Welcome to a very special episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! In this episode, Janet and Mike get into the holiday spirit by discussing their literary regrets. Also, check out their Christmas trees!
Discussed in this episode: “My Way” by Paul Anka, Festivus, Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dune by Frank Herbert (which still sucks), Dune (dir. David Lynch), unearned positive reviews, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, book critic detectives, The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Elena Ferrante.
Cut for time from this episode: We riffed on Dune for a good 15 minutes.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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During my first Christmas break as a high school English teacher in Florida, I sat down with the curriculum, a hand-written list of books Xeroxed so many times that the edges of the letters had become blurry. I had choices with the “Modern Novel,” the next unit of the year. The department head — an ardent, tough teacher of three decades, who had parents protest her teaching of Marquez, who taught Their Eyes Were Watching God to freshmen — reminded me, “If you care for it, you can make the kids care about it.”
When I saw that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a “Modern Novel” on the senior year curriculum, I felt a great space open in my chest. I read Hardy’s poetry, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in college. I didn’t know novels could so unflinching and unblinking. In Hardy, life doesn’t “work out” for everyone. Good people suffer and they die and the world does not ripple at their death. Survival, happiness even, demands compromise, eschewal, and tragedy.
Yes, I was making the choice to ask my students to read what I had. I allowed the kismet of the Hardy option to meet my impulse. His Wessex, the fictional Southwest England setting of his novels, had the same cycles of boom-bust Florida: nature razed for shaky industries, gray metal creeping across green fields. Men, always men, catching feelings about the money to be made, then deciding that the slow rituals of the past can be tossed away.
The Mayor of Casterbridge’s narrative is largely aftermath. In the first chapter, a 20-something hay trusser named Michael Henchard gets catastrophically drunk at a country fair and auctions off his young wife and infant daughter in a fit of self-pitying rage. Hardy’s narrator summarizes Henchard’s beta-male wallowing in the moments before the sale: “The conversation took a high turn…the ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his energies, by an early imprudent marriage.” Henchard awakes the next morning, takes a public pledge to abstain from liquor for 20 years, leaves the fair ground, and heads down the south coast of England to the regional hub of Casterbridge.
Almost 20 years later, Henchard has made himself into an agricultural plutocrat. But his white-hot rage and self-loathing burns on. He abuses his employees, fires them on a whim, and white-knuckles his sobriety. When we first see him in middle-age, he’s at the head of a table in Casterbridge’s upmarket inn, surrounded by subordinates, drinking “from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or to gain time.”
The eyes through which we see this updated but unchanged vision of Henchard? A beautiful, naïve 20-something girl new to town: Henchard’s long-lost daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The plot unfurls from there in a way that only serialized novels of the Victorian era can. Ancillary characters relay information under the drooping eaves of a shack, the narrator lingers on the symbolism of a bridge’s materials (Hardy himself was trained as an architect), lovers appear suddenly and die accidently, and a bright and decent young Scotsman named Farfrae with new devices for increasing grain production and eyes for Elizabeth-Jane becomes Henchard’s protégé.
In that first year, before asking the students to write a critical essay on the novel, I asked the seniors to “reboot” The Mayor of Casterbridge by writing five-page treatments set in 21-century south Florida.
The results astonished me. Students transformed the grain industry to the hotel business, peopled their stories with car salesmen, and even managed to work in the cocaine trade (thanks, lax bros!). The tumult of Hardy’s take on family and paternity became multi-ethnic families, hidden religious conversions, and addictions to pills or gambling. A right-wing Cuban patriarch (a Henchard) sells his wife and daughter not out of a corn-whiskey abyss but out of a shame for his Caribbean wife and child’s blackness. The end of the agrarian way of life in Hardy’s eyes became, in the eyes of a young woman whose family works on the boats and yachts in Palm Beach County, the transformation of a sleepy, humble fishing village into a glossy, anonymous eco-resort by a young, well-intentioned real estate developer (a Farfrae).
I had read their college essays in the fall. Adolescents, no matter how savvy or guarded, cannot help but disclose. Many of their Hardy-founded creative writings overlapped with their personal essays. Things that they had written in the fall, episodes from their young lives, came back again in their fiction: addiction, the working class, parents, how we live in the natural world, their stories in their towns in Florida, the unforgivable acts that only those close to you can commit, the things about yourself that you will never be able to change. They had shown me, in those college essays, glimpses of themselves at their most vulnerable.
My students conjured Floridian visions of Casterbridge that reflected the state. What would happen when the economy went cadaverous again and the boats and hotel guests disappeared, and Governor Rick Scott decided that fracking the Everglades was the future? How will my students react when the state tries to drug test SNAP recipients? What about when a private prison company tries to sponsor FAU’s football stadium? What about when another black child is killed by the police? To live in Florida in 2015 is to distrust beauty, to suspect relief.
The alchemy of book, classroom setting, geography, cultural moment, and motivated students had produced the godhead of the English classroom: Authentic connections across time, space, and between individual and group. Students were learning that literature’s “equipment for living,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s phrase, could live inside a 19th-century novel, and that this equipment was honed by suffering resembling their own.
I wondered if I had done anything particularly special. Yes, I love Hardy. Yes, the book came late enough in the term for students to deploy their training in close reading and in claim making. Yes, I did well in setting up the novel, showing slides from the Lake District before showing an image of Picasso’s “Guernica” and asking the students to think about Hardy as the bridge between eras of thinking, ages of belief.
What I could never say, what a teacher should never say, is that I saw myself in one the characters: Michael Henchard. I drank fiercely in my 20s. I alienated peers; lost weekends; spoilt relationships with potential mentors; twisted quiet gatherings into loud, repulsive stand-up; said needlessly provocative things. I did not apologize. Living with shame felt like enough. When I read Henchard’s dialogue to the class, I felt the desperation. I felt how each stupid, instinctual decision he makes in the novel is an attempt to claw back the past, to scrub the quintessential, unnamable weaknesses out of his soul. When I made cases to my students for why Henchard could not be written off as “the worst” or “evil,” I rooted around for how I might defend the worst corners of myself. Sure, I played devil’s advocate for Henchard to present the pithy idea of “human frailty.” But I also played that part to uncover, label, and put away a version of myself.
Did I speak with particular power on Henchard? Did my voice rise in urgency? Did I offer the students a glimpse of the unexpected — digging for identification in a destructive character? What other doors had Casterbridge propped open? Was Henchard a glimpse of their mother? Their brother struggling with pills outside Tampa? How many Elizabeth-Janes did I have in my classroom? Had I made enough space for her story and the stories of my students who saw themselves in her?
In my second year teaching Casterbridge, I omitted the creative assignment. Instead, I asked the students to write an in-class essay about a symbol from the final chapters. Hardy wrote two endings for the novel, and I hesitate to spoil either of them. Both devastate. I foregrounded Casterbridge on our final exam, making the students juxtapose Henchard against other protagonists we read that year: Beowulf, Macbeth, and others. This time the student work was more clinical. Instead of mining their own lives, they examined, like astute literary surgeons, how exactly Henchard’s weaknesses and Elizabeth-Jane’s resilience circle each other in ways that recall Macbeth’s weaknesses and Banquo’s stoicism. One student — an international student, far from home, writing in her second language — wrote a brilliant in-class essay on how Henchard and Macbeth destroy their social and familial networks because their shared “unchecked” ambition confuses destruction with the desire to change. Her essay’s title: “Defeated By Life.”
I’ve just re-read her essay for at least the fifth time, and I wonder about what happened among Hardy, my students, Florida, 2015, and me. If the teenage years are hard enough, what business did I have adding to the misery? In Philip Larkin’s essay on Hardy, “Wanted: A Good Hardy Critic,” he makes the case that Hardy’s chief subject is “suffering.” Larkin argues that inaccurate readers see Hardy’s central characters as a “galleries of ‘losers’ against whom is ranged a contrasting gallery of winners.” We should instead, Larkin writes, see that suffering is “both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development.”
Moments of our Florida seemed comfortable: the blistering, pre-lapsarian beauty of seeing parchment-white ibises strolling between the school buildings and hearing students yelling happily as they run out of the school, the daily afternoon rain pausing overhead.
But high school English teachers know two things: adolescence is hard, and the literature you teach should reflect your students’ lives. Therefore, teenagers deserve literature that supplies suffering. For the students living through suffering, Hardy, and writers like him, can locate a student’s suffering and reflect it. That reflection can be a step toward recovery and development. The students living a life of comfort require the shaking alarm bell that survival is hard, people are deeply fallible, and life comprehensively unfair.
You, the teacher, have to dive into yourself to find the books that touch upon your suffering. You’ll teach them with greater urgency and match them to the sufferings of your students. They’ll engage with them — critically, imaginatively — with greater desire. In 2015, text complexity — the degree to which a book challenges, to the point of productive discomfort, a student with its vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric, and structure — is coin of the realm of the English classroom. Take that a step further. At the highest level, the deepest mode of text complexity should foster the deepest kinds of emotional engagements from the teacher and the students. If the book doesn’t affect and afflict everyone in the room, what’s the point? The prevailing winds of education theory seem to advocate for the opaque, “guide on the side” teacher who makes her or his stakes in the text mysterious at best.
Oddly enough, this desire reminds me of Henchard’s final act in Casterbridge: his writing of a will that demands that he be forgotten, that “no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.”
But life, like the classroom, doesn’t work that way. Here, among teenagers and rough drafts, there is no place where the story cannot not see us. We, the students and the teacher, have to stand together under the discomforting light of what we might call suffering, what we might call literature.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Welcome to The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, The Book Report goes to the movies, and Janet and Mike discuss the film that’s dominating the box office this summer: Mad Max: Beyond the Madding Crowd.
Discussed in this episode: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd (dir. Thomas Vinterberg), mozzarella sticks, movie tie-in editions, melodrama, guys who are good in their faces, old drunks, The Bachelorette, Matthias Schoenaerts, and hot damn Michael Sheen is a great actor and seemingly a lady-killer…
Trailers watched in the movie theater before Far from the Madding Crowd started: We can only remember one and it was for that movie about Brian Wilson and he is played by both Paul Dano and John Cusack because why not, I guess.
“It is February,” Anne Carson once wrote, perhaps from within the polar vortex. “Ice is general.” By the time we get to February, the days may be getting longer, but there is a weariness to the winter. Hibernation’s novelty has long expired, and the fruits of the fall harvest are running low. On the coldest day of 1855, Henry David Thoreau noted the old saying that “by the 1st of February the meal and grain for a horse are half out.” (He spent the rest of that frozen month skating on the local rivers.)
But in the middle of the month the calendar calls to break the ice with romance. We’ve settled on February 14, the feast day of St. Valentine, as love’s holiday, but there’s little evidence that any of history’s St. Valentines were linked to romance until Geoffrey Chaucer, first artificer of so much in our language, joined them in his Parliament of Fowls: “on Seynt Valentynes day, / Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make.” (And even he may have had an Italian St. Valentine’s festival in May, not February, in mind.) We celebrate birthdays too in February: Lincoln’s, for instance, a holiday Richard Wright chose for his first novel, Cesspool (published after his death as Lawd Today), a violent and raunchy satire of one day in the lives of a Chicago postal worker and his friends. And some authors have celebrated their own February birthdays: James Joyce asked that Ulysses be published on the day he turned forty, February 2, 1922, while Toni Morrison, one of the least autobiographical of novelists, nevertheless tucked a small hint of herself into the first page of Song of Solomon: the day the insurance agent Robert Smith announces he will fly from the cupola of Mercy Hospital is February 18, 1931, the date of Morrison’s own birth in Lorain, Ohio.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for February, full of love, birthdays, and late-winter gloom:
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1818)
Austen readers looking for a love story in the month of valentines have many choices, but her last novel, the story of an overlooked but independent woman finding love despite obstacles of her own creation, offers perhaps the most moving moment in all her work: the unexpected delivery of a love letter upon which all depends.
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (1832)
Mrs. Trollope’s February arrival in the frontier town of Cincinnati (she left her future-novelist son at home in England) may have led to business disaster — the glamorous department store she struggled to build there failed — but ultimately it made her fortune, thanks to this sharp-tongued and coolly observant travelogue, a scandal in America but also a bestseller.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
There are plenty of obstacles between Bathsheba Everdene and true love in Hardy’s breakthrough novel, beginning with an idle and frolicsome Valentine’s Day joke that turns deadly serious. This being Hardy, more death follows.
Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1881; 1892)
The third autobiography of Douglass, who chose to celebrate his unrecorded birthday on Valentine’s Day, doesn’t carry the compact power of his original 1845 slave narrative, but it’s a fascinating and ambivalent self-portrait of a half-century in the public life that was launched by that bestselling Narrative.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)
Every day is more or less the same at the Buckets’ tiny ramshackle house—watery cabbage soup for dinner and the winter wind whistling through the cracks—until young Charlie Bucket finds a dollar in the snow and then a Golden Ticket in his chocolate bar inviting him to appear at the Wonka factory gate on February 1 at 10 o’clock sharp.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)
One of the most challenging and imaginative of love stories takes place entirely in winter, as an envoy from Earth has to learn to negotiate an ice-bound planet populated by an androgynous people who can take the role of either sex during their monthly heat.
Moortown Diary by Ted Hughes (1979)
These poems from the decade Hughes and his third wife took to farming in North Devon, the country of her birth, are journal entries hewn rough into verse, wet and wintry like the country and full of the blood and being of animals.
The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam (1981)
February is doldrums season in the National Basketball Association, well into the slog of the schedule but still far from the urgency of the playoffs, and few have captured the everyday human business of the itinerant professional athlete better than Halberstam in his portrait of the ’79-’80 Trailblazers’ otherwise forgettable season.
Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (1989)
Over four Maine winters, with as much ingenuity and persistence as his intelligent subjects and an infectious excitement for the drama of the natural world — the “greatest show on earth” — Bernd Heinrich tried to solve the mystery of cooperation among these solitary birds, better known as literary symbols than as objects of study.
Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer by Ben Katchor (1996)
“By the second week in February, the city’s wholesale calendar salesmen pack up their samples and enter a state of self-induced hibernation,” begins one of the comic-strip tales in Katchor’s second Knipl collection, which celebrates the minor industries, fading establishments, and idle off-seasons of his unnamed city with a profound, if paunchy, elegance.
February House by Sherrill Tippens (2005)
Fans of literary anecdotes and surprising artistic encounters will find an embarrassment of riches in this account of the short time in the early ’40s when Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Paul and Jane Bowles, stripper-turned-novelist Gypsy Rose Lee, and others shared a Brooklyn brownstone that got its nickname because so many among them (McCullers, Auden, Jane Bowles, and house organizer George Davis) had birthdays in this month.
Love, Here is My Hat: I came across a copy of William Saroyan’s book in a Vermont used book store not long ago and clasped it, rather melodramatically, to my heart. The book itself has hearts on the cover — two red ones floating above images of a man and a woman, and of a cupid and a bed sketched on a pink-ish background. I bought it, forgetting for the moment that I already own a copy of the exact same edition. Even if I had several copies, though, I would have needed to make the purchase that day because my heart needed tending.
I had driven to Vermont to visit a child in college, but most of all to clear my head. A storm threatened to stop me part way, and as I crept along the snow-covered roads, I fought the urge to see the journey as a parallel for that stage in my marriage. And yet, there it was: unseen hazards, poor traction, and a route at times so difficult that it threatened to turn both me and my husband back. I thought of what I could ask of my life, and how happy I could expect to be. It wasn’t a mawkish question, but a practical one: what did I want? I believed I needed answers, that I owed it to myself to ask. But the next day, there was Saroyan’s familiar book and it wasn’t asking a question at all. It was offering.
I have loved Saroyan’s short stories since I first encountered them among the yellowed Pocket and Avon Books of my father’s wartime collection. These were all-American paperbacks, their jacket copy exhorting the reader to support the GIs and their contents full of “See?” and “fella.” That they should end up in a closet in my grandmother’s house in Greece was a large part of their appeal. Inherently nostalgic, describing a period 30 years removed from my teenage life, the books became for me doubly so as they evoked a distant America while the weeks of my Greek summers wound down and the pull of home in New England grew stronger. Each summer, I would tug 48 Saroyan Stories gently from the shelf and flip the brittle pages as if they were rare manuscripts. I would imagine the book in my father’s back pocket as he walked the streets of an Athens newly liberated from German occupation. And I would be carried off to a California of orchards, diners, and flophouses, an America of trains and dirt roads and bellhops looking to make ends meet. In Saroyan’s writing, I encountered a United States that was both exotic and familiar.
Many years ago, I asked my father if I could bring the Saroyan home with me, and I think he was touched that I found such value in this particular souvenir. Together with some Erle Stanley Gardner noirs and Leslie Charteris’s Saint books, these were the stories that had taught my father English. But it was Saroyan in particular who taught him the language of America, the adopted country that he deeply loved, and that he returned to with pride after his own Greek sojourns.
48 Saroyan Stories now sits in a glass-fronted cabinet, separated from the rest of the fiction arranged alphabetically in another room. Over the years I’ve added more Saroyan finds to the cabinet: Love, Here is My Hat; Peace, It’s Wonderful; The Human Comedy; and My Name Is Aram. These volumes sit alongside an early edition of Far From the Madding Crowd and some first editions of W.B. Yeats. The Hardy is leather, softened with the handling of almost two hundred years. The Yeats collections are beautiful hardcovers decorated in classic 1920s style. With their rubbed-round corners and torn spines, the Saroyans are like the interloping distant relatives at the wedding who laugh too loud and don’t know how to dress.
When I saw Love, Here is My Hat in Vermont that day, I needed to buy it again because Saroyan appeals to my heart and not my literary head. I bought it because Saroyan signals the pull of something or someplace absent; because the stories collected there are about people trying to make do, to make simple lives of love and happiness; and most of all because the book and that title I’ve never quite understood represent an offer. Here is my hat. Perhaps it’s a gesture of surrender, or of begging. I’m not really sure, and I’ve resisted researching the phrase to find out what it might have meant in 1938. It doesn’t matter. The book offers a gift of some kind. Here, the writer says. Take this.
It’s important to me that it’s Saroyan himself who seems to be making the gesture. In the title story, which also appears in my father’s old paperback, no one utters the phrase. Nor does anyone in any other story in the book. “Love, Here is My Hat” tells the story of a man and a woman who are so plagued by love for each other that they cannot eat when they’re together. “I can’t live without you,” she says.
Yes, you can, I said. What you can’t live without is roast beef.
I don’t care if I never eat again, she said.
Look, I said. You’ve got to get some food and sleep, and so do I.
I won’t let you go, she said.
All right, I said. Then we’ll die of starvation together. It’s all right with me if it’s all right with you.
He goes away to Reno so they can both choke something down. But she finds out where he is and follows him there. She calls him on the phone.
Are you all right?
I want to cry, she said.
I’ll come and get you, I said.
Did you eat? she said.
Yes, I said. Did you?
No, she said. I couldn’t.
Before my husband and I were married, the rhythms of graduate school kept us apart for two months at a time. As the date of my departure for England approached each cycle, we found it harder and harder to eat. I told him about the story, and though it wasn’t a perfect match, it became, even a little bit for him, a kind of shorthand for how we felt. “Did you eat?” I would sometimes ask over the phone later, and I would think of the stark back-and-forth of Saroyan’s prose, and the barebones matters of love and separation that made his stories and that made up our world.
I bought the second copy of Love, Here is My Hat not really thinking about the title. It was only as I gave the book to my husband, 30 years after our cycles of separation and return, that I realized how I’d been misreading it. Here is my heart. I held the book out with both hands as if it were truly precious, and it hit me. To me, Saroyan’s book and all his stories are imbued with frailty and hope, with the tentative gestures of people who don’t have or expect much, but still offer what they consider basic: their hearts. Love, Here is My Hat. Or my heart. Either way, the phrase suggests an offer with no certainty of acceptance. Like a hat held out, it’s an offer that risks disappointment but still hopes for something in return. We make the gesture all the same — even when we think we should know better.
My husband took the book from me that day and held it just as gently as I had. He listened to what I had to say — about my father and about the lovers who cannot eat and about my heart — and understood. Now there are two copies of Saroyan’s book in the house. Mine sits on my desk beside my laptop, and his copy rests on his nightstand. Not reading matter, it’s more of a reminder, perhaps to both of us, of how important it is to offer without knowing what the outcome will be.
In that vulnerability lies the beauty of Saroyan’s work. It is simple. It is basic. It doesn’t lay claim to any grander place in literature, nor does it deserve one. It is, sometimes, all we need. A little book, an offer, a question. Did you eat?
Image Credit: Wikipedia
As I was taking notes for a new novel recently, I took a moment to consider point of view. Fatigued from working on one manuscript with multiple first-person limited narrators, and then another with two different narrative elements, I thought how simple it would be, how straightforward, to write this next book with an omniscient point of view. I would write a narrator who had no constraints on knowledge, location, tone, even personality. A narrator who could do anything at any time anywhere. It wasn’t long before I realized I had no idea how to achieve this.
I looked for omniscience among recent books I had admired and enjoyed. No luck. I found three-handers, like The Help. I found crowd-told narratives, like Colum McCann’s elegant Let The Great World Spin. I found what we might call cocktail-party novels, in which the narrator hovers over one character’s shoulder and then another’s, never alighting for too long before moving on.
On the top layer of my nightstand alone, I found Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The first is a formal experiment in which alternating narratives tell the same story of a marriage—which is really two different stories, their course determined by just one action. The second two give up on shared perspective altogether, splitting the story into separate books. Old Filth tells his story and The Man in the Wooden Hat tells hers. If the contemporary novel had a philosophy, it would be Let’s Agree To Disagree.
It’s tempting to view this current polyphonic narrative spree as a reflection on our times. Ours is a diverse world, authority is fragmented and shared, communication is spread out among discourses. Given these circumstances, omniscience would seem to be not only impossible but also undesirable—about as appropriate for our culture as carrier pigeons. It’s also tempting to assume that if we’re looking for narrative unity, we have to go back before Modernism. We can tell ourselves it was all fine before Stephen Dedalus and his moo-cow, or before Windham Lewis came along to Blast it all up.
No, if omniscience was what I wanted for my next project, I would have to look back further, to a time when the novel hadn’t succumbed to the fragmentation of the modern world.
But try it. Go back to the Victorians or further back to Sterne, Richardson, and Fielding. There’s no omniscience to be found. I suppose I could have spared myself the trouble of a search by looking at James Woods’ How Fiction Works. “So-called omniscience,” he says, “is almost impossible.” It turns out that the narrative unity we’ve been looking for is actually a figment of our imagination. The novel maintains an uneasy relationship with authority—not just now, but from its very beginnings.
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is often credited with being the first novel in the English language, published in 1719. The anxieties attendant on that role are evident in the way the book is structured. Not comfortable claiming to be simply an invention, Crusoe masquerades as a true story, complete with an editor’s preface declaring the book to be “a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.” Defoe originates the James Frey approach to novel-writing, using the pretense of truth as a source of narrative power.
He repeats almost the same phrasing four years later, in Roxana: “The foundation of this is laid in truth of fact, and so the work is not a story, but a history.” The words seem redundant now—truth, fact, foundation, history. It’s a protesting-too-much that speaks to the unsettled nature of what Defoe was doing: telling a made-up story of such length, scope, and maturity at a time when doing so was still a radical enterprise.
But the most interesting expression of the novel’s predicament comes one year before Roxana, in 1722, when Defoe opens Moll Flanders with an excuse: “The world is so taken up of late with novels and romances that it will be hard for a private history to be taken for genuine.” It’s a clever move. Defoe acknowledges the existence of enough novels that you’d think his position as novelist would be secure (the more the merrier), but he insists that he’s doing something different—and then in the same breath assumes our lack of interest and then preempts it by setting up the other novels as tough competition.
Defoe’s pretense of editors, prefaces, and memorandums is the first stage of what I’ll call the apparatus novel, followed a decade or two later by its close cousin, the epistolary novel. Like its predecessor, the epistolary novel can’t just come out and tell a made-up story—never mind tell one from an all-knowing point of view. In Richardson’s Clarissa especially, the limitations of the individual letter-writers’ points of view create an atmosphere of disturbing isolation. As we read through Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s conflicting accounts, we become the closest thing to an omniscient presence the novel has—except we can’t trust a word of what we’ve read.
So where is today’s omniscience-seeking reader to turn? Dickens, don’t fail me now? It turns out that the Inimitable Boz is no more trustworthy in his narration than Defoe or Richardson or the paragon of manipulative narrators, Tristram Shandy. In fact, Dickens’ narrators jump around all over the place, one minute surveying London from on high, the next deep inside the mind of Little Dorrit, or Nancy, or a jar of jam. Dickens seems to have recognized the paradox of the omniscient point of view: with the ability to be everywhere and know everything comes tremendous limitation. If you’re going to let the furniture do the thinking, you’re going to need the versatility of a mobile and often fragmented narrative stance.
And Dickens is not alone in the 19th century. The Brontës? Practically case studies for first-person narration. Hardy? Maybe, but he hews pretty closely to one protagonist at a time. (Though we do see what’s happening when Gabriel Oak is asleep in Far From the Madding Crowd.) Dickens good friend Wilkie Collins (who famously said the essence of a good book was to “make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait”)? The Moonstone is a perfect example of the apparatus novel, anticipating books like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, complete with multiple narrators, various types of discourse, and full of statements that successive narrators correct or undermine.
This isn’t to say that there are no omniscient novels anywhere. Look at Eliot or Tolstoy, to jump cultures, or Austen. Sure, the line on Austen is that she could only write about drawing-room life, but she still writes books in which the narrator knows everything that’s going on in the novel’s world. Pride and Prejudice begins with its famous statement about men, money, and wives, and then easily inhabits the minds of various members of the Bennett family and their acquaintances—not through first-person limited, but through the more detached and stance of a true omniscient narration. Doubtless, readers could come up with other works written from an all-knowing perspective. Friends have suggested books as different as The Grapes of Wrath and One Hundred Years of Solitude as omni-contenders.
All the same, what seems key about the novel is that what we think of as a historical evolution—or a descent from a unified to a fragmented perspective—isn’t an evolution at all. In fact, the novel has always been insecure. It’s just that the manifestation of its insecurity has changed over time. At the outset, it tried to look like a different sort of artifact, a different kind of physical manuscript almost: the novel masked as a diary or a journal—because, really, who knew what a novel was anyway? Later, seeking to convey more intimate thoughts, it took the form of letters, acting like a novel while pretending to be something else, just in case. This is a genre that constantly hedges against disapproval. It’s like a teenager trying not to look like she’s trying hard to be cool. (Novel, who me? Nah, I’m just a collection of letters. I can’t claim any special insight. Unless you find some, in which case, great.)
Omniscience is something that the novel always aspires for but never quite achieves. It would be nice to have the authority of the all-seeing, all-knowing narrator. But we are too tempted by other things, like personality, or form, or the parallax view that is inherent to our existence. This is why, I think, when you ask readers to name an omniscient novel, they name books that they think are omniscient but turn out not to be. Wishful thinking. The omniscient novel is more or less a utopia, using the literal meaning of the word: nowhere.
Appropriately, Thomas More structured Utopia as a kind of fiction, an apparatus novel about a paradise whose exact location he had missed hearing when someone coughed. This was in 1516, two full centuries before Robinson Crusoe, making Utopia a better candidate for First English Novel. But that’s a subject for another day.
[Image credit: Tim]
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.