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In a recent simultaneously entertaining and eccentric essay in the London Review of Books, Colm Tóibín wrote about the strange and strained relationship between Flann O’Brien and James Joyce. The younger author, whose debut novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, has always been compared to the work of the great man of Irish letters, seemed torturously to distance himself from Joyce even as their literary projects were so clearly entwined. Tóibín characterises the pair as the Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker of Irish modernism: sharing the same tradition, and even the same concerns, but one in the service of a new, uniting dawn and the other simply striving for freedom.

At Swim-Two-Birds can be read as an assault on Joyce’s ambitions, an attempt by a talented young writer to destroy Joyce’s synthesising process, to dismantle the great controlling ambition and mapped-out plenitude of Ulysses. The aim of Joyce’s book was not to destroy the novel but to re-create it and make it larger, more inclusive, more faithful to life and life’s complexities. The aim of At Swim-Two-Birds was to lose control, to take the pieces and refuse to reconcile them, to insist that it was too late for such trickery. O’Brien refused to believe that the writer re-creates the world, but instead he set out to show that the world re-creates the writer, and that both the writer and the world are, or might be, a set of illusions, highly implausible, not even worth mistrusting, and that all we have fully to mistrust are pages and the words on them.

This is in microcosm the journey of the novel from modern to postmodern, of course – from DH Lawrence to Julian Barnes. For writers with literary ambition, the novel has become less a form than a playground. For some time, a novelist aiming to be taken seriously has needed to allow for a healthy dose of the metafictional in their work: the legacy of Joyce et al has been to endorse the approach of writers such as O’Brien. Modernism simply opened the gates for more of the fragmentation so vividly, and terrifyingly, conjured in The Waste Land.

Curiously, however, a significant strand of North American letters has taken a different turn. That faithfulness to life for which Joyce strived has been re-embraced by writers of this stripe, but the means of achieving it remains a matter of debate. For instance, the literary magazine n+1, whilst being broadly complimentary about critical theory and those writers, such as Don DeLillo, who write realism in an attenuated manner informed by postmodernism, has also been eager to move on to the next place: “Theory is dead,” its editors wrote in 2005, “and long live theory. The designated mourners have tenure, anyway, so they’ll be around a bit. As for the rest of us, an opening has emerged, in the novel and in intellect. What to do with it?” The much-awaited debut novel from Chad Harbach, one of that organ’s founding editors, appears to offer a surprisingly conservative answer.

The story of a college baseball team, The Art of Fielding fuses those two great American staples, the campus and the sports novel, and does so in a plot-focused, character-driven fashion. Harbach cycles through the points of view of four protagonists, describing the soapy adventures of Henry Skrimshander, the young shortstop ace who is about to break the baseball record for matches without an error; Mike Schwartz, the charismatic team captain who lacks any transcendent talent of his own; Guert Affenlight, the President of the Midwest liberal arts college in which the action is set; and his wayward daughter, Pella, who is rather predictably fought over by the other three. The story proceeds in much the intelligently life-affirming way you might expect, albeit with a quite masterly control of suspense and tension: The Art of Fielding wants desperately to be read, and it knows how to gets its way.

This isn’t really new – as far back as the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe was exhorting a return to relevance and realism in his essay ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast‘, advocating something called ‘the new social novel’. Likewise, David Foster Wallace was sceptical of postmodernism, seeing it as a literary outgrowth of that bastardising villain, television. Most recently, for all the playfulness of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, that book, too, reads in large part like Harbach’s: the only difference is that when, in The Art of Fielding, iPads and cell phones make an appearance, they jar the reader rather than jolt the plot; Westish College does not feel like the sort of place which has access to the 21st century. In a recent piece at the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum argued that most television has still to deal with Facebook; on the evidence of Harbach, the same is true of most novels.

What is different about the recent flush of realism, of which The Art of Fielding is only the most recent and prominent example, is the bullishness of it all. Though he tries to hide theme as best he can, Harbach’s is an argument for the modest novel, the unpretentious novelist. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run,” Pella reflects at one point, “silly when compared with global warming, despeciation, some birdborne or waterborne disease that was lying in wait to flatten us all, silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.” [pg. 248] Furthermore, her father realises: “In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forebearance, infinite patience.” [pg. 432]

Every one of Harbach’s characters has a youthful success they now cannot escape: Affenlight wrote an era-defining book, Schwartz has lifted Westish to unparalleled heights of sporting success, but can’t get into legal school. So, too, the novel: how to return, cutting through the accumulated academic thicket of the last 70-odd years of baroque accretion, to the accessible brilliance of the form’s 19th century forefathers, such as Westish’s own ersatz mascot, Herman Melville? Harbach makes a good fist of it, despite the suggestion in his phrase “hackneyed concepts” that such an achievement would be redundant. Partly he does so by refuting the fiction that people act as they do in novels, animated by theory and abstraction: “Humans are ridiculous creatures,” thinks Pella during a shift at her job in the college’s kitchens, “or maybe it’s just me: a purportedly intelligent person, purportedly aware of the ways in which women and wage labourers have been oppressed for millennia – and I get choked up because somebody tells me I’m good at washing dishes.” [pg. 264] Likewise, Pella lectures Mike on his strained relationship with his protege, Henry:

“What you two need is couples counselin. Classic codependency. The neuroses and secret wishes of one partner manifesting themselves in the symptoms of the oth – “

“Oh, shut up.” [pg. 241]

It’s impossible not to compare all this to The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides’s recent novel, which resolutely refuted the wheeling invention of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex in favour of the story of three college kids (two guys and, er, the girl they fight over), and their books. Eugenides cheats a little – he sets his story in the 1980s, when the email and SMS that don’t quite fit in Harbach’s world weren’t around to contend with – but it sets out similarly to craft a new cultural space beyond the postmodern. Early on, Eugenides’s own heroine is in a student cafe looking at posters for gigs and art projects: “all the clamorous Xeroxes whose subtext conveyed the message that the wholesome, patriotic values of her parents’ generation were now on the ash heap of history, replaced by a nihilistic, post-punk sensibility that Madeleine herself didn’t understand but was perfectly happy to scandalize her parents by pretending that she did.” [pg. 8] Madeleine even goes so far during her college years as to attend a seminar on critical theory taught by a character Eugenides decides not to understand but mercilessly lampoon: “Semiotics was the form Zipperstein’s midlife crisis had taken. Becoming a semiotician allowed Zipperstein to wear a leather jacket, to fly off to Douglas Sirk retrospectives in Vancouver, and to get all the sexy waifs in his classes.” [pg. 48]

The Marriage Plot asks itself, therefore, a similar question to the one with which The Art of Fielding concerns itself: in Eugenides’s particular case, he wonders how a form so reliant on sexual relations and marriage can refigure itself for the 21st century. Perhaps not coincidentally, it features a character modeled, consciously or otherwise, on Foster Wallace himself, and if its focus on the marriage plot is rather narrower than Harbach’s far broader conception of the novel (which he also simultaneously treats far more gently and supplely), the presence of the fiercely logical Leonard Bankhead, all headbands and manic depression, and his mystic rival, Mitchell Gramaticus, allows Eugenides to expand his enquiry beyond literature and into religion and philosophy: “Everyone he knew was convinced that religion was a sham and God a fiction,” muses Grammaticus. “But his friends’ replacements for religion didn’t look too impressive.” [pg. 96]

The absence of an alternative doesn’t make what you’ve got any better, though. Where can all this New Sincerity ultimately take us? Madeleine finds herself counselled that the secret of marriage is forebearance: “You have to forget about it,” her mother advises on the subject of the marital infraction. “Forget about it and go on.” [pg. 368]  Leonard’s approach is to behave like a diploid yeast cell in an insufficiently nutritious environment: become a haploid again, “because, in a crisis, it’s easier to survive as a single cell.” [pg. 382]  No balance is achieved. Eugenides – unlike Harbach, who strains towards the happy, resolved ending denied the novel by postmodernism – is, then, happier leaving questions asked rather than answered, but I’ve grown to distrust novels of this sort – posing a problem is, after all, too easy. Likewise, The Marriage Plot tries to introduce homosexuality to complicate the novel, both particularly and generally speaking, but it does so rather furtively and without much direction; the love Affenlight develops for a man – the first such experience he has had – is, on the other hand, a key plot point in The Art of Fielding, and feels (those dread words, alas) organic and authentic.

Indeed, those adjectives describe Harbach’s novel better than most. If this makes it sound like a fine old wooden chair, that would be to underestimate its cleverness. In a field recently joined by English novelists – John Lanchester’s recently published Capital, or Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds, are both being spoken of as neo-Dickensian masterpieces – The Art of Fielding reads like the most nimble of literary artifacts, an absorbing, addictive read which is also a considered thesis. There’s something that troubles me about its success, though. At one point in The Marriage Plot, Madeleine meets an old friend at a party. “I can’t believe you’re married,” she exclaims. “That’s so retrograde!” [pg. 377]  It’s hard not to wonder in this way whether looping backwards towards Jane Austen really is the only way to move the conversation forward from Joyce and O’Connor’s bantering brogues, particularly when the women get less good parts than they did in 1815. Harbach may need to throw a curveball next time, if he is to retain his streak.

There’s a chapter in Alexandre Dumas’s most famous work, The Three Musketeers, in which the conniving villain of the piece, the pitiless Milady, is chased down on a dark and stormy night and executed without either fair trial or last rites. On first read and subsequently, I’ve found the whole section, which is in many ways the culmination and triumph of the novel’s lengthy and discursive narrative, rather more than a tad difficult:  the implacability of my erstwhile heroes, the gothic ugliness of the setting, conspire to rob the protagonists of my sympathy. There is something too grim for my tastes, too remorseless, about the demonisation by the musketeers of their antagonist. In the face of their hatred, they seem to lose their moral bearings.

Umberto Eco places this effect far earlier in his new novel, The Prague Cemetery – which takes another of Dumas’s novels, Joseph Balsamo, as one of its founding texts. It begins with an arresting explosion of racist invective. Perhaps the shock of the bile and poison spilled over the page is less in the idea that it was once (is still) believed, but in reading it on a page unyellowed by the passage of time: Simone Simonini, the protagonist of The Prague Cemetery for whom we immediately rather than belatedly lose all sympathy, is an anti-semite of fulsome proportions, and Eco revivifies the full horror of his beliefs, shared by many throughout the course of his narrative, by pulling them from the 19th-century texts which act as the novel’s source material, and placing them on a freshly-turned 21st-century page.

This willful transgression has rightly discomfited many critics. In the Observer, Peter Conrad worried Eco would be misread: “Would it bother him if … credulous readers missed his postmodern irony and took The Prague Cemetery a little too seriously?” In the Jewish Chronicle, meanwhile, David Herman fretted about relativism: “One of the accusations made against postmodernism has always been that its playfulness trivialises real history and real suffering.” Most famously, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, labelled Eco a “voyeur of evil”.

There is something in all this: The Prague Cemetery is the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps the most damaging forgery in all of history, and its emergence from a century’s worth of conspiracy theory and bigotry. Eco does not spare us the details: “My grandfather described those eyes that spy on you, those unctuous smiles, those hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks, those restless creases between nose and lips, wrinkled by hatred, that nose of theirs like the beak of a southern bird” [pg. 5]; he reproduces, at regular intervals, contemporary cartoons of Jewish men and women, the lurid caricatures of the most racist of artists; and, later in the book, a main character proves to be the Frenchman Edouard Drummont, the founder and editor of the infamous anti-semitic newspaper, La Libre Parole.

I’m not sure, however, that any topic, however revolting, should be off-limits to a writer so inclined. Certainly, as Conrad seems to fear, The Prague Cemetery speaks to our own age; but it does so less as clarion call to the neo-nazis and thugs emerging from under their rocks as it does a kind of meditation on the ways in which such worldviews came and – crucially – still come to proliferate. Eco places his novel at the dawn of modernity – Simonini’s grandfather was old enough to remember the ancien regime, the world disappeared by the French Revolution, and his conspiracy theories, which (real history here) he writes in a letter to Augustin Barruel, whose Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire du Jacobinisme is the first of the novel’s many othering tracts aimed at exploring and explaining the degradations of a new modernity.

For Simonini’s hatred is reserved for all ‘others’ – for Germans and Englishmen, Frenchmen and Italians, Russians and Jesuits, Jews and Jacobins, women, socialists, and homosexuals. His narrative, pieced together by another voice identifying itself only as the Narrator, takes the form of a dialogue between himself and a certain Abbé Dalla Picola, a priest who seems to share not just rooms but elements of a life with Simonini. It is a story, not wholly as satisfying as some of Eco’s other novelistic puzzles, which pivots on the sad story of Diana Vaughan, a woman rather sleazily objectified throughout the book (alas, the demonised others are never given even the smallest of countervailing voice). Vaughan is shown to be a figure not invented by the hoaxer known as Leo Taxil, but in fact a young woman living with a kind of violent bipolar disorder, first treated and then exploited by one of Eco’s many awful hypocrites. As the alter egos of Simonini and Dalla Piccola debate their condition through Sigmund Freud’s suggested medium of the dream diary, The Prague Cemetery, it seems to me, makes a case for a pathological Europe which has likewise sublimated and separated, rather than dismissed and dealt with, its basest urges, its beastliest sickness.

Simonini, trained as a forger under a provincial lawyer, tours Europe in the employ of a variety of secret policemen: he attempts to undermine the work of Garibaldi in Sicily and Naples, double-crosses nihilists on behalf of the Russian authorities, provides the raw material behind the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus, and is responsible for the suspicious death at sea of the Italian Novelist, Ippolito Nievo. Most significantly, he draws on a century’s worth of anti-semitic rants, novels and tracts to pen the Protocols, which he sells to the Russian secret police – who know they are false, but seek to harness the prejudices of the laity regardless.

In his rather positive review of the book, David Aaronovitch has remarked that, without a strong grounding in 19th century European history (which, you should know, I do not entirely possess), The Prague Cemetery can be hard-going. In part, I think this is the point – most readers will be lost in the detail at some point, and discover that they, like many before them, have only conspiracy theories to guide them. On the other hand, Eco’s argument – his conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories – is fairly plain: that the hypocrisy of the modern state is guilty of encouraging, rather than dispelling, the ignorance and confusion which give rise to bigotry. “We don’t want to repeat the farce of the man in the iron mask,” intones one French authority, suggesting that they’ve been at it for centuries. [pg. 155] A recurrent motif in the book is that truth is distorted into fiction, which is then recycled as fictionalised truth (the meta-textual games Eco plays here are amongst his most exuberant). “The secret service in each country believes only what it has heard elsewhere,” reflects Simonini [pg. 173], confirming what the novel has already shown us – that the most powerful lie is one which confirms a prejudice. The picaresque style, which is rather broad and can often drag, may not be the best vehicle for conveying this message – but here it at the very least does the job, albeit in an uneven sort of way.

Regardless of the formal niggles, in a Europe in which the north resents the south, and the south the north; in which the British veto a treaty and the French spit back that their economy is finished anyway; in which, from Italy to Austria to the Netherlands, far right political movements are again finding a voice; The Prague Cemetery offers a timely anatomy of the European problem. That first substantive chapter, which does so much simultaneously to destroy and revive our connection with its protagonist, is entitled ‘Who Am I?’. In truth, the subject of its screeds is ‘Who I Am Not’. It is that lack of a positive Europe identity, whether proceeding from the jaded cynicism of the elite or the put-upon despair of the poor, that remains the continent’s great enemy – the dark space between known knowns, which is filled by the malicious and the credulous with poison and conspiracy.

“History is a nightmare,” Conrad writes in his criticism of the novel, “and Simonini’s enfevered babbling won’t help us to awaken from it.” It is true that Eco plays a dangerous game in this novel, and he sometimes enjoys rolling the dice overmuch  – but it is a game which, knowingly or otherwise, Europe, too, still plays. That makes The Prague Cemetery a necessary, even when imperfect, novel.

Julian Barnes has long been dogged by accusations of detachment. There are many who find his prose style dry, his novels cold fish, more intellectual exercises than genuine attempts to imagine oneself into the predicaments of another. Mostly obviously, his enthusiasm for the essay form gives some weight to this characterisation of his work: from Flaubert’s Parrot to A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, his novels have often eschewed fiction for fabulation – the weaving of facts into a kind of narrative-as-argument. Many of his books which do not follow this rubric, such as England, England or Before She Met Me, are broad kinds of farce; even Arthur & George, one of Barnes’s most successful and most traditional novels, has something of the critic about it.

Thus, then, Leo Robson’s stinging review of Barnes’s latest novella, The Sense of an Ending, in the New Statesman:

Yet you don’t need Josipovici’s allegiances and antipathies to feel enervated by Barnes’s “smartness”. Like Amis, especially in The Information and The Pregnant Widow, and Craig Raine in Heartbreak, Barnes possesses not just an ironic but an almost post-novelistic sensibility. I say almost: theirs is a form of scepticism about artifice and stories – but with a strain of sentimentalism, a taste for the plaintive and dewy-eyed when it comes to sex, fading vitality and death. But knowingness predominates.

This is not a criticism you can really argue with on point of fact (though there’s a subjectivism to that word ‘sentimental’) – Barnes’s postmodernism has indeed always driven him to undermine the very form he has adopted. Certainly, The Sense of an Ending does not help the case for the defense: despite its slightness, it is repetitive and familiar, and though its lines are very finely drawn they are for the most part rather functional. It opens with four boys discussing history, philosophy and literature with their sixth form masters – “there is one line of thought according to which all you can truly say of any historical event – even the outbreak of the First World War, for example – is that ‘something happened'” [pg. 5] – and, either by accident or design, the reader never quite shakes the feeling of being part of the class.

“Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character reassembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy.” [pg. 103]

The book’s narrator, Tony Webster, is a dyspeptic, contented, yet somehow restless,  retired arts administrator. Years ago, in his first years of university, he enjoyed an intense but frustrating relationship with Veronica, a woman he couldn’t understand; though settled gratefully into his 60s, with a single divorce and daughter behind him, he finds himself turning that time over in his head when Veronica’s mother leaves him in her will the diary of one of those four schoolboys with whom he begins his narrative. Adrian Finn went to Oxbridge, was fiercely clever, and ended up with Veronica following her break-up with Tony. Our narrator has placed Adrian on a kind of pedestal in the story of his own life – dead young, he stands for all the undisappointed potential and aspiration of one’s early adulthood. The novel is the tale of the complication of that reading.

Unfortunately, Tony himself – in many ways a quintessential Barnesian protagonist, all mordant wit and awareness of his own limitations – is also prone to long explications like the one above. The traditional strength of the novella – its tautness and brevity – here seeks to work against Barnes’s purpose somewhat: so schematic is Tony’s thinking, and so fleeting every sentence, that the colour and detail of the story (that is, its complications) are lost in the rush towards the novel’s climax – or perhaps the argument’s QED. Tony is for sure an unreliable narrator, meaning his conclusions can for the realy only be provisional; but there is still something dry about the novel’s discipline.

Barnes has in recent years offered himself as a Home Counties Roth, meditating satirically on death and mortality. Roth’s late masterpiece, Everyman, is about the same length as The Sense of an Ending, and yet is somehow far more supple. I would defend Barnes’s oeuvre – for me, humorous, swaggering, careful and wise – against any Leo Robson of this world; his latest effort, however, is very nearly as guilty as charged. It is impressively, carefully, constructed – but perhaps a little too so. It has the usual jokes and good sense of Barnes, but seems insufficiently layered to make it beyond the Booker’s longlist.

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