Lost Paradise

If this genre doesn’t already exist, it should be invented. One possible name could be the European Waking Dream Novel. The exemplar of the genre is Italo Calvino. Other writers working in it include W.G. Sebald, Alain Robbe-Grillet in certain of his moods, and Jean Rhys in her more sober moments. On the fringes of the genre are Malcolm Lowry, Orhan Pamuk, and Günter Grass. Among younger novelists Stéphane Audeguy writes in this mode, and Roberto Bolaño lived in Spain long enough to soak up its influence. Perhaps the foremost living practitioner of the genre is the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom, whose latest novel Lost Paradise was translated from the Dutch by Susan Massotty last year.

So what is the European Waking Dream Novel? It hovers between realism and fabulism, but without the febrile imagination of Latin American Magic Realism. Novels in this genre are set in real places in the current day, but descriptive details are kept to a minimum. The tone is typically inquisitive, but in a mild, at times timid way. The Waking Dream novel is a realism that patiently waits for reality to reveal its other face. A crucial ingredient of the form is an explicit literariness in one form or another. Sometimes the main characters are readers (the classics teacher in Nooteboom’s The Following Story) or they’re writers (all over the place in Bolaño). Combine the elegant, precise realism of Ian McEwan and the bookish puzzles of Jorge Luis Borges and you’ve got the basic idea.

Milton’s poetry is a prominent leitmotif in Lost Paradise. There are angels and wounded bodies, hints of the divine and very terrestrial notions of good and evil.  There are even some direct quotes from Milton. The opening scene takes place on a very unmiltonian space: a small commuter airplane chugging across Europe. The narrator furtively watches a fellow passenger read a slender novel–just like the one Nooteboom’s reader holds in his hands. Casually, as if he’s Brad Pitt recognizing himself on the cover of People magazine, the narrator informs us that the woman is, in fact, reading the same book you’re reading, "a book out of which she is about to disappear, along with me."

Lost Paradise, like the divine itself, is split into two parts. The first half of the book is feminine and New World. It tells the story of two Brazilian women:  Alma,  a recent victim of a brutal sexual assault in São Paulo, and her less damaged friend Almut.  Alma travels to Australia on a spiritual quest  for an Aboriginal paradise known as the Sickness Dreaming Place. Her friend tags along, looking to have some fun and get laid. Not surprisingly, her friend’s hedonism annoys Alma, but Almut’s defense is brilliant. Almut shrugs off a one-night stand with a wind surfer by reminding everyone, "I’m Brazilian."

The second part of the novel–the masculine, Old World part–is another quest narrative that is also subdivided into body and spirit. Nooteboom likes to place in his novels at least one bookish, middle-aged man with too little to do. In this case it’s Erik Zondag, an Amsterdam short story writer who gets bored with his own work and decides to devote his time to writing about other writers. A life of rarefied contemplation has left him fat, so he travels to a spa in Austria, where he’s reacquainted with Alma, whom he met at a literary festival in Perth, Australia. Erik attends the festival on business, while Alma and Almut are there to make a quick buck by dressing up as angels. When he sees these fetching Brazilian angels Erik’s fallow imagination springs back into life. Years later in Austria he recalls his first meeting with Alma during a "crazy night" on an Australian beach, cavorting with angels who have been "expelled from paradise," as Alma points out. Sitting in his Alpine redoubt but hearkening back to a moment when he touched something larger, something threatening and redemptive, Erik reconstructs an image that exemplifies the dreamy realism of a certain strain of European fiction: "There, where the water ended and the land began, she stopped and threw her wings around him. He could not see her face, but he … felt her soft and yet surprisingly hard wings as they held him captive."


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  1. I’m surely no expert on literature, but I’d like to add the writer, Steven Millhauser to the American Waking Dream Novel. Thoughts?


  2. Even though he’s American, Steven Millhauser would definitely fit into the Waking Dream novel. His prose has a eerie undercurrent to it, and his stories have the oblique realism of Nooteboom. Being an American shouldn’t disqualify him, though. I only mentioned European to contrast the genre with the dominant tendency of American realism, which, since James Wood, we now see as stuffed with detail related in a breathless tone. Millhauser definitely run counter to this trend.


  3. At first I thought E.M. Forster might be too archly ironic and too close to the comedy of manners to be in the same category as Nooteboom. But I haven’t read Forster in years (I’m re-reading Henry James right now, by the way.), and I recall a certain sense of languid dreaminess to his work, like the first half of Room with a View. There’s also a sense of mournfulness, of a lost paradise. Certainly, at the very least, he would be a forbearer, and closer to the Waking Dream style than Conrad or James. I reread from time to time, so I’ll have to dust off my old copies of Howards End and Passage to India to verify.


  4. Thank you. I expect you will enjoy Forster even more this time around (because perhaps of the lost paradise effect). Howard’s End & A Passage are the ones to re-read. And they do go together, although each of them sounds original in its own right. I also feel that some of the attibutes of the genre as described by you are, in Forster, well woven into the fabric of his novels to produce a sense of naturalness, familiarity even. Yet the sense of something hidden, something that the reader needs to look hard to find, and which is worth finding and grasping, is always there.


  5. While we – that is, you, of course – are on the subject of genres in literature, would you consider this: Would it be far fetcehd to say that genres (but not styles) brush the surface of things only? I’m not sure that this is necessarily bad, in the sense of inadequate or superficial. But the ‘genre’ as something adhered to an existing work seems not to have much to do either with the world view of the author, his/her historical or psychological conditions, or the internal dynamics or dramatics of a piece of work. Where style is intrinsically relevant and definitive, genre appears to be a creation of the reader or critic, and as such, part and parcel of the process of reconstruction of meaning. I wonder if you’d care to define “genre”. Thanks so much for this and for the weblog!


  6. We can think of genres as contracts between a writer and a reader. Genres establish the expectations and laws of a reading experience. (Derrida has a great essay on Kafka called “The Law of Genre” in which he begins with the warning never to violate the laws of a genre.) In the genre I’m proposing here, for instance, it’s acceptable for a narrator to refer directly to the book the reader is holding in his hands, while such a metafictional move in a mystery would violate the reality effect of the genre. In literature (film has a somewhat different relationship to genre), we tend to look down on genre fiction because it isn’t as psychologically deep or as original as the “literary” novel. But even literary novels can be classified into genres, even when the writers aren’t conscious about working in them. Think of James Wood’s concept of the hysterical realist novel. No one sets out to write such a thing, yet certain novels satisfy the requirements as Wood lays them out, and we’ve learned to respond accordingly to them, whether we’re aware of the rules of the genre or not–or even agree that the genre even exists or is as pervasive as Wood claims it is.


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