Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 2

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Wk 1 - Thurs (24/7), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Willa Cather: My Ántonia (1918) -

"What is a Novel?"

What is a novel?

  • Novels are generally written in prose, that’s one defining feature (except that there are verse novels and graphic novels, too).
  • They tend to be fairly substantial, over 50,000 words in length (though, again, there are exceptions).
  • They’re fictional, in that they make no claim to be considered as statements of fact (though biographical and historical novels abound, some of which are virtually exclusively factual – at any rate in intent. Far more so, at any rate, than many histories and autobiographies).

What we call a novel is generally held to be a product of the self-conscious individualism encouraged by European modernity and the rise of mercantile capitalism in the 17th-18th century. There were certainly long prose fictions before then, some of considerable sophistication and interest. But the form didn’t really start to become dominant (at any rate in European literature) till the advent of writers such as Defoe, Richardson and Fielding in England, Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau in France.

The ancestors of the modern novel can clearly be seen in the characteristics of books such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), or Voltaire’s Candide (1759).

  • On the one hand we have the influence of historiography. Long prose narratives tended to begin as historical chronicles and analyses of past events: Herodotus and Thucydides in Greece, Livy and Tacitus in Rome, Ssu-Ma Chien in China.
  • On the other hand we have the long narrative epic poem, designed for recitation and memorisation: Homer, Virgil, Dante, The Epic of Gilgamesh, even. These stories are full of incident and vivid description, strongly prophetic of the strengths of the novel, but they perhaps lack its focus on realistic psychology and characterisation.
  • For these we need a third factor: autobiography. This tends to begin as religious apologia or confession of some sort. Saint Augustine’s 5th-century Confessions are generally regarded as the first true autobiography in Western literature. His book had many successors, generally with similar religious motives – at any rate until the advent of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) and other similar Renaissance wits and egotists.

The ancient Greeks believed in nine Muses, divine daughters of Zeus and the goddess Memory, who governed all the arts. The exact line-up (and even the number) is disputed, but it’s generally thought to be:

  • Calliope (beautiful speaker): muse of epic or heroic poetry
  • Clio (glorious one): muse of history
  • Erato (amorous one): muse of lyric, love and erotic poetry
  • Euterpe (well-pleasing): muse of music and lyric poetry
  • Melpomene (chanting one): muse of tragedy
  • Polyhymnia (hymn-singer): muse of sacred song and oratory
  • Terpsichore (delighting in dance): muse of choral song and dance
  • Thalia (blossoming one): muse of comedy and pastoral poetry
  • Urania (celestial one): muse of astronomy

Fielding called Tom Jones a "comic epic in prose", so I imagine he saw it as combining the influence of Calliope, Clio and Thalia: Epic, History and Pastoral. Melpomene and Polyhymnia (Tragedy and Oratory) would have to be included in there somewhere, too, though, I suspect.

I’d like to propose, then, for the purposes of our discussion, 9 Muses of the Novel:

  1. Character (or Psychological portraiture)
  2. Detail (or Verisimilitude)
  3. Narration (or Point of View)
  4. Plot (or Story)
  5. Setting (or mise-en-scène)
  6. Structure (or Architecture)
  7. Style (or Tone of Voice)
  8. Theme (or Implication)
  9. Timing (or Duration)

All of them require a bit of unpacking, which I shall endeavour to do in detail throughout the semester by letting one dominate the discussion of each of our nine novels:

  1. Setting for Cather, My Ántonia (1918)
  2. Narrative point-of-view for Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
  3. Plot for Forster, A Passage to India (1924)
  4. Detail for Barth, The Floating Opera (1957)
  5. Character for Barth, The End of the Road (1958)
  6. Theme & Symbolism for Greene, The Comedians (1966)
  7. Time for Atwood, Cat's Eye (1988)
  8. Structure for Louise Erdrich, Tracks (1988)
  9. Style for Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001)

To begin with, though, let’s start the discussion with Willa Cather’s My Ántonia:

  • Narration (or Point of View: pov for short)

Jim Burden’s autobiographical, first-person narrative is filtered through the “editorship” of an unnamed friend, presumably identifiable – at any rate to some degree – with the “Willa Cather” whose name appears on the title-page.

It’s hard to know why this framing technique has been adopted, except to emphasise the verisimilitude of these recollections – which thus become similar to, but not identical with, Cather’s own. This also involves a change in the sex of the memoirist which might be held to have extensive thematic implications.

  • Plot

This is where our initial discussion of the genres ancestral to the novel begins to become relevant. Jim repeatedly invokes Virgil. Not so much the epic poet of the Aeneid as the pastoral poet of the Georgics, that comparatively uneventful and understated (though digressive) textbook on the several arts of agriculture.

This justifies the author (one would presume) in steering away from so many clichés of the historical romance: the love story between the protagonists, the tragic denouement, etc.

  • Setting

This is clearly crucial for Cather – and certainly for subsequent readers and commentators. She was hailed in her time as the one who had “saved” the Western and the immigrant narrative from its pop-culture roots and had given it a new dignity and maturity. Nebraska, the frontier state she grew up in, was regarded as her “territory” in the same way that Hardy’s Wessex or Dickens’s London were identified with a particular novelist.

Though she may have welcomed, and even consciously fostered this identification at first, she certainly shied away from its somewhat-belittling implications in later years. Again, the identification with the provincial-turned-cosmopolitan Roman Virgil is important here.

I should note further that by “setting” I mean location in place and time.

  • Structure

Some have found My Ántonia’s structure admirable, others flawed. Hermione Lee, in the introduction to your edition, sums up the debate as follows:

Critics ... have fussed quite unnecessarily over whether the story was Jim’s or Ántonia’s, whether, if Ántonia was the “heroine”, so much space should be given to Lena Lingard … David Daiches feels that the section on the Hired Girls is structurally unsound, or can only be justified if Jim is “fitting himself to be the ideal observer of Ántonia.” He feels also that the novel should have more effectively ended, tragically, with Ántonia betrayed and pregnant, “alone in the field with a gathering darkness,” rather than being “redeemed with a conventional happy ending.”

In other words, he’d prefer it if Cather had rewritten Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

It comes down, basically, to a film-director (or film-editor’s) questions: How should you begin and end each scene? Where should the camera cut in and cut out? Which scenes do you need, and which can be discarded? We can debate such issues endlessly – but they can scarcely be regarded as trivial or supererogatory.
Many different stories, and many different slants on the same story, can be constructed out of basically the same materials – witness all the endless retellings of the same archetypal narratives: boy meets girl, etc.

  • Style (or Tone of Voice)

Cather was generally regarded as a “beautiful” “poetic” prose-writer, and in fact she requires a sophisticated and flexible range of tones to animate so comparatively uneventful and evocative a novel. There’s no air of the impromptu in her writing.

This, however, is something we’ll explore in more detail next time, when we come to close reading a passage from the book.

  • Character

This (at least arguably) is the real justification of the success of the novel as a genre, and at least one reason for its continued dominance. We are – as we should be -- fascinated by other human beings: how they think, how they react to events. All theories of Psychology attempt to generalise human behaviour in a scientific and quantifiable way. The novel – fiction in general – tries, by contrast, to describe and celebrate the individual and irreducible.
All fiction-writers draw on their own experience of the world and of human nature, then try to communicate these insights to readers. Why? Presumably in order to achieve greater empathy with (or at least understanding of) one another.

There’s a great deal which could be said about Jim, about Ántonia – or rather his perception of Ántonia at all the various ages and stages we encounter her in the novel – but also about the incidental characters who adorn the story: Mr Shimerda and his turbulent family, the melancholy Russians, the hired hands on the farm, and the rather repellent bourgeoisie of Black Hawk.

All I have time to note here, though, is that the sophistication and insight of these portraits increases as Jim himself grows up.

  • Detail (or Verisimilitude)

This might be seem as mere embellishment to setting or characterisation, but there’s a certain sense, too, that what makes a novel a novel is the use of details of the passing scene to give a sense of verisimilitude or believability to the story. Deploying these details artfully is a good deal of the skill of the novelist.

“The revolver in a story must be fired,” as Chekhov said. Randomly-piled-up or carelessly deployed detail simply serves to make the world of the story incoherent to readers. I’ll have a good deal to say throughout the course about the very different ways our nine novelists approach this essential feature of their narratives.

  • Theme (or Implication)

Which leads us to that awful (but, I fear, unavoidable) term: theme. I’d like in a way to replace it with something like leit-motif, the musical phrase accompanying particular characters in operas or film-scores. These repeated trains of thought which are woven into the story – or which particular readers or interpreters see as woven into the story – should (at least potentially) add up collectively to give it its overall meaning or significance.

Again, we’ll have a lot more to say about his when we get to the close reading exercise next week.

  • Timing (or Duration)

Finally, is this one really a separate category? If plot, or story, is what actually happens to the characters in the book, and narration, or point-of-view, is how we’re told about what happens to them, and structure, or architecture, is how the telling is disposed and arranged on the pages, why do we need a label called timing?

I guess it’s because real (and apparent) duration is such an important consideration to fiction-writers in general but novelists in particular. How do you show time elapsing in your story? One way is to observe the so-called Aristotelian unities, and have your narrative elapsing (possibly with flashbacks and other vignettes) in a day or a few hours. That way the duration of reading can roughly equate with the period during which the narrative takes place (Barth’s Floating Opera follows this pattern, as does Atwood’s Cat’s Eye).

Another solution is to present us with a series of vignettes or patches of time (Forster in A Passage to India does something like this; Joyce’s Portrait and McEwan’s Atonement also, but in a more complex and multi-layered way).

Another solution is to give us a narrator or narrators recording their own autobiographical story in their own time, with characteristic elisions and expansions (Cather’s My Ántonia, Barth’s End of the Road, Erdrich’s Tracks – to some extent Greene’s Comedians).

How time is seen to operate in the story and how it actually does operate can be very different, though. Green’s Mr. Brown draws out or contracts certain scenes in his narrative every bit as artfully as Joyce or McEwan’s less prominently-displayed narrators.

An easy mnemonic for our nine Muses might be:

C & D: Character & Detail
2 P’s: P-o-v & Plot
3 S’s: Setting, Structure, Style
2 T’s: Theme & Timing

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