AN IMAG­I­NARY LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ern life, the novel is not so im­por­tant. It’s pos­si­ble ev­ery day to meet lit­er­ate peo­ple who don’t see the point of it. This year I am teach­ing lit­er­a­ture to stu­dents who didn’t choose to study it but must, as a re­quire­ment of their de­gree in ed­u­ca­tion. Some are nat­u­ral read­ers; many are not. More and more I find my­self try­ing to ex­plain to them what lit­er­a­ture is for.

Think of a bird, I said to a class last se­mes­ter. When you see a bird, and it’s quiet, and it’s just you and the bird, what do you do? You watch it, my stu­dents replied. Why do you watch it? Their an­swers: be­cause you’re cu­ri­ous. To see what it will do. Be­cause it is beau­ti­ful. So this, I said to them — you and the quiet and the beau­ti­ful bird — is this what lit­er­a­ture is for, to record th­ese mo­ments? This pri­vate but univer­sal ex­pe­ri­ence — is this the source of lit­er­a­ture? They were too po­lite to ar­gue with me.

Some of my stu­dents had not read nov­els for adults be­fore; some had even had trou­ble with the Harry Pot­ter se­ries. All con­sid­ered The Hunger Games to be a se­ries for adults. When they were given ex­tracts from Aus­tralian nov­els to read, a few be­came dis­ori­ented. They wanted to know who was speak­ing, where they were,

But read it I did, after con­sid­er­ing the usual dodges of skimming, read­ing other peo­ple’s reviews, read­ing only the sec­tions I thought I might write about. I have two chil­dren, a hus­band, a job, a book of my own to fin­ish writ­ing. I tried at first to fit my read­ing into the cracks of the day — early in the morn­ing, while the chil­dren were eat­ing break­fast. Be­tween classes. Dur­ing my son’s pi­ano les­son. After din­ner. Ly­ing in bed. After drop­ping the book on my face a cou­ple of times I bought my­self an elec­tronic copy and tried read­ing it that way. But be­ing in the e-book was like be­ing in a sealed room in an empty, in­dus­trial build­ing; a room with no win­dow or door, only walls. The words had no echo. I couldn’t re­mem­ber any­thing when I switched the de­vice off. I had to go back to the hard­back, and, fi­nally, I de­cided that I was go­ing to have to stop try­ing to fit the book into the cracks and just read it.

Pic­ture me and The Novel, on the couch, not check­ing my email. Life go­ing past out­side, and inside. The Novel be­gins as an ex­plo­ration, with Sch­midt — a poet orig­i­nally from Mex­ico and now pro­fes­sor of po­etry at the Univer­sity of Glas­gow — telling us: “I had no point to prove. I read in a spirit of com­mit­ted cu­rios­ity … If a the­ory were to emerge, it would be that the achieved novel be­longs to an un­sub­orn­able fam­ily, that what­ever use a novel is put to in its own age, it sur­vives not be­cause of its themes or its in­ten­tions but be­cause of some­thing else, to do with form, lan­guage, in­ven­tion, and an en­dur­ing re­sis­tance to cliche, an ir­re­duc­ible qual­ity. A some­thing.” The Novel: A Biog­ra­phy By Michael Sch­midt Har­vard Univer­sity Press, 1200pp, $59.95 (HB) what year it was, what was be­ing de­scribed; be­fore they could even con­sider what the novel might be for they needed to know what it was and how to read it. Th­ese stu­dents read thou­sands of words ev­ery day in the form of ad­ver­tis­ing, jour­nal­ism, so­cial me­dia. Some even read their text­books. But many were be­wil­dered by the de­mands of fic­tion, and were sim­ply hu­mour­ing me as I paced about de­scrib­ing nov­els, recit­ing po­etry, forc­ing them to read scenes from plays aloud. The lat­ter they found eas­ier to nav­i­gate; they al­ways knew who was speak­ing.

It’s hard, in this at­mos­phere, to imag­ine the reader of Michael Sch­midt’s The Novel: A Biog­ra­phy. At nearly 1200 pages, The Novel is not quite an en­cy­clo­pe­dia, not quite an es­say, not quite a his­tory. It con­tains as­pects of all th­ese things, but most of all it con­tains a great deal of in­for­ma­tion. It does bear a relation to biog­ra­phy, but only if one calls to mind the uber-biog­ra­phy, Boswell’s Life of John­son — the bi­og­ra­pher fol­low­ing his sub­ject around, teas­ing it, needling it, press­ing it to re­veal its se­crets, con­duct­ing end­less con­ver­sa­tions with it and, fi­nally, pro­duc­ing some­thing that is both ex­hil­a­rat­ing and ab­so­lutely ex­haust­ing to read.

This re­minded me ir­re­sistibly of Amer­i­can writer An­nie Dil­lard’s ob­ser­va­tions about the starfish, and its prac­tice of break­ing it­self apart, one arm twist­ing it­self free, leav­ing the main body and crawl­ing away. Dil­lard quotes em­i­nent marine bi­ol­o­gist (and scholar of po­etry) Ed Rick­etts: “It would seem that in an an­i­mal that de­lib­er­ately pulls it­self apart we have the very acme of some­thing or other.” A some­thing. A some­thing or other. It was good to be in the company of a writer such as Sch­midt, who shares this will­ing­ness to not-know, while clearly pos­sessed of so much knowl­edge.

Sch­midt’s next artis­tic decision, to com­mit only par­tially to the idea of chronol­ogy, seemed just as cre­ative and fer­tile. The Novel be­gins in the 14th cen­tury with Sir John Man­dev­ille’s Trav­els and ends, a lit­tle ques­tion­ably, with the works of Bri­tish au­thor Martin Amis, but many of the chap­ters are lit­tle clouds of as­so­ci­a­tion — thus Tru­man Capote with De­foe, Aphra Behn with Zora Neale Hurston, Vir­ginia Woolf with Kazuo Ishig­uro. Lit­er­a­ture is a con­ver­sa­tion, al­ways oc­cur­ring in the present, and Sch­midt is right to draw con­nect­ing lines be­tween writ­ers across eras — although he does not go so far as

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