(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

In 1975, in a lecture entitled “The End of Fiction,” Wolfgang Hildesheimer offered his, admittedly subjective, judgment that it was no longer possible to portray objective reality in fiction, and that the writer who today attempts to give expression to his time rather than to himself is doomed to failure. In Hildesheimer’s view, reality has, in a sense, outstripped fiction. Even the writer who attempts to immerse himself completely in life cannot hope to capture its real essence, because he must always remain subjectively outside of a world increasingly possessed by madness, injustice, and suffering. Thus, with respect to prose writing, Hildesheimer concludes that the age of realistic fiction is irretrievably gone. Its subjects, plots, and characters have been exhausted, leaving the modern writer only to repeat and vary that which has been done before by others.

Given this view, it is not surprising that in the 1970’s Hildesheimer turned away from fiction per se in search of a form that could again meld the representative and real with his own subjective voice. He appears to have found this form in the biography. In spite of substantial differences in their conception, his two most recent books, the biographies Mozart (1977; English translation, 1982) and Marbot (1981; English translation, 1983), have much in common. As Hildesheimer admits freely, both books have represented for him a flight from the present into the past; in both he has sought refuge in another age, in a time and intellectual world more easily defined and ultimately knowable than his own. Unlike the biographical tradition from which he proceeds, however, both books are unabashedly subjective in the treatment of their respective heroes—a fact that has led more than one critic to reject the Mozart biography as adding little to an understanding of Mozart, the man or his music. Indeed, in these books, it is not the historical personage or the chronological sequence of events and associations that interest Hildesheimer most; rather, the historical and biographical framework permits subjective exploration of his hero’s psyche, as Hildesheimer attempts to understand not merely a particular artist but the artist and artistic creativity in general.

In Marbot, Hildesheimer adopts the outward form of biography, but, while he scrupulously preserves the conventions of the genre, his subject is completely of his own invention. There is little in the book’s appearance and manner of presentation to suggest that it is anything other than what it purports to be: namely, the biography of the little-known and sadly neglected early nineteenth century amateur art critic Sir Andrew Marbot (1801-1830). As the reader learns, Marbot, a young and impeccably well-educated English aristocrat, who was able, during his brief life, to pursue an early awakened and consuming interest in art, was among the first to view the work of art as “the dictate of the unconscious impulses of its creator” and thus was an important forerunner of psychoanalytical aesthetics some fifty years before Sigmund Freud. While one is surprised that such an important figure of European culture and intellectual history could have suffered neglect this long, one is at the same time overwhelmed by the careful and convincing documentation that Hildesheimer provides. Were it not for the fact that Marbot and his ground-breaking work—published posthumously in 1834, under the title Art and Life—are nowhere to be found but here, it would be easy to accept the proposition that he really existed—so plausible and convincing is Hildesheimer’s forgery.

Hildesheimer has gone to extraordinary lengths to lend an air of authenticity to his book and its central figure. As in the early biographical parodies contained in his Lieblose Legenden (1952), he has managed to weave the biography of his hero into the intellectual landscape of a particular historical epoch, in this case bringing Marbot into association with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Arthur Schopenhauer, Lord Byron, Eugène Delacroix, Hector Berlioz, and Joseph Mallord William Turner among many others. Indeed, the book’s index lists the names of more than 150 real personages whose life or work is in some way brought to bear on Marbot’s, and throughout the text Marbot’s existence is confirmed in citations and references from the letters and memoirs of numerous well-known contemporaries. In the manner of the standard biography, too, the novel includes a section of illustrations depicting many of the important figures and places in Marbot’s life as well as the more important paintings discussed in the excerpts quoted from his notebooks. Thus, portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, Delacroix, and others, claiming to represent Marbot and his family, stand next to genuine portraits of other historical figures who appear in the novel. Here, as in each method used to authenticate Marbot, the invented and bogus are intermingled with the real, leaving the two virtually indistinguishable.

A final touch is provided by Hildesheimer’s invention of an earlier biography, Sir Andrew Marbot (1888), by the American Frederic Hadley-Chase, to which he often has occasion to refer. In this device, the novel comes closest to parody, for Hildesheimer is here quite consciously imitating a standard biographical topos in which the current work is seen as an important advancement over the earlier one.

Such self-conscious parody is otherwise rare in the book. The narrative conventions and external trappings of biography are merely the frame in which Hildesheimer seeks to create a figure who could well have existed. If, as the critic John Simon has observed, Hildesheimer has succeeded in perpetrating a “marvelous hoax” in his book, it is a “hoax” with a serious purpose in mind. The biographical stance and apparatus are meant to lend Marbot a breadth and grounding in his age, the weight and feel of reality, which make him and the themes of his life and work more credible than a fictional character can possibly be. As Hildesheimer himself explained after the publication of the novel, it was his intention to obliterate as much as possible all traces of the fictional process, for he sought in this work “not to create fiction out of fantasy but rather to create reality.”

The story of Sir Andrew Marbot is, on the surface at least, straightforward. On the basic narrative level, Hildesheimer traces Marbot’s life from his childhood and youth...

(The entire section is 2662 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Art in America. LXXII, February, 1984, p. 21.

The Atlantic. CCLII, October, 1983, p. 123.

The Economist. CCXC, October 29, 1983, p. 99.

Library Journal. CVIII, October 1, 1983, p. 1889.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, May 12, 1983, p. 43.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 9, 1983, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 15, 1983, p. 41.

The Wall Street Journal. October 6, 1983, p. 28.

Weisstein, Ulrich. “Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Marbot: Fictional Biography and Treatise on Comparative Literature,” in Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature. XXXII (1983), pp. 23-38.

World Literature Today. LVI, Autumn, 1982, p. 676.