Historical Fictions Essay - Critical Essays

Hugh Kenner

Historical Fictions

“Biography is a minor branch of fiction; of fairly old-fashioned fiction too.” That is Hugh Kenner, announcing with no great fanfare one of the principles that underlies these essays. (A deconstructionist would wax apocalyptic; Kenner simply goes on about his business, entertainingly.) Biography, literary criticism, literary history: These are all forms of historical fiction. Fiction, because the job of the biographer or critic is to tell a story that creates a usable past--and no two stories will agree in every respect. Historical, because the writer, while making no pretense to godlike objectivity, should strive for fidelity to fact.

There are essays and reviews here on some of the figures who have claimed Kenner’s attention for decades--Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wyndham Lewis, Samuel Beckett--as well as on others as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Graves, Leslie Fiedler, and Sylvia Plath. There is a fascinating piece on Flann O’Brien’s underrated novel THE THIRD POLICEMAN; another deserving of special mention is “Self-Similarity, Fractals, Cantos,” which relates Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry to the perception of literary form. Longtime Kenner fans may be disappointed that the volume includes only one pre-1970’s piece, but the selection is generous and wide in scope; few if any readers will have kept up with all the magazines and journals represented here.

Is there nothing at all to find fault with in HISTORICAL FICTIONS? Just one thing. Kenner’s review of Vladimir Nabokov’s TYRANTS DESTROYED AND OTHER STORIES is a pretext for a facile put-down of a great writer. (The review does not mention the fact, perhaps relevant, that Nabokov himself was guilty of equally facile and contemptuous references to Ezra Pound.) Even this piece, however, is not without its charms--and one cannot help but think how easily, in a parallel universe, Kenner could have moved from explicating ULYSSES to become the supreme interpreter of Nabokov, breaking stride only to learn Russian.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, October 15, 1990, p.410.

Chicago Tribune. September 30, 1990, XIV, p.9.

The Georgia Review. XLIV, Fall, 1990, p.519.

Library Journal. CXV, September 1, 1990, p.221.

The New York Times. December 28, 1990, p. B2.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, September 30, 1990, p.28.

Publishers Weekly CCXXXVII, July 6, 1990, p.53.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 2, 1990, p. REV6.

The Times-Picayune. November 11, 1990, p. E7.