Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 1


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Wk 1 - Mon (21/7), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB1

Introduction: The Novel since 1900


Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain - the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed - then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.

- Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, 1982 (London: Picador, 1983) p. 105.



How should one read a novel?

If the novel was the dominant genre of the nineteenth century, and film of the twentieth century, what precisely do we have to learn by focussing specifically on a set of novels written since 1900?

Maybe we have to go back even further before we ask that question. What is the purpose of writing fiction? More to the point, why do we read it?

Nabokov has some interesting reflections on that subject, also:

The case of count Beust is an excellent example to bring into any discussion about so-called real life and so-called fiction. There on the one hand is a historical fact, a certain Beust, a statesman, a diplomat, who not only has existed but has left a book of memoirs in two volumes, wherein he carefully recalls all the witty repartees, and political puns, which he had made in the course of his long political career on this or that occasion. And here, on the other hand, is Steve Oblonksi whom Tolstoy [in Anna Karenin] created from top to toe, and the question is which of the two, the "real-life" Count Beust, or the "fictitious" Prince Oblonksi is more alive, is more real, is more believable, Despite his memoirs - long-winded memoirs full of dead clich├ęs - the good Beust remains a vague and conventional figure, whereas Oblonski, who never existed, is immortally vivid. And furthermore, Beust himself acquires a little sparkle by his participating in a Tolstoyan paragraph, in a fictitious world.

- Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, p. 213.



This mention of the "fictitious world" of a novel - in this case, of Anna Karenina - brings us to the main theme of this lecture: the different worlds we have to understand before we can really penetrate what is going on any piece of fiction.

First of all, there's the world of the author: her or his biography, intellectual context, set of worldly concerns ...

Secondly, there's the setting (contemporary or consciously "historical") of the novel. Even if it is supposed to take place roughly around the same time at which it was composed, that may require some elucidation for later readers.

Thirdly, there's the fictive universe of the novel itself. How does this world operate? What are its fundamental laws of nature? The same as ours in the "real world" - or significantly different? What aspects of existence, in other words, are foregrounded in this particular author's version of the texture of experience?

No two commentators will come up with exactly the same descriptions of even these basic features of any "fictitious world" - nevertheless, it would be foolish to pretend that the process of definition is entirely arbitrary.

Stanley Fish, way back in 1980, asked Is There a Text in this Class? I think that we have to allow that there is in order to have a discussion at all, but we can also permit a huge amount of variation when it comes to our sense of the features of any particular text.

We can also employ our basic evidence for its nature - the letter of the text - more or less adroitly.

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