Toward a Theory of the Novel

Macedonio Fernández

Invisible, fictional, perhaps nonexistent but, all the same, dear listeners: forgive me for beginning the lecture some minutes late; I was waiting until the audience were all here but the first listener didn’t appear and I naturally supposed that the rest of the crowd, squashed together somewhere, was having to prevent itself, out of respect and arithmetic, arriving before him. It’s like the occasion when they couldn’t draw up the decreed list of all those Argentines who were living in wait for the arrival of some French or German lecturer who was going to teach everyone about our country, its future, its history, its psychology and customs, the day after disembarking. The first credulous and expectant Argentine couldn’t be found to head the list and so it didn’t have a beginning (and at this the attempt was abandoned). Now the amiable students who have invited me to speak, flattering me by telling me that I’m irreplaceable, apart from the fact that they can’t get anyone else to speak today, have explained to me that the radio audience is invisible. All we beginners look ridiculous and what’s happening to me convinces me that things should never be done for the first time; in my days with just one occasion nothing could begin; nowadays with the first time newspapers are already in their fourth edition. At least I won’t have to finish in a hurry since no one could tell the difference if the radio audience had disappeared from the start by switching stations.

Well then: several nights ago I was walking down those streets—put a name to them yourselves if you want this to be a realist novel—when there assaulted me (and, would you believe, just outside a police station) two ideas on literary aesthetics. It usually takes three or four for an assault, but the ideas weren’t scared of me; they’d have known they were taking me unawares and I’m even worried lest it be thought there need hardly have been one of them. There were two. I’ll tell you about the first one now and the second—less important for the moment—when I’m presented with (and I don’t lack enemies) the seventy volumes of some encyclopedia and a wide curtain to cover them. In order to supply yourself with ideas, or even to be assaulted by them, it’s no good just moving near a police station; nor do I think that public libraries with their statues and their copyright on the gift of tedium that haunts their corridors like a privilege and their airs of silence and reference, have been created to guarantee ideas. After spending so much of your life at primary school, high school, then in university lecture halls, besides reading every day so many books and newspapers, and hearing so many lectures, you’re in no condition to have an idea.

The idea I’m going to explain is absolutely mine: nobody found it before me in some other writer. In explaining it I shall address myself to the public in general, since I wouldn’t claim to teach anything to the artists of this ardent, anxious and already all-achieving art of Buenos Aires.

In view of the limited time at my disposal I will simply affirm my thesis without demonstrating it. I believe that the novel, in the context that it has had to date—and which I will call the “novel of story”—is untenable and infantile; and that the only form that can be called artistic is the one I will define as the “novel of characters.” Having put this forward, I will proceed with some general remarks.

I call “fine art” only the indirect techniques of inducing, in another person, states of mind that at that moment are neither those felt by the author nor those attributed to the characters. “Stories” are extraartistic; they have no artistic quality; they are mere pretexts to make the technique operate, and the puerile catalogue of “stories” seems to me an extraordinary banality in Goethe and an unexceptional banality in Porto-Riche. Outside technique there is no art. The invention of stories is an innocent game in the fight of the wealth of themes and plots in everyday life and the effort to communicate emotions, to touch directly the soul of another with realistic statements and combinations, is pathetically ineffective compared with the spontaneous resources of gesture, movement, and varied tone of voice in an ordinary emotional conversation. All art lies in Version or Technique, that is to say, in the indirect, and the horrors of art are story and description, imitation of gesture and of inflexion of voice, as ends in themselves—making us go to the stalls to see what we see in the street and at home: family chronicles and the monstrous or horrifying crimes we read about in the newspapers. Music doesn’t have to cry itself to make its audience cry: the accordion that groans, the violin that squeaks to simulate rage, the organ that’s constantly quavering and writhing with suffocation, these are not art.

Put it another way: an art is more of a “fine art”: (1) the more conscious it is, that is to say less carried away by its “story”; (2) the more technical or indirect it is: it must be Version, never statement; (3) the less it is weighed down by story and psychology. The only real tragedy has no death, adultery, suicide or infamy. If there is an eminently artistic “story” it would be the idyll/tragedy of Love and its ending in Oblivion, without death, through imperfection, exhaustion of the faculty of empathy: for those who once loved, to live in oblivion is a greater tragedy than death. In this example the plot or “story” doesn’t exist; (4) a “fine art” can only exist if it has a technique impossible in any other art, just one, and that alone is used. Verse, recitation, oratory, the song with words, opera, drama, and the literary essay with a didactic or scientific admixture, are spurious. The more different arts are combined the less is their power. Silent cinema, without captions, is a beautiful and pure art, like the written word or the word spoken without gesture, inflexion nor the adornment of a beautiful voice; (5) an art is pure in inverse Proportion to how pleasing to the senses is its organ or meaning: the discolored and faded portrait of an old man is a type of pure art although not indirect as art should be, with no sensory pleasure; the disagreeable signs of writing are also free of any sensory content; (6) the sensory is never “fine art.” The sensory with artistic pretensions we shall scornfully call Culinary.

I consider prose in its two types, humorous and serious, as always intellectual, with the expectation of concept and of event as the two instruments to suddenly arouse another state of mind alien to what the story leads the reader to expect. Literature that communicates to the reader the feelings of the author or characters does not seem to me “fine art.” In keeping with this, what is the technique of prose or literature that cannot be realized by any other “fine art”?

Observation of the instantaneous power of humorous written prose, of those poor written signs that suddenly provoke the convulsion of laughter, made me think that literature that I will call serious—since the Passionate which can be set against the Humorous cannot, like the latter, be purely Technical, and I’m referring to the merely conceptual Humorous without Incident—ought to be equally immediate and clear in its effect and not as dubious as its works seem to the critics.

The Humorous with story cannot be Technical; any story which is not simply a pretext, which makes the childish claim that the reader should believe it, should believe at certain moments that it’s actually happening, cannot be art; I would even prefer that every novel should begin with these words: “let us suppose that such and such were to happen,” and continue the story; the Humorous must be pure intellectual surprise and not a comic case from life.

So what psychological occurrence must serious prose achieve in its reader—that it alone, and not life, can achieve—during the events of the story that form its pretext?

At this point, dear audience of avid novel readers, I must disillusion you: for centuries you’ve believed that you’ve been reading novel upon novel, that you’ve enjoyed, even entirely absorbed, a thousand plots, stories, and pages, but you haven’t in fact read a single novel, because those lines did not furnish what I will call a reading but mere allusions without technique to pleasing themes which only had to be named—and that’s all that was happening—to trigger off your imagination: you were enjoying your own treasures of emotional fantasy.

My ingratitude must disabuse you further: to none of those excitable characters in those sensational novels (and I used to like them long: nowadays there are only short stories; what changes in the weather or in the stars have affected the length of novels? to none of those characters did anything ever happen in any of the nooks and crannies of the most contrived plot. Because, do you know what it really means for something to happen to a character?

And here we come to the sensational climax of my theory against climaxes and sensationalism. To a “character” as such only one thing can happen; and all literature, all the technique of the art of the novel should work towards, should dedicate itself to making happen this unique possible achievement for a character. Characters exist by and for a single event: the only thing that can happen to them as such, since otherwise they are only representing some human being, to whom everything is happening; the only thing is: that through a technique of most exquisite subtlety, the great artist suddenly brings them to Life. For example, everything in the Quixote is mere story, natural not artistic beauty, non-conscious art, humorous and serious, a spontaneous product or enthusiasm—produced in the author by the story—not of technique. It’s the greatest of the almost novels, much more psychological than the psychoanalytical minutiae of the novelists of interior monologue, but it is not “fine art”: it’s a human product of natural beauty, psychological realism.

But in one of the greatest works of non-conscious art, technical or conscious prose was inaugurated. Read again the passage where the Quixote complains about Avellaneda publishing an inexact history of his deeds; think about this: a “character” with a “history.” You will feel vertigo; you will believe that the Quixote lives when you see this “character” complain of what is said about him and his life. Then an even deeper vertigo: with your mind so trained by a thousand pages of reading to believe the impossible, you will have the sudden shock of thinking that it is you, who believed yourself to be very much alive, that are the “character” without reality.

This state of mind, this vertigo in the reader’s personality, can only be attained by intellectual, non-scientific, literature, and it’s the prime achievement of literary technique. Various other literary moments that seem analogous have neither the deep meaning nor the concise efficacy of these two lines of genuine “fine art” prose. Calderón’s childish confusion of dream and reality, Shakespeare’s exploitation of trifles, the cinema’s facile and repetitious symbolism: these are not techniques, they are not within the category of art.

In short, a novel tells a story that is interesting without being believed in and that distracts the reader so that literary technique can from time to time operate upon him, attempting to cause the vertigo of his certainty of self, the vertigo of his ego. This is at one and the same time the only adventure for both character and Reader.

SOURCE: Fernández, Macedonio. “Toward a Theory of the Novel,” translated by Peter Hulme, in Macedonio: Selected Writings in Translation, edited by Jo Anne Engelbert (Fort Worth, TX: Latitudes Press, 1984) pp. 30-35.

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