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Reality Again

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Three Hxemplary Novels and a Prologue. By Miguel de Unamuno. New York: Albert and Charles Boni. $2.50. The Sweet Cheat Gone. By Marcel Proust. New York: Albert and Charles Boni. $3.00. Bystander. By Maxim Gorki. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.00. Blood. By Robert Neumann, New York: Covici-Friede. $3.00.

On this sultry August night, with the buzz of crickets in the field and a powdler of stars in the deep sky, it is hard for me to believe in the reality of any experience contained in books. It is, I think, oniy a coincidence that Unamuno’s perplexity is also mine: the fiery Basque philosopher is fervid. Here lie the volumes on the table—black and green, yellow and red, brown, and gold and black—so many books explosive with energy, with furious creative excitement, with a determination to put leading strings upon “life” and to guide it tamely between the covers of a book. Outside, the crickets, monotonous, un-dramatic, dragging the grass-scented hours on to midnight, Inside, a table, a typewriter, four volumes, the novels theatrical, wordy, full of moral argument, political debate, sexual animosities, journalistically vivid paragraphs of city descriptions, the whole calculated to convey emotional truth and to burn like fire.

Perhaps they are right, these forceful novelists, pushing the routine calm of life to one side in favor of violent dramatics. Yet, there are the crickets of the plains always, outside books, and the moonlight rippling at the wake of the night-boat, and the guard at the railway crossing, in his little frame shanty, smoking his vile pipe these hot nights as well as on snowy midwinter dawns. Such have a reality of their own, an emanation of substance, unworked for, unwilled, convincing. And although such things appear in books—for there are quiet novels—their true essence evades the page and their significance as experience can only be gained by the leisurely mind. Words are no good. They have a kind of reality, placed end to end, but experience, directly, has another. To the pedant or to the sophisticate —or to any other kind of inactive cerebral—the imitative, second-hand, abstracted reality of books is more gratifying, comfortable, and exciting than that ordinarily calm and un-heroic life from which books evolve. To the true artist, aware of the limitations of his art, this truth is chastening . . . and it helps him to save words. To the naif adolescent—of a vague age—the charm of airing his views publicly, of dreaming violently and audibly, of expatiating on his own surprises, becomes a substitute for a reality outside of books that is more philosophical and, before that, substantial.

There is another difficulty in estimating the literary value of these novels, and it is a difficulty bound up with the problem of artistic reality. Need I drop back, for a moment, and suggest obviously, as people do who determine upon philosophy, that the reality of crickets in a field can and must vary with the receptive mind, that the crickets in August do not exist as an experience until experienced, and that to every mind they are “really” different? They are the memory of a sleepless night on a Michigan farm after too much library work in New York; they are the music of childhood; they are a destroyer of the chance to typewrite undisturbed; they are—well, all things to all men. And most important of all, they are nothing if one is told about crickets and yet has never seen that dull brown singer in the grass.

This is the trouble. The reality we like to talk about is not the same to all men, even though materially it may seem to be. Life in Germany has a German reality; in Russia, a Russian, and so on. A national attitude, a national reality (or, rather, perception of reality) explains us to ourselves, develops solidarity of a kind (patriotism), and betrays us in our determination to understand life “abroad.” Behold the stumbling block of Leagues of Nations. I do not deprecate cosmopolitanism, internationalism, or interracial friendship. I want, however, to point out difficulties in the way of international art, universal art, especially in the way of an international novel, the materials of which, being primarily those of conventional society, vary, with national boundaries. All this is by way of presenting my fundamental critical fears about an American’s estimate of books so foreign in their attitudes and so different in the actual as well as in the literary reality of their materials. It is for this reason that I feel tempted to regret the effect of the Russian novel upon the English, to use one example, for its imitation initiated a strained determination to think differently and to write differently and, in general, to no great advantage. This last is, however, opinion; yet reflection upon the names of some good English novels might prove the point.

As one might guess it from these four books, the primary aim of the foreign novel is to show national life as it is lived by the people as a group and to present national problems and class confusions rather than to convey the reality of individual characters, as does the typically great English novel, (The foreign influence upon the contemporary, British novel is nowhere more evident, by the way, than in its growing preoccupation with national problems, decadences, and abnormal types produced by society and by the state. Galsworthy shows the continental note.) Not the least appeal of the continental novel to an English reader is its strangeness, its piquant difference from what it is common for him to read.

Miguel de Unamuno, in “Three Exemplary Novels,” has written three expository tales, literary parables in which he tries to prove that “reality” as it is usually produced in fiction is not reality at all, but a kind of hack imitation which destroys character life. In those characters who do live— the eternal Quixote is one—Unamuno finds a life that runs away from the author, independent of him, and often superior to his own reality: i. e., Quixote lives, Cervantes is dead. It remains, says Unamuno, whose lively yet penetrating mind does not fail him when he deserts philosophy for fiction, to show what life is lived by men who have “reality,” especially as one reads fiction. (I regret that Una-muno’s examples of fictional characters are so slight and so strictly un-English.) Hear him on fictional reality:

The people of the realists are puppets dressed up in costumes and moving about as their strings are pulled, and with phonographs wound up somewhere in their insides to repeat remarks which their puppet-master has picked up on the sidewalks or in the cafes, and jotted down in a notebook.

How heartily one must agree with Unamuno, as one recalls the drearily and endlessly documented synthetic people who creak through the ordinary narrative episodes of modern prose fiction! The Basque has discovered the disease, if not the cure. Often, the whole technical experiment with the form of the novel since Fielding’s objective original pattern seems like a continuous protest against the limitations of the novelist’s craft, which, in its means for suggesting character reality, never offers complete satisfaction in the reproduction upon paper of what the author had in mind and hoped to communicate. Any art form compels the same dissatisfaction, but the novel especially does so because its pattern unit (words in combination) is infinitely varied in its artistic effect and associations. (Red in a painting has a color and line definiteness; red in a story suggests to one person danger, to another heat, to a third insurrection.) In the author’s mind stands the character, understood and organically whole, able to function as an individual. On paper, that character appears in a dimmed reality, obscured, often distorted, by the lack of agreement between conception and creation, even in the case of fictional characters of great power and vitality.

What is Miguel de Unamuno’s solution to this problem of tawdry and unconvincing reality? By reality of character he means something different, and it is something very near to the reality we look for and do not find in books once every ten years:

I am going to say that in addition to the person one is to God (if indeed one is anyone to God), and to the person one is to others, and to the person one thinks one is, there is the person one would like to be. And this last, the person one would like to be, is the creator within one, in one’s heart, and the person that is truly real. . . .

If . . . you would create in art a character . . ., don’t plaster him with erudition, don’t waste your time observing the exteriors of the people about you. But frequent, instead, the society of your character, give him a prod now and again, above all will him if you can: and wait!

Unamuno has caught the secret of character life: the capacity of the “agonist” to will to do or to will not to do. It is the belief in the capacity of the character to act for himself that makes for reality. The technique of doing that is almost inexplicable: sometimes details added seem to help; sometimes details of appearance and thought seem to hurt. But we recognize that reality when it happens. Hardy’s people often have it, and Meredith’s, too. Dickens creates it, despite his grotesques; Thackeray often fails, despite the pile of stuff in “Pendennis.” Among the moderns it is often missing, because the writers care more about the problems of post-war Germany or pre-Revolutionary Russia than they do about the will of their people, and the ability of a character to live is swallowed up by political argument like Gorki’s in “Bystander” or by wild scenes of social degeneracy, as in Neumann’s “Flood,” or, even, by feverish self-scrutiny as in Proust. (Hergesheimer’s people almost never have this “will” reality; Cather’s usually do. Wells misses it generally; Conrad suggests it, and Bennett produces it, although he quickly buries it under his detail.)

After the “Prologue” of “Three Exemplary, Novels” Unamimo prepares us for an exhibition of that higher reality. He proceeds to write three stories in which men and women move with a greater capacity for convincing a reader than do those of other contemporary novelists. It is lamentable that Unamuno cannot prove his own theory, but, for one reader, at least, his philosophy of fiction is better than his ability to tell a story. It is true that all three of his powerful, wilful people do things, but with a kind of heroic, extravagant theatricality that is no more convincing in its avoidance of the “phonograph” than are those phonographic characters about whom Unamuno complains.

Denis Saurat, in his essay in “Contemporary Movements in European Literature” summarizes my many difficulties in appreciating Proust’s “The Sweet Cheat Gone.” He asks: “When Proust gets away from the dreary and yet fascinating process of spiritually disembowelling himself, when he manages to get on with his tale, what is the tale?” The only reality in Proust is that of the unhealthy author morbidly anatomizing himself; the tale, in the sense of a story about people who live and move, does not exist. In this sixth installment of the love story of the “I” hero, Albertine departs, her affair with “me” considered at end. But “I” finds it impossible either to admit his need for his mistress or to do without her. A reconciliation is about to take place when she is suddenly killed, The book from then on becomes an excursion into gloomy recollection, connected with the discovery that she had been a Lesbian. An interlude of social conventions as they relate to marriages in two families follows and a momentary return at the end to a romantic rediscovery of an old love, Gilberte. Psychological intricacies abound, mixed with some momentary descriptive moments that are fresh and moving, but the whole impression of the book is that of a tedious and decayed personality, permitted at too great length to expatiate upon its morbid self-satisfactions, abasements, and conceits. The translation, from what I know of the original, is faithful, but that fidelity adds nothing to the readability of Proust, who does for French syntax and sentence limits what Dreiser does for American-English. Llere is an example:

After an evening party at which I had met Robert before I went down to Combray, and where the manner in which he displayed himself by the side of a lady of fashion who was reputed to be his mistress, in which he attached himself to her, never leaving her for a moment, enveloped publicly in the folds of her skirt, made me think, with an additional nervous trepidation, of a sort of involuntary rehearsal of an ancestral gesture which I had had an opportunity of observing in M. de Charlus, when he appeared to be robed in the finery of Mme. Mole or some other woman, the banner of a gynaecophil cause which was not his own but which he loved, albeit without having the right to flaunt it thus, whether because he found it useful as a protection or as aesthetically charming, I had been struck, as we came away, by the discovery that this young man, so generous when he was far less rich, had become so stingy.

The effect of thousands of such sentences end to end in the book is not only disheartening and destructive of reader vitality in pure mechanics, but it symbolizes the mental and spiritual stand-still of the whole book, and the literary decay of the author. Mr. Angel Flores has called Proust the greatest novelist of our age. That may be so, but I cheerfully admit my inability to see the justice of such an estimate. Proust knows—or seems to know—too little to approach greatness. His world is the unreal, deliberately narrowed world of the introvert and pervert, with no suggestion of French reality beyond that of the author’s meager emotional life. That richness, diversity, robust energy, and varied interest, and common sense of the great novelist, above all that objectivity which clarifies the world as it is self-interpreted by the author-character, Proust has never showed, nor has he seemed to care. The complacency, if not the accomplishment of genius, has been his abiding self-defense.

Maxim Gorki, in “Bystander,” although he follows the excursive, all-inclusive method of the Russian novelist like Dostoevski, is not by nature a novelist. He, unlike Unamuno, ignores the demands for reality of character, seems not to be aware of its consideration in the construction of a novel. “Bystander” is like Well’s “Ann Veronica,” for the two novelists are much alike. Gorki is concerned with the presentation of “the young intellectual” of before the Revolution, his origins, growth, and development, his milieu, and all the problems which it suggests, just as “Ann Veronica” is the type outline, not the individual story, of a young woman rebel. There is the same typicality in “Bystander” as in Floyd Dell’s “Young Rebel” books, which never showed the faintest glimmer of reality of character. Gorki, Wells, Dell—they argue by means of the novel form: ‘they preach sermons, and they debate. But they have no artistic community with the novelist as an artist. Clim, in “Bystander,” remains a peg upon which Gorki hangs his picture, vivid and full, of Russian middle-class intellectual life, but Clim as a man to be sympathized with and understood emotionally, for one reader, never even begins to exist.

Robert Neumann, in “Flood,” cares less about argument and politics than Gorki does. He preaches no sermon. Instead, like one of those German spectacle motion picture films which have become so familiar to all of us, he flashes before our eyes in “Flood” dozens of scenes of post-war decay in German social life, showing all the cheats, prostitutes, homosexuals, and neurotic unfortunates in that unsettled and depleted land. It is a horrible and convincing picture of a social state, of a lost country, with no suggestion in it of foundations which may some day support a newer and stronger edifice. The individuals do not matter, in Mr. Neumann’s scheme; they are no more important than those grasping hands and straining mouths and leering eyes which flash across a silver screen suggesting a mass emotion, a common fear. They are all important but not to themselves or in themselves. Both Gorki’s book and Neumann’s are full of understanding and are, to my mind, wonderful pieces of exposition on a grand scale. But they are not novels, and they never for one moment give that satisfaction of character reality which I think it not unfair to ask of the novel form, as one of its essential accomplishments.

It seems as if the novel on the continent is marking for itself different ends from that of the English novel. At least, to a stranger, accustomed to the novel of Richardson and Hardy and Jane Austen, the continental novel offers to its readers a different artistic satisfaction. It is critically unfair, I suppose, to demand similar artistic aims the world over. Yet, Unamuno recognizes the novel’s need of reality, and he is looking for a way to increase the vitality of its characterization. As an American reader, I am hoping for an easy dissemination of Miguel de Unamuno’s views. If reality in the novel be a fault, I cannot understand what it is the business of the novelist to do.


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