Flummoxed: Steve Coogan as Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom's version of the unfilmable novel.
The Novel: A Biography
HARVARD UNIVERSITY PRESS, $59.95
Despite much theory and cuss to the contrary it seems that the novel as an art form will never be fundamentally threatened, if only because of the difficulty of defining what it actually constitutes in the first place. Even despite the great stylists such as Flaubert or Henry James the enormous variations of the form leave not only us but even Michael Schmidt, the extraordinarily erudite poet, publisher, novelist, and now author of The Novel: A Biography, just a little unclear as to what separates the vehicle of any other narrative mode from this shape-shifting thing we have come to label ‘‘novel’’, from the Latin novus, meaning ‘‘new’’.
The criteria Schmidt settles on for the purposes of his book involve first the fact that the story must be written down and of a certain length, say, more than 25,000 words. Another condition is that a novel must be written in prose not verse, but Schmidt nevertheless feels the need in his introduction to mention, a little guiltily, Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, as well as such notable 20th-century verse novels as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate and Les Murray’s Fredy Neptune. And that's before we even start considering the indisputably novelistic qualities of Homer and Dante.
The bogeyman these days of course, the phenomena liable to cast this rather slippery thing called ‘‘the novel’’ into the arcane realm of VHS recorders and the daguerreotype, is the brain-changing speed of the internet and smartphone. Notwithstanding the pleasures of concision, our post-Gutenberg centuries of deep interiorised reading do run the risk in future generations of being pixellated into packages fit for a hurried lunch.
The backlash, however, is in the room already – the recent publishing lunge towards the brickish length, which amounts in part to a nostalgic romancing of the novel-as-analogue-object as well as a lifestyle promise of time-rich immersion. In this context Schmidt’s own pyramid-brick of a book cannot help but be underscored by a mildly elegaic air.
Despite, or perhaps because of all that, The Novel is a passionate work of vivid energy that functions like a giant and immortal literary chat room. Schmidt curates a mix of aphoristic opinion with a self-reflexive intelligence and a refreshing determination to canvas the voices not of critics and academics but of the novelists themselves.
Like George Steiner, he believes in the autonomous conversation novels can have with each other, also that each work of fiction is a kind of debouchment issueing from the great river of prior works. Thus he can deftly explain to us how it is that we read Dostoevsky as an aftermath of Dickens and as a prelude to Kafka. Or how Kurt Vonnegut is connected to John Bunyan through both writers’ deliberate avoidance of the sequestrations and falsifications of ‘‘literature’’.
The inherently synthetic nature of the modern novel is Schmidt’s greatest ally in all this. He is adamant that such connections are important. ‘‘Those who regard them as expendable, a zone reserved for highbrow critics and specialists, impoverish their reading,’’ he says. E.M. Forster puts it this way: ‘‘History develops. Art stands still.’’ This is crucial to Schmidt’s sense of the life of the novel as a series of echoes, a story of competing and harmonising voices, of forbears, backfill, subplots, kindred spirits, black sheep and other variants.
We enter Schmidt’s chat room to revisit, to re-read, to take stock and discover, and to be entertained by the best-practice lucidity of artist-practitioners as they reveal themselves not only through their fiction but by their comments on each other’s creations. The book is littered with tonic epigrams and pithy quotes. And with strident opinions.
Thus the frowning stolid strain of English culture is on full display in Graham Greene’s arch disapproval of the textual festivity that is Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy. Among the centuries of voices vying for a place here Schmidt gives a whole chapter over to Sterne and by doing so tells us something about his importance.
Indeed Tristram Shandy, in its iconoclastic reshuffling of the form, is a caesura in the novel’s history, not exactly a mid-life crisis or temporary insanity but a subversive stocktake on the class-riddled cult of the god-novelist that had already sprung up by the mid 1700s. Yet when it comes to Sterne, Greene would put the whole thing in quarantine.
The book begins with Sir John Mandeville, who Schmidt consecrates as the headwater of the novel in English due to his writing for the joy and challenge of invention and play rather than moral instruction. If nothing else this helps define Schmidt’s own stance. From there he brilliantly surveys the English canonical timeline, through Bunyan, Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Austen, etc, until by the book’s second half discussions of modernism and the postwar, postcolonial and postmodernist novel become intuitive and wide-ranging, more New World constellations than walks down the English lane.
The main sticking point in all this is where works in translation fit into the picture of the novel in English. Schmidt discusses Cervantes at length and includes large chapters on the CPR performed on the English literary body at crucial times by both the French and Russian novel. But given the richness of possibilities we are left feeling the absence here of a wider geography of voices.
Some of the most purely entertaining of Schmidt’s 1200 pages are those on Anthony Trollope, whom he presents as a phlegmatically neutral figure, and a blank page for other novelists’ opinions. Schmidt’s Trollope reads like a bit like picaresque fiction itself, with his deadpan devotion to ‘‘the elbow grease of the mind’’, his dogged application to his craft gathering potency as a quiet, and decidedly English, subversion of the milieu.
No doubt in part due to his role as a founding publisher at Carcanet, Schmidt is always interested in economics and work methods, and so we learn that Trollope ‘‘set his watch beside him and decanted 250 words every 15 minutes, for three hours’’ every day. Henry James describes this as a ‘‘quasi-sacramental commitment’’ yet Nathaniel Hawthorne deems Trollope’s work to be written ‘‘on the strength of beef and the inspiration of ale’’. Go figure. In the end Trollope is wittily summed up by Schmidt himself, who declares his power to lie in making ‘‘the familiar – familiar’’.
Such interventions from our curator are invariably lucid and judicious and one can only marvel at the capacity and quality of Schmidt’s reading. Just occasionally however, as when he declares Donald Barthelme to be the ‘‘funniest writer in American literature’’, he slips into the all too common pantomime of the blustery critic. Quite apart from the fact that Barthelme is well worth reading, such faux objectivities are always absurd and seem also to be against the heart of Schmidt’s great project.
There is the pleasure here too of discussing who has been overlooked or excluded from the conversation. Junot Diaz, W.G. Sebald, Joseph Furphy and Barbara Pym stand out for me but the fact that such debates are triggered in us by Schmidt is welcome. This is an immense and engaging survey, indeed a book for the true believers, and every genuine lover of fiction, as well as everyone with a penchant for entering the fray of comments on literary websites, should take their annual holidays just to read it.
Gregory Day’s most recent novel, The Grand Hotel, is published by Vintage.