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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

I. L’Histoire et l’éthique/Westian Ethics

“The Pressure of the Mind on Time”: Paul West and Postmodern Historiography

David Madden

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1In a career that now spans forty-two years and forty-five books, Paul West has articulated a unique, identifiable vision, and since 1980 he has returned with almost obsessive interest to fictional reinterpretations of historical incidents and personages. One can argue that history has always figured in West’s writing, beginning with his early memoir, I, Said the Sparrow, but his creative imagination has been especially fueled by the possibilities of history reexamined and reconfigured.

  • 1 I am defining this material in contrast to Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth who asserts in “Postmodernism a (...)

2West’s approach to historical representation is decidedly postmodern, a term that is fraught with contentiousness and problematical distinctions. Not only do novelists themselves largely shy away from characterizing their work as such, but scholars and critics have debated ad nauseam exactly what the term means and who its leading spokespeople are. Suffice it to say that the purpose of this discussion is not to resolve these disputes among the likes of Fredric Jameson, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Ihab Hassan, Gerald Graff, et al., nor to pigeon-hole West with a convenient critical label. Instead, I intend to isolate a few of the most common characteristics and conventions of postmodern fiction and apply these to four of West’s novels—The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg (1980), Sporting With Amaryllis (1996), The Dry Danube: A Hitler Forgery (2000), and Cheops: A Cupboard for the Sun (2002). When I use the term postmodern, I am also not referring to any time after the Renaissance1, but specifically to the period following World War II up to the present. Art during this period, and particularly fiction, exhibits a marked sense of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity. Patricia Waugh defines such works as metafictions, “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh, 2). This is a literature that explores an entire genre through the very practice of writing itself, examining how the mind creates, orders, mediates its experience of the world. Such fictions could be described as ones that breach boundaries—between high and low subjects, language, perceptions, between the known and unknown, between the approved and disapproved, and between the literary and discursive or popular. It is often a literature of extremes that forces audiences to shuttle wildly between different modes of perception.

3In many ways it is a literature that is contradictory or self-cancelling. It is intensely ironic, often profoundly parodic, employing traditions only to undermine them and constructing worlds only to deconstruct them. The Russian formalist Roman Jakobson wrote about the violence that literary language plays on ordinary speech acts by defamiliarizing the familiar; similarly, postmodern fiction denaturalizes the seemingly natural. Such novels are often characterized by a dramatic sense of disconnection in which events, personalities, rules of logic, which seem stable, dissolve before the stunned reader’s eyes.

4Postmodernist fiction is a literature of the Other, focusing on all that is outside the “norm” or the predictable. As such, it challenges accepted traditions and practices, particularly values or aspects of the dominant culture but also fiction-making and reading norms that typically attend narrative production and reception. Lyotard has coined the phrase “master narrative” for those explanations that appear to offer a totalizing explanation or solution and that have an inherent Truth value. Postmodern narratives, however, reject the large scale and the fixed, the privileged point of view, the dominant idea, and the whole concept of tradition. They suggest there is no such thing as Truth, but rather multiple truths, which often compete with and subvert one another. Thus such narratives often emphasize the particular and conditions of provisionality and indeterminacy.

5If there are no timeless values and Truth is an elusive phenomenon, then knowledge becomes profoundly problematical. Postmodern fictions attack such problems by constantly posing fundamental questions, questions readers often assume to be givens—what do we know, how do we know, and what assurances do we have about the nature of our knowledge? Postmodern texts answer such interrogations by suggesting that what we know, first and foremost, is discourse, the language that frames our questions and assumptions, and textuality.

6It should not be surprising that postmodernism has provoked some strident critics, among them Gerald Graff, John Gardner, and Charles Newman, who contend that it is little more than a morally bankrupt art that denies the obvious in problematizing external, objective experience. Brian McHale answers this charge by suggesting that “nowadays everything in our culture tends to deny reality and promote unreality, in the interests of maintaining high levels of consumption. It is no longer official reality which is coercive, but official unreality; and postmodernist fiction, instead of resisting this coercive unreality, acquiesces in it, or even celebrates it” (McHale, 219).

7In his experiments with historical fiction, West implicitly acknowledges “reality,” but asks readers to question the assumptions that attend our notions of reality and history. Indeed, by writing historical fictions, West leaves himself open to the charge that he is trading in a popular form that has a less than sterling pedigree. Numerous popular writers have dabbled in historical fiction and been criticized for writing works that are neither serious histories nor true novels. Thus Zoé Oldenbourg has characterized such works as material “that so-called serious readers do not take seriously, that the ‘average’ reader considers above all as an instructive diversion” (Oldenbourg, 132). Henry James despised such fictions, “The ‘historical’ novel is, for me, condemned […] to a fatal cheapness […] it’s all humbug” (James, 202-03). In addition to such complaints, postmodern critics have denounced postmodern attitudes towards the past. Gerald Graff has written, “For if history is seen as an unintelligible flux of phenomena, lacking in inherent significance and structure, then no exertions of the shaping, ordering imagination can be anything but a dishonest refuge from truth” (Graff, 403). However, Linda Hutcheon points out that Graff assumes that meaning resides in events themselves rather than “in the systems which make those past ‘events’ into present historical ‘facts.’ This is not a ‘dishonest refuge from truth’ but an acknowledgment of the meaning-making function of human constructs” (Hutcheon, 89). Here we arrive at West’s position exactly—he uses the presumed facts of the past to suggest other interpretations of events or in some cases to question the facticity of the facts themselves.

  • 2 Describing his strategy as a “rather behaved” form of historical narrative (Danube, 149).

8In his first important historical novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, West recounts the life of Claus Phillip Maria Graf von Stauffenberg, a member of the German aristocracy who rose to the level of staff officer in the Third Reich and became a member of Hitler’s inner circle. Stauffenberg was the leader of a nearly successful assassination and coup d’état, who paid with his life for his efforts. For the most part, West follows the historical record rather closely2, tracing Stauffenberg’s aristocratic origins, his deep sense of noblesse oblige, devotion to Roman Catholicism, family life, military career, and eventual disenchantment with Hitler and the Third Reich.

9West has repeatedly stated that his enduring fictional concern is with charting the track of the mind, or as he said in interview, “sub-conversation”:

A human being leaves, really, a very paltry record behind, no matter how much he/she has written when you compare that with all the thinking that went on nonstop every day of that persons life. Nathalie Sarraute calls it sub-conversation […]. Krishnamurti said, “How the mind chatters to itself.” The whole idea of the minds chattering to itself without being spoken, printed, published, or recorded fascinates me. The sub-conversation isṇt available; therefore, the fiction writer has to do it. In bulk. (Madden, 155)

10With this interest in mind, one can quickly see that his fascination in Stauffenberg certainly centers on the historical record, but more importantly on the emotions and mental processes that propelled the man to his dramatic action.

11In discussing the way postmodern historical fictions violate the boundaries between “real-world” and “fictional-world,” Brian McHale mentions writers who create what he calls “dark areas” in their fictions:

[…] those aspects about which the “official” record has nothing to report […]. Some historical novels treat the interior life of historical figures as dark areas—logically enough, since the “official” historical record cannot report on what went on inside a historical figure without fictionalizing to some extent. According to this norm, the novelist is free to introspect his historical characters, even to invent interior monologues for them […]. (87)

12West exploits this technique of exploring the “dark area” in nearly all his historical fictions, and to particularly dramatic ends in Stauffenberg.

13The novel is told from a subjective point of view, with Stauffenberg relating his tale from the other side of the grave. He not only seeks to present his story in his own words, but to characterize it in aesthetic terms that military histories rarely express. Thus other histories, written in other voices and for other purposes, when compared to Stauffenberg’s testimony, remind the reader that historians cannot reproduce nor recreate the past, much as they might aspire to do so, but instead they render a version of the past, never the thing itself.

14Stauffenberg’s version is by turns a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic bildungsroman. Approaching his narration with a sense of deterministic gloom, he cringes at the thought of the lives that will be sacrificed or blighted as a result of his bungling. As no other historian can, he repents for his mistakes, chastises himself, and laments the ensuing brutality. In fact, at one point, he fabricates what he hopes will transpire, “I brimmed with invention. Bits of scenario kept entering my mind’s eye. After all, I had stage-managed this event, and in a keenly intimate way it was mine” (Stauffenberg, 186).

15Poststructural linguistics has demonstrated that all language and its referents exist in intricate webs of signification that refer to one another but never take the reader to anything empirical outside themselves. Similarly, postmodernist fiction exists in its own web of signification, with novels referring to other novels and texts. In the case of historical narrative, a reader can never actually experience history; one can never aspire to the knowledge of living through events by means of a text. Instead, each time we read history, we are reminded of its distance from us, its inaccessibility except through other texts. As Linda Hutcheon argues, postmodern historiography “does not deny that the past ‘real’ existed; it only conditions our mode of knowledge of that past. We can only know it through traces, its relics […].” (119). Among these traces and relics are the available texts that presumably record history.

16Each of West’s historical novels posits a web of texts that must be considered simultaneously with the novel itself. In the cast of Stauffenberg, there is an extensive range of intertextual associations. West has commented that in preparing the novel, he set about rereading and reviewing scores and scores of books about World War II, the Third Reich, and Hitler. He singled out John Tolland’s Adolf Hitler (1976), William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1961), and Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (1962), but certainly the two principal books on Stauffenberg-Joachim Kramarz’s Stauffenberg: The Architect of the Famous July twentieth Conspiracy to Assassinate Hitler and Peter Hoffmann’s Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944—are inevitably invoked. West has also admitted that a slim volume entitled Death in Plötzensee was particularly on his mind as he wrote the novel.

17Because Stauffenberg knew and respected Stefan George, his poetry, particularly “The Anti-Christ,” and Rudolf Fahrner’s biography of Stauffenberg’s ancestor, Count August Neithardt von Gneisenau, are intertexts mentioned overtly in the novel that inform much of the protagonist’s motivations. Equally important are King Rene’s Book of Love and medieval books of hours, which suggest models for dedication, responsibility, and spiritual earnestness. Finally the maps in the novel’s appendix of Germany, Plötzensee prison, and Wolf’s Lair represent still other texts that complicate this web of references. As Brian McHale argues, “every text is in fact an intertextual space where the materials of other texts are brought into a new relation” (126).

18The more he immersed himself in this intricate maze of informing texts, the more dissatisfied West became with the seeming objectivity of historical research:

  • 3 For a more detailed response to the same issues, see his essay “The Backlash Against the Novel” (P (...)

I also discovered what I guess is no discovery to most people: that history is really fiction, and that the most reliable names in history actually lie and embellish […]. And my feeling was, hey, Im the fiction writer. Leave me alone. Leave me something to do. For instance, a number of historians contend that some of the plotters were hanged with piano wire on hooks. It wasṇt piano wire. It was cord made of hemp. I didṇt take many liberties at all. There was no need to intensify or rearrange. The whole design of the plot had an eerie symmetry. It was ready-made. (Madden, 165)3

19Nevertheless, to such scrupulous documentation and interweaving West does bring his own distinct sense of invention, two examples of which illustrate his impulse to create an historical narrative that would compete with the public record.

  • 4 The novel’s central character, a survivor of the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, recalls h (...)

20At one point in Stauffenberg’s soul journey, his brother Berthold decides to spur him to action by leading him to a deserted building in which are stored vats of dismembered Jewish bodies in gruesome display. There is, however, no evidence that such a museum of mutilation existed nor that Stauffenberg ever beheld it. A more controversial invention is SS man, Rolf Stundt, a mysterious figure lurking behind the scenes who eventually disappears in 1945. In an outlandish parody of intertextual signification, Stundt appears again in a portrait in Portable People, where he dispels the rumor that he escaped to Paraguay as suggested in the appendix to The Very Rich Hours. He tells the reader he was captured in a library in Louvain, where his captors “slowly seal[ed] me up in books […] that was ‘45. They found me in ‘46, unopened and unread, mentioned briefly in one novel, not on my chest of course” (Portable, 165-66). Taking the japery even further, West mentions Stundt in the “Acknowledgments” section of that collection among the writer’s family and friends. Thirteen years later Stundt appears yet again, in West’s most recent novel, The Immensity of the Here and Now, as a subject of contemporary folklore4.

21Apart from the fun and delight in invention, these two episodes reveal West’s postmodern determination to defamiliarize history by challenging it. West reminds the reader that in spite of its pretensions to science and objectivity, history—all history—is verbal invention, the very stuff of fiction itself. Thus he seeks at once to review the known historical record and to deconstruct it, to foreground the issues of narrativity and provisionality.

22In Sporting with Amaryllis, West once more turns to a major figure from history, the poet John Milton, but he focuses on a largely forgotten incident from the poet’s adolescence. At age seventeen, Milton’s tutor despaired of his seriousness and “rusticated” him, sending him home to London for a period of reflection that presumably would encourage a return to his studies with more dedication and seriousness.

23Once again West appears to adhere fairly closely to the outlines of recorded historical incident and used much of the novella’s first chapter to recount the events that lead to Milton’s temporary banishment. Yet West again explores the “dark areas” of this history, once more offering a window into the protagonist’s consciousness and suggesting a decidedly more risqué interpretation than biographers and historians have ventured.

24The principal intertexts in this case are Milton’s verse and the accounts of his biographers. Biographers are rather vague as to exactly what the reasons for the poet’s rustication were. All agree that Milton had problems with his tutor, William Chappell, a distinguished figure who was an exacting and demanding taskmaster. William Riley Parker’s biography draws upon a remark of Milton’s brother, Christopher, that the young man received “some unkindness” from his tutor, while David Masson’s biography notes school records that indicate Milton was very likely caned by Chappell. The point here is that one cannot know precisely what occurred and why, except through layers of texts that themselves are vague and even contradictory.

25What Milton did in London during his rustication is also largely undocumented, except for a few letters and poems. Parker, for instance, attributes mention of a keen interest in beautiful women in a Latin poem to friend Charles Diodati as evidence of braggadocio:

Pretty girls receive the most emphasis of all. For this the desire to impress Diodati is chiefly responsible, but something is owing to the influence of Ovid, whose smooth style and pagan imagery Milton copies here and in subsequent elegies. Ovid captured his imagination early and held it long. At seventeen the boy was, in truth, more susceptible to the sensuous beauty of Latin verse than to the charms of flesh-and-blood girls. (Parker, 31)

26West, however, draws on the same materials and suggests that Milton was not boasting in his early Latin works but actually being circumspect. For instance, in the poem to Diodati, Milton writes of “pursu[ing] the delights of leisure” and “gaz[ing], spellbound, on some marvelous form, form fit to have power to renew the ravages of age, even in Jupiter’s self!” (Milton, 169, 173). Under West’s revisionism the same passage is translated as:

I’m missing neither reedy old Cambridge nor the lodgings that used to be mine […]. My, time and again Ive seen girls with bodies that made my head swim and would give a hard-on to God Almighty. Ah, those eyes, like the flashing stars that poles roll around in, and those ivory necks! Really, London women have it all. (Amaryllis, 5)

27By adding such a ribald interpretation to Milton’s Latin, West clearly illustrates the thin traces which allow access to the poet’s mind. All one can truly know of Milton comes through texts, texts which, as in the case of his Latin works, become more and more difficult to access.

28West uses other thin traces as the scaffolding for his fiction, as for instance the evidence in “Elegy 7,” written when Milton was nineteen, in which he writes of following women through the city and chancing on an extraordinary one, “towering [in beauty] over others: that radiance was the beginning of all my woe. So might Venus have wished herself to look to mortals, such the beauty in which the Queen of the Gods herself should have been seen” (Milton, 219). In the novel Milton’s encounter with a striking woman is just as dramatic, “Her face blazed through him like a loop of white-hot ribbon, painful and narcotic, as if now he were neither boy nor youth nor man, but some self-transcending numinous species made of honey and Palestinian incense” (Amaryllis, 31). A final intertext to consider is “Sonnet 5,” also addressed to Diodati, in which Milton exudes:

I tell thee in amazement at myself—that same scornful I, who have always shown contempt for Love and have been wont to ridicule his wiles, have fallen into that trap which ensnareth on occasion the best of men.
Not golden tresses nor rosy cheeks have thus dazzled my eyes, but rather a ‘fascinating Beauty’ exemplifying an Idea unknown, which filleth the heart with beatitude -a bearing fraught with virtue’s dignity, the winning sparkle of clear black eyes, a speech adorned with divers languages, and a song such as to send the Moon astray as she followeth her laborious course in the high heavens; fain would I wax my ears against it, but the fire that darteth from her eyes maketh such remedy of little avail. (Milton, 55)

29From here West builds his glimpse into an encounter with Milton’s own Muse:

Once upon a time she had been a phantom, that he knew, and he had brought her to life, made her into the apparition that made all other apparitions needless […]. He willed her back, though, suddenly aware that the mere sight of her had effaced something from the heart of his being: he no longer mattered save to be her adorer, her slave, her swain. It was uncanny to feel so pendent, freed of all his Latin, his wit, his myths, and now like a berry needing the sun, nothing cleverer than that […]. Whatever her name was, and he thought Amaryllis as good as any, his mind on the nut-brown shepherdess in Virgil […]. (Amaryllis, 38, 43)

  • 5 David W. Madden. “Indoctrination for Pariahdom: Liminality in the Fiction of Paul West.” Critique (...)

30As I have discussed elsewhere5 West concentrates on the liminal experience of the creative consciousness as it grows into maturity, but Sporting With Amaryllis draws much of its narrative energy from its seemingly heretical reinterpretation of the greatest of all Puritan poets. Although there is great fun in imagining a righteous icon like Milton having thoroughly carnal experiences, West does more than simply sport with Milton. Linda Hutcheon explains the idea of such imaginative reconstruction:

It is historiography’s explanatory and narrative emplotments of past events that construct what we consider historical facts. This is the context in which the postmodern historical sense situates itself: outside associations of Enlightenment progress or development, idealist/Hegelian world-historical process, or essentialized Marxist notions of history. Post-modernism returns to confront the problematic nature of the past as an object of knowledge for us in the present. (Hutcheon, 92)

31West’s Milton, then, stands less as an icon than as an artist struggling with the essential dilemmas of any creative person—learning craft, having a sense of artistic history, finding one’s own voice or vision, etc. The result is a complete personal transformation, “and now he was responding with emotions he had never felt before […]. He felt as if his mind was being rearranged, with magical nudges, his consent unsought” (Amaryllis, 139, 141).

32In the last two works I have concentrated on fictions that rewrite history while preserving the generally understood shape and sequence of recorded events. In the next two we will encounter a pair of West’s most elaborate and unconventional histories, works that draw upon traditionally recognized figures in utterly unrecognizable situations. The Dry Danube concerns an important but often forgotten episode in Hitler’s life, his time in Austria when, at age eighteen, he desperately sought admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and was denied. The Führer indeed had an abiding interest in art, not only hoarding all his army could ransack but also collecting as much of his early work as he could for later display in what would be his own gallery.

33Also subjectively narrated, the novel concentrates as much on the Führer as tyro as it does on a pair of odd mentors, Professors Treischnitt and Kolberhoff. The young man abases himself to his elders to curry favor, but can only earn their scorn and derision and a humiliating nomination for a non-existent Fisher King Fellowship. The obvious question the novel poses is what significance the rejection had on the adult monomaniac. Drawing upon various intertexts, this destructive affect proves a reasonable assumption. For instance, Hitler was disturbed enough to mention the incident in Mein Kampf, and August Kubizek, a friend of his from the Vienna days, claims Hitler went into a tirade over the news of his rejection:

[…] his face was livid, the mouth quite small, the lips almost white. But the eyes glittered. There was something sinister about them. As if all the hate of which he was capable lay in those glowering eyes […]. Hitler never ceased to feel ashamed of what his dream of being a painter had become. (Fisher, W30)

34The novel teems with subtle and overt remarks that suggest seething anger and a desire for retribution. He admits he is a man of abounding grievances and wonders why he “should not behave like the universe itself, cutting and mowing, not behaving well to our fellow creatures but annihilating them to give the good old universe a helping hand, in its dirty work” (Danube, 91). For his mentors, he reserves his most extreme response:

Little did the English know of the so-called Austrian method: strangulation with a thin hempen cord, easily a twenty-minute procedure I was reserving for Treischnitt and Kolberhoff, but only after we had poached their balls and eyeballs in those cute little purple cups you fill with boracic to bathe your eyes in. (Danube, 71-72)

35The narrator is thoroughly self-conscious of his role as narrator and frequently meditates on the function of history in his narrative. Like Stauffenberg, he is another voice from beyond the grave, and this technique of departed, but ever-present, narrators is another of West’s decidedly postmodern devices, creating a sense of ontological displacement in the reader. As the narrator remarks, “My own way, however, as a denizen of OT [Outre Tombe] (DOT) is to make myself free to use all idioms of any era, to become the freemason of my own memory, and the heir of all the ages, their id ioms and slang, thus widening my perspective” (Danube, 82). He grants himself a freedom unavailable to the writer of scholarly history, suggesting that historical narrative is not fact- or time-bound but a product of imaginative and passionate invention. The history he recreates is not something logical but the result of murky origins. “I think I have the words rather garbled, but they no doubt began garbled, and they do come from the penumbra, that shady zone in which neither history nor memoir is precise, where everything, as I understand it, is almost but not quite in the deepest shadow of all” (Danube, 94-95).

36The truth of the past, this novel asserts, is never clear and stable, the solid stuff of enduring verity, but something partial, fragmentary, and the product of different sensibilities with different objectives and agendas. In its way, the Hitler diary stands as a parody of the poststructuralist condition. Referents are never present in language, though they may exist in some empirical space outside literature; referents are only available through textualized form. Similarly West’s Hitler is unavailable except in a web of words and texts, in this case those entirely of his own creation, and thus the Hitler diary is an acknowledgment of the postmodern condition of inaccessibility. The narrator continually reminds us that everything is taking place in “the frail arena of my head. Made of words [italics mine], I suppose, it hovers like a mirage and fades away as vapor” (Danube, 104).

  • 6 A search of internet-search engines of either professor’s name leads only back to references to th (...)

37West further creates ontological confusion through a pair of strategies. Once more the postmodern condition of the “dark area” is given full play. Not only are we allowed purchase of the protagonist’s consciousness, but, considering his corporeal insubstantiality, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of words unconnected to any identifiable speaker. Additionally, confusion issues from the creation of utterly unhistorical confrontations. There were never professors named Treischnitt and Kolberhoff at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts6, and their position in the story offers perhaps the greatest narrative surprise.

38There are odd hints throughout concerning Hitler’s relationship to the mentors—he wonders if they know who he is, asserts that he is invading their dreams, refers to himself in the third person, and midway in the narrative addresses himself to an unidentified “you” (Danube, 64). Only until the closing page of the diary do these discrepancies come together when the work closes with the attribution, “Kolberhoff, Vienna 1945 for Treischnitt” (144). The novella’s subtitle suddenly takes on another level of significance, the forgery is not Hitler’s but one of the fictional mentors. In so doing, West ironically nods at still another of the work’s informing intertexts, the famous “Hitler Diary,” excerpts of which appeared in Stern magazine in 1983. The popular press in Europe and America, as well as Nazi historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, eagerly seized on the possibility that a long-hidden diary of the Führer’s had suddenly been uncovered, when in fact Konrad Kujau, a forger and collector of Hitleriana, was its author. The result is history as apocrypha, which profoundly challenges notions of narrative and historical stability.

Apocryphal history contradicts the official version in one of two ways: either it supplements the historical record, claiming to restore what has been lost or suppressed; or it displaces official history altogether. In the first of these cases, apocryphal history operates in the “dark areas” of history, apparently in conformity to the norms of “classic” historical fiction but in fact parodying them. In the second case, apocryphal history spectacularly violates the “dark areas” constraint. In both cases, the effect is to juxtapose the officially-accepted version of what happened and the way things were, with another, often radically dissimilar version of the world. The tension between these two versions induces a form of ontological flicker between the two worlds: one moment, the official version seems to be eclipsed by the apocryphal version; the next moment, it is the apocryphal version that seems mirage-like, the official version appearing solid, irrefutable. (McHale, 90)

39As if the levels of textuality and receding referentiality were not enough, West adds another level of narrative complexity by providing an afterword. Here a third voice, that of the author himself, is added to the mix, in which he discourses on the book’s “multiple personality” (147). Explaining the deceit of replacing one narrator with another, West further complicates the issue of intertextuality by introducing two more. He asserts that Honegger’s Piano Concertino of 1924 “hints to the alert reader what is going on” and should remind one of “Beethoven’s Fifth as envisioned by

40E.M. Forster in Howard’s End […]. The sedulous reader now has to check the date of that particular novel, just to see what Kolberhoff and I are up to” (148). That date is 1921, the point at which Hitler took control of the Nazi Party and began his steady rise to power and destructiveness.

41West also comments directly on the challenge of history as an artefact no longer present, often forgotten by later generations, and available only in fragments and traces.

What I had in mind […] was a quizzical amalgam of torn paper and forgotten connections, much the kind of thing that happens to history as the world speeds up and the present displaces the past, foreshortening and mythicizing it until little remains save composite figures and slovenly synecdoches -parts doing duty for the whole as Nazis begin to fade into the image of the most heinous one […]. One image that haunts and helps me is that of a wars discarded spears and banners dumped in a heap, a Roman image perhaps, my own special heap including documents and reputations, so much so that imaginary figures fall into the same rubbish-pile as genuine historical personages. (149)

42While the public may forget, a writer does not, and such images act as spurs to West’s imagination, “keep[ing] fiction alive while its tried and true manifolds rot” (150).

43The most recent of West’s historical forays, Cheops, A Cupboard for the Sun, is another lavishly conceived reimagining of the past. Where Sporting with Amaryllis can be regarded as history à la creative anachronism and The Dry Danube an apocryphal history, this last novel can only be described as historical fantasy, depicting a series of events that simply could not and did not take place, yet which presents events rooted in traditional historical narratives.

44This is perhaps West’s most outlandish historical experiment, situating the fiction in ancient Egypt, at 2465 BC, as the pharaoh Cheops makes final preparations for his death. While concentrating on the pharaoh and details of his life, of which there is scant record, West not only reviews Egyptian history and architecture but the whole enterprise of historiography itself. He accepts Cheops’s belief in time travel and manipulates it not simply as a theme but an integral structural device in the narrative. Thus, the Greek historian from the fifth century, Herodotus, ventures back to the Fourth Dynasty to hound the pharaoh with questions and observations.

45In creating such an improbable confrontation, West initiates another series of intertextual layers. In this case, one of the world’s first and most engaging historians physically encounters one of the subjects of his famous The Histories. Herodotus is infamous for a tendency to embroider and invent his narratives, and in the case of Cheops that tendency was profound. The scorn with which modern audiences regard that pharaoh in fact began with Herodotus’s characterization of him as a monomaniac and unprincipled father who may have ordered the murder of his son and who pimped his daughter in order to pay for his grand monuments.

46However, West reverses the portraits to depict Herodotus as the unscrupulous manipulator. Thus he becomes “an imaginer rather than a wise historian […] [who] seems to embody licentious guesswork, demonstrating spunk rather than accuracy” (Cheops, 7). This is a case of historian as aesthete, who prefers to fake accuracy “‘for the sake of pageantry’ […] intent on his prowess as a writer—not merely a recorder, or a witness. It is not how things are that impresses him, but how they affect his mind and heart, what he makes of them; and this leads him into wild conjectures, voluptuous garblings of the details our lives are made of” (8-9). Herodotus, then, becomes a harbinger of “postmodernist writers [who] have tried introducing into their texts what appears to be the one irreducibly real reality in their performance as writers—namely, the act of writing itself” (McHale, 1998).

47The novel’s acknowledgments page reveals another set of intertexts— George A. Reisner’s A History of the Giza Necropolis, Oskar Seyffert’s A Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, Lisa Manniche’s Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, and Robert Boulanger’s Egyptian and Near Eastern Painting. However, West undercuts the seriousness of these sources, and especially the last, through outrageous parody. In a moment of what appears to be cultural sharing, Cheops explains the etymology of certain Egyptian words and illustrates the art of the pictograph; however, the subject itself is crude and even cruder are the ironic scribbles West plants in the text.

48In so doing, West reminds us again, in spite of all seeming scientific certitude, of the modern separation from ancient culture and its system of signification, and to illustrate that distance he includes modern pictographs that confound the ancients but lead to hilarious interpretive speculation.

49Still another improbable historical confrontation comes when the god Osiris brings the music of twentieth-century composer Frederick Delius, a favorite of West’s, to the dying Cheops. Although Cheops does not realize it, Osiris is preparing him for divinity and for the most sublime of the arts, “music is for the gods only, not for human consumption. In short, we make composers create in order to soothe us for not having full control over our own monstrous performances” (153). Through much of the book Cheops meditates on these strange sounds brought to him through the eons and believes he has tuned in to the music of the heavenly spheres and is thus assured of his star travels.

50The use of multiple narrators, and particularly that of Osiris, further problematizes the idea of verifiable history. Cheops has his version events, Herodotus his, Cheops’s daughter, Heduanna, hers, and Osiris still another. The god emphasizes the insubstantiality of the historical record when asserting, “Who is to know what Cheops made of himself; but doing so required him to exclude from his thinking all thoughts of failure. He was a monomaniac of prowess, stripped of all paternal or filial thoughts, all concern with charity or benign kingship” (49). Just as rulers and historians leave their imprints on the past, so too do the gods, who “impose on human history whatever gives us pleasure. This must be hard for them [humans] to understand” (149).

51This paper takes its title from a remark of Cheops’s when he notes a similarity between Herodotus and himself, “Erodo [his nickname for Herodotus] and I are up to the same game: the pressure of mind on time” (27), and indeed the whole enterprise of postmodern historiography is one in which the emphasis is placed on the shaping maneuvers of consciousness on the seemingly intractable medium of facts. Repeatedly West has asserted much the same idea in both his fiction and nonfiction. For instance, in a memoir devoted to his mother, he insists that a writer is “not a mere reporter but a magical intervener” (Mother’s Music, 169), and in an essay from Sheer Fiction he offers an observation that underlines the sensibilities of each of his historical narrators, “the artist [is] a cosmic gangster who usurps the divine role and creates possibilities unrecognized in real creation” (Sheer Fiction, 82).

52Although he does not describe the historian in the divine terms West uses for the novelist, Hayden White has challenged the role of the historian as a purveyor of immutable facts:

[Postmodern historiography] implies that all narrative is not simply a recording of “what happened” in the transition from one state of affairs to another, but a progressive redescription of sets of events in such a way as to dismantle a structure encoded in one verbal mode in the beginning so as to justify a recoding of it in another mode at the end. This is what the ‘middle’ of all narratives consist of. (White, 98)

53White is stressing the narrativity of all history, the inescapable presence of the historian’s shaping hand, a presence with more than a glancing similarity to the novelist’s creative intervention. Furthermore, White insists that all histories are framed around particular narrative structures, configurations of events which “are made into a story by the suppression or subordination of certain of them and the highlighting of others, by characterization, motific repetition, variation of tone and point of view, alternative descriptive strategies, and the like—in short, all of the techniques that we would normally expect to find in the emplotment of a novel or a play” (84).

54All of West’s novels, and particularly his historical fictions, underscore White’s contention and remind readers that the world, human experience, and history are not fixed, stable, ready-made, but the products of imaginative construction. The challenge West’s work poses is for writers and readers to fully deploy those imaginative resources to envision a broad range of interpretive possibilities. To enter any human experience, and especially the past, West repeatedly insists that the inner world of individual consciousness must be taken into account, even foregrounded. Finally his novels assert that we will never fully know, and certainly never experience, the past; however, through imaginative projection, and in some cases audacious recreation, we can appreciate something of what the past means for us today.



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Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931. Oldenbourg, Zoé. “Le roman et l’historie.” Nouvelle revue française 238 (1972). 130-55.

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1 I am defining this material in contrast to Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth who asserts in “Postmodernism and the Novel” that “modern indicates the period that follows the medieval—that is, Renaissance culture and its sequels—in which case postmodern refers to a broadly distributed cultural phenomenon” (1032).

2 Describing his strategy as a “rather behaved” form of historical narrative (Danube, 149).

3 For a more detailed response to the same issues, see his essay “The Backlash Against the Novel” (Place, 487-99).

4 The novel’s central character, a survivor of the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001, recalls his journalistic career and his disinclination to search out an escaped Nazi. “[he] had refused one newspapeṛs invitation to head for South America, all expenses paid (funeral included) to look for a certain GruppenFührer Rolf Stundt, who had figured in a frienḍs anti-Nazi novel. Truth was, Stundt was one of a few entirely imaginary characters in the novel” (Immensity, 185).

5 David W. Madden. “Indoctrination for Pariahdom: Liminality in the Fiction of Paul West.” Critique 40.1 (1998): 49-70.

6 A search of internet-search engines of either professor’s name leads only back to references to the novel itself.


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