The Novel as Spectacle

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

The Novel as Spectacle

Il Giorno (Milan), October 14, 1970; contribution to a debate between Carlo Cassola and Pietro Citati.

When one visits the exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum in London put on this year for the centenary of Dickens, the things that best give the sense of what it meant to be a novelist in the middle of the last century are the popular magazines that Dickens published throughout his life and in which his novels came out in installments. Bearing various titles, all good-naturedly homely (Bentley’s Miscellany, Master Humphrey’s Clock, Family Words, All the Year Round), these weekly or monthly booklets, of which Dickens was often the publisher, editor, and sole contributor, served chiefly (or exclusively) as an outlet for the novel the writer was writing, with illustrations at climactic moments. Concerning the importance of the illustrators (Seymour, who began Pickwick but never finished it; Cruikshank, with whom Dickens quarreled after Oliver Twist; Browne, known as “Phiz,” who remained his faithful interpreter for almost all the rest of his production) the exhibition provides a lot of documents. We see that Dickens marked the manuscript at points where a drawing was called for, and by looking at the sketches we see how a character, under the author’s guiding hand, acquired the face that would make him popular and recognizable to thousands of readers.

Dickens had a strong sense of theatre. He tried to be an actor, but without success. On the other hand, at the height of his fame, he had enormous success at reading episodes from his novels in theatres in London, the provinces, and the United States. Storytelling returned to its roots as word-of-mouth communication, and the public paid for the novelist’s recitals as for a spectacle. But this element of spectacle extended also to the written page. To be the author of a novel meant for Dickens not just writing it, but also guiding its visual interpretation by directing the illustrator, and imposing his own rhythm on the emotions of the public by leaving the installments in suspense; thus the making of a novel, like the making of a spectacle, took place as it were before the reader’s eyes, in a kind of dialogue with his reactions of curiosity, fear, laughter, or tears.

In one of these little magazines of Dickens’s the novels were presented by a sort of buffoon who claimed to have found the manuscripts in the case of an old clock in a mysterious house. As with the old writers of novellas, one fiction served as a framework for other fictions. The stories that people were to follow like events in the lives of people they knew made no attempt to conceal their conventional and spectacular nature—and, in a word, their purely fictional nature. Letters to Dickens from his readers begging him not to kill off a certain character were not written out of any confusion of fiction and reality, but from enthusiasm for the game, the ancient game played between storyteller and listener, demanding the physical presence of a public to act as chorus, as if aroused by the very voice of the narrator.

Narrative continued to have this quality of collective spectacle even after centuries of being no longer a recitation by a storyteller or troubadour, but the object of silent, solitary reading. We might say that the quality has been lost in comparatively recent times; perhaps it is still too early to say whether this is a final nightfall, or merely a temporary eclipse.

Carlo Cassola very rightly attributes the end of the “romanesque” to Flaubert, and for this reason Flaubert should be recognized as the writer who started the dissolution of literary forms that led to the programs of the various avant-gardes; very justly, Cassola clings to Flaubert as the constant model for his own poetics. But when he claims to draw a universal dogma from this, he goes against the innermost spirit of his own inspiration. To look at life without any mythical or cultural middlemen, and to wait for “the revelation of truth from the speechless language of things,” implies not only a particular notion of the world of objects and one’s own ego, but also a quite exceptional relationship between the two terms, a spiritual journey, a state of grace. Anyone who gets that far may well forget that he set foot on that road just to write a novel. The poetics of the ineffability of existence are and always will be bound to rare individual experiences and particular historical circumstances. Cassola says that those poetics have triumphed, but doesn’t he realize that this triumph is a defeat? What could such a triumph mean nowadays? Novels as dull as dishwater, with the grease of random sentiments floating on top. For someone like Cassola, who is right to express his love for what he has learned from Flaubert, it would be better to recognize that we have never been further from that time than we are now, that the state of mind cannot be reproduced at will, and proudly to reassert one’s own lonely position as an epigone.

If at this time I am driven to take sides with Citati in his rehabilitation of the “romanesque” and to take a bet on its future reincarnation, it is not only because the aspects of “craftsmanship” in the art of fiction have always interested me, but also because it seems to me that reasons within the literary effort itself will end by urging us in that direction.

Dwelling on what is happening today in the most specialized literary laboratories, we find two contradictory things. On the one hand the novel (or what in experimental literature has taken the place of the novel) has, as its very first rule, not to rely on a story (or a world) outside its own pages, and the reader is called upon only to follow the process of writing, the text in the act of being written. On the other hand there is a move toward studies and analyses of what is (or was) the traditional narrative in all its forms. Never before has this human act of telling a story, always operative at all stages of a civilization, been so often analyzed, dismantled, and reassembled in all its most basic mechanisms, both as oral narrative (primitive myth, fairy story, epic) and as written narrative (novella, popular novel, newspaper reporting), or as a story told in visual images (films or comic strips). One might even say that storytelling is at one and the same time reaching the nadir of its eclipse in creative texts and the zenith of critical and analytical interest in it.

Certainly if Roland Barthes devotes his most recent book to a minute analysis of a Balzac story,* in which every detail turns out to be functional in producing a certain effect and nothing remains insignificant, he says he can do this because a text so full of meaning, readable by means of “deciphering codes” that include all the conscious and unconscious commonplaces of a society, cannot be written today. In other words, if we can finally achieve an in-depth reading of a classic novel (which in this case means Romantic and romanesque), it is because we are dealing with a dead form.

But we can also turn this argument upside down. If we now know the rules of the “romanesque game,” we can construct “artificial” novels, born in the laboratory, and we can play at novels like playing at chess, with complete fairness, re-establishing communications between the writer, who is fully aware of the mechanisms he is using, and the reader, who goes along with the game because he, too, knows the rules, and knows he can no longer have the wool pulled over his eyes. But since the design of a novel is that of an initiation rite, of an apprenticeship in mastering our emotions, fears, and processes of cognition, the novel (even when practiced ironically) ends by overwhelming us in spite of ourselves, author and readers alike; in the end it calls into question everything that we have in us and everything outside of us. By “outside,” of course, I mean the historical and social context, all of it “impure,” that nourished the novel in its Golden Age.