On the ambition of being a great reader
Let the greats explain the novel to you: Apply the insights of Milan Kundera and Francine Prose to your reading and writing.
British poet and author Ian Patterson thinks daily and deeply about novels. Whether he’s stuffing a chicken to roast or teaching his students in the English department at Cambridge University, the novel is on his mind and in his life with the same solidity with which countries sit on a map. Patterson, a respected Proust translator and the author of Guernica and Total War, describes thinking about novels, especially the style in novels, as “a kind of ethics.”
“Novelists who write well make me wonder at the way in which something so randomly humdrum, bizarre and chaotic as life and the world can be shaped into such an intelligible surface,” he told me by e-mail. He suggests we give careful consideration and equal curiosity to “the forces that are invisible in the novel (invisible perhaps to the writer), but you sense their presence, you know they’re there and you can feel a pressure to understand what they are.”
Such forces, he says, are “caused by the way the achievement of the writing pulls in an unconscious awareness of the world which operates on the writer’s language, and therefore on the reader’s mind, like surface tension in a liquid.”
Not all of us have the contemplative powers that keep a Proust translator in his seat, resisting the lure of a cricket match, but fortunately a handful of authors have written insightfully on the topic in recent years. If you’re bewildered by reading novels, or befuddled by writing them, here’s a brief tour.
Few thinkers are as informed about novels as the world-renowned Czech novelist Milan Kundera, likely because his own books are not merely novels but, collectively, a kind of philosophy that searches and poses questions. In 1985 he published The Art of the Novel, which he described as “the reflections of a practitioner.” And we are fortunate that he has written on the novel again this year, in The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (HarperCollins Canada; translated by Linda Asher).
A novelist talking about the art of the novel, he writes, “is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls.”
It’s a studio I happily stepped into and suggest readers and writers who love the novel do the same. In The Curtain, Kundera gently and beautifully dissects the art of the novel. Reading as he ponders nation and literature is like taking your brain out of your body and off on a holiday for 168 pages.
The book argues or whistles, since the prose is far too tuneful to describe as an argument — that the novelist’s job is to rip through the curtain of the pre-interpreted world. What matters is a novel’s ability to reveal some previously unknown aspect of our existence.
Kundera tracks the history of the novel and illustrates how novelists influence one another. Unveiling his love affair with central European literature, he reminds us of writers who are important to visit and revisit, such as Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Witold Gombrowicz.
There’s a lovely reassurance in part seven of the essay, where he describes how unreliable readers’ memories, including his own, are for details as they progress through a novel. He contrasts this with how writers pay loving and pedantic attention to every detail while constructing their novels. He urges each novelist to build his or her novel as “an indestructible castle of the unforgettable, even though he knows that his reader will only ramble through it distractedly, rapidly, forgetfully, and never inhabit it.”
I crawled through this slim book, sucking up Kundera’s words like a vacuum cleaner. His affect slows us down to appreciate every sentence and breeds in us the longing to be smarter people.
TACKLE 100 BOOKS
California writer Jane Smiley had plenty to contemplate in 2001 when she ground to a halt in the process of composing her novel, Good Faith. Previously, her novels had been “unceasingly in my mind,” but not this twisty beast. So she closed the file in her computer and read 100 books instead.
Part literary memoir, part literary criticism and part writer’s advice, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005) is the result of this interruption.
There’s something cheerful and indefatigable about Smiley, but the strength of this book is her stated ambition to read 100 novels (her 13th way of looking at the novel) and her suggestion that we do the same. (In the other 12 other ways, she flits about. She also harps on about her own work, even analysing various reviews she’s received. And she tends to oversimplify the process of writing, implying it’s as possible as doing your sums or sewing a quilt.)
Her discussion of the history of literature will seem a little flighty if you’ve just arrived from Planet Kundera, but the clarity with which she briefly documents each of the 100 novels she chose will inspire a passion in you to read unceasingly, hopefully 100 books at a time.
The ones she read were diverse. They included an Icelandic saga and volumes by George Eliot, Emile Zola, Muriel Spark and Naguib Mahfouz.
THE WAY OF PROSE
A true companion to understanding the architecture of the novel comes from the ultra-intelligent New York novelist Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (2006). It pulls the chicken away from the bone to reveal exactly what matters to the novel.
There’s much to glean here, with entire chapters dedicated to words, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue — and my favourite, “reading for courage.” The application of her insights will enrich your reading experience. You may even be infused with a similar level of devotion to the stories of Anton Chekhov as the one she demonstrates.
Prose cites many major works of literature and, instead of cloyingly analysing her own work, lets the literary heavyweights illustrate her points. She concludes, sensibly, with a list of books to be read immediately.
WHEN ALL GOES WRONG
Consider Jan Lars Jensen, who found out how troublesome and powerful a novel can be when, upon the American publication of his first novel, he began hallucinating episodes from it. This landed him in the psychiatric ward, an experience he describes in his intriguing 2004 memoir, Nervous System, or Losing My Mind in Literature. (It strikes me that this could practically be a new form of literary criticism, since if the novel’s bad, the hallucinations might not be up to much, either.)
Consider, too, that among the many miseries a novel can create for its author is another writer beating him or her to the finish line with a similar book. In The Year of Henry James: The Story of a Novel – With Other Essays on the Genesis, Composition and Reception of Literary Fiction (2006), England’s David Lodge documents how deflating this can be.
He found that Irish writer Colm Tóibín had written a novel, The Master (eventually shortlisted for the Booker Prize), with identical subject matter — a particular period in Henry James’s life — to that of his forthcoming Author, Author. Not only that, but it was scheduled to appear on bookshelves before his own.
Lodge acknowledges that Tóibín’s book was the more successful, though, confusingly, he still refuses to read it. Unfortunately, The Year of Henry James is a whinge of a read. Tóibín emerges from the flap as the more gracious party and perhaps the better writer.
(published Vancouver Sun, 05/09/2007)