- The Novel as an Evolving Genre
As a genre, the novel has always been an untidy business to sort out. We have pigeonholing (and comforting) names for various types and subtypes of fiction, and we keep inventing more names. We have, for example, Norman Mailer’s “faction,” referring to narrative hybrids [End Page 545] spawned from crossbreeding imagined possibilities and documented biographical or autobiographical facts. We have the “literature of exhaustion,” the “anti-novel” and “magical realism,” among many other classification efforts to rationally corral the mischievous messiness of the novel as a literary form. In essence and frequently in practice, novels remain “large loose baggy monsters” replete with “queer elements” far beyond Henry James’s use of this description to insist upon controlled artifice to displace unruly life in fiction.
Honestly, how useful is any stab at definitive naming after reading, say, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (with its fictionally authored 999-line poem heavily footnoted by a fictional critic) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (with its “pure surface” of stillborn ambiguities obfuscating events and motives, if any)? It would be fun (perhaps at least as a merit badge for my endurance) to list here other wacky, category-shredding inventions called novels that I have read. Instead, I’ll simply settle for one more genre-stretching example (if it is indeed a novel) very familiar to readers of ELT’s book review sections: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
The novel genre, as a polymorphous form, has not only intrinsically resisted stable definitional corralling. It has also intrinsically resisted a clear view of its very “history.” I am not referring to undertakings such as Albert Baugh’s classical Literary History of England, generally good at giving us the facts of who, what, when and where. Instead, I am referring to an investigative process that Thomas G. Pavel calls “a history” in the subtitle of his Lives of the Novel. This kind of “history” probes the occluded origins, antecedents, causes—the mysterious whys—of the emergence and proliferation of this shape-shifting genre. By now there is even a history of such “histories” of the rise and morphology of the novel, including the notable work of Eric Auerbach, Ian Watt, Georg Lukács and Mikhail Bakhtin, among others.
Perhaps a better word choice in this pursuit of origins would be “evolution” rather than “history.” History is hardly firm or fixed; but its narratives commonly suggest sequential patterns that seem to be schematically plottable, such as cause and effect, before and after, and the like. The word “evolution,” on the other hand, suggests a greater degree of messiness—of multiple, intertwined, hard-to-sort-out and possibly quite arbitrary features. The rise and progression of the novel seem closer to Charles Darwin’s image of a tangled bank, where “elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon [End Page 546] each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”
To be fair, Pavel has subtitled his book “a history,” not “the history.” While he eschews “a definite temporal line separating a ‘before’ from an ‘after’” and agrees that “literary definitions are approximate rather than sharply defined,” he nonetheless embraces a schematic sequencing in time that is typical of “a history.” Even so, the fact is that Pavel’s stunning breadth of reading, combined with reasonable exposition, provides an ample window on one fascinating feature of the tangledbank origins and equally messy performance of the ever-evolving genre we call the novel.
Pavel’s “comprehensive overview of the genre’s development” begins with a consideration of chivalric stories of idealistic (albeit flawed) heroic figures exhibiting a variety of virtues in an unjust world. Next he considers the emergence of cunning pícaros, who reject idealistic common values and base their self-worth on their apt adaptation to a world governed by caprice. In between these two dialogic subgenres, Pavel identifies short novellas emphasizing characters who “follow their heart’s impulses” with elegiac results. Then he considers pastorals depicting...