These semi-fictions Walter Pater wrote, like “The Child in the House” or the four in Imaginary Portraits (1887), they should lead to a Pater revival. They are not so different than some of the imaginary portraits in W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995) or László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below (2008), where aesthetic ideas are often the subject of the fiction. In Pater’s stories, as in Seiobo, beauty is apparently trying to murder its devotees.
People are into hybrid works now, right? Pater was an early Hybridist.
Two of the Imaginary Portraits are about artists. “Sebastian von Storck” is about a Dutch painter who dies young from excessive objectivity and exposure to Spinoza, while “A Prince of Court Painters” is Jean-Antoine Watteau, another painter who dies young, a real painter, I will note. The narrator ends her account of Watteau’s life with:
He has been a sick man all his life. He was always a seeker after something in the world that is there in no satisfying measure, or not at all.
Pater was, or thought he was, related to Watteau, and the story is narrated by a Pater. Little autobiographical details show up in surprising place in the Portraits. “Sebastian von Storck” has autobiographical touches, too, often I think inverted:
For though Sebastian von Storck refused to travel, he loved the distant – enjoyed the sense of things seen from a distance, as on wide wings of space itself, far out of one’s actual surroundings.
His ideal is “an intellectual disinterestedness, of a domain of unimpassioned mind,” which hardly sounds like the champion of subjective criticism, yet what are the Imaginary Portraits if not things seen from a great distance?
“Denys l’Auxerrois” is about a werewolf, sort of. You would think that would make it more exciting than it is. The story is set in early modern Auxerre, which Pater calls “the prettiest town in France,” an opinion I find plausible. It is also the center of the production of Chablis, which is why Pater uses it, the combination of beauty and wine. But I want to save this one.
Finally – Imaginary Portraits is a short book – “Duke Carl of Rosenmold” begins as if it is a German novella, with a pair of skeletons, male and female, discovered when a giant tree comes down in a storm. Could it be the mysteriously vanished Duke? (Sure, why not). But then the bulk of the story, the flashback, is about the Duke’s failed half-measures to improve and civilize his duchy with “French plays, French architecture, French looking-glasses,” to be the “Apollo of the North.” German literature fails him – “Was German literature always to remain no more than a kind of penal apparatus for the teasing if the brain?” – while German music does better. He travels, pursuing the ideals of Greece and Italy, but somehow never sets foot outside of Germany.
The story is a parody of the life of Goethe. First, assume Goethe is himself the Duke of Weimar, or the Duke of Weimar is somehow Goethe, and that he is born too soon, active at the beginning of the 18th century rather than the end, when the aesthetic and intellectual ground for his ideas have not been prepared, Goethe without Lessing and Herder. This is all stated plainly on the book’s last page. The story actually ends with the image of young Goethe skating. He was a perfect ice skater, He did everything well.
“There skated my son, like an arrow among the groups. Away he went over the ice like a son of the gods. Anything so beautiful is not to be seen now. I clapped my hands for joy. Never shall I forget him as he darted out from one arch of the bridge, and in again under the other, the wind carrying the train behind him as he flew.”