How the Novel Made the Modern World

William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic:

1000x2000Martin Amis once remarked, apropos of the idea of writing a book about America, that you might as well try to write one about people, or life. Or, he might have said, the English novel. Yet here we have the fruits of such an enterprise in all their cyclopedic, cyclopean glory: Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography—1,100 pages spanning nearly 30 dozen authors, starting with the pseudonymous Sir John Mandeville (he of the 14th-century Travels) and ending 45 brisk, brilliant, intimate, assured, and almost unflaggingly interesting chapters later with Amis himself.

Such an effort represents the labor of a lifetime, one would think. In fact, it is a kind of sequel to Lives of the Poets (1998), a comparably commodious compendium. Schmidt—who was born in Mexico, went to school in part in the United States, and has made his career in Britain—is himself a poet and novelist as well as an editor, publisher, anthologist, translator, and teacher. Given the fluidity with which he ranges across the canon (as well as quite a bit beyond it), one is tempted to say that he carries English literature inside his head as if it were a single poem, except that there are sections in The Novel on the major Continental influences, too—the French, the Russians, Cervantes, Kafka—so it isn’t only English. If anyone’s up for the job, it would seem to be him.

Still, 1,100 pages (and rather big ones, at that). I wasn’t sure I had the patience for it. Then I read this, in the second paragraph. Schmidt is telling us about the figures he’s enlisted as our guides along the way, novelist-critics like Henry James, Virginia Woolf, V. S. Pritchett, Gore Vidal, and many others:

They are like members of an eccentric family in an ancestral mansion … Some are full of respect, some reserved, others bend double with laughter; the rebellious and impatient slash the canvases, twist the cutlery, raise a toast, and throw the crystal in the grate. Their damage is another chapter in the story.

It wasn’t the notion that Schmidt was going to orchestrate the volume as a dialogue with and among these practitioners, though that was promising. It wasn’t the metaphor of the eccentric family per se, though that was interesting. It was the writing itself. The language was alive; the book would be alive as well. Take a breath, clear the week, turn off the WiFi, and throw yourself in.

More here.

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