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.