- Reviewed by
In 1895, when it was first shown publicly, few viewers could imagine that Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory would alter the course of the novel more dramatically than either H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, which both appeared that same year. The advent of cinema has transformed the ecology of culture, shifting the niche that the novel occupies, forcing it into unprecedented competition, symbiosis, and subservience. Novels of the twentieth century are different from novels of the nineteenth century, not least because they had to adapt to an environment dominated by films as principal narrative medium, even as paradigms of consciousness. Gavriel Moses is not so much interested in the sociology and economics of this phenomenon, the systems of production, adaptation, distribution, and reception that govern film and fiction separately or in conjunction, as he is in the epistemology, ontology, and aesthetics of the matter—how the nature of the novel and of perception has been reconceived in the age of Griffith, Renoir, Welles, Bergman, and Kurosawa. In The Nickel Was for the Movies, which derives its title from a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, he sets out to analyze a series of [End Page 921] texts he calls “film novels”—“ in which film is at the center and in which the epistemological and existential repercussions of this new twentieth-century medium are explored through the means of narrative. It is a narrative type that displays distinct thematic, formal, and mimetic features peculiar to itself.” But he also contends that these books are more generally representative of modern consciousness, which operates according to a syntax analogous to montage, closeups, double exposure, traveling shots, and other categories by which the camera eye organizes experience.
Moses, who teaches Italian at the University of California at Berkeley, chooses as the prototype of the species Luigi Pirandello’s 1915 novel Quaderni di Serafino Grubbio operatore (Shoot!: The Notebooks of Serafino Grubbio Cinematograph Operator). He also offers intricate analysis of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark (1932), as well as chapter-long readings of Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet (1945), Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (1941), Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Alberto Moravio’s A Ghost at Noon (1955), Walker Percy’s Lancelot (1977), and Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976). Some of these fall within the genre of “Hollywood novel,” books whose plots explicitly situate them within the movie industry, though Moses is not concerned with historical mimesis but rather with how the books construct space, time, self, and memory under the influence of cinema.
The Nickel Was for the Movies does not attempt to provide an encyclopedic account of the history of the film novel; notable practitioners lacking any reference within the study include Joan Didion, John Dos Passos, Marguérite Duras, John Fowles, Peter Handke, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Thomas Pynchon, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Delmore Schwartz, John Updike, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Gore Vidal. The avant-garde Swiss author Blaise Cendrars, whom Moses does not mention, is probably a more significant pioneer in the intersection of film and novel than Pirandello, whom he admires for anticipating the possibilities of sound montage. An extensive bibliography is useful but not exhaustive; it omits, for example, a 1987 essay on the subject that appeared within this journal.
Through the nine novels on which he concentrates, Moses traces the parallel and converging evolutions of cinematic and novelistic discourse. He demonstrates how film theory, particularly in the writings [End Page 922] of Rudolf Arnheim, Jean-Louis Baudry, André Bazin, and Siegfried Kracauer, provides instructive intervention into the history of both cinema and the novel. He argues that the film novel, which offers readers a “synaesthetic shudder,” problematizes narrative issues that elsewhere remain invisible, that it “places the subject at the intersection of literary and filmic discourse in such a way as to emphasize lack...