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Hedgehog versus fox: how do we tell the story of the novel?

Three critics attempt to make make sense of the slippery lifespan of the realist novel, with occasionally illuminating and often chaotic results.

Mind games: an image from Rob Davis's graphic novel The Complete Don Quixote

The Antinomies of Realism
Fredric Jameson
Verson, 432pp, £20

The Lives of the Novel: a History
Thomas G Pavel
Princeton University Press, 360pp, £24.95

The Novel: a Biography
Michael Schmidt
Harvard University Press, 1,200pp, £29.95

In the opening pages of his recent book The Antinomies of Realism, Fredric Jameson observes that when we try to fix the “phenomenon of realism” in our mind’s eye, it quickly starts to wobble. Instead of thinking about the thing itself, our attention slips in two opposite directions: towards realism’s emergence at one extreme, its dissolution at the other. Although Jameson omits to mention the various fine accounts of the novel’s robustly healthy 19th century – Lilian R Furst’s All Is True, Peter Brooks’s Realist Vision – his assessment is convincing.

There is a simple historical reason for these twinned concerns. Realism, a word used sporadically in the 19th century, became a dominant literary-historical term just as it became an outmoded style or genre. Critical interest in realism intensified at the same rate as practitioners’ disdain and both reached their peak in the mid-to-late 1950s. In 1957, to be precise, when Ian Watt published his account of 18th-century English fiction, The Rise of the Novel, which Jameson calls “canonical”, and when the journalist Émile Henriot, writing in Le Monde, christened the nouveau roman, or new novel – the movement whose lead spokesperson, Alain Robbe-Grillet, disputed the effectiveness of, in Jameson’s paraphrase, “Balzacian techniques for capturing our current realities”. As Watt described the birth pangs, Robbe-Grillet sounded the death knell. (After that point, suspicion of realism, often in reaction to Watt and in emulation of Robbe-Grillet, began to affect the academy, while novelists, often in reaction to anti-realist polemic, began to recognise its virtues again.)

Another factor, at once more technical and pragmatic, may have played a more decisive role. The rise of the realist novel is an origin story, a bit like Genesis or the Aeneid, with the part of Adam or Aeneas taken by a single author, perhaps Cervantes, or a small group of them (Watt chose three – Defoe, Richardson and Fielding). The fall of realism is a whodunnit: Joyce was spotted carrying something that looked like a razor and what about that long half-hour when Marcel nipped out for a madeleine?

By contrast, realism’s lifespan – from its noble ancestry in ancient Greece to the antics of its Oedipal inheritors, modernism and postmodernism – resembles a 50-episode miniseries with several thousand characters speaking half a dozen European languages on three or four continents across two and a half millennia. The story of realism, when told in any but the broadest terms, is the story of the novel itself. As Jameson writes, “Discussion of either concept tends to become indistinguishable.”

There are two potential methods of narrating this story: a fox way and a hedgehog way, both of them rife with problems. In his study of War and Peace, Isaiah Berlin adapted a fragment by the Greek poet Archilochus – “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” – to divide centripetal thinkers who “relate everything to a single central vision” and centrifugal thinkers who “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradic­tory”. If you credit the novel with a single vision – for example, “The novel traces man’s alienation from God” – a clean, forward-thrusting narrative may emerge but you will commit imprecisions on every page (quibbles of the “What about Jane Austen?” variety may prove hard to silence). But although writing novel-history in accordance with Virginia Woolf’s statement that there is “no such thing as the novel, only ‘novels’” might allow for greater nuance, readers will be too busy wading through the names and movements and titles to thank you for your rigour.

The poet and publisher Michael Schmidt, during the more than ten years he spent researching his hefty new book, lost his original title, Lives of the Novelists, to a book by John Sutherland and has plumped instead for The Novel: a Biography, which doesn’t wholly fit. Schmidt’s book starts off hedgehog-like, with apparent belief in a fabulating force called the novel, but ends up foxish – or Woolf-like – to the point of mania, like an Argos catalogue without the pictures.

Schmidt mostly confines his attention to the novel in English but that still proves too much to be getting on with. After he abandons narrative and chronology in chapter five (of 45), his only concessions to order are thematic chapters and the use of “practitioner-critics” as guides. But, in the absence of ideas about influence and tradition, how much guiding do they do? About as much as an echo chamber: “Poe admired Dickens.” “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admired Meredith.” “Priestley admired Powys.” Schmidt sets great store by practitioner-critics’ opinions, less by their articulated insights. What matters is the thumbs-up, the Facebook “like”, especially when it comes from Anthony Burgess: “Anthony Burgess admired Riddley Walker.” “Anthony Burgess admired The Rebel Angels.” “Anthony Burgess admired The Vendor of Sweets.”

One of the few practitioner-critics we don’t hear much from is Schmidt himself. Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal and Martin Amis may not much like Nabokov’s Ada – but what does he think? That he calls the book “playful but terrifying” doesn’t reveal much. (Does he really need J M Coetzee to tell us that Midnight’s Children “revolutionised the Indian-English novel”?)

Often, Schmidt’s two devices for making things clear – thematic groupings, artist-critic tour guides – gang up together to do the opposite. In the chapter “The Fate of Form”, not only do we strain to find the unstated connections between the various subjects – among them Henry James, Anthony Powell, Sinclair Lewis, Mrs Humphry Ward, Dorothy Richardson and C P Snow – but the section on James alone contains quotations from Borges, Edmund Wilson, James Thurber, Edith Wharton, Edwin Muir, Gore Vidal, David Lodge, T S Eliot, E M Forster, John Updike, Graham Greene, Willa Cather, Conrad, Raymond Chandler, Mary McCarthy, William Empson and Cynthia Ozick. In the prologue, Schmidt compares his cast of commentators to “an eccentric family” but it is the rare host who invites 18 members of his extended family for tea on the same afternoon.

Thomas G Pavel, a professor at the University of Chicago, is a different sort of critic from Schmidt, though he comes no closer to an adequate account of the novel with all his categories and subcategories, his “conceptual tools”, than Schmidt does with his scattergun. The Lives of the Novel: a History, the product of decades of teaching and reading, has been praised by James Wood as “the most interesting and subtle one-volume history of the novel currently available”. It is hard to know how great a compliment Wood intended, since one-volume histories of the novel are thin on the ground; with the possible exception of Margaret Anne Doody’s revisionist, anti-Watt doorstopper The True Story of the Novel, it is hard to think of a classic instance.

In any case, Pavel’s book isn’t a history but an idiosyncratic and aggressively anti-historical reading of the novel as a branch of moral philosophy – a serial portrait of the human being’s evolution from “strong soul” to “sensitive heart” to “enigmatic psyche” against a backdrop of change that is deemed irrelevant. Pavel ticks off Ian Watt for “overplaying social and cultural explanations [such as the emergence of bourgeois individualism] for artistic phenomena”. The counterargument offered here is that artistic genres “enjoy a qualified autonomy” from “the social and intellectual life of their time”, though you search in vain for qualifications, for any limits whatsoever on the novel’s freedom of movement.

In Pavel’s narrative, realism was a late-arriving aberration in the novel’s history. Until the 19th century, he writes, there were no detectable links “between the novel and specific political events” and even once the novel had discovered “society”, it still wasn’t terribly interested. As a result, he sidelines Émile Zola, the self-described literary “naturalist” who believed strongly in the formative effect of environment, but finds allies for his cause in Stendhal – who never wrote a literary manifesto and can therefore be said to have thought that “social customs” had no effect on “human nature” – and Thomas Hardy, whose novels “emphasise both life’s social dimension and the autonomy of the individual”.

In one staggeringly ill-informed moment, he writes that Jane Austen, a beneficiary of Regency nostalgia and contextual reading, only came into favour “once the strong, explicit emphasis on social and historical factors had lost some of its appeal”. Lacking any kind of supporting evidence – in some cases, it doesn’t exist – such assertions are themselves powerful evidence of the kind of corners the hedgehog necessarily cuts.

Fredric Jameson has his own ambitious answer as to why accounts of realism are always stories of birth or death. Put crudely (often unavoidable with this brilliant but challenging writer), the argument goes like this: realism was created by joining the “narrative impulse” that united all of the novel’s forebears (ballad, newspaper sketch, fairy tale, and so on) to a new mid-19th-century interest in evoking “affect”, or bodily sensation. In its desire to linger and inhabit an “eternal” or “existential” or “scenic” present, this impulse is in essential conflict with the relentless forward movement – the faith in “past-present-future” – on which the narrative depends.

For about 50 years, Jameson argues, narrative and affect remained perfectly at one. In the work of Tolstoy, for example, Jameson finds “no moments of the narrative which lack their dimension of affect, to the point at which one is tempted to say that these movements and variations are themselves the narrative”. But by the end of the 19th century, a break had occurred and the “serious” writer has had to keep faith with the one thing that survives the weakening of all the “joints and joists” of narrative: affect. This is why, Jameson writes, it is justified to talk constantly of “the emergence or the breakdown of realism and never about the thing itself, since we will always find ourselves describing a potential emergence or a potential breakdown”.

Taken on its own terms, The Antinomies of Realism is surely a failure. Although Jameson starts by setting out a single vision, he is soon too busy taking delight in his realists to stick to the master plan. Of Zola, embarking on his novel-sequence about the second French empire just before it fell apart, he writes: “Few writers . . . have had this kind of luck, where history obligingly redistributes your material for you in a more workable form.” Balzac, he claims, is “always remorseless towards his own characters . . . He has enough of them for the sympathies to go around, and if one falls short or goes to pieces, there will always be another one available.”

But Jameson’s disparate insights are neither united nor even enabled by his central thesis. Neither Zola’s fluke nor Balzac’s brusquerie rests on the theory of realism’s internal tensions, which, though fascinating, is full of holes. If discussions of realism and the novel tend to become indistinguishable, as Jameson claims, then how does his portrait of realism accommodate writers such as Cervantes (and, yes, Jane Austen) who not only wrote novels but practised something that many would call “realism” and did so before the “radical transformation of the experience of the body in the European 1840s” – before, in other words, the arrival of the force, affect, which Jameson claims created realism?

The hedgehog in Jameson serves to keep the book’s focus agreeably tight but the novel’s foxishness, which Jameson recognises and succumbs to, demands a focus as wide as the sky. Berlin wrote that Tolstoy’s gifts made him a fox no matter how hard he tried to play the hedgehog; with Jameson, it is the novel – and the curiosity the novel inspires in him – that overwhelms his genuine taste and talent for hedgehog thinking. The dialectical formula (thesis-antithesis-synthesis) suggests that there must exist a hedgehog-fox hybrid, a mode of thought that combines their strengths and cancels their vices, but The Antinomies of Realism shows the greatest dialectical thinker among living critics unable to locate it.

In his prologue, Jameson considers potential images for his desire to grasp the terminal points of realism “firmly at one and the same time” – negative and positive currents, the strands of DNA. Another springs no less quickly to the mind: the white whale.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman