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The Limits of the Novel

Recently I undertook to write the introduction to a paperback anthology of a new sort, compiled with more than the usual care by Robert Terrall. From the Great Novels is the title, and the book, will consist of passages selected from 28 novels beginning with Don Quixote; not all the others are great ones, but at least they are famous and worth rereading. Of course there is no passage, however well chosen, that could stand for the novel from which it is taken. Mr. Terrall’s book has the advantage, however, of bringing together three centuries of fiction as if in a sample assortment of masterworks. By presenting a very broad picture, it might lead to some general reflections on the history and future of the novel.

A novel might be defined as a long but unified story, designed to be read at more than one sitting, that deals with a group of lifelike characters in a plausible situation and leads to a change in their relationship. Key words in the definition are group and change. The first implies that the novelist is presenting some sort of social order, no matter how small or intimate, while the second implies that the order is not quite the same at the beginning of the novel as it will be at the end; how the change came about is the theory. Two other words, lifelike and plausible, suggest a difference between the novel and the romance, which is an older form demanding more credulity from its somewhat less sophisticated readers.

Within the broad limits of this definition, the novelist is granted liberties of every sort that can be imagined. He may deal with any subject (provided it is one, subject), with any setting on the terrestrial globe (or beyond it, in heaven or hell or outer space), and with any group of characters belonging to any historical period or time of life.

To mention four common types of novels, his book may be “The Adventures of — ” or “The Courtship of — ” or “The Education of — ” or “The Rise (or Fall) of — ,” and the dashes might stand for the names of any conceivable heroes or heroines. Again the hero may be a group of persons—for example, a family (as in hundreds of novels), an army platoon (as in The Naked and the Dead), a ship’s company (as in Mister Roberts), a city (as in Sironia, Texas), or even a nation during thirty years (as in Dos Passos’ three-volume U.S.A.). The style may be courtly or colloquial, or anything between those extremes, and it may be used to enforce any sort of lesson, solemn or cynical, or no lesson at all. In general the novelist is compelled to meet only two stipulations beyond those already stated, but he must meet them on pain of early death for his book. He must present characters in whom the reader can believe, and he must create a mood of expectancy.

Considering the simplicity of these requirements, with the scope they offer to inventive writers, and considering the powerful appeal of the novel to many types of readers, we are inclined to forget that it is a comparatively new form of literature. One reason for its late appearance is suggested by a phrase in our definition: “designed to be read.” Epic and ballad poetry, which preceded the novel, was designed to be recited in noble houses or sung at a cottage hearth. Even the romance, which was popular in the ancient world and during the Renaissance, was allied to the art of telling stories aloud. Its readers—or listeners—would tolerate any sort of improbabilities and any wanderings into pleasant by-paths so long as the storyteller kept them interested from one moment to another; they were not concerned with the shape of the story as a whole. Before the true novel could appear, there had to be a large body of literate persons with money to buy books, and with something else that seems to develop at a rather late stage of culture: a self-conscious interest in the social behavior of others like themselves. Moreover, the books that portrayed such behavior had to be available; in other words, there had to be authors, publishers, booksellers, libraries, a reading-matter industry with many branches.

All this might explain why not a single novel survives from ancient times, among scores of Greek and Latin romances. Scholars are generally agreed that the Satyricon of Petronius—if we had the whole work instead of scattered passages—might prove to be a novel in the modern sense, and there may have been others like it. The oldest novel of which we have a complete text is The Tale of Genji, written in Japan during the 11th Century.

In Western Europe—as also in China—the invention of the novel followed by more than a hundred years the invention of printing with movable type. Scholars like to say that Don Quixote, half of which was published in 1604, is the first Western example of the new form. The first French novel, and still one of the greatest, is The Princess of Cleves (1678); and most critics hold that the first English novel is Richardson’s Pamela (1740), which was widely imitated in Europe, although some would make a prior claim for Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders.

Ahundred years after Pamela, the novel had clearly replaced the stage play as a central medium, one that attracted ambitious writers of every nation with a message to deliver or a story to tell. All sorts of material was pressed into the new universal mold. If the same writers had lived in another age, some of them would have been epic or didactic poets or preachers or pamphleteers, but one suspects that most of them would have been playwrights. The nineteenth-century Shakespeares were Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy. After another hundred years the novel remains by far the most popular form with writers and the public at large. If that position is threatened, it is more by the new electronic arts—and still more by inner developments in the art of fiction—than it is by any other system of arranging written words.

Customarily we are told that the novel is a middle-class form of literature, and that is largely true as regards its origins, but the passages collected in Mr. Terrall’s book would suggest that it is not primarily middle-class in its interests. These 28 novelists seem to do best with characters from the lower ranks of society, and second best with noblemen; some of their most effective scenes are those in which nobles and peasants confront each other (as on the battlefield of Waterloo, when the young Marchesino del Dongo is saved by a vivandière). Our novelists seem to take less interest in the middle classes, and sometimes write about them with strained attention but also with an air of distaste, as if they had first scrubbed their hands and had the nurse put on a pair of rubber gloves. That is Flaubert’s attitude in Madame Bovary, and it helps to explain why one great novel is admired and imitated more than it is loved.

There is another generality to be made from the selections in this volume. Although all but one of the novelists are men, they are fascinated by their women characters and in many cases make them more vivid than those oftheir own sex. That is already true of Cervantes when he describes the night his hero spent at an inn; the unforgettable character in that episode is Maritornes, the hunch-backed, ill-smelling, open-hearted serving wench. In the same way Fielding’s Lady Booby—not to mention Mrs. Slipslop—and Thomas Mann’s Egyptian princess have more life than the two Josephs they are trying to corrupt; they join hands across the centuries with Moll Flanders, Valérie Marneffe, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Molly Bloom. The talent of a great novelist is in large part a talent for creating passionately living women.

But the great novelists have other points of resemblance; it is as if they all revealed features inherited from one enduring race. Not only do they deal with the same subjects in their vastly different fashions—and that is only to be expected, since their underlying subject is always the pity, absurdity, and richness of human life—but they also reveal a surprising number of connections between one novelist and another. Often the connection is within the same decade and the same national literature. Melville—to mention only one example—had written the first draft of a novel about whaling, incidentally while reading Shakespeare’s tragedies. Then he met Hawthorne, read his stories, and completely rewrote the novel to incorporate the “blackness” he admired in them; it was only in this second version—so the scholars have come to believe—that he presented Captain Ahab and his search for the white whale.

Sometimes, however, the influence of a great novelist is exercised from one language to another, even at a distance of centuries. Thus Cervantes: we find definite traces of his work in Fielding and Sterne, Manzoni, Dostoevski (The Idiot) and even Jaroslav Hasek; the good soldier Schweik is a late though by no means the last reincarnation of Sancho Panza. Defoe, Scott and Flaubert, among others, were examples for all countries. But the enduring influence on the novel—at least on great novels—comes from outside the field of prose fiction: it was Shakespeare who inspired Scott, Manzoni, Dickens, Hugo, Balzac, Stendhal, Melville and Tolstoy (even though the last ended by convincing himself that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was greater than Hamlet).

In our own time and country the Shakespearian note reappears in Wolfe and Faulkner, some of whose characters speak in Elizabethan blank verse. What most of the earlier great novelists acquired from Shakespeare was a sense of freedom and power and an overmastering dream, that of depicting all the human passions carried to their utmost intensity. It is to be noted that Shakespeare had less effect on novelists of the second or third rank. Apparently a writer has to reach a certain level of vision before he can undergo that influence without succumbing under it.

Among the novelists of our own time, Thomas Mann—and Gide to a lesser extent—look back to Goethe; Hemingway looks back to Stendhal and Mark Twain; Dreiser to Balzac (more than to Zola), Faulkner also to Balzac (as well as Shakespeare), and Somerset Maugham to Racine—not for immediate models, but rather for secret inspiration and springs of courage. The great men recognize one another at a distance, as if they were raised to such a height that they could neglect the intervening crowd of little men.  Baudelaire described his favorite painters as Les Phares, the beacons, “burning on a thousand citadels,” and the great novelists are beacons too, sending their long beams of light across the plain.

Yet for all their acknowledged kinship, they are rivals in a lofty way, almost like feudal barons in their separate strongholds. They make visits of state and exchange compliments without swearing fealty. The new novelists say to the older ones, “You have built your castles and marked off your domains. Admiring your achievements, I leave them to you and press beyond the frontier to conquer a domain of my own.” They must always do more, go farther, and that explains why the novel is a dynamic form, never remaining the same from one generation to another

During the last three centuries it has made an almost continual but disorderly progress not in one direction but in all directions, and always toward the extreme limit of any particular tendency. Thus we have, to mention a few examples, the limit of scientific naturalism in Zola (though later writers would outdo him in mere brutality), the limit of middle-class sociological realism in Babbitt, and the limit of invaded privacy—or so it would seem—in Molly Bloom’s inner monologue. Joyce himself would go deeper into the psyche by merging thoughts into dreams, and in Finnegan’s Wake he would also reach the limit of difficulty, for any book intended to be read and understood.

The limit of externality was reached in Hemingway’s early stories (Gertrude Stein had overpassed the limit), and that of controlled fantasy was probably reached in Kafka; at least one suspects that anything more fantastic than The Castle would not be a novel. The limit of conscious vision was reached in Henry James, and something like the limit, for ordinary readers, of writing directed by the subconscious in William Faulkner; the limit of intricate formal structure in Thomas Mann; the limit of historical scope in War and Peace; that of geographical scope in U.S.A. The limit of minute analysis was reached in the nine volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, and quite possibly the limit of sheer bulk for any novel conceived as an architectural unit. Jules Romains tried to outdistance Proust by writing a novel in thirty volumes, but, like Hemingway’s old fisherman, he “went out too far”; after the first sixteen volumes he lost command of the material, and very few readers followed him to the end.

It’s as if each of the greater authors had said, “I have traced a road to the end; no farther in this direction.” There are other roads, of course, and some of the new writers will find them. Yet a question that suggests itself is whether the new roads will lead into territory as rich for the novelist as the roads already built, and whether they will be as rewarding for readers to follow. That is the inner development in the novel which seems to threaten its central position in Western literature. It keeps moving toward limits, as if by decree, yet the more it approaches them, the less hold it may have on the great body of literate persons who made the novel possible.