And I dread winter because it’s so cozy.—Rimbaud
This time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas—otherwise “the pre-Christmas vagaries”—always makes me realize that, at heart, I am a thorough-going bourgeois. There’s nothing I like better than a big comfy chair on a dark December night, below freezing with wintry mix on the ground. Ain’t no reason to go up/Ain’t no reason to go down/Ain’t no reason to go anywhere, as Dylan says. It’s not just the stay-at-homeyness of it that appeals to me. The feeling that there’s nothing “out there” worth the effort makes me think there should be something “in here” that is. What that typically means is reading. For this is the time of year when the call of the novel—or the romance du roman—becomes most keenly felt. I don’t like cards and tend to eschew boardgames except with children, and anyway I’m mainly thinking of solitary pleasures.
The only other indoor game that appeals to me is making mix tapes. But the call of the novel precedes that activity, likewise watching videos or DVDs. Reading was the activity of choice growing up in a household where the TVs were controlled by elders and, anyway, at a certain point commercial broadcasts are just too tedious, ennuyeuse. During school days I read more in the summer of course, but that’s what made the spell from T-day break through Christmas break so special. It was possible to keep up with self-chosen reading because school work tended to be winding down. In a Catholic school especially, with the time of Advent full of piety rather than onerous assignments, this time of year promotes withdrawal into the fuzzy, warm cocoon—reading in bed, in other words. By high school reading had become a predisposition and there were suddenly so many novels to read, so many dead authors discovered by hanging around bookstores and searching the encyclopedia at home.
And the sad fact is: there are still so many authors and novels I want to read and haven’t. Somewhere along the way I developed the habit of re-reading rather than seeking out the new. And, because critical opinion mattered to me when encountered in books rather than newspapers, the voices I picked up on tended to be talking about those who had “withstood the test of time.” My contemporaries, it seemed, might best be thought of as entertainments—literary equivalents of the time-passing devices that filled our lives: radio, TV, movies. To read books written before any of those things existed was to read authors who knew they could count on a certain kind of readerly concentration, a certain kind of imaginative interaction. Theater was different, of course, requiring a certain time and space to happen in. I preferred the novel because it could happen anywhere. You could read on a bus, you could read in a noisy classroom, you could read late at night by a single lamp while the entire house slumbered, you could even read outdoors, on a beach, in a park. It was the universal escape hatch.
Pavel was one of my advisors when I was in the graduate school in Comp Lit at Princeton, where he was on the faculty for about the same length of time I was there, before he moved on to the University of Chicago where he currently teaches. Reading the book took me back not primarily to the joys of earliest novel reading, though that was there, lurking in the background, but to the seminars he led that I took in the 1989-90 term. I also worked for him as a summer research assistant and got to speak to him informally on numerous occasions. Reading his very lucid prose returned me to the real pleasure of re-covering the ground those seminars covered, to visit those lands again, as it were. Of course, the difference is that Pavel has made his home there and I was only a temporary visitor then. My specialty was to be the 20th-century novel and most of the works he spends so much time delineating in terms of plot and argument were just background to me.
My perspective is rather different from his, a fact which I once knew with the full force of youthful conviction but which I’ve rather let slip in the decades (almost two) since my time at Princeton ended. The difference, I mean, between thinking that the novel really begins its most interesting permutations from the 1850s to the 1950s, and then coasts a few more decades before losing its edge entirely, and thinking that the novel is primarily a genre of those pre-electric times I was just talking about. What I’m saying, in terms of Pavel’s book, is that he is faultlessly thorough about how the novel gets to its heyday in the late nineteenth century, and he’s in no hurry to get there. He has the patience to explicate numerous texts from a period when the novels written were, to my mind, little more than the plot-driven entertainments that we find today in so many miniseries. Meandering plots, a wealth of incidents, and, finally, in the 18th century the wherewithal to turn incidents to account, to have a point that is an effect of narrative structure and narrating voice, rather than simply an exploration of idealist conceptions of character. From there we get, in another century or so, to the exploration of character—all kinds of characters in all kinds of environments—as an end in itself. And, in some ways, that’s where the novel has stayed from then on. But.
But in the late 19th and early 20th century there came along a movement called aestheticism which was an exploration of the artistic character, an exploration that led to the exploration of the art of . . . everything. The art of the novel was then touched by the concept of high art. And some extraordinary novels were the result. Novels that are deficient in terms of plot, deficient in terms of incident and, mostly, environment, but which are extremely proficient in undertaking the challenge of style. The so-called linguistic turn put emphasis on how things are said, and there are few things that exist—particularly in a text—that are not a matter of saying. Pavel is fully aware of this but he doesn’t let it register in his account of the novel in the 20th century. His head of steam is driving him along a line to a certain destination and there’s scant time to look at what the challenge of those 40 years from the turn of the century to the end of World War II wrought. The last novelist he does full justice to is Proust. His accounts of Joyce, Mann, Woolf, Faulkner, Beckett, even Kafka, are rather lacking. And he chooses to speak of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera rather than 100 Years of Solitude! That should tell you something right there….