Posts Tagged ‘The Way of All Flesh’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

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Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

January 16, 2014

Jane Austen famously described Emma as a heroine her readers would not like very much; Shchedrin creates an entire family of repugnant individuals and yet manages to fascinate the reader with their lives.

The Golovlyovs possess a number of linked estates somewhere in the vastnesses of nineteenth century Russia, around the time of the emancipation of the serfs (1862). They are all obsessed with money, are greedy, wastrels, feckless – they have almost no redeeming features. The hero of the story is a hypocrite in the tradition of Tartuffe, using religion to bolster himself and persuade others of the rightness of what he does (although the author interrupts his narrative to explain to us that he is not a Tartuffe!) or a Bulstrode, who feels that God shines on him and blesses his ill-gotten gains.

Any yet, the successive generations of the family acquire wealth without gaining any happiness or contentment from it; ultimately (when it’s too late) they come to some vague realisation that there was no point to what they spent their entire lives doing; they die miserable, lonely, unloved deaths, or kill themselves.

I often found myself asking what Shchedrin wanted to achieve with this novel. Obviously, wealth does not bring happiness; obviously there are hypocrites everywhere; perhaps ‘look at these worthless people who inhabit our Russia today’? Not really the basis for a three-hundred page novel…

I wouldn’t want you to get the impression I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, it’s compulsive reading: I wanted to know how low the characters would actually stoop in trying to score points off each other, would they eventually get their come-uppance, were there any decent people at all in the Golovlyov family? Shchedrin’s creation and development of his characters is masterly: they sink convincingly into obsession and mania.

I found myself again thinking: how very different from what English writers were producing at the same time; then I remembered Samuel Butler‘s The Way of All Flesh.

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