of Charles Strickland’s life, his mother, whom he adored for his first seven years, is no more substantial than the image that flashed on the screen. And when he uncovers her own “real” story, partly through the aid of a screenplay, Charles learns that circumstances forced her to abandon not only him but her own identity and to assume at least two different names as a film actress in Europe and then Mexico. Just as in Puritan eyes the real Hester Prynne is hidden behind the magnified “A” that she is obliged to wear, so Christine/Annette/Antonia is defined and concealed by her beauty.

Paradoxically, the magic of Albert Guerard’s technique and the depth of his feeling for lost human possibilities make this shadowy child and woman a poignantly convincing character. The lyrical quality in her innocent but unconventional escapades, sorties into forbidden Parisian places with her 13-year-old girlfriend, seems to depend on a mixture of her innocence and the male author’s or reader’s desire. That mixture is warmed if not redeemed by a deepening compassion as we see the uses to which other men subject Christine before one of them forces her to abandon her son and her identity. Her subsequent life as a film actress under two different names is not the only reminder of this mixture. At last she becomes the subject of the screenplay that virtually completes our knowledge of her. Her life is thus belatedly converted into a kind of fiction by the one man who might have actually rescued her.

In calling this book an historical romance, I do not mean to exclude its serious concern with 20th-century history. That concern comes to us more through allusion and description of places than through major historical events, but it is nonetheless evident. The Berlin of 1914, the Paris of 1910—12 and of 1930, and the Houston of 1915—22—all these come to us with a sense of historical reality that confirms the paradox of shadowy but convincing character.


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