A computer crash and a temp job in a shorthanded college bookstore really cramped my writing though I do have plenty of raw first drafts, typed shakily into my phone or tablet on public transit. So I’m posting some summer reading commentary now as I try to catch up:
I finished The Novel, A Biography. It’s an eleven hundred page survey of novels and their authors, written by Michael Schmidt. I’d intended to cherry-pick it, for authors I love, or am curious about. But its many and various cross referencings made it hard to put down. And its subject matter is undeniably as significant as any art history, about which many back-breaking tomes have been published.
The novel exists as both high and low culture, though it must certainly qualify as the world’s first pop culture medium, having come into being roughly at the same time as the printing press. It’s inherently ironizing, which is undoubtedly why it very quickly outgrew its early tendency to masquerade as “true” memoir, and became wildly popular with Cervantes and then Fielding’s introduction of contemporary satire. It goes without saying that most of the novels discussed in the book I haven’t read, though in choosing examples here, most I have.
I’m especially callow in regard to books written before the height of the American Romantic era, around 1850, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. I’d tiptoed around English Victorian novels like literary quick sand and somehow avoided finishing anything by Dickens in high school, actually bragging of not having flunked the class.
In university it was easy enough to concentrate on modernist writing. Summers then and non-term months were for pop culture heroes, genre and post-modernists. Yes, I probably read every Vonnegut novel before 1985. I wasn’t completely ignorant of the novel’s roots, though. I had a vague familiarity with and attraction to the picaresque and the Gothic, having read enough of my parents’ collection and literary criticism to make ad hoc connections between Cervantes, Melville and Pynchon.
But placing those things in the context of the novel’s development from Cervantes to Fielding; from Richardson to Austen to James, requires a road map and that is what Schmidt ambitiously attempts to provide- a bird’s-eye view.
Schmidt generates critical dialogue through the device of writers writing about writers. It’s a shifting perspective to be sure. He has his favorites (Woolf, Ford Madox Ford, Vidal), but often includes contradictory critiques, and thus one is left to compose one’s own critical map through a sort of triangulation. Nor does he hew to strict chronology, especially after 1900. This leads to pairings that are useful (Richardson with Austen), brave (Bruce Chatwin with Daniel Defoe), unimaginative or even stereotypical (a gaggle of early gay novelists followed by a murder of Jim Crow-era black writers) and plain bizarre (fellow paranoids, but political opposites Ayn Rand and Pynchon). A passage on John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) alludes to Kurt Vonnegut (Billy Pilgrim, get it?). And if “Biography” can be defined in one sense as “mistakes made, lessons learned”, then what are we to make of the fact that the last chapter of the novel’s “Biography” features Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth and Martin Amis?
The point being that seeking the definitive would be a fool’s errand in such an expansive undertaking and Schmidt mostly avoids it.
Schmidt does not attempt to rank or qualify writers, though he does give oblique commentary and his likes and dislikes are often easy to suss. Likes include picaresque adventures (Cervantes, Fielding) Late Romanticism (Melville) and early modernism (Woolf). Dislikes include Richardsonian romance, the Gothic (Scott), late Modernism (late Joyce) and most Post Modernism (watch out, Thomas Pynchon). Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade is not mentioned despite his fairly obvious, though often unacknowledged thematic affinities with Dostoyevsky and others (including Rand). Yet contemporary mainstream writers who’ve had best-selling decades ( Jane Smiley, John Irving) also don’t merit a walk-on.
Schmidt does include a chapter on genre where he discusses Raymond Chandler and Walter Moseley as artists before giving a wave of the hand to the putative heirs of Austen and the Brontes such as Barbara Cartland, who has sold hundreds of millions of books if not over a billion. This gives one an idea, when seen with the advent of mass market and trade PB market in the 50s, of just how massive and diverse the reading public has become. He imposes a cutoff, sensibly set at Y2K. It seems far less sensible after reading this, to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that the book is dying. After the apocalypse, who will survive along with the cockroaches? Jane Austen in various paperback versions, my adventures in bookstores both new and used indicate.
Having a road map is important, I think. I’d like to read Fielding’s Tom Jones, influenced by Cervantes and very influential in its own language. I can probably live- and die- without Richardson, but my sense -or sensibility (?!) is that Austen, inventor of what Schmidt characterizes as a “free indirect” interiority is of far more importance than the commonplace rubric “inventor of the romance genre” that’s often assigned her. I will probably continue to avoid Dickens. I feel I should try to get all the way through a Bronte sister, perhaps Charlotte this time. I can no longer avoid James, I fear, though that brings me to Woolf’s doorstep, a safe haven. As the “too many books, too little time” shopping bag franchisees remind us, life is short- but novels are long. When the hell will I re-read Ulysses? And can I get back the hours I spent with the overwrought moral and psychological convolutions of Iris Murdoch?
add to these the regretfully unread (Barthelme, Gaddis, and I did happen to read an old Granta excerpt of a then-prospective Martin Amis novel that Schmidt praises as a modern classic, and I’m very curious about it), the under-read ( Bellow, Roth and always, Woolf), and the untried (Hardy? Conrad?).
So Schmidt’s unwieldy bucket list gets two thumbs up here. It’s the kind of book one would keep in a home with limited space because one would refer to it often, as each bucket list entry gets crossed off. If it is eccentric in its realization, then so are many readers.
My own bucket list started with Don Quixote, by Cervantes. Digging down to the very roots of the novel, I found an agreeable translation/annotation by Tom Lathrop. Ignoring the clunky framing conceit of a “true history” so characteristic of the era, I dove in. The tale is most ‘modern’ and vibrant when the indefatigably deluded would-be knight-“errant” argues strategy with his faithfully self-interested squire, but I guess we all knew that. The story is culturally imprinted, whether from childhood excerpts or Broadway lyrics, and the copious broken ribs and loosened teeth that incited Europe’s first ever viral laff-riot now seem tiresome and gauche, but the interplay between the Woebegone Knight and Sancho is still pure gold. Cervantes popularized the novel, it is often said. Less often he gets credited with the first buddy movie.
I had to stop near the end of Part I (1605) and skip Part II (1615, partially a Cervantes reaction to pirating) to move on to my temp job. It’s in a college bookstore; life plays some cruel jokes.
The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate, Ed: Another bruising, categorizing war-horse that I found on the shelf next to Novel and couldn’t resist lugging home. Some of the major players from Novel are here also; notably Virginia Woolf. Again, there are the early pioneers – Seneca, Addison and Steele, Hazlitt taxing syntactically, but they lead eventually to 20th Century riches. Joan Didion, Max Beerbohm, Walter Benjamin and George Orwell, the list goes on in easily digested five to ten page bites. The editorial work is exemplary, with underlying themes emerging, then carrying from ancient Rome to Edwardian London. These are indexed for ease of comparison, and cherry-picking. My favorite, “Walking”, led to an exquisite, sublimely transporting gem by Woolf, “Street Haunting”, in which the artifice of needing a pencil leads to an impressionist’s fantasia reminiscent of the ‘House’ chapter in “To the Lighthouse”, along with the emotional coda of a domestic squabble and make-up. The kind of piece that in a small way, leaves you a different person coming out than going in.
It’s been a Woolf summer. I found, and dallied with, before I put away for Fall reading, a collection of critical essays on each of her books. I also inhaled Orlando, before savoring each crystalline Woolf-ian blurb on each Victorian and pre-modern writer in Schmidt. All the while repeatedly reminding myself that it’s now been decades since I read To the Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own. Add them to the list.
Masterpiece Comics, R.Sikoryak: Sikoryak, a Raw Magazine vet from the 80’s, has been writing and illustrating these sly little mash-ups of high- and low culture and publishing them, very much under the radar, in anthologies all along. They’re collected here, and they’re funny because they get to the heart of the artificial divide between high and pop culture. In the process, we get a good laugh and confront the question of how and why we tell ourselves tales.
Here again, context is essential. Most can appreciate the hilarious sight gag of Dagwood in “Blonde Eve”, a biblical Garden of Eden retelling in the iconic “Blondie” style, carting arm loads of apples, waiter style, as he prepares to snack on the tree of knowledge. But a real shock of recognition comes to fans of Golden Age comics in seeing Raskolnikov, with his exaggerated sense of moral agency, compared with Batman’s vigilantism in Jerry Robinson’s dark Gotham City alleys.
“Lil Pearl”, a Scarlet Letter retelling, gains far more satirical punch if one is familiar with Dell Comics’ Little Lulu, arguably one of the most widely read feminist voices of the benighted 50’s, who was continually and subtly turning the tables on, and claiming moral high ground from, the boys. And “Crypt of the Brontes”, a Wuthering Heights pastiche, becomes creepily compelling as a spot-on take of EC horror comics, complete with the narrating housekeeper in the iconic EC framing role as Crypt Keeper.
Sikoryak has retold Shakespeare, deSade, Camus and Dante ( as Bazooka Joe!) He apparently did not make a fetish of avoiding classic literature, as I did. Might Emily Bronte be rolling over in her grave at the thought of her masterpiece re-cast as pre-code horror pulp? Possibly.
But she might also be tempted to grab Raskolnikov’s ax at the sight of one billion Barbara Cartland novels.