Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Long Novel

It appears now that blogs are losing out to twitter, because blogs are too ponderous and wordy. So it got me thinking about "the long novel."

My admittedly arbitrary definition is simple: a novel longer than twelve hundred pages. Looking back, I can identify five of them read in the last thirty-five years: Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Le Compte de Monte Cristo, and Clarissa.

Dr. Johnson, on being told that Richardson was "tedious," replied that "If you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment."

The contrast between story and sentiment is a good one. Some novels are long because they tell a long story. The Count of Monte Cristo certainly has sentiment--romance and vengence, primarily. But it is a great story of a vendetta, a complex story with many characters over many years, touching, true, at last, on the terrible interior toll, but the novel's focus is the plot, the rule undertaken, the trap, the execution, the satisfaction of an awful justice overtaking the wicked. One does not fret for the lack of a storyline.

By contrast, there is Proust's book. It's not quite true that nothing happens. But almost nothing, and three thousand pages is a lot of almost nothing. It is all surface, which is to say, all interior. It is the play of impressions, the minute observation of the overlooked, the exquisite analysis of motivation and judgement. It took me quite a few years to read, reading one of the seven parts once a year, happy to begin each, but happy to put each aside as completed, ready to substitute something with a commoplace plot.

But what to say about all of them? They slip out of the memory. They are too big to leave a single impression, like, say, Heart of Darkness. While being read they constitute something like a second life, presenting a complex of names and places and actions remote in time and place, with enough detail to feed the imagination, and with enough length to engage, like one's life, without any prospect or fear of termination anytime soon. But when I re-open them, I don't remember having been there.

Does what we don't remember change us? Surely it must. We don't remember very early childhood, but surely it changed us, made us. Does the experience of having read Don Quixote change one, even if the details are forgotten, the inns and roads, the absurd exchanges, fade beyond recall? How much of the vision remains, the detailed experience, of the insatiable knight, of the implacable count, of the virtuous and abandoned young woman, of the delicate socialite who, after a thousand pages, casually lets slip his first name?

So now, if you've paid any attention to what went before, I'm about four fifth of the way through Les Miserable, reading Hugo as I read Dumas, in French, something of a struggle for me. But it is a way to travel for one who, for various reasons, hasn't been able to travel, to see up close in this detail and that the great, pre-Haussman metropolis. Afterwards I hope to return to the first of the long novels, first read long ago, next, I hope, in the original Castellian, El ingenioso hidalgo, Don Quijote de la Mancha. Why read it again? Because that original impression, I suppose, never went away, and it's something worth renewing. Part of it is a simple desire to work on the Spanish language, but if that's all it is, surely it is arguable that one doesn't begin with the language as constituted in the seventeenth century.


Rmj said...

Lucky Quijote?

Interstingly, I don't find Proust's novel plotless. It's a recovery of memory, and a meditation on the centrality of memory, which is to say a meditation on the importance of time (for what is memory outside of time, and time without memory?). I find it discursive to an almost maddening degree, and so interested in surfaces and what lies beneath them that it plunges as deeply as the whale, and unless you can take the sudden changes in pressure and hold your breath that long, you soon give up to resurface or just black out. I often find I've read pages and pages of one paragraph, only to have no idea what I read or what is going on, even who is now speaking. But something about it stays in the subconscious, something about it attaches as a memory, even if you suffer such attacks of "lost time" while reading it, and it keeps pulling me forward. Indeed, if Proust had any more plot in his novel than is there now, it would be unreadable.

Which is not to say it's a light, even often an engaging read. Going through it in the new Penguin/Viking translation was a revelation, especially when one of the translators so obviously despised Proust's masterwork. I still need to order the last three volumes, probably from Powell's, since Viking never released (they seem to be only available in Britain, and even then I think they're out of print, or nearly so).

Sorry I haven't been by earlier and kept up with you better. I'm getting to be really annoying that way; at least to myself.

rick allen said...

More like "Quijote happy."

Re Proust and plotting, I just remember spending seven years wondering where the thing was going, and finding myself at the end wondering what just happened.

I'm glad you're pursuing it, as I'm interested in your impressions. In my whole life I've only come across one person who read the whole thing, even in translation--my sister.

On contentions about translation, there is simply no way on God's green earth I could bring myself to go through it again in another translation or in French, at least while mortal. At best I've considered picking up a French paperback of either the beginning or the end. But I do a lot of considering these days.

Good to hear from you.