United States Narrative
Also in fiction, as in poetry, an artistic figure already emerged in the 1950s seems to acquire an exceptional importance. This is S. Bellow (v.) To whom the awarding of the Nobel Prize will also give greater international fame and prestige. Bellow’s production is very demanding, even if not all of equal success and level, with the contribution of a great awareness of the American cultural and narrative tradition in general, and of that particular strand of it which is the Jewish tradition in which authoritatively fits. Bellow faces the enigma of man in the face of the dramatic problems of a society whose history, like Samler, the protagonist of one of his latest novels, no longer understands. “We have exploited the old theme of personal identity that is not seen as it could still continue along the same lines. There is no doubt that human beings are no longer what they used to be a century ago. But the question, moreover, never ceases to ask itself. He is something. What?”.
At the service of this great existential theme, Bellow places the resources of an extremely lucid and skilful narrative style which, while taking up, as mentioned above, the modules of a tradition (the glorious one of the American naturalistic vein), it inserts the multiple contributions of contemporary culture and sensibility together with a keen sense of satire and irony. Like his other protagonist, Augie, Bellow often “eludes corruption, Babylonian confusion, despair in laughter in which the mystery of life is hidden”.
Alongside a writer in Yiddish, JB Singer (v.), Also B. Malamud is connected to the so-called “Jewish school” and to a humanistic tradition. His first novel. The natural (New York 1952), centered on the life of a contemporary hero, a baseball champion, will meet with delayed success. This will be followed by The assistant (New York 1957; trans. It., Il committed, Turin 1962), The magic barrel, there 1958 (trad. It., The magic barrel, Turin 1958), and Idiots first, there 1963 ( trad. it., First the idiots, Turin 1966), with which the peculiar theme of Malamud will begin to know and impose itself, that of oppressed characters and victims of circumstances in search of some form of personal and moral regeneration and redemption, such as his equally characterized style, with the Yiddish echoes, the sense of the comic typical of a Jewish oral tradition, and the rhythm itself caught on the cadences of everyday speech. Various trials and attempts will follow up to The tenants (New York 1971; transl. It., Gli tenenti, Turin 1972), in which, around the two central characters, one Jewish and one black and both victim and aggressor at the same time, Malamud will expand further the possibilities of symbolic resonance of his narrative.
The Jewish vein therefore continues to hold high a tradition that had had, especially in the Thirties, excellent precursors in H. Roth, D. Fuchs, N. West and – to a lesser extent – in M. Gold himself. We insert a different younger contemporary storyteller, P. Roth, who has the breadth of its popularity to the success of the novel Portnoy’s complaint (New York 1969; trans. Trans., Portnoy’s Complaint, Milan 1970) as well as the scandal that it succeeded in arousing among the general public with the happy mixture of humor and eroticism with which the life of a Jewish family was captured and represented and, in particular, the problematic relationships between a possessive mother and a happily ribald son.
Speaking of lines, it should be noted here how the contribution of black literature cannot ignore the changed conditions of socio-cultural awareness of the African-American community in recent years, its anger, its frustrations, its militancy.
Remaining in an exquisitely literary sphere, J. Baldwin is, despite everything and despite the many distinctions, including ideological ones, which accompany his artistic journey, a qualified exponent. Baldwin’s production, which extends into various fields (fiction, theater, non-fiction), at the same time participates in R. Wright’s famous definition of “the black as a metaphor for America” and stands apart from it polemically. In researching and deepening his own cultural contradiction, as well as in long years of deliberate European exile, Baldwin is refining the grace and power of his unmistakable style which contributes decisively to the often dazzling effectiveness of his essay work.
As for another ancient American narrative tradition, that of the South, with the departure of W. Faulkner, it survives excellently, in the 1960s, in the far more than southern and regional work of a R. Penn Warren, and in the gothic realism of writers such as C. McCullers and F. O’Connor.
However, it is with N. Mailer, by far the most “character” writer of our age (it is certainly no coincidence that he entitled Advertisement for myself, as we have seen, his 1959 volume), that we arrive at outside the experimentalist area, to an unprecedented attempt at widening the narrative in historical reportage (The armies of the night, New York 1968; trans. it., The armies of the night, Milan 1968; A fire on the moon, Boston 1970; Italian translation, A fire on the moon, Milan 1971).
Mailer is a deliberately irritating and disturbing character in his conscious (but not in a limited romantic sense) public role of protagonist-antagonist of an American reality historically perceived as a jumble of all fragments and contradictions; but the critics agree in recognizing that it is not in the character – although inseparable, even ideologically and at the level of poetic declaration, from the literary work – that the value of Mailer’s presence is exhausted.
The same variety and versatility of it, from the first neonatural novels to the reinvention of the historical facts of Miami and the siege of Chicago (New York 1968; trans. It., Miami and the siege of Chicago, Milan 1969) provide an impressive structure of literary political metaphors, from which our apprehension of contemporary American reality is now somehow interwoven: think of the horror of the images of cancer and plague, of the obsessiveness of the metaphors of sex with which reality and evils are made, in turn both real and metaphorical (totalitarianism, devastation, paranoia) or, finally, to “America as the mystery and madness of power, as the icy and ghostly temple of all schizophrenia”. The constant and angry attempt being that of dividing one’s work more and more from “literature”, of deepening – in its generous though sometimes rudimentary formula – the role of the artist-prophet who is able to better understand, precisely as an artist,
In spite of the importance of some of the personalities of which we have spoken, however, they would not fully exhaust or even less represent the predominant literary climate of the years we are dealing with. Again with Mailer we are in a certain sense in the context of a relatively traditional vision of literature as an aspiration to truth and still moving on levels from which human values are not excluded, we are still far from the postulation and practice of anti-art from which on the other hand, it moves the great majority of the intellectuals and storytellers of these years.
The post-modernist movement, or movement of the negative utopia, will identify itself in an anti-realistic creed that will privilege the “non-fictional qualities” of the novel, will tend to “the formula of the meta-novel”, and will mark the fortune of “an increasingly science fiction ideologized “. From this, however, a fertility of narrative production that has been judged among the richest in the United States. From this also and, above all, in fiction no less than in poetry, the tension towards the reinvention of linguistic modules which among other things manage, through their own inventiveness, to escape the “manipulation, control and enslavement” of the omnipotent structures of power.
Emblematic of these lines of research and of his time is J. Barth, another figure of great importance whose “comic nihilism”, suspended as he wants to be in a total timelessness that excludes any choice, is placed at the opposite extreme with respect to research Bellow’s fiction. With Barth the interest in storytelling shifts more and more decisively from the story to its tools, from the vaguely content-oriented intentions to the structure. Yet another re-edition of the modern antihero, his character is a fragmented mask that testifies to the relativism of a universe of consecutive and concentric disguises and parodies. The burlesque in which he is immersed and in which he dresses himself prevents the Italian reader from reading it in a Pirandello key, except as an extreme solution to a game of literary cubism of which Pirandello too – unwittingly – is a stage. Although Barth personally wishes to claim his literary place in a tradition of wide – and open – breadth: the authors ofOne Thousand and One Nights, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes and Sterne, all criticism unanimously and correctly places its literary ancestry and kinship in a much closer area, that of the literature of silence by Borges and S. Beckett, in a particular version that clothes even the most truculent of tragedies with hilarity if not frivolity.
“For me Sense and Nonsense – says his Giles boy-goat (Giles goat – boy, or the revised New Syllabus, New York 1966; trad. It., Giles, boy – goat, or Il Nuovo Sillabo reveduto, Milan 1972) – they lost all meaning one night twelve years and four months ago, in the womb of WESCAC “(it will be worth remembering that WESCAC is the monstrous computer in whose womb Giles and his beloved Anastasia manage to realize their existence).
With Lost in the funhouse (New York 1968; transl. It., La casa dell’allegria, Milan 1974), the story tends to consist of fewer and fewer words, at the limit tending to “write things of one word”. The technological language and its voices (magnetic tapes, loudspeakers, etc.) will henceforth enter more and more forcefully into the universe of concentric square brackets in which the narrator Barth’s relationship with the world is forcing and exhausting itself, in which is paradoxically consuming his residual trust in language as a source of knowledge.
The literature of exhaustion is also represented by writers even younger than Barth, such as T. Pynchon and D. Barthelme, whose anti-tales are exasperated parodies of the traditional elements of the narrative and offer themselves as paradigms of a possible different order of existence, at the very moment in which their “cheerful nihilism”, their “black comedy” express with particular clarity the fear of having lost control of one’s life.
In a different way the discourse, even formally, continues in the science fiction trend. If with I. Asimov, and especially with some poetic narratives of R. Bradbury, science fiction can still be defined, in the words of Asimov himself, “that literary branch that deals with a fictitious society that differs from ours only by virtue of nature and of the dimensions of its technological development “, and represent in some way the expression of a collective dream, with K. Vonnegut the features of the relationship with reality are definitively frayed and deformed and the science fiction narrative itself will take on different dimensions and resonances.
Vonnegut’s apocalyptic vision finds full expression above all in the trilogy The sirens of Titan (New York 1959; trans. It., Le sirene di Titano, Piacenza 1966); Cat’s cradle (therein 1963; trad. It., Ghiaccio – nove, Milan 1968) and above all the more famous Slaughterhouse – Five (therein 1969; trad. It., Mattatoio N. 5, Milan 1972). It is with the black comedy more and better than with the satire that Vonnegut expresses “his anger, his compassion and his guilt of living in a kingdom of death”. However, since the horror of reality, especially war, discourages “people to become well-rounded characters” and the narrative can no longer have positive and negative paradigms on which to base its internal dialectic, even for Vonnegut the structural design of the story he becomes the character, and the central character of the narration.
It is not surprising, therefore, that at the end of the sixties even the young people of the counter-culture discovered the fifty-year-old Vonnegut and decreed a success to his novels which the writer himself was amazed at. The autonomy of the invented world over the real world is the great, and ambiguous, seduction of these years with the illusory corollary of a formal negativity, of a language revolution that represents not the sign, but the very substance of a profound change of those American values in recent years – sometimes with overturned rhetoric – totally contested.
As soon as we talk about counterculture and alienation, the mind can only go back to the beat movement, to its sometimes unrealistic but eloquent metaphysical rebellion (with a composite company of Christ, Buddha, Thoreau and Whitman in the background), as it expresses itself. not only in the distant, jazzy and vitalistic J. Kerouac of On the road (New York 1957; trans. it., Sulla strada, Milan 1959), or the more recent The Subterraneans (there 1958; trans. it., The underground, Milan 1965) and Big Sur (there 1962; trans. It., Big Sur, Milan 1966), but also in the most extreme offshoots of the hipster culture, which exasperates the motives of metaphysical rebellion and clothes his created world with grotesque and horror. The W. Burroughs of Naked lunch (trad. It., The naked meal, Milan 1964) and, more recently, of Nova Express (New York 1964; trad. It., Nova Express, Milan 1967) and The wild boys (New York 1971; trans. It., Ragazzi selvaggi, Milan 1973) thus places his alienated lunar landscape of cold violence and perversion halfway between science fiction, beat experience and black comedy (from which, unlike the beats counterculture, that by Burroughs borrows a hallucinated and shocking humor).
In this panorama there is no shortage of voices that are also formally less extreme, such as that of the withered but fundamentally “integrated” satire of J. Updike and his rabbit-men entangled in their own squalid sexual entanglements towards which – in the apparent superficial contempt – the hidden, human sympathy and complicity of the author, or of a book like Tbe confessions of Nat Turner (New York 1967; trans. it., Le confessioni di Nat Turner, Turin 1969), by W. Styron, which proposes a “meditation on the story “of a 19th century Negro slave revolt. (In Europe, and especially in Italy, a previous book by Styron himself, Set this house in fire [New York 1960; trad. It.,, Turin 1964], in which the themes of alienation and freedom are placed in generically existential terms).
But there is no doubt that it is above all the extreme voices that give tone and color to the literary climate of the years starting from 1960. With these voices a literature, while full of allusions to a precise historical reality, escapes history in its ambition to make history itself.