Academic journal article German Quarterly

Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels

Article excerpt

Koelb, Clayton. Legendary Figures: Ancient History in Modern Novels. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P 1998. viii + 186 pp. $40.00.

Clayton Koelb's new book consists of a series of stimulating, albeit loosely related essays on Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo, Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean, Thomas Mann's Joseph tetralogy, Hermann Broch's The Death of Virgil, Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, and Christa Wolf's Cassandra. It is his thesis that the nineteenth century witnessed "a dramatic change in the way people felt about their relation to the past" (xxvii) and that these seven novels reflect the new "historical sense" that the past is a distant and alien world and no longer what Georg Lukacs called a "prehistory of the present."

We are not surprised when an author, three of whose previous books feature the words "reader" or "reading" in their titles-The Incredible Reader (1984), Inventions of Reading (1988), and The Passion of Reading (1999)takes "legendary" to mean not only "belonging to myth" but also, in its strict etymological sense, legenda or "that which is to be read." Koelb expands the meaning to embrace all experience because "it can be apprehended only by an act of historical reconstruction" (30). This view that the past is an Other whose recapture is motivated by a desire that often becomes erotic is bulwarked in the introduction by reference to Lukacs, Frank Kermode, Dominick LaCapra, Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White, and Fredric Jameson.

Koelb's theory generates interesting insights. The sensuous desire with which Flaubert viewed ancient Carthage imbued that past with a mythic presence. Pater's figures, experiencing their present as though it were already past, anticipate modern attitudes toward that past. Mann's Joseph is concerned not with experience but with signification: the mysterious signs that connect the present with the past. Broch's novel exposes the legendary qualities that Virgil's mind shares with the history of his world. Wilder seeks to "demonumentalize" Caesar in an effort to rescue him from the modern dictators who claimed him as their model. Yourcenar shows how Hadrian's deathbed search for the meaning of his life gives shape to the world he inhabits. Wolf, admittedly "possessed" by Cassandra, exposes in the ancient world the patriarchal roots of modern society

Yet these readings remain "essays" because, despite the appeal to contemporary theorists, Koelb makes no attempt to ground his interpretations in the existing scholarship on his subject. To cite only the discussions of German novels: he does not confront Henry Hatfield's claim that Mann's Joseph "is not, in any important sense, a historical novel," or Mann's remark to Karl Kerenyi that he was seeking through psychology to wrest myth from the Fascist obscurantists, or the figural topos "in FuBstapfen gehen" that determines Joseph's thinking; he makes no use of the detailed studies (e.g., by Lutzeler and Ziolkowski) of Broch's knowledge of Virgil; and he does not refer to the important writings by Volker Riedel and others on the exploitation of ancient myth by East German writers. His readings, as meditations on narrowly defined questions, do not amount to general discussions of the novels. Indeed, Koelb makes heavy demands on his readers, expecting them to supply the context and continuity of the works that he treats.

Essays, too, to the extent that the chapters show no real progression and no consistency of approach from novel to novel. The book is based on the claim that a dramatic change in historical perception occurred in the nineteenth century, but the only evidence adduced, apart from Lukacs and modern theorists, is an 1859 statement by Flaubert and a review of contemporary developments in paleontology, geology, and archeology. …

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