Friday, 1 August 2014
The novel reflects
1,172pp. Harvard University Press. £29.95 ($39.95).
978 0 674 72473 0
The title and the length of Michael Schmidt's book promise something more than an annotated chronology. This is not a rise of, nor an aspects of, nor even a theory of, the novel, but a nuanced account of the development of an innovative form. As in most biographies, the subject expands and grows from the innocence of childhood – a literature of adventure, based in travel-writing, fables and legend – to a rebellious adolescence of the erotic, letter-writing and romance, then a solid middle age of three-decker commercial success and social realism. Socially committed fiction then succumbs to the late-life confusions of postmodernism. The death of the novel is hardly mentioned, though Gore Vidal's worries about the death of the novel-reader are noted. The book's thirty-six-page timeline, which begins with Bartholomeus Anglicus (1203?–1277), ends with Bret Easton Ellis (born 1964); its 1,103-page text starts with Mandeville's Travels (which first appeared in the middle of the fourteenth century) and finishes with six pages of praise for the work of Martin Amis.
In his introduction Schmidt sets out his view of the novel with an emphasis on popularity and readability, in particular the idea of engagement. The strong relationship between reader and book is illustrated by his memories of the addictive pleasures of G. A. Henty and the Hardy Boys, H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Ransome: "we pestered our parents for another: we wanted to stay in those adventures with their smells, colors and voices . . . we didn't want a book to end even as we rushed to the climax". Schmidt then traces a 700-year history of the form through a series of thematic groupings, some conventional, such as "Sex and Sensibility", "The Eerie", "Gothic Romance"; others more inventive, such as "Win, Place and Show", "The Blues", "Pariahs". These groupings produce creative alignments: Aphra Behn shares a chapter with Zora Neale Hurston and W. H. Hudson is considered alongside Bruce Chatwin. Robert Graves is placed next to Doris Lessing, P. G. Wodehouse to Kazuo Ishiguro, Roddy Doyle to James Joyce and Hugh Walpole to Frederic Raphael. Selected authors are summarized with a brief life and an examination of their influences and prejudices. Selected books are analysed with the help of publication history, advances and sales figures, prizes and reception, which includes banning and burning and turning into major motion pictures.
Professional critics and reviewers are scarcely mentioned; the commentary comes from the novelist-critics Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, E. M. Forster, Henry James, Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal, with additional input from fellow novelists who reveal their loyalties and exercise their wit. Some of these comments are judicious and informative. Others are more emotional. Graham Greene calls Sterne "unbearable"; Thackeray says of Smollett "I fancy he did not invent much"; John Cowper Powys and E. M. Forster savage George Meredith; William Gass calls Pamela "the edifying history of a prick tease"; Gabriel Josipovici compares Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan to "prep-school boys showing off"; and Stephen King dismisses Thomas Hardy: "Nobody's life is this bad. Give me a break, you know". Schmidt also makes his own feelings plain: Frankenstein is "less a novel than a text"; Redgauntlet is "more famous than it is good"; Sylvia Townsend Warner is guilty of "a rather too charming inventiveness"; Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is "a book to study not to read". In a gleeful passage he imagines Samuel Richardson "rising day after day to add further twists to the undoing of his heroine, his little tongue running along his upper lip with a leer, not of malice but of satisfaction". A rewarding theme, writers on how to write, is followed from Henry James and Graham Greene to Ronald Knox and Elmore Leonard, with several nice examples of rules for writing, including Jasper Milvain's guide for prospective authors in George Gissing's New Grub Street ("Novel-writing taught in ten lessons!"). He also tells a good anecdote: Marie Corelli rowed in her gondola on the Avon at Stratford; Ernest Hemingway describing Wyndham Lewis as having "the eyes of a rapist"; Hugh Walpole spotting Rudyard Kipling at the Athenaeum, "beaming like a baby"; Hardy having Thomas Carlyle pointed out to him at Chapman and Hall in 1869; and Ottoline Morrell's "unbuttoned romance" with a stonemason called Tiger as a source for Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Schmidt's preferences are strong and warm. He admires a range of authors from Thomas Love Peacock and Walter Scott to Anthony Burgess and Peter Carey, and many minor authors are indexed. In general, however, he sticks to a familiar English-language canon and does not always sustain the argument for engagement in his careful accounts of what a book is about and why you should like it. As the years pass, the chart becomes fuller and fuller; the statistics increase – She has sold 90 million copies since it was published in 1887; Agatha Christie wrote sixty novels in sixty-three years; 55 per cent of all paperback books sold in the US in 2004 were romance novels – and critical terms such as self-reflexive, shape-shifting and apocalyptic single out the academically approved – Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem – from the popular – Stephen King, Helen Fielding, Erle Stanley Gardner. At times, Schmidt seems to avoid the issue. Some bestselling authors, such as Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, are simply said to "transcend their genre". The romantic fiction of Barbara Cartland, Catherine Cookson and Georgette Heyer is easily dismissed. The Western is praised as having led to Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and Patrick de Witt. Science fiction and Chandleresque detective fiction are both taken seriously. In practice, the juxtaposing and the undercutting support a distinction between enjoyable novels and serious fiction, endorsing Orwell's idea of a "good bad book", acknowledging the difference and noting the critical resistance to genre fiction. Much space is devoted to Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Marilynne Robinson, less to Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler, Jane Smiley and Ali Smith, and none to Beryl Bainbridge or Penelope Fitzgerald. Kingsley Amis and Henry Green are praised, Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell damned; Nabokov outweighs George Orwell; William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac beat Elizabeth Taylor. The American strand, from Theodore Dreiser to Saul Bellow, from Mark Twain to J. D. Salinger, from William Faulkner to Zane Grey, appears more heroic to Schmidt, and several writers are quoted disparaging the genteel and class-bound English novel with its sadly escapist tendencies.
Among the many happy byways of the book is a quotation from Tony Harrison's house-clearance poem "Thomas Campey and the Copernican System", a tale of forgotten books: "Marie Corelli, Ouida and Hall Caine / And texts from Patience Strong in tortoise frames. / And every pound of this dead weight is pain / To Thomas Campey (Books)". The novel can be viewed as a jumble of out-of-date texts, but The Novel: A biography incidentally provides the material for one to make a personal re-reading list: The Female Quixote, Crotchet Castle, Their Wedding Journey, The Custom of the Country, The Maltese Falcon, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Lonesome Dove, Amongst Women. This well-produced and apparently scholarly book has a good index but no footnotes to provide the sources of its many quotations. Its style of citing authors' names is inconsistent and there are minor confusions about Virginia Woolf's half-sisters and the first name of the author of Just William.