Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography

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.

 

Eliot, Schmidt: Sinking into Tranquility

It would be boring to say much about Middlemarch, acknowledged by so many as the most accomplished English-language novel of the nineteenth century. It affected me like a piece of fine music, in part making me happy, others sad, but also like, say, Beethoven’s late sonatas, I would find it difficult to adequately explain the magic of Middlemarch to someone. Its psychology is quite brilliant and Eliot may not be bettered at breathing individual life into her characters and their relationships with each other. But these things have been uttered before to the point of triteness.

The length and depth of Middlemarch, combined with the strange magic of Eliot’s prose gave me an immense tranquility, and I came to realise that this happens often when allowing myself to sink into very long novels.

It isn’t only books of fiction that have this power to disengage us from ourselves. My renewed enthusiasm for long works gave me the momentum to start Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography. At over a thousand pages it may appear forbidding but quickly one discovers it has no arid scholarliness, but is a refined and witty history of the novel in English. It has the effect of Montaigne or Marcus Aurelius. With no distinction between the writer and the writer’s voice, it is possible to feel a sort of intellectual rapport with Schmidt, not aways in agreement, but as with any affinity, a difference that is stretching.

Engaging with a Book

There are, I suppose, two ways to read a book. Perhaps many more. I tend to inhabit a book, giving rein to a flight of imagination that affords me the opportunity to see through the eyes of a character. Others, I imagine, spectate from afar like viewers at a puppet show.

I read Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth twice recently, a kind of double reading on the first occasion, when I read it straight through and started again at the beginning and read it straight through again without a break. It is the sort of book that I’ll read five or six times, and still be ready to read again.

Observing a writer’s world through their eyes, or sometimes, just the eyes of a particular character, can be so ineffable, so very fertile, that I wish to prolong the encounter for as long as is possible. Another time, reading a book like Max Frisch’s Homo Faber, the view is unsettling, discordant even, which is fecund in a different way, but still worth drawing out, only to emerge after a double reading, anguished but purged

There are writers I wish to engage with to the greatest extent, seeking out all they write: stories, letters, diaries, everything. They offer a rare chance to disturb in some small but permanent way how I conceptualise the world. It is the very best form of escapism, a boundary crossing, a chance to step over a threshold from one self to the other, not just intellectually but on a deep, emotional level. These writers that I set out to read to completion disengage me from myself, silently and profoundly. Who would I be, I wonder, without the alchemical transformation caused by writers like Dante, Christa Wolf, Denton Welch, Virginia Woolf, Mathias Énard, Roberto Calasso, Doris Lessing, Samuel Beckett, Kate Zambreno, Homer.

It isn’t only fiction that provides voluptuous literary encounters. When reading nonfiction, without that distinction between a writer and a writer’s voice, it is possible to develop what feels uncannily like a friendship. Such friends are Gilbert Highet, Walter Kaufmann, Plato, Hélène Cixous, Marcus Aurelius, who have each influenced my life for the better. This intellectual endowment, this gift that is reading, is transformative. Sometimes enchanting, not always comfortable or easy, but that is the nature of friendship.

Reading Marcus Aurelius

What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.

When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

  1. That everything that happens is natural.
  2. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
  3. And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
  4. What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].

And …

  1. That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
  2. That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
  3. That it’s all how you choose to see things.
  4. That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:

From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.

This Year’s Idées Fixes

My reading orbits an accretion of preoccupations. So far, this year’s idées fixes are the influence of the East on Greco-Roman thought (and by extension, modern thought), Epicureanism, the neo-vitalist/transcendental materialist movement in contemporary philosophy, and asceticism. It may be that the interrelation between these themes are personal, but they appear deeply connected.

Following a question on Twitter I thought I’d compile a list of some of the texts that I’ve recently read and that I’ll be reading over the next few months. Please feel free to make further suggestions of titles that speak urgently to these concerns. These are all complementary to the Urtexts  of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Diogenes Laertius, and to this superb companion.

  • Jane Bennett – Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things [PDF]
  • Pierre Hadot – Philosophy as a way of life
  • Jane Bennett – The Enchantment of Modern Life
  • Pierre Hadot – The Present Alone is Our Happiness
  • Alexander Nehamas – The Art of Living
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Desert
  • Pierre Hadot – The Veil of Isis
  • Randall Collins – The Sociology of Philosophers
  • David Jasper – The Sacred Body
  • Pierre Hadot – What is Ancient Philosophy?