Monday, November 28, 2016
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE MARBLE FAUN” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published in 1860)
The mid-19th century New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) wrote in quick succession two novels that have continued to attract a large readership, are often made set texts in high schools and universities, and have often been dramatized or filmed, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). He smartly followed them with a novel, based on personal experience, about a failed experiment in communal living, The Blithedale Romance (1852), which has never been a popular favourite, but which is treasured by academics and cultural historians interested in trends in American civilisation.
I have dealt with each on these in earlier blog postings, but I have held back from commenting on Hawthorne’s fourth, and last, novel The Marble Faun, which was written seven years after the creative three-year burst that produced his better-known works. There is a reason for this. In my view at least, The Marble Faun is the feeblest of Hawthorne’s productions, though Hawthorne himself thought it his best work, it sold well on its first publication (partly because the author’s reputation was then so high) and it has continued to be appreciated by a handful of connoisseurs. A quick check of Wikipedia shows me that it has yielded a huge harvest of theses and articles in academic journals – but then that is to be expected even of minor works by a major writer.
Briefly, The Marble Faun, subtitled The Romance of Monte Beni, and for some reason first published in England under the title Transformation, was the result of Hawthorne’s first real contact with Europe. After producing his better-known novels, he spent four years as an American consul in England, and then spent 18 months as a tourist with his family in Italy. For the first time he was directly exposed to the art of both the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, and it was from this that the novel grew.
In his preface to the novel, Hawthorne famously declares:
“No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be a very long time, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic and probable event of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wall-flowers need ruins to make them grow.”
Many would now contest his view that America did not already have a history out of which “romances” (Hawthorne’s preferred term for novels) could be woven. Nevertheless his drift here is clear. In his view he, as an American, has to turn to Europe to get a sense of the deep past and its art, and to find the materials for a romantic and mysterious tale.
The plot of The Marble Faun, inasmuch as I can make something coherent out of such a fragile and notional thing, goes like this:
Three American artists are sojourning in Rome, the sculptor Kenyon and two students of painting, Hilda and Miriam. They come to know Donatello, the young Count of Monte Beni. At first their companionship is idyllic and carefree, but then a crime is committed. Miriam is being stalked and annoyed by a mysterious stranger (a Capuchin monk). She appeals to Donatello to help her get rid of this intrusive pest. Donatello obliges and, on an evocatively moonlit night, he kills the stranger by throwing him over a cliff – the Tarpeian Rock on the Capitoline Hill, no less. Hilda witnesses this event, so three of the major characters are either implicated in, or have witnessed, a crime. This changes their dispositions and the colour of their experience as carefree days depart and guilt now hangs over them. Donatello retires to his country villa in a melancholy fit. For a while, Hilda mysteriously disappears. This is all much to the distress of the puritan New England sculptor Kenyon, who is in love with Hilda (and who also seems to be very much the author’s alter ego and mouthpiece).
Because it is laid on with a trowel, one notices at once the heavy symbolism associated with each character. The American characters often compare Donatello with Praxiteles’ marble statue of a faun (or resting satyr), which is encountered and described early in the novel – hence the novel’s title. Indeed, they seem to half believe that the young Italian count is a descendant of Praxiteles’ model. So Donatello represents the amorality of pagan antiquity. But having the same name as a famous Renaissance sculptor, he also represents Italian art in general, so far removed from modern American sensibilities. Fair-headed Hilda is virginal and pure. She is frequently (and cloyingly) associated with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary or with a Vestal Virgin. She is a copyist, specialising in imitating scrupulously other people’s work rather than generating original art of her own. Mysterious, dark-haired Miriam Schaefer specialises in passionate paintings of violence. Imagery compares her with sinful or homicidal women such as Eve, Judith, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Beatrice Cenci (look up my review of ATale for Midnight to find out more about the last named).
So there is Hawthorne doing what he did in The Blithedale Romance – creating polarities of the pure and desirable non-intellectual woman, and the passionate and possibly destructive intellectual woman. The implications of this might rest uneasily with us now. Good and desirable women reproduce (i.e. have children). Passionate intellectual women produce disturbing art – and encourage murder.
Of course this is a gross simplification of what Hawthorne is up to in this novel. Indeed, in making my brief synopsis I have forced the issue by stating as plot-points things that are left very vague and cloudy in the novel itself. This tale ends both happily and extremely vaguely, with Hawthorne cheerfully telling us he can’t be bothered filling in the details of how his plot concludes. As he puts it (at the beginning of the last chapter, Chapter 50):
“The gentle reader, we trust, would not thank us for one of those minute elucidations which are so tedious and, after all, so unsatisfactory in clearing up the romantic mysteries of a story. He is too wise to insist upon looking closely at the wrong side of the tapestry, after the right one has been sufficiently displayed to him, woven with the best of the artist’s skill, and cunningly arranged with a vie to the harmonious exhibition of the colours.”
[Translation: I’m not going to bother sorting the story out or revealing to you how I’ve been manipulating you through this allusive narrative.]
Hawthorne’s first readers weren’t happy with this, and wrote to him insisting that he explain some of the tale’s mysteries and its apparently supernatural elements. In reply, Hawthorne added a four-page “Conclusion” which has been printed as part of the novel ever since. In it, he basically argues that this is a symbolic and magical tale, and as such, its loose ends cannot be tied up without breaking the spell and subjecting it to rational analysis.
So, after all this mystification, what is The Marble Faun all about? Decoding the novel’s symbolism, the best I can suggest is that it has something to do with the morality of art. Art as simple aesthetic experience and the appreciation of beauty (the “pagan” motifs associated with the Italian count early in the novel) cannot truthfully reflect a world in which there are moral dilemmas (the murder) and our moral natures are aroused. Real art should have some degree of moral gravitas.
But in reading the novel one finds that this simple scheme is often a mere thread for ideas and incidents – a pretext for a series of descriptions of Rome, of works of art, of a country villa, of a carnival etc. At their best these, descriptions and self-contained essays have a strong pictorial sense. At their worst they are like an American tourist’s guidebook. Quite correctly, some early reviewers saw Hawthorne as having padded out a simple tale with descriptive local colour, and it seems that in the late 19th century, it was indeed the vogue among American tourists to use The Marble Faun as a guidebook when they were in Rome. (As, over a century later, some less-informed Americans began to use Hemingway’s spiteful A MoveableFeast as a guide to Paris.)
In one respect the novel succeeds. The plot is so sketchy and the descriptions are so dominant that it takes on a vague, dreamlike quality, perhaps appropriate for a work, which strives to impress us with the faun-like nature of Donatello and the vestal virgin purity of Hilda, garnished with numerous self-conscious classical allusions. And of course there is the Puritan New Englander’s love-hate relationship with Catholicism and Catholic art. Kenyon (i.e. Hawthorne) frankly enjoys and revels in the art he sees in Roman churches, but then often he has to “correct himself” by adding some qualifying phrase. It is not unexpected that Hawthorne should depict terror as a stalking Capuchin monk. And naturally Hawthorne’s/Kenyon’s attitude is one of shock and horror when Hilda chooses to go to confession in St Peter’s and almost converts to Catholicism. Perhaps it was this that set the Puritan off thinking about the dark side of great art – the fact that so much of it was associated with and commissioned by the Catholic Church.
All manner of rude thoughts arose in my mind after I first read this book – that it is the literary equivalent of the music of Respighi, The Pines of Rome or some such - skilful, pretty and intellectually respectable, but having no real force or genius behind it and little real connection with life. But the crude fact is that I enjoy listening to the music of Respighi, and I would be very ungrateful if I did not admit to enjoying reading this flawed, padded and sometimes outrageously silly novel. Freed from the burden of plot, I wallowed in Hawthorne’s set pieces, no matter how clumsily they were introduced, without having to worry about where the plot was going. It was very much like enjoying those free-standing moments of reflection, like essays, which I enjoy in the novels of George Eliot, but which drive some readers to despair.
One interesting coda – apparently The Marble Faun was the first American novel to contrast innocent, idealistic Americans with the sophisticated and possibly corrupt Europeans whom they encounter in Europe. Henry James was later to make this one of his major themes in novel after novel. (See posts on Roderick Hudson and The Portrait of a Lady.) I don’t think the perceived polarity of American innocence and European moral corruption would now stand much objective scrutiny. But then it probably never did.