Posts Tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.

On time…

March 30, 2015

Reading a fair bit of science fiction lately shunted me onto the track of thinking about writers and time – that think which is always in limited supply and of which we never have enough. We are prisoners of it, shaped by it: in the end it defeats us, and all our works: Shelley’s Ozymandias is a marvellous reflection on this.

Along with all the other constantly repeated themes in fiction, drama and poetry, writers have explored our relationship with time. We want to escape time and can’t, so we sit and waste more of it by sitting down and reading books. We freeze things in time, capturing them with words or with light. Does any of this help?

Back in Roman times, the poet Horace wrote to his friend Postumus (Eheu, fugaces, Postume, Postume/ labuntur anni…) about the years slipping by and our inability to slow the passage of the years, with old old age to look forward to; Shakespeare‘s Richard II reflects, in his prison cell, awaiting his death, that he wasted time, and now time wastes him; Andrew Marvell imagines giving time a run for its money (Had we but world enough and Time/ This coyness, lady, were no crime/ ) in the famous To His Coy Mistris, whilst recognising that one will eventually be too old to enjoy love-making.

Proust writes of recapturing the essence of the past with that famous madeleine moment, and I am sure we have all had our equivalent experiences: I have often found myself astonished at the amount of detail from my past that my brain is capable of storing, as some long-forgotten nugget floats to the surface of my consciousness, triggered by I know not what.

Wells, in The Time Machine, imagines the device I’m sure everyone has fantasised about being able to play with: when would you go back to? and looks forward eight hundred thousand years, to the twilight of the human race, divided into the Eloi and the Morlocks, the impotent masters and the powerful serfs;

Once we start thinking about time, we drift into our own, individual, relative insignificance in the wider scheme of things; unless we are particularly famous or notorious, memory of us is likely to fade within a couple of generations at most… which is perhaps why Arthur C Clarke‘s The City and The Stars is so appealing: a thousand million years in the future, a computer runs the City, and individuals are born and reborn every million years or so, conjured up from the City’s memory banks. Would we feel comforted in the face of eternity, with such prospects? On the other hand, in his masterful Last and First Men, Olaf Stapledon imagined two billion years of future human history, and the speed with which everything you and I were familiar with from our puny ten thousand years or so of current history vanished into oblivion was quite shocking.

And then there are visions of eternity, such as that which develops in the mind of Stephen Dedalus in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: tormented by the fears of Hell because he has ‘sinned’, he hears the description of eternity as applied to his own damnation, using the familiar trope of the grains of sand on the seashore…

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