Against system: Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace

 Charles Newman, In Partial Disgrace. Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. Paperback.

 The best I could do was to put real people into situations that probably did not exist, which after all is what history is all about.

This is an extraordinary novel, and will need more than one post. This one will be a sort of introduction.

Charles Newman (1938-2006) had produced several novels by the time he started In Partial Disgrace [IPD], late in the 1980s. As Joshua Cohen explains in his introduction to the Dalkey Archives edition, he excelled as a young man at sport, later at sexual promiscuity, drinking, breeding hunting dogs, and writing (characteristics found in his character Felix, his alter egotist, about whom more shortly).

After university (Yale, Oxford) and military service he reluctantly entered upon an academic career, turning the standard Northwestern campus magazine TriQuarterly into a stellar fixture in American literary life, championing such writers as Borges, Barth, Coover, Gass and Márquez. Their experimentalism (postmodernist, perhaps) was to inflect his own writing.

He visited Hungary frequently, and riskily translated and published there. The setting of IPD is the invented, economically struggling province of Cannonia in the kingdom of Klavierland (more on that later, too), a fantastic land of swampy plains and forests, bounded by a meandering river like the Danube, a setting very like Hungary – but also like a Viennese piano. It’s that kind of novel.

Charles Newman

Photo of Newman: attribution – By Harold Doomsduck – vacation, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Newman may have been able to travel so freely behind the Iron Curtain because of murky connections with agencies of espionage – another central theme in this novel, as we shall see.

He spent decades revising and expanding this wayward novel. His nephew, Ben Ryder Howe, tells us in an editor’s foreword of Uncle Charlie’s chaotic, obsessive methods. Slips of paper, many containing just single words, short phrases or ‘mystically oblique’ sentences, were taped into notebooks or tacked on the walls. This collection of papers expanded as his magnum opus, part Cold-War spy-thriller, part fake memoir/history/philosophical-rhetorical tract, reflected the fact that Newman was becoming bogged down in research (a trait familiar to anyone who’s ever written anything) – arcane diaries, memoirs, letters, folktales, histories… All turn up in various guises in IPD.

 Eight years after his uncle’s death Howe found in Newman’s New York office another vast jumble of papers and obscure source texts. The MS was stuffed in boxes, envelopes and elsewhere, innumerable, jumbled drafts. Howe had somehow to rearrange and edit this deluge of papers into some kind of coherent order. (I’m reminded of the task facing the editors of the various redactions of Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, which IPD resembles slightly in tone, fragmentary structure and elegant literary style.)

Newman’s original ambitious plan was for a massive sequence of maybe nine novels divided into three volumes. The first was to contain the story of Felix, the bankrupt Cannonian aristocratic owner of an abandoned, decaying former royal hunting estate called Semper Vero (a typical Newman joke: “eternal truth” is not a highly valued principle with Felix). He’d turned to being a ‘breaker of crazy dogs and vicious horses’ (hence his title of Hauptzuchtwart Supreme) to try to offset his debts. Vol. 1 was to feature his fractious friendship with the Professor, a psychoanalyst clearly based on Freud. It is set around the time of the close of WWII and the years of Cold War that followed. This is what was to become IPD.

Volume two would continue the story a decade later in Russia, relating Felix’s relationship with Pavlov, followed in volume three by his emigration to America. Newman became hopelessly enmired in a huge, rambling introduction to this vast work. All was description of setting and background; very little happened, and characters were hazily deployed. Rufus, the CIA agent, opens the novel in Howe’s recension by parachuting into this ‘hermit kingdom’ on a spying mission (America has declared war on Cannonia, and Felix’s son Iulus, a double or maybe triple agent, is his contact) — then he disappears for long periods.

He is the putative ‘editor’ and translator of the various narratives in the text, and tries (like Newman’s nephew – life imitates art) to summarise Felix’s 10,000-page MS, alongside the papers of Iulus, another redactor of his father’s work, which is the quixotic basis of IPD:

A memoir without hindsight? A meditation on the inherent wildness of history? A novel for people who hate novels?

This vast opus of Felix was thinly disguised by him as a ‘Traveler’s Guide to Cannonia’ – clearly a doppelganger of IPD, consisting as it does as a massive stash of random papers which at a key point are dispersed by the wind, many to be lost, those retrieved proving impossible to reassemble coherently. Felix himself, with characteristic, paradoxical disdain, describes it as an attempt to rescue Nietzsche from being “so damned Nietzschean”, a history of ‘the only people without a history’.

Newman In P Disgrace coverHowe has done a fine job in trying to create some kind of narrative order and logical structure from this disparate, enigmatic raw material – but the key weakness of the novel he’s reconstructed is its erratic or absent plot (although that’s also, arguably, its main strength: it’s about itself). That lack of action and tension noted earlier is mitigated, but there are still sections that come across as self-indulgent and inert – although even these are never completely tedious. Newman has a tendency to indulge his passion for elaborate Borgesian catalogues of imaginary, bizarre or everyday objects or concepts, or for eccentric zoological taxonomies like the anti-Darwinian ‘Scale of Being’ and ‘Tree of Life’ (in which dogs tend to appear at the top, not surprisingly in a canicentric novel).

IPD is then one of those novels which appear to conform to the conventions of prose fiction, in that they are not ostensibly ‘difficult’, but which are nevertheless cryptic or elusive, or which have surreal or non-realistic or fantastic/postmodern elements; Kafka and most of the novels of Pynchon fall among these categories, or the later works of Calvino (Invisible Cities). Gerald Murnane (another who feels an affinity for the plains of Hungary) comes to mind. And there are many more.

But the seminal work of this kind, and surely an influence on IPD, is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), also highly innovative, non-linear/fragmentary, eccentrically digressive (it takes three volumes for its protagonist to be born) and unconventional, yet heavily dependant on Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621, subsequently revised). Anatomy, as its name suggests, is another playfully earnest text of compilation, classification and erudite assimilation, not a coherent ‘narrative’. It, in turn, was influenced by the sprawling, endlessly accreting, fragmentary and digressive narratives of Rabelais and Cervantes.

Like Sterne’s protagonist, Newman’s character Iulus talks endlessly about his father, Felix (whose name in Latin signifies the opposite to the ‘sadness’ implicit in Tristram’s name).

IPD owes much of its style and method to such texts, and also to Newman’s idiosyncratic methods – hence its meandering structure, digressions, puns and paradoxes (time, like the Cannonian border river Mze, runs both ways, unpredictably), playful learned allusions (Marcus Aurelius and Heraclitus pop up regularly, wittily), disquisitions on all kinds of arcane and mundane topics, from venery (in both senses) to dog-training theory, psychotherapy to topography and military history), and so on.

So far, if you’ve stayed with me, you might be thinking this sounds terribly cerebral and obscure – but it isn’t, at least, not in a bad way.

Take it in small chunks, don’t binge. It doesn’t lend itself to rapid consumption; each rich phrase has to be weighed, sampled, savoured. Take for example the frequent aphorisms that adorn the text with little intention of making conventional sense or advancing the narrative, but which contribute to the novel’s own uniquely rewarding ambience, adding a kind of self-referential commentary on what the reader is engaged in reading, and the writer, writing:

I neither write a system nor promise a system, nor do I subscribe or ascribe anything to a system.

For a landscape to have grandeur, it must have a bit of nonsense.

 History is driven by failed artists.

 A man is nothing but a handful of irrational enthusiasms, and nothing in this world can be understood apart from them.

Next time I hope to examine characters, setting and style more closely.