The Novel: A Biographyby Michael Schmidt
The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English
The 700-year history of the novel in English defies straightforward telling. Geographically and culturally boundless, with contributions from Great Britain, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, India, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa; influenced by great novelists working in other languages; and encompassing a range of genres, the story of the novel in English unfolds like a richly varied landscape that invites exploration rather than a linear journey. In The Novel: A Biography, Michael Schmidt does full justice to its complexity.
Like his hero Ford Madox Ford in The March of Literature, Schmidt chooses as his traveling companions not critics or theorists but "artist practitioners," men and women who feel "hot love" for the books they admire, and fulminate against those they dislike. It is their insights Schmidt cares about. Quoting from the letters, diaries, reviews, and essays of novelists and drawing on their biographies, Schmidt invites us into the creative dialogues between authors and between books, and suggests how these dialogues have shaped the development of the novel in English.
Schmidt believes there is something fundamentally subversive about art: he portrays the novel as a liberalizing force and a revolutionary stimulus. But whatever purpose the novel serves in a given era, a work endures not because of its subject, themes, political stance, or social aims but because of its language, its sheer invention, and its resistance to cliché--some irreducible quality that keeps readers coming back to its pages.
Schmidt (poetry, Univ. of Glasgow; writer in residence, St. John's Coll., Cambridge; Lives of the Poets) presents what he terms a "brief" life of the novel in English, from its origins in the 14th century through 2000. Included are writers from virtually all English-speaking countries and chapters on French and Russian novelists whose works have influenced those in English. The editions Schmidt examines "ask to be reread and become living parts of memory that affect how we hear, speak, see, feel, and act"; he also discusses books that provide sources and contexts for them or that imitate them. The content consists largely of quotations from later authors commenting on earlier ones to whom they feel a connection e.g., Muriel Spark on Mary Shelley and D.H. Lawrence on Herman Melville. Biographical details are included to the extent that they are germane to the writer's work. The volume also includes a detailed time line of major authors and their works from the 13th through 20th centuries. VERDICT The breadth and length of this book limit its interest to serious students of literature. However, the lack of citations for works quoted and of a bibliography are drawbacks for those wishing to do further research.—Denise J. Stankovics, formerly with Rockville P.L., CT
Writers, reading, invigorate the novel. That is both the theme and plot of Schmidt's (Poetry/Glasgow Univ.; The Stories of My Life, 2013, etc.) encyclopedic compendium tracing the novel over 700 years. The author sees the genre as alive and evolving, capacious enough to include such writers as Mulk Raj Anand, an Indian émigré to England, whose work Schmidt does not much admire; the prolific Irish writer Ethel Mannin; and Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, read by Derek Walcott and Anthony Burgess but not many others. Schmidt considers his subjects more or less chronologically for half the book, gathering contemporaries who read one another: Hawthorne, Melville and Stowe, for example; and Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Brockden Brown and other practitioners of what Schmidt calls "The Eerie," as distinct from, in another chapter, the Brontë sisters and their Gothic romances. The second half of the book is impressionistic, as Schmidt creates "a dialogue" among writers and their works. A chapter on "Portraits and Caricatures of the Artist" includes Joyce, Beckett, Burgess and Barthelme; "Tone and Register" ranges from Virginia Woolf to Jeanette Winterson. Along the way, readers will learn that Woolf was dismissive of Maria Edgeworth, whom she considered too demure; that Gertrude Stein could not abide James Joyce; and that pretty much everyone was in thrall to Henry James—Truman Capote praised him as "the maestro of the semicolon." As commodious as this book is, at more than 1,100 pages, the selections and groupings seem arbitrary, as does Schmidt's selection of writers' comments. Writers are famously voracious readers, and some were frequent reviewers; often, they mention novels in their letters, memoirs and diaries. Schmidt, apparently, has read them all. "I set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel," Schmidt admits. "I had no point to prove." He does, however, prove his wide-ranging reading tastes, his ability to weave a colorful literary tapestry and his conviction that the novel is irrepressible.
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Meet the Author
Michael Schmidt is Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow and a writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge. He is founder and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press.
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