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Dec 1, 1975

An Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part III

Fiction--The Novel

Riggenbach handles the mainstay and workhorse of modern fiction.

If the first great short story in English is a verse narrative, so is the first great novel. I am speaking of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the most universally celebrated literary treatment of one of the world’s great myths (the fall of Satan and, subsequently, of Adam and Eve). The English language takes on an incomparable beauty (I am tempted to say “an incomparable majesty” and, with Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton, I believe the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it) when it is cast into iambs. And only Shakespeare can approach or surpass Milton at this style of composition.

In fact, there is good reason to argue that until nearly two hundred years later no book-length fictional narrative in English involved Paradise Lost in any serious rivalry. The ensuing pair of centuries saw publication of some notable novels, to be sure: Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Stem’sTristam Shandy, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (and, some would say, not without justice, Pierre, The Confidence Man and the shorter BartlebY the Scrivener), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables—theseare only among the more interesting products of the period (I omit Jane Austen from the company because, though her novels are almost universally admired—I admire them myself—I find her unreadable). But it was not until the 1860s and the later novels of Charles Dickens (especially A Tale of Two Cities and Great expectations) that the English novel—this time in prose—again attained the artistic stature of Paradise Lost,. Where Milton’s mastery is most noticeable in his style, however, Dicken’s is most noticeable in his character and plot writing. Like no novelist before him (and few since) Dickens grasped the importance of unifying each character and of exhibiting each character’s essence as concretely and sensuously as possible without sacrifice of psychological complexity (read Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and you will have experienced self-destructive spite of so intense and fully realized a, variety it may literally leave you emotionally drained).

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And Miss Havisham’s essential nature, as that of each character in Great Expectations, is delineated by the intricately interwoven events of the novel. Dickens’ later plots were all like this—complex, elaborately detailed, perfectly integrated around the characters of the fictional people who acted them out. And Dickens had the younger novelist Wilkie Collins to thank for pretty well teaching him to do it. Collins’s own best novel, The Moonstone, is variously credited with being the first detective novel, the most objective detective novel (most faithful to the rule that all the facts on which the detective bases his retroduction are introduced in the text so that the clever reader may, if he is clever enough, beat the detective to the solution) and the most perfectly plotted novel in English. It deserves every bit of that credit. Collins’ novels are not much read anymore. In the case of The Moonstone (and perhaps of The Woman in White) this is unfortunate, but it would have been more unfortunare still had Dickens (basically the better artist of the two) not fallen under Collins’ influence.

If the preoccupation of Dickens and Collins was with character and its effect upon action, the preoccupation of George Meredith was with character and its effect upon thought. And while the first preoccupation led Dickens and Collins to write novels of eccentric people engaged in complicated, interconnected sequences of actions, the second preoccupation led Meredith to write novels of eccentric people engaged in the sorts of psychological actions-thought, emotion, remembrance, creative intuition—which result in essential character change. And given his preoccupation with the mind and the symbols which formulate its processes, it is hardly extraordinary that Meredith concentrated much of his attention on the development of one of the most carefully disciplined and eloquent styles in all of English literature. This style is present in his work from beginning to end, whether in the form of the self-consciously musical and sensuous word-magic of his first novel, The Shaving of Shagpat, or in the form of the self-consciously involuted and parerithetical description of his later (and probably best) novel,The Egoist.

Reading the later Meredith is probably the best preparation one could possible seek for reading Henry James. And, even if one begins with such a more accessible work as The Turn of the Screw, there is little doubt that some preparation is nearly essential to enjoying James’ fiction. The reason is simply that James-like every major innovator-thought in (to most persons) unfamiliar ways and about (for most persons) unfamiliar subjects. His later novels, the ones for which he is most revered, are almost entirely psychological in their significant action (The Ambassadors, for example, is entirely about a man’s change of heart and the scenes and settings he observes— in an almost completely passive fashion—on his way to that change), and they are written in the elaborate prose of a thinker whose thoughts are individually complex and extensively interconnected with dozens or hundreds of other individually complex ideas. James is difficult to read, and his imaginary worlds are of importance in thinking about the real one only to the extent the reader shares James’ enthusiasm for exhaustive observation of mental states.

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Of more general aesthetic “utility” in this sense are the novels of Robert Louis Stevenson; his best is the famous Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A superfically similar novel of the same period is Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde was brilliantly clever at everything he chose to write—and brilliantly artistic as well, though perhaps more brilliantly clever than brilliantly artistic. It is time Wilde’s position as leading novelist of the art-for-art’s-sake movement was challenged. His contemporary George Moore, though his best novels were published a quarter of a century later, was as fully an exemplar of the ’90s spirit as Wilde, and his novels, especially Hélöise and Abélard are significantly better.

There remain three novelists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose reputations loom large in the literary marketplace at the moment, but whose novels I at least have nearly always found too uninteresting even to finish: I speak of George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Hardy (though, to be fair, I should admit that Hardy is a not inconsiderable writer—he happens also to be one who hardly appeals to me). Another major writer of this sort a few decades later is D.H. Lawrence, whose work seems to me one of the most eloquent of testimonials to the consequences of writing with one’s gut instead of one’s mind. The basic, violent, animal urges which Lawrence thought so natural and beautiful may well be so, and they may well (if obeyed as Lawrence advocated) do much for the vitality and intensity of life. But they cannot, except by chance, write good novels. Lawrence’s contemporary and temperamental opposite, Aldous Huxley, though his most brilliant literary work was done in the medium of the essay, was the author of at least one novel of major importance, Point Counter Point (aside to music lovers: this novel’s structure—the course of its plot—was patterned after Bach’s Suite no. 2 in B Minor for Orchestra).

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Other significant novels of the period (more than significant, of course, but so much must be left out—the past hundred years has been the greatest period artistically in all of English literary history) were Carl Vam Vechten’s Peter Whiffle, James Branch Cabell’s Figures of Earth and Jurgen, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Horace McCoy’s They Shoot horses, Don’t They? (certainly the best of the many currently fashionable Hollywood novels of the thirties—and a great improvement on the work of the currently very fashionable Nathaniel West), Somserset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale (I agree with Maugham in preferring this one to some of his more celebrated others), John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, William Faulkner’s Light in August (I especially regret having only a few words to devote to this work of genius—one of the most awesome literary performances I have ever witnessed), and Charles G. Finney’s perplexing Circus of Dr. Lao, which, like Ross Lockridge’s epic, poetic Raintree County, has been stolen from many potential readers by the simple device of making wretched, worthless film “adaptations” of them. In the case of Lockridge this bit of bad p.r. is particularly tragic, because one of the most important of his many achievements in his much-misunderstood only novel was the integration of the technical devices of avant-garde writers like James Joyce with the traditional devices of plot and character writing which have proved of greatest continuing interest for most readers—Lockridge succeeded in combining a “good story” with some of the most sophisticated narrative tricks fictionists have developed in their quest for ever more precise presentational symbols.

I shall not, by the way, recommend the work of James Joyce, though I consider it beyond question that he is the most brilliant literary talent of the past century, and possible of the past five—there is little pleasure in reading Ulysses (or even A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man orDubliners), except of a rarefied, cerebral (but very real and very intense) sort available only to those preoccupied with literary style. This is why (and every Joyce enthusiast knows this, though none will own up) reading good criticism of Joyce’s work is just as much fun as reading Joyce himself. It is novels like Raintree County and like Samuel R. Delany’s recent Dhalgren which vindicate Joyce by proving his methods useful in an actual imaginative context.

The period we are all living in has seen the rise to excellence of a number of first-rate novelists (William H. Gass with Omensetter’s Luck, Anthony Burgess with A Clockwork Orange, Alfred Bester with The Stars My Destination, J.D. Salinger with The Catcher in the Rye, Ray Bradbury with Dandelion Wine, Ross MacDonald with any of the later Lew Archer novels, Edgar Pangborn with A Mirror for Observers, there are many others) of whom I think the most important are Ayn Rand (principally for Atlas Shrugged— the story of what happens when the men of the mind go on strike), Vladimir Nabokov (principally for Pale Fire—the story of a literary artist who, though this is not a “fantasy,” literally becomes unuable to distinguish between his work and reality), and Mervyn Peake (principally for the Gormenghast Triology—Titus Groan, Gormenghast, and Titus Alone— the story of how and why it is necessary for any individual of creative intelligence—for any individual at all—to break free of imposed systems like the State). (Next month: Neil McCaffrey brings us Part III of “Jazz: The Golden Age.” Jeff Riggenbach returns in February with a discussion of poetry.)