Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2662
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 in Northumberland near the Scottish border, through two extended trips across Europe in the 1820’s, to his last several years spent in Italy at Urbino, where, at a young age, he takes his own life. Except for one chapter devoted to his home and upbringing in England, the bulk of the narrative describes his travels and associations on the Continent. It is on the first of these journeys at the age of nineteen, that he begins keeping a systematic diary documenting and commenting upon what he sees, and it is during this time that he first discovers evidence to support his notion of a link between the artist’s psychology and the content and execution of art. During these travels, his stops along the way are marked in the text by excerpts from his notes and interpretive descriptions of the paintings he is able to see. In his letters, too—generally to his mother or to his boyhood tutor, Father Gerard van Rossum, but also to numerous intellectual figures of the early nineteenth century with whom Hildesheimer has him correspond—Marbot records his reactions to ideas and the people with whom he comes in contact. For example, in a letter to the writer Thomas De Quincey, he describes his month-long stay in the winter of 1821-1822 with Byron and his “exotic” circle of friends in Pisa, and in letters to van Rossum, he relates his impressions upon meeting Schopenhauer, “a strange and lively little German philosopher,” and later Goethe, who in Marbot’s judgment seems “greater than his works” and himself a “work of art.” Marbot remarks: “One of the notable signs of his greatness is that he never speaks of himself. He speaks about all things, is in all things, and when he speaks of all things he is speaking of himself.” Marbot is drawn to both Goethe and Byron not so much out of admiration for their work as by a fascination with their greatness and with the outward manifestation of their creative genius.
In the context of Marbot’s travels, the individual events and associations, even the figure of Marbot himself, become individually less important. They recede behind a broadly panoramic view of the Romantic Age in Europe, and the real subject of Hildesheimer’s book seems to be the spirit of this age, to which Marbot is a perceptive witness.
Hildesheimer’s concerns, however, go beyond the level of biographical event. He is most interested in the inner life of his hero and its expression in Marbot’s revolutionary theories on art and the origins of artistic creativity. This more essential, inner biography is reflected primarily in Marbot’s private correspondence and in the diaries that he kept between 1820 and 1830. Not only do they describe and document the gradual development of his theories, but they also illuminate his own life and provide some clue to the meaning of his death.
The letters and notebooks form the heart of Hildesheimer’s book and represent an extraordinary achievement in and of themselves. Presented, quite believably, as excerpts from Marbot’s writings, they form a related series of short essays and highly subjective interpretive notes in which Hildesheimer comments on specific paintings and problems of art criticism. Hildesheimer’s observations represent, of course, his own twentieth century viewpoint, and they attest both to his considerable background in art history and to a firm grounding in psychoanalytic theory.
Beyond their intrinsic merit as art criticism, Marbot’s writings are important as a reflection of his inner life. As the reader soon discovers, Marbot’s profound insight and sensitivity to art and the artist are the outgrowth of an intense inner turmoil, the source of which is to be found in his all-consuming passion for his mother. Just as Marbot senses that the artist’s creativity stems from repression and an unconscious sense of guilt, so too his insight into art springs from his own repressed secret.
Marbot’s incestuous relationship with his mother is the dominant force behind his life and work. In contrast to her husband—a man in whom Andrew perceives “no merit” and whose sole talents seem to lie in agriculture and in the “gentlemanly pursuits” of hunting and fishing—Lady Catherine Marbot is a woman of education and culture. It is she and her father, Lord Claverton, who are responsible for her son’s classical education and who encourage his interest in painting, and it is at his grandfather’s estate, Redmond Manor, where Lord Claverton’s guests include Turner, Raeburn, De Quincey, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that the young Andrew receives his first impressions of the intellectual world in which he is later to travel.
Marbot’s early, intense identification with his mother’s world and his simultaneous rejection of his father’s form the basis for a typical Oedipus complex. What is startling and fateful in Marbot’s case is that, rather than disintegrating with time, the Oedipal desire to possess his mother explodes from latency as he prepares in 1820 to leave on his first grand tour of Europe. The consummation of their incest is the unheard of, unprecedented moment in Marbot’s life that offers the key to understanding his work, for through it he is made aware of a new dimension in his own consciousness. In turn, he attempts to look below the surface into the artist’s soul, in search of the source, the hidden “taboo,” that activates creative genius.
Upon his father’s death in 1822, Marbot returns to his mother’s side, but he severs the relationship and renounces his inheritance in 1825 in order to return to Europe and to the studies he had begun earlier. While Marbot rejects the norms of the society that would condemn him and his mother, he remains a “secret rebel.” He recognizes that to rebel openly, as Byron does, would only serve to destroy his mother. His open rejection of society and its archaic laws would meet only with incomprehension and would lead to his family’s ostracism from the world on which they depend far more than he. Thus, his flight into the contemplation of art is, in fact, a retreat from the world, from a life that no longer holds any interest for him. In this regard Hildesheimer’s narrator speaks of a “typical object transference,” according to which Marbot attempts to redirect the creative libidinous forces of his soul toward a “theoretical penetration into the art of its portrayal”—that is, toward an understanding of the origin of artistic creativity in the artist’s libido.
Following a symbolic prewinter crossing of the Alps, before which he becomes gravely ill, Marbot settles in Urbino. He devotes himself now to his work, traveling only occasionally, and his life assumes an air of calm and apparent normality, yet he is never able to free himself from his unfulfilled, repressed passion, and his life takes on a tragic aspect. While he is estranged from a normal life and the illusion of happiness, he lacks the creativity of the artist that might serve to affirm and justify his isolation. Just as his passion remains unfulfilled, so too he is denied the artist’s flight into creativity. He must remain outside of art as its observer and interpreter, attempting to reveal its secret but unable himself to create the work of art. Marbot finds the objective correlative to his own unhappy existence in Schopenhauer’s philosophy: He is a true pessimist, a “categorical nay-sayer in Schopenhauer’s sense, in whom art alone commanded a Yea within the Nay. . . .” Although he seeks an affirmation of life beyond the material world in his study of art, Marbot soon recognizes that his work must ultimately fall short of its goal. Rather than endure its imperfection and the now meaningless repetition of experience that lies ahead of him, he chooses death.
In spite of its outward biographical pose, Hildesheimer’s book reveals itself to be a complex fictional montage with several overlapping layers of meaning. The story of Sir Andrew Marbot and his obsession is reflected in and illuminated by the excerpts from his letters and diaries. These, in turn, constitute individual pieces in an extended essay on the nature and origin of artistic creativity, which must be understood also as a statement of Hildesheimer’s own aesthetic theories. Indeed, as the German critic Fritz J. Raddatz has observed, the book is more the intellectual autobiography of its author and the summation of his work than it is a work of fiction in the normal sense of the word. The forgery of Marbot’s life and work has allowed Hildesheimer to become both subject and object in his fiction: He is present both in the persona of the narrator-biographer who comments and interprets Marbot’s life and work, and in Marbot himself. He identifies with both but is identical with neither. Thus, the focus of the narrative moves continually, finding for a time its center in the mind and writings of his hero, only to move away again to the relative detachment of the biographer’s didactic commentary.
In Marbot’s notebooks, Hildesheimer makes the argument, similar to the one that he put forward in 1975, that serious art will always reflect the artist’s self in its object, that in depicting that object the artist will ultimately depict himself. In Marbot, Hildesheimer has done exactly this and in doing so would seem to have exhausted, for himself at least, the fictional possibilities of the biography. Via two biographies—one real and the other invented but both as much about Hildesheimer himself as about their respective subjects—he seems to have arrived once again at the “end of fiction” that he first proclaimed in 1975.
Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 83
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.
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