Historical Fictions

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Historical Fictions is a companion volume to Mazes (1989), which collected essays and reviews by Hugh Kenner on a wide range of topics. This second volume, gathering essays on literary topics, draws from as early as 1966 and as late as 1990. As in Mazes, each selection contributes to the wide perspective the title intends. The oxymoronic phrase “historical fictions” encapsulates a perception of how made is the written world to which humans pay such concentrated attention. Kenner finds some of the makers of this world—certain biographers, novelists, and literary critics—to be guilty of shoddy craftsmanship, but the book’s central message is that this world of words endures, irrefutable if fabricated, a given since the technology of writing and print established the semipermanence of records.

It has been Hugh Kenner’s gift to appraise this world over a long career dedicated to demonstrating and analyzing the perfections achieved by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and others. It is also Kenner’s gift to criticize the failures of the less capable. One of the pleasures Historical Fictions delivers is Kenner’s anatomizing of the apparatus both the great and the lesser attempt to manage. Kenner never keeps far from sight how mechanical the whole business is, from printed symbols to the production of books, and how consumption of the product, reading sonnets and spending hours in libraries, is also mechanical, and frequently produces new products for future consumer-creators to digest in the same fashion.

The phrase “historical fictions” is most clearly a gloss on Kenner’s reviews of biographies:

Biography is a minor branch of fiction; of fairly old- fashioned fiction too. It’s hard to think of a biographer’s stratagem that hasn’t its antecedents in Sir Walter Scott or Dickens. No matter whether you’ve invented your central character or gleaned his dossier from “sources” you can footnote, what you do is next to nothing but tell his story in the way of the Victorian masters.

Simply pick up Deirdre Bair’s Samuel Beckett: A Biography and test its heft, Kenner suggests. With three pounds of book in your hand and 723 pages of text you have undeniable substantiality, much like a Dickens or Scott novel. And though the biographer purportedly used sources to build her mountain, she was little different from novelists in the act of composition, and maybe less honorable. “Print is a praying mantis, gossip the mate she eviscerates. From gossip the book writer sucks a goo called information, to cement edifices of assertion with.” Enough vitriol fuels this passage that Kenner might be suspected of having a personal stake in the matter. Hey admits to one. His friend Sam Beckett was not the man biographer Bair and others paint. Their fictional Beckett is irascible, closely resembling the gloomy narrators populating his novels. The Beckett who was Kenner’s friend felt gusto aplenty, pool cue in hand, and resembled not at all the characters he invented.

Another title for Historical Fictions might be “Hugh Kenner Vis-a-Vis Books.” What are they? he seems to ask. What are we doing when we pay them attention, and what are writers doing when they write them? The proclivities of biographers elicit further negative metaphor in this light. Biography is fiction, “filling sag with cellulite generalities when the data continuity requires are lacking.” This sounds like a bad diet for prospective readers. Kenner’s assertions are persuasive in due proportion to his ability to prove them, which he does repeatedly. Whether the biographer is Bair on Beckett, Richard Ellmann on Joyce, or C. David Heymann on Pound, Kenner presents multiple instances in which their free-falling semantic gestalts are merely masquerading as the person about whom they claim to be writing. Kenner is surprisingly indulgent toward Heymann after marshaling texts to prove that his “political biography” of Pound contains sections plagiarized from other memoirists. Kenner titles his review of Heymann’s book “The Poet and the Pirate.”

It is typical of Kenner the essayist and reviewer to seem larger than the subject at hand. His own genius transforms a review into a work of art. The reader reads not about Bair on Beckett but Kenner on something, anything. Whether the reader swallows the doses he delivers, Kenner’s mastery of phrase will affect the reader’s nervous system. The words he uses fit together. His praying mantis and cellulite images are not ordinary reviewerese—which explains why his occasional pieces can be gathered in books by discriminating publishers such as North Point: They are singly...

(The entire section is 1938 words.)