Monday, 15 September 2014

The novel

The prevailing epigram made by many novelists is 'the novel is dead.' It has been superseded by popular media like film and television. Its readership has been steadily diminishing. It now has a select readership, but soon enough publishers and promoters will lose patience and close the market down.

People who make these statements, I find, misapprehend what the novel is all about. 'Novel' means something new. If it were to die out now, it would have had a very brief existence. It only started in the eighteenth century. (Texts from antiquity have been added to the canon, but they weren't labelled 'novels' as such at the time.)

The novel is in a constant state of flux. It is a form which always adapts itself to contemporary society. It will always engage with the present day. It will represent society in new and unheralded ways. What's more is that, stylistically, it will always reinvent itself. This was the ethos behind the work of Cervantes, Laurence Sterne and Richardson and continues to be the ethos of Pynchon, De Lillo and Franzen. In the 19th century, social realists wanted to methodically recreate a picture of every day life through objective and descriptive language. This was rejected by modernists, who claimed that the perception of reality is not logical. Post-modernists took this further after the advent of mass advertisement, globalisation and televisual media. Everything is unreal. The novel accommodates itself to these developments and will give a picture of its time through these prisms.

The reason it can do all this is because the novel is a very malleable form. Unlike most poetry, there are no rules. It has never required a classical education. This is why it attracted female writers, who has been deprived from an education in the 19th century. You can latch onto your narrative as many ideas, characters, observations that you like. It is not formally rigid, nor is does it require a knowledge of classics.

'Latching on as many ideas as you like' is why the idea of the 'total novel' appeals to me. Many of the Latin American writers of the 60s were interested in the notion. (The apotheosis of this was quite likely José Donoso's The Obscene Bird of Night, which recreates the complex consciousness of a schizophrenic.) The idea that you can create a totalised narrative universe through multiple registers, time frames and narrators is very appealing. I very much like the idea of gigantic seamless works which brim with ideas. If we were to restrict ourselves to visual media, we would be severely limiting ourselves. There is so much you can do or say in a 90-minute narrative. Hopefully 'the total novel' will survive alongside the more popular forms (they have their merit, too) and will continue to engage with the big ideas of the day. It is the most equipped medium to say as much as it can in as many possible ways.

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