The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Two of Britain’s leading novelists show that it is still possible to bend a familiar form into start

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell
Sceptre, 480pp, £18.99

The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe
Andrew O'Hagan
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £18.99

According to D H Lawrence, Lionel Trilling and others, the novel matters because of its moral benefits; and therefore it still matters, or matters even more, when there are other things to vex or trouble us. I like this argument and wish I could believe it. But the essential - or potential - nobility of the novel, though pleasing to invoke, is in reality less important to its continuing survival than its success in arousing feelings of obsession and frustration.

And this is evergreen. John Mair, writing the "New Novels" column in the New Statesman in the late 1930s, anxiously contemplated the difficulties of defining this mongrel form while recently conscripted soldiers were being packed off in their millions to combat fascism. At around the same time, Auden and Isherwood wrote their Vogue essay about Graham Greene, Henry Green and other "Young British Writers - On the Way Up". For all kinds of mostly ignoble reasons, the novel always matters to those to whom it ever matters.

And there are always things the matter with it - or so they say. In a recent article in the New Yorker, James Wood claimed that the novel's "basic narrative grammar" has barely altered since Flaubert. The elements of this "grammar" include "vivid brevity of character-sketching", "more or less orderly access to consciousness and memory", and "lucid but allowably lyrical sentences" - local devices, in other words. Yet, while the grammar of the novel may not progress much, formal and strategic possibilities continue to be found, or refound. The best novels I have read this year - by Peter Carey, Roddy Doyle and now Andrew O'Hagan - show little desire to upset, much less displace, the novel's grammar. But this is not the same as saying that they take place in Hampstead, or that we know instantly what they are telling us or how they will end.

The books have a common predecessor: Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, first published (serially) in the 1750s and 1760s. Sterne, frustrating the reader's (as yet unfixed) expectations, structured his book around false starts and dead ends, and further stuttered its progress with black and blank pages, squiggles, doodles and footnotes. Tristram's birth takes place almost halfway through. Volume IX, Chapter 27 reads in its entirety: "My uncle Toby's Map is carried down into the kitchen." V S Pritchett thought that Tristram Shandy was probably "the most put-down book in English literature"; but those readers who kept with it long enough to steal its tricks include Pushkin, Joyce (a joker and a thief) and Beckett.

O'Hagan, in his crowded and deliriously wonderful comedy of ideas, confesses a debt to Sterne in his title (The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of his friend Marilyn Monroe), and incurs the debt in his - or in his canine narrator's - prodigious display of erudition (Marxism, psychoanalysis, interior decorating, zoology, lit crit), his cast of real and invented characters, his obsessiveness and repetitiveness and his use of footnotes. As an essayist in fancy journals, O'Hagan has stupendous fluency and sanity, together with a slightly surreal reliance on autobiography (his recent essay on Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong was entitled "Me and the Moon"). His subjects include fame, misery, Bloomsbury, Hollywood, journalistic ethics and biography; and he has found an ideal repository and vehicle in the doggy life of Marilyn's Maltese terrier Maf.

We first meet Maf in June 1960. He is living with Vanessa Bell at Charleston; then, via Mrs Gurdin, pet finder to the stars (Natalie Wood's mother), he is presented by Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Monroe. As the star of Some Like It Hot, and recently divorced from Arthur Miller, Monroe is in demand as a party guest in Beverly Hills and the Upper West Side. She works on O'Neill with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and screwball with George Cukor at 20th Century Fox; and enjoys similarly familiar relations with Elia Kazan and Alfred Kazin. (The novel comes without acknowledgements or a note on sources, but there is a great deal of fact mixed in with the fantasy and conjecture.)

In one sequence, Marilyn and Maf attend a party given by Kazin. Among the other guests are Allen Ginsberg, Edmund Wilson, Noel Annan and the Trillings. An unknown young woman named Susan outlines her nascent views on "the good taste of bad taste" (camp, in other words). During a conversation presented in play script, Irving Howe imagines "this dog" writing a novel: "It would no doubt be a piratical compilation from the work of old Spanish masters. Old British masters. So be it. Let's have it." Maf congratulates Howe for being "agile and open in his absurdity". (O'Hagan's novel has more than a faint hint of the absurd.)

The Spanish masters are the anonymous author of Lazarillo de Tormes and Cervantes, for Don Quixote and Colloquy of the Dogs; the English masters are Sterne, Fielding and Dickens. We are in picaresque territory. The picaro, Howe helpfully explains, "moves from adventure to adventure, each cluster of incidents bringing him into relation with a new set of characters"- and, in Maf's case, seeing them afresh.

The "Martianism" of perspective here is metaphysical, where the original Martianism - in the poetry of Craig Raine - privileged defamiliarisation of the visual, social and anatomical. Maf claims that actors - and acting is one of his chosen areas of inquiry - "show humans what they are", and so does he. "Humans feel such compassion for themselves," he says, "it's one of their charms." He attributes Monroe's misery at least partly to "the human thing, that burden of self-consciousness that weighs down the day", and describes her, as few novel characters have been described, in her "quiet, reading moments".

Maf's narration displays that "spiritual brawn", the anthropologist's universalising capacity, which he admires in Saul Bellow. He is taken with the habits of the species: the ways in which human beings perform to the world and lie to themselves, and are immediately readable but finally unplumbable - which is exactly what human narrators, desensitised or inured, neglect to explore or elect to ignore.

The novel's gimmick, though also its engine, is to present Maf as an image of the novelist. Dogs, we are informed, absorb the thoughts of human beings. And though he has difficulty distinguishing reality from fiction, he claims that nothing is lost on him, in accordance with Henry James's injunction to the aspirant novelist ("Try to be one on whom nothing is lost!"). The view of dogs as dimwitted or servile, perpetuated by such figures as René Descartes and Ivan Pavlov, is condemned as a failure in novelistic terms - speciesism and racism, we are told, come from the "same dense briar of unimagination". A note of whimsy is struck by Maf's periodic charting of canine contributions to history and the arts - his memoir doubles as a manifesto - as well as in his conversations with other animals. I admit I laughed at the butterfly that speaks like Nabokov.

O'Hagan's choice of narrator provides a mischievous context for the novel's generally polite grammar. Maf displays vivid brevity in his character-sketching: Cyril Connolly is "a frequent and frequently complaining guest at Charleston"; Natalie Wood's father is "the sort of man who sweated gently, like a girl crying". The sentences are lyrical, but allowably so: "From the analyst's apartment, the world seemed uncomplicatedly yellow, a busy jungle where plants spluttered carbon dioxide and billions of creatures had their say."

As novelist-narrator, Maf appears to have more or less orderly access to the consciousness of his characters: Lionel Trilling is described as "thinking how well - relatively well, almost well - his wife was coping at the party, given Kazin's unforgotten criticism of her psychoanalytic approach to D H Lawrence"; he is also said to have "travelled back to himself, to the place where other people's bad behaviour merely confirmed his own certainty about how he himself must behave". But the sense of order is cancelled by the fact that this character is a real literary critic and the narrator a dog. Maf's project would have been familiar enough to Flaubert: to paint a portrait of a time and place, and provide a psychological account of his heroine. Sly means refresh familiar ends.

David Mitchell's novel, a disappointment, is also Shandean in its garrulity and busy traffic of accident and incident, and in many details. Mitchell, an Englishman formerly resident in Japan, tells the tale of a clash of superstitions (eastern mysticism and European religious doctrine), with rival tribes - Dutch would-be colonists and Japanese isolationists - living at cross-cultural purposes on the island of Deshima at the end of the 18th century.

Jacob, a shy, ginger-haired pastor's son, is working as an interpreter for the Dutch East India Company. He hopes to return to Holland rich and respectable - and eligible for his beloved Anna, in the eyes of her demanding father. But he quickly falls in love with a young Japanese woman, who is just as quickly packed off to a convent. The novel, having started as a riotous comedy about intellectual credulity and ideological conflict, mutates into a rescue thriller, with a subplot involving run-of-the-mill armed conflict between colonists.

Mitchell shows impatience with "grammatical" ingredients such as scene-setting, which is despatched with cursory briskness: "Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting"; "Long and curving rice paddies stripe the low and laddered mountains". These descriptions are never longer than a sentence, the sentences never longer than a line. The basic narrative grammar is treated as a succession of boxes to be ticked, or hoops to be jumped through. Otherwise, the novel palls. Erudition is inimical to narrative flow, unless - as with Tristram and Maf - it provides the narrative flow. Mitchell is dependent on conventionalities, while lacking O'Hagan's releasing context.

In his previous work, Mitchell has proved himself a virtuoso of voice, but this novel is conducted in a third-person plod. The juggling of divergent perspectives in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, the adolescent solipsism of number9dream and Black Swan Green, have ill-equipped him for the challenges of the multi-character set-piece novel. Access to consciousness is too orderly, not only tagged ("he decides", "he reflects") but italicised: "The Captain thinks, I want those damned Dutchmen torn to rags."

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a long shot, misses by a mile. But it is not an important failure. What is important, what matters, is that these writers have a taste and gift for wriggling out of straightjackets, and embody a great promise or dream - to accomplish, in this battered form, something new.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer.