Whatever Happened to the Novel
The question posed by the title above may seem an odd one, since there is surely no quantitative shortage of novels and novelists today. Indeed, the success of the novel as a literary form has never seemed so universal. Once a more or less strictly Western genre, it has now migrated around the globe. Its prestige, too, is undiminished. While poets and playwrights are occasionally given the Nobel, it and other literary prizes are usually reserved for those who have distinguished themselves primarily as novelists.
Yet we all know that something is deeply wrong with the novel, and that it is somehow imperilled. This would not necessarily be a bad thing; literary forms evolve, and the novel itself first satirized and then replaced the genres that had preceded it. The problem is that the novel has no apparent successor; that is, no emerging form that can do something like its work, or, if a different kind of work altogether, one of comparable value and significance. If the novel is waning--I won’t say dying--then it is taking a part of what was once our shared world with it.
The golden age of the novel, it’s now clear, lasted roughly from 1800 to 1950. There were superb solitary examples of it before, and many have argued that the greatest of all novels was the very first, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. By the eighteenth century, it was an established genre, and even merited an article in Diderot’s Encyclopedie. Somewhere between Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangeureuses and Goethe’s Elective Affinities, though, the novel’s supremacy among literary forms was acknowledged, and by the time of Stendhal and Balzac, that supremacy was unquestioned.
What gave the novel such distinction, and what was its significance? The novel arose from the bourgeois world, as it may be said to be passing with it. Marxist criticism observed this to the point of tedium, though it incorrectly anticipated what the post-bourgeois world would be. The matter is more complex, however. Art is a dialogue with life, not a mere precipitate of it. It arises as a voice, an individual’s voice, and how that voice is moved to speak is always a mystery.
The novel is a case in point. Cervantes stumbled upon it quite by accident. Literature, in his day, was defined by epic and romance. These forms, like the novel, revolved around a hero confronting a difficult or hostile world. In epic and romance, however, the hero’s task is given: to rescue the maiden, to find the Grail. His action is a quest, and the object of that quest is foreknown, conventional, and accepted--not merely by the hero, but by the reader. The hero, that is, is defined by an objective task. If there is a maiden to be rescued, the hero must rescue her. No ordinary person can do this; the rest of us (though our moral responsibility is no less than the hero’s) are too weak, distracted, or frightened off by the difficulties. The hero recognizes the task with moral clarity, and that clarity nerves him to act.
Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a hero. But the tasks he recognizes are unreal. He is a fool, because he takes a scullery maid for a maiden in distress, or a windmill for a knightly opponent. He sees, that is, the conventional tokens of heroic quest, but they no longer correspond to facts in the world. There are plenty of harried and abused women, but no longer are there maidens in distress. There are plenty of brutal mercenaries, but no more knightly foes.
Cervantes has a good laugh at this, and so do we. But his book, obviously a satire on shopworn literary genres, transmutes itself strangely as it proceeds. Every hero has a squire, but Sancho Panza sees the world as it actually is. Why, then, does he humor Don Quixote in his evident madness? He is not the Don’s servant, but his companion. Who, though, voluntarily follows a madman? One may lead a blind man out of compassion, but one does not agree to crash into walls with him. And Sancho Panza never leads Don Quixote. He really does follow him, to his own hurt no less than the Don’s. If the Don is mad, then what kind of sanity does Sancho Panza display?
There is a partial explanation to this, but one that only deepens the mystery. If Don Quixote is to be a hero, he must, according to convention, have a squire. The squire is no mere accessory. Apart from the practical services he renders, he supplies ideological confirmation of the hero’s quest. Not everyone can see the Holy Grail (a failure of vision), and, among those who do, not everyone is willing to confront the difficulties that impede its recovery (a failure of nerve). The presence of the squire, an ordinary person like ourselves, assures us that the Grail is real, and that it is attainable. In short, he assures us that the hero is not mad.
But, of course, Don Quixote is mad, at least in the sense that the objects of his quest are imaginary. Sancho Panza fulfills the literary requirement that the hero have a squire (we would certainly not follow the Don ourselves ourselves if he did not), but he makes no ontological sense-- that is, no sense as a character. Yet we follow him, too.
We may say that Sancho Panza consents to the Don’s madness as if it were a superior form of reality (the form we wish reality had). As Milan Kundera points out, though, in his reading of Don Quixote, by the end of the book, everyone is equally caught up in the Don’s vision, and his death is lamented as that of a real hero.
This could be interpreted as nostalgia for the days when heroes were real, life’s goals were clear, and nothing worse than a dragon barred the way. But something else has happened. In looking back, perhaps ruefully, at the bygone world of epic and romance, Cervantes also points the way forward. The epic hero saw the world as given; his task inevitably followed. From a modern perspective, this made him a kind of automaton, or at least hopelessly unoriginal. We need such heroes to reassure us, and we find them still, in the movies, the comic strip, and the detective novel. But they do not satisfy us. The originality of Don Quixote is that he does not accept the world as it is, but makes one up for himself. To be sure, the elements he uses are preposterous and clichéd. That is why we laugh at him. But the vision he forges is somehow compelling. That is why we--Sancho Panza, the other characters of the book, and the readers of several centuries--follow him. With Don Quixote, we are introduced for the first time to the hero as subject. The subject defines the world for himself; he stakes out his own objects and values in it; he pursues his own path. The subject is the hero of the novel.
This subject is not necessarily admirable. Valmont, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, is a heartless seducer. Nor is the subject necessarily wise. Candide, himself a minor satire of Don Quixote, is hopelessly naïve. The subject is not even necessarily original in any way; but he is originally situated. His predicament, whatever it is, is his own. The strong hero in the novel, we may say, makes his way; the weak one is obliged to find it. What both must do is act. And they must act because, for them, nothing is given.
this point of view, Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, the hero of The Red and the
Black, is the first truly modern protagonist of the novel. Julien’s world is that of the post-Napoleonic
From there, it is not very far to the problem of inventing oneself. If character is defined by desire, desire itself must have objects. In a world that is itself a projection of desire--that is, what the individual wants of it, whether power, riches, fame, or sexual conquest--the ultimate object of desire is the self. In wanting this or that, the self is constituted, and the real horror vacuii is not the absence of objective value and external moral obligation--the chasm that loomed for the readers of Cervantes’ time--but the problematic of desire: its unstable and essentially arbitrary character, and the paradoxical double duty it must do as both a relation to the world and a foundation of the self. The desiring self, that is, risks everything, both self and world, for the failure of desire threatens both with annihilation. Thus, Emma Bovary risks everything in contemplating adultery, not because she will be censured by a small-town morality but because she has staked her self in her act.
same is true for that other famous adulteress of the nineteenth-century novel,
Anna Karenina. As Kundera points out,
Anna is still together with her lover, Vronsky, at the moment when she commits
suicide. Their relationship is under
some strain, and they’ve had a quarrel.
It is by no means at the point of collapse. But it has failed in some essential way for
Anna, just as Emma’s has with her
The novel thus embodies a paradox: it creates a world (or, more properly, proposes a shared one to its readers in the form of a desire with which they are invited to identify), yet at the same time it tends toward a solipsism that is ultimately self-destructive. The successful novel navigates this paradox; it cannot reconcile it. The splendor of the nineteenth-century novel resides in this unresolvable tension. If it is true that the novel’s protagonist creates his world through desire, it is also true that this desire meets resistance: it is not instantly gratified, and it is often frustrated. The hero thus encounters the world as resistance. This resistance is concretized as the obstacle. Sometimes, the obstacle is so great as to be more than hostile; it is indifferent, or, rather, the projection of a contrary desire that takes no account of individual wishes at all. This is the case in the greatest of all novels, War and Peace. The overmastering force that opposes itself to the interests and desires of all its characters is Napoleon, who is also the unspoken force behind Julien Sorel’s frustration in The Red and the Black.
Napoleon is the great unrepresentable hero of the nineteenth-century novel, because power and desire are so perfectly fused in him that he eclipses the world; that is, he overshadows it for everyone else. We glimpse the actual Napoleon in his camp in War and Peace, but he is not memorable, because the disproportion between his actual human stature and the consequences he creates is so vast that he is, in dramatic terms, unbelievable. He can only be represented as a set of circumstances posed for everyone else--by the war that engulfs them, and flings their plans and projects aside. War and Peace says, in effect, there is no world that is not created by the clash of desire, but that overmastering desire, whether it presents itself as the single, titanic will of an individual or as a set of ineluctable circumstances, can frustrate and overturn ordinary desire. This condition constitutes a crisis, and in it the ordinary individual cannot act freely (except within narrow bounds), but is forced to react. Tolstoy calls it “war.”
In war or in “peace”--the ordinary clash of desires, of Prince Andrey’s, and Natasha’s, and Pierre’s--the solitary individual finds the wishes he or she projects onto the world opposed and checked; this is the action of novels. When the action is comic, the protagonist gets his wish in the end, although it is often unrecognizably different from the one he started with. When it is tragic, that wish is frustrated, and the protagonist not infrequently perishes with it. If wishing constitutes the hero as such, however, it is a burden he may wish to relinquish. In The Underground Man, Dostoevsky portrays a man who refuses to want, and thereby rejects the world (strictly speaking, the possibility of a world). In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov does what in fact repels him in arbitrarily killing a stranger. (When Meursault does the same thing seventy-five years later in Camus’ The Stranger, he acts not with disgust but indifference: at a further stage, that is, of mastering desire.) The logic of Dostoevsky’s fiction carries him, finally, to a character such as Stavrogin in The Possessed, who wishes to destroy not this person or that, but the world as such.
Even with Stavrogin, however, the hero of the bourgeois novel cannot escape the fatal cycle of desire, for the wish to destroy is only the obverse of the desire to possess: both are a species of consumption. The bourgeois hero’s quest inevitably ends in disgust, for whether or not he attains the object of his desire, either to possess or destroy it, it must then be replaced. Even were the whole world to be destroyed, desire would reconstitute it.
The novel had already come to crisis with Dostoevsky. The reckoning was postponed by the naturalistic novel, in which the hero is himself a social product, his desires dictated and ultimately crushed by the world that shapes him. Per contra, desire is interiorized in Proust, in whose novel the hero takes himself as an object (the device of nostalgia). It has often been observed that the putative object of Marcel’s desire, Albertine, is a stand-in for the homoerotic objects of Proust’s own desire. In a sense, however, it is highly appropriate that Albertine be (doubly) a fiction, because “she” is ultimately the icon of the author’s own self-regard.
imperilled or sublimated, the desire of the hero was the key to a dialectic by
which the world could be instantiated and portrayed in all its richness and
complexity. The death of the hero meant
the death of that world; but, by the same token, the extinction of that world
was the end of the hero. Prince Andrey
dies in War and Peace, but
In the great novel of the interwar period, The Man Without Qualities--perhaps the last great novel of the Western tradition--Robert Musil offers us a hero in extremis. Ulrich von -- (his surname is never given) is a brilliant young mathematician in Habsburg Vienna on the eve of World War I, at ease in high society, who decides privately to give himself one year to find a reason to live. Ulrich, that is to say, is without desire, and hence without the capacity to relate to the world around him, much less to share in its creation. He is thus the very negation of the hero. The world presents itself to him as an absurdity, one which sustains itself from moment to moment only as an act of willed stupidity. Ulrich can neither consent to nor partake in this stupidity. The question, for him, is whether he can find a purchase for the self apart from it, and that quest--such as it is--constitutes the ‘action’ of the novel. It is telling that Musil himself was unable to complete his book, although, with its Nachlass of variants and uncompleted drafts, it is considerably longer than War and Peace. Ulrich’s year never completes itself, the year within which the Austrian monarchy would find itself fatally embroiled in the Great War and launched upon its own destruction. The hero’s own drama is thus inscribed within a larger social and civilizational breakdown, and Musil himself could end his novel only with his own death.
Musil died in 1942, the world had already entered upon a second World War. Postwar French Existentialism may be regarded
as a last attempt to assert the nineteenth-century hero as a man defined by
desire, but its one important novelist, Camus, created an antihero who acts
without desire or even affect, and submits indifferently to a judgment that
does not concern him. The experimental
French novelists who succeeded him--Sarraute, Duras, Butor, LeClezio--described
only a world of fragments. The East
European novel, in the Kafkaesque environment of Stalinist rule, showed some
vigor, but the conditions under which it operated, in which the state imposed
its monolithic will on a subject population--a desire answering to no human
impulse--were the reverse of those under which the classic novel had been
cultivated. The collapse of the
What is the nature of this world, and why is it inimical to the novel? The bourgeois world was predicated, at least ideologically, on the propulsive urgency of the individual will. Whether or not this answered to the fact of the bourgeois apparatus, with its practical dependence on the labor of those deprived of will, is a political question that we can place to the side for the purposes of our discussion. The novel, that “privileged sphere of analysis, lucidity, [and] irony,” as Kundera described it,1 was this world’s most definitive act of self-description. Its only guiding rule was the presence of the hero, a stand-in, of course, for the novelist himself, and its only principle was that the world emanated from this hero, that is, took form and direction from him. If this was an illusion--and, like all convention, it certainly was--it was nonetheless a very fruitful one. It produced the worlds of Fielding, of Dickens, of Flaubert, of Tolstoy. These worlds, be their compass large or small, are capacious: for all their necessary distortions, they hold more of our common reality than any other form of human expression ever devised. It is something of a mystery why this is so, but the fact is indubitable. The novel is the adventure of desire, and this idea, however problematic it may be in relation to reality, is irresistibly attractive to us: it is the way we want the world to be, as a product of our own urgency. Freud could no doubt explain the infantile roots of this to us, as Marx does the sociological ones; but, no matter. It contains the truth that desire is the only thing that animates us, and generates what we consent to recognize as the world.
Desire in the novel implies two necessary elements: a willing subject or protagonist, and a world to be acted on. I have said that the hero’s desire creates his world, and that is true: without desire, there is neither hero nor world. Yet the world is not simply a projection of desire, or it would be no more than a dream, a wish-fulfillment in which a thing is no sooner desired than had. The Devil offers Faust the world in this way; Faust has only to ask for a thing and it is granted him. But Faust is soon wearied by this, for instant gratification is really contrary to desire, which exerts itself only against obstacles. The world, then, in and of itself, is that which resists our desire, and which we shape by overcoming its resistance (or, in the case of tragic action, fail to).
The bourgeois world was a perfect stage for the novel, combining just proportions of obstacle and opportunity: at least, this was so in the mind of the novelist. Musil’s Ulrich senses that the world has changed: it is, in an order both bureaucratized and relativized, both more and less amenable to desire. It is Ulrich’s hypersensitivity to this fact that stymies him. The world has become both more arbitrary and more chaotic; on the one hand at the mercy of inflexible rules, and on the other of casual whim. The Man Without Qualities begins its nearly eighteen hundred page journey with a description of a changing weather front; at its never-to-be-reached end, it descries the abyss into which an entire civilization will be plunged. Neither the weather nor the Great War can be averted; each is a welter which desire can complicate, but not control. In a way, desire is too easy (handsome, highly intelligent, and independently wealthy, Ulrich can have almost anything a conventional hero might want); yet at the same time it is impossible (the hero appears no longer as the shaper of the world’s destinies, but merely as the consumer of its pleasures).
Musil, in short, foresaw the novel’s impasse. Our postbourgeois world offers us--or, at least, those of us who can afford it--the limitless pleasures of consumption; but the consumption of prefabricated objects is the very opposite of the satisfaction of desire, and the modern consumer the antithesis of the hero. As the hero is the predicate of his world, the consumer is predicated by a world that constructs him. Having no identity of his own, the consumer is an interchangeable counter, he who can meet a price. In such a world a terminal romantic like Ulrich, who despairs of wanting something he can only get for himself, is, as Musil suggests, well on his way to suicide from the beginning.
The postbourgeois world, then, is one in which the bourgeois hero--adventurer, entrpreneur--is replaced by the consumer; the man who makes by the man who buys. In this world, one can have anything, but is permitted to want nothing. This is the world conjured up by Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, whose protagonist is no longer a bundle of character traits but a succession of the brand names he consumes, and whose “interior” life is that of a sexual predator and serial killer whose rampages resemble those of an automaton out of control. American Psycho is a novel about the impossibility of the novel; about the impossibility of freedom in a universe reduced to mere choice.
Of course, novels continue to be written, but for the most part the way pictures in the style of the Impressionists continue to be painted. Without lapsing into the genre of the historical novel, recent novels such as William Boyd’s Restless and Travis Holland’s The Archivist’s Story dip back into the past (both books are set on the eve of World War II); in each case, the protagonist must make narrow moral choices in a world where freedom as such has disappeared, and destruction is ultimately certain. The prototype of this novel is Orwell’s 1984, but whereas for Orwell the totalitarian world of Stalin is experienced as a nightmare, in The Archivist’s Story it is evoked almost with nostalgia, as a place where even torturers are still acquainted with Gogol and Chekhov.
The two most serious novelists now working, at least in the United States, are Philip Roth and Don De Lillo--both, one might note, are septuagenarians. Each, in his own way, has tried to grapple with the novel’s crisis. Roth, the more traditional of the two, attempts to reinstate the aspiring bourgeois hero; one of his books is entitled, The Professor of Desire. De Lillo, meanwhile, has explored the void of our new, obliquely flattened world, whose protagonists seem manipulated by forces just beyond their ken. These writers are not less skilled than their great predecessors; it is just that they are working against the grain. One reads them with admiration, and with sorrow.
To write a novel, and also to read one, is an act of faith. As Kundera points out, it takes a good week to read a substantial novel with the attention it deserves--that is, at about twenty pages an hour. As we read, we simultaneously forget--the last chapter, the last page--retaining only as much continuity as we require to make sense of our progress. In a world of constant media distraction, of uninterrupted consumption, the supremely leisurely consumption of the novel is a taste we are no longer equipped for: we forget the effort required not to forget completely. Susan Sontag also puts the problem of the postmodern reader succinctly:
The transnational culture into which everyone who belongs to the capitalist consumer society--also known as the global economy--is being inducted is one that, in effect, makes literature irrelevant--a mere utility for bringing us what we already know--and can slot into the open-ended frameworks for the acquisition of information, and voyeuristic viewing at a distance.2
The reader, who engages his sympathies with the hero, is the opposite of the voyeur, who observes “at a distance,” and consumes without involvement. A voyeuristic reader (if such a thing is possible) could only be answered by a manipulative writer; in short, by an anti-novelist. We are already well past the threshold of such interactive literature, in which the distinction between reader and writer is collapsed and the book itself becomes a kind of kit. The aleatory novelist Julio Cortazar proposed this kind of “novel” many years ago, and Sontag herself wrote a novel called Death Kit.
No one should sentimentalize the bourgeois epoch, but is hard not to regret the novel. Even a Marxist critic like Lukacs could not conceal the pleasure he derived from it. Perhaps the postcolonial novel will reinstate some version of the hero, at least as the interstitial man who pursues a destiny in the meshes of the world’s new machinery. The novel is, after all, a novelty, and who can say for sure what it may come up with next?
In any case, for this reader at least, Tolstoy still sits on the shelf.
Susan Sontag, At the Same Time:
Essays and Speeches, ed. Peter Dilonardo and Anne Jump (