Tag Archives: the sorrows of young werther

Blurred Lines – Matters of Fiction and Nonfiction

9 Mar

Everyone has an idea about the way a bookstore should be arranged in a perfect world. To some, we would be better off if there was only one fiction genre, to be called ‘Fiction.’ That would probably work, though I’m loathe to imagine what it would be like if those customers were ever correct in the grammar of their questions who came into the bookstore of my employment asking, ‘Where is the nonfiction section?’

There is a brand of novelist who detests the distinction between a Western novel and a Science Fiction novel to such a degree that one would think he was battling something he considered tantamount to racism. This brand of impartiality is usually espoused by writers of fiction embarrassed by the very corners of the bookstore to which their publishers have cast them or by writers who, due to contract or mere niche, are unable to easily switch genres in mid-career, causing them much professional resentment. Once in a while, an intellectual like Samuel Delany comes along with a direct interest in and rigorous dedication to the problem of genre and just what makes it what it is. The summit of Delany’s discourse on genre goes something like this: Genres, though they cannot be said to have no basis, are over-determined. Genre is not so much a way of writing as it is a way of reading.

In other words, when one enters a bookstore and opens a book titled Nova by a Samuel R. Delany and sees that its cover art portrays planets, stars and spaceships, one can put a safe bet that concurrent imagery will be featured, at least in part, in the text lying behind the binding. But for over-determined reasons, if the reader is familiar at all with the tradition or simply in touch with the way that markets cater to expectations, he knows that the book is not going to be a book set in space but which quickly isolates itself to a room in which nothing but Jane Austen types of plots and resolutions take place over tea and dances. He knows that the drama will somehow involve the characters in a spaceship, headed toward one of those planets and various technological, cultural, and biological malfunctions. The existence of the genre—and its marketability—depend on this kind of faith that the reader will approach the text with a set of presuppositions that will tell her what kind of attention to give the text.

This is just the same with different kinds of texts lumped together rather clumsily as ‘Nonfiction.’ The difference is that writers of Nonfiction are less willing to admit it. All but the shrewdest of biographers of Marilyn Monroe are doomed to deny that the very word ‘biography’ doesn’t automatically denote a sense of truth concerning the life of their subject and that their account is just as susceptible to the lies and prejudices of the great many people by whom information about the subject came about. Even less are those but the shrewdest of biographers willing to admit that their own tacit prejudices and presuppositions about the subject’s life may have seeped through the text.
If one portrayer of one subject can marginalize the story to such a localized degree, imagine what an entire tradition of thought, what an entire culture can do to history itself. Thus, we arrive in the section of the bookstore that deals with Art Criticism, World War Two, History of the Romani People, Mythology, or any number of sections formed out of genres. We approach these texts with faith that the authors conveyed this information in such a way that the narrative does not compromise the actual events (dates, places, births and deaths). If we were to believe—or if we were told—that the narrative compromised these things, we would be dealing with fiction.

Sometimes the distinctions within one piece of text are clearer in intention than others, and we might find ourselves reading something that would count as a hybrid between Fiction and Nonfiction. We’re not talking about alternate history per se. We’re talking about a text that alternates between what is believed to be real by the wider society and what is completely intended as artificial. Some books do a good job of cluing the reader in on when the book is committing the crime of fiction and when it is eliciting an act of truth. Others intersperse so many different kinds of genres in such short space that the reader feels she is forced to stand back and look at the whole as though it were a completely unique genre to itself.

Roberto Calasso is one such writer. Even though the blurbs on the back of The Ruin of Kasch will tell people right up front what is happening in the book, the reader is forced to experience a page in which every piece of text is broken up the same way. The aphorisms don’t look any different from the fictive paragraph about Goethe’s birthday, nor does this look any different from the anecdotes and mini essays on art, culture, numbers, Marxism and sacrifice. Such books cause wars in bookstores concerning where they belong on the shelves. Because a large portion of Kasch deals with Tallyrand, many bookstores categorized it with French History. The blurbs within claim it as a novel in disguise. It is probably better to go with its author’s description of it when he was interviewed by The Paris Review—that it was, simply, a ‘narrative.’

Just as Kasch used Tallyrand as its rhetorical launch-pad, Callasso’s La Folie de Baudelaire uses the poet of its title. The book’s being put in the poetry section of the bookstore is misleading. The book is not necessarily about poetry, but about the very subject of modernity and how Baudelaire’s thought acted as its template. Just as artful and narrative as it is theoretical, we smell the streets of Paris and feel the sheets in the brothels and we hear the chatter in cafes and see the windows blinking on and off at night, all while Baudelaire haunts some place among it all, acting as a double agent between God and Satan.

Embellishments of real life, like Henry Miller’s writings, might serve to interest a reader looking for something with a narrative resembling fiction but which launches into all kinds of philosophical abstractions, anecdotes and asides. Some of the works of Geoff Dyer alternate quite clearly between fiction and nonfiction, as do the works of William Vollmann, especially in his book Atlas.

The works that interest me most now are those which seem to contain an unironic internal narrative rupture. I say unironic because the works in question are a little older and woollier, when the novel form wasn’t quite as rigid or bound by as many aesthetic laws as it seems to be today. One work that comes to mind is The Sorrows of Young Werther. The tormented main character’s personal diaries meet a friend’s removed account, so that we can logically witness the tragic end. While one could argue that this sort of unconscious use of narrative rupture is manipulative—merely a means to tug on the reader’s heartstrings—I would argue that more recent works of ‘experimental’ fiction, often lumped in as ‘postmodern,’ employ many of these same techniques but for reasons that compromise the internal integrity of the text. Whether a Robert Coover or a John Barth tries to play metafictional games with the readers to teach them about the act of reading by simply reminding them that they are reading, or whether a David Foster Wallace tries to invert these very tactics for some lofty moral purpose by using almost identical narrative ruptures, we are dealing with a kind of fiction that seeks to arrive at some point outside of itself—that tries to transcend itself. But to what purpose?

We may fall endlessly back into arguments between art-for-art’s sake and art that is socially utilitarian, but nothing can convince me that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is not the summit of this sort of narrative gamesmanship that his American academician successors aped every chance they had. Yet at the same time, in Pale Fire, when I read John Shade’s poem, I don’t feel as though I am being tricked into thinking outside of the book. When I read Charles Kinbote’s forward and commentary on that poem which comprise the novel, I feel invited back to a different, personalized interpretation of that poem to serve a narrative rupture—though perhaps ‘rupture’ is not the best word, for it is more like a sort of narrative flowering. Pale Fire does not talk down to the reader and it does not wink or offer transcendence if only you would recognize that it is a fake product. It works off of its own energy and locates all of its meaning only in the world of the book.
Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge probably has more in common with the works of Henry Miller, Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski than fans of any of them would care to admit. I name them all together for, with the exception of Henry Miller, they all wrote highly fictionalized accounts of their own lives using distinct alter-egos. Rilke’s narrator, however close to Rilke he might be, is not Rilke. The highly transient, listless Rilke was always embellishing his distant blood link to a reputable aristocracy, as though believing himself to be a lost prince from some older world (a real life Charles Kinbote?) while his Brigge is able to tell us precisely who his relatives are and just how distant he is from them. On a much simpler level, Rilke’s Notebooks is a novel narrated by a struggling writer, as are the others mentioned above. But in this book, few are the adventures and episodes of this struggling writer as would happen in a Factotum or a Post Office. Rather, in this book, Brigge can develop some of his most frightening conclusions about the world where the real life Rilke might have only flirted with them in his poems and more so in his letters. It is Brigge who concludes his accounts with his final, lonely views on love by turning the tale of The Prodigal Son inside out—that it was the son who needed to forgive his family for loving him.

If Henry Miller developed an alter-ego, he didn’t bother to change that alter-ego’s name. Rather, he changed the name of his second wife and a few of his friends. God knows how much of it was real; given the way that his books are filled with passages in which friends, acquaintances and lovers compare him to Jesus, speak incessantly about his genius and pretty much seem addicted to his personality altogether, I would suspect, precious little.

If only as a nice break, I’m drawn to books that follow the sort of path laid out by the works listed above. They are fictions that do not seem like fictions and real events that couldn’t possibly be real.

The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe

12 Jan

Goethe was young when he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther. He said famously of his title character’s suicide in the end, ‘I shot Werther to save myself.’ With this said, it should come as no surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical, even up to the preservation of his beloved’s real name—Charlotte.
The widespread controversy that surrounded the book is well known. It was thought to be anti-Christian because poor Werther’s suicide was glorified, with deliberate mention in the last line that ‘no priest attended’ his funeral. It’s seen as a catalyst to what has been called The Werther Effect—It suddenly dawned on dozens of young romantics that suicide was a reasonable way to deal with their unrequited loves.

Seventy-five percent of the book is made up of letters from Werther, to his friend, Willhelm. It is through these letters that the book’s great polymath of an author, thinker and poet can exercise his most refined aesthetic on life. It is almost hard to imagine, for the first third of the book, that this will be the story of a destructive unrequited love, for Werther spends much of his time expressing a sort of rapturous joy about the mystery of life.

‘I examine my own being, and find there a world, but a world rather of imagination and dim desires, than of distinctness and living power. Then everything swims before my senses, and I smile and dream while pursuing my way through the world.’

Werther, the artist, is contented to operate as an active interpreter of the world around him.

‘But the man who humbly acknowledges the vanity of all this, who observes with what pleasure the thriving citizen converts his little garden into paradise, and how patiently even the poor man pursues his weary way under his burden, and how all wish equally to behold the height of the sun a little longer—yes, such a man is at peace, and creates his own world within himself …’

It probably wouldn’t be too out of the way to say that the one major difference between Goethe and his title character is that this said character did not go on to write a novel about his beloved. Had that happened, the novel would have considerably less weight and would probably more resemble something like Hermann Hesse’s Gertrude—a novel whose main character, a composer named Kuhn, falls in love with Gertrude, who is in love with another man. Kuhn suffers through this but is able to make an opera about it, thus achieving some sort of self-actualization through the situation.

Goethe, with his real life Charlotte, came out the other side of the suffering she caused him with a renewed tenderness and respect for her that poor Werther never had the luxury of achieving with the fictive Charlotte. Rather, Werther is depicted as a strong, passionate idealist whose fluid, subjective view of the world is suddenly interrupted by an object of adoration. This is problematic since she is betrothed to a man named Albert. Werther stays in their orbit, aware of his own intentions but unable to help himself, just as Albert and Charlotte are both aware of his feelings though they are both unable to consider him anything less than a great friend on account of his great charm and warmth toward them.
Rather than being a book that ‘deals’ with suffering in the contemporary sense—as a means of achieving some vague enlightenment or self actualization—the book, even today, maintains all the controversy that first scandalized the world in which it was written as it turns into a bold study of passion and its relation to action. Suicide does not only seem to be the inevitable conclusion of the book, it is the all pervading theme of the book and the symbol of Werther’s interpretation of human passion.

Early in the story, when Werther playfully puts one of Albert’s pistols up to his head in morbid jest, an argument about suicide takes place between them. ‘We were speaking of suicide, which you compare with great actions,’ Albert says. ‘You moral men are so calm and so subdued!’ Werther says of Albert’s view.
It is clear by Werther’s every pontification, his every expression of his heart, that he is concerned very little with morality as it is understood by common people. And yet, what incredible allegiance and devotion he pays to Charlotte, unable to leave the two of them and forget about her altogether.

‘And when I feel for her in the half confusion of sleep, with the happy sense that she is near, tears flow from my oppressed heart; and, bereft of all comfort, I weep over my future woes.’

Far more moving than the dripping, dewy, morose poetry of his later musings on suffering that become more desperate later in the book as Werther nears his end, the above passage is very telling, for it is indicative of his awareness that the choice he is making is a self-destructive one. He knows his heart will only get him into more trouble.
Charlotte says to him late in the book:

‘I entreat you to be more calm: your talents, your understanding, your genius, will furnish you with a thousand resources. Be a man, and conquer an unhappy attachment toward a creature who can do nothing but pity you.’

All this while, aside from a few commonplaces about Charlotte’s fairness, her intelligence, her kindness, Goethe doesn’t go incredible lengths to let his reader in on what, exactly, it is about this girl that makes her worthy of such obsession. Whether or not Goethe intended it to be read this way, we are led to believe that Werther has certainly brought this suffering upon himself, though guided by forces that he cannot control nor understand.

Aside from accomplishing what is perhaps the most epic suicide letter that has ever occurred in literature, there is a fascinating subtext to the already weighty subject matter of the book. One has to remember that Goethe wrote this book having been under considerable distress. More extraordinary than the fact that he was able to put all of these feelings into a book when in this state was the fact that he could comment on the very nature of these feelings and how they come about. It would be almost two-hundred years before Proust would come along with his rigorous study of personal aesthetics and how our interpretations of our lives shape our affections, coming full circle with the kind of self-reflective work that Goethe started. Having said that Charlotte is not necessarily the star of this book, one then has to ask what is? Is it Werther? It seems to be that the star is Suffering itself, but more broadly, passion, which serves to say that the transient forces that drive us are more important to the activity of the story than the actual object of fixation.

The book is structured in such a way that the reader is granted this insight. Alternating from letters to second hand accounts from Wilhelm, he describes the events surrounding Werther’s death and thus brings us in touch with the true nature of the book. Ultimately, the book has something to say about choices that are available to us when other choices are taken away.

The reason the book will probably remain loved as a problem to be solved for years to come—and thus, why it will remain controversial—will have as much to do with its treatment of suicide as it does with the way it treats the nature of self-awareness. Werther, having even been aware of where his affections for Charlotte were born and perhaps how to distance himself from them, having even been aware that he was headed down a dangerous path, knowledge could not give anyone a monopoly on the perfect way to act in a situation. It is the danger of uncertainty that Goethe both during and long after a state of distress that this book helped him (and perhaps many others) surpass.