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Book Review: The Novel – A Biography

By (June 14, 2014) No Comment

The Novel: A Biographythe novel cover

By Michael Schmidt

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014


“Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasures than those of any other literary corporation in the world,” Jane Austen wrote defiantly some two hundred years ago, while she was in the process of advancing her own “corporation,” “no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.”

She was being puckish – that tossed-off note about the sheer number of novel-readers gives it away – but as always, she saw things as clearly as they could be seen: in her own day the novel’s hugely expanding popularity was also its public shame: here was a kind of literature that was damningly demographic – no scansion needed, no long years of pre-study in history or the classics. “You pick it up and go,” wrote Fanny Burney, one of Jane Austen’s contemporaries and also a best-selling novelist.

The two ladies were in some ways very different, and Michael Schmidt, in his enormous new book The Novel: A Biography, is typically insightful on how they differed, and how their differences helped to midwife the novel form into a new century:

How different the worlds of Burney and Austen! Though Burney is senior by twenty-three years and outlived Austen by another twenty-three, how much more “modern” and varied Burney’s life seems that that of the eighteenth-century spinster who died in Winchester a young old lady of forty-one. Burney was a new type of citizen, urban, a “working woman” in the gradually thawing winter of English social division. And Austen? A vicar’s daughter, rural, unpretentious, in youth a parodist, whose parodies propelled her into the heart of rhetoric, understanding how with language people restrict, maim, and deceive themselves. The fairy tales she tells are of narrow escape and rescue as well as romance.

The Novel: A Biography is a thousand pages long, a fat book, even fatter than Schmidt’s previous books, 1998’s Lives of the Poets and 2004’s The First Poets, and its range is much broader, and its brilliance is much more prodigious. The typical browser’s maneuver for such a book is to check immediately for the writers someone like Schmidt leaves out, but he leaves out nobody, and he slights nobody. He gets in all the most famous quotes by novelists and about novelists, but he’s not just checking off boxes: he’s thinking about all those famous quotes, shifting them around, sorting them for accuracy in the face of every august dogma there is. Look, for example, at what he does with perhaps the most famous of those quotes, the line from Virginia Woolf that’s hauled out by law whenever George Eliot’s masterpieces is mentioned by anybody, anywhere, ever:

Some advocates preface praise for Middlemarch with an apology, as when Woolf calls it “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Is it necessary to concede “all its imperfections”? In the case of Middlemarch no such allowance is required. It is among the most complete and replete novels of the nineteenth century, and though it is slow, that very pace is part of its enchantment. Seasons turn, the years pass, the detail is coherent and holds; nature and the social world proceed in their inevitable, hardly perceived reciprocities. The whirligig of time brings round its revenges, to be sure, but also its rewards; the men and women grow older and come to understand where they have been and where they have not. The “grown-up people” Woolf invokes are unworthy of her and of the novel form, which has, by now, a remarkable and mature backstory.

The result is a monster of a book, the most far-reaching, thought-provoking, and ultimately memorable work of nonfiction yet published in 2014. And as with David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, half the fun of The Novel: A Biography comes from disagreeing with its author about some pronouncement or other. Sure, for instance, more than one reader might agree with this summary of John Updike’s verse but disagree strongly with the follow-up assessment of his prose:

He resembled Kingsley Amis in wanting his poems to be better loved, because he loved them. They are clear and plain and speak humorously, needily. His first book and one of his posthumous books were verse. He had aptitude but little genius. Did he have genius for novels? He had genius for sentences, none more than he…

(especially since the book is crammed to the rafters with examples of writers who had more of a “genius for sentences” than the USDA-certified genius-free Updike).

Schmidt mentions at one point that his gigantic book actually represents a digest version of the work he originally wrote, which ran to some 500 extra pages. Any reader who trusts himself to this epic journey will wish for those missing pages – even when writing about wretched novelists like Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, or David Foster Wallace, Schmidt is very entertaining – but even in a mere thousand pages, there’s room for almost everybody, including 20th century figures better known to us as critics than novelists – such as the great Edmund Wilson:

Wilson was to become the William Dean Howells and Ford Madox Ford of his generation, the critic, editor, friend, and sparring partner of his major contemporaries, a writer who helps configure a literature even as it is coming into being, his foresight informed by a literary culture that underpins his social alertness … He did not simplify to popularize but brought his knowledge of the contemporary world to bear: the writings he considers are brought back into a relationship with the world.

That concluding phrase is particularly apt for Schmidt’s great work as well: it brings not only a legion of novelists but the novel itself back into a relationship with the world, giving this most popular – and most popularly derided (and, since Austen’s day, most frequently over-praised) – form the most erudite, scholarly, and yes, loving exploration it’s ever received or is ever likely to receive. One of the few critics enterprising enough to assay this behemoth wrote that readers should likewise make the attempt: shut off the phone, set aside a weekend, and allow themselves this great whopping indulgence. This is good advice. Whether we intended it or not, we all have a long and complicated history with the novel as a literary form – and that literary form gets a monument of a chatty, fun, inclusive revue in The Novel: A Biography. Big as it is, every reader should have a copy.