Friday, April 3, 2015

The Emperor Waltz

If you were to do a Google search for the words, "relatable characters, you'd get millions of results. A good chunk of which would be guides, tips and tricks, and instructions for writing. Here is the first page of results when I searched the words today:


You'll have to click to make it bigger. Suffice it to say that relatable characters, it seems, is a desirable trait. Let's click on the second link (that's what I did, randomly, I suppose) and pull out some relevant quotes that I think will illustrate something particularly intriguing about contemporary fiction. Here is the introduction to the page, "Creating Believable, Relatable Characters: Character Development 101":
Everywhere you turn, you see people telling you to develop your characters. And they’re absolutely right. Character development is essential to the success of any narrative. Static and flat characters, whose personality, goals and motives remain superficial and unchanged throughout the story, often don’t allow the reader to fully connect, understand and support them.

In order to have characters whom your characters can relate to and root for, you need to create characters with depth, characters who develop throughout the story. There are so many ways of making your characters more relatable and believable.
I find this as fascinating as I find it tiresome. The salient idea to be gleaned from this article -- and countless others -- is that the success or failure of a story hinges on whether or not your audience is able to see at least a part of themselves reflected in the characters. The title of the article really says it all for me, I should think, specifically the word, "believable."


Here we see the familiar villainous head of realism rear its head, the scourge of literary fiction, that which lays waste to feats of imagination. A narrative must be believable, with believable characters, in order to be successful. Of course, what "successful" here means isn't necessarily artistic success but economic success as well. Apparently, the audience, monolith that it is, demands believability. Here's a hilariously relevant paragraph from the third result of that page:
No matter what kind of character you are making, whether it is a witch, vampire, or werewolf, they must be relatable to your audience. Readers like to read about characters that go through similar situations and feel emotions! In fact, you should try to make your characters as human-like as possible so your readers can both connect with and befriend them.
I can only presume that the second sentence is missing the word "similar" between "feel" and "emotions." Your audience likes things to be relatable, believable, accessible. There shouldn't be any barrier between the reader and the character's emotions. The reader should be able to apprehend how the character is feeling, either through relatability, in the sense that the character is familiar enough that the emotion can be correctly guessed by the reader, or through the narrator's intervention ("he said with a grimace"). In order words, the labour of affect should be performed by the text, rather than the reader. Feelings should be conveyed to the reader without too much work on the reader's part. Characters should be accessible, approachable, real enough that the reader is able to discern how they are feeling. The dominance of accessibility is part of the ascendancy of realism. Realistic characters go hand-in-hand with realistic scenarios. Even if those scenarios stretch immediate possibilities, the limits should still be apprehended and understood. I'm thinking here, specifically, of realism's infiltration of science fiction and fantasy. Gone are the days of the unknowable, the unfathomable, the sheer impossibility of things. Not anymore. Now we have realism that must "engage" the audience, must allow the audience to see themselves in the fiction, as if fiction must perform the same function as a comforting blanket. Here's a quote from a blogger:
Here's some honesty for you: The number one factor that determines whether or not I like a book is if I like the book's protagonist. If I can't relate to a story's protagonist, or if I really disagree with her choices, or if I just flat out don't like her character, it's hard for me to enjoy the rest of the story.
This is a unsurprisingly common reaction on sites like Goodreads. The actions and choices of the character should be correct... in the view of the reader. Be careful not to imagine that the blogger and her ilk mean that choices should be true to the character but that the choices themselves are correct. The story, regardless of its symbolism, setting, atmosphere, thematic depth, intended and unintended meaning, it all lives and dies according to whether the audience can relate to the character. Unrelatable characters, and to a lesser extent, unlikable characters, have the power to dismantle the artifice, to shatter the reader's suspension of disbelief, and thus remind the reader that realism is an illusion like any other -- a frightening and undesirable revelation. The relatability of the characters indicates the sheer paucity of imaginative labour performed by the reader. Instead of asking the reader to go beyond themselves, to imagine beyond what they were previously capable of, contemporary fiction rewards those that see themselves in characters. How much imagination is really required to envision another version of one's self?


Relatability is not evil. I would hope to avoid giving the impression that I believe all fiction should be alienating or abstruse. Impenetrability has its place, just as relatability does as well. There should be a spectrum, a beautiful oscillation as the text's form and content merits. The problem is when one dominates over the other so completely as to obliterate all other possibilities. Some texts are able to balance the two ends; I'm thinking of David Foster Wallace as a prime example, who uses complexity and verbosity to interrogate realism. I'm also thinking of J. G. Ballard, who uses scenarios and characters drawn from possibility in order to explore the furthest reaches of the human psyche. Another example, relevant to this post, is Philip Hensher and his new novel The Emperor's Waltz.

2014's The Emperor Waltz takes a lot of inspiration from "hypertext" writers such as David Mitchell, Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, etc in the sense that this novel is actually two novellas and three short stories, but intercut with each other. The two novellas, the main narratives, focus on, respectively, a young artist attending the Bauhaus in 1922 and a young man opening up London's first gay bookshop in the 1970s.


The other three stories range from the "Last Month" to the early years of Christianity. Superficially, what seems to tie these disparate and definitely discrete narratives is the song, "Kaiser-Walzer" by Johann Strauss II, composed in 1889. The song pops up in various ways, none of which are particularly revelatory or -- thankfully -- obvious ways. Instead, the main thematic thrust of the novel appears to be the different ways in which classes are persecuted, maligned, and misunderstood.

In the 1922 sections, hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, the reader's awareness of the coming Third Reich darkens every encounter with Jewish folks. Hensher plays his hand a little too forcefully when, without specificity, he refers to men wearing brown shirts with a distinct logo on the arm. Regardless, Jewish folks in this small town are blamed for various tribulations such as the hyperinflation, the striking workers, and other problems. The Jews are persecuted simply for being of a certain culture and faith.

Likewise, the bookshop narrative features anecdotes and incidents of gay men being persecuted for their sexual orientation. The bookshop's front window is smashed many times; the police harass the employees and attempt to elicit a bribe to avoid more harassment, essentially a protection racket; schoolboys in the street shout hateful things as AIDS arrives in full force.

In the smaller stories that pop up in between the larger sections, Hensher examines the matrydom of a future saint, persecuted for her faith in the Christian god while Roman society merely asks for lip-service. In a more metafictional gambit, Hensher details the infection of his toe and subsequent hospitalization. He spends his time in bed reading and listening to songs on his iPad (one of which is -- predictably, "Kaiser-Walzer"). The hospital, Hensher snootily observes, is a space constructed for those outside of his social and artistic class. He is surrounded by the poor, the ill, the uncouth, a contrast he highlights with his dropping of famous names that visit him during his stay and his taste for classical music. He contrasts his own supple elegant prose with the vulgar and offensive mutterings of fellow patients. It's all very arrogant, but the limit of interiority effectively limits the reader's engagement with Hensher as a character. Despite a first person narrator, the reader is kept at arm's length about not only the themes (what is the point of this detour?) but also Hensher's own affect. We are effectively denied the opportunity to relate to Hensher (not very many of us are famous authors).

This pattern of affective denial is repeated throughout the novel, at almost every level. Going against the tsunami-like trend of interiority, Hensher distances the reader from the characters. We are rarely given intimate access to the interior lives of his characters. This is especially noticeable during the gay bookshop narrative. Characters are introduced quickly and ruthlessly, with very little prose given to their physical characteristics, or even their personalities. Instead, the characters, especially the secondary cast, simply act of functional. They perform symbolic and semiotic functions to further the themes or plot. It's not as alienating as say, Beckett's fiction -- which was intent on alienation, but it's certainly not as welcoming as realism would prefer.

For example, a character named Paul features heavily in the establishment of the bookshop, but he is quickly dispatched by the pen of the author. The main cast attends his funeral, but the reader is left unmoored in a sea of names without familiar or relatable attributes. The funeral is not affecting because Paul was never developed beyond a symbolic function (the persecution of those who refuse to align with the majority rule). Paul doesn't need to be developed; he performs his function; he is eliminated when no longer useful. Or rather, it is in his absence as a relatable character does he perform the most symbolic labour.

We are treated to a seemingly endless cavalcade of friends and customers of the bookshop, but rarely are we treated to a glimpse inside their heads. The same can be said of the two main characters: Duncan, the owner of the shop; and Arthur, the bookshop's first and only employee (up until his abrupt departure after the bookshop has become mainstream). We understand Duncan and Arthur's motivations and goals because they state them rather explicitly; however we are rarely allowed a moment with their inner lives to contemplate the why of their decisions. The why I believe Hensher finds irrelevant. The text is interested in patterns and motifs of persecution and community.

During the Bauhaus sequence, we observe Christopher, the young artist, fall in love with a stern and organized young woman. He pursues her relentlessly until she succumbs the practical possibilities afforded by marriage. When the narrative jumps forward 5 years, hyperinflation is slowly being solved but Christopher loathes his shrew of a wife. He feels persecuted, simply for being an unsuccessful artist and an uneven teacher of art. The reader is left to guess at what happens in the intervening years, affectively speaking. Christopher, in free indirect speech, relates that he no longer feels welcome at home, but this is not interiority, this is not intimate access to the character.


In Germany, Hensher stops in at various people, giving us moments with them at labour, at socializing, at play, but none of the characters emerge out of the symbolic to become real. The reader meets Paul Klee, and we learn that he enjoys practical jokes. The reader meets a group of students who drink excessively and pontificate ponderously on politics at high volume. We learn nothing of them. Instead, they all perform functions, symbolic functions to advance the text's interest in interrogating the various forms that zealotry takes.

The situations are real. They are based on actual events, for the most part. One could argue, effectively, that The Emperor Waltz is fully engaged in realism as any other novel. But this admission implies that realism is a binary, a dilemma, as opposed to the beautiful oscillation that art should be. The text provides situations that easily apprehended and understood: the opening of a gay bookshop, the persecution of Jewish folks, the struggles of a young married man to feed his family in an economic recession. However, Hensher repeatedly and obstinately refuses the interiority that definitively marks realism as a literary mode in the current era. This could go a long way to describe the thudding silence that greeted the novel at its publication (beyond some polite and reserved reviews in the UK). Characters must be relatable, accessible, believable. Realism is the dominant mode. It must be satiated.

In order to wrap my head around this, I need to theorize further on the dominance of relatability and realism. In her article, "Intimacy and the New Sentimental Order," Bernadette Bawin-Legros mobilizes Anthony Giddens's idea that "the influence of traditional sources of authority and of social bounds has increasingly receded in favour of an endless and obsessive preoccuption with personal identity" (241). The subject of her paper, romantic love, "is not only a matter of imagination but holds the promise of a potential experience" (241). In other words, narratives of romance, realistic narratives, are aspirational as well as key components in the construction of the self. This highly individualistic reality is coined "the new sentimental order" which "now rests more upon an individualistic withdrawal into self and a fundamental and newly redefined distinction between private and public sphere rather than upon tradition" (242). In Western society, this should sound familiar, as the cult of the rights of the individual has taken control of government and policy. The rise of the libertarian as a legitimate political position coincides perfectly with the advent of the new sentimental order.

Likewise, Bawin-Legros writes that, "intimacy has become the principal indicator of the quality of interpersonal connections and the core of love relations" which is to say the deeper the intimacy, the deeper the connection (242). Again, this is familiar thanks to the promise of literary realism which promises "more interiority." Bawin-Legros continues on, writing that "love no longer necessarily requires a serious dimension implied by duration but appeals to the imaginary dimension linked to the constituent continuity of self" (246). The construction of self is linked to the deepness of the intimacy rather than the length of intimacy.

In the era of late capitalism, when individual choice is paramount, choices need to be made frequently and routinely. In order to give substance to these choices, the quality of the relationship is judged rather than the duration. That quality is judged by the level of access to the interiority. "In postmodern love, only individualization matters. Lovers today want both fusion and individualization in the unity and autonomy of the person," Bawin-Legros writes (247).

In her article, "The Precariousness of Choice in the New Sentimental Order: A Response to Bawin-Legros," Mary Holmes continues to expand on Giddens' definition of the new sentimental order. She writes that Giddens believes "that romantic love has now been replaced by confluent love, which focuses on a special relationship rather than a special person" (251). Holmes confirms and concurs with the statistical data Bawin-Legros offers and adds complementary data that suggests during this new sentimental order, "gender roles might be becoming retraditionalized" (252) despite the supremacy of individual choice. She writes that, "gendered divisions of labour combined with continued disapproval of ‘selfish’ women militate against any easy road to self-fulfilment for women " (252). In other words, this ascendancy of individual choice has both positive and negative possibilities.

I would like to suggest that this sociological theorizing does indeed align with the supremacy of realism and relatability. Like the prioritizing of the relationship over the other individual, the affective connection between text and reader is prized over any specific element of the text. The increase of intimacy between text and reader is facilitated by realism's promise of increased interiority. Realism, then, is aspirational, in that, by increasing the level of access to the characters and text, the reader can construct the self from intimate relationships. Thanks to the new sentimental order, relatability has become the de facto coin of the realm of realism.

Considering that Hensher's novel is interested in constructions of community and groups, this fetishizing of individualism holds little sway in The Emperor Waltz. The text seeks to interrogate the dynamics of groups; the individual is a necessity in order to differentiate the members of the group; the individual is not prioritized in the interest of groups. The realism of the situation is a necessary evil in order to poke and prod at communities. Hensher's novel isn't about realism or individuals; it's about the power of community, the power of a public. Likewise, as a gay text, The Emperor Waltz taps into the concept of a public and a counterpublic, as developed by Michael Warner. The individual seeks to construct an identity not out of a rigid preoccupation with individualism, but with a participation in a subculture, the formation of a counterpublic. As Warner writes in his important essay, “Counterpublics are, by definition, formed by their conflict with the norms and contexts of their cultural environment, and this context of domination inevitably entails distortion." It is in this distortion between mass publics and counterpublics that The Emperor Waltz finds its community of zealots, whether good or bad. Individuals get power from the participation and inclusion within a public -- and without a counterpublic -- or vice versa. It is their involvement in the group that creates the group. Thus, The Emperor Waltz doesn't need to be concerned with individuals. Believable, accessible, relatable characters aren't necessary.

It's beautiful to read a novel that understands realism doesn't need to be used wholecloth. A great artist knows how to assemble and mobilize the various strands. A great artist is a magpie, not a parrot.

1 comment:

Jonathan M said...

Hi Matthew :-)

Really interesting piece... Obviously, I share your frustrations with wall-to-wall accessibility as one of the things that keeps drawing me back to French art house film is the presentation of people's inner selves as fundamentally unknowable and potentially non-existent.

Francois Ozon's 5x2 is an extraordinary piece of experimental characterisation that presents you with the big dramatic moments in a marriage but none of the connective tissue that would allow you to piece together the psychological states and personality quirks that lead to their happening.

Claude Chabrol's career was dominated by these amazing thrillers in which terrible things happen for seemingly impenetrable reasons and the joy of watching those types of films comes from trying to piece together the vision of human psychology that informed the writing in the first place.

I'm intrigued by the idea of the New Sentimental Order and will seek out some of your suggested reads.