Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography is an odd book. It does almost none of the things histories of literature do. It doesn’t start with Defoe. It doesn’t dissect texts in any conventional sense. Schmidt takes only passing interest in literary critics, preferring to learn about fiction from novelists. It took him twelve years to write The Novel, requiring him to read all the major and minor works referenced for the first time. Schmidt previously concerned himself with poetry rather than fiction. This is not an inward journey into Schmidt’s psyche, yet his voice is strong and distinctive. The book appears to have been written in an ecstatic trance of discovery, yielding as many surprises to the writer as for the reader. It is this quality that makes its thousand plus pages not only effortless but thrilling to read.
We read fiction for many qualities and the more I read the less I understand about why particular books appeal to individual readers: sometimes for style, or the characters, sometimes for insight or form or atmosphere, sometimes there is a perceptible but hard to describe force or tension that makes a story linger long after a book is shelved. Very occasionally all these factors come together to produce those major works that are passed down over time. This is the sociable aspect of fiction, often seen as a solitary pursuit, but few books live long that aren’t shared with friends in conversation or as gifts.
Reading nonfiction is different, although it can share characteristics with fiction, but sometimes what lives long after you complete a book is a sense of companionship, even friendship with a writer that inspires or influences your life. Marcus Aurelius wrote that, “when you have read, you carry away with you a memory of the man himself.”
Schmidt’s simple premise is that fiction is a living organism, with all novels related in some way to one another. As readers we all have a different reading life, starting perhaps with Tintin and progressing to Proust, with many stops and detours in between. As with our own reading lives, fiction goes through times of low and high energy, but intrinsic is the idea of an interchange between writers: without Cervantes and Sterne, Woolf or Joyce would not have written in the way they did. In many ways, Sterne is as contemporary as Woolf, so although Schmidt’s biography is broadly chronological, when necessary he plucks writers out of time in order to situate their work in the ocean of literature.
If you care about the nature and fate of fiction, then you cannot fail to be enriched by the reflection, humour and great subtlety of this line by line celebration of novels. Schmidt stops his biography at the year 2000 and I can only hope he writes a sequel to bring his thoughts on fiction up to date, if only to keep company with his wonderfully sociable reading life.
An interesting piece – and I like the idea of his juxtaposing authors and novels on a basis other than chronology – ‘the ocean of literature’ as you elegantly put it. I’ve found myself adducing Sterne in the oddest places when teaching modern, or even Victorian fiction. I’ve dipped into his Lives of the Poets over the years, and agree that he’s an engaging, perceptive reader and writer
I’m looking forward to reading his Lives of the Poets, though expect it to be less speculative. His thrill of discovery and in some cases surprise makes this a reader’s rather than a scholar’s history.
The fact that this is no dry, linear essay actually makes it very appealing to my grasshopper mind. And I like what you say about the reading experience being like a friendship with the author – I’ve felt that many times over the years, so much so that I almost feel like I have a vested interest in the writer and their works!
I can vouch for a companion-like interest in Schmidt’s work and intend to dip further into his books, both poetry and criticism.
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