What novelists do

Diderot defends what novelists do, in his essay "In Praise of Richardson":

You accuse Richardson of boring passages! You must have forgotten how much it costs in efforts, attentions, moves to make the smallest undertaking succeed, to end a lawsuit, to conclude a marriage, to bring off a reconciliation. Think what you like of these details; but I'm going to find them interesting if they're true, if they bring out passions, if they show people's characters.

They're commonplace, you say; they're what one sees every day! You're mistaken; they're what takes place in front of your eyes every day that you never see. Be careful; you're putting the greatest poets in the dock, under Richardson's name. A hundred times you've seen the sun set and the stars rise; you've heard the countryside echo with song breaking forth from birds; but who among you has felt that it was the noise of the day that rendered the silence of the night so touching? All right, well, there are moral phenomena that exist for you the same way physical phenomena do: outbreaks of the passions have often reached your ears; but you are very far from knowing all that there is in the way of secrets in their tones and in their expressions. There's not a single one that doesn't have its own physiognomy; all these physiognomies appear in succession on a face, without its ceasing to be the same; and the art of the great poet and of the great painter is to show you a fugitive circumstance that had escaped your notice.


As I was coasting down the Manhattan Bridge’s final slope into Chinatown this afternoon, I realized that the orange-line train to the left of my bike, descending the same slope, was tracking my speed exactly, and when I turned I saw the conductor grinning at me. He must have been waiting to see if I would notice. He waved, and I waved back with a wave that nearly knocked off my own bike cap, so when I recovered I waved again for good measure.

I’m trying to shift my attention, this week, from one project to another, and all I seem to be able to think of are disconnected anecdotes, some of which I have carried around for more than a year now. For instance, there’s the story of the local church book fair. Attending it a few years ago, I found a first edition in its dust jacket of a not terribly well-known novel from the 1930s, which, I knew from having looked the title up on Bookfinder not long before, some booksellers priced in the thousands of dollars. I bought it for two dollars! I was tiresome about it at dinner parties for months afterward, though of course the profit to be made remained theoretical, because I couldn’t bear to sell it, and it sits on a shelf a few yards from this keyboard as I type. (Moreover, as long perusal of the blog Bookride has taught me, books that are priced on the internet at ridiculous prices do not necessarily sell at such prices.) At next year’s church book fair, I was prepared to score triumph after triumph, but when I arrived, a few hours into its progress on a Saturday morning, I found it filled with college-age people carrying handheld scanners. They picked up book after book—bleeping their bar codes, checking prices on the internet, and plopping all titles worth more than a predetermined threshold into large boxes between their feet. Automated capitalism had destroyed another niche of humanism, I moaned to friends, making myself tiresome in a new way at that year’s dinner parties. A friend pointed out that it could be argued that the injustice was actually in the previous state of affairs, when card counters like me knew that particular 1930s novels harbored literary value, and that the internet-connected scanners merely evened the playing field. (They didn’t even it completely, of course, because 1930s first editions don’t have bar codes. They don’t even have ISBNs.) But it was strange to watch a technology that gave to people who didn’t even necessarily have the habit of reading books the ability to judge their value. At the time I had also been bewailing the disappearance at the local YMCA of the Plexiglas book holders for the elliptical trainers. One by one the book holders had cracked and been discarded, in a process as gradual and inexorable as the upgrading of the elliptical training machines themselves, which were alwyas replaced, when they broke down, by machines with pre-installed television monitors. In the end, every elliptical trainer in the gym had a television monitor, and there were no more Plexiglas book holders. Instead there was a thin ridge beneath each television screen, where it was possible to prop up a glossy magazine, if the magazine wasn’t perfect-bound. Without the restraining lip of something like a Plexiglas book holder, however, perfect-bound magazines and books tend to get jiggled shut by the vibrations of an elliptical trainer in use. I tried for a while artfully folding a towel over the corners of my books’ pages, to keep them open by weighing them down. But the towel had to be refolded every time I turned the page, and there was in addition the social pressure of being the only person in the gym to insist on reading a book when so many nice television screens had been made conveniently available. Somehow the two phenomena—the deployment of the handheld ISBN scanners and the vanishing of the Plexiglas book holders— seemed of a piece, at least in my mind, as if technology and the pursuit of economic efficiency were rationalizing the reading of books out of existence. Not long afterward, I quit the gym, because I was riding my bike all the time anyway.

At this year’s church book fair, which took place not too many weeks ago, there were fewer dealers with handheld scanners, and none of them seemed to have hired college students to help them for the day, as they had the year before. The books themselves seemed to be of lower quality; maybe the church had invited a bookseller to buy the better titles for a higher price beforehand. This time around, the economic metaphor, if there was one, seemed to be that in a recession people were pleased to have an opportunity to buy cheap things in large quantities—to fill a cloth shopping bag with books and pay no more than twenty dollars. I got half a dozen Classiques Garnier paperbacks from the 1950s, in yellow covers with sewn bindings and “vellum” paper—Stendhal, Rousseau, and Voltaire, perhaps someone’s college curriculum.

Meaulnes’s romance

Le Grand Meaulnes, photo by Peter Terzian

In The Magician’s Book, her lovely, impassioned account of the Chronicles of Narnia, my friend Laura Miller suggests that the magic of C. S. Lewis’s books may owe more to medieval than to modern sensibilities. She points out that in his scholarship, Lewis defended medieval literature from the condescension of twentieth-century critics, who sometimes saw it as crudely allegorical. In fact, Lewis insisted, it was these critics’ understanding of medieval allegory that was crude. Writes Miller:

What made allegory powerful, and in Lewis’s eyes “realistic,” is that it was a sophisticated way of representing the inner lives of human beings at the time the great allegories like The Romance of the Rose were written. Though we now take for granted the notion of psychologically conflicted characters (who are “torn” or “divided” by forces contained within their own hearts and minds), the medievals didn’t have an artistic and conceptual toolbox quite like our own. Instead of imagining each person as possessing a complex interior mental space full of warring impulses, their picture of character was more external. So for them the natural way to portray what we would regard as a debate within a person’s psyche would be to write a passage in which a figure labeled (for example) Reason stands in a garden quarreling with a figure called Passion. . . . In a true allegory, where aspects of a woman’s personality are made to walk about and otherwise behave like independent people, the woman herself—the territory on which the conflict is being played out—becomes a physical space, a plot of land. The medieval self is, in this sense, geographical.

In later chapters, Miller suggests that Lewis’s Narnia books are romances, not novels, and belong to an alternative tradition that includes not only J. R. R. Tolkien and William Morris but also Dante, Thomas Malory, and Edmund Spenser. After crediting the critic Northrop Frye for the categories, Miller writes that “Most romance . . . belongs to youth and speaks to the desire to get out in the world and prove oneself, which may be why the form proliferates most luxuriantly and in some of its purest strains in children’s fiction.”

Recently, I read a book that turned out to be a romance, though I wasn’t expecting it to be one. When I began Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, first published in 1913, I thought it was going to be about French schoolboys. The narrator, François Seurel, opens by looking back to a November day in the 1890s when he was fifteen years old and studying to earn his teaching certificate at a school where his father was headmaster. In describing the day that a new boy arrived at the school, Seurel’s tone is wistful, a little melancholy:

He arrived at our house one Sunday in November, 189…

I still say “our house,” even though the house no longer belongs to us. We left that part of the country almost fifteen years ago and we will surely never go back to it.

The new boy’s arrival coincides with Seurel’s recovery from a childhood hip disorder, which all but crippled him and left him shy and quiet. The new boy, Augustin Meaulnes, is in perfect health and is two years older than Seurel. Because of his height, the boy is soon to be nicknamed by his classmates “le Grand Meaulnes,” Tall Meaulnes (which sounds more cryptic in English than in French, and so in English the book either bears its French title or another one altogether). Meaulnes is also a little wild. Even before Mme. Meaulnes has settled with Seurel’s parents on the terms for boarding her son, Meaulnes finds in the Seurels’ attic two as-yet-unexploded fireworks and detonates them in the schoolyard as Seurel stands by. Seurel describes himself as “holding the tall new boy by the hand and not flinching.” Meaulnes, who reminds Seurel of a young Robinson Crusoe, is to be his guide into risk and adolescence.

Such a commencement doesn’t necessarily promise romance in C. S. Lewis’s sense of the word. The story of a mild boy looking up to a bolder one could be told novelistically, with a very modern psychology. But even in these opening chapters, it’s evident that Alain-Fournier isn’t a psychologist of that sort. Seurel describes his crush on Meaulnes without any embarrassment; he isn’t in any conflict about it. Nor is Meaulnes in any conflict about his wildness. He never apologizes when he breaks the rules set by Seurel’s father; he certainly never shows any signs of feeling guilty. For their part, Seurel’s parents are never petulant about Meaulnes’s behavior. Everyone treats everyone else with a kind of plainness and straightforwardness that is probably the first sign that this is a romance and not a novel. The second sign comes when Meaulnes runs off one day with a horse and carriage, becomes lost in the countryside, and, following a stone tower, stumbles into a ruined castle where he is invited to join a strange pageant, performed entirely by children . . .

To say much more would give too much away. The charm of the book is that it moves from realism to romance (and back again) without acknowledging any incommensurability between the genres. The people that Meaulnes finds in the castle are human; the bewitchment of the place is not by magic but by a kind of family history. But if, as Miller writes, “the medieval self is geographical,” then Meaulnes’s self is medieval, and so is Seurel’s, because the two boys will struggle with their geographic knowledge of the castle, or rather geographic ignorance of it, for the rest of the book. As in Lewis’s romances, all the characters find doubles, and in some cases triples. These doubles aren’t named Reason and Passion, or Childhood and History, or Wealth and Poverty, but they have the same internal simplicity and interactive complexity that Lewis, in Miller’s paraphrase, credits to allegory. By the end, there is nothing childish about the story at all, except insofar as the tragedy of adult love is one first perceived in childhood.