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.

Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage

I resolved to read Denton Welch this year, enthused by Des’s advocacy, though the timing was determined by catching sight of a rather distinctive edition of Maiden Voyage, his first novel, in one of the Cecil Court bookshops: an American first with dust wrappers and end papers drawn by Welch.

With measured and precise description, Welch applies a loupe to people and objects. Although my copy is an American edition, I wonder whether an American reader would get the same pleasure from Welch’s empathetic observation of the nuances of that colossal curse of the English, its class system. Welch’s way of noticing the small things of life ends up creating a fictional (lightly autobiographical) world of epic proportion, one that is singularly alluring.

An extraordinary tension is set up in Maiden Voyage. As Michael Schmidt writes in his study, The Novel: “Welch’s prose is full of paradoxes, his stories of themes that are more telling for being undeclared.” The novel’s narrator often appears reserved, almost priggish, though there is a homoeroticism that almost but never quite breaks surface. It is similar to the sexual tension that suffuses Patricia Highsmith’s writing.

Maiden Voyage tells the story of a boy brought up in east Asia, after his mother’s death he is sent off to an absurd English public school, which he loathes, and from which he briefly absconds. As this storyline so exactly matches my own, I’m the ideal reader for Welch’s story. But beyond that, I am utterly compelled by his attention for small things. Elemental truths lie behind the sights, smells and sounds of apparently banal objects. Writers like Woolf, Proust and Welch sharpen our sights for things that would otherwise remain invisible to us.

Notes on Stendhal, via Sebald, Beckett et al.

Sebald chooses soldier, lover and would-be writer Marie-Henri Beyle to open the first section of Vertigo. He never mentions him by his better known pen-name Stendhal, nor does he reveal that his ‘essay’ and photographs are drawn from Stendhal’s fictionalised autobiography La Vie de Henri Brulard.

This first section of Vertigo contrasts the tragedy and comedy of Beyle’s life, using prose and photographs as a form of parallel narrative. Although presented as a historical essay, Sebald uses the text to ask questions of the nature and recording of memory. Aside from drawing me further into his story, Sebald reminds me to continue, at some point, my exploration of Stendhal’s work. A few passages below from notes taken on other writer’s thoughts on Stendhal, and indirectly, comparable writers:

  • “Beckett’s lectures indicate he found paradigms of indeterminacy and incoherence early in the history of the French novel, specifically in the school of the ‘Pre-Naturalists’. Flaubert and Stendhal were his models in this regards, and were given the compliment of being the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’. What is most important about these writers is that through engaging with the multiple facets of reality through a numbers of modes and perspectives, their work leaves ‘some material indeterminate’. In contrast to Prousts’s vision of aesthetic consolation and transcendence, there is ‘No such solution on Stendhal’.” (Beckett and the Modern Novel. 2012)
  • “[…] reservations regarding linearity and continuity may have directed Beckett’s thoughts toward the tradition of doubting a uniquely rationalist view of the world. In the notes on Stendhal in Beckett’s Dream Notebook from the early 1930s the word imprévu is found three times. In his letter dated 16 September 1934 to Thomas McGreevy, Beckett also quotes from Stendhal: ‘Maintenant la civilisation a chassé le hasard, plus d’imprévu. [Nowadays civilisation has eliminated chance, and the unexpected never happens.] Beckett is interested in Stendhal’s complaint about a world that is ruled by linear sequences of cause and effect.” (Beckett and Musicality. 2014)
  • Contrasting with his aversion to Balzac, Beckett thought Flaubert and Stendhal the ‘real ancestors of the modern novel’; “the former for his ‘impersonality’ of style and the ‘absence of purpose’ in his texts, and the latter for ‘his deliberately incoherent duality’ – his presentation of contrasting components without resolution, and the convenient ‘implication that [the] psychological real can’t be stated, [that is] imperceptible from every point of view.'” (Rachel Burrow’s lecture notes, via Briggite Le Juez)
  • “The secret of Stendhal may be that he conceived of life as a novel, but did not confuse the novel with life. He improvises because he knows that he is not Shakespeare; he cannot write as life does. Who, besides Shakespeare, could? Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Homer, the Bible, and post-Stendhal-Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce. Stendhal would not prevent to be of that visionary company, but he did not need to be.” (Harold Bloom, 2002)
  • In 1914 Ezra Pound wrote of Joyce, about the prose style of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “[…] His style has the hard clarity of a Stendhal or of a Flaubert.” Also, “I think the book is permanent like Flaubert and Stendhal. Not so squarish as Stendhal, certainly not so varnished as Flaubert. I think [Joyce] joins on to Hardy and Henry James.” (Ellman, Letters, II)
  • “‘I admire him, not as a model, but as a better self, one that I shall never really be, not fro a moment,’ said Elias Canetti. Inspired by the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, he used to turn to Stendhal, reading a few pages of Le rouge et le noir each day to keep his language fit and the detail precise and sufficient. For his part Stendhal dod not go to fiction, but getting himself in voice to dictate La Chartreuse he told Balzac in 1840 that he read two or three pages of the Code Napoléon to establish the objective tome, to be always natural, and never to use factitious means to intrigue the reader. No wonder Ford described him as ‘a cold Nietzsche.'” (Michael Schmidt. The Novel. 2014)