Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Thoughts on the Novel

Four natural elements: earth, air, fire, water. The Greeks thought them to be precepts of science, but literature in fact revealed them to be aesthetic categories. At least they do reflect the four main genres of literature: epic poetry is manifestly of the earth, lyric is of air, and drama is of fire (both tragic and comic). The most contested one is of course the novel: its plurality suggests that it may not be boxed into any fit or stable categories. But characteristic of the element of water, to which the novel obviously belongs, is precisely its *not* being fixed, but infinitely interchangeable with itself. Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Of course, the borders that are intergeneric do not correspond to those which are aesthetic. The Odyssey has variously been described as the first great novel of adventure and romance. Its contiguity with the genre is only too fitting: for, it is not impossible to see in Odysseus the unwary metaphor for the novel reader. Fittingly, to describe the experience of reading a novel is to speak in the same terms in which one describes a journey out onto a sea or river on a boat, and also the wind that rolls into one’s sails; and as much as Odysseus has absorbed of sailing by the end of his epic, so does our journey through the mythologies of grammar shore us into a correspondingly diverse understanding of the reading experience.

For example, think of a good action novel as a skiff built for competition, rushing through the waves with the strongest wind it can gather and taking you breathlessly through them: no more can you stop the boat from running than your hands from turning the page, or your eye from the line it is reading. At the opposite end will be a novel like Ulysses, this emblem of the novelistic medium which chooses as its title, not coincidentally, the name of Odysseus. The reading of Ulysses provides no wind (or almost none), and it is like rowing upstream on your own, clenching your teeth with exertion in a thick summer air, through light and mosquitoes; a difficulty of undoubted magnitude, but the rewards of which are equally undisputable. Other novels of the kind, but less demanding, might be a double or a four-man boat (maybe Joseph Conrad would be an eight). And all the winds which lie between these two extremes are woven by their corresponding author; the electric airs of Calvino, the placid sailing through Dickens, the airtight submarine launch of Palahniuk, the slow, night skies of Flaubert and the small storm that is Margaret Atwood.

Now to describe my favourite kind of novel, you must imagine a commodious white vessel spreading sails into the Southern portions of the Mediterranean coast, where great streaming winds graze around and above those sloping hills that dip their body into the sea through a necklace of black stones, and where the ocean, the infinite ocean, refracts your progress by an according variation in the depth of its dyes. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now can you write the journey that’s behind a novel’s name, or are you not the one for water?

No comments: