Earlier this year I read Middlemarch
, and I was thoroughly entertained by it. But I wrote about
feeling "pulled along by the plot" and not liking that feeling and having to slow myself down to savor what I did like about the novel. Last year, I read both Wuthering Heights
and Jane Eyre
--both of which are also very entertaining novels, but which leave me with little to say, little to ponder. The copy of Wuthering Heights
we have is a Bedford Books Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism edition, nearly half of which is devoted to five critical studies of the novel--Psychoanalytic, Feminist, Deconstruction, Marxist, and Cultural--along with brief histories of each type of criticism, as well as a short history of the critical response to the novel. My plan was to read each essay and then perhaps write about what I found there. I didn't make it very far. The Pyschoanalytic essay ("The Absent Mother in Wuthering Heights
" by Philip K. Wion) was so tedious that I had to quit it only a couple of pages in. Then other books actually managed to keep my attention, and that was that. Thus did my good intentions die.
The thing is, I am curious about these forms of criticism. I know that it's a commonplace for academic criticism to be taken to task for reading literature for anything other than its literary/aesthetic qualities (this is certainly one of Dan Green
's common themes at The Reading Experience
). I also know that my sympathies, though I have no personal acquaintance with any critical method as yet, are with those making this assessment--or, rather, my sympathies lie in favor of the idea that this is not conducive to the study of literature as art
, however justified the practice might be for other purposes. Even so, I'd like to know what these critical methods are actually like; so I thought, anyway. But I don't have all the time in the world, and a quick survey of these essays (even just a glance at the descriptions of each type, though the Deconstruction piece may be an exception) tells me that they don't take the kind of approach that I think I want or need.
Just a few weeks ago, I read Emma
. I liked it a little less than the other Jane Austen novels I've read, but, still, I enjoyed it. But the pleasure is chiefly in reading about what happens, isn't it? Right now I'm in the middle of The Portrait of a Lady
, and the same is essentially true. I am learning about Isabel Archer and watching her develop and gain experience in the world. Our narrator, indeed, routinely refers to her as "our heroine" and the book is given to be a biographical work of some kind. Don't get me wrong: I am far from immune to the pleasure to be had in Henry James' sentences. There are quotable passages; things are very well observed, very well put. The same is certainly true of George Eliot and Jane Austen and, to a lesser extent, the Brontës. But this doesn't seem to be what critics want to talk about. With The Portrait of a Lady
, I skim Geoffrey Moore's introduction and James' own preface, and everything seems to be about Isabel and the events in the novel and those potentially corresponding events in James' own life. I look in the back of the book, under the Further Reading heading, and I see references to and brief descriptions of twenty critical works about The Portrait of a Lady
, nearly all of which seem exclusively concerned with the same material.
An exception to this tendency is an essay by William H. Gass, "The High Brutality of Good Intentions". The essay originally appeared in 1958 and is collected in his Fiction and the Figures of Life
. It so happens that it was this essay by Gass, along with another one in the same collection called "In the Cage", that inspired me a few months ago to get a copy of The Portrait of a Lady
and finally read one of the long James novels (I'd previously read the very short works Turn of the Screw
and Daisy Miller
). In "In the Cage", Gass reviews the biography Henry James: The Treacherous Years 1895-1901
, by Leon Edel, whose "method is so narrowly 'psychological' that the actual psychology of his subject frequently escapes him":
Sibling rivalries, castration complexes, homosexual tendencies, oedipal longings: these are common, we may suppose, to many men, none of whom possesses the style and the mind of this master; they tell us too little, and even in one life make our explanations increasingly monotonous and empty; since what is any life, from this point of view, but a repeating pattern of family relations, one where every war is the first war refought? so that the answers to our whys have a persistent dull sameness. . .
When, after all, the only reason for a biography of Henry James is the existence of his voluminous writing. He famously didn't do
much of anything else: "He merely wrote his novels like the useless man he was, and what is striking about these if not their quality, their extraordinary refinement, their personality, their style?" Gass discusses character and plot and theme, too, but he is not like other critics. Gass, of course, is nothing if not a great stylist himself, and as a critic he is primarily interested in teasing out the workings of a writer's style--how does he do the things he does? In the "High Brutality" essay, he is at pains to show how the character manipulations of the story are a manifestation of James' style:
It is not simply in the organization of character, dialogue, and action that Henry James reveals The Moral Passion, nor is it reflected further only in his treatment of surroundings but it represents itself and its ideal in the increasing scrupulosity of the style: precision of definition, respect for nuance, tone, the multiplying presence of enveloping metaphors, the winding around the tender center of ritual lines, like the approach of the devout and worshipful to the altar, these circumlocutions at once protecting the subject and slowing the advance so that the mere utility of the core is despaired of and it is valued solely in the contemplative sight.
Critics too often want to reduce fiction, cut it down to size, manage it. Gass, at least, is a corrective. He is always alive to a writer's style--alive to the mastery of a Henry James, alive to how his peculiar style achieves its effect on the reader. And he reminds us, should we need reminding (and all too often we do, don't we?), that novels are not merely repositories of story. There is no "story" hiding there without James' style, and the same holds for Eliot, Austen, Dickens, and anyone else. When we enjoy these novels, a big part of the enjoyment is the language itself.
And yet. And yet my tendency with these novels, still, is to want to pick up the pace, read quickly, to find out what happens, to allow myself to be pulled along by the machinations of the plot, and to identify with and like or dislike characters.
I've been reading a lot of Gabriel Josipovici lately--specifically his books On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion
and The Book of God: A Response to the Bible
. In these wonderful books, Josipovici taps into something that feels right to me, but which I've only recently realized needed articulating. Of course, all of the novels I've mentioned are Anglo-American and hail from the 19th century, when the novel was in its "classic" phase. In On Trust
Josipovici describes the situation as follows:
The characteristic of the classic novel is the smoothness of its surface. Since it seems to exist 'out there', free of any maker, it offers no purchase for criticism. As a result, commentators on novels have tended to speak in the very terms the novels themselves have presented them with--essentially, character and plot.
The "maker" of these novels is not invisible to all readers--witness Gass on James, or Nabokov's discussion of structure in Austen's Mansfield Park
, in his Lectures on Literature
--but the problem remains. They proceed as if they had every right in the world to exist, as if the coherence of the world contained within them was not open to question. Josipovici, instead, explains the idea of the craft tradition, and how the loss of that tradition leaves writers adrift. In his introduction to On Trust
, he provides an example of the dilemma by giving us five versions of a brief dialogue. Then he asks:
. . . if I can write a tiny fragment of dialogue in so many different ways, how am I going to decide which is the right way? If each decision depends on how I feel on the day I'm writing, or how I imagine novels ought to be written, or, which amounts to the same thing, on which books I've read, then what happened to my need to speak? For that was something intensely personal and urgent, something which seemed to have nothing to do with books and to be too deeply rooted to be dependent on daily fluctuations of mood.
Josipovici believes that we must be "deeply suspicious of any claims to be representing tradition", but also strongly disagrees with the post-modern idea "that we are now free to plunder from all
traditions, selecting what we want and dismissing the rest." Of course, a great many books are published each year, in a wide variety of modes, so writers do not seem
to feel adrift by this loss of tradition, or even notice it, seem "untroubled by doubt". Is this a problem? We are constantly being told, especially in the blog world, that there is significant body of "high quality" fiction published each year (which is increasingly impossible to keep up with). Is this really true? Is there something false about the preponderance of these books? How much of even the best and most highly regarded literary fiction simply amounts to "entertainment"?
Josipovici locates a lineage of writers which recognizes these problems, thus running counter to the assumptions of the classic novel (assumptions that seem ever more dominant today). The Modernists, for example, took issue with the classic novel and the sense its writers conveyed that the world could be portrayed in its totality, as it is ("realistically"), and that this was a worthy goal for art. But the lessons of the Modernists seem to have been lost or ignored or misunderstood by most writers.
And that's enough for this already quite long entry. I'll be spending more time discussing Josipovici and his books in future posts.
Labels: Gabriel Josipovici, George Eliot, Henry James, Literary Criticism, Modernism, William H. Gass