- The Lives of the Novel: A History by Thomas Pavel
Thomas Pavel is a storyteller, and The Lives of the Novel: A History is as much a story itself as it is a book about stories. Pavel’s compelling thesis is that the novel emerges in the eighteenth century from proto-novelistic forms like the tale and picaresque, and, as it does so, it moves from the realm of idealism or moral prescription into a recognizable geographical and social—that is, human—space. The novel, then, by situating its action in social space and in historical time, concerns itself with how abstract values are mediated by embodied historical subjects. As Pavel asserts in his introduction, Richardson is a key figure in this development because he “could uplift readers without carrying them off into a fully implausible realm. . .and most importantly for his time, he could show the moral equality of people regardless of their social position” (5). Pavel extends this very effective argument into an explication of how the novel worked with other important social trends: “It is not by chance, then, that from the eighteenth century onward, the gradual increase in social mobility and equality coincided with a propensity to blend the older narrative subgenres into a single, flexible genre—the modern novel” (19). In the ensuing discussion, Pavel employs a highly flexible set of concepts and themes—love, heroism and chivalry, the quest story, “inner opacity” (89), and the contemplative life (among others) to chart the development of the novel’s social orientation through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The book ends with a chapter, on literary modernism and postmodernism, titled “Loners in a Strange World.”
Despite the engaging and self-assured style of Pavel’s work, most academic readers will find odd the paucity of scholarly references throughout the work. There are, I suspect, fewer than ten works of academic criticism referred to here, and rarely does Pavel quote any other critic directly. In point of fact, he rarely cites text from the primary works he examines. Instead, Pavel paraphrases the novels at length, offering a fairly broad-strokes rendering, organized around themes that he explores in a somewhat desultory fashion. The limitations of this model are clear: when Pavel broaches issues that are already well researched elsewhere, his own work retains a kind of generalist quality. To cite one example, Pavel’s reading of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhass dubiously sees the work as focused on “the rise of great individuals in a decaying community” (175) but fails to recognize much of the story’s complexity. Kohlhass is not an ideal hero; in fact, his motives are ambiguous, his tactics not especially well planned out, and his success relies as much on the power of political spectacle as it does on the moral fitness of his cause. The relationship between these aspects of the work and its social and ethical intervention is explicated in detail by Elisabeth Krimmer in her excellent and timely essay “Between Terror and Transcendence: A Reading of Kleist’s Michael Kohlhass.”1 Throughout Lives, Pavel might have engaged the work of other critics in a way that would have allowed his own book to embed itself more readily in contemporary critical questions and discussions.
Rousseau, Goethe, and Scott are treated at length, but Pavel’s reader could get the impression that nobody has written on any of these figures before. In this regard, it may well be that The Lives of the Novel can be read as mediated by its own historical moment. Insistently antitheoretical and unfettered by the conventions of professional criticism, the book implicitly argues that theory is reaching its end and the New Critical “love of reading” is back. The Lives of the Novel echoes Marjorie Perloff’s presidential address at the 2006 MLA convention, wherein she advised literary scholars to “trust the literary instinct that brought us into the field in the first place and to recognize that, instead of lusting after those other disciplines that seem so exotic primarily because we don...