I worked hard on my funny tan lines this weekend. As of now, I’m pretty much ruined for tank tops and swimsuits for the rest of the spring and summer, unless I don’t mind looking a little freakish. I’ve now got a tan line on my upper arms and am working on a good one just above my ankle and a little above my knees. Pretty soon, I’ll have one on my wrists from my cycling gloves.
I went on a lovely hike yesterday with Hobgoblin and his students. (By the way, if any of you want to see a picture of us, check out Hobgoblin’s post — I’m the one in the red t-shirt.) I spent most of the hike talking with one of the students about books. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to spend a Saturday?
But I meant to write about an article from The New York Review of Books, “Storms Over the Novel,” by Hermione Lee. She reviews a whole bunch of books on the novel, and the list itself is intriguing as a potential source of reading material. Here’s the list of books she discusses:
The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, by Milan Kundera, translated from the French by Linda Asher
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, by Jane Smiley
The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life, by Edward Mendelson
How Novels Work, by John Mullan
How to Read a Novel: A User’s Guide, by John Sutherland
The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography and Culture, edited by Franco Moretti
The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes, edited by Franco Moretti
Nation & Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day, by Patrick Parrinder
I’ve read the Smiley book, and liked it pretty well, but the others I haven’t yet looked at. I’m intrigued by the Kundera book; I’ve read some good reviews of it, although the one I liked the best was Arthur Phillips’s review from Harper’s magazine where he argued, if I remember correctly, that Kundera doesn’t follow his own prescriptions for what the best novels do, although Phillips admires Kundera’s novels greatly.
The Mendelson book sounds pretty good, although I’m worried about it being a bit preachy; Hermione Lee talks about his “strong, didactic tone,” and this is how she describes Mendelson’s writing:
He makes heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating diagnoses of seven novels by women writers (Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf) as humane lessons in how (or how not) to live a moral life.
I like “heartfelt, idiosyncratic, and illuminating,” but I’m unsure about the “humane lessons” on living a moral life part. I do think that novels can teach us things, but I’m not sure that living a moral life is one of them.
The John Mullan book is one of the most interesting here; Mullan is an 18C scholar whose criticism I’ve read and liked, and his book on the novel is about form and structure, which I’d like to know more about. Lee calls the book:
a modest, helpful, and sensible diagnosis of novelistic strategies—beginnings and endings, paratexts and intertexts, first- and third-person narratives, present and past tenses, inadequate and multiple narrators, and the like, drawing on mainly well-known examples from Samuel Richardson to Philip Roth.
I’ll probably never read John Sutherland’s book, however; Lee’s comment that “it ought to have been called How to Talk Knowingly About a Novel Without Actually Reading It” would have turned me off if I hadn’t already heard some negative things about the book. He gives bits of advice such as don’t bother to read every word but skim now and then — which I’m highly unlikely ever to follow. No, this book is not for me.
I am tempted, however, although also a bit frightened, by those Franco Moretti books. I came across Volume 1 in my local library, which surprised me, as I didn’t think my library would have anything so scholarly. It looked jam packed with fascinating information about the novel, but it also looked dense and difficult — not a bad thing at all, but it means I’ll need some energy to tackle it. The volumes are collections of articles by many different authors on the novel’s history and its forms. Each volume is almost $100, so it looks like I won’t be owning my own copy any time soon, unfortunately.
Lee doesn’t say a whole lot about the last book on her list by Patrick Parrinder, but Amazon says this:
What is ‘English’ about the English novel, and how has the idea of the English nation been shaped by the writers of fiction? How do the novel’s profound differences from poetry and drama affect its representation of national consciousness? Nation and Novel sets out to answer these questions by tracing English prose fiction from its late medieval origins through its stories of rogues and criminals, family rebellions and suffering heroines, to the present-day novels of immigration.
Doesn’t that sound fascinating?
Lee writes a bit about her experience as chair of the judges for the Man Booker prize, and she has good things to say about what makes novels novels — there’s a lot in her article that I haven’t mentioned here, so if you are interested, check it out.