- The Value of the Novel by Peter Boxall
Nearly 200 years ago, Percy Shelley announced in his Defense of Poetry (1821; 1840) that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.” Now, as we find ourselves working in an increasingly rationalized university and living amid the multiple bewilderments of the information revolution and the threat of eco-catastrophe (conditions of epistemological and cultural dislocation at least comparable to those of the early nineteenth century), Peter Boxall makes a strikingly similar proclamation regarding the novel in this urgent and thought-provoking book. Among the “gifts” the novel brings us, he demonstrates, are its capacities at once to “shape the world and resist its demands” (12) and so to guide us in our struggles “with and against what we have and what we know” and “[gear] ourselves to a future state which is not yet here” (143).
To set the context for this ambitious analysis, Boxall lays out in his introduction a history of literary criticism in the twentieth century, from the conservative Leavisite thesis, which set out to explicate the moral and aesthetic value of literature, to the antithesis of the theory revolution, in which the concept of “value” was itself deconstructed. Our current “post-theory” moment has produced, he explains, the desire for a new articulation of literary value and of literary critical values for “our own generation” (2). This book addresses itself to this task in ways that aim to retain the many important textual, linguistic, ethical, and philosophical insights gained during the theory revolution while articulating anew what “the value of the novel” might be in the twenty-first century. [End Page 249]
Boxall organizes his book into two parts titled “Art,” whose two chapters address dimensions of novelistic form that he considers essential to the genre (“voice” and “realism”), and “Matter,” in which he considers three basic components necessary for narratives to have content: “bodies,” “time” and social rules or “law.” In each chapter, Boxall identifies seemingly contradictory energies or concepts that together constitute paradoxes fundamental to the form. For example, the realist authors, he demonstrates in a reading of the ever more diluted ink with which Robinson Crusoe records the journal that is Defoe’s novel, have always been aware that in this mode of representation “an act of inscription […] is also an act of erasure” (59). He illuminates such paradoxical properties with stimulating readings of novels and authors that he chooses precisely because they seem to illustrate paradigm shifts in literary history (especially the passage of nineteenth-century realism into twentieth-century modernism). Boxall demonstrates instead that such seeming discontinuities in the novel’s development are in fact changes of emphasis on different formal or epistemological possibilities, seeded into the form since its inception, that are the condition of its existence.
Dickens’s David Copperfield and Beckett’s late novels anchor Boxall’s chapter “The Novel Voice,” whose analysis offers intriguing suggestions for ways to talk about “voice” in the novel without invoking the humanist myth of transcendent presence that has dogged the term since the 1970s. Boxall argues that Dickens’s novel produces a vivid effect of presence while Beckett’s novels produce as vivid an effect of its effacement, but neither author naively assumes a full self-presence behind these effects. Rather, in both, a “speaking I seeks to become its own parent, to give partial and fitful birth to itself as character” (34–35), an ontogeny that reflects “the process by which we make ourselves out of the stories we tell ourselves” (38). These readings uncover what Boxall considers to be the “voice that is native to the novel” (23), one composed of “sound and silence” (38), in which we can hear as we read what Gerard Manley Hopkins might have called our own “selving.” In this ontological discussion, Boxall thus demonstrates one value of novelistic art to be its ability to reflect back to us such flickerings of partialness, contingency and self-difference that haunt the cogito.
The “Matter” chapters move from ontological into ethical territory in explorations...