AN IMAGINARY LIFE
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