- The Novel-Essay, 1884–1947 by Stefano Ercolino
Stefano Ercolino’s The Novel-Essay, 1884–1947 is the first important study of the genre to appear in English since Thomas Harrison’s seminal Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello (1991) and the chapter “Novels ‘Without Qualities’” in Claire de Obaldia’s The Essayistic Spirit: Literature, Modern Criticism, and the Essay (1995). Ercolino’s excellent analysis focuses primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century French, German, and Austrian iterations of the novel-essay (along with some Russian representatives), which he identifies as “the symbolic form of the crisis of modernity” (xv).
Genre-based projects are often challenging, particularly in the case of hybrids like the novel-essay, since the instability of its canon makes a wide-angle analysis problematic. To say anything conclusive about the essay alone is already burdensome, given that a basic definition of it has yet to satisfy everyone. This problem, compounded with the issue of generic hybridity, suggests that the novel-essay resists analysis altogether. However, Ercolino has taken these challenges head-on and convincingly shown the contours of a genre which began, he argues, as a result of the “exhaustion of naturalist aesthetics” (1) and ended in the postmodern era, marked by “profound ideological and aesthetic deregulation” (147). Some might take issue with this claim and suggest that essayistic fiction—and the essayistic novel, more specifically—has continued to thrive in Europe and the Americas since the late twentieth century; but he shows how postmodern novels with heavy reliance on an essayistic voice generally take the form of maximalist novels or autofictions, whose expressive and aesthetic objectives are at odds with those of the modernist novel-essay. In short, the new essayistic appropriations on the part of novelists work very differently from the earlier examples Ercolino studies in the book. For him, the novel-essay was “an essentially modern novel genre” (147). It is worth noting that, alongside The Novel-Essay, Ercolino was also working on another book, called The Maximalist Novel: From Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014), which shows the extent to which he considers the modern and the postmodern as clearly distinguished periods in the development of the novel as a genre. His analysis seems to suggest that the novel-essay was more an evolution of the novel than the essay. He presents the genre as clearly synthetic, although not symmetrically so: in Ercolino’s terms, the novel does not enter the essay, but the essay enters the novel.
In The Novel-Essay, he dedicates four rich chapters to specific works: 1) Huysmans’s Against Nature, 2) Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, 3) Musil’s The Man without Qualities, and 4) Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Other authors, such as Broch, Proust, Strindberg, Tolstoy, and Zola figure heavily in the book’s thesis. The most impressive aspect of this ambitious project is its contextualization. Ercolino successfully situates these novel-essays literarily, philosophically, and historically and makes a compelling claim that they are symptomatic of modernity at large. Using an emergentist theory of literature, he suggests that the genre was a response to the rationalist, positivist, and naturalist discourses of the mid-nineteenth century and claims that Huysmans introduces the essay into the novel as a form of resistance against modernity. An essay inserted into a novel decelerates it and disrupts its plot as an atemporal and non-narrative interruption. This manipulation of the novel’s time is one of the key features of the interposed essay, he argues. He goes so far as to call this a “formal exorcism of the new pressure of historical time” (40). Meanwhile, Ercolino never overlooks the concept of time in his treatment of the novel: all of his close readings of various passages are meticulously situated in history. He finds correlations between the novel’s development and the economic turbulences [End Page 873] of the period, new findings in mathematics, physics, and biology, and shifts in philosophy. Furthermore, he pays close attention to...