Once Upon a Time:
A Short, Chaotic, and Entirely Idiosyncratic
History of the Novel
Iris Murdoch only wrote one novel in her lifetime. But she wrote it twenty-six times. Anthony Burgess never wrote the same book twice. And he wrote about a thousand. Are those characterizations accurate? Fair? Of course not. You will hear from time to time that criticism of Murdoch, and in fairness, they are pretty similar. The Green Knight (1993), her last novel before the Alzheimer's-damaged Jackson's Dilemma, isn't all that far from Under the Net (1954). Same class, same sorts of problems, same ethical preoccupations. Strong characterization and strong plotting. All this was deemed a positive virtue during her lifetime: her fans could count on a new yet familiar novel every two to three years. Those novels would always be solid and, once in a while, as with the Booker Prize winning The Sea, the Sea (1978), they would knock your socks off.
And Burgess? He has his consistencies, as well. But nothing in the early novels can prepare the reader for A Clockwork Orange (1962), which is wildly unlike the Enderby novels of the 1970s, which are formally quite distant from the experimentalism of Napoleon Symphony (1974) or the historical artfulness and Elizabethan language of his novels on Shakespeare, Nothing Like the Sun (1964), and Christopher Marlowe, A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), or the Maugham-like performance of what many call his masterpiece, Earthly Powers (1980), to say nothing of his novels in verse. Where readers of Murdoch can begin a new novel with a quiet confidence, opening a Burgess book is an exercise in anxiety: what the devil is he up to this time?
Does it matter, this difference in uniformity? Not really. After all, each novel would have both its return audience and its newcomers, so each book had to teach its readers how to deal with it, as if for the first time, which for some it was.
It always is. Every novel is brand-new. It's never been written before in the history of the world. At the same time, it's merely the latest in a long line of narratives—not just novels, but narratives generally—since humans began telling stories to themselves and each other. This is the basic dialectic of literary history. The impulse to originality clashes with the received tradition of things already written. Miraculously, neither ever seems to overwhelm the other, and novels keep appearing, as do audiences to read them. Even so, some novels are more traditional, some more experimental, some impossible to classify.
Let's go back to a time when the novel really was new. Once upon a time, there weren't any novels. There were other things that were narrative and lengthy—epics, religious or historical narratives of the tribe, prose or verse romances, nonfictional narratives like travelogues. You know, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Táin Bó Cuailgne in Ireland, the romances of Chrétien de Troye and Marie de France. Plenty of candidates out there. Just not novels. Then some things began emerging, sporadically. It may be that the Catalan writer Joanot Martorell's Tirant lo Blanc, first published in Valencia in 1490, is the first European novel we can recognize as such. Note the date. Columbus hadn't sailed the sea to discover modernity yet, but he was about to. The rise of the novel coincides with the rise of the modern world—exploration, discovery, invention, development, oppression, industrialization, exploitation, conquest, and violence—and that's no coincidence. It took more than movable type to make the novel possible; it took a new age. But I digress.
Rightly or wrongly, there are two novels we generally think of as the "first"—and they're seventy years apart. In 1678 someone, perhaps Madame de La Fayette, published a little novel of profound significance. Its popularity was such that people lined up at the publishers waiting, sometimes for months, for their copies. Take that, Harry Potter. The book is called La Princesse de Clèves, and its chief claim to fame is not as a first novel but as the first roman d'analyse, a novel of analysis, a book that investigates emotions and mental states, pushing well beyond the mere conveying of plot. Some readers three hundred and some years later may find the tale a little clunky for their tastes, although the clunkiness largely resides in the surface details, in how persons in the novel speak and address one another and how the writer handles character presentation. The mores of the novel are not ours, but they are genuine in themselves, as are the consequences that grow out of the dictates of conscience. For its time (published within a decade of the Sturm und Drang that is Paradise Lost), the narrative is an extremely subtle performance, and writers as various as Jane Austen, Henry James, Gustave Flaubert, and Anita Brookner couldn't do what they do without it. Madame de La Fayette is one of the giants of the novel, but she's just a kid.
At the yonder end of the century, 1605 to be exact, a book came out that really set the world on its ear. Here's what I heard the amazing Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes say at a conference once: "All of Latin American literature grows out of Don Quixote." Not fiction or novels. Literature. All of it. The Hispanic world gets to claim Miguel de Cervantes and his masterpiece, of course, but it has to share with the rest of us. The book is simply too big for any one group to own. It's goofy and serious, hilarious and sad, satiric and original. And it's first. Okay, okay, there are lots of "first" novels. But this is a big first. Cervantes shows everyone else what might be done. He paro dies earlier narrative forms as his Quixote descends into confusion between the world of the too many romances he has read and the dull world life has saddled him with. Cervantes uses an out of touch figure locked in some never-never past to make commentary on the author's here and now. His hero is comic, certainly, but there's a forlorn quality there, too, as we watch someone too far gone in fantasy to notice, whose gestures, as in his championing of Dulcinea and his tilting at windmills, are both noble and pathetic, uplifting and pointless.How to Read Novels Like a Professor. Copyright © by Thomas Foster. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
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