I was on a date once in Atlanta, Georgia. We decided on the theatre and there was only one show playing, The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. After a night time drive under the arms of blue mossed oaks we made it to Emory University and took our seats and the curtain rose on a Victorian living room. Cautiously, with a canine playfulness, from out behind a sofa, tromped a dinosaur.

I kept thinking of this moment as I read Wilder’s first novel, The Cabala.  Originally published in 1926 before he became a renowned playwright, Wilder attempted the same tricks here. He interjects Keats, Virgil, and even incarnate Mercury, into a contemporary 1920s narrative, in order to argue that the human condition has never improved, that culture is only a jacket that fits over a skeleton. The fashion may change but underneath we’re still the same.

The story follows Samuele, an American in 1920s Rome, eager to see behind the stone walls of decaying Palazzos and verify his undergraduate archaeological studies of the city’s ancient past. He is introduced to ‘members of a circle so powerful and exclusive that all these Romans refer to them with bated breath as the Cabala.’ In truth they are a group of jaded aristocrats concerned with obscure issues such as blocking the ‘canonization of several tiresome nonentities that had been proposed to gratify the faithful in Sicily and Mexico’ or ‘interesting public opinion in the faint smell of drains that is wafted through the Sistine Chapel.’

Fabulism, or the placement of fantastical elements in everyday settings, is Wilder’s attempt at enlivening these fusty ballrooms. It is the perfect vehicle for his occasionally self-mocking, mildly troubled, exploration of questions of Christian dogma and belief. Samuele is stunned when he accidentally conjures Virgil: ‘At this I realised that I had no definite question to put to my guest.’  How would we react if the world we thought had passed away suddenly appeared before us?  ‘Be brief, I pray you,’ says the poet, ‘and give heed to your Latin.’

The danger is that the novel can feel like a series of gimmicks instead of a sustained dream, a dive into the subconscious. The characters seem mechanical and bloodless at times. Samuele is merely a nickname given by a Cabalist who claims he resembles her doe-eyed, drooling lapdog. We never learn more about his identity or his passions. He doesn’t fall in love or make enemies. His closest friend and mentor, James Blair, is more clearly drawn, as an eccentric Classicist, but even then we’re left with scraps. Blair roams ‘the Mediterranean, finding stray employment and filling immense notebooks with his observations and theories.’ Again, we need the presence of ghosts to jolt the characters into action. Samuele appears more human at the bedside of the dying Keats than in late night conversation with a princess.

Wilder’s prevarication also gets in the way. ‘I shall not take up much space here with details of…’ begins one sentence that continues doing just what he said it wouldn’t.  Or, despite his eye for detail, when Samuele greets a woman in an evening gown he confesses that, ‘It would be impossible for me to describe… [the] new angles, shades, lines, that interpreted her character.’

Perhaps this is why Wilder’s best work is theatrical. Staged drama favours action over endless description and actors lend their own traits and mannerisms to characters.  And just when things start getting too serious, out comes a dinosaur.

The Cabala, by Thornton Wilder, is published by Capuchin Classics (£9.99)

Tags: America, Art, ficiotn, Literature, Religion, Theatre