Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Nathan, Robert

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(1894-1985) US writer who began publishing realistic fiction as early as 1915; his first novel, Peter Kindred (1919), appeared soon after. His success at realism was limited, however, and from his second novel, Autumn (1921), his 40 or so books tended almost invariably to be Supernatural Fictions, plus the occasional fantasy, all told in a consistently civilized, mild-mannered, moderately bittersweet tone. Given the soft but ironic focus of so much of his work, and his refusal to generate happy endings to romances which seemed to beg for them, the scale of his success over 50 years was notable.

Autumn, set in New England – plus its thematic sequel, A Fiddler in Barly (1926), and several other tales – constitutes an attempt to write a US rural idyll in Pastoral mode. These tales are not, however, fantasies (though Talking Animals and other fantasy-like figures are sometimes present), and the pastoral element they display has little or no sense of Eucatastrophe. The main note they sound – perhaps, the dominant note sounded by all his work – is of Belatedness. Further titles of the same sort include The Woodcutter's House (1927) and The Summer Meadows (1973); others, like The Orchid (1931), attempt similar effects in urban settings, but 20th-century Urban Fantasies are very rarely successful in soft focus – and RN's certainly are not.

Several of RN's supernatural fictions play – again without conspicuous edge – on religious themes. Jonah (1925; vt Son of Amittai 1925 UK; vt Jonah, or The Withering Vine 1934 US) is based directly on the Bible, and is rather sharper than RN's later work. In The Bishop's Wife (1928) the archangel Michael (see Angels), while answering a call for help in building a new cathedral, becomes involved with the wife of a somewhat venal bishop, but has of course no sexual organs with which to consummate the relationship. This was filmed as The Bishop's Wife (1947), starring Cary Grant (as the angel), David Niven and Loretta Young. The film was updated and remade as The Preacher's Wife in 1996, with Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.

In There Is Another Heaven (1929), which plays on the Posthumous-Fantasy mode, a character from the previous novel finds that his parents in Heaven advocate an unpleasing sexual latitude, and a Jew who has converted to Christianity finds that this heaven is alien to him, and eventually re-fords the Jordan in a search for the heaven of his roots. Other titles involving humans and the traditional supernatural pantheon include: Mr Whittle and the Morning Star (1947), The River Journey (1949), The Innocent Eve (1951) – in which Satan attempts to gain control of the A-bomb – The Train in the Meadow (1953) – another posthumous fantasy – The Rancho of the Little Loves (1956), The Devil with Love (1963) – a Faust tale featuring a contemporary bargainer and a flustered Mephistopheles – and Heaven and Hell and the Megas Factor (1975), in which God and Satan band together to save humanity from the Moloch of technology.

But most of the novels for which RN is likely to be remembered are love stories in Timeslip or Alternate-World frames. The best-known is Portrait of Jennie (1940), filmed as Portrait of Jennie (1948). A painter in the midst of an artistic crisis meets an 8-year-old girl named Jennie in Central Park, and sketches her. Over the next months, he meets her again and again, but each time she is years older. He becomes enamoured. They finally make love, but the next time he sees her she is dead in the ocean. In another world – or Time, perhaps (as RN himself claimed), exemplifying arguments by J W Dunne (1875-1949) about dissociative time states – she has been urging herself forward (as it were) so as to be able to come to him. The story (as with the movie) makes less sense in synopsis than it does while being read; in its poignance and the overbearingness of its premonitions of Belatedness, it is probably RN's strongest single work. Other titles involving a very similar relationship between eros and the pathos of the Timeslip include The Married Look (1950), So Love Returns (1958), The Wilderness-Stone (1960) and Mia (1970).

The removed, gentle irony of RN's narrative voice does not vary greatly from novel to novel, but his stories are in fact quite widely varied in subject and venue: The Puppet Master (1923) comes close to Horror when some Puppets come briefly alive; One More Spring (1933), though muted, has a Carnival setting, and has been acknowledged by Peter S Beagle as a direct influence upon his A Fine and Private Place (1960); Road of Ages (1935) is a political allegory about a new diaspora afflicting the Jews of Europe; in The Enchanted Voyage (1936) a sailboat carries its cast overland; But Gently Day (1943) rather confusedly conflates timeslip with a plot derived from Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1892); Sir Henry (1955) incorporates traditional fantasy matters (a Dragon, a sorcerer and a Shadow self for its quixotic hero to joust with); in The Fair (1964), Arthurian matters Crosshatch with events in the contemporary world; and The Elixir (1971) engages its professor hero, haunted by Nimue (see Lady of the Lake), in a desert trek, during which he meets other characters crosshatched from the Matter of Britain. [JC]

other works: The Tapiola sequence, told from a dog's viewpoint, being Journey of Tapiola (1938) and Tapiola's Brave Regiment (1941), assembled as The Adventures of Tapiola (omni 1950); The Barly Fields (omni 1938), assembling The Fiddler in Barly, The Woodcutter's House, The Bishop's Wife, There Is Another Heaven and The Orchid; Winter in April (1938); They Went on Together (1941); The Sea-Gull Cry (1942); Long After Summer (1948); Nathan 3: The Seagull-Cry; The Innocent Eve; The River Journey (omni 1952 UK); The Color of Evening (1960); The Weans (1956 Harper's Magazine as "Digging the Weans"; 1960 chap), RN's only sf title; A Star in the Wind (1962); The Mallot Diaries (1965), portraying a Neanderthal tribe in a lost-world enclave (see Lost Races); Stonecliff (1967).

Robert Gruntal Nathan


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.