The function of fiction isn’t often self-evident. In his excellent novel The Infatuations, Javier Marías’ narrator makes a paradoxical, almost self-negating, defense of fiction:
What occurs in [novels] doesn’t matter and is forgotten once you finish reading. What makes them interesting is the possibilities and ideas they inoculate us with through their imaginary scenarios, they stick in our minds with greater detail than real life events, and they come to mind more often.
Joseph Esptein makes a similar claim in his recent treatise, The Novel, Who Needs It?:
I do not worry overmuch about having lost the plots of novels—even of superior novels—because I am confident that they nonetheless left a rich deposit in my mind of a kind that, I like to believe, goes well beyond recollecting the details of their plots.
What are these “rich deposit[s],” these “possibilities and ideas”? Simply put, they are forms of knowledge at once experiential and ideational that are unachievable by any other means. In a world where time and attention have become ever more commodified and monetized, novels are a—perhaps even the—last redoubt of introspection.
The self-examination born of reading is at once complex both to describe and to understand, but here I will try. My recent essay, “Giving up the Ghost in Garcialso’s Spain”—a blend of literary criticism and personal reflection—was largely inspired by a single passage from Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow. In the passage, set in the early 1990s, the narrator is spending the night in a home outside Oxford with his mentor, a veteran of the Second World War. His mentor, who by this point in the text is well into his 80s, has become increasingly frail, but he nevertheless hosts a dinner party, which readers can sense will be one of his last. Indeed, the three-volume novel itself can be seen, in many respects, as a meditation on the passing of the WWII generation—a literary endeavor that, as of the writing of this piece, is at last nearing completion.
As the dinner party winds to a close, the protagonist decides to research some obscure facts about the Spanish Civil War that his mentor had referenced. In the passage that follows, Marías brilliantly describes the hypnotic effect of late-night reading:
Books speak in the middle of the night just as the river speaks, quietly and reluctantly, or perhaps the reluctance stems from our own weariness or our own somnambulism and our own dreams, even though we are or believe ourselves to be wide awake … And it is in the middle of the night that we ourselves most resemble those events and those times, which can no longer contradict what is said about them or the stories or analyses or speculations of which they are the object, just like the defenceless dead. [emphasis mine]
When I read this passage, I understood that by reading late in the night—in this case, the poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega—I am transformed into what I am reading. I become the early modern Spanish poet reflecting in his “Sonnet from Carthage” upon the ruins of a smoldering North African Ottoman outpost, but I also usurp and appropriate him and his memory, hence the term “defenceless.” In my mind, there is a direct line from Garcilaso’s sonnets to my own experiences in Spain as a young adult—walking her streets, hearing her sounds, smelling her scents, and learning her words. Something of Spain’s ill-fated imperial overreach lives on in the longings of her people. The ashes of the 17th-century Habsburg Empire are not as far away as they might seem. By reading, my mind is set alight, and the search commences for what has been scattered to the wind.
Would Garcilaso—or any other author, for that matter—object to my appropriation of his work as a vehicle for my own introspection? I’d like to think not, but there is no way of knowing, and hence the dead are indeed “defenceless”—they can’t resist the reader’s will, not even to stammer or object.
Speaking (and reading) of the defenseless dead—of the novel’s WWII-generation character, Professor Wheeler—as I worked my way through the unwieldy three volumes, I could not help but see the likeness of my own WWII-era German grandfather, G. Henry Hofer: he, too, was haunted, just like the professor, either by what he had done or what had been done in his name; he, too, was scarred by the ethical compromises of war, and hence even of the peace upon which it still rests. Indeed, as the Marías scholar Carmen Moren-Nuño of the University of Kentucky explained to me, the madrileño author was a master at interweaving Spanish history with that of the rest of Western Europe. It was entirely the point that Marías had orchestrated a novel in which I saw more similarities than differences among its fictionalized Spaniards and Brits and my real-life German grandfather. By de-exoticizing Spain as a reference point in European history, he was also drawing into question some of the fundamental assumptions surrounding the more ‘normal’ Western democracies.
As the novel Your Face Tomorrow closes, Professor Wheeler finally dies. For me—through the act of reading—Wheeler’s death became the vehicle through which I relived and recreated my own grandfather’s passing: both the words and wisdom he wanted to impart as well as the silences. Whether these silences, primarily about the war, were the product of his unwillingness to speak or of my fear of asking (and fear of what I might hear), I will never know.
One final intuition that I gleaned both from Wheeler’s death and my grandfather’s, each complementing and competing with each other in my imagination, was that the historical term ‘postwar era’ is a misnomer. Until every last victim has died, there will be no moving on. Perhaps these insights, and even the words I write here, are functionally useless. If so, I can live with that—just as I can live with the elusive, unquantifiable function of fiction.