Sunday, September 13, 2015

Notes on 'The Novel" by Michael Schmidt

Excerpts (examplars) abstractly organized under the rubrics of FORM, STYLE, CONTENT & THEME


Speaking of Emily Bronte he says that

 ‘her verse strains conventional form; in fiction she strained form too. Form is a means not an end; if the end violates the means, let convention bend. What matters is not fiction but the truth that fiction tells. ‘

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The case for the ‘proper novel’ is still made , not the least by novelists who continue to work in what  they believe to be an unbroken line that stretches from Defoe and Fielding – well, to Howards Jacobson, Hilary Mantel, Nicole Krauss.

But Borges knew that tradition is not synonymous with convention: on the contrary the dry hand of convention is at that throat of that vital and irreducible  thing that is tradition. Taste agrees with convention, judgment is engaged  with extending tradition.  As Don Quixote shows, the author’s tilting-spear against the impotent windmill of convention is irony.

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“Miss Gertrude Stein”, wrote Wyndham Lewis “is the best known exponent of a literary system that consists in a sort of gargantuan mental stutter.”  He likens her process to the speech of the mad. “Her art is composed, first, of repetition, which lyricises her utterances on the same principle a that of hebrew [sic] poetry. But the repetition is also in the nature of a photograph of the unorganized word-dreaming of the mind when not concentrated for some logical functional purpose.” This describes at once her method and what it works  away from.

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In Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, the first page of the novel has told us what the end will be. This is a novel not of suspense but of process, as the concluding sentences which do not presume to understand, make clear: “Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of his completed revenge, it is impossible to say.  .  . the integrity of the book is in this phrase, ‘it is impossible to say.’

 Incompleteness, withholding of interpretation from areas the novelist intended to remain unexplained, creates space for readers  willing to subject the darkness.

“Writing is a process of dealing with not knowing, a forcing of what and how .  .  .  The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. It is not simple, because it is hedged about with prohibitions,
roads that may not be taken.  The more serious the artist, the more problems he takes into account and the more considerations limit his possible initiatives. There is no place for clich├ęs or off-the-peg language, for “content” conventionally conceived. “I think the paraphrasable content in art is rather slight – ‘tiny, as de Kooning puts it. The change of emphasis from what to the how seems to me to be the major impulse in art since Flaubert, and it’s not merely formalism, it’s not that superficial, it’s an attempt to reach the truth, and a very rigorous one.”(Donald Barthelme)

There is the stage method. According to that each character is duly marshaled  at first and ticketed; we know with an immutable certainty that at the right crisis each one will reappear to act his part, and, when the curtain falls, all will stand before it bowing .  .  .  But there is another method – the method of the life we live lead. Here nothing can be prophesied. There is a strange coming and going of feet.  Men appear, act and re-act upon each other, and pass away. When the crisis comes the man who would fit it does not return. When the curtain falls no one is ready. When the footlights are brightest they are blown out; and what the name of the play is no one knows. If there sits a spectator who knows, he sits so high that the players in the gaslight cannot hear his breathing. Life may be painted according to either method; but the methods are different. The canons of criticism can bear upon one cut cruelly upon the other.( Emilie Schreiner, preface to The Story of an African Farm -1883)

In the abundant evenness of Anthony Trollope’s work, an evenness in which excellent novels and dull novels are delivered in the same idiom, at the same steady pace, one is put in mind of Fielding’s “painful and voluminous historian” who feels himself compelled “to fill up as much paper with the details of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened, as he employs on those noble eras when the greatest scenes have been transacted.” Such histories are like newspapers, with the same count of words whether or not there is news; their writers are like stagecoaches that run back and forth on the same route whether or not they carry passengers.


Flaubert developed the style indirect libre; as in Joyce, the thoughts of the characters are set down without preamble, without “he reflected” or “she felt,” so that inner elements carry the weight as “objective” detail. The narration moves, without the reader being consciously aware, between “omniscient” or “objective” and the subjectivities of characters. Their sincerity or candor coexists with the narrative’s irony. Jane Austin did something of the sort, but Flaubert developed into the central principle of his art and reflected on its practice. Gore Vidal finds here “no such thing as a subject, style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing things.” John Cowper Powys compared his prose to a “great cracked bassoon”, which has something of Flaubert’s tone about it. Here is Flaubert’s own instrument: “Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance, when all the time we are longing to move the stars.”

Proust takes us to the heart of Flaubert’s manner. He resists the strong metaphors that lend “a kind of immortality to style” and seldom rises above the level of the speech of his most common characters. He does not entertain the possibility that this is the point of them, that they are – in Madame Bovary at least – in character, and their colloquial weakness does not draw us way from a character whose perspective we have assumed. Proust concentrates on elements in the prose that are hard to translate, the nature of the language that creates “the great moving pavement” that are the passages of Flaubert. “ There is,” he says, “a grammatical beauty (as there is a moral or a dramatic beauty) which has nothing to do with correctness.” A sentence can begin in one place and end up in quite another, and the forward movement of style is not a compression of completed sentences but an interlocking pattern; a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause rises above its station and governs what follows. Proust speaks of the “hermetic continuity of style” achieved, hence the moving pavement.

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Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man is about the thrills,  vertigo and final satisfaction of writing from and of the self. Though the self is fictionalized, the fiction is thin, like the convenient shadow-fancies that facilitate onanism. Style over content, a solipsistic spider, decidedly male, stirs its guts and lets out a shimmering thread.

‘The style”, wrote Stevenson, “is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler,  but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication.”

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Martin Amis shares Saul Bellows revulsion to Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. He starts by anatomizing its cliches, then cuts deeper into it. “Equally enthralling and distasteful, it is Waugh’s problem comedy,” he says, likening it to Mansfield Park as “worrying, inordinate, self-conscious, a book that steps out of genre and never really looks at home with its putative author.” Amis locates the effects of Waugh’s snobbery on the writing: “There is  something barefaced, even aggressive, in the programmatic way the novel arranges for its three most un-regenerative characters to claim the highest spiritual honors.” Charles  Ryder’s first conversion is social and sexual;
at Brideshead he is drawn into the baroque. Amis speaks of the disjunction between the novel’s heartlessness and its elaborate and elaborated style: But is the baroque not gesture and effect in lieu  of actual content? The pillars sustain nothing, an architecture of show without substance, to which the current heirs have nothing but the accidental claim of birthright.

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Twain brings back into literary usage, “in this age of mass literacy,” Updike says, some of the properties of speech. “In utterance there’s a minimum of slowness. In trying to treat words as chisel strokes, you run the risk  of losing the quality of utterance, the rhythm of utterance, the happiness.” His example is from Twain: “He describes a raft  hitting a bridge and says that ‘it all went to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning.’   The beauty of the ‘scatteration’ could only have occurred to a talkative man, a man who had been brought up among people  who were talking and loved to talk himself. The diction and cadence of written speech are of course not speech but artful contrivance, yet the art tends towards placing the speaker back in the text as speaker: not James’s celebrated ‘point of view.’ but something basic to older traditions of storytelling . The telling is foregrounded  and slowness at all costs avoided.

Joan Didion celebrates, as it is hard not to do, V.S. Naipaul’s resistance to theories and his dependence on fact.  Theory and ideology are ‘no more than scaffolding, something to be erected or demolished; something imposed (a word Naipaul often uses in relation to ideas)  on the glitter of the sea , the Congo clogged
with hyacinth, the actual world”  She looks at the opening of Guerillas and notes, “The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page .  .  .  tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image.” A luminous, billowing image, with color, smell, peril in it, tells us “who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has been historically obtained, but all  of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself.” Naipaul traffics in facts. He sees and feels them with a Homeric impartiality and clarity. He is not a comforting writer any more than Gibbon or Conrad is.”

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Steinbeck to a writer friend who told him correctness in writing was necessary “good manners,” “But I have no interest in the printed word. I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print. I put my words down for a matter of memory. They are more made to be spoken than to be read. I have the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener .  .  . When my sounds are all in place, I can send them to a stenographer who knows his trade and  he can slip the commas about until they fit comfortably and he can spell the words so school teachers  will not raise their eyebrows when they read them. Why should I bother?” No wonder his writing was susceptible to film treatment: it came to him as images and voices.

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‘The style”, wrote Stevenson, “is therefore the most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler,  but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication.”


When Sinclair Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, he rendered the coup de grace to the Howells in his address, “The American Fear of Literature.” He began in a friendly patronizing voice, almost like Howell’s. “Mr. Howells was one of the gentlest, sweetest, and most honest of men,” and then, to the jugular, “but he had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage. He abhorred not only profanity and obscenity but all of what H.G. Well’s had called the jolly coarseness of life.” Only the Great War put an end to his stifling influence on American letters. His greatest achievement was “to tame Mark Twain, perhaps the greatest of our writers, and to put that fiery old savage into an intellectual frock coat and top hat.” His type survived. Lewis’s medicine, magisterially administered, tried to purge the republic of American letters of one of its most persistent types.

Lewis spared his Nobel audience the whole story of his struggle .  .  .  He comes from a country in which most of us – not readers alone but even writers – are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

“If the citizens of the United States were indeed the devoted patriots they call themselves, they would surely not thus encrust themselves in the hard, dry, stubborn persuasion, that they are the first and best of the human race, that nothing is to be learnt, but what they are able to teach, and that nothing is worth having, which they do not possess.” (Frances Trollope, Anthony’s mother, after her time in Ohio, 1827)

Theodore Dreiser was warned by his boss, “a most eager and ambitious and distressing example of that pseudo-morality which combines a pirate-like acquisitiveness with an inward and absolute conviction of righteousness,” that he wanted novelty, not the “mush” of other magazines. But nothing should be accepted that did not strongly appeal to the common reader, and everything had to be “clean”. “a solid little pair of millstones which would unquestionably end in macerating everything vital out of any good story.”

Gore Vidal cannot abide  John Updike’s ingratiating obedience to the reader. His conservative politics and his comfy aesthetics express “blandness and acceptance of authority in any form.” He “describes to no purpose,” aspiring to be “our good child.” His final verdict: “Updike’s work is more and more representative of that polarizing within a state where Authority grows ever more brutal and malign while its hired hands in the media grow ever more excited as the holy war of the few against the many heats up.

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Henry James distanced himself from Howell’s notion that American freedom from custom, class, and ingrained tradition was liberating for the novelist. In the first place, did such freedom, could such freedom, really exist in society? “It is on manners, usages, habits, forms, upon all these things matured and established, that a novelist lives – they are the very stuff his work is made of and in saying that in the absence of those ‘dreary and worn-out paraphernalia’ which I enumerate as being wanted in American society, ‘we have simply the whole of human life left,’ you beg (to my sense)the question. I should say we had just so much less of it  as these same ‘paraphernalia’ represent, and I think they represent an enormous quantity of it.”


Provincialism is a theme central to European and then American fiction. It has to do as much with attitude as with location. We have experienced its effects  in Stendhal, where Julien Sorel slowly rises out of it, and then is destroyed by it. Balzac does not trust the reader as Stendhal does: he underlines what he means with essayistic strokes. “Far away from the centers of light shed by great minds, where the air is quick with thought, knowledge standstill, taste is corrupted like stagnant water, and passion dwindles, frittered away upon infinitely small objects which it strives to exalt. Herein lies the secret avarice and tittle-tattle that poisons provincial life.  The contagion of narrow-mindedness and meanness affects the noblest natures; and in such ways and these, men born to be great, and women who would have been charming if they had fallen under the forming influence of greater minds, are balked of their lives.”

Thomas Hardy’s theme is individual un-fulfillment in time. His vision is of a past unrealized, full of potential: “Everything glowed with a gleam,” but “we were looking away.” The past with its choices is placed beside a present those choices impoverished. Life is ever “a thwarted purposing.”  “The English peasant lived and still lives in a milder, flatter world than Hardy’s,” says Pritchard, “a world where conscience and self-interest keep down the passions, like a pair of gamekeepers.”

Joseph Conrad ends his “Note” on his first book (Almayer’s Folly, 1895) with the words: “the curse of facts and the blessings of illusions, the bitterness of our wisdom and the deceptive consolation of our folly,” an epigraph for his entire oeuvre.

Stevenson is not far away. He wrote, ”No man lives in the external truth, among salts and aids, but in the warm, phantasmagorical chamber of his brain, with the painted windows and the storied walls.

There is no such thing as unfictionalized fact: as soon as a fact finds a context, it behaves in accordance with it.

1 comment:

  1. ”There is no such thing as unfictionalized fact: as soon as a fact finds a context, it behaves in accordance with it.