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This article is taken from PN Review 22, Volume 8 Number 2, November - December 1981.

Notes on the Novel Paul Coates

Stories that are not recounted from age to age are seen as fiction: they are read, not heard. The last teller of the true story transcribes it lest it be lost. He does so because people are refusing to credit it: similar events no longer occur, God no longer intervenes in daily life, there were giants in those days. But even the act of pious recording partakes of the impiety it seeks to combat, for it presupposes that communion with God is an abnormal state that is unlikely to recur in the near future. The scribe is a man of little faith. General inability to believe the story-the Israelites' unwillingness to accept their sacred history-transforms history into a fiction. History becomes 'story' (as in the vocabulary of the Romantics) and children are instructed not to 'tell stories', i.e., not to lie. The fact that the written appears to be untrue (Plato was right to assert that writing weakens the memory) justifies conscious untruth in writing: the historian paradoxically prepares the way for the novelists. The first of these were the writers of the Apocrypha. The novel is an impossible history, for history has become impossible. It is powered by a negative Utopianism: it creates an image of an artificial reality, but not of a better one, as a prophet would. The Jews could ignore Christ because history had become for them a novel. And Utopia is the beginning of fiction and its end. The earliest novels are Utopias that ...

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