Michael Schmidt’s massive new book, The Novel: A Biography, covers nearly 700 years of prose and hundreds of writers. At 1,200 pages, it is much longer than Moby-Dick and nearly as long as War and Peace. Although it’s not necessarily the last word on any given novel, as a resource, reference and stimulator, it’s a bargain and a worthy addition to your home library.
While Schmidt, born in Mexico, has long been a professor in the United Kingdom, his approach is not academic. He writes for common readers, to borrow Virginia Woolf’s phrase, though he must know they’ll have to do some work to keep up with him.
I might not have embraced a book this large had I not previously read his Lives of the Poets (1998), a big, idiosyncratic handbook of poets in English whose alphabetical format made it easy to dip into.
While equally idiosyncratic, The Novel: A Biography is more readerly, a series of essays in which Schmidt first develops the history of the novel and then, reaching the modern era, tackles clusters of novelists grouped by affinities. For example, Schmidt’s “Elegy” chapter covers and finds commonalities among Thornton Wilder, William Faulkner, Ellen Glasgow, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Thomas Wolfe, Malcolm Lowry and Joyce Cary.
In the book’s distinguishing feature, Schmidt taps the opinions of novelists about each other, rather than leaning on professional critics a la Harold Bloom (only cited once in this gigantic volume). The likes of Woolf, Ford Madox Ford and Jonathan Lethem offer insight and argument alongside Schmidt. “The most penetrating insights into Cervantes are those of Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, of Stendhal and Flaubert and Turgenev, Dickens and Faulkner and Hunter S. Thompson; not only what they say about ‘Don Quixote,’ but how they incorporate the sad knight and his sidekick into their own imagination,” Schmidt writes.
As that passage makes clear, while Schmidt primarily discusses novels in English, he also makes room for writers in other languages, such as Tolstoy and Kafka, who had a powerful effect on fiction in English.
Schmidt draws his finish line about the year 2000.
Given its density of ideas, The Novel: A Biography was a book I read about ten or 15 pages at a time over several months, which is how I’d recommend most people read it. It contains plenty of points of possible argument with its editor and his fellow commentators — and it offers many suggestions and much stimulation, the best reason to grapple with his gargantuan tome.
In the Beginning
Schmidt identifies Mandeville’s Travels by Sir John Mandeville, written in French between 1357 and 1371, and first printed in English in 1496, as one of the earliest fictional works by an English author, though no one would call it a novel. This memoir and travel book “pretends to be true but is in fact woven from half-truths and lies,” Schmidt writes, a description that might be applied to many novels.
His tour of antecedents (including John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress) ultimately takes him to Aphra Behn (1640-’89). He quotes Woolf on her Restoration predecessor: “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.” Schmidt calls Behn’s Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave (1688) “a sensational brief novel set in Surinam, eloquent in its opposition to slavery, combining ‘memoir’ and invention, travelogue and biography.”
After noting how Oroonoko touches on issues central to “modern academic discourse” — imperialism, colonialism, class and race, Schmidt leaps centuries forward to link Behn to Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). These kinds of connection are what make Schmidt’s book both entertaining and instructive for the literary nerd. In his “Impersonation” chapter, he connects Daniel Defoe, Truman Capote and J.M. Coetzee; Nuvvles declares Patrick O’Brian, author of the Aubrey-Maturin maritime novels, an heir of Miguel de Cervantes.
Great American Novels
Although he writes from Great Britain, Schmidt and his fellow travelers engage American fiction deeply. Consider their takes on some books that contend for the title of Great American Novel.
Schmidt offers Willa Cather and Jorge Luis Borges in support of the greatness of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and cites Ernest Hemingway’s statement that modern American fiction descends from Huck. (Schmidt sees Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, Augie March and even Humbert Humbert as successors of some kind to Huck.) But Schmidt sides with Hemingway in declaring the happy ending Twain gave Huckleberry Finn a defective one.
In the “Thought-Divers” chapter, which also includes Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Schmidt calls the language of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) “richly Jacobean, with the kinds of unsentimental concerns with mortality and the physicality of the body that we experience in the drama and religious writing of an age in which the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were entering the bloodstream of English.” Schmidt cites D.H. Lawrence as celebrating the symmetries of Moby-Dick, and Edmund Wilson as both admiring and resisting the novel.
Schmidt begins his look at F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby (1925) with the naysaying Gore Vidal: “Little of what Fitzgerald wrote has any great value as literature.” However, Schmidt himself writes that “Of the writers of the lost generation, Fitzgerald wrote the most elegant, cinematic sentence and paragraph.” He sees Fitzgerald’s vision, through Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway, as “androgynous, complete, in the way that Virginia Woolf says an accomplished author must be: active and passive, male and female, credulous and disabused.”
But Schmidt also characterizes Carraway as a distinctly unreliable narrator, who knows either too much or too little at any given moment to be trustworthy.
By using multiple voices in relating the ghost story of Beloved (1987), Schmidt writes, Morrison avoids reducing black experience to a single position. “We are not one indistinguishable block of people who always behave the same way,” Schmidt quotes Morrison as saying. “I try to give some credibility to all sorts of voices, each of which is profoundly different. Because what strikes me about African-American culture is its variety.”
By shifting the frame, Schmidt offers his own unique if logically defended contender for the “chimera” of the Great American Novel: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975). “The book is about a number of famous Americans bound together by common people, about the American Dream, about America itself, its connections and disconnections with Europe and with landscape, its infatuation with celebrity and success, its greed, injustice, sentimentalism, idealism.”
A Wisconsin Novelist
Schmidt opens his “Elegy” chapter with praise for Madison, Wis., native Thornton Wilder (1897-1975), whom we remember most today for his drama “Our Town.” But Wilder wrote quality fiction, too, particularly “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” (1927) — Schmidt notes that British Prime Minister Tony Blair read aloud the conclusion of that novel during the memorial service for British victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Wilder “spent no more time in Europe than Hemingway or Fitzgerald did, but there was about his sense of the world and his learning the kind of European tone that one finds in a philosopher like George Santayana or, in a previous generation, a novelist like Henry James,” Schmidt writes. “He did not place himself at the center of his narrative or show off: fiction deepened his concern with human situations, it led away from an ‘I’ with which he was not wholly at ease.”
Weaknesses and Surprises
A survey this sweeping will inevitably have debatable propositions, weaknesses and errors.
Schmidt’s dominant interest is the literary canon; he crams romance, Western, mystery, horror and sci-fi writers in a single “Genre” chapter which feels obligatory rather than passionate. He notes, as a literary canonizer would, that “genre fiction is where literature and the market unashamedly meet” (as opposed to university creative writing departments, where literary fiction and the market hold hands).
His judgment isn’t totally sound in genre fiction. In sci-fi, he correctly identifies Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin as towering figures of accomplishment and influence, but also drags in Michael Crichton, a commercial success but unworthy of inclusion with those giants.
Schmidt also makes a howler in this section, referring to the editor who helped shape the work of Heinlein and Asimov as James Campbell. That would be John W. Campbell Jr., one of the crucial figures in the history of science fiction.
His book would be better had he included the late Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006), who in Kindred (1979),Wild Seed (1980) and other novels told challenging stories about race and gender. And couldn’t Walter Mosley’s long series of novels about African-American life be considered a 20th-century analogue to Anthony Trollope or Honore de Balzac’s work, both included here?
Schmidt does have the good taste to single out Elmore Leonard as a novelist who both fulfills and transcends the requirements of the mystery genre, noting that his books leave room for “the inexplicable, the deep mystery of the medium.” Schmidt brings in mainstream literary backup for his Leonard love, quoting Martin Amis calling Get Shorty (1990) “a masterpiece” and noting that Philip Hensher compared that novel with Italo Calvino.
The Novel: A Biography offers pleasant surprises, too. While I’ve always loved the short fiction of Donald Barthelme, Schmidt makes a strong case for Barthelme’s novels, particularly The Dead Father (1975), and declares Barthelme a direct heir of the brilliant Flann O’Brien. In his chapter “Truths in Fiction, The Metamorphosis of Journalism,” Schmidt treats Hunter S. Thompson seriously as a novelist, particularly for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), noting that behind Raoul Duke and “his attorney Dr. Gonzo (the 300-pound Samoan attorney with the amazing shirts) loom the tall bent and squat tubby figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
“I set out to write this book without an overarching theory of the novel,” Schmidt writes in his prologue. “I had no point to prove… 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.”