The Marble Faun (1860) is a book about Rome. It’s a novel in the sense that some fictional characters, pale as ghosts, slip through the actual Rome in something resembling a story. The reader demanding realistic depictions of actual people, not abstractions roughly shaped into human form, may not find the book to be a novel at all. The setting is more real than the people.
Writing about The Marble Faun, I am going to use words like “real” and “actual” as if I mean something by them. The "real" Rome of the novel is in fact a creation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s imagination, a place he observed, and then put into the prose of his notebooks, and then filtered through his imagination (and through the notebooks) a second time. When Sophia Hawthorne edited Hawthorne’s notebooks for publication, she omitted a number of scenes, replacing them with some version of “See Chapter X of The Marble Faun.” A number of scenes are lifted, with minor changes, from the notebooks, and, writing the novel in Rome, Hawthorne could simply go for a stroll if he wanted to double-check his memory. Still – it’s all a made up version of something real, and the “making up” began as soon as Hawthorne tried to write down what he experienced, long before he used it in his fiction.
I guess I mean something relative. The fictional Rome, the fictional-but-real buildings and statuary and market stands, are meant to survive some sort of test against reality. The Rome of1858 is gone, but the descriptions of artworks can still meet (or fail) those tests. The reader can look for himself and see if Hawthorne got it right. As he says in the notebooks, repeatedly, frustratedly, he is trying to get it right.
The four or five characters who circle around the plot of the novel are not meant to meet that sort of standard. They are pointedly unreal. One may or may not be a faun, another briefly turns into a nymph. We’re in the imaginative world of The Scarlet Letter, with its elf and vampire and witch. The difference is the reality of the physical world, of Hawthorne’s Rome. It’s an inversion of much fiction, where the author convinces us, or lets us convince ourselves, that the characters are genuine people, while all but a few patches of the surrounding world are left as unfinished canvas, for the reader to fill in. Thus, odd chapters titled “The Emptiness of Picture Galleries” (Ch. 37), in which Hawthorne and the reader and one of the characters spend eight pages appreciating, or failing to appreciate, art.
The disorienting contrast between the spirit characters and the real Rome is intentional, “the effect at which he aimed.” The Marble Faun is a fantasy novel, an ancestor of John Crowley’s Little, Big (1981) and other fantasies of the not-quite-real. I am in the “Postscript,” added, soon after publication, to soothe readers who whined about the novel’s lack of a conventionally antiseptic ending:
He [the Author] designed the story and the characters to bear, of course, a certain relation to human nature and human life, but still to be so artfully and airily removed from our mundane sphere, that some laws and proprieties of their own should be implicitly and insensibly acknowledged.
The idea of the modern Faun, for example, loses all the poetry and beauty which the Author fancied in it, and becomes nothing better than a grotesque absurdity, if we bring it into the actual light of day… As respects all who ask such questions [whether the Faun-like character has furry ears], the book is, to that extent, a failure.
So the book was hardly a failure for me, although it kinda spoils my fun to so directly state, at the very end of the book, what I had been planning to write in my blog post. I guess I wrote it anyway.