What is literary fiction?
The historical answer is, that literary fiction is that genre of fiction which marketers have dubbed “literary” to distinguish it from established genres like ‘romance’, ‘sci-fi’, ‘historical’, ‘thriller’, and ‘detective’ or ‘crime’ fiction—genres which, with refinement and polish, have become more and more readily separable and identifiable (predictable?) by reference to their themes, aims and techniques. It was a natural development in nomenclature as marketers sought to capitalize on readers’ expectations. In this view, it is almost a default category of fiction, which exists almost in defiance, in that the focus, techniques, plot-devices, characters and settings (historical, geographical or temporal), etc. are not pre-determined by readers’ expectations. Simply put, in a crime novel you expect good guys and bad guys, at least relatively speaking. In an adventure story, you expect action and suspense, preferably in exotic locales. In a romance you expect . . . well, romance. People buy and read these books, it is assumed, for these elements. The writers write the stories to present these elements, in hopes of being paid well for the effort, of course. Hence the horrible term: “commercial fiction”-- as if the rest where being given away free of charge! This is the marketer’s version of the writing/reading dynamic. (It is marketing 102, perhaps: 101 applied to book sales.) Presumably, this is not so in 'literary fiction.' There, something else is at stake.
Elements like plot, setting, character, and suspense are present in all fiction to some degree, as they have been for thousands of years. They need not be, and traditionally have not been, merely hooks to reel in 'customers.' Fiction served other purposes long before it served the market. This is the crux! Even marketers understand: it is the purpose for their presence and their relative degree of significance that makes the difference. In books labeled ‘literary’ many of these defining elements are present, but their presence is not the reason for the story; rather, the story is the reason for their presence. The locales may be exotic – as they are in adventure stories, but they are so for another purpose. The exoticism lends something to the story being told: something the story could not do (or do so well) without. In some sense, ostensibly, it could not have been different.
This distinction at once accounts for two facts about the term “literary fiction” as I employ it and as I believe it is, generally, applied today: it denotes works which are judged to be determined in their particular style and manner by the author’s (or the story’s) needs, not the public’s expectations; and it connotes an aim of fiction which harkens back to an original artistic impulse, not to a commercial motive. The term, “literary” has come to be almost synonymous with “High” (or Fine), paralleling the use in ‘High (or Fine) Art.’ I heartily concur in this as well. Literary fiction has ambitions the other genres don’t have!
In saying this I know, that I am disagreeing with other formulations of a definition of “literary fiction.” According to some, only works of a certain (high) quality, or “poetic” style, deserve the appellation ‘literary’. This follows from the connoted ambition, as well as from the pretensions of style. Enticing as they are, these attempts to fix the sense more precisely tend to result in exclusion of works simply because they fit an already established genre, or simply because their style is deemed insufficiently poetic. Who could judge the author’s motive, or be the gatekeeper of such a fine distinction? That would be to prejudge the race, no? Given the obvious variety and variability of tastes and fashions, such a fickle restriction would make of the genre a movable feast, indeed. I prefer to use the term more openly, as it seems I must, to keep it useful. In every genre there should be room for both good and bad examples of the kind. We can always fight it out in criticism and, if need be (as it will be), let History be the judge.
Armed, then, with this working definition of literary fiction, I want to return in my next post to Banville and see how his works instantiate and even deepen the conception. Luckily, this author, and these books in particular, present a perfect example of the issue in question. For, regardless of their other many differences, if anything truly and fully fits the bill - ‘literary’- these two works certainly do!
That said, and hopefully sufficient to establish what I will generally mean by ‘literary fiction’, I want now to look at Banville’s works, which present, I think, rather special cases. Some novels are more explicitly “literary” than others. These two, in varying degrees, are cases in point.
Of the fourteen novels that Banville has written, Mefisto and The Sea are works from the middle (1986) and latter (2005) parts of his career, respectively. Having not yet read all the others, I can’t say whether they are representative of his work overall or not; only that what they share with each other is a single ambition or concern, which has obviously been with him since, at least, Mefisto. I can only assume this is not accidental. And, it is a specifically literary concern. So, what I have to say about these books can be taken as applying only to these two novels and only insofar as they represent ‘literary fiction.’ Some writers are more fully exemplary of this type than others. Banville seems to be one such, at least as evidenced by his concerns and approach in these two novels. Whether, generally, Banville is rightly called an author of literary fiction, in the manner of praise or blame, is a question which will have to wait another day.
Mefisto is the story of Gabriel Swan, a mathematical savant, born into an Irish family of common stock and meager resources. He is also, and blatantly, a Faustian figure: a representative, or reincarnation, if you will, of Dr. Faustus, the mythic figure of defiant intellectual pride who made a pact with the devil for knowledge and power. The Faustian myth – a story told in both fiction and drama as far back as the 16th century in Germany, and shortly after by Marlowe in England, before being made world famous by Goethe in the 18th and later reprised by Thomas Mann in the 20th – is a Christian morality tale which Banville uses, with an up-dated agony at its center.
The modern version of hubris is, putatively, the attempt to explain the multiplicity and chaos of our experience of the world - to impose a single purpose or design on experience—the way novelists are supposed to do. The effort has been attacked, and criticized and deemed invalid and impossible by philosophers and art critics since, at least, the time of Nietzsche’s famous dictum, “God is dead.” This conviction was seemingly validated by the subsequent victory of Relativism; the heresy of Absolutism was then enshrined in post-modern philosophy—the modern literary religion. This is the modern context of the old myth. This is the playground of Banville’s novel of ideas.
Gabriel Swan grows up alienated from his family; - his twin birth was tragic in that he was the survivor of a prenatal strangulation, which took his twin—not an auspicious beginning; and from his society by his mathematical acumen. He grew up nourishing such an ambition of monstrous vanity. He is aided and goaded in this vanity by Felix, a devil in thin disguise, who appears one day as if from nowhere
“. . .leaning against a riven tree, or twined about it, as it seemed at first . . .”
(pg 35, italics added).
From the start, he schemes to entice and ultimately seduce the arrogant, young savant in pursuit of the modern world’s profoundest villainy.
---There is order in everything, he said. Isn’t it wonderful? Look at this place. It
seems a wilderness, but underneath it all there’s a garden.
He looked at me sidelong, smiling.
What do you say?
--I don’t know.
He took my arm again.
Oh but you do, you do know, you of all people. (pp.160-61)
Swan’s arrogance and ambition need no more convincing than this. His ambition would reduce the apparent arbitrariness and multiplicity of human experiences of reality to a single, unambiguous mathematical formula. He would impose upon reality a singleness of purpose and design that confounds Relativism. Even after Swan is treated to an up-close and personal revelation of the futility and danger of this idea, so arrogant is he that he is yet again led astray.
“All at once I saw again clearly the secret I had lost sight of for so long,
that chaos is nothing but an infinite number of ordered things…all the
shifting, ramshackle world could be solved.” (pg 183)
Following the structure of the cautionary myth as embodied in two Books by Goethe, Banville treats of two attempts at Absolutism: one by Kesperl, the doomed and fatal mathematician-engineer - informed by "a taste for paradox and tautologies" - who brings ruin to the town in the wake of his ambition, and again by the palindromic Kosok, his ideological mirror image, whose attempt to prove, once and for all, that nothing can be proven once and for all leads him and his (and Swann's) beloved to destruction and a personal hell. In the midst of all this mayhem there is Gabriel Swan: witness, victim, and protagonist, who finally, inexplicably, resolves, “In future, I will leave things, I will try to leave things, to chance.” (pg.234)
By an author’s Grace, the soul of the hero is saved. Relativism (Chance) is secured a place, and, in a wry moment of literary legerdemain, the overarching form (read: Design) is made flesh. Interestingly, I think, the title refers not to the character (Felix), but to the book itself—the incarnation of the word. Mefisto is the book itself, the novel as a formal unity of purpose and design, the eternal temptation of the intellectual Absolutist. Banville will cheat both the critics and the devil himself.
Everything about this book is literary – intertextual, in post-modern parlance. The structure is straight from Goethe; even some passages quoted verbatim: the name 'Kesperl' borrowed from the rural German folk-theatre of the enlightenment, which featured the slapstick reproach of the devil; the abundant allusions to wings, fiery-red hair and other traditional, descriptive features of the devil in literature and, of course, the title itself. There is a layer of meaning here, specific to this text, this novel, which is only available to a reader who knows the literary background.
Moreover, we can see that there are details (clues, if you like), which are only explicable by reference to specific theories, texts, and elements of the tradition, which themselves function in the novel to direct our understanding. To miss the connection to the tradition is to miss the point of the book! This is an extreme demand. In this sense, Mefisto can read as a story about Gabriel Swan, but it can only be understood as a re-telling of the Faust myth. The purpose of that re-telling is further informed by the history of aesthetic philosophy and critical theory on the novel. This is not the primary sense of the term “literary fiction”, but it is a secondary sense, which deserves, I think, a special place. The next book provides yet a third sense of the term.
The Sea is the story of the life and funk of Max Morden. Presented as Max’s rambling musings about his youth and his early memories of The Graces, a family that he befriended as a child, the novel inadvertently recounts the early origins of his current miasma, after the death of his wife, Anna. This event is the shipwreck of his life. It is what compels him to the seaside lodging to which he is brought by his daughter, in her hope of assuaging his grief. The place is the location of his childhood summer vacations: the place where he first began to form the first self-conscious designs of his future place in the world. It is a memoir sometimes glib, sometimes funny, sometimes wry and sometimes embarrassing. (Mostly, I was simply embarrassed for him.). But it is always revealing, if not intentionally so. The various threads of memory, memories of his youth and those of his life with Anna, are nearly seamlessly interwoven with the contemporaneous account of his time of mourning at “the Cedars”. And the result is a beautifully rendered monologue, in language precise enough to cut through all but the dense fog of Max’s narcissism and depression.
After the death of Anna, Max is all but lost. We learn that, when she died: “ A nurse came out then to fetch me, and I turned and followed her inside, and it was as if I were walking into the sea.” Tellingly, at the beginning of book II, Max says of himself as a child, “I was not much of a swimmer.” Sadly, nothing has changed. It was Anna, then, who had previously kept his head above water. With her proposal of marriage, she offered Max, as he says, "a chance to fulfill the fantasy of myself." But Max and Anna are two very different people, of different social standing and, most importantly, with very different prospects for happiness. Without her, his prospects are back where they began! In the course of Max’s ruminations, we come to see just where that puts him and why.
Unlike Anna, for young Max, life seemed to offer little of human comfort. His father simply absconded one day, leaving him to a feckless and resentful mother who “couldn’t wait to get him out from under [her] feet.” This being the only life he knew, it is small wonder that he sought refuge in daydreams of comfort and refined luxury. Still less surprising, that moments of peace or happiness, which he ignorantly glimpsed—but knew just the same—even as a child, were taken to be amazements of the strange or unreal. Moments of real living, which he perhaps came to know only with Anna, seemed to him the result of some elaborate scam—as elaborate as his fussy descriptions and his pompous front.
In The Sea, Banville has written a mature reflection on what real people are really up against. Change, transformation, and redemption: all of these are appropriate terms in this context. But his focus is unique. It is not a simple trajectory from ignorance to enlightenment. Instead, it is the necessary and sufficient conditions of enlightenment that he concerns himself with. For Max’s struggle began with the troubles of his parents, before he could have had any inkling of what he was up against. It is the story of a man whose own funk has been the limiting element of his ruined life, threatening, like a sea, to drown his last chance at really being alive. Max must struggle to keep his head above water, so to speak, in order to live. He must finally, figuratively, learn how to swim. (It is significant, I think, that Max claims he never swam again after that summer of his boyhood!) For Max, growing up and growing old are happening at the same time. We know this by the end, though whether Max does is unsure.
We can ask, Why Max Morden? or Why this funk (as a topic)? Our answers will be more or less arbitrary unless we realize that Banville has given clues to his choices. These clues take the form of allusions and oblique references to, and outright quotation of ‘secondary sources’ – from Shakespeare, to T.S. Eliot to Samuel Beckett. From Shakespeare we get the quote “Was’t well done?” which is taken from The Tempest, and whereby we are lead to see young Max in the light of the faery Ariel, who provoked the tempest of the drama. This association is bolstered by the two characters’ shared role of informer, and spy who hides in a tree. From Eliot, we hear the echo of Prufrock in Anna’s lament (“That is not what I meant at all”) about her own life’s history. And from Beckett, we have the allusion to the yellow waistcoat worn by both the good Colonel Blonden, in The Sea, and by the footman in the paradisal mansion in Molloy; the parallel mystery of naming in the two books, (in each, the mother contests the narrator’s avowed identity), the parallel arbitrary self-designation (“we medical men”) by narrators who are not medical men, and finally in the allusive dream of Max Morden of himself on a beach, looking out to the blank sea, holding one stone—a reference to a crucial and similar scene in Molloy.
This literary background informs the given text in a way more indirect than that of template—after all, the plot (taken as a whole arc) is completely independent of the sources. But it functions as a guide to understanding just the same. It seems to me Banville is virtually insisting that we see Max in light of Molloy. The question is, why? The answer is given in the text.
Banville’s characters are different. They are as existentially dislocated (“at sea”) as any in Beckett, but they come with a history. Their state or condition has a cause, and it is not the usual one of the adventure novel or the thriller, not even that of the novel of social realism. It is prior to their ability to choose or to control. Gabriel Swan (the hero of Mefisto) is the surviving twin of a pre-natal tragedy, already culpable somehow in his twin’s death. Max Morden (of The Sea) is simply born into a situation (a fugitive father and a feckless, resentful mother), which leaves him ill prepared for simply ‘being himself’. By his own testimony, and that of his mother, what he knows of himself at a young age is abhorrent. This is the 'type' established by existentialism. But this existence is no unredeemable asymptotic 'given.' It is a result of prior circumstances. His (or their) redemption, if there is to be one, must be in addressing those circumstances.
The major crisis of the novel occurs on the day of the “strange tide”, a day when Max (no swimmer, he) experienced himself being lifted by a giant swell of the sea and deposited, still on his feet, at some distance from his former location; dis-located—as if forever. Indeed, he never swam again! What original place was he displaced from? To what new state? This is what I mean by another layer of meaning. Considered in this light, the mysterious notion of "the strange tide" is suffused with an awesome beauty. You can't get that meaning without the underlying context, though you can sense it.
What I am suggesting is that, if Banville is a true heir of Beckett, it is with this difference: he sees his characters as displaced, knocked around by circumstances they don’t choose, conditions reaching as far back as into the womb or into the history of their parents’ lives. They are displaced from some original condition into a ‘typical’ (Read: Banville-type) human condition (Perhaps there should be capitals here!). Given the Faustian theme (redemption) of Mefisto, and the metaphor of dislocation in The Sea, I am beginning to think that we must make more (or something) of the name of the family of 'gods and demiurges' Max takes up with as a child, the Graces. For Grace is, to a Catholic like Colonel Blonden, such a dislocating - or should I say re-locating? - force.
Isn’t it appropriate, then, that his characters—the narrator’s at least--exhibit that same tone of ‘existential angst’ as Beckett’s? After all, aren’t these the ones he’s trying to redeem? If I am right, Banville is responding to the existentialism of Beckett with a philosophy of his own—a philosophy informed by the Catholic notion of Grace. And he is doing so by direct and indirect reference to the seminal works of that other philosophy he deems exemplary.